Songpan and Juizhaigou National Park

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Asia » China » Sichuan » Songpan
July 20th 2005
Published: September 16th 2005EDIT THIS ENTRY

Main street in Songpan.Main street in Songpan.Main street in Songpan.

This street was very pretty in the evening with all the red lanterns glowing.
We had a long 10 hour bus (averaged 26 kilometres an hour) journey to reach Songpan. The towns that we visited in that area were quite isolated and all travel between them took a long time. There are no trains or planes, only road transport. Songpan however is the gateway to one of China’s premier scenic national parks, Jutzhaigou and does have an airport nearby, but with no flights to the Tibetan grassland areas. Most of the tourists would fly in from Chengdu, the closest large city, a 10 hour bus drive further south. We arrived late in the afternoon and passed a satellite town full of dozens of hotels and restaurants. Songpan itself though was pretty. Though the main street is mostly modern and lined with shops selling Tibetan souveneirs there were no large hotels anywhere to be seen. Many of the side streets are still lined with old traditional wooden houses. A river, crossed by a couple of old wooden bridges ran through the city. At the end of the main street the old city gates are still standing and workmen were rebuilding the city walls on either side of them. Our hotel was fine but had very indifferent
Cycleshaws in SongpanCycleshaws in SongpanCycleshaws in Songpan

There are no taxis like this where we live but they seem to be common in many other cities in China.
staff - in fact the rudest staff we met on our entire 2 months away. Nick actually was going to advise his company to find somewhere else to stay in future. We all had washing done by the hotel staff whilst there and it became a game trying to find your undies - they ‘hung’ the washing over all the internal rails of the windows and staircases to dry. That was quite funny! That evening we ate at a nearby restaurant - where once again the food was ok (though very expensive) but the service pretty bad. An early night for everybody followed - the trip was starting to catch up with us all.

Next day was a free day with no activities planned until 3pm when we were leaving for the 2 hour trip to our hotel at the entrance of the national park. Jerry and I spent the morning wandering the backstreets. We watched a goat being skinned at the local market and were very pleased that we missed the slaughter of a yak which had just happened. The cement was running with blood. It was a food market and we always love wandering through them and
Backstreets of SongpanBackstreets of SongpanBackstreets of Songpan

The local Tibetans in this area dressed in long robes and headscarves - they looked very different to the people we saw in Gansu.
watching the locals shop. The streets were lined with large wooden houses and away from the main part of the city we saw many women wearing traditional dress. They still wore the dressing gown robes and heavy jewellery but all had scarves over their heads. Most carried wicker baskets on their backs. We saw no men in Tibetan dress at all. They certainly didn’t look as wild as the people we had seen in Xiahe and Langmusi. We chatted to a Han Chinese man who spoke a small amount of English. He was carrying his granddaughter in a wicker basket on his back. She was very sweet - as are all Chinese children - they have such big brown eyes which stare intently at you the whole time you are near them. They never seem to blink. The man was wearing the blue Mao uniform tunic and hat - many of the elderly Chinese man still wear it.

After another ‘will we ever get it’ lunch we went through the city gates and walked around the town outside. It was quite poor, very dirty and we attracted a fair bit of attention. We had seen a lot of dry
Walking to the templeWalking to the templeWalking to the temple

This photo shows the contrast in the architecture of the city - the traditional Han style of the temple and the wooden Tibetan houses.
meat in all the shops and were curious as to what it was from, as all the pieces were very long and very expensive. We found a young girl who spoke reasonable English and asked her. She had been very talkative but when we asked her that question she became embarrassed and said ‘The meat is from a yak - it is that part that ladies don’t have’…. Upon our return to the hotel to collect our luggage we were amazed when the hotel staff told us that we couldn’t use their toilets as we were no longer guests and sent us to the bus station - where the toilets were disgusting! Everybody had the same problem with the staff re toilets - another black mark against their hotel’s name for the Intrepid file. They obviously don’t want the money tourists bring to their hotel. My final memory of the hotel was arguing with them over the price they wanted to charge me for their laundry service - twice what they had quoted me originally.

