Paul's Travel Pics

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Day of Drama at Mount Siguniang National Park

They say that tastebuds are inextricably connected to fond memories.

Makes sense. We visited some of the most pristine alpine meadows in the world, a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its ecosystem of giant pandas and snow leopards. Yet my most vivid memory from Mount Siguniang was the heavenly aroma of Matsutake Mushrooms.

Yes, Matsutake Mushrooms. The exorbitantly priced delicacy featured prominently in the finest restaurants in Tokyo come every autumn, so beloved that it's called the King of Autumn Flavors in Japanese. Except we're 3000km away from Japan, huddling around a primitive electric heater in a tiny Tibetan-run eatery in the middle of nowhere.

As you can imagine we did NOT come for the Matsutake -- we're simply in the right place (Eastern Tibetan Plateau, 3200m above sea level) at the right time (late autumn, just before the first snow). This was Mount Siguniang National Park in ethnic Tibetan territory, at least 5 hours away from the nearest city.

It was a day when NOTHING went according to plan, starting with our morning ride out of Danba. After a 3-day mini-trip to visit some gorgeous Tibetan villages we decided to move to Mount Siguniang via the county capital of Xiaojin, except scheduled buses had stopped running in the off-season. All we're given was a mysterious cellphone number hooking us up with a certain microvan driver rumoured to be doing the Danba-to-Xiaojin run.

So we called the mysterious cellphone number as told, and at 08:15 stuffed ourselves into a clammy microvan with five local Tibetan heading in the same general direction. Some would hop off halfway and others would hop on, but at the end we promptly arrived at dusty little Xiaojin for just RMB 30 (CAD$5.4) per person.

Getting to Xiaojin was just half the journey -- the next scheduled bus to Mount Siguniang wouldn't depart until noon. Miraculously we flagged down yet another microvan, this one heading for Mount Siguniang (a.k.a. Rilong) carrying another group of Tibetans, for only RMB 20 per person! We couldn't have planned it any better, but by 11:30 we actually made it to the hotel we reserved.

Except nothing went as planned -- our hotel's front gate was found chained with a giant padlock, apparently shut down without canceling our reservation. Our disappointment was profound as months of careful planning had failed to secure a reliable 1-star hotel room in this remote town. Thankfully our microvan driver was so compassionate that he took his own time to chauffer us around, and miraculously we did find another hotel room at a reasonable walk-in price. It's been a tough morning, but at least it all worked out so far.

But this is China, and things can quickly change. We originally planned to stay for two nights, spending the first afternoon horseback riding in Haizi Valley and the second day touring Shuangqiao Valley. Except we found out upon arrival that the Tibetan horsemen had apparently closed shop for the winter season starting early November. While it was a shame not being able to ride those alpine trails I had been so looking forward to, we had to move on to Shuangqiao Valley.

We weren't sure if we had enough time left for Shuangqiao Valley, but we managed to flag down a local SUV and paid the owner RMB 20 for the short drive to the ticket booth. We barely made it on one of the last National Park shuttles to enter the valley at 15:30, sitting on an empty bus alongside four people: the driver, a guide, and just two other visitors.

Shuangqiao is one of three long and narrow valleys officially open to visitors of the National Park, and the only one accessible without long treks or horses and thus doable in a half day. 34km of well-maintained mountain roads ultimately led to an exhaustingly high elevation of 3800m, a country of soaring vultures and stubborn yaks.

Everywhere we toured we're reminded by whitewashed Stupas that the valley has been the ancestral homeland of Tibetan nomads, long before it became a National Park and eventually a World Heritage site. Primitive huts remain scattered along the valley, serving as seasonal bases for modern day cowboys and their yaks.

We would have taken advantage of the extensive boardwalks along the valley's prettiest spots if we had a full day. But the moment we decided to visit Shuangqiao Valley in the afternoon, it was essentially a decision to leave town the next morning as we had no intent of hiking Haizi Valley without horses. And the third valley? Judging by reports from the Chinese side of the Internet the Changping Valley was probably the most arduous of the three, and we didn't bother to find out.

