Songpan

Sep 6, 2014

Wandering the Songpan countryside

前面一点点, or Go on ahead, just a little farther

High on the hills outside of Songpan
Some horses in the roadA small streamWhere are we going? Not here.
This is it, our driver told us, Shangniba Monastery. On the phone with a translating David, I said that this isn’t the it we were looking for.
Some kids in a small Tibetan village.More village
We passed through a small Tibetan village on our way out into the countryside.
On the roadSome prayer flagsOur little truckOur little truckWe keep going up
Just keep going up.
On the west mountainMore horses
On our second day of exploring, we drove up the mountain to the west of the city.
Houses on the west mountainMe on the West GateOur friends on the West Gate
The West Gate is isolated from the hubbub of the valley.

All of the travel services in Songpan are geared to get you out of it. Whether it’s on horse or by bike, on foot or by car, someone in town will help you plan and execute your foray into the wild. Our someone was David, the son of our hostel owner and the main barista/bartender at the Kitchen. He also had some great advice for us on local wines. He’s a knowledgeable man.

David found us a driver (because, of course, we went by car). A plucky little guy with a little silver pickup who laughed at all of our antics. For two days, he drove us everywhere we asked to go, even when we had no idea where we were going.

Our first afternoon, outside of Shangniba Monastery — a destination I plucked from the hand-drawn map on the wall of the Kitchen — he had to call David to explain that we were, in fact, there. It’s nice, I said, but it’s not what we had in mind. The sprawling Buddhist temple was in the middle of a serene valley, but we were hoping our trip would take us in a more upward direction. Later, Peter joked privately that, “We’re Americans. We just want to go to the top.”

So our driver drew two arrows on a piece of paper, one pointing forward and the other looping back. We chose forward — “前面一点点,” Peter said — and he took us on a joyride into the mountains. And it was fantastic. He drove until there was no road and we got out to look. Then he turned around and we reached a crossroads with a road that ascended even higher. “上可以吗?” I asked. Can we go up? Yes, we can.

Our journey that day took us through the valleys, up the twisty mountain roads, past farmland and through small villages. Periodically, small herds of yak and horses would crowd the road. Our driver would honk and we’d all laugh. Vibrantly colored Tibetan prayer flags stood out against the green of the mountains. It was idyllic. And the view from the top was just magnificent. Up high, the only sounds were the prayer flags that whipped in the wind, and a horse in a field that snorted at our arrival. Taking it all in we marveled: “It’s amazing that this is China … that this is the earth!”

The next day, we headed for the West Gate, an ancient fortification perched on the mountain that overlooks Songpan city. (That’s actually where I hoped we were going when I asked for the monastery.) Our driver took the back way straight to the top, where we decided that we’d take the walking trail back down.

But before our decent, it was snack time. Peter and I sat looking down on the city on the edge of the West Gate, and broke out our yak and barley bread picnic. We were quickly joined by a boisterous group of kids — and their adult — who had actually done the climb on their own two feet. They — four young boys and a somewhat reserved girl — were still full of energy. Between snacks, they howled like wolves at the city below, and aimed pretend guns through the gate’s crenelations. Like you do. They were also pretty amused by our presence, and tossed jello cups to us. (“Like we were monkeys,” Peter said.)

The way down is impeccably maintained. High up on the mountain is a wooden walkway, which turns into a stone pathway as the incline gets less steep lower down. There are regular rest areas along the way, placed to enjoy the prettiest views. On our way down, we only ran into a few other small groups, so the pathway belonged solely to us for most of our descent.

Near the bottom, humanity reasserts itself. One house becomes a few, becomes the outskirts of the city. A group of local woman claimed the lowest viewing platform for their afternoon hangout. We followed the path to the end and made our egress onto a busy city street. A few kids gave us high fives for our success. Or because they liked the looks of us. Who knows? We were all having fun.

Our travels in Songpan represent probably the least planning we’ve ever done for a trip. But it all worked out amazingly. By just picking a destination and figuring it out, we may look like fools some of the time, but we stumble into experiences we wouldn’t have even know to look for had we come burdened with any expectations. Sometimes the results are confusing, or even boring, but even that teaches us something. On the whole “just go on ahead, a little more” has been a rewarding way to live our lives.

A view of Songpan city from abovePeter eats lunch at the West Gate, the kids look on.West GateWe hike down the west mountain
We conquered Songpan!

