I generally enjoy traveling in China, but I’ve met a lot of people who completely disagree with me and I certainly understand why. Moving around the country is rarely easy on often downright torturous. During my most recent two-month visit, I dealt with all the standard government interference and transportation problems, plus an added bonus. In the small town of Danba in western Sichuan province, I encountered something that is not a common problem in China: locals who put your life in danger.
After a long visa run that left me in Chongqing for a few days, I eventually made it to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, where I planned on exploring the Tibetan regions in the west and north for the rest of my time in China. Naturally, the Chinese government had other ideas.
At the time, a number of monks had been setting themselves on fire in many of Sichuan’s Tibetan cities, resulting in the closure of most of the western part of the province. To further complicate matters, the Panchen Lama, the second highest ranking lama after the Dalai Lama, was currently touring the region and his presence does not always go over well with the locals. As a result, every city he visited was immediately declared off limits to foreigners for the duration of his stay. This left me with few options in western Sichuan. Luckily, the walls of my hostel were covered in photos from that area, many of them from this place:
After asking the hostel owners, I learned this was Danba, apparently the wealthiest Tibetan city in Sichuan and one of the few places that had not been closed off. I immediately got myself a bus ticket for the next morning. And by morning, I mean MORNING. The bus was scheduled to leave at 6:30. I made it, but don’t ask me how—it’s all a blur.
I took my seat on the bus and was a bit surprised to see two other foreigners board soon after. They were an Israeli couple and seemed nice enough, so we decided to team up in our search for accommodation once arriving. Before that, we still had a ten hour bus ride ahead of us though, but the time ended up flying by. I put on my headphones, watched the rushing rivers and rocky green hills go by and before I knew it, we were in Danba.
As you can see, the whole town basically consists of one long road, squeezed between a river and a mountain. Our bus dropped us off at one end of town, so we simply started following the road into the center. Before long, we found two promising hotels. One was actually a hostel and by the photos on the wall and the decent English skills of the owner, we quickly realized this was the place recommended in the guide books and the one where most backpackers end up staying.
It seemed like a nice enough hostel, but we noticed a group of Chinese backpackers hanging out in the common area, so we decided to look elsewhere. Anyone who has ever shared a hostel with a group of Chinese travelers knows why: the concepts of ‘low volume’ and ‘other people’ are both entirely foreign to them and we were kind of hoping to get some sleep during the night, as one generally does in a hotel.
The place across the road was the exact opposite. No one spoke any English and there wasn’t even a single guest to speak English—or any other language—to anyway. It was also on the side of the road facing the river, meaning that half the rooms had a great view. We made our minds up immediately. The Israeli couple got a private room, while I took a bed in one of the dorms. Of course, with no other guests in sight, I basically had a private room too. And when I went to take a shower, I got to enjoy this view:
I’ll do everyone a favor and refrain from posting any pictures of the view people on the other side of the river had while I was showering. After my shower, I met the Israeli couple for dinner. We went to a Chinese restaurant and I know at least some of you are thinking, “If you’re in China, isn’t it just a ‘restaurant’?” Well, yes, except in Danba you basically have two options; there are numerous restaurants but they all serve either Chinese food or Tibetan food and we opted for the former.
Anyone who’s been to a non-touristy restaurant in China will know the problem we faced next: ordering something even remotely edible. Of course the menu was completely in Chinese, but that’s not really the problem. Thanks to my Japanese, I can generally figure out what things say in China; the problem is: they never name their food what it actually is.
Instead of calling a dish “chicken with vegetables” or “stir-fried pork”, they have some ridiculously creative and poetic name that is, I’m sure, quite lovely; unfortunately it’s also quite useless if you aren’t already familiar with the dish in question. A few examples: “Buddha Jumped Over the Wall“, “Ants Climbing a Tree” or “Husband Wife Lung Slice“.
See what I mean? How can anyone possibly guess the ingredients from those names? Ok, so you can guess from the name “Husband Wife Lung Slice” that you might want to stay away from that particular dish (in case you’re curious, it’s basically thinly sliced cow lung and stomach—one light, the other dark; yin and yang; husband and wife; disgusting and revolting), but generally, the names tell you nothing.
Luckily, I have a few go-to dishes I know I can always rely on, so we ordered those, along with one shot-in-the-dark dish to keep things interesting. That one ended up being fried gristle or some other unidentifiable substance with a gristle-like texture and not even remotely enjoyable. The rest of the food was pretty standard for China: fresh ingredients floating in cheap cooking oil and marinated in MSG. It didn’t taste horrible, but it wasn’t exactly great either.
After dinner, we set about trying to organize transportation to take us around the area the next morning. While I kind of liked the town of Danba, it is generally considered pretty unpleasant and any visitor plans on spending most of their time in the surrounding Tibetan villages. It is possible to take public transport in the form of shared minivans to get from village to village, but the minivans don’t leave until they’re packed with five people for every seat, so you end up wasting a lot of time just sitting around. You can also walk between the villages but that involves a lot of…well, walking…so that was out of the question.
We ended up hiring a minivan and a driver for the whole day for 100 RMB, which was around US $5 per person. Happy to have that sorted out, we retired to our rooms, but not before I bought a huge sack of peanuts and about a kilogram of fruit as a nighttime snack—gristle just doesn’t fill you up.
The next day we set out to explore the surrounding villages and it didn’t take long before the disadvantages of hiring a Tibetan driver became very clear. And dangerously so…
Continued in part 2: Exploring the Tibetan Villages of Zhonglu and Suopo