The sweeping scenery of wooly yaks grazing on golden alpine pastures was especially charming under the warmth of the setting sun. Shuangqiao Valley had its photogenic side, though it's not quite at the same world-class level as Huanglong or Jiuzhaigou in my humble opinion. But it's still a worthwhile stopover between the Danba Canyons and Dujiangyan on the Chengdu flood plains.

At one point I tried to sneak closer to some semi-domesticated yaks for a better photo, but our driver yelled to summon me back. Apparently the yaks were known to be aggressive against strangers and a few unsuspecting tourists had been gorged. I had to be thankful that I didn't become the next victim, especially on a day full of other mishaps.

It was almost 18:00 when we returned to the park entrance, only to be mobbed by a number of Tibetan hawkers for various local produces. Most prominent were the typical Yak Jerky or the highly treasured Caterpillar Fungus, but we were most tempted by an offer of dried Matsutake Mushrooms for a substantial RMB 750 (CAD$134) per 500g. I have to confess that I considered haggling, but sane reasoning took over and I realized that I had absolutely no idea how to distinguish a real Matsutake in its dried form.

As mentioned we walked into Jiarong Yangguang Hotel at noon and were lucky to get a 2-star room at the same price (RMB 238) as pre-booking online. Sleeping at 3200m above sea level gave us our first taste of mild altitude sickness in the form of rapid heartbeats and difficulties in breathing. In retrospect missing Haizi Valley was probably a blessing in disguise, as we returned to a much lower elevation the next day.

In terms of restaurants we arrived with no expectations for the townful of eateries catering to tourists rather than locals. But we did stumble upon a couple of recommendable choices.

This was a tiny noodles house run by a young couple from Chengdu, specializing in the peasant favorite of Feichang Fen (Rice Noodles with Pork Intestines). The tripes came without any hint of the weird aftertaste typical of the frozen stuff, and the soup was appetizingly spicy at a manageable level. It was a quick, cheap and enjoyable lunch, but it was our restaurant in the evening that really stole the show.

Bill for Two Persons
Rice Noodles with Pork Intestines (Large)RMB 13
Rice Noodles with Spareribs (Large)RMB 13
TOTAL before tipsRMB 26 (CAD$4.6)

This hole-in-the-wall eatery is one I would WHOLEHEARTEDLY RECOMMEND to travelers passing by Mount Siguniang. Xiangbala Fandian was a tiny place run by a Tibetan lady and her elementary-school-aged daughter, and here we had one of our most memorable meals of our 18-day trip.

My eyes lit up when we saw Matsutake Mushrooms on the menu. MATSUTAKE MUSHROOMS!! In the middle of nowhere on the Tibetan Plateau! We started with the pictured broth of seasonal wild mushrooms resembling some sorts of chanterelles and porcinis. After one sip of the soup I was fully convinced of the excellent quality of the ingredients -- you really can't judge a restaurant by its storefront.

When I ordered the Matsutake I honestly expected about 5 slices, based on my previous experience in Japan where a 3000yen (CAD$32) order of Yaki Matsutake would typically come in 4-5 slices. While this was rural China where prices should be much cheaper, I didn't know what to expect of our RMB 80 (CAD$14.3) order of Matsutake and Tibetan Cured Ham.

But the portion was much larger than I dared to dream. There must have been at least 20 slices of Matsutake! And I probably had about 15 as my lovely wife saw the way I craved this elusive ingredient and let me finish most of it.

Looking at this picture I still remember vividly that sweet aroma of pine needles in the Matsutake, accompanied by the deep piquancy of Tibetan Ham. It was easily the best mushroom dish I've ever had, in terms of both quality and quantity, and the one dish that made our mini-trip to the Eastern Tibetan Plateau worthwhile. Yes, it's that good.

