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 Marinade||RMB 40|
|Stir-Fried Wild Mushrooms||RMB 38|
|Shredded Pork in Fish Fragrance Sauce||RMB 18|
|Tomatoes and Eggs Broth||RMB 12|
|Rice for Two||RMB 2|
|TOTAL before tips||RMB 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 Elong.com 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.