horses

Jan 10, 2015

Huun-Huur-Tu comes to Chongqing

And we do, too

Huun-Huur-Tu on stage at NUTS Club in Chongqing, December 2015
Peter filming 小舟 at 16th Bystreet Music Bar in Chongqing
Peter, in action, at 16th Bystreet Music Bar
A mixologist at NUTS Club
The bartender pours some kind of ’tini at Nuts Club.

I’m not going to lie, this weekend away was a little difficult. We only had a few days free, Peter had a cold, and the trouble I was having purchasing concert tickets at one point had me in tears. (A Chinese-language website, international banking and computer-related issues all conspired to let me know that I was a failure as an adult.) The dark, cold winter days only amplified our discomfort.

But we weren’t in Chongqing to be comfortable, we were there for the music. And the hot pot. But, mostly the music.

First up, 小舟. We dropped in on our favorite hole-in-the-wall venue — the 16th Bystreet Music Bar — to find him and his friends doing a loosey-goosey jam. 小舟, unbeknownst to us at the time, is actually a Beijing folk-rock artist of some renown. Sound at the Music Bar is kind of crap — the house drum kit has the timbre of a bucket of nails — but these guys were really great. With each new player to take the stage, the style meandered from traditional to funky, or sometimes both at once. The audience was small but into it, and the staff particularly was having a good time. You could tell that they love working at a live music venue.

Huun Huur Tu from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo.

The whole reason for our trek, however, was the legendary Tuvan throat singers of Huun-Huur-Tu. Peter has loved these guys since the early ’90s and the second he saw that they’d be at Nuts Club, he said we had to be there.

Nuts is now in the basement of a downtown shopping mall. (Lots of stuff is in malls in China.) Jogging through the empty corridors, past closed-down shops — we were late, because getting anywhere from anywhere in Chongqing takes FOREVER — we followed the sound of music to find our destination. New Nuts is slightly bigger than the old club, and they now have one of the best bars in China with a meticulous staff.

When we arrived, the four men of Huun-Huur-Tu were already on stage, wearing their traditional Tuvan costumes. Between songs, Sayan Bapa — one of the group’s original members — addressed the crowd in English, explaining the meaning of each piece. “Each of our songs is a short story,” he said. About friendship, love, loss, homesickness and, of course, horses. All very human things, but some more specific to the nomadic Tuvan culture than others. Before a song about caravan migration, Bapa joked, “[it] usually takes three months, but we’ll play a shorter version.”

Some of their songs are as old as the 12th century, he told us. And the group plays mostly traditional instruments — including one wooden clopper that mimics the sound of horse hooves perfectly. But their vital spirit and the plain emotion that comes through the music keeps the experience from feeling musty. Live, the overtone singing becomes something you feel as well as hear, and it was almost as if you, too, were there on the central Asian grasslands, with the nomads. And the horses. It was a truly fantastic performance.

After the show, the guys changed into street clothes, and sat around the merch table eating takeaway noodles. We shook their hands on our way out, but being shy (and unsure of which language to address them in) we didn’t say much beyond “thank you” (and 谢谢).

Sep 6, 2014

Wandering the Songpan countryside

前面一点点, or Go on ahead, just a little farther

High on the hills outside of Songpan
Some horses in the roadA small streamWhere are we going? Not here.
This is it, our driver told us, Shangniba Monastery. On the phone with a translating David, I said that this isn’t the it we were looking for.
Some kids in a small Tibetan village.More village
We passed through a small Tibetan village on our way out into the countryside.
On the roadSome prayer flagsOur little truckOur little truckWe keep going up
Just keep going up.
On the west mountainMore horses
On our second day of exploring, we drove up the mountain to the west of the city.
Houses on the west mountainMe on the West GateOur friends on the West Gate
The West Gate is isolated from the hubbub of the valley.

All of the travel services in Songpan are geared to get you out of it. Whether it’s on horse or by bike, on foot or by car, someone in town will help you plan and execute your foray into the wild. Our someone was David, the son of our hostel owner and the main barista/bartender at the Kitchen. He also had some great advice for us on local wines. He’s a knowledgeable man.

David found us a driver (because, of course, we went by car). A plucky little guy with a little silver pickup who laughed at all of our antics. For two days, he drove us everywhere we asked to go, even when we had no idea where we were going.

Our first afternoon, outside of Shangniba Monastery — a destination I plucked from the hand-drawn map on the wall of the Kitchen — he had to call David to explain that we were, in fact, there. It’s nice, I said, but it’s not what we had in mind. The sprawling Buddhist temple was in the middle of a serene valley, but we were hoping our trip would take us in a more upward direction. Later, Peter joked privately that, “We’re Americans. We just want to go to the top.”

So our driver drew two arrows on a piece of paper, one pointing forward and the other looping back. We chose forward — “前面一点点,” Peter said — and he took us on a joyride into the mountains. And it was fantastic. He drove until there was no road and we got out to look. Then he turned around and we reached a crossroads with a road that ascended even higher. “上可以吗?” I asked. Can we go up? Yes, we can.

Our journey that day took us through the valleys, up the twisty mountain roads, past farmland and through small villages. Periodically, small herds of yak and horses would crowd the road. Our driver would honk and we’d all laugh. Vibrantly colored Tibetan prayer flags stood out against the green of the mountains. It was idyllic. And the view from the top was just magnificent. Up high, the only sounds were the prayer flags that whipped in the wind, and a horse in a field that snorted at our arrival. Taking it all in we marveled: “It’s amazing that this is China … that this is the earth!”

