Sunday, May 10, 2009

Songpan Horse Trek part 12 Travel tips

"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:©

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.

Horse trekking
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. 

Songpan Horse Trek part 11 Emma's Kitchen

Emma (Li Guirong) at her café, May 2008 ©Ingrid Booz Morejohn

A large part of any successful travel experience is meeting and connecting with interesting people along the trail, fellow travellers of course but most important in my opinion are the local people that actually live in the places you visit. They are not just props that colour your travel experience more vividly but people with real lives that if you can communicate in a mutual language (or are clever with body language and show them genuine empathy) often make your experience one of great warmth and depth. 

As you can see from the posting below we really had a great time with our horsemen but let me tell you a little about a person that most people probably remember best from a visit to Songpan: Emma of Emma's Kitchen. I have to admit that I actually knew Emma before this visit to Songpan (she is the sister/sister-in-law to friends in Chengdu) but she is such a special person that I want to give her a "promotional plug" all on her own. Emma was born in Songpan and has lived there her entire life. She is one-quarter Tibetan/three-quarter Han Chinese (her Chinese name is Li Guirong), speaks fantastic English, knows every single person in Songpan and the surrounding valleys and has since the early 2000's welcomed foreigners into her café with one of the warmest smiles in China. She has energy and gusto like few others and during peak season works 20 hours out of a 24 day. She barely stands "five feet off the ground" but is a powerhouse of organisation and positive energy. Her entire family is like this: her little brother David helps out in the kitchen with her, her mother is often seen behind the counter, there is another sister somewhere and her brother Mike Li used to run one of the horse trekking companies in Songpan (before Emma opened her café she worked in the horse trek company). 

During last year's earthquake Emma generously took care of all the foreigners stranded in Songpan and she will gladly help you in any way she can. She has very interesting ideas on how tourism can expand and benefit the Songpan area and helped very importantly when I put this family horse trek together. If she has the time she will gladly tell many interesting things about life in this very unique part of China. 

Emma's Kitchen (Xiao Ouzhou Xicanting/trans. Little Europe Western Café) is the only really authentic backpacker's café in Songpan and she serves both Western and Chinese food. She also gives all sorts of advice and travel information for free. You can contact her via her email and she will gladly help you: The café is located in the northern end of town (Shunjiang Beilu), next to the horse trekking office (Ma Dui) and the horse trekking motel (Shunjiang Nianqing Kezhan). Give her a hug from me when you meet her in Songpan!

Spider in my bra

Sign at Indian Museum, Calcutta, India ©Ingrid Booz Morejohn

Finished dinner a few minutes ago and picked up a basket of fruit, the homemade basket we bought a few days ago from an old man on the street in Pingwu. Hugging the basket I felt something large fall into my cleavage, DAMN, a jumping spider was lodged in my bra. Lickety-split off came the shirt and the bra, to the hilarious laughter of my children.  

That reminded me of a scene from my childhood when my family lived on a sailboat in Central America, my mother suddenly thrashed out in a hysterical dance and ripped her clothes off in front of us: a cockroach had crawled into her shirt. 

Which made me think of a friend whose mother had put on her underwear one day in Arizona only to be bitten in the worst place by a scorpion having a cosy nap in her knickers. 

Burton then related the story how he the other day took a deep drink from his water bottle only to find that he had a large (drowned) cockroach in his mouth. 

Which reminded me of a story my Cuban grandmother told me when I was little. She shared a bedroom with her sister in Havanna and one morning she woke up to shrieks: her sister, who like Emy had extremely long hair that had never been cut, slept with it tied up in a braid. During the night a python had snuck into the room and proceeded to eat up her braid, centimeter by centimeter, until the greedy snake finally choked himself to death. The sister woke up with the dead snake stuck to the back of her head, thus the shrieks.....