Three Days In Danba Excursion to Danba
Three Days In Danba. From Kanding, Danba is approached through a deep valley where the road runs along- side a fast-flowing river. As you draw close to Danba, the first watch towers begin to appear on the hills on the other side of the river.
The towers look a bit like industrial chimneys, but they are rectangular rather than round, though some of them have 6, 8 or even 13 corners. Some stand alone, while others form clusters. Their height ranges from 30 to 60 metres, the former being the most common.
Not much is known about the origin and use of these mysterious structures, which apparently can only be found in very few Tibetan areas. They are estimated to be between 200 and a thousand years old, and were almost certainly used for military purposes and to provide shelter for the population in times of danger.
The Aba prefecture of Sichuan province
However, the fact that some of them are huddled together in groups seems to contradict any military utility as look-out posts. Another theory therefore suggests that they might have been some kind of status symbols; their construction possibly related to the birth of a son. The Aba prefecture of Sichuan province seems to have the most, in particular the area of Danba and nearby Badi, where some 300 to 400 specimen remain. Many are still in an excellent state of preservation and can be visited easily.
Danba landscape and first towers
Danba itself is a rather ordinary small town with a great setting at the confluence of two rivers and towered by walls of rock. The town boasts several hotels, a number of small eateries, lots of shops and even a supermarket, as well as friendly inhabitants. Moreover, the surrounding countryside has a wealth of architectural gems to offer.
not really having a clue about what to see or do in Danba
Armed only with a couple of brochures we had picked up at the Tourism Fair in Kanding, and not really having a clue about what to see or do in Danba, we approached a local taxi driver and hired him for 130 Yuan for the afternoon. He suggested that we should start our visit at a Tibetan village called Jiaju. The ride up there is beautiful: as you climb up the winding roads, the green hills surrounding you are dotted with small Tibetan settlements and punctuated by watch towers.
The architecture here is quite distinct, the farmhouses are sturdy square blocks, built in layers around an enclosed courtyard, and topped by towers and little turrets. The turrets and some of the layers are whitewashed, lending the buildings the wholesome appearance of cakes. In the available literature, this type of settlements is referred to as “stockaded” villages, though they are not surrounded by any actual fences. Perhaps “fortified” villages would be a more accurate description, given the high walls, narrow window slits and enclosed courtyards of the individual dwellings.
When we arrived at Jiaju, we were surprised to find that we had to buy a ticket to enter, and that the village had been listed as a potential Unesco Heritage Site. It is a stunningly beautiful place, though perhaps a little too perfect for our liking. The houses are clean, spacious and beautifully decorated: the frames of doors and windows are carved and painted in bright colours, flowers liven up the courtyards and small prayer-flags flutter between the turrets. Nowadays, many of these houses double up as guesthouses and offer meals.
However beautiful the village, the real highlight of our visit to Jaiju was when we stumbled by coincidence on the local residents, rehearsing their songs and dances for the Danba festival, which was going to be held a few days later. The performers were wearing their traditional costumes. In the case of the women this consisted of a long black skirt with embroidered borders and belt, plus a white blouse with oversized, trailing sleeves, used for enhancing movements when dancing.
Their heads were covered in black embroidered cloths too, and they wore lots of bulky jewellery in which amber, coral and turquoise stones predominated. Though they looked very pretty and authentic, we were amused to see blue jeans and t-shirts popping out from underneath most of the young girls outfits!
the men were swaggering about in Chinese tunics and baggy trousers
Meanwhile the men were swaggering about in Chinese tunics and baggy trousers, tucked into red and black hand-made leather boots with pointy, upturned toes. Oversized heavy Tibetan coats, with the characteristically long sleeves, were tied and draped around their waists or shoulders, while their heads were covered by curious, fur-lined pot-shaped hats with upturned flaps, or Mexican-style sombreros.
Rehearsals were being held on a small, stony platform, with the audience reclining on the grass of the surrounding hills. All performances, regardless of quality, were cheered and applauded: the young girls, twirling around gracefully, as well as the serious old men who pranced up and down the stage stiffly and gravely, thinking they were dancing. However, the show was definitely stolen by a group of squat little grannies who did a disco dance, albeit in slow motion, to American pop-music blaring from a couple of primitive speakers.
the village of Suo Po
After this, we back-tracked to the village of Suo Po, which is only a couple of kilometres away from Danba and has a superb group of watch towers. To reach the village, you have to cross a wood and steel suspension bridge, completely covered in prayer-flags, flapping furiously in the wind. However, once you are there, Suo Po is the real thing; the village is rural, beautiful and unchanged. It seems prosperous enough, with lots of orchards and vegetable gardens, and plenty of livestock, such as chickens, pigs and even yaks, wandering around. The old farmsteads are huge, multi-storied buildings with court yards and flat roofs. Some of them serve as guesthouses too.