At the end we paid RMB 124 (CAD$22) for a meal of Matsutake and Porcini that would surely cost RMB 500 in Beijing, and probably upwards of 15000 yen (CAD$160) in Tokyo. My only regret was in listening to the owner's description of her proudest creation -- Slow-Braised Whole Duck with Matsutake -- which we would have no chance of tasting as we're leaving town the next morning.

Bill for Two Persons
Matsutake Mushrooms with Tibetan Cured HamRMB 80
Broth of Assorted Wild MushroomsRMB 25
Stir-Fried SpinachRMB 19
TOTAL before tipsRMB 124 (CAD$22.1)

On a day of theatrical twists and turns there was one more surprise to come. Chatting with the restaurant owner I mentioned our plan to leave for Dujiangyan the next day, the exorbitant quote of RMB 900 (CAD$160) for a private taxi, and our disappointment at the lack of a bus station in town. The owner listened quietly and smiled, before she finally let out the punchline ...

"I'm the bus ticket agent in this town," she said simply.

So that's the fairytale ending ... an implausible coincidence that could only be explained as blessings from above. We returned the next morning for a breakfast of Tibetan Cheese Curd Buns while waiting for our bus, which would purposely stop in front of the restaurant expecting us. We have much to thank our gracious hostess, for the delectable Matsutake Mushrooms and for delivering us safely to our next destination.

For fellow travelers visiting Mount Siguniang, the location of this ticket agency/restaurant is right below Jiarong Yangguang Hotel on the main highway, just before the turn-off to Changping Valley. As of late 2014 our bus to Dujiangyan arrived at 08:10 and cost RMB 100. A different bus to Chengdu passed by at 08:00. And while you're in town, do your tastebuds a favor and don't miss the Matsutake if you happen to be visiting in the autumn!

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Suopo - San Gimignano of the Tibetan Plateau?

Should there be a San Gimignano in the far east, this remote Tibetan village would be my obvious pick.

Like its world-famous Italian cousin, Suopo is a hilly commune of medieval skyscrapers dating from the 15th Century and beyond, passed down through generations of descendents. Defending against invasions since time immemorial are geometric stone towers reaching 30m or more in height, spectacular specimens of indigenous engineering no matter what region of the world you're in.

But instead of having well-connected tourist destinations like Florence and Siena for neighbors, little-known Suopo is nestled within the secluded canyons of Danba, deep in the eastern Tibetan Plateau. For centuries these magnificent watchtowers remained little known to the outside world, even the Imperial Chinese who invaded in the 1700's then left the fiercely independent tribesmen mostly unperturbed. The first Europeans didn't arrive until the 1910's, centuries after discovering the Americas.

Calling this locale remote is an understatement even in the 21st Century. Getting here was half the adventure for us -- 8 hours of grueling bus ride to reach the Tibetan outpost of Dartsedo, then another 8 hours by private microvan to reach Danba where we settled into a village guesthouse for a couple nights. Breathtaking villages abound in this rugged country of deep gorges, and it wasn't until our last afternoon when we finally made it to Suopo.

Our Tibetan driver Jiangchu was at his best again, negotiating numerous hairpin turns as we descended from Zhonglu Village towards the valley floor where all roads led to a confluence of five raging rivers. Our microvan proceeded along the riverbank until the road became practically impassable and the local police flagged us down. We ended up walking the last couple of kilometers.

For such reasons Suopo has managed to remain virtually unknown even among domestic Chinese tourists, its accessibility being constantly jeopardized by landslides from monsoon rainstorms and frequent earthquakes. In fact we barely missed a 6.3 earthquake by merely two weeks, an uncanny indication of just how seismically unstable this region is.

Conversely these frequent seismic activities also testify to the technical aptitude of ancient Tibetan engineers. The oldest standing tower is likely 1500 years old, having survived countless earthquakes, military invasions and tribal warfare through the centuries. Most of the towers we came across had rectangular bases, though we also had a glimpse of a star-shaped one in Suopo.

