Horseback to Basics in Sichuan
by Laura Dodge
South China Morning Post
Life in Songpan appears to go by as it has for centuries. Family-run farms and animal husbandry remain the dominant means of survival among the Sichuan mountains.
Shepherds lead sheep along valleys, mountain goats roam the terraced hillsides. In town, freshly slaughtered oxen are hung for display at the morning market.
But narrow, muddy trails that have for centuries connected villages have now spawned a modern-day use, providing horse-riding routes for tourists.
For 50 yuan per day (about HK$45), you can hire a guide and a horse to take you to some of the region's most outstanding areas - not a bad deal for a horse, food, a tent and blankets, plus individual Tibetan-style woollen robes to keep you warm.
A typical horse ride lasts from three to five days, and takes you from Songpan into surrounding Tibetan villages and farms. While the advertised highlights include hot springs (the only place to bathe) and a waterfall, the real treat is the experience of camping Songpan-style.
The ride will expose you to some of the most basic and warming aspects of Chinese life.
A 12-hour bus ride (barring landslides) from Chengdu, Songpan has remained relatively isolated from the change that has swept much of China in the past century. Its 60,000 inhabitants are a well-blended mix of Tibetan, Han and Muslim Chinese.
While some buildings are purely functional, most retain elements of northwestern Sichuan's traditional society.
Above the town, Han influence is evident in hillside temples and towering pagodas.
But below, Tibetan architecture, represented in the elaborately carved pine houses, dominates Songpan's "suburban" periphery.
The fact that these dwellings house a diverse ethnic blend reveals Sichuan's relative success at integrating ethnic groups, making it distinct from its conflict-ridden neighbours, Tibet and Xinjiang.
For Han, Tibetan, Muslim and horse-riders alike, daily life revolves primarily around preparing the next meal, maintaining one's dwelling and visiting neighbours.
My guide, a Muslim, seemed to know everybody within the 80 kilometres we travelled - from the hillside farmers and their children to general-store owners.
He delivered messages to the children of farmers and shared stories with other guides we met along the way.
A rugged and jovial bunch, the guides were as much a part of the journey as the sights we visited.
Despite a seemingly primitive lifestyle, these guides are Songpan's top entrepreneurs. Their skills at survival in the woods are impressive.
As soon as we arrived at the campsite, my guide would dismount and promptly begin cutting branches for firewood and for our mattresses. Within 15 minutes, he single-handedly set up the tent, fixed my bed, fed the horses and began making lunch.
I must admit that I initially regarded my bed - a mound of soft, cut branches topped with cardboard - with much scepticism. But once the guide added blankets to the pile, he had created one of the most comfortable beds I've ever slept in. Fatigue from the horse ride helped, of course.
About 10 years ago, Songpan was opened to tourists; many have since made the town a stop on the way to or from Tibet and Gansu provinces.
An entrepreneur named Guo Shang took advantage of this opening and the new policy allowing private enterprise and set up his own horse-trekking company.
Business was good. Today, Mr Guo employs more than 60 guides and their horses.
But with private industry comes competition, and Mr Guo and the Songpan authorities are just beginning to learn how to deal with this aspect of modernisation.
Today, Mr Guo faces tough competition from a newly established rival and former friend.
In a town like Songpan, where everyone knows everyone else and most are related, friendships are being lost because of the competition.
But competition also breeds good service. And on this rough-and-tumble ride through the woods, good service is what you'll get.
After a four-hour journey, your guides will lead you to a comfortable campsite, typically near a stream.
A hot lunch will set you on your way to explore the sights, and the guides themselves are part of the attraction. At night they entertain by telling stories by the campfire and singing songs.