Aug 30, 2014

Inside the city walls of Songpan

We don’t do things right, we do them fun

Songpan city is in a beautiful valley.
The center of old Songpan city is a hive of activity contrasting with peaceful landscape that surrounds it.
These are horses.
The horses hang out, waiting for riders.
A covered bridgeMainstreet of the old city
All types milled about the city’s main street.

Songpan is a horse town, and riding is what most people are there for. From easy-peasy day trips to two-week, hard-riding slogs into the mountains, the horses of Songpan are at your service. According to a book we found at Emma’s Kitchen — the restaurant associated with the hostel we stayed at — the area was established as a Destination by a British-Israeli businessman who a few decades ago started a horse trekking company catering to western adventurers. (Nyíri, Pál. Scenic Spots: Chinese Tourism, the State, and Cultural Authority. U of Washington Press. 2011.) These days, there are a few companies that will facilitate your horsey adventure, and both foreign and domestic travelers are drawn in. Horses share the road with giant tour buses as everyone flows in and out of the city.

But we don’t horse trek. Both Peter and I feel that horses are best admired with two feet firmly on the ground. Fortunately, Songpan city itself is a charmingly weird little nabe. It’s obviously a vacation town, but the local sector isn’t hidden away like it is in other places we’ve visited. The “real” and the “just-visiting” exist side-by-side throughout Songpan. And let me tell you, it doesn’t get more authentic than laborers gathering beneath your window at 6am getting ready for the workday.

There is an actual ancient town, bounded on three sides by a replica wall with original gates. The west side is bounded by a giant mountain that erupts skyward. Up there, the West Gate is reconstructed, but the wall is real. Let’s call the whole thing off!

Along the main drag are the inevitable tourist shops, hawking horse blankets, knives, wolfskins, traditional Tibetan handcrafts (including iPad and cell phone covers) and yak meat. If you don’t need any of that, there’s plenty of panda gear. Slip down the side streets, however, and there are residential neighborhoods. Young kids hang out on the streets, excited to practice their English with the foreigners. There’s a yak abbatoir just next to the meat market on Muslim Street, and neither are just for show.

You can tell the locals from the visitors by their gear. Tourist families sport their matching North Face-style jackets, and young ladies saunter around high heels, short skirts and newly purchased Tibetan blankets (you wanna look good, but it’s cold up there). The locals are the ones in the traditional Muslim kufi or Qiang embroidered dresses, etc. Everyone not in heels, however, wears comfortable name brand sneakers.

We spent our time in town hanging out, bouncing between Emma’s Kitchen and Amdo Coffee Inn. Early morning coffee, mid-morning snack, afternoon tea, pre-dinner drinks, late-night nightcap … they had us covered. We were basically like hobbits.

But, like Bilbo Baggins before us, we also itched to get out into the wider world …

Sitting at Amdo's The route up to the West GateIn the streets
Amdo Coffee, left, was a great place to sit and watch the world go by.
In the residential part of the citySome child's graffiti
Down Songpan’s sidestreets, real living — and real children’s graffiti — goes on.
The meat market
The meat market was just next to the very active slaughterhouse. We didn’t take pictures of the slaughterhouse.
A small bridge over the Min RiverHaving a nightcao at Amdo's
Left: A bridge over the Min River; Right: A nightcap at Amdo
To the mountains
Enough city talk, let’s get up into the mountains…

Aug 28, 2014

Yak Meat: The King in the North

The meals we loved

Dried yak meat hanging on the high street
There is yak meat everywhere, all over Songpan.
Our barley bread of the gods
Out in Tibetan country, we enjoyed the food of the gods.
At some crazy barbecue
Confusing BBQ in Songpan is very tasty.
Dinner at Emma's Kitchen
Emma’s Kitchen in Songpan is a hub for visiting backpackers who want some hearty fare.
Have a chicken
We didn’t eat the head, but the rest our riverside chicken was just fantastic.
Tibetan food at Abu Luzi
We had a Tibetan-style feast at Jiuzhagou’s Abu Luzi restaurant.

When we took off northward, we really weren’t sure what to expect. We knew there would be mountains and nature — but would there be ATMs? We had an inkling that the area was influenced by Tibetan culture, but what does that mean? And what’s there to eat around here?

To answer our last question first: yak. There would be yak, everywhere. Live yak grazing all over the countryside; We spotted our first herd directly outside the airport. And in town: yak jerky, cured yak, yak dumplings, as well as all organs from tongue to testicles.

