Sunday, May 17, 2009

(NOTE: Phil had to post this on my behalf from Singapore because the Chinese government has caught on to our act and blocked access to the blog)

Phil and I split up on Thursday (just a separation, it's only temporary), saying our goodbyes before dawn as he headed to the airport to try and find a way to Nepal. As for me, I took a cab to Chengdu's long-distance bus station and boarded a 6:30 a.m. bus to Danba, 10 hours west of Chengdu. The ride ended up taking 13 hours, for a few reasons: First, the roads are already in horrible shape in this region following the destruction of last May's Great Sichuan Earthquake. In addition, We stopped for an hour on the side of the road when heavy rains made Chengdu's suburban roads undriveable. Then around 3 p.m. we ran into a roadblock near the county of Kangding, and waited for two hours while China Hydroelectric Bureau Number 5 deployed and then detonated dynamite ahead to aid its construction of a dam.
The latter delay reflects a general trend here in Western China, that of the government investing billions of dollars towards infrastructure development to bring the country's economic miracle to those least attached to the idea of a Chinese nation, people like the large groups of Tibetans that live in Yunnan, Gansu and Sichuan Provinces. What Tibetans consider Tibet actually includes a much larger area than what the Chinese Central Government has arbitrarily deemed the Tibetan Autonomous Region. Small towns frontier towns like Danba, which has a large Tibetan population, would fall inside greater Tibet if the Tibetans had their way. More important, for foreigners who want to avoid the ridiculous rules that the Chinese government has placed on foreigners travelling to Lhasa, towns like Danba are a great way to experience Tibetan culture. That's why I went.
Danba proper fits the description of other towns in minority areas of China: It's pretty boring and soulless, mainly because Beijing has done its best to dilute and marginalize the Tibetan heritage here in favor of the conformity of a bland Chinese town. The nicest and newest building here is the government's Public Security Bureau. The people out here are among the poorest people in a nation with the world's largest wealth gap, and the construction of electric dams, power lines and other efforts to develop the region represent an attempt by the Chinese government to rein in the disgruntled masses of the west. Chinese business has reached Danba as the government has tried to prop it up as a tourist destination for the Han Chinese (The Han Chinese, one of China's 56 different ethnic groups, make up more than 90 percent of the population). Tibetan culture still thrives out here, you just have to venture outside of Danba to find it. Luckily, a man named Ah Ba offered me a ride from the bus station to my hostel and a friendship was born. Ah Ba, a Tibetan, hails from the nearby mountain village of Suo Po. Ah Ba explained that Suo Po not only offers a glimpse of real tibetan culture, but it also can lay claim to containing the world's only 13-angled watchtower. Believe it.
Stone watchtowers up to 40 meters tall, built by the locals around 1000 years ago, line the hills around Danba. Some of the watchtowers have four angles (or points), some five, and a couple even have eight. Most tourists can pay an entrance fee to take a tour and see some of them. But only one watchtower has 13 angles, according to Ah ba, and you don't need a ticket to see it. Daring Ah Ba to prove it to me, I arranged for him to pick me up early the next morning and take me to his village.
Ah Ba showed up outside my hostel door in his beat-up VW sedan at 7 a.m. and we began the rocky drive on a winding dirt road into the hills above Danba. Ah Ba explained to me that the Tibetan people who live in this area might resent the disruption brought on by the influx of Han Chinese influence from the east - especially the introduction of power lines - but things here have still remained peaceful. Protests in March 2008 between Tibetans and Han Chinese in Lhasa spread to other parts of Western China, but not here.
On the way up the hill, I also learned a little more about Ah Ba. He's 43 years old and a chain smoker, like virtually every other adult male in China. He has a wife and his 17 year-old son attends high school in the nearby county of Kangding. He lived in Chengdu for about 6 years, but didn't like itwhere he bought his wheels and drove it all the way back here to make a living as a driver. Ah Ba said he makes 2000 RMB (about US$300) a month, in-line with the average monthly wage nationwide but pretty good for these parts. Other than a visit to Kunming in neighboring Yunnan Province, he's never left Sichuan.
After about an hour Ah Ba pulled the car over and pointed me up a path, saying if I followed that path for about an hour I would reach the watchtower. He said he would accompany me if his lungs would allow it, which they wouldn't, so I was on my own. The walk up began along a stream rolling down the river underneath a forest canopy, but the path eventually emerged above the trees and wound its way up a sprawling hillside grassland. With the tower not yet in my view, I ran into a few Tibetan peasants who showed me the way.
Eventually I saw it. The 13-angled watchtower reached up into the sky, high up on the mountain above the village of Suo Po. It overlooked the whole valley and the dozens of other inferior watchtowers scattered below. Words can't do it justice, but I'll try. I sat in the watchtower for about an hour, peering out into the distance and (poorly) imagining myself as a guard 1000 years ago on the lookout for mongolians or whatever other pests were feared to be invading from the north or east. Talk about having the high ground. Despite its odd construction, I don't know if Ah Ba was right about this being the only 13-angled watchtower in the world. Either way, it was worth taking Ah Ba up on his offer and seeing it for myself.
I made the 13 hour journey back to Chengdu today (with another long stop so China Hydroelectric could blow up some more dynamite). I'll spend the night here and then take the 19-hour train to Kunming tomorrow afternoon. I had planned to fly before losing my wallet this week (see Phil's latest post), so now I have to conserve my remaining cash and give up the sleeper bed in favor of the hard seat. I'll let you know how it goes.

(Pictures to come. - Phil)

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