The next day, we headed for the West Gate, an ancient fortification perched on the mountain that overlooks Songpan city. (That’s actually where I hoped we were going when I asked for the monastery.) Our driver took the back way straight to the top, where we decided that we’d take the walking trail back down.

But before our decent, it was snack time. Peter and I sat looking down on the city on the edge of the West Gate, and broke out our yak and barley bread picnic. We were quickly joined by a boisterous group of kids — and their adult — who had actually done the climb on their own two feet. They — four young boys and a somewhat reserved girl — were still full of energy. Between snacks, they howled like wolves at the city below, and aimed pretend guns through the gate’s crenelations. Like you do. They were also pretty amused by our presence, and tossed jello cups to us. (“Like we were monkeys,” Peter said.)

The way down is impeccably maintained. High up on the mountain is a wooden walkway, which turns into a stone pathway as the incline gets less steep lower down. There are regular rest areas along the way, placed to enjoy the prettiest views. On our way down, we only ran into a few other small groups, so the pathway belonged solely to us for most of our descent.

Near the bottom, humanity reasserts itself. One house becomes a few, becomes the outskirts of the city. A group of local woman claimed the lowest viewing platform for their afternoon hangout. We followed the path to the end and made our egress onto a busy city street. A few kids gave us high fives for our success. Or because they liked the looks of us. Who knows? We were all having fun.

Our travels in Songpan represent probably the least planning we’ve ever done for a trip. But it all worked out amazingly. By just picking a destination and figuring it out, we may look like fools some of the time, but we stumble into experiences we wouldn’t have even know to look for had we come burdened with any expectations. Sometimes the results are confusing, or even boring, but even that teaches us something. On the whole “just go on ahead, a little more” has been a rewarding way to live our lives.

A view of Songpan city from abovePeter eats lunch at the West Gate, the kids look on.West GateWe hike down the west mountain
We conquered Songpan!

Aug 30, 2014

Inside the city walls of Songpan

We don’t do things right, we do them fun

Songpan city is in a beautiful valley.
The center of old Songpan city is a hive of activity contrasting with peaceful landscape that surrounds it.
These are horses.
The horses hang out, waiting for riders.
A covered bridgeMainstreet of the old city
All types milled about the city’s main street.

Songpan is a horse town, and riding is what most people are there for. From easy-peasy day trips to two-week, hard-riding slogs into the mountains, the horses of Songpan are at your service. According to a book we found at Emma’s Kitchen — the restaurant associated with the hostel we stayed at — the area was established as a Destination by a British-Israeli businessman who a few decades ago started a horse trekking company catering to western adventurers. (Nyíri, Pál. Scenic Spots: Chinese Tourism, the State, and Cultural Authority. U of Washington Press. 2011.) These days, there are a few companies that will facilitate your horsey adventure, and both foreign and domestic travelers are drawn in. Horses share the road with giant tour buses as everyone flows in and out of the city.

But we don’t horse trek. Both Peter and I feel that horses are best admired with two feet firmly on the ground. Fortunately, Songpan city itself is a charmingly weird little nabe. It’s obviously a vacation town, but the local sector isn’t hidden away like it is in other places we’ve visited. The “real” and the “just-visiting” exist side-by-side throughout Songpan. And let me tell you, it doesn’t get more authentic than laborers gathering beneath your window at 6am getting ready for the workday.

There is an actual ancient town, bounded on three sides by a replica wall with original gates. The west side is bounded by a giant mountain that erupts skyward. Up there, the West Gate is reconstructed, but the wall is real. Let’s call the whole thing off!

Along the main drag are the inevitable tourist shops, hawking horse blankets, knives, wolfskins, traditional Tibetan handcrafts (including iPad and cell phone covers) and yak meat. If you don’t need any of that, there’s plenty of panda gear. Slip down the side streets, however, and there are residential neighborhoods. Young kids hang out on the streets, excited to practice their English with the foreigners. There’s a yak abbatoir just next to the meat market on Muslim Street, and neither are just for show.

You can tell the locals from the visitors by their gear. Tourist families sport their matching North Face-style jackets, and young ladies saunter around high heels, short skirts and newly purchased Tibetan blankets (you wanna look good, but it’s cold up there). The locals are the ones in the traditional Muslim kufi or Qiang embroidered dresses, etc. Everyone not in heels, however, wears comfortable name brand sneakers.

We spent our time in town hanging out, bouncing between Emma’s Kitchen and Amdo Coffee Inn. Early morning coffee, mid-morning snack, afternoon tea, pre-dinner drinks, late-night nightcap … they had us covered. We were basically like hobbits.

But, like Bilbo Baggins before us, we also itched to get out into the wider world …

Sitting at Amdo's The route up to the West GateIn the streets
Amdo Coffee, left, was a great place to sit and watch the world go by.
In the residential part of the citySome child's graffiti
Down Songpan’s sidestreets, real living — and real children’s graffiti — goes on.
The meat market
The meat market was just next to the very active slaughterhouse. We didn’t take pictures of the slaughterhouse.
A small bridge over the Min RiverHaving a nightcao at Amdo's
Left: A bridge over the Min River; Right: A nightcap at Amdo
To the mountains
Enough city talk, let’s get up into the mountains…