With or without watchtowers, this traditional homeland of Gyalrong Tibetans is known for its distinct architecture forms -- whitewashed stone houses, flat roofs, all adorned with stylized yaks protruding skyward at the roof corners to appease the spirits of the four directions. We stayed in one such house with a Tibetan family for two nights as a quick immersion into the local tribal culture, and came out richly rewarded.

These several days of wandering about in Danba completely changed my impression of Tibetan religions and languages. Tibetan Buddhism, as dominant as it may be in Lhasa, did little to displace local animism beliefs such as the worship of the Sacred Mountain of Murdo here. On the other hand it shocked me that villages several kilometers apart spoke mutually incomprehensible dialects of Tibetan, such that the foreign tongue of Sichuanese Chinese had taken over as the lingua franca of these ancient lands.

In Suopo we walked past an elderly lady in traditional Gyalrong costumes and a wicker basket backpack. As usual I paid respects with a Tibetan greeting of "zhaxidele," but to our surprise the old granny returned the smile with a "hello" of her own. These local tribes aren't as isolated as outsiders may think, and are probably as well-connected through the internet as any typical Chinese family in Shanghai.

On the way back we spotted the most impressive Tibetan watchtower, a gargantuan stone structure at least 50m in height, erected on a precipitous hillside overlooking the furious whitewaters of the Dadu River below. Why on earth did the local chieftains commission such a monumental engineering project, and what was there to defend on these barren and slippery 60-degree slopes? That's something even Jiangchu couldn't answer.

By mid afternoon Jiangchu walked us back to his van ... and at the same time picked up yet another local villager and made a few more RMB along the route. In Danba Town we bid farewell to him and his trusty microvan, paying him RMB 600 for two days' work as previously agreed. He didn't try to split the profits from our sneak entrance into Zhonglu Village after all, or perhaps he was embarrassed to do so in front of the female villager still in the back seat.

We spent our last night in Danba away from the unspoiled village of Jiaju, and moved to the tired and unremarkable county town for reasons of practicality. My wife's lingering flu symptoms called for a warmer room and hotter shower, and we needed to find a way to reach our next destination of Mount Siguniang next morning.

Built along a narrow strip of flat land along the Dadu River canyon, Danba Town was as dusty and nondescript as any other county town we encountered in China except for the flamboyant costumes of the Gyalrong (and occasionally Khampa) Tibetans. There's a new pedestrianized section at the middle of town where local moms would shop for grocery in their westernized high heels and traditional Gyalrong headdresses, making for a great place to people watch.

We took advices from the locals and had dinner at a highly recommended but difficult to find restaurant, hidden on the second floor of an apartment building on a main road. Wanglaowu Fandian was a no-nonsense eatery serving the local variant of Sichuanese-Tibetan dishes at family-friendly prices. The pictured appetizer of Sliced Yak in Soy Marinade (Lu Maoniurou) was the most expensive dish at just RMB 40 (CAD$7.1), and the portion was large enough that we saved the leftovers for our tour of Mount Siguniang the next day.

We arrived during the mushroom season of late autumn and all kinds of wild and exotic fungi were available on the menu. This dish of Stir-Fried Wild Mushrooms was one of many mushroom dishes we had on our 18-day journey. It wasn't bad, but it would pale in comparison to the sublime Matsutake Mushrooms we would encounter on the next night.

The best dish of the night turned out to be the Sichuanese classic of Shredded Pork in Fish Fragrance Sauce. There was no hint of the fiery spiciness we half-expected from anything Sichuanese, but a delightful gravy of dark soy and aged vinegar. We ended up with a four course dinner that the two of us couldn't finish, and paid only RMB 110 (CAD$20).

For anyone heading to Danba looking for authentic local dishes at reasonable prices, Wanglaowu Fandian is located on Sanchahe Nanlu road across from the Zhaxi Zhuokang Youth Hostel. There is no storefront at ground level -- you need to head up a small flight of stairs to find the restaurant on second floor.