We arrived at our hotel near the national park after passing kilometers of very tacky hotel resorts - one in particular was an ‘English
Another street scene from SongpanAnother street scene from SongpanAnother street scene from Songpan

The backstreets were very interesting - we really enjoyed exploring them and 'talking' to some of the local people.
castle’ and so ugly! All their carparks were full of dozens (and I’m not exaggerating) of buses. I had read differing reports about the area - many people didn’t like it because it felt like a big theme park - and I at that stage had to agree with them. Our hotel room was fine, though the bathroom was pretty smelly. This is common in China due to poor plumbing and inadequate drainage systems. You never put toilet paper in the toilets, always in the bin nearby - if one is provided! Often it has to be thrown onto the floor in the corner of the cubicle. Nick told us that we would have to eat at the hotel that evening as we would be charged for the meal by the hotel whether we ate it or not. Nobody cared as there wasn’t anywhere nearby to go anyway - it was just row upon row of hotels. The meal was a set menu and so bad as to be almost inedible and everybody resented having to hand over 22 yuan to pay for it. After dinner we were all still hungry so everybody headed off in different directions trying to
Yak anyone?Yak anyone?Yak anyone?

Whilst wandering the backstreets we stumbled upon an abbotoir and a market where they were killing animals for fresh meat. This yak had been killed at the market entrance just before we arrived - it was pretty gruesome!
find some more food. Harriet (the lovely Canadian lady) and myself decided to visit the Sheridan hotel and have an evening of 5 star comfort. We had a very enjoyable evening - the hotel was plush though (by my Chinese standards) the drinks were very expensive - 45 yuan a scotch. The drinks however came with a large tray of nibbles which helped fill up the gaps left by our unsatisfying evening meal.

Next day we arrived at the entrance of the park and were swallowed up by crowds of people. The entrance fee was very high - 320 yuan each! Over AUD $ 50 which in China is a week’s wage or more for a large majority of the population. Many Chinese people dream of visiting the park and will save for years to make that dream come true. They travel for 12 hours from Chengdu, spend 1 day there and then travel 12 hours back. For many it is the only holiday they have for years. Our ticket price was included in our tour costs though Nick still had to line up to buy tickets. We were all starting to think we were not going to have a very peaceful days hike as we pushed our way onto the buses which took us to the top of the park from where you walk down one of the two valleys within the park. The whole entrance area was guarded by the military which surprise us. The park is surrounded by a mountain range with peaks as high as 4500 metres. There are over 100 lakes and 27 waterfalls and the park is considered provincial China’s most spectacular landscape. It is also one of the only areas in China where pandas are still found in the wild. The buses (dozens of them) follow a Y shaped route with many stops where everybody gets off to look at various lakes or waterfalls. At the end of the bus route - 40 minutes drive - we hit Disneyland! Hundred’s of Chinese tourists having their photo’s taken in traditional dress - it was so noisy and crowded we all nearly got back on the buses to head back to the hotel. Our group planned to walk to the entrance gate or as close to it as we could get by 5 pm. However Jerry and I know Chinese people don’t walk if
A shop selling coalA shop selling coalA shop selling coal

