The reason to stop in SONGPAN, 320km north of Chengdu, is to spend a few days horse-trekking through the surrounding hills, a richly Tibetan region that harbours hot springs and waterfalls, alpine grassland plateaus, and permanently icy mountains. The town itself – also known as Songzhou – guards the neck of a valley, built up against a stony ridge to the west and surrounded on the remaining three sides by eight-metre-high stone walls. Though partly a tourist town, Songpan's shops, stocked with handmade woollen blankets, fur-lined jackets, ornate knives, saddles, stirrups, bridles and all sorts of jewellery, cater primarily to local Tibetans and Qiang.
Shunjiang Horse Treks (Tel:013909043513), on the main road between the bus station and the north gate, charge around ¥450 a person for two- to four-day horse-riding trips. Accommodation is in tents, and the guides are attentive, though prepare for extreme cold and tasteless food.