23rd Aug 2009
We’ve been spending quite a bit of time in Chengdu, while we are trying to arrange travel to and through Tibet. The nice thing is that the hostel here is quite comfortable and full of fellow travelers with lots of tips on cool places to go and see. There are loads of trip possibilities around Sichuan and the owners of the hostel are more than happy to arrange pretty affordable trips for us. So, after hearing over and over how beautiful Songpan, in northern Sichuan, was, we decided to go for it. We’d heard from a group that the bus ride was pretty awful, but totally worth it as the horse trekking in the mountains was a great experience.
So, we left last Monday at 5:30 in the morning to get on a (supposedly) eight hour bus ride to Songpan. We’d booked our trip quite a few days in advance, which meant that we had the lucky privilege of sitting in the front seats behind the driver. This gave us the ability to see every time the driver pulled into oncoming traffic to overtake another driver, to be deafened by the ridiculously loud horn that he used basically every time he saw any living or non-living thing on the road, and to watch him clean his ear with a toothpick. I think I was the only one who had the joy of watching that, but it did explain why the horn didn’t seem to bother him.
The trip took ten hours rather than eight (the return journey was twelve). The extended time was due mainly to massive damage on the road caused by the earthquake that happened last May. Nearly every 100 meters, one lane of the road would be so damaged that the traffic was brought down to one lane. Given the general tendency of Chinese drivers to ignore the concept of yielding, there were quite frequently standoffs. Where two drivers would drive towards each other in one lane and wait for the other one to move. Also, whenever there was a backup of cars, caused by an area in the road with only one lane, smaller cars would try to get to the front of the backup, quite effectively blocking any possibility of the oncoming traffic getting through once the stand off ended.
Despite all that, the ride was fascinating. Besides the damage to the roads, the earthquake had caused major damage to nearly every village, town and city we passed. I know that this may seem obvious after all the news coverage last year, but it was quite startling to see it in person. There were thousands of temporary housing buildings and tents throughout the valley. Cement mixers littered the sides of the roads. In some of the towns, you could basically see everybody working to rebuild the damaged buildings. In most cases, there were some very impressive new homes already built and it seemed that there was always a brand new school finished. Rockslides were also quite common, adding to the hair-raising nature of the drive.
In the end, we obviously did make it to Songpan. And as everyone promised the ride (up and back) was totally worth the experience of horse trekking and visiting Songpan. Plus, we at least didn’t have a longer drive. We heard tales of a six hour bus journey from another area in Sichuan to Chengdu turning into a 30 hour “drive”.
Photos and more on Songpan are coming soon.