Tuesday, November 4, 2008


The next leg of our journey was Chengdu to Danba, a small town known for its beautiful villages, minority Qiang and Tibetan culture, and especially watch towers. We had been vaguely thinking of a Yangtzee cruise if we chose the Chongqing route, and when I think Yangtze I think Baiji, so the thought wasn't far from the top, and sitting in the bus from Chegdu to Danba, the Baiji and Douglas Adams's book “The Last Chance to See” popped straight back out.

This is a great book, buy it here! Douglas Adams, the genius writer of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and therefore first person to simply state the meaning of life, travels the world visiting endangered animals. I forget most of them now, but the one that really captured me was the Baiji, the Yangtze River Dolphin. When Adams visited there were still a few around and a small area of river put aside for them. There were all sorts of problems though; river turgidity, poaching, boat collisions and , as we are still painfully finding out with NZ dolphins, very slow breeding and recruitment characteristics. After reading the book I had a look around the internet to find that they had been officially declared extinct, just that month, after an international expedition failed to find any. There are no more Baiji, just like there is no more Douglas Adams. The world is a lesser place.

But anyway I was thinking about this as we drove past yet another hydro-scheme, the last chance to see this beautiful river, those powerful rapids. For someone maybe the last chance to paddle. Maybe there should be a global kayaking website, Last Chance, listing rivers about to be extinguished. Maybe there is. From Chengdu we climbed high over a mountain range, through a giant tunnel and down to a tributary of the Yangtse. We followed this river for 100kilometres upstream until we came to the most incredible scattering of Tibetan villages centred around the town of Danba.

The first village of Suopo you see from the bus. Houses, fields and the ancient watchtowers rise from the river and continue high, high onto the rocky mountain tops. The towers served a defensive and signalling purpose, while also being used for the storage of corn. They rise up to 50metres and while rounded on the inside (sort of like a snow cave and I'm guessing for similar reasons) their exterior design varies from the simple four cornered variety, to a showy 13 corner design.

I wonder what these people think about their towers; community, security, family? And can't help, with my literary mood tonight, thinking about the symbol of the tower in NZ literature and its casting as a phallus representing male shortcomings. Keri Hulme in Bone People with her male substitute tower (the yang to her yin?) . Then there is Katherine Mansfield (I forget the story) where the tower, or phallus is a prized cactus in her parents garden that grows for years then fruits once and dies. I'm not sure the Chinese would get this humour. The Confucian in them may just enjoy the cactus flower...but anyway..

Danba itself is a cool little long town paralleling the river. Plenty of bustle and colourful people.

We didn't make it back to the hostel we had spied on the way into town. We were spotted by Suga in a van who convinced us to stay the night at his place in Jaju (recommended in our guidebook) for 40 yuan, dinner and breakfast included. What a deal, what a fantastic place. They call Jaju a stockaded village but that seems to mean that every house is a miniature colourful castle, stone houses with white washed patterns, red and black trim, and the beginning of ramparts (more like pointy ears) on each building. The doorways, windows and internal courtyards are wonderfully coloured, and as elsewhere we have encountered, the harvested corn and chillis add dramatic splashes of yellow and red. Outside there is a maze of small terraced plots divided by ancient walls. The fruit trees were laden with ripe pears and apples. The people matched the environment, the women with their colourful head scarfs and yak hair plaits, the men with their imitation North Face jackets. Dinner was amazing and sleep was plentiful.

The next day we strolled around and above the village basin, checking out ruined watchtowers while watching and listening to a Tibetan wedding taking place far below. At one stage we disturbed a big slimy slithery snake about 2 metres long that freaked the bejusus out of me. We also stumbled upon what we believe to be a sky burial site, but maybe it was just a heli-pad. And then up above we glimpsed a little peak with prayer flags fluttering and vultures circling. The atmosphere was as close as we are likely to get to one of those old movies where shipwreck survivors glimpse the smoking volcano at the centre of the island! Of course we had to try and climb it, but time was running short. It was looking likely until our path turned into a rocky ridge, then slab. I ended up climbing a near vertical piece only to discover myself above a gap in the ridge, and very overhung. We edged back down and called it a day. Travellers out there, check out the top and send me the pictures!

In conclusion, re Danba, I can't do justice to this place in words (or pictures it seems) it is so beautiful. The potential for trekking on the nearby tops is huge and there are no doubt so many other villages to find. We firmly recommend Suga's guesthouse (no idea what it is called in Chinese). Go through the checkpoint into Jaju and take the first mud road branching off right, follow this for a couple of hundred metres to a house above the road with a sign. Stay there for a week, and tell them we loved it. This is your affordable paradise in China.

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