Bill for Two Persons
Sliced Yak in Soy MarinadeRMB 40
Stir-Fried Wild MushroomsRMB 38
Shredded Pork in Fish Fragrance SauceRMB 18
Tomatoes and Eggs BrothRMB 12
Rice for TwoRMB 2
TOTAL before tipsRMB 110 (CAD$19.4)

Our double room at Jinzhu Hotel felt like a 5-star Hilton after spending the previous two nights in a Tibetan guesthouse. While the price of RMB 230 (CAD$41; booked thru two nights before) wasn't the cheapest, we had learned that simple pleasures such as 24-hour hot water and electric heater shouldn't be taken for granted.

Hot showers and a warm bed was just what we needed to recharge ourselves for the next leg of our journey. I was somewhat disappointed to find no scheduled bus to Mount Siguniang or Xiaojin, though the bus station staff did provide me with the cellphone number of a local microvan driver running the Danba-to-Xiaojin route. At Xiaojin we would still need to find ourselves another microvan to reach Mount Siguniang. Oh great.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Tibetan Villages of Danba Canyon - Part 3: Zhonglu Village

Based out of a village guesthouse in Jiaju, we spent our third day in the Danba Canyons exploring other villages further afield. Our Tibetan driver Jiangchu awaited us outside our guesthouse as usual, though our perception of him had to be readjusted after the school bus incident the previous afternoon.

Our itinerary for the day also changed due to my wife's lingering flu symptoms, possibly exacerbated by the altitude. Her prescription medicine from a Traditional Chinese Medicine doctor in Shangli had run out the previous day, making a pharmacy run at the county town of Danba our first priority that morning. The pharmacist wasn't quite as helpful as we hoped, and it was already 10:45 when we finally reached our original destination of Zhonglu village.

Zhonglu, along with neighboring Jiaju, Niega and Suopo, were among the historic villages of Danba elevated to China's tentative list for UNESCO World Heritage Sites. While not yet household names even within China, these charming hamlets of Tibetan stone houses and ancient watchtowers are attracting an increasing number of mostly domestic visitors, especially in the autumn foliage season.

We arrived on November 10, near the tail end of foliage season at this alpine altitude. The hordes of Chinese tourist that we feared were nowhere to be found, and neither was the ticket collector at the checkpoint. "It's your lucky day," concluded Jiangchu. We just saved RMB 60 on entrance fees, though I was slightly worried that Jiangchu would later try to bargain and split the spoils with us.

The only access to the village was through a violently rutted and potholed dirt road, though this was nothing new to us after yesterday's rough ride to Niega. Our microvan crawled up about 400m in elevation along a steep switchback before arriving in front of the most massive Tibetan farmhouse we had ever seen.

"This is the home of the village chief," explained Jiangchu, "and the only authorized guesthouse here." A bell rang in my head -- this was our backup choice for a home base before we settled at Gema's house in Jiaju! Tourism infrastructure in these remote villages was still in its infancy, and finding a modestly comfortable room proved quite a challenge. This was one of three best-equipped village guesthouses that I had my eyes on.

Compared with our cozy family-run guesthouse in Jiaju, this ginormous farmhouse was effectively a 30-room hostel with a communal canteen providing half- or even full-board meal service. The atmosphere was rowdy and dorm-like with dozens of Chinese city-dwellers coming to rough it for a day or two, and the rooftop was always teeming with amateur photographers utilizing its strategic position as a viewing platform.

A medieval watchtower-cross-granary dating as far back as the 1300's dominated one side of the farmhouse complex. Walking into a near pitch-dark interior of timber planks and up several flights of precipitous stairs led to a few more beds -- the granary had been converted into a communal sleeping area featuring nothing but a couple of unshaded lightbulbs for illumination and a 1990's CRT TV for entertainment. I don't recall seeing a washroom.

Considered the cultural epicenter of the Danba Canyon, Zhonglu is one of the few villages possessing enough flatland for large scale agriculture. Women in Gyalrong Tibetan apparel could be seen cultivating fields and carrying anything from fresh produce to small children in their wicker basket backpacks. We chatted up an older lady in Chinese and asked about the turnip-like vegetables in her basket, which turned out to be feed for pigs in her basement.