Coal for sale by the kilogram!
there is transport nearby so we were pretty certain we would not have too much company as we walked back along the paths which thankfully were quite a distance away from the main road, bus route and herds of people. We were right, and except for at a couple of the larger waterfalls, we didn’t see too many other people and we virtually had the paths to ourselves. It was raining lightly most of the day and pleasantly cool. The distance to the entrance was 38 kilometres - Jerry walked 28 of them, and Harriet and I walked 22! When you became tired it was easy to walk across to the main road and join the sea of umbrellas waiting for the next bus back to the entrance of the park. Nick and 2 of the other men did manage the whole walk - they were very tired though when they returned. I thought 22 kilometres was a pretty good effort for myself as I was still suffering from a very heavy cold. The whole 38 kilometres was on either flagstones or a boardwalk and though we could see the road and buses every so often it didn't spoil the serenity of the walk. It was the most beautiful walk I have ever done. A lot of the time the boardwalk was over water - it was an amazing experience to walk over the top of rapids and at the base of raging waterfalls, some of which were hundreds of metres wide. The sound of water was with us nearly the whole time. We walked by the shores of many lakes filled with water of the most vivid colours - deep greens and blues. Unfortunately I didn’t take many photos (it was raining softly a lot of the day) and they certainly wouldn’t have done the area justice. It was truly magnificent and the park an absolute credit to the Chinese government. The toilets were very unobtrusive, sparkling clean and unlike any I’ve seen anywhere else. They weren’t pit toilets but had plastic bags in side them which vacuum packed everything as soon as you pressed the button. The park was immaculate, pristine and sparkling. We saw similar cleanliness in Lijiang, another premier tourist area in Yunnan Province. There late every evening after most of the day tourists had left an emu parade of women with tweezers picked toothpicks and
Jiuzhaigou National Park 1Jiuzhaigou National Park 1Jiuzhaigou National Park 1

Myself walking the boardwalks admiring one of the 27 waterfalls inside the park - an absolutely spectacular area.
cigarette butts out of the cracks in the flagstones.

I’m so pleased that Jerry and I saw that magnificent park and feel confident that the Chinese government has spent and is continuing to spend on upkeep at least a large majority of the entrance fee. Though I feel sad that the closest most Chinese will get to the park is pictures of it on their television screens. We returned tired but happy to our hotel. Our group had decided to have our evening meal at the Sheridan - nobody could face the dining room of our hotel again, and decided that 22 yuan was worth paying not to eat there. We never parted with the cash anyway though Nick may have picked up the bill with Intrepid funds on our behalf. We had a very social evening - and pizza which Jerry and I hadn’t eaten for 5 months! Next morning we were up early and headed back into Songpan (enroute to Chengdu) for breakfast which proved the wrong decision as most of us didn’t get to eat! The service, once again was so slow, that the hour we were allocated for breakfast wasn’t long enough for us all
Jiuzhaigou National Park 2Jiuzhaigou National Park 2Jiuzhaigou National Park 2

Kilometres of wooden walkways over the top of rapids, past waterfalls and around lakes with the colour of sapphires and emeralds.
to get served - and the 13 of us went to 3 different restaurants. I’m amazed that a city so close to such a major tourist destination could actually make such a mess of looking after tourists. In a ten minute period between Jiuzhaigou and Songpan I counted the tourist buses as they passed us on the road - 53 in total! We headed off on the worst bus trip we were to take - 9 hours to Chengdu. Harriet had tried to persuade me to fly to Chengdu - she was suffering back trouble from the long rough trips - but I decided not to. It would have been money well spent as the trip to Chengdu was no fun. Constant road works and dust. We followed the Min River and they were building new towns (moving old ones higher due to problems with flooding), constructing tunnels through the mountains, building a dam and a major highway. Sometimes China feels like a major construction site - there is so much happening in that industry here. Of course the bus had air conditioning - but as usual the driver wouldn’t use it as it costs too much money to operate so we were covered in dust by the time we reached the outskirts of Chengdu. He then turned it on as we had to shut the windows due to pollution! By this stage I had a migraine headache and was desperate to get to our hotel. I very rarely get them so the medication I needed was in a suitcase under the bus. Nick said that we were only 5 minutes from our hotel when we rounded a corner to find the road closed due to road works. Our bus driver took a different road and promptly got lost. We drove aimlessly around in the heavy city traffic for more then another half an hour before the driver stopped and phoned somebody - presumably the hotel to ask for directions. We did eventually get to the hotel where I went straight to bed! So began our short visit to Chengdu - home of the Panda Research Centre.


17th September 2005

The best yet!
Your 'Tales from the Tibetan Grasslands' have been the best stuff yet! We are so enjoying your marvellous diary - please do not ever leave China!

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