Highway from Sichuan to Tibet
Late August and Early September is the best time to visit western Sichuan. The rainy season is June through August. Bus run in the area year-round but the roads are sometimes closed by snow or landslides. For a time foreign travelers in Western Sichuan are required to buy an insurance policy for around US$4, which can be obtained at the China Insurance Company next to the Holiday Inn in Chengdu,

Sleeper buses (with bunks, not seats) and newer more comfortable buses bound for western Sichuan, leave from Xinnanmen bus station in Chengdu. The eight-hour trip from Chengdu to Kandling cost about US$15. Web Site : Kham Aid Foundation Kham Aid

Sichuan-Tibet Highway Sichuan-Tibet Highway is one of the world's highest, most dangerous and roughest roads. Built between 1950 and 1954, it consists of two main branches — the 2412-kilometer northern route and the 2140-kilometer southern route — that branch off from the main road west of Chengdu past Luding and Kangding.

Most of the routes are comprised of twisting one lane dirt or gravel roads. Covering the distance between Chengdu and Lhasa can take two weeks to traverse by truck. Half the vehicles in the military convoys that travel this route are fuel trucks that keep the other vehicles going. The Lonely Planet guided described an accident in which a truck overturned and one American lost half his arm and an Australian woman had multiple back injuries. It was several days before medical help arrived.

Northern Branch of the Sichuan-Tibet Highway

The Northern Branch of the Sichuan-Tibet Highway is 2412 kilometers long and branches off from the main road west of Chengdu past Luding and Kangding. Also known as Route 317, it passes over the 16,128-foot pass, Tro La, which is littered with the skeletons of vehicles that couldn't make it, and passes through the small Tibetan towns of Luhou, Graze and Dege (pronounced DEHR-geh).

Buses from Kangding to Dege leave on odd-numbered days. The 370-mile journey takes at least two days, with buses stopping overnight in either Garze or Luhou, . Also on odd-numbered days there are buses between Chengdu and Garze. This journey takes about a day and half and and costs US$24.


Tibetan book
Dege (western Sichuan near the Tibetan border) is regarded as perhaps the best place in Tibet or China to see Tibetan culture. Carved into the side of a ravine, rising steeply from the Zi Qu tributary of the Yangtze, the town has a major monastery, several temples and beautiful red-and-white Tibetan homes.

Dege Printing House is Dege's main attraction. Built between 1729 and 1750, this three-story wooden structure stores 80 percent of the Tibetan literary culture, and produces a wide range of texts for monasteries, libraries, study centers and Tibetan colleges, which people from all over Tibet come to pick up.

The Dege Printing House is regarded as a sacred site. Pilgrims seek it out and walk clockwise around it with prayer wheels in their hands. More than 210,000 hand-craved wooden blocks, some of which were carved in the 16th century, are stored there. Printing stopped in 1950s when Dege came under Chinese rule, but was spared by the Red Guards, while other Tibetan buildings were destroyed, on orders of Zhou Enlai.

Printing resumed in 1979 using 270,000 ancient wooden printing plates that survived the Cultural Revolution. About 100 monks work there. All the work is done by hand. There are no machines or even electric lighting. Blocks made in the 17th and 18th century are still used to make texts that have as many as 30,050 pages (making four copies of this text takes three weeks).

Many of the monks are old men. Some are physically disabled. They coat the plates with black inks and press them on sheets of rough paper, producing 2,500 pages an hour. Describing the work, Peter Hessler wrote in the New York Times, "One of the workers spreads the bright red ink on a wood block while the other presses the paper. They work quickly, printing a page every four seconds." Tours cost US$6.

Web Sites: Lonely Planet Lonely Planet Budget Accommodation: Check Lonely Planet books; Getting There: Dege is accessible by bus from Kangding and Chengdu. Lonely Planet (click Getting There) Lonely Planet .

Trekking from Dege has become popular in recent years. Destinations include the Babang Monastery, the lovely town of Ha La Maisu and Baiyu Monastery, which has some of the best preserved murals in Kham. One of the murals is 300 years old and 233 feet long. There is no electricity in the area and most people get around on foot or on Mongolian ponies. Trekkers cover about 12 miles a day and walk at altitudes between 3,000 meters and 5,000 meters (at the passes). Travelers often spend the night and eat in the monasteries. Most meals consist if died yak meat, butter tea and tsampa (roasted barely flour) and tsampa dumplings. The Quick and Dirty Guide to Trekking in Dege is available on the Kham Aid Foundation website (


Serthar (300 kilometers west of Chengdu on the northern branch of the Sichuan-Tibet Road) is located in the remote, barren 13,000-foot-high Larung valley in the Tibetan region of western Sichuan. It is the home of a unique Buddhist community. Founded in 1980 by Khenpo Jigme Phuntsog, who claims to be a reincarnation of the teacher of the previous Dalai Lama, the community boasted 10,000 followers who lived in spartan log cabins and mud huts, making it the largest group of its kind in the Tibetan regions. Most of the members were Tibetans but there were 1,000 ethnic Chinese members in the group.