the views from the top were spectacular
To get to the group of watch towers we had to climb up through the village, picking our way carefully over rocks and shrubs, accompanied by some village children and a couple of stray dogs. One of the topmost towers is hexagonal and perfectly preserved. Two local boys unlocked one of the towers for us, showing us how to work the ancient locks, as well as the remains of some ancient paintings, barely visible in the dark room at the base. They also allowed us to climb the tower, first on sturdy wooden ladders, but finally balancing precariously on a tree trunk with footholds carved out in it. However, the views from the top were spectacular and most certainly worth the effort.
Our destination was Badi
The next day we spent again with our driver, this time paying him 180 Yuan for the whole day. Our destination was Badi, one of the villages we had been told about by Mr Lee, the famous tourist guide in Chengdu (see the Chengdu section). Badi is no more than 35 kilometres from Danba, tucked a way in another valley, accessible only along a pretty poor stretch of road. In fact, the year before there had been major landslides at Badi and the surrounding area, killing more than 50 people, including 4 tourists from Shanghai, an event we were blissfully unaware of.
On the way to Badi we passed the unremarkable white-tile village of Ba Wang, which houses a highly recommendable ancient temple and monastery that the monks claim is more than 800 years old. The carved and painted columns topped by animal heads, such as bears and stags, lend the temple a mystic and medieval atmosphere, which is quite moving.
The real treasure of the monastery
The real treasure of the monastery is to be found in a back gallery, guarded by a heavy curtain: there are some large colourful wooden statues, but more importantly, the walls behind the statues are covered in ancient, beautiful frescos depicting Buddhist scenes. Unfortunately, most of the frescoes are extremely deteriorated and the monks have no way or funding to restore them.
Badi, when we eventually got there, turned out to be not so much a village as an area, covering a group of small hamlets on both sides of the river and connected by swaying plank bridges with colourful prayer flags. The countryside is incredibly green, lush and fertile, with abundant fruit trees: you can find apples, pears, pomegranates, as well as chestnuts. There are endless opportunities for hiking in this area. You can choose, as we did, to go along the river from village to village, or climb into the mountains where there are more villages, watch-towers and breath-taking views.
“Model Family House for Tourist Reception”
Returning towards Danba, we stopped for lunch at what was called a “Model Family House for Tourist Reception”; agro-tourism Chinese style . The house was beautifully painted and decorated and boasted a wonderful covered terrace, where we ate a typical Tibetan meal, surrounded by plants and flowers. There were shredded potatoes, dishes of spicy cabbage, fried green peppers, purplish stalk vegetables, and cold noodles.
The old lady, our host, really impressed us by knocking up some tasty vegetation food; especially given that this is real meat-eaters’ paradise. We were particularly partial to the Tibetan flat bread, filled with strong goats’ cheese. Our driver meanwhile was happily tucking into portions of smoky dried pork and belly fat. We washed our feast down with strong local liquor, of which our driver luckily tasted little, and salty yak-butter tea.
Finally, about 6 kilometres outside Danba, we visited the temple at Zhonglu, the biggest and principal monastery in the area. When we arrived, the monks were sitting cross-legged on the floor, eating an unappetising dinner of watery soup, with bits of meat floating in it. In spite of this, they were very welcoming and relaxed about our presence.
Much to our regret
Much to our regret, we had to leave Danba the next day. As we were heading out, just about all the Tibetans from the surrounding villages were making their way into town, dressed in their finest traditional clothes, adults as well as children. It was the Danba festival, and everyone was moving towards the sports stadium for a day of singing and dancing.
We consoled ourselves by saying that having seen the authentic thing at Jia Ju, it couldn’t possibly be as much fun to see it again in a more organised format. What’s more, watching everyone pouring into town for the festivities was good enough entertainment for the day.
Hotel “Mei Ren Gu”, in the centre of town, overlooking the gushing river, is a friendly and clean family-style hotel with its own restaurant in the basement. Rooms are very reasonable at about 80 Yuan, though the toilets are squats.
There are plenty of other places to stay in town, some even looking rather flash. There are small restaurants, snack-bars and shops as well.
There are some direct buses linking Kanding and Danba, but they do not run every day. An alternative solution is to take a share-taxi to Guza for 10 Yuan a person, taking about 30 minutes, and to pick up a mini-van from there, about 35 Yuan for 2 to 3 hours. Returning to Kanding, the situation is similar.
For excursions, it is relatively easy to hire a taxi for a day; expect to pay between 150 and 200 Yuan.