"Jubilant Yaks and Jumping Horses"

Waterfalls and Wildflowers on Horse-Trek in Songpan

August 19, 2002

SONGPAN, China -- The places most worth visiting in China are the hardest to get to.

The road to Songpan is narrow, zig-zagged and full of polluting, slow-moving trucks that drivers overtake with frighteningly little leeway. The journey from the provincial capital, Chengdu, takes about eight hours by car and 10 by bus. It is prone to landslides, rain, meandering children and animals. Rollovers are common into the Min River racing below.

Yet most visitors manage to survive. For that they are richly rewarded. A brochure published by the local government promises "jubilant yaks and jumping horses" and sheep "spreading as clouds."

Such hyperbole is hardly needed. The simple truth is impressive enough.

Set in the mountains of northern Sichuan province, Songpan is surrounded by rich pine forests, wildflower meadows, mile after mile of barley fields, stunning waterfalls and shimmering limestone pools of turquoise and jade. The town itself, at an altitude of more than 9,300 feet, is full of traditional wooden architecture and a colorful ethnic mix of Tibetans, Hui (Chinese Muslim), Qiang and Han.

A visitor could spend hours on the streets just people-watching and eating from one snack stall to the next. Street specialties include grilled tofu and mutton shish kebabs. In the restaurants, delicacies include yak meat (tastes like beef, but a little tougher) and succulent wild mushrooms picked from the surrounding mountains, which also boast an array of medicinal plants.

But Songpan is the kind of charming touristy town where you don't see many tourists: most are up in the mountains on what must be the world's cheapest and most picturesque horse trek. For less than $10 a day, you get a horse and guide, three meals cooked for you, all the camping gear you need and spectacular scenery.

The only unsavory part of the deal is choosing between the two trekking agencies in town, Happy Trails and Shunjiang, situated opposite each other. The competition can get ugly. The former enlists satisfied customers to tout for them when buses carrying freshly-arrived backpackers pull in. The latter has a board outside listing several reasons to choose it, including "we trained the other guys."

They basically offer the same trails and services at the same prices. No reservations are needed. You can show up in a group or on your own and they will accommodate you. Trips can range from one to 15 days. I signed up for a two-day trek to the Zhaga Waterfalls. My group of seven tourists -- four Americans, a Belgian and two Koreans -- had four guides.

"Just bring a toothbrush and a bottle of water," said Chen Jiangang, known as "Rick," the manager at Happy Trails.

We started off in the morning without signing any waivers or receiving a single word of instruction on how to operate the horse. I discovered that horse language is different in Chinese. Instead of "giddyup" and "whoa," it's "jia!" and "yuuuu." Yet commands were largely unnecessary. The horses were steady and sure-footed, even on steep, muddy patches.

As our horses walked on long stretches of road, we took in the yellow and green fields, an eagle circling overhead, farmers walking their pigs and Tibetan herders tending to their yaks. Yet I also craved a little canter. But the guides refused.

In the afternoon we hiked 20 minutes on foot to the waterfall, a spectacular and little-visited cascade in the Munigou forest. The next day we stopped at the Zhaga Monastery, where about 50 Tibetan monks reside and study.

Guides do all the cooking, feeding of horses and setting up of camp. No Gortex or high-tech thermal gear here. Just canvas tents with branches as poles and stakes. Our mattresses were beds of twigs. At night, a guide will even come and tuck you in, laying a heavy Tibetan coat over your sleeping bag and making sure no pockets of cold air can sneak in.

Meals included tasty hand-made Tibetan noodles, potatoes and cucumber salad. Water was drawn from a nearby spring. Aaron, an Ohioan teaching English for a year in China, declared it was the first time he'd used chopsticks on a camping trip.

At night we sat around the campfire and mostly listened to one of our guides, 22-year-old Li Chenyi, sing folk songs. With a felt hat jauntily angled to the side, he started without any notice and immediately all conversation stopped as his soulful crooning penetrated the night air. One song started out, "On the golden hills of Beijing is a beautiful girl. Chairman Mao has agreed to be my matchmaker."

By the afternoon of the second day, I finally convinced our guides, most of whom started riding soon after learning to walk, that I could handle a short race across a grassy plateau. I didn't tell them my experience was not vast, but I doubted the small horses would gain much speed anyway. I was wrong. I held on for dear life as my horse burst into a gallop. It was exhilarating and I insisted on another race.

Songpan, known as Zungchu in Tibetan, is an ethnically-mixed county of 67,000 people in the Aga (Ngaba) Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture. A millennia ago, it was the westernmost outpost of imperial China. Well-fortified with two concentric sets of city walls to protect itself from the powerful Tibetan army at its doorstep, it fell to Tibet for 600 years before Kublai Khan's forces took the city back. In peaceful times, it was a trading center for tea and horses.

During the Cultural Revolution, which started in 1966, Mao's Red Guards wreaked havoc on Songpan. They destroyed indiscriminately -- anything religious and anything old. The ancient city walls and all eight gates were demolished, brick by brick.

By the mid-1980s, mosques and monasteries had been restored and four city gates and parts of the wall rebuilt. Then Songpan opened up to another kind of invader -- the adventure traveler.

"When I was little and we saw foreigners in town, it was like looking at pandas," said Chen. "Everyone would gather around to look at them, their blond hair and big noses. They wore shorts and short skirts. It was scandalous. Now it's no big deal at all."

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