Located at around 2.000m high, Danba County in Western Sichuan is the home of some of China’s most beautiful villages. Heck even some of the world’s most beautiful villages! The tale we’d heard was that the area was largely unknown until a few years ago, when an American satellite passed over and snapped a few pictures, and the resultant imagery was impressive enough for National Geographic to send out a few journalists to investigate the area from ground level. We’re not sure how true this story is, but it was justification enough for us to take our shiny new motorbike out on the road from Tagong to Danba to have look for ourselves. What I did not read before we left was how much lower Danba was and that the steep road down from the Tibetan plateau would make a return trip very difficult. Was it worth it though? Of course! While I’m not sure I would call Danba’s villages the most beautiful in the world (as China’s tourism office does) they’d probably easily make it into our top 10.
A bit more about Danba.
So what do you need to know about Danba and what makes it so special? Located between mountains and lakes, this county is fairly low in altitude and agriculture is one of the main source of income of the region (hydro power and tourism are also important sources of revenue for the locals).
The people living in the area are largely Jiarong Tibetans and they’ve been living there for the longest time. While the some farm their corn at the bottom of the hills the others breed their sheep on the top of the cliffs. The only thing that makes this place so different from the usual settlements of Western Sichuan are the unusual houses they live in, and that make the landscape of this county.
The stone buildings and stone towers painted in white and covered in coloured symbols seem to stand out even more against their green surroundings.
But be warned: Danba itself is not what makes this place so pretty, the town is actually pretty ugly. No, what makes it so special are the hill villages scattered all around it, and they are the ones you will want to visit.
Jiaju Tibetan Village.
Located 5km away from the city of Danba, getting there might not be easy without your own transport. You might need to hire a driver or flag a taxi. No doubt mini-buses will get there as well since this is the village most people want to visit, the one that did get the title of “China’s most beautiful village”.
‘Jiaju’ in the local Tibetan language means a hundred, and describes the number of families living in this village. While there are quite a few more these days this doesn’t make for a crowded landscape. Each of the houses are built on the side of the mountain, from the river to the peak.
Again, having a driver or your own transportation would be a big advantage, because if a taxi just drops you at the entrance (where the ticket booth is), you’ll have a long hard walk up some very steep mountain roads before you reach the actual villages. If you feel up to attempting it, take a lot of water, we saw hardly anyone selling drinks during our tour of the area.
Follow the trail and get to the three viewing points that have been designed to give you the perfect view of the area (The first one was probably our favourite) and finally walk into the village to admire the architecture of each house. Autumn might be the best time to come and visit, the weather is pleasant and the leaves turning on the trees compliment the landscape perfectly, but if you are on a trip all through Western Sichuan then Summer is as good of a time as any, expect to be a lot warmer than in other areas of the region though.
How much does it cost? Tickets at 50 RMB each are required for you to enter Jiaju. Expect more for transportation, food or for a homestay (yes, hotels are available in the village)
How to get there? From Chengdu or Kangding buses are available to Danba. From there you can pick-up a mini-bus or a taxi to Jiaju Tibetan Village.
These watchtowers have attracted many visitors. Symbols of the old Jiarong architecture that can be seen in Danba, those were the defensive fortresses of the villages but it was also believed that they were used as beacons to alert other villagers in case of an attack.
A lot of legends also surround those towers: they were believed to protect people from demons or were used to worship the (ahem) male organ. Either way they are still a beautiful symbol of the Jiarong Tibetan’s architecture.
And while they are scattered all over Danba, Suopo is believed to have the highest density of those watchtowers and is well worth a visit.
How much does it cost? 30 RMB
How to get there? From Danba get a taxi or hire a driver to get you there. If you are driving the village is located 5km away from the city.
Tibetan villages around Danba.
While the recommended villages are beautiful and not to miss we also would like to push people to explore Danba’s surrounding on their own. If you are following the roads going out of Danba then chances are you’ll encounter many of those other villages that probably don’t get as many tourists as the others do, and those are still as beautiful as you could hope, and with no entrance fees to pay.
We stayed in a lovely hotel in the village of Buke, swam in the river, talked to a few Tibetan locals, shared beers, and got invited back to their home for dinner, just because we decided to get out there and explore our surroundings.
So get out there and explore more. Pack your swimsuit if you’re not afraid to get into some cold water coming straight out of the nearby snow mountain, and enjoy the calm life of China’s most beautiful villages.
Observe the sacred Yala Mountain.
The amazing road taking you from Bamei to Danba hides many surprises but the most amazing one must be the sight of the Yala Mountain or Jade Buddha peaking at 5.820m.
This snow capped beauty is known as one of the most sacred Buddhist sites in the area, and is surely worth your time. If you’re driving or cycling, you can’t miss it! (cycling is a possibility, as long as you’re going in the right direction. The road from Bamei to Danba is smooth and spectacularly beautiful, but it’s also twisty and drops almost 4000 metres between the two cities. Fun in one direction, an endurance trial in the other). If you have hired a driver make sure to ask him to stop so you can take the view in.
Practical informations to visit China’s most beautiful villages.
If visiting Danba here are a few points that might be useful:
We’d recommend you to visit between March and October (Avoid the National week to get away from the crowds)
If you’re not driving then do stay in Danba or in Jiaju. Restaurants and shops are difficult to find outside of town and running errands to the nearby city would quickly become expensive.
You should be able to get to Danba by bus from Chengdu or Kangding. Be aware that the journey from Chengdu might be very scary so we’d recommend doing this trip from Kangding, Tagong or Bamei.
The food in Danba is more related to the spicy Sichuan food than you would expect so forget the Yak momos and get ready for some very spicy meals.
While we would love to add Mosika and Dangling to the list of things you should see in the area of Danba, as of now (November 2016) the road conditions are too bad to advise those for your upcoming trip. We followed the roads for about 20km until they eventually became practically non-existent, and essentially impassable on our motorcycle. If you happen to be aboard a decent 4×4 or astride a serious off-road bike you might be able to make it, but don’t count on it being easy. Be also aware that winter is not the time to visit those two places either, as the land will be frozen and reaching such high-up places is incredibly dangerous, even for the locals. (Though if you’ve been in Sichuan long enough, you’ll know that your driver will probably attempt it anyway. Some of these guys have a real death-wish!)
So are the Tibetan Jiarong villages really China’s most beautiful villages? You tell us.
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