Last week, I wrote about our first afternoon and evening in Danba, which we spent getting a hotel room, arranging a car and driver for the next morning, eating an average meal, and buying fresh fruit and a giant bag of peanuts to supplement that meal. I created quite a little mountain of empty peanut shells before going to bed that night, but barely managed to put a dent in my huge bag.
I got a great night’s sleep in my private dorm room in our deserted hotel, with the roar of the river below my window easily drowning out the standard Chinese background noise of honking horns. As a result, I was up early and ready to explore the region. I grabbed some dumplings and a couple of hard-boiled eggs marinated in a tea mixture for breakfast, before we headed out to meet our driver.
We found him lying in the backseat of a mud-splattered minivan that looked like it had been thrown together that morning from whatever parts happened to be scattered around. He was basically your standard issue weathered, middle-aged Tibetan man who knew fewer English words than he had teeth and he didn’t have many of those. He seemed friendly enough though. We quickly got underway and headed off for the first village.
The town of Danba sits in a deep valley at the confluence of two rivers, with another three river valleys joining the first two nearby. Each of these five valleys is equally stunning, with rugged Tibetan villages clinging to steep, fertile mountainsides above a brown rivers streaked with white in places where swift currents collide. The first of these villages on our list was Zhonglu.
The crisp mountain air felt downright chilly during the thirty minute ride, but I enjoyed it, knowing how hot the day would soon get. It was already beginning to heat up and, by the time we arrived, we had the perfect hiking temperature, giving us the necessary motivation to do some climbing. We passed through corn fields and over crumbling stone hedges, as we crossed the relatively flat ledge we were on, before hitting a small road that took us up the hillside toward the upper reaches of the village. On the way we passed this guy:
He was helping himself to some Huajiao, or “flower peppers”, the very distinct, tongue numbing ingredient at the heart of Sichuan cuisine (Wikipedia: Sichuan pepper). It doesn’t numb the tongue with heat, though. The flower pepper actually tastes a bit lemony and numbs the tongue in the way a shot of Novocaine would, except it only lasts a few moments. It’s actually kind of pleasant and offers the perfect balance for the incredibly spicy chili peppers that are the other characteristic of Sichuan cuisine. Apparently, humans aren’t the only ones to find the sensation pleasant.
Further on, we passed a farmer who had covered our path with a tarp onto which he was shaking the Huajiao peppercorns from a tree. We began climbing the walls lining the path to avoid stomping all over his harvest, but he told us to go ahead—if anyone happened to find themselves in Sichuan province in the summer of 2011 and they were served flower peppers with footprints on them…sorry. There’s a good chance the peppers were licked by a cow, too, if that helps.
We continued upward in one of those moments where you keep thinking, “just a bit higher and we’ll get an even better photo…” and eventually we even began climbing straight up over the rocks, in an attempt to speed things up by leaving the slow back and forth meandering of the path. Given that the mountains in the area continued up over 5000 meters, we had to stop eventually and chose to do so once we reached this tower.
These ancient watchtowers are one of the distinguishing features of the Danba area and we would soon be seeing many more of them. The next village on our list was Suopo and the only reason people visit, is to see its watchtowers. Once we had scrambled back down the hillside and woken our napping driver, we were on our way. He actually wanted to take us to a nearby place for lunch (I’m guessing they paid drivers a commission), but we insisted on seeing one more village before stopping to eat.
Once we got within a few kilometers of Suopo, our driver stopped and told us it was inaccessible by vehicle. He was telling the truth (sort of), but we didn’t believe him, since he had begun to get pretty annoying ever since we had decided not to eat at the place he suggested. Besides, it was clear he could keep driving well past the point where we were stopped, so we told him to do so. After a few kilometers, we could see Suopo on the other side of the river with a footbridge adorned with thousands of multicolored Tibetan prayer flags leading across.
This was the actual spot where vehicular traffic had to stop. At this point, our driver started to throw a little fit about how we wouldn’t have time to see the final town and we couldn’t afford to walk all the way into this one if we wanted to fit all three villages into our day. This was a blatant lie, as it was only a little past noon and we were planning on spending the night in the next town, so he really just had to drop us off. He simply wanted to end his day early. It actually turned out he wanted something else, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
For now, we compromised and assured him we weren’t going to do any climbing in Suopo and simply wanted to cross the bridge and walk along the river a ways to take some photos. Once on the other side, we saw this spout dripping oil all over the ground. It appeared to be part of a long-abandoned construction site but we weren’t sure. Whatever it was, it was pretty disgusting and not the kind of thing you want to see seeping into the ground and running into a river.
After we had taken some photos, we crossed back over the river and found our driver filling his van with cigarette smoke. He seemed in much better spirits though, clearly happy to finally get us eating lunch. We had him drive us back to Danba, since it had more options for restaurants and we had to pass through town anyway to enter the valley where Jiaju, the final village, was located. Little did we know that the improvement in our driver’s mood would be very short-lived.
Continued in part 3: Hiring a Tibetan Driver and Somehow Surviving the Experience