"Don't forget to come back for lunch," Jiangchu reminded us again and again before we went off to hike a small foothill in the village. The oxygen was thin and we had to stay disciplined with our pace, but it was the falling gingko leaves that were truly breathtaking on this glorious autumn day.

While we hoped to gain an unobstructed panorama of the entire village, the deciduous trees were too leafy and we didn't come across a clear shot. Somewhere along our hike, unbeknownst to us until we started our descent back to the village, Jiangchu texted us repeatedly.

"Chi fan le!" he texted in Chinese. Time to eat.

I didn't understand Jiangchu's eagerness to herd us back until we arrived at the communal lunch room -- there were about 8 tables, each seating a separate group of clients cheerfully awaiting the day's offering. "Every table gets the same dishes," said our driver as he surveyed the tables in anticipation, "and there will be no food left for those who arrive late."

Jiangchu's original tactic involved sharing a table with the minimum number of occupants to maximize his share of the dishes, but the Beijingner couple at the table he chose kicked us out. It turned out to be a wise move for everyone involved as we ended up at a completely vacant table, just for three of us.

Dishes consisted mostly of locally grown vegetables such as cucumbers and eggplants, tossed in soy-and-vinegar based marinades or stir-fried with lard in typical rural Sichuanese style. They served no Yak Butter Milk which was understandable -- unlike most Tibetans, the Gyalrong tribesmen in Danba don't even have any yaks at this relatively low elevation.

Meat was considered a premium item in these remote villages, and unlike in the rest of the Tibetan Plateau, the main source of protein in Danba was pork instead of yak. At this point we had no idea how many courses we would get, but the dishes just kept on coming.

One of my memorable discoveries on this trip was how good Chinese lettuce tasted when fresh and organically grown. The Sichuanese have a poetic sounding name for these humble greens -- Fengwei, or Phoenix Tail. The locals believe that it has a cooling effect on the body to balance their fiery Sichuanese spices, but to me I just loved its hint of kale-like bitterness.

My favorite was a dish of Stir-Fried Pork Belly with Cabbages. It wasn't the pork belly that I found irresistible, but the crispy cabbages in a chillied sweet soy glaze. At the end a total of eight dishes arrived, not to mention refillable steamed rice with potato chunks. It was way more than the three of us could finish, at a reasonable cost of RMB 30 per person.

As we got up we glanced over at the Beijingner couple who kicked us off their table ... they cleaned up their eight courses better than the three of us could! Being kicked to a different table was definitely a good idea in retrospect -- we would have been no match in fighting for the food.

After lunch I poked my camera, just out of curiosity, into a few guestrooms where the occupants seemed to have checked out. The Spartan-looking rooms were clean enough and had the basic amenities of a private washroom, TV and Wi-Fi, though air-conditioners / heaters were still too much to ask in a village running mostly on solar electricity.

But our biggest obstacle during trip planning was in securing a room with a Westernized seated toilet, a rarity not only in Tibetan villages but in much of rural China. And to our surprise -- yes, there were a couple of rooms with seated toilets. To us it meant that we could have chosen Zhonglu instead of Jiaju as a home base, each with its own benefits and drawbacks.

Before leaving we climbed up to the rooftop terrace again, enjoying for a final time this pastoral scenery of antique Tibetan farmhouses flanked by soaring watchtowers. I thought about how our trip would have panned out differently had we chosen Zhonglu as our base -- we would have hired a car only for one day trip to Jiaju and Suopo, but probably having to skip Niega. In light of my wife's flu symptoms, I was satisfied with the quiet family guesthouse and comfy mattress we found in Jiaju.

Our microvan descended back to the valley floor, through the same backbreaking dirt roads that had so far prevented most casual tourists from visiting this spectacular and culturally exotic region of Western Sichuan. Jiangchu was in a light-hearted mood and we chatted about pig farming on the way to our final destination in Danba: the village of Suopo and its mysterious skyscraping watchtowers.