The bus journey to Songpan was a welcome antidote to the drabness of Langmusi. Climbing to nearly 4,000m this road, crossing the border between Gansu and Sichuan, passed through some of the most spectacular scenery we had seen in China so far. Reminiscent of Mongolia, it stood out in China for one overwhelming reason – the lack of people.
Green steppe and hills stretched as far as the eye could see in all directions, except to the southwest where it terminated in snow-capped peaks. Only gers (here square sided instead of round, as in Mongolia) and herds of yak dotted the landscape. In places the galvanised fence which flanked the road on both sides had been pulled down, presumably by nomadic herdsmen who have crossed these plains for millennia.
As we began to descend towards Songpan, the landscape became more built up, Chinese flags flew from the rooftops and portraits of Chairman Mao hung from the sides of buildings. After all the chaos and destruction of the Cultural Revolution, not to mention the 20 million deaths from famine during his agricultural reforms, we still cannot understand the national obsession with this man.
Pulling into Songpan we were pleasantly surprised. The town is clean and retains an impressive old town within the Qing Dynasty gates.
After checking into the unimpressive *Emma’s Guesthouse*, we took a walk around the historic centre and food market. We noticed that many street stalls were selling bunches of what looked like small dried twigs. On closer inspection we immediately recognised these as the “Viagra worms” we had heard so much about in Nepal (see Annapurna Circuit: Part 1), but which had been just out of season when we were there. Sure enough, a distinct dried up silkworm body gave way to a long fungal shoot growing out of its head. Having since read that these apparently foul tasting wonder bugs retail in Europe and America for $800 an ounce, we almost wish we had stocked up on some at the market. (You can read more about them here.)
We also passed the local meat, fish, fruit and vegetable market, where there were a few surprises in store!
We then visited a tea house and sat in our own booth at the riverside. This was very pleasant with endless top-ups of water to our Jasmine tea leaves. The squat toilets were horrendous though, directly open to the river below.
The plumbing woes continued back at our hotel where the newly renovated bathroom quickly began to unleash its plague of defects on us. Its pipes belched and shook throughout the night. Our conclusion is that the Chinese construction industry is growing too fast. Building sites teem with men and women of all ages, and it seems obvious that many of them are unskilled workers jumping on the construction bandwagon. Away from the architectural show pieces of China’s big cities, many of the new buildings look cheap and poorly built. We can’t help feeling that in the rush to get them up in record time, there will be a price to pay further down the line. Caveat emptor…