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Exploring China
Beijing, Xi'an, Chengdu, Songpan, Yangshuo

China
May 2007

Beijing - Xi'an - Chengdu - Songpan - Yangshuo - Back in Beijing

Page: 4 / 6


Songpan

Songpan is a charming small Tibetan countryside town in the northern reaches of Sichuan, lying at the foot of the Minshan Mountains, on altitude of about 2.900 meters. High altitude shows, especially for the first day, the simplest effort leaves you out of breath. The population, a mixed variety of ethnic groups, predominantly Qiang and Tibetans, live primarily on agriculture, raising livestock, and lately tourism. It is especially known for the horse trekking, which is what we were planning to do in the next three days. Songpan is about eight hours drive on the local bus line from Chengdu, travelling there pretty much takes the whole day. It's a quite an interesting ride though, and not one for the fainthearted - if you have seen Chinese drive, imagine them on a busy, narrow, curvy mountain road...

Early in the morning on the Chengdu's bus station, leaving for Songpan Making several quick stops on the nearby
stations and markets, picking up people

We are passing through many small towns and villages on the way

A 10 minutes stop
to stretch our legs
Tourists posing
on yaks
The road gets more
corners and turns uphill
Obviously we are in
the countryside now
Arriving to the
destination, Songpan

A view on southern
part of Songpan
The main traffic road is routed
around city walls
The ancient gates to
the city center...
...leading to the main
shopping street

There is very little motorized traffic within the city walls The Mingjiang River is
flowing through the city

The main city street is full of shops and small business, everybody is pitching in
to help the business running
If you are into ethnic
clothes shopping, you
will love it here

Children in vivid colors are sparky, and just ask to be photographed

If you step around the corner from the main road, local streets are immediately more like to
what you would expect in a countryside

Some houses stretch high up the hills,
with a temple on the top
A bit different map
of the World

Horse trekking is why most visitors come to Songpan. We have opted for a three-day trek, spending two nights camping in tents, which is just about right not to get too demanding. We spent some three to four hours in the saddle each day, with additional hour or two walking, the rest was devoted to camping, or taking on hiking trips on our own. There is no need to be an experienced horse rider to enjoy this trip, horses know better what are they doing and where are they going than we do.
Most horses do have an attitude problem. Not to us, but to other horses. They will furiously defend their position in the line, biting around or springing in gallop on the steepest and narrowest slope to cut the intruder off, should some other horse try to overtake. Apart from low branches, that's the most likely reason to end up on the ground if you are not holding on tight.

The weather next morning is perfect, with clear blue skies, and our guides and horses are waiting Our backpacks are
tied to horses...

...then we are
sat on...
...and off we go The trail leads us to a valley behind the town, and then uphill

The path is not too difficult for the first part although steadily climbing,
and we can soon start to enjoy the view
After being in the saddle for a good hour,
we reach the summit and it's time for a break

Open scenery near Songpan, with snow peaked mountains in behind Me and my horse

Downhill we go on foot, as it's easier on fully loaded horses, and we need to stretch our legs anyway

There is a road going through
the valley below...
...and the last few kilometers
we ride on the asphalt
Around midday, we get
to the first camp site

Horses are rolling in the dirt, guides go about
setting up a camp, and we proceed up the road
to a small park
The park consists of series of beautiful seasonal lakes, however it
not being "the season" meant there was a serious lack of water,
and many lower "lakes" were just puddles

Praying flags Further uphill, the water situation improved considerably, and we enjoyed the walk

Up on the top is a hot spring this park is known
for, water is bubbling with slightly smelly gases
Some were eager to jump in; others, not so much...

