From Xi’an we flew to Jiuzhaihuanglong airport, and had a transfer into Songpan (松潘, Sōngpān) — not somewhere we’d read much about, it came as part of our Jiuzhaigou leg, it’s 40km south of the solitary runway. We were at our hotel and checked in by 10:30am.
Songpan is a small historic town with rebuilt city walls, ancient city gates and old wooden covered bridges, nestled in a valley along the major river. It’s a casual, laid back place, with a backpacker vibe, although the honking horns of great trucks passing up and down the single main road tends to shatter the peace.
On our first venture out, the town felt like China’s equivalent of the Wild West. The sun bore down on a barren mountainous landscape, at an altitude of over 3000m. Shops sold furry dog and yak skins and were drying meat and mushrooms by the dusty roadside. And with this remote and quaint atmosphere came a lot of character; a mixture of Tibetan and Qiang lifestyles.
Our hotel was a basic hostel, Old house hotel, or Guyun hotel. It’s a delightful old world wooden Tibetan house with the most charming and friendly landlady. The room was simple, a bed, a bathroom, a shower over the toilet. Water heating must be turned on an hour before showering, and all laundry is done by hand. Though it did have wifi. The room was cold when we arrived, and Songpan was colder than we expected, it was a nippy 8C outside. But we noted the thick duvet and blankets, we’d sleep fine.
Just down the road is Emma’s kitchen, a backpackers information hub and hangout, where we popped in for some details about the nearby hike and for western food; yak burger and chips, and a tuna sandwich.
With the sun out the temperatures quickly rose to about 20C. Down the main road, and through the city gates, the shops are more contemporary. In old style but recently built shops you can find mobile phones, shoes, clothes etc. A middle of nowhere town centre seemingly essential for the nearby mountain villages.
At the end of town we found a little path that headed into the hills via Guanyin Ge temple. The path to the peak has been recently built, and if it wasn’t so steep it would be a pleasant stroll. We begun to climb and noticed that we grew short of breath quickly, and that our pulse was racing. It wasn’t until we were near the top that we realised it was an effect of the altitude. The new path is also considerate of this, every few twists and turns there’s a resting point.
We were advised it might take an hour, we took it very slowly, it was hot and we were carrying and wearing cold weather clothes. Half way up we stopped to sleep on the wooden benches, a calm break with spectacular views. Then we slugged on, going up and up and up, almost giving up on a couple of occasions. We had another welcome break when we stopped to speak to two travellers on their way down, an Austrian couple, they’d taken a year off to travel around Asia. Resting on a gravel path, we sat and chatted for almost an hour.
Eventually, and finally, we made it to the peak. We celebrated with victory photos. The temple at the top is newly built too, sitting on a concrete bed it’s a shell of a building, with the exception of strong lights that illuminate it at night.
When we began to head down we had what can only be described as a magical moment. Two enormous birds of prey, birds bigger than we’ve ever seen, flew up from the valley and using the wind currents hovered above our heads. They were two wild golden eagles, a pair, hunting for their evening meal. After a minute or so they swept down towards Songpan and then they’d crossed the valley and were out of sight. We didn’t have the zoom lens with us, all we could do was watch in wonder.
The hike down was easy, and soon we were back at the hotel, freshening up for dinner. Sam had spotted an outdoor Tibetan place at the end of town. When we got there it was closed, and too cold and windy to eat outside. Strolling back through town we saw people setting up an outdoor cinema in the town square, there were little street food stalls, and the towns electric red lanterns were all glowing.
For dinner we chose a hotpot place because of its comfy looking grey sofas. Hotpot is a Chinese restaurant tradition, where a pot of boiling water sits in the middle of the table, perhaps with some veg and broth to flavour, then you cook your own food, putting it in and taking it out when you think it’s ready, then dipping into an oily pot of peanuts, onions and celery. We sat down and were presented with the menu, which might have been in hieroglyphics, it was indecipherable. None of the staff spoke English. But we managed to order food, with the waitress we walked around the other diners’ tables and pointed at the food we wanted; to the amusement of staff and patrons alike. This mostly worked, although some things we thought were mushrooms were actually tripe, which we nervously cooked and ate anyway, or at least tried. The food was tasty, and we used our little mandarin to get by, ordering more local beer and asking for the bill, “maidan”.
We ordered too much food, so easily done in China, where they seem to eat gargantuan portions of fatty food yet stay so very slim. With a lot of food left uneaten we left, but we needed some dessert. Amdo coffee house inn is, as the name suggests, a cafe-cum-hotel — it’s chintzy and a perfect place to eat chocolate cake and milkshake.
Our day in Songpan was over, and it felt like we’d been here much longer. It’s all quite quaint and lovely, especially the Tibetan folk, who always seem to greet you with a smile.