The community was called Larung Gar (Gars means encampment) and Serthar Buddhist Institute. Located near the border with Tibet and Qinghai Province and 500 miles from the nearest city, it was surrounded by towering mountains and reached by dirt road Before the Buddhists arrived no one lived in the valley.

Larung was not a monastery. Its members included nuns, red-robed monks, scholars and laymen and women. It was not associated with any of the Tibetan sects. Doctrines from all three of the major Tibetan Buddhist sects are taught. The group was tolerated for while because Jigme Phuntosg went out of his way not to do anything to offend Beijing. Even so the "evil cult" law passed to combat Falun Gong in 2000 was used to crack down on the group, because it had grown so large and was perceived as a threat.

In 2001, armed police evicted hundreds of Tibetan nuns, monks and scholars from the Serthar. Houses were burned down and people who were evicted were forced to sign documents denouncing the Dalai Lama and threatened with arrest if they returned. Some nuns threatened to commit suicide rather than leave. The aim was not to close the community but to limit its size.

After the crackdown the community managed to survive. Many monks who were ordered to leave simply walked down te road and turned around and returned, sneaking past police. Members seemed to not care about the risks. After the crack down new members showed up. Their resistance called into question Beijing's ability to crush religious and dissident groups.

As of early 2004, there were about 3,000 people at Serthar. Jogme Phuntsok continued to meet with small groups of students until his death in January 2004. Another crackdown occured in 2007.

Southern Branch of the Sichuan-Tibet Highway

Trekking in western Sichuan
Southern Branch of the Sichuan-Tibet Highway is 2140 kilometers long and branches off from the main road west of Chengdu past Luding and Kangding. It passes through the small Tibetan towns Litang and Batang before reaching Tibet. The Southern Branch of the Sichuan-Tibet Highway is said to be the more spectacular and beautiful than the Northern Branch of the Sichuan-Tibet Highway of the two branches but is also considered to be more dangerous so make sure you have a good driver and good vehicle.

The Southern Branch of the Sichuan-Tibet Highway — which is part of the G318 that runs from Shanghai to the Tibet-Nepal border — has traditionally been part of the Tea Horse Road and the a pilgrimage route to the holy city of Lhasa from Sichuan. In recent years it has become a passageway for Han Chinese youths seeking their fortune in Tibet.

Spectacular sights along the way include the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon, Mount Gongga, the expansive Maoya Grasslands, Mudui Glacier and Namcha Barwa, the highest mountain in Nyingchi and the 28th highest peak in the world. The route also takes you deep into Kham region culture to places like Danba, Kangding, Xinduqiao, and Litang and Nyingchi — where it can be argued Tibetan culture is more alive than it is in the Tibet Autonomous Region. Web Site: Travel China Guide ;

March to April is good to visit. While most of Tibet is still cold, the climate in Nyingchi is already warm. In Nyingchi area thousands of peach trees are in bloom. In May and June, the azaleas are blooming and a good place to see them is at Sejila Mountain in Nyingchi Prefecture. Here there are 25 different azalea species on one 50 kilometers section of road. During July to August everything is green and horse racing festivals are held in Litang and elsewhere. Be careful though: this is the rainy season. Although rain showers are usually short landslides and road washouts occur. September to October has some of the best weather. The rainy season is over and skies are deep blue and the air is brisk. November to February is still okay for trekking and sightseeing in western Sichuan and the southeastern Tibet but is generally too cold and dangerous to travel along the highway. Some of the passes are closed with snow and many of the lodges and hostels along the route are closed.


Kangding (on the road between Chengdu and Tibet, 210 kilometers west-southwest of Chengdu) is small 2620-meter-high town on the Tibetan Plateau in the shadow of Gongga Shan. The scenery is spectacular. Trekkers and pilgrims often begin their journey here. There are four lamaseries in the vicinity of the town and more are accessible by foot including one at the base of Gongga Shan.

