After a few too many soul-destroying days in the city, we recently decided to escape to the mountains of Sichuan province to the ancient city of Songpan (松潘) for a couple of days of horse riding and camping in the nearby mountains.
At the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau, Songpan has historically served as a trade hub linking Sichuan, Gansu, Qinghai and Tibet as well as an important Han military outpost. Today it is one of the more popular travel destinations in Aba Tibetan Qiang Autonomous Prefecture in northern Sichuan, along with Jiuzhaigou and Huanglong.
Songpan is fairly high up at 2,850 meters above sea level. When we visited, the air was crisp and clean and the skies were a deep azure. The town itself is fairly pleasant by Chinese city standards and has obviously spent money sprucing itself up in recent years in order to boost tourism. Some of the architecture is typical drab urban China, but Songpan also has traditional Tibetan homes with whitewashed walls and gray roofs.
Songpan's main relevance to travelers is its large selection of travel companies offering horse trekking and camping options, providing guides, horses, and camping equipment. Treks run from two to seven days. We elected to take a two-day trip to the hot springs at Erdaohai (二道海).
At 9am we met up with six guides and eleven other travelers at a stable. The Tibetan guides loaded some horses with saddles, bags and tents and we were off.
Once out of town, the horses started on a slow rhythmic clop up the mountains, following a narrow trail. Behind us Songpan shrank, turning into a few scattered white dots lost in the folds of the mountains and we were surrounded by endless mountains in every direction and clear sky above.
Around noon we reached the top of a mountain, taking in the clouds and valleys that lay before us. We dismounted our horses and hiked down the other side of the mountain. The guides were well ahead of us, so we hiked alone, picking our way past rocks and roots, wrapped in a still silence that was occasionally broken by a scrap of birdsong or a whispering breeze.
We hit a fork in the trail and the solitude and uncertainty became somewhat disconcerting. Luckily, there were plenty of horse droppings to mark the way.
Once we arrived at the mountain's foot, we found our guides grazing the horses. After a brief break we rode again, this time on the highway which made for a smoother ride except for when we'd have to tug the horses to the shoulder to make way for the occasional car.
An hour later we arrived at our campsite, a field that was separated from the road by a clear stream accessible only by a log bridge. The guides turned our horses loose in the mountains to graze and gave us a lunch of hot tea, Tibetan flat bread, and sugared tomatoes. When no one was looking, we supplemented with cookies.
After lunch we were off to explore the hot springs at Erdaohai, which was about a fifteen-minute walk. The hour-and-a-half hike took us through landscape reminiscent of Huanglong and Jiuzhaigou—clear pools of water ranging from green yellow to aquamarine.
In anticipation of the hot springs we'd brought our bathing suits. But the hot springs turned out to be cold springs – the water temperature was about 22°C. We nixed bathing and settled for dipping our feet in the water.
When we arrived back at camp, our guides had set up tents and started a bonfire where they were making dinner – noodle soup with cabbage. Our group had paid an extra 100 yuan per person to have a goat brought in for dinner. It arrived, very much alive, and our guides discreetly took it behind the bushes.
Despite the efforts of the guides, we could still hear the goat screaming as it was being slaughtered. This spurred a long conversation about the ethics of eating meat, but it did not prevent us from fully enjoying the goat which was tender and succulent. After filling our bellies and chatting some more, we headed to our tents for some sleep.
We stumbled out of our tents at 8, no longer quite so enchanted with roughing it after a cold night spent tossing and turning in a sleeping bag that smelled like horse.
Our initial grumpiness was assuaged by the warm light of the sun, which was rising over the mountains, and the clean mountain air. We munched on fried bread, noodles, and the remains of the goat. At 9:00 we set off.
Back on the road, opinions varied in the group: the hardcore horse riders thought the road was too tame while those who were suffering from sore muscles found the road a pleasant way to enjoy the view and relax.
After an hour or so of riding we left the road for a mountain trail that took us past small Tibetan villages where we could see locals going about their lives. The villages faded away and once again we were making our way up a mountain, this time, fighting our way through trees and thickets, until we finally arrived on a grassy plateau where yaks were grazing.
There the guides turned our horses loose to graze, and gave us fried bread for lunch. Our cookies once again proved useful. After lunch we hiked down the mountain. When we reached the base, we were back on our horses for another hour.
Our last hour was less picturesque. We rode past construction sites filled with gravel and bulldozers digging into the side of the mountains, and the closer we got to Songpan the more of them we saw.
At noon we were back in Songpan, where we searched out a bathhouse - grateful for a couple of pleasant days in the mountains - just as grateful for hot showers.
Songpan is an eight-hour bus ride from Chengdu. Bus tickets cost about 100 yuan, and there are several guesthouses and hostels in Chengdu who are happy to help book horse trek trips with transportation and accommodation.
There are also daily flights from Chengdu to Jiuzhai Huanglong Airport in Songpan. The 240-kilometer flight takes 40 minutes. The airport is China's third-highest, after those in Qamdo and Lhasa.
Songpan has many hotel and hostel options, most of which have English signage. As we arrived during the National Holiday, we were not able to book a room. However, one of the guides allowed us to stay in his home for 100 yuan a night. Later we were told we could have probably haggled him down to 50 yuan.
Horse trek fees
We paid 400 yuan per person for two days' trekking and camping plus our share of the goat. Tickets to Erdaohai are 70 yuan, or 50 yuan for students and seniors with ID.