Tradition Meets Tourism Juggernaut

Trip Start Jun 05, 2011
Trip End Feb 28, 2013

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Where I stayed
GuCheng Business Hotel

Flag of China  , Sichuan,
Wednesday, November 30, 2011

November 30, 2011 
 松潘Sōngpān; Tradition Meets the Tourism Juggernaut

Lngms to Zoig 若尔盖县 7:30AM-9:30; then Zoig to Sōngpān 10AM to 1PM.

Two Nights at GuCheng Business Hotel, 80 RMB

It was biting cold when we walked to the corner bus stop in pitch darkness.  It was 6:60AM and we had already heard a horn blast and feared our bus was leaving without us. The departure time was a bit sketchy. We were told, "around"  6:30 am!. I feel sorry for the people living near that corner where the buses blow their awful horns to announce their arrival and departure. A couple of guys huddled on the corner warming themselves on a toxic little fire of garbage; mostly of plastic. We tried to stay up wind of the smoke. The bus that was blowing his horn had left and lucky for us, was not the Zoige bus. Others were also waiting for the tardy Zoige bus so we were reassured. Another bus pulled up and we were happy at the prospect of getting out of the cold. But that was not our bus either. Finally, after waiting over an hour in the freezing cold, our bus arrived. It was old, rickety and without heat. A group of woman climbed in carrying baskets and hand tools. They were on their way to work in the field. We drove off into the new morning light. Five kilometers out of town, the group of ladies got down from the bus and began pulling money out for the bus fare. The driver waved and declined their effort to pay. Nice driver. Ice cold bus.

The trip again continued through beautiful rural country with yak herds and Tibetan villages. At 9:30, we arrived in Zoige and were immediately ushered to the bus going onward to Songpan, our destination for the day. We stowed our luggage then hid out in a heated supermarket for a bit. It started to snow. At 10:00 sharp, our newer bigger bus took off.

Frost flowers formed on the windows. A passenger in the front seat was assigned to wipe a cloth across windshield because the bus was devoid of a defroster. Snow started to accumulate on the broad new highway and on the yak huddling together in the fields, as we climbed higher and higher in the majestic mountains. The driver drove cautiously and at no time did we feel unsafe. At 1PM we arrived at Songpan.

The Old House hotel recommended in our LP is conveniently located just 100 yards from the bus station. It is a lovely wooden building that looks great from the outside.  Alas, it was closed for the season. We found a motel a stone's throw away and checked in. Our room had two beds with heating pads and no other source of heat. It was cold already and knew it was going to be colder once the sun went down. We dropped our packs and went to find a place for lunch before exploring.

We were glad to find the highly recommended Emma’s Kitchen open. We were not surprised to be the only customers during this time of year and they seemed happy we came in. The Yak burgers and fries were a nice change from our steady diet of noodle and stir fry. I commented to David, the son of the owner, about the tidy white store fronts with artsy wooden carved shop signs above their openings. The signs in Chinese and English (some clumsily) explain the name and what type of shop or restaurant the business is. The son explained that all this is new in the last few years and a tremendous amount has been done in last 18 months. All of the fronts are new attachments to pre-existing buildings behind. This town, like so many towns we have passed in China, has been rebuilt within the last five years.

Dried yak meat hangs on open store fronts. It does require some preparation before consumption but they also had small shrink wrapped packets dried Yak jerky that we were able to eat right out of the package. At 11 RMB for a good size package, it was a bargain.

This neat and clean street leads to the ancient walled city center that has been rebuilt within last ten years. Our guidebook says the ancient gates though, are original and dating to the Ming Dynasty 600 years ago. Inside the city gate are streets with quaint businesses, tea houses and restaurants. We choose a restaurant for dinner because it had tables near the kitchen where it was relatively warm. Very few businesses were heated even though it was below freezing at night. We were told they wait until it really gets cold (January/February) before they worry too much about heat.


Songpan is an agrarian walled city that dates back prior to the Ming, to the Tang Dynasty. It is also a gateway to the famous Jiuzhagou National Park, which receives 1.5 million visitors yearly just 2 hours up the road, and Huanglong National Park. It is apparent the city leaders are sprucing up the town to attract as many tour buses as possible. While Songpan is charming in a Disneyland kind of way, it is the countryside of rolling hills, Tibetan herders, and generally beautiful landscape that attracts foreign tourists for multi day horse treks. We met one young lady who arrived for a three day trek. It was too cold to camp and she was doing day rides and returning to town each night.

The next morning we explored the town some. Beautifuly clad Tibetan woman come here from the small surrounding villages to do their shopping, often with elaborate turquoise, amber, and coral pieces ornamenting their hair. Silver embossed belts decorate their hips.

Exploring the back alleys, we found the cattle slaughter section of town. Mostly, we saw yak being processed, hair being torched from skulls and feet and the rest being butchered for sale. The stench of dried blood and burned hair hung in the air. Fortunately, it was too cold for flies.

We then climbed to a small temple clinging to the mountainside and continued upward to a small village which afforded great views of Songpan in the valley below. We could see traditional village life going on in enclosed the courtyards; women and men playing cards, sipping tea, children playing…. 

Far north and western Sichuan have many high scenic Amdo Tibetan villages and other scenic wonders that intrigue us. Travel between them requires multiple changes and stops using of iffy buses. We were learning first hand that late November and early December is just too cold to really enjoy what these places have to offer. We threw out our plan to travel to Damba and Litang (at 4000 meters, 13000 feet).  We bought tickets for the 7 AM bus to Chengdu which promised moderate weather at its altitude of just 500 meters. 
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