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Songpan - Citadel on the Tibetan Plateau
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We entered the medieval walled city under magnificent blue skies and blinding UV-rays.
The oxygen was thin, the air was crisp and the midday sun was scorching down our foreheads. Nobody was too concerned about sunburns as everyone in town seemed to be wrapped up in heavy woolen chupas. It was November at the northeastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau.

After recuperating on flatland for two days we returned to higher elevation, staying this night at an altitude of 2850m at the ancient Chinese bordertown of Songpan. Despite being nowhere near the modern national border, this was the northwestern outpost of many Chinese Empires in centuries past, hence the heavily fortified ramparts defending this narrow mountain pass leading towards the fertile plains of Sichuan.

This ancient market town has always been the confluence point of exotic cultures and ethnicities: Amdo Tibetans, Hui Muslims, Qiangic tribes and the Han Chinese. Little has changed over the past thousand years and our arrival at the bus station was met by Tibetan guesthouse owners and Muslim cab drivers alike, each trying to squeak out a living at this remote landlocked corner of 21st Century China.

Even today the local population remains extraordinarily multi-ethnic: nomadic Tibetan and Hui Muslim herders dominate the expansive steppes to the northwest, Han Chinese merchants settle mostly in town and along highways, and the Qiang people mostly congregate within their ancestral enclaves. Insert the backdrop of a windswept stronghold on the plateau and you have the Chinese version of the wild, wild west.

For centuries this had been the arena of military conquests and treaties between Tibetan kingdoms to the southwest and the imperial Chinese to the east. Peace was largely tentative and short-lived, though all rulers of this volatile region love to remind everyone of the medieval golden ages that culminated in the marriage of Princess Wencheng to legendary king Songtsan Gampo.

1300 years later the Tibetan king and his Chinese consort still watch over the peasants, now as symbols of ethnic unity in Communist propaganda. The locals don't seem to mind, as the statues have become somewhat of a tourist draw and a rare opportunity to tap into the new found wealth brought over by the increasingly affluent coastal Chinese.

Overlooked by most travelers as a destination on its own, Songpan finds visitors mostly on quick stopovers on their grueling 9 hour bus ride between Sichuan's top two attractions, Chengdu and Jiuzhaigou. For us it was the launch point into our mini-trip of Huanglong National Park and Jiuzhaigou's spectacular alpine lakes, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Arriving at noon after a 5 hour bus ride from Dujiangyan, it made perfect sense to stop for a night before tackling Huanglong the next morning.

Unmissable to any visitor is the town's Ming Dynasty fortifications, stretching up to the local mountain top in the form of a mini Great Wall. While much of the ramparts had been refurbished to meet 21st Century safety standards, there exist sections that remain untouched in their authentic earthen form, and can be climbed for free instead of the extortionate RMB 150 (CAD$27) to climb the refurbished sections.

Within those walls the town consists of mostly new reconstructions, after decades of devastation by everything from WWII Japanese bombings to 7.2 earthquakes to 21st Century mass developments. Vestiges of the Qing Dynasty remain, but only in the form of severely dilapidated houses in isolation. For a glimpse of the old Songpan one must climb above the city wall ...

... and into a pastoral landscape of the surrounding communes. Just steps away from the dusty market streets reside entire villages of Hui Muslim shepherds, still carrying on their age-old way of existence into the new millennium. Walking among the donkeys and the sheep on village paths one could mistake this for 15th Century, except for the occasional satellite dish on the rooftop.

Contentedly grazing away above the town were flocks of woolly sheep and perpetually roaming goats. Upon closer inspection the earthen hedge along the cliff was actually a medieval defensive wall of mud bricks and straw, complete with remnants of crenellations. This was the Songpan I had come for -- not the modernized town within the walls, but an ancient community of multi-ethnic natives striving for survival against the harsh winters and high altitude.

Arriving at the start of winter we came across not even one foreigner, the climate and elevation considered too hostile for domestic and international tourists alike. The odd adventurer would come specifically for horseback excursions to the Songpan Grasslands to the northwest of town, but mostly in summer months. By mid November even domestic Chinese travelers would resort to warmer destinations such as Yunnan and Hainan, leaving Northern Sichuan to those who didn't know any better ...

The regional specialties of yak meat jerky, wolf skin and Tibetan herbal medicine covered the length of the main drag. In a peculiar and perhaps unintended tradition of self-segregation the silversmiths were mostly Tibetans, restauranteurs mostly Hui Muslims, and supermarkets run mostly by the Han Chinese.

A most unexpected and welcomed sight in town was a SPAR supermarket for all our grocery needs, including energy snacks for our upcoming hike at Huanglong National Park. Perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised, as the Chinese had also been embracing their Carrefours and Walmarts.

Near the western edge of town stood the brand new mosque for the local Hui Muslim population, built to gradually replace the old crumbling one to the north of the town walls. In a marriage of architectural styles the minaret was built in the form of a Chinese pagoda, something we also observed in Dujiangyan and Xi'an.

Our hotel was operated by a Hui Muslim family, the lady running the show while her husband operated yet another hotel 2.5 hours away in Jiuzhaigou. Booking a reliable hotel online proved quite a challenge as the smaller hotels hadn't yet advanced to the Internet age, while the larger hotels were concentrated 20km away at the town of Chuanzhusi. I made the mistake of booking without realizing one important caveat ...

We had no heat in our room at below freezing temperature! We did have lukewarm showers and an electric blanket to curl up under, but between turning off the water and diving underneath the blanket, it was a mad dash. The town's electrical grid was also unreliable and darkness came upon our entire block intermittently. At one point I offered extra cash to the owner to rent us a small electric heater for the night, except she didn't have one. To the locals it was just a normal wintery day.

This night in Songpan gave me a new perspective on the things I had taken for granted for years: a warm house, 24 hours hot water, reliable electricity, even the seated toilet which was a rarity in rural Sichuan. Here's my advice to fellow travelers: don't come anywhere near the Tibetan Plateau between November and March unless you're well-prepared for the cold. 

While our hotel wasn't so recommendable, the locals did suggest a great little eatery along Highway G213, one minute walk from the statue of Princess Wencheng. Laosi Fandian was your typical Hui Muslim restaurant serving the local variation of Sichuanese fare, except for the substitution of pork with the regional specialty of yak meat.

We tried out this place for lunch and decided to return for dinner, which says something about the quality and affordability of the dishes. As expected in Chinese Halal eateries most items on the menu were either lamb or beef ... or yak actually, such as the pictured Red Braised Yak Tongue.

Two courses for lunch followed by a giant hotpot of Yak Meat and Wild Mushrooms for dinner, for a combined total of RMB 150 (CAD$26.8) over two meals. Prices for yak meat were definitely much cheaper than in Chengdu -- after all, woolly yaks were all they had in terms of cattle.

At 08:00 the next morning we would set out for the breathtaking scenery at Huanglong, on a private car arranged by our hostess. Was Songpan worthy of an overnight stay? This was the only intermediate stop between Dujiangyan and Jiuzhaigou that seemed interesting to me as a traveler, all other stops being tiny Qiang or Tibetan villages that required a private vehicle to access. So my opinion is a yes ... but only in a better-equipped hotel.


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