The 500km trip north from Chengdu via SONGPAN (松潘, sōngpān) to the border with Gansu province hauls you through a region that’s eminently Tibetan. The border village of Langmusi presents a vivid taste of monastic life, while the perpetually snow-clad Min Shan range encloses two separate valleys clothed in thick alpine forests and strung with hundreds of impossibly toned blue lakes – said to be the scattered shards of a mirror belonging to the Tibetan goddess Semo. Closest to Songpan, Huanglong, a string of lakes and small ponds in a calcified valley, is relatively small and can be walked around in a few hours; further north on a separate road, Jiuzhaigou Scenic Reserve is grander in every respect and requires a couple of days to see properly. Both are targets of intense tourism – don’t come here expecting a quiet commune with nature, as each park clocks up over a million visitors annually. With this in mind, a few lesser-known reserves, rich in alpine grasslands, waterfalls and views, may be more appealing, and can be reached on horseback from Songpan.
Songpan was founded 320km north of Chengdu in Qing times as a garrison town straddling both the Min River and the main road to Gansu. Strategically, it guards the neck of a valley, built up against a stony ridge to the west and surrounded on the remaining three sides by 8m-high stone walls. These have been partially restored, and you can walk between the north and east gates and above the south gate. Though increasingly a tourist town, Songpan’s shops, stocked with handmade woollen blankets, fur-lined jackets, ornate knives, saddles, stirrups, bridles and all sorts of jewellery, cater primarily to local Tibetans and Qiang, another mountain-dwelling minority. In spring, Songpan – along with every town in western Sichuan – becomes a marketplace for bizarre caterpillar fungus (虫草, chóng căo) that grows in the mountains and is prized for use in Traditional Chinese Medicine. The reason to stop here, however, is to spend a few days horse-trekking through the surrounding hills, which harbour hot springs and waterfalls, grassland plateaus, and permanently icy mountains.