Paul's Travel Pics

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.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Tibetan Villages of Danba Canyon - Part 2: Villages of Jiaju and Niega

Basing ourselves out of a Tibetan family guesthouse in Jiaju, we took two full days to properly explore the collection of unique villages along the canyons of Danba. After all it took us more than 16 hours of bus and minivan rides to reach this secluded Shangri-la, and it would be a shame to breeze through in 3 hours like the domestic Chinese tourists do.

Danba. The Kingdom of 1000 Watchtowers. One of the most beautiful villages in China by wide recognition among photographers. THIS was the primary reason for our mini-trip into the Eastern Tibetan Plateau. No other practically reachable destination in Western Sichuan, perhaps with the exception of Larung Gar, captivated my imagination like Danba.

Certainly there were other worthy destinations along our route. The road to Lhagang was famously scenic, and Mount Siguniang was a UNESCO World Heritage Site in its own right. But to me there's something wildly alluring about these whitewashed houses and mysterious watchtowers, and legends of an ancient matriarchal kingdom in these isolated canyons.

Until the 1950's this land had been virtually inaccessible from the outside world, a narrow basin surrounded by impassable mountains taller than the Swiss Alps. Even in this age of 21st Century highways a trip from Chengdu still easily takes 10 hours, before even taking into account frequent landslides in the monsoon season.

As we arrived in the dry season of November, many supposedly paved roads were still in an excavated and muddy state. The road from Lhagang was entirely torn up and rutted beginning from about 20km from Danba, and all the roads leading to the major villages were in no better state. Getting here wasn't easy at all. But we did arrive safely.

It was the authoritative Chinese National Geography magazine that voted Danba one of China's six most beautiful villages and towns. Except Danba isn't one village, but a number of geographically isolated villages scattered over five river gorges conjoined at the centre. While each village was no more than a few kilometers from the next, visiting all these villages turned out to be quite a challenge due to road conditions.

When we consulted our hostess Gema on visiting the four villages we set our sights on, she walked us up to the new government-funded viewing platform for a bird's eye view of the valley, her village of Jiaju and the roads leading to a neighboring village known as Niega.

"You can walk along this mountain road and reach Niega in a few hours," Gema pointed beyond a hilltop lined with 1000-year-old watchtowers, "then take a minivan on the way back." But all these dug-up roads was one big construction zone at the time, and ginormous dump trucks carrying rocks and construction material roamed these narrow switchbacks. I didn't want a strenuous hike with my wife still recovering from a flu, and at the end Gema pulled a few strings to find a private driver for us. That's how we met Jiangchu.

Jiangchu was some sort of relative to Gema, possibly a brother-in-law or cousin on her husband's side. Inheriting the same broad shoulders and tanned skin typical of the local Tibetans, Jiangchu operated another guesthouse about halfway between Jiaju and Niega. While his guesthouse was much harder to reach than Gema's, he did have one advantage -- a scrubby but reliable 8-seater microvan that occasionally carried tourists like us, as well as serving as a village bus for the local school children.

Cost of the private van seemed near exorbitant for the relatively short distances -- RMB 600 for roughly 60km of mountain roads over two full days. The 250km of winding alpine highways from Dartsedo to Danba cost us only RMB 700 in comparison, and the 160km from Songpan to Huanglong to Jiuzhaigou would cost us RMB 500. But this maze of treacherously narrow switchbacks were unnavigable to outsiders, and no sane taxi driver would take the risk of expensive undercarriage damages with 2-metre-diameter potholes. It was a monopoly, and we decided to bite the bullet.

With the luxury of a private van we quickly strategized our tour of four villages over two days, starting on Day 1 with a trip to one of the highest villages in the Danba Canyons, Suopo, known for its magnificent views over the canyon floor. By mid afternoon we would return to our home village of Jiaju for some exploration time.

Our Wuling microvan slowly climbed up the dusty switchbacks, navigating around massive potholes and dump trucks while managing to avoid falling off the unmarked cliffside. The village government had recently constructed several official viewing platforms, and Jiangchu stopped at each one, plus some unofficial ones, to find us the best spots for panoramas. Most of the photos in this article were taken under his escort.

Having a local guide -- and one able to converse in standard Chinese rather than the local Sichuanese dialect -- was instrumental in permitting us a rare glimpse into the daily lives of a minority tribe of Tibetans, found mainly in Danba and its surrounding areas and nowhere else. Tibetans in Tibet call these people outsiders, and there's even debate on whether these locals belong to Tibetans or the Qiang nationality, but that's another story.

