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.
Jiuzhaigou Scenic Reserve
Jiuzhaigou Scenic Reserve
Jiuzhaigou Scenic Reserve was settled centuries ago by Tibetans, whose fenced villages gave Jiuzhaigou (Nine Stockades Gully) its name. Hemmed in by high, snowy peaks, the reserve’s valleys form a south-orientated Y-shape, with lakes descending them in a series of broad steps, fringed in thick forests – spectacular in the autumn when the gold and red leaves contrast brilliantly with the water, or at the onset of winter in early December, when everything is dusted by snow. The park gets incredibly busy, though – the best you can do is to get in when the gates open at 7am and try to stay one step ahead of the hordes. Gates close at 5.30pm, and there is no accommodation inside the park. Boardwalks connect all the sights and some people plan to save on the bus fare by hiking everywhere, but given the distances involved – over 30km from the gates to the far end – this isn’t a realistic option.
Songpan sits just east of the vast, marshy Aba grasslands, which sprawl over the Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai borders. Resting at around 3500m and draining into the headwaters of the Yellow River, the grasslands are home to nomadic herders and lots of birdlife – including black-necked cranes and golden eagles – and form a corridor between Sichuan and Gansu province. The scruffy village of LANGMUSI (郎木寺, lángmùsì) sits just off the highway to Hezuo, surrounded by forests, mountain scenery and lamaseries which give an easy taster of Tibet. There’s also immense hiking potential up to ridges and peaks beyond, but make sure you’re equipped for dogs and changeable weather.