For more than 2,000 years, Chinese armies sought out and trained the finest horses near Shandan, a town in northwest China's Gansu province.
That tradition ended about a decade ago, when cavalry units virtually disappeared from the modern Chinese military.
However, Shandan, located on the Mongolian border, has lately been attracting another group of people who admire horses: tourists and equestrians.
One weekend in July, I arrived at what used to be called the Shandan Army Horse Ranch, but since 2001 has been known as the China Animal Husbandry Group Shandan Horse Ranch.
It is huge. It takes more than an hour to drive from one end to the other. When it was still an army ranch, it ranked number one in size in Asia, and number two in the world.
More recently, some parts of the ranch were converted to farm land. But the first sub-ranch still maintains much of its original appearance. Here, a hotel and a tourism company catering to horse enthusiasts have been built.
I came at the best time of year for outdoor activity in Shandan, from July to August. Situated on the northern side of the Qilian Mountain, the ranch is 2,300 m above sea level, and for much of the year, the climate is very cold.
I checked in at the hotel and entered my name for a popular horseback-riding route. It was about 20 km long, and passed through a valley called Kulong Xia ("Valley of Holes"). The journey took between three and four hours.
I was assigned to ride a brown "Dundan", a hybrid of the Russian Dun and a local Shandan horse. My escort was called Xiao Ma, or "little horse", a 28-year-old local wearing jeans and a cowboy hat. He told me that my horse was one of the tamest in Shandan.
"Take your rein as if it were your girlfriend's hand - neither too tightly, nor too loosely so that she might run away," Xiao Ma said as he put the rein in my hands. "Remember, the rein is the connection between you and the horse."
I had some previous experience riding horses, but was never quite able to run one. When I rode horses in places around Beijing, escorts usually led my horse by the bridle and walked unhurriedly.
This time it was different. My escort was riding a horse beside me in the grassland. In such a place, both horses and people seem to have a strong desire to run.
"What's the difference between riding a horse and a donkey, if you don't let the horse run?" said someone who passed by, mockingly.
I kicked my horse's belly, and off we went. Just as the horse began to run, I felt that my hat was about to be blown off my head by the wind. I removed the hat and held the rein with one hand. Suddenly the horse began to run faster, and I soon lost my "connection" with him. The next thing I knew, I had been thrown off.
Lying on the ground, I remembered that earlier in the morning an employee of the tourism company had told me that "horseback-riding is a dangerous sport" while explaining the need to purchase insurance.
"Get on the horse again, or you will have a psychological barrier against him," Xiao Ma said. "You'll never learn to ride horses without falling off."
My waist ached. My right hand hurt because I had blisters from the rubbing of the rein. My glasses were missing. But I eventually climbed on my "tamest" horse again.
According to my guide's analysis, when I held the hat in my hand, the horse had mistakenly thought that I was going to hit him. He was scared and began to run faster.
I temporarily gave up the idea of running my horse and walked him leisurely again. "Little horse" kept closer eyes on me now.
The failure upset me, but I was consoled by the astonishing scenery. Different from most other parts of Gansu, where the landscape is barren, the Shandan Horse Ranch is a green world.
In the valley, the scenery was reminiscent of some places in northern Xinjiang, with various wild flowers, trees covered in mist and sheep dotting the mountains.
We crossed a river. It was not deep, but water splashed up by the horse soaked my trousers. Coming out of the valley, we walked onto a big dam, which gave me a wide view of the pasture, the reservoir and the horses.
Our terminus for the morning was a group of camps set up beside the reservoir, where we had our lunch. Outside the camp, a group of horses were eating grass and strolling freely in the pasture.
I was told that there were once more than 10,000 horses housed at Shandan Army Horse Ranch, but now there were only some 2,000.
Among them, most were native Shandan horses. The ranch also imported a few studs of foreign blood, such as the Russian Dun, English Thoroughbred and Arab. Their offspring, when crossed with female Shandan horses, are called "Dundan", "Yingdan" and "Adan" in Chinese. These horses are taller than pure Shandan horses.
Actually, the Shandan horse is also a hybrid. Mongolian horses, Tibetan horses, Ili horses from Xinjiang and Persian horses are all among its ancestors.
Growing up in the plateau, Shandan horses have a reputation for great stamina. In the 1960s, China used to aid the Democratic People's Republic of Korea with Shandan horses.
In 1988, Wu Shuli, a man from Nanjing, Jiangsu province, started a famous journey of traveling along China's borders on horseback. He finished five years later, after nine horses had died during the journey.
The undertaking contributed to Shandan horses' fame as Wu had claimed that Shandan horses had the most endurance of any breed he had used in his journey.
Today Wu is a coach of the Jiangsu equestrian team. He is also the general manager of Danma company, which runs the tourism business at Shandan Horse Ranch.
Many people came to Shandan because of Wu's fame. However, I did not meet him because he was in Nanjing when I visited. I was probably lucky, for I was told that Wu had an idea of "treating every tourist like an athlete".
I met Li Jianbin, a staff member of the company, who accompanied Wu during part of his journey around China on horseback. "We went through unimaginable situations. It was an experience that cannot be replaced," he told me.
In the afternoon, Xiao Ma took me to a nearby pasture to pick mushrooms. As my confidence began to recover, I tried to run my horse at a moderate speed. He was really tame.
My guide was a knowledgeable and experienced young man. He had worked at horse clubs in Suzhou, Beijing and Lhasa, but he returned to Shandan because he likes the weather here.
When we sat on the pasture to take a rest, Xiao Ma showed me locations in the ranch where some well-known films and TV series were shot, including Horse Herder (Muma Ren), Elementary School on a Horseback (Mabei Xiaoxue) and Wang Zhaojun.
Li passed by on a fast-running horse, and was soon out of sight. "It takes at least a year before you can run like that," Xiao Ma said.
（Time of traveling: July, 2008）