We are returning down on the other side
of the lakes, by a circular path around the park
Back in our first camp in late afternoon, tents
are standing already, and dinner is cooking
Crossing the stream
to get to the camp

Having a dinner by the fire, before turning in
for a very uncomfortable and cold night
It is quite chilly in the morning, tents are still
wet and frozen as the camp gets packed up
We start up
the valley

The trail leads through
bushes and a forest
Terrain is steep and muddy, horses
are stopping for a sip from the stream
The view opens up as we near
to the top of the hill

Up on the summit, horses get a 20 minutes break before proceeding further, and we enjoy the scenery

The hot spring we visited yesterday
is visible way down below
On the move again, the trail is much easier, staying close
to the top of hills

We are quite high at this point, on altitude
of about 3.700 meters
Riding for one more hour, on a well
maintained, easy going trail...
...until we dismount for a
walk down to the valley

Of course, a break
comes first
One of the horses is having a particularly bad day,
after first throwing off our guide, half an hour later
it run away with gear still strapped on.
We wait for the outcome among cows
as one of the local guides runs after it

This bull isn't too happy
to see us around
Horse is retrieved,
scattered gear found,
and we move on
Guides are having
a blast watching
us getting on
We ride some more through thick
bushes to the second camp site

On the way we stop at a forest lake... ...and walk the rest of the way down the valley Coming to the
second camp site

Guides are preparing
the camp...
...and we do what
we do best...
...even some yoga In the afternoon, our local friends gather the wood
for the night, and we go sightseeing

We take a walk to a nearby lake, a beautiful one,
although a bit empty at this time of a year
Waterfalls a bit
away upstream
A tricky crossing

In the morning, we have some breakfast... ...while the guides
pack up the camp
My horse is waiting
rather nervously
Starting up through
the woods

As usual, we walk downhill behind the horses

Horses seem to be well motivated,
they know they are going home today
Around the corner, the
first signs of civilization
Just crossing this
small scree...
...and we enter a
small village

Riding by stone-made houses We stop for the first
beer in several days
Local boys are
playing cards...
...a small girl is washing
her hair by the road...

...and the rest of the kids just find us interesting
and don't hesitate to show us their skills
We need to press on. There is just one last hill to go over,
and we are climbing again over the village

The last climb
of the trek
We leave the village
behind...
...as we reach the top Our goal is in sight,
Songpan behind the hill
The guide of our two
horses is posing for us

Horses enjoy the green
grass for a change
We descend on foot down the last hill... ...and then ride the final few miles to the town

After three days, the town of Songpan
welcomes us back, hot showers awaiting
We enter the
buildings via back
streets...
...and ride triumphally
through Songpan in the
middle of the main road

Showers were in high demand that afternoon, before we ventured out on individual shopping trips in the town. Some of us have treated ourselves with Tibetan massage and foot massage before meeting for dinner in the most popular hangout for foreigners in Songpan, Emma's Kitchen. Emma speaks excellent English, offers as western food as you can find in China, and can help with everything you could possibly need.
The next morning, we have embarked on the same local bus line back to Chengdu, for another exhausting whole day of driving.

Mountain road drops
with sharp turns
Cooling bus brakes after
a long descend
Delicious beef noodles in
a small diner by the road
China is destroying
their environment

Back in Chengdu

Some nine hours later, the bus finally stopped in Chengdu with our gratitude, and we have traded cold, clean, high-altitude air for a multi-million city polluted and foggy one. We settled back at Holly's and retrieved the excess luggage left there for safekeeping before going on horse trekking.
In the evening, we visited the Chengdu Bookworm. Partly because it is an unique blend of an English language library, a bar, a Western restaurant, and a location of regular cultural events; and partly because Velma, a fellow Slovenian now living in Chengdu, is a manager there, and we went to say "hi".

The next morning was free for last shopping in Chengdu, as early in the afternoon we are flying on to Guilin. Three of us have woken up earlier than necessary, in order to catch the morning activities in one of Chengdu's public parks.

It's too early for Chengdu people, streets are nearly deserted at 7 a.m. Two hours later, this will be crowded.

A small market at park's
gates is much more alive
Park entry An otherwise nicely maintained park is in the morning
full of people of all ages...

...running, exercising, ballroom dancing, practicing tai chi, or just relaxing in a teahouse by a morning cup of green tea

Someone brings a tape player, and they
dance in a group
Some are true
martial arts masters
The park itself is relaxing and gives
you energy for a new day

A bird at
the teahouse
On the way back, city streets of Chengdu are packed already in a true Chinese fashion

At the Chengdu airport, waiting for
a plane to Guilin

Next page: Yangshuo