This land of windswept canyons has always been the inhabited by the mysterious Gyalrong, a people culturally and linguistically different from the Khampa Tibetans we met in Lhagang and Dartsedo. I knew a little about the major branches of Tibetan ethnicity -- the U-tsang, Khampa and Amdo -- but prior to this trip I honestly hadn't heard of the Gyalrong people.

Our first impression of the Gyalrong was one of mystery and hostility, taken from our previous driver who spoke of a certain fear, or at least apprehension, about his safety on the road when passing through Gyalrong territory after dark. And these were words from a member of the supposedly fierce and powerful Khampa tribe!

But the Gyalrong people we met over the next three days were just as friendly as any others we've come across in any rural Chinese village. They're also the most Sinicized of all the groups of Tibetans we met along the way, starting with their apparent usage of Sichuanese as the language of choice, especially when greeting non-family members.

At the very top of Suopo village Jiangchu stopped the van in a local family's courtyard. "They will charge RMB 5 per head," Jiangchu advised ahead of the visit, "but the view is the best in the entire village." And he's right -- it turned out to be our best panorama of the Danba Canyons, overlooking a 400m drop to a narrow valley dotted with whitewashed houses and chimney-like watchtowers.

Across the canyon narrow footpaths zigzagged up the frighteningly steep mountainside to dizzying heights, where tiny hermitic huts suddenly appeared in the middle of nowhere. "These families escaped from the battles," Jiangchu referred to the civil war of the 1930's, "and have lived up there ever since." The deathly treacherous trail was their only connection to the outside world, and as Jiangchu surmised, "The elderly would never come down again."

Meanwhile the host family was busy milling their annual corn harvest into flour, for both cornbread and pig feed. The friendly hostess gave us a bunch of sweet round pears from her orchard for free, and we reciprocated by purchasing a few bottled drinks from the makeshift grocery store her daughter operated.

The elevation here at the top of Suopo was no more than 2400m -- still worrisome for us coming from sea level but a joke to most Tibetans. The next major town of Lhagang for instance stands at 3700m, even higher than the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. This is one of the lowest valleys in the entire Tibetan Plateau with its unique microclimate, resulting in a vastly different cultural landscape.

Instead of engaging in nomadic herding like most rural Tibetans, natives of Danba have for centuries converted their steep canyons into workable terraced fields for crops. And instead of wool-producing yaks, the locals breed the same domesticated yellow oxen as the Han Chinese do for tilling soil in their fields. Gema's family had one that kept eyeing us whenever we walked past the guesthouse entrance.

We had to be thankful for the free pears as we arrived too late for a proper lunch at Suopo village. Jiangchu parked the van outside Suopo Elementary School, still full of students at the time, and proceeded to look for a teahouse for refreshments.

This Gyalrong woman in traditional garb struck a conversation with Jiangchu and welcomed us into her home for snacks and tea. I would have never found this improvised teahouse by myself -- there was absolutely no signage aside from a handwritten advertisement on the exterior wall for flat tire repairs.

As unlikely as it seemed from the outside, this apparently was the communal teahouse where students and villagers would drop by for tea and cheap eats. Traditional Yak Butter Milk flowed as soon as we sat down at a table, and Jiangchu observed my wife's first sip of the salty beverage with amusement. I did enjoy the buttery smoothness in the tea, though I declined a second cup for concern of intestinal reactions.

Jiangchu politely left the last four Pork Baozi remaining in the kitchen to us, having nothing but Yak Butter Tea for himself. I think we paid for two cups of Yak Butter Tea and four Baozi with RMB 7, certainly one of our cheapest lunches anywhere in China. The portion left us slightly hungry though, and we filled up later in the afternoon with organic apples (RMB 3 for 500g!) we bought from a villager lady in Jiaju.

Opting for some private exploration time around Suopo village, we went for a stroll after lunch and asked Jiangchu to come fetch us along the main route towards Jiaju. When we saw his van again we were surprised to find the backseats overloaded with elementary school students. Our creative driver managed to squeeze out a few extra Yuan turning our chartered van into a school bus!

By mid afternoon we arrived back at our guesthouse in Jiaju. Jiangchu promised to return next morning and escort us to the villages of Zhonglu and Suopo, then carried on delivering his vanload of afterschool students along the potholed road towards Danba town.

For the rest of the afternoon we would explore the village of Jiaju by ourselves, hiking up to a restored watchtower by the village entrance then down to the next hamlet where a village party was taking place. We were surprised to find a nearly empty guesthouse upon our return, the 17 Beijingners having all departed and leaving the entire house to Gema's family and the two of us. My wife's cough wasn't getting any better as the evening was even colder than the first night, and we decided out of practicality to move to Danba town the next day.