Intro to Danba, China
Have you ever been to a destination that during the journey to get there you thought to yourself, “This better be worth it!”? Well, Danba is definitely one of those places. Leaving Chengdu on a bus before the sun came up, we headed northwest to Danba. Unless you have your own transportation, the only way to reach this far-flung town is by coach bus and it’s roughly a twelve hour ride (don’t believe it if they tell you 9-10!) through some unforgiving roads. The town lies in a valley near the east border of Ganzi province. Snow-capped mountains tower in the distance over the lower grasslands and valleys. The area is known as the “Kingdom of Watchtowers” and also as “Beauty Valley” for both its landscapes and its pretty ladies!
Danba was the first city in China that didn’t feel like the Han were the dominant majority. The people, principally ethnic Tibetans, dressed in more colorful and decorative clothing. The buildings on the main road of Danba town may be the cookie cutter construction of steel and cement, but you don’t have to look far to the outlying villages for some gorgeous and unique architecture.
Mysterious Danba Watchtowers
In Western Sichuan and Tibet there are hundreds of mysterious structures built of stone, brick and timber. Some date to 1700 years ago, and no one is quite sure of their original purpose. Were they really watchtowers? Defensive structures? Status symbols? Was there some religious meaning? Danba, believe it or not, is one of the most accessible places to explore a number of well-preserved towers. Some are over 100 feet tall. Many are star-shaped, an anti-earthquake technique also seen in India, Iran and Afghanistan. To find the ones closest to town, walk east along the river. Shortly you will encounter a bridge with wood planking for pedestrians and motorbikes, adorned with countless Tibetan prayer flags. Cross here and then head up the hill toward a small village. By now there should be a tower or two in sight. You will most likely encounter cows wandering around and pigs, some MUCH larger than others. Have a wander around this sleepy cluster of homes and enjoy the views of the surrounding countryside. When you want to head back just remember the river is at the bottom of the hill and you will be just fine. The village of Suopo is three or four miles from Danba and features about 80 towers, some standing and some in ruins.
Tibetan and Qiang Villages
The region around Danba is known for some of the most beautiful ethnic villages in China. We visited Jiaju Village, a place seemingly untouched by time, except for increasing numbers of tourists, of course. The town lies north up a narrow, winding road from Danba town. Jiaju is a Gyarong village. Gyarong people are Tibetan, mostly farmers, with their own unique traditions and style of dress. Any taxi in town will be happy to take you there and you will need to pay a small fee to enter the village upon arrival. Let yourself get lost along the maze-like paths. The terraced hillside is filled with maroon and white, traditional Tibetan homes among vast fruit orchards filled with pear and apple trees. The bottom of the house is usually used for livestock, the cooking area and a sitting area. The next level up has bedrooms. Roofs are flat, and there always seemed to be a lot of activity happening up there such as drying grains and storage. Zhonglu is another popular village to visit. Trips including a homestay with a local family can be easily arranged from Danba.
Jumping off to Tagong and China’s Southwest
Danba has long been a rest-stop on the circuit of exploration of China’s exotic southwest. For us, we head further into the Tibetan Plateau to the village of Tagong. This was one of our favorite stops in China. Ask around about a shared van heading in that direction as there aren’t any larger public vehicles that go out that far. On the way, catch a glimpse of Maoniugou, a breathtaking valley right along the river. Here is the account of our (arduous) odyssey from Danba to Tagong.
Know any often-overlooked places people should be sure not to skip? Tell us about them in the comments section!