We discover the delights of Danba, a picturesque Tibetan region in Sichuan with soaring architecture.
Perched some 2,000 metres above a steep slope overlooking Danba’s verdant river valley, we take in a breathtaking landscape of colourful Tibetan-style homes topped with spires alongside hearty vegetable crops. But what really catches our eyes are the dozens of stone watchtowers that dot this area, once known as the Kham region of ancient Tibet.
Danba, located in the Garzê Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of western Sichuan province about 350 kilometres west of Chengdu, is known as ‘the land of a thousand watchtowers’. Built more than 500 years ago, Danba’s towers, which rise to heights of up to 60 metres, were not only used for protection, but also reflected a family’s wealth and status.
On the surface, Danba town itself feels a lot like other working-class,Tibetan-dominated towns in western Sichuan. The streets are narrow and dusty. The shops look as slow and tired as their owners. Tibetan farmers guide supply-laden mules up and down the narrow dirt roads stretching into the countryside and people wearing traditional Tibetan robes and wicker-basket backpacks create a slow and steady bustle to the downtown area. But travellers don’t come to Danba to see the town; they come for the region’s unique ethnic villages, breathtaking mountains and – yes – its watchtowers.
The nearby villages of Zhonglu, Jiaju, and Suopo are each perched on their own mountainside, only 20 minutes apart from each other. Despite this, each one has its own distinct architecture, culture and aesthetic that has been preserved over hundreds of years. Our driver explained that Western tourists preferred visiting a certain village that was less popular with Chinese tourists. He promised to take us to both and see how we fared.
On our way to Zhonglu, our 25-year-old driver confirms the rumours we had heard about Danba being known as the ‘valley of the beauties’: Danba’s women have a reputation for being some of the most aesthetically pleasing in China. Unfortunately, he says, many of the women have left Danba for more lucrative opportunities as restaurant greeters, KTV hostesses and office assistants in bigger cities such as Chengdu. He adds that we should have visited during Chinese New Year, which is when they return. Sure enough, we don’t glimpse any of the valley’s beautiful women during our visit.
As our cab climbs up the pothole-ridden dirt road into the village, we pass a steady stream of cows, dogs, chickens, and circa-1950 tractors with fully exposed front engines billowing black smoke. Like Jiaju and Suopo, real working farmers continue to live off the land at Zhonglu, which gives this tourist destination a genuine element of authenticity. To get a good sense of what village life on a mountainside is like, visitors can stay overnight at any number of guesthouses in each village.
Our driver, who is in a great mood because a sacred mountain nearby has been enveloped in clouds forming a shape like a Tibetan ceremonial scarf – a good omen, apparently – takes us to a watchtower owned by a friend. The tall stone tower stands in the middle of the central house, which has two domes on the roof. Patches of dried corn kernels and thick chunks of smoked meat hang, drying, on a clothesline, and in the middle of the courtyard stands a water kettle, surrounded by metal reflectors that use the sun’s powerful rays to bring the water to a boil.
We begin to ascend the tower on a rather precarious ladder that has been whittled from a tree trunk. There is no one specific tower that visitors are recommended to climb, and many owners will make theirs available for a small fee. Such payments are well worth the money for the sweeping view over the valley, especially on a clear day.
Each of the villages has its own style of housing that differs in shape, size and colour from its neighbours, making a trip to each well worthwhile. After visiting both Jiaju and Zhonglu, it is clear that Zhonglu is our favourite, which confirms the driver’s suspicions that we are more Western than Chinese. He explains that Chinese people prefer the painted white houses of Jiaju to the sombre stone abodes in Zhonglu – but we can’t resist those rustic, dilapidated homes in all their faded glory.
Where to stay Situated in Danba town, with helpful staff who are experienced with foreigners, Zha Xi Zhuo Kang Backpackers Hostel (0836 352 1806) has private rooms from 100RMB.
How to get there Return flights to Chengdu with Sichuan Airlines (booked through www.elong.net) cost from 2,130RMB (including taxes and surcharges). From Chengdu it’s normally a six-hour bus ride (140RMB) to Kanding, but at the time of writing it had been extended to nine hours due to diversions caused by the Sichuan earthquake. From Kanding, a four-hour bus (110RMB) takes you to Danba. Hiring a cab to visit all three villages costs around 300RMB.