Sometimes called the Himalayan Towers, these magnificent structures stand over 100 feet in the mountains of Sichuan and Tibet. To this day, no one really knows why they were built.
In the deep valleys and rugged hills framing the Dadu River in southwestern China, dark slender towers bristle among picturesque hamlets and terraced fields. Tapering skyward over 100 feet, their enigmatic profiles stand sentinel over a dramatic landscape tamed by fields and orchards.
These days, the Dadu River is more synonymous with the construction of what’s expected to be the world’s tallest dam and a chain-link footbridge dating back to the Qing Dynasty. Roughly halfway between these two landmarks is the county of Danba, where gorgeous scenery little changed in generations draws thousands of domestic tourists every year.
This spectacular corner of Garzê, a Tibetan-majority region in Sichuan Province, houses a cluster of distinctive masonry towers whose exact age, origins, and purpose remain unclear. There are a total of four such clusters across southwestern China, but records of them are sparse, with only fleeting mentions in ancient texts and early 20th-century travelogues.
It was only in the early 2000s, when tourists embraced the region, that comprehensive surveys began.
Most towers are square, though some display more elaborate star-shaped variations. They’re in varying states of disrepair, with some leaning alarmingly. Many are attached to or stand alongside large whitewashed Tibetan farmhouses—three- to four-story homes with “panda-eye” window frames, verandas, and terraces.
For centuries, this nebulous and shifting “borderland” region between Tibet and the rest of China hosted numerous feudal chiefs and restless tribes.
It’s unclear why Danba’s towers are so extraordinarily tall. Their practical use is also a puzzle.
Remote and difficult to access, only caravans transporting tea, salt, and sugar to Tibet provided steady benign traffic through their wild reaches. With only spoken languages, unwritten records, and the bewildering ebb and flow of ancient kingdoms, the towers developed an enigma of their own.
Hiking away from the Dadu, up a narrow zigzagging road in Danba, I’m thrilled to spy distant towers across the valley. They stand on its lofty cultivated shoulders around the village of Pujiaoding. From the main road, they are almost invisible.
My target is the adjoining villages of Suopo and Moluo. Meticulous spring-fed channels funnel gurgling water through fields and orchards. The first towers heave into view. Most in Danba are square, but here is a striking example of a star-shaped tower with eight pointed corners and 16 sides.
Two village women emerge from a nearby farmhouse and readily act as de facto tour guides.
“There used to be maybe 20 towers here in ancient times,” explains one of them. “Now, there are around seven,” the other woman chimes in.
I ask, “How old?” They hesitate. “800 years...maybe.”
I’m beckoned into their home’s courtyard and toward the base of its adjoining tower crowned with China’s five-starred flag and Tibetan prayer flags. Rickety ladders climb through five floors of dark cubicle-like rooms with slit windows. They lead to a roof terrace with corner parapets. Its vertiginous view 100 feet up is not for the faint of heart.
Dongnuguo 东女国 is a word you’ll often hear locals say. It means “Eastern Queendom” and stems from a decade-old theory that Suopo was, in fact, the ancient capital of a land once ruled by queens.
Various cultural factors lend some credence to this claim. The Book of Tang, a famous 10th- to 11th-century encyclopedic gazette on the Tang Dynasty, references the queendom and specifically mentions a queen living in a nine-story building while commoners had six-story houses.
It’s unclear why Danba’s towers are so extraordinarily tall. Their practical use is also a puzzle. Locals usually cite storage or defense, but in this earthquake-prone region, the skill and effort expended in their construction and maintenance would have been considerable. It’s questionable, too, whether their extravagant height gained any corresponding defensive advantages—after all, height is might until your enemies are within striking distance.
Beyond storage and defense, scholars have posited other theories. These range from religious explanations (they may have been used as observatories) to their use as border markers, status symbols, and commemorating the birth of young male children, with each story added during subsequent birthdays.
Danba’s fertile valleys and hillsides lie just off the main trade routes. Their villages overlook not just the Dadu River but several other tributaries. Long ago, these rivers yielded modest quantities of gold. Logging boosted the local economy until the late 1990s, and tourism later lent Danba an economic fillip.
Nowadays, women can be seen working in fields of rapeseed and potatoes. Boughs almost sag with apples and pears while cobs of corn dry on window ledges. The climate here is relatively mild and harvests are ample. Beneath its tranquillity is an air of quiet prosperity.
Locals have long forgotten the towers’ purpose. Modern life has made them largely superfluous. If nothing else, their crumbling masonry could be repurposed for new structures, and tourism might give them a new lease of life.
For many domestic travelers, though, they are merely part of a beautiful landscape. The main draw remains local color and culture. If “Eastern Queendom” gives the region a worthy historical tag, the oft-used marketing line “Valley of Beauties” lends a more sensuous appeal. The region’s supposed matriarchal society, along with the celebrated charm and grace of its women, has made it famous across China.
As approach the modest guesthouses in the village of Zhongluxiang, I notice a group of middle-aged Chinese tourists babbling away excitedly and making plans. I pop into a splendid-looking farmhouse with a gaily painted salon on the upper floor and a large flagstone terrace in front. “Ancient Tibetan Agritainment” reads its business card.
Be it the Eastern Queendom’s mysterious towers or the Valley of Beauties’ singing and dancing, it’s clear that Danba’s villages are almost as exotic to Chinese visitors as they are to me.