"Songzhou", the old name for Songpan on the north gate ©Ingrid Booz Morejohn
Most people visit Songpan only as a springboard for a horse trek or a drive-by on the way to Huanglong and Jiuzhaigou. Little Songpan doesn't deserve quite such a cold shoulder. This town of about 70,000 people has a unique history that deserves closer scrutiny. Indeed places like this in China are rapidly disappearing so if you want to catch a last whiff of a town with a "frontier" feeling please spend at least one day exploring its back alleys.
When I first visited Songpan over 20 years ago it was half the size it is today, there were only a few remnants of the city wall left, the bus station and its attached "hotel" rooms were some of the filthiest, grottiest in China. The bus ride from Chengdu took two 11 hr days and it was the only journey in China where I actually hit my head on the ceiling of the bus, the roads were so bumpy, bad and dangerous. Whenever I was in Songpan I was either exhausted and dirty myself from a recent trek or horseride and usually also just "passing through" to other areas. But I did spend time there and truly enjoyed the rough-and-tumble Wild West feel of the town. It was a great place to see Tibetans dressed up in their "city" finery: leopard-skin trimmed long coats, amber, coral and turquoise decorated hair, gold teeth and brilliant smiles. People rode horses up and down the streets and the shops were all wooden two-stories with oxblood red trimmings and warm yellow facades. Just as today there was a strong muslim influence with a lovely neat and tidy mosque, ladies with their hair covered and halal butchers. It was a touch of the Silk Road, Lhasa and frontier trading-post-China-of-the-past all thrown into the same mix, ready to be savored along with some dried yak beef and a loaf of bread.
Songpan has existed since the Tang Dynasty and has seen numerous battles and wars in its role as an important and strategic military post. Situated at a crossroads between Tibet, Qinghai, Gansu and Sichuan it has also served as a vital trading center for tea and horses. Songpan suffered heavy damage during the Ming Dynasty and it was from the Ming that the remaining city walls date. Volatile relations between local Tibetans and Muslims have also witnessed numerous tragedies in the past but today one could say that relations are quite stable and peaceful.
There are numerous daily flights from Chengdu to Jiuhuang Airport that is about 1/1.5 hour from Songpan. Buses leave daily from Chengdu and normally take 8-10 hours to arrive. Since the May 12, 2008 earthquake the road via Wenchuan-Maoxian has been in serious disrepair so the road can not be guaranteed. The road via Mianyang/Pingwu/Huanglong however is in perfect condition and takes about 9 hrs by private car or rented bus. Songpan is easily accessible from Huanglong (1.5 hr) and Jiuzhaigou (ca 2-3 hr). There are no buses from the airport to Songpan, quickly grab a taxi from the airport, hopefully you will find other people to share the cost. We rented our bus from Sam's Travel (2nd fl Holly's Hostel) in Chengdu, very economic, great driver. 800 y a day plus a sum for the driver's lodging and meals. You can seat 14 people in the bus including one row reserved for luggage. A bargain if you have enough friends to split the cost.
Shunjiang Nianqing Kezhan, a regular "motel" that you can drive your car into at night.
We stayed in spotless double-rooms with attached WC/hot shower at the Shunjiang Nianqing Kezhan right behind the horse trekking company and Emma's Kitchen in the northern section of town, not far from the North Bus Station. 120 y a night. Hot water all the time if there is electricity in Songpan (!). There are of course both cheaper and more expensive hotels in and around town.
There is a great massage centre (Snowland Tibetan Medical Massage Centre) located right beside Emma's run by Henanese Dong Li Xia (Lisa) and her Tibetan husband Hago Tenzin Wangyal. They also employ a local blind man (Mr Mi You Jun). High quality massage and nice, cosy atmosphere. Tel 13678372990. Email: email@example.com/tdgonkatsang©hotmail.com.
Best teahouses and cosiest atmosphere on a sunny day is along the Min River near the south end of town, the old wooden Yinyue Bridge and the Guanyin Fort (Guangyin Ge).
There are two mosques and a muslim center in town, the finest is located behind Emma's in the northern end of town. Don't miss the two beautiful old wooden covered bridges. The Guanyin Ge on a SW hillside, the old city gates and reconstructed city wall, the kitschy historic-romantic statue of Princess Wencheng outside the north gate. The main street has lots of shops and good people-watching. Around the mosques you can buy the best China-famous dried yak and beef meat (great for treks). Local honey, mushrooms and medicinal herbs are also a very good buy. Outside Songpan on the way to Huanglong is a quite grotesque, over-the-top monument to the Long March, that supposedly passed this way (debatable as to whether they actually went this way) in the 1930s. You can't miss the huge statue of a soldier holding a rifle surrounded by some very clunky statues at his feet.
The two former horse trekking companies are now combined as one: Shunjiang Horse Treks (Shunjiang Luyou Madui), office on Shunjiang Beilu beside Emma's in N Songpan (tel 723 1201) just south of the bus station, east side of the road.
Songpan often suffers from lack of electricity (= no hot water), bring a flashlight. Be prepared with patience when this happens - think of the people who have to live with this every week of the year. Altitude: 2835 m, which can cause headaches for those having just arrived by air.