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Remembering Songpan

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I don’t remember when I first started dreaming of Tibet. It might have been on one of the Friday afternoons I spent at the Westville library in the early 90s reading about when Tintin found a teddy bear half buried in the snow on his way to rescue his friend Chang who was stuck in the Himalayas.

Ever since I can remember, the sky reaching peaks and spinning prayer wheels of the temples in Tibet have been at the top of my list of places to visit. Growing up I poured over Heinrich Harrer and Vikram Seth’s first impressions of the Potala Palace, dreaming of when I would be able to lay my eyes on the palace for the first time.

I’m still dreaming as I haven’t made it there yet.

Colourful yaks on the road to Songpan

Colourful yaks on the road to Songpan

During my year in China I hoped to go, knowing that I wouldn’t mind if I only saw Tibet and none of China’s other magnificent sights. However my vacation time was too short for me to make the trip so I went as close as I could, to Songpan.

This week is the two year anniversary of my trip to Songpan, but I can still close my eyes and see the turquoise and coral ornate silver earrings hanging heavily from the Tibetan women’s ears as they ploughed their fields.

Situated at 2850 meters above sea level, the small town of Songpan lies peacefully in a valley under a glassy electric blue sky between massive Sichuan mountains.

At this altitude the colours are brighter, the air is thinner and you cannot help but feel that you must be at least half way to heaven.

Making friends with the locals.

Making friends with the locals.

To think that we almost never went, my roommate and I planned a six day trip to Sichuan province over the Chinese National holiday in 2007. With only two days for travel in Chengdu, going to Songpan was a risk because we would have to spend a day traveling there and back as it’s a nine hour bus ride from Chengdu. We had no idea if we wouldn’t definitely get a bus back in time to catch our flight.

Plus we had to get up ridiculously early on our holiday to get to the station to get tickets. This was near impossible because of the crowds traveling on the national holiday.

I still remember the alarm going off and it was still dark outside. It took all of my strength not to just press snooze and go back to sleep. I’m really glad I didn’t.

This was the most scenic bus trip I’d ever taken. Nine hours was a pleasure.

Once out of the urban areas, the road winds up and around steep mountains while you catch glimpses of sparkling lakes and brightly decorated yaks and their accompanying farmers. History and politics clouded my mind. I thought about how many of Mao Zedong’s Long Marchers died crossing over these 10 000 ft mountains in the 1930s and how if it were 1951 I would be entering the independent country of Tibet.

Songpan is now one of the 13 counties of the Aba Tibetan Qiang Autonomous Prefecture of northwestern Sichuan province, China and Tibetan people still make up 53% of the region.

Lunch with our Tibetan guide

Lunch with our Tibetan guide

We spent one day horse-trekking to a nearby Tibetan nomadic village. Our guide was a quiet couple whose youngest son was training to be a monk. The wife cooked us a traditional lunch of cabbage and sampa with yak butter tea in their small room next to the monastery.

A photo of the Dalai Lama hung in a small corner of the room and even though I wasn’t in Lhasa, I felt overwhelmed by this family’s humble daily life, considering that their land has been taken away from them. Their way of life is so distinctly Tibetan yet according to the maps they live in China.

Two years later and I wonder where that family is now. The memory of Songpan hasn’t faded. Instead it remains in my mind as a taste of Tibet, where I still dream of going. I hope to go there in 2013 when I turn 30. That’s if I can’t get there sooner.

Tibetan nomadic village near Songpan

Tibetan nomadic village near Songpan


Written by BiancaZAR

October 8, 2009 at 11:31 pm