Sunday, October 22, 2006

Danba

After a weekend in Chengdu my first stop was Danba. I hadn't heard of it before but the owner of the hotel I stayed at in Chengdu recommended it to me. Danba isn't mentioned in any English China guide that I know of, and it only became a tourist destination in China in the past two or three years, so it is still relatively short on tourists, especially foreign tourists. When I got there it took a bit of effort- and help from some Chinese tourists- to get a cheap hotel to accept me, as theoretically only one hotel in the town is permitted to take foreigners.
Danba county known for the pretty villages in the valleys surrounding the town, and especially for the ancient fortresses that dot them and the elegant houses built by the locals, who are a mix of Tibetans and Chinese. Danba lies on the border between Chinese Sichuan cultural Tibet, which actually includes Western Sichuan, most of Qinghai, northwest Yunnan and southwest Gansu as well as the Tibetan Autonomous Region. The houses are actually particular to the Kham region of Tibet, which covers cultural Tibet's southeastern area. The Kham people are known for being more warlike and aggressive than other Tibetans, and like to wear long knives and even longer hair. The Kham region is also very isolated, even compared to the rest of Tibet. It was rarely ever truly controlled by the Tibetan government or by China until the communist invasion. After China invaded Tibet, it was the Kham that first rebelled and that resisted the longest, with a little help from the CIA.
The bus ride to Danba was supposed to take a good ten hours, though in the end I didn't get to Danba until 8 in the evening, after leaving Chengdu around 7 in the morning. It was a pretty interesting ride though, first going through the thick, mountainous and misty forests of central Sichuan and then over a 4000 meter high pass into the drier and equally mountainous western Sichuan.
On the bus I met a 30 year old Chinese guy named Li Tong, who I ended up spending the next week travelling with. He was a bit more interesting and open-minded than most Chinese people I meet on the road, possibly in part because he often goes abroad. He was also different from most Chinese travellers in that he prefered to travel alone and liked roughing it in some of China's more isolated areas. He often travelled in western Sichuan and southern Qinghai, though this was his first time in Danba. Also, he was far better than the average Chinese person at bargaining. That turned out to be a particularly useful skill at that time of year as prices were going up everywhere in anticipation of the wave of travellers the Chinese national holiday on October 1st always brings to every tourist site in China.
Danba itself is pretty boring, though its setting feels somehwat strange. It is in a narrow valley, as is almost every man made thing in the area, next to a river and surrounded on all sides by sheer cliffs. It isn't very large, but is very dense- most of the buildings were over three stories tall. Approaching it feels like you're coming to a hidden metropolis.

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