It’s not bad. Yak is kind of gamey, with just a little bit of sweetness. The winner for us was the cured yak, which was nice and smokey and paired well with the crusty Tibetan barley bread that was all over the place in Songpan. (We ate two loaves of the stuff in a little more than a week.) It makes a good picnic out in the fresh air. Though it’s less exciting sitting in the hotel room.

Yak meat and barley products, we learned, are staples of the Tibetan diet. And that’s relevant because Songpan and Jiuzhaigou and environs, while part of Sichuan Province, also comprise the Ngawa Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, which is home to a large population of ethnic Tibetans. You can see this in the dress of the local people, the architecture, the strong Buddhist presence, and of course the food. But those TIbetans are not alone; the Qiang minority and the Muslim Hui people are also a strong presence, each contributing their own culture to the mix.

We tried to find some Muslim hot pot in Songpan, a rumored area specialty, but ended up at a confusing BBQ restaurant. In retrospect, at issue was some mild altitude sickness (Songpan is at almost 2,900 m above sea level), but they did give us a hot pot menu only to take it away when I tried to order from it. Instead, their thing was veggie and meat skewers that you cooked over a fire pit sunk into the table. Once we got the hang of it, it was delicious and fun. Although, I don’t think they were even Muslim at all, because they also served us beer. But I swear that sign out front said halal hot pot.

We had a different confusing-but-delicious BBQ experience in Jiuzhaigou. (Maybe that is the area specialty.) This time, we were looking for a Tibetan restaurant that had changed addresses since our 2011 guidebook had been published. We stopped to puzzle it out and inadvertently opened ourselves to the most persuasive waiter in the world. To be fair, he first tried to help us get directions, but when it became clear we weren’t committed to moving on, he implored us to stay and have a spit-roasted chicken. The spit was out front of his restaurant, and those chickens did look delicious. I couldn’t resist his command, and soon we found ourselves sitting riverside, eating a succulent, crispy skinned, with just the right amount of spice chicken. We gobbled it off the bone, and went back for seconds two days later.

But we did eventually make it to our Tibetan restaurant, and it was worth all the bumbling. Abu Luzi was kind of an upscale version of our yak and barley bread picnic from the beginning of our trip. The food was simple but extraordinary. We had the Grassland Harvest, a barley soup with fresh vegetables; barley potatoes, which had a nice onion-y kick; and the yak and carrot parcel, a flaky pastry filled with seasoned carrots and the most tender and savory yak meat. We came into this trip without a really clear idea of what Tibetan food would be, and it was a real pleasure to find out. If we had had more days (and more money), we would have returned here, too.

As for ATMs? There are Chinese banks everywhere. No problem for us. (Though if you need to access foreign currency, check with your local institution.)

Aug 27, 2014

A jaunt through Songpan and Jiuzhaigou

Getting out of the city

Fishies in a pond at Jiuzhaigou
Little fishies in a pool at Jiuzhaigou nature reserve
A Songpan side street
A side-street in the ancient city at Songpan

Our kids are constantly telling us that they prefer the countryside to the city, and now that Peter and I have gotten out and about a little, we’re starting to see their point. Yeah, you can sometimes find a taco or a rock band, but we’ve found that there’s a certain concrete sameyness to Chinese cities. Duh, says everyone else: “The city is for working,” a new friend told us, but this is home.

The “this” she was referring to was the Jiuzhaigou nature reserve, in mountainous northern Sichuan Province. It’s a spectacular park where they have these startlingly colorful lakes of deep blues and greens, nestled into a series of striking valleys. You may have seen pictures; Jiuzhaigou shows up all the time on internet travel lists and email forwards containing, like, “15 Places That’ll Blow Your Face Off,” or whatever. It really is incredible looking and people have been telling us to go there pretty much since we’ve arrived in China.

So this summer, finally, we decided to go north and check it out. (It didn’t hurt that the climate up there was a good 10° C cooler than the summertime furnace of south Sichuan.) We prefixed the trip with a few days in the neighboring area of Songpan, a sleepy little ancient town that serves as a base for horse trekking and other outdoorsy pursuits. This place is not so famous: It gets a small mention in all the western guidebooks, as a place that is near Jiuzhaigou, and almost none of our Chinese friends had heard of it. But there seemed to be enough around there that would occupy our time, and we were psyched for an adventure in the mountains.

On the mountain top in Songpan