At Tibet’s outpost
Leaving Chéngdū in Northern direction brought us straight up into the mountains. Once we’d left the first ridges behind us, the rainy weather which had been following us from the provincial capital disappeared and cleared the way for blue sky and a sunshine as bright as in the mountains of Cajón del Maipo, when driving up the Andes from Santiago. The natural scenery on the road to Sōngpān reminded us a lot of the lower mountains in Northern Chile, if it wasn’t for the infrastructure construction work going on all along the road.
This is another general impression we will take home with us from China: an omnipresent boom of construction work. No village, no hill, no valley where we haven’t seen cranes, excavators and dumping trucks moving around, where we haven’t heard the sounds of digging, drilling and blasting. Spotless, modern roads, even in remote areas, new-built bridges and tunnels and exploding suburbs: this is modern China’s reality. And Sōngpān isn’t an exception.
Once certainly a sleepy village in the middle of the Ngawa Autonomous Prefecture of the Qiang and the Tibetans, today Sōngpān prepares itself to receive an increasing number of visitors each year. The old city wall is being restored, shop fronts are equipped with standardized Chinese-and-English name plates, the main shopping road inside the old town is lined with trashy red lamps and every second store in town sells some kind of allegedly traditional Tibetan souvenirs. The favorite among all: smoked and/or dried yak meat. Big chunks of muscles, tongues and something that seemed to be the balls, hanging in the sun in front of the shop entrances and the smell coming out of the smokehouses, filling the narrow streets, will perhaps remain our most emblematic memory of Sōngpān.
Another will be the number of people walking around in traditional clothes and the tricycle taxis looking out for potential customers at every street corner. By the time we visited, they were not too busy, as it was still off the season and the city had just woken up from its winter shut down (November to March). To our advantage, this implied that we were again in nearly-foreigner-free territory and the interest and friendliness locals showed towards us was again much stronger than it had been in Westerner-stuffed Guìlín or Chéngdū.
Additionally, right next to the bus drop-off point, we found a guesthouse run by the most lively, charming and attentive lady we’ve met so far in China. She hardly spoke three words of English, but was the best example of someone who was not afraid to keep trying to communicate with hands,feet, face expressions and gestures, until she would have made her point. The guesthouse was located in an old house built in traditional local style, with wood carvings decorating walls, roof and stair railing.
Sōngpān lies on nearly 3000 m of altitude, so that the temperatures were accordingly: fresh during the daytime and icy at night. Again we were thankful for the Chinese tea drinking habit, that insured hot water supply to warm our bodies, which after three months of tropical climate were not used to dealing with cold anymore. But we felt rewarded for the freezing when we discovered one positive side-effect of approaching Tibetan and Uighur territory: proper, freshly made bread! Not dry, gummy toast or spongy hamburger bread or oily Indian naan, a proper white loaf of bread coming out of a proper oven, setting an end to our condemnation to noodle soup for breakfast. Okay, it lacked salt – and hence taste – and we didn’t have any butter, cheese or avocado to put on it. But eating it plain combined with a watery instant coffee and a small pot of Yak yoghurt was already a delight we then realized we had missed a lot during the past months. We both would never have thought that a piece of tasteless white bread could make us so happy.
To make our lungs and hearts get used to altitude, we took advantage of a fairly sunny day to walk up to a hill top temple watching over the town. Half of the way was still a mud trail, while part of it was currently being paved or upgraded by wooden stairs. It seemed that we were the first ones to uses those new-built stairs, as when walking up we had to remove the barricade. The walk was quite slow and arduous, as we felt the increase in altitude with every step. Once we arrived to the top we realized, that the temple – which had looked that majestic from the bottom – was actually an abandoned, half-terminated construction ruin, with window broken from strong wind gusts and rubbish – probably left behind by the construction workers – lying around everywhere.
But who would care about a temple; the panoramic view of Sōngpān and the surrounding mountains, some even with some snow on them, compensated for everything.