Kangding is the seat of Garzê Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan province. Home to about 134,000 people, it is populated by both Tibetans and Han, and is part of the historical Tibetan region of Kham. The swift-moving Zheduo river flows through the city.. At the north end of the town near the bus station the Zheduo river converges with the Yala River. The city features a sizable People's Square, where locals gather to do Tai Chi, play badminton, and socialise, especially in the early mornings and weekends. There are many Tibetan and Sichuanese restaurantss. The Tibetan Buddhist monastery Dentok sits on a hill in the Paoma Mountain overlooking the city, and is accessible by cable car.

In 2008 the PRC government opened an airport at Kangding, the third-highest in the world, at 4,280 meters (14,040 feet). Kangding contains some notable Buddhist monasteries, including Nanwu Si Monastery, Anjue Monastery and Jinggang Monastery. A Catholic church was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and rebuilt in the 1980s. Today it is no longer in use and has been converted to shops and a hotel. Web Sites: Lonely Planet Lonely Planet Getting There: Kangding is accessible by bus from Chengdu.

Luding Bridge: Long March Landmark

Luding Bridge
Luding Bridge (near Kangding) is where a legendary battle on the Long March took place over the Dadu River. It is possible to walk across the footbridge and have your picture taken with a man dressed up in Long-March-era Red Army uniform. Lots of Mao kitsch is on sale. In 2005 a number of museums were opened up along the Long March route.

In May 1935, during the early part of the Long March, the Kuomintang troops arrived before the Communists at Luding Bridge, 120-meter chain link footbridge that spanned the Dadu River. According to legend, by the time the Communists got to the bridge it had all of its planks removed and was guarded by a regiment of Kuomintang soldiers armed with machine guns. At night 22 brave Communist commandos, the story goes, went across the bridge — in some places hanging from the chains and pulling themselves forward hand over hand with grenades in their teeth — and captured the bridge, allowing the marchers to proceed. Mao later told Edgar Snow that the crossing the Dadu River was the single most important event of the Long March. Of the 80,000 soldiers that began the march in 1934, 20,000 made it across Luding Bridge.

Many of the reported events of the Long March, it seems, never happened or were exaggerated. The Luding Bridge incident appears to be a complete fabrication. There were no Nationalist troops at the bridge and there was no battle: only a skirmish with no casualties. The local warlord, who controlled the bridge and hated Chiang Kai-shek, let Mao's army pass and was later made a minister in the Communist government.

Gongga Shan

Gongga Shan (near the towns of Kangding and Luding) is an impressive-looking peak in western Sichuan that was once thought to be the highest mountain in the world. Using a barometer, the boiling point of water and a pocket compass to make his calculations, the explorer Joseph Rock estimated the mountain — formally known as Minya Konka — it was 9,220 meters (30,250 feet) high.

The claim was given further credibility in World War II, when a plane was blown off course, while flying "over the hump" from Burma to China, and end up near the Anye Machin range (see below). Reportedly when the plane emerged from the clouds at 30,500 feet, three snow-covered peaks toweredoverhead. The story, it was later revealed, was dreamed up American pilots as a joke on British war corespondents (the C-47 plane the flew the mission couldn't even reach 30,000 feet).

In 1949, an American explorer survey the mountain and claimed it was 9041 meters (29,661 feet) high, making it higher than Mt. Everest. Claims persisted until the 1970s when a Chinese surveying team determined the mountain was 7556 meters (24,790 feet) high. Maqen Gangril (formally known as Anye Machin), an impressive-looking peak in southern Sichuan was also thought to be the highest mountain in the world. It too was said to be more than 30,000 feet high.

These days Gongga Sahn is a pilgrimage, trekking and climbing destination. Pilgrims walk several hundred kilometers, circling the mountain and its 5,200-meter-high sister peak. Trekkers are sometimes disappointed because clouds often hide the view and many climbers have died tried to reach the summit. In 1981, eight Japanese climbers were buried in an avalanche. two Americans were killed in 1939 and six Chinese climbers died in 1957.

Hailuo Glacier

The Hailuo Valley (at the foot of the Gongga Shan) is situated on the eastern hillside of Gongga Mountain at the eastern edge of the Tibetan-Qinghaian Plateau. It is well-known for its low-elevation glacier.

Hailuogou Glacier is the lowest glacier in Asia. The main glacier is 14 kilometers in length and covers an area of 25 square kilometers. It also only 1,600 years old. There are specular treks along the glacier, which can be reached from the town of Moxixang, which in turn can reached from Kangding. For details of the treks see the Lonely Planet Guide.

The crystal glacier comes down along the steep hillside and decorates the whole valley with a pure icy white coating. Its huge ice cave and bridge make the scenery resemble a crystal palace straight out of an ancient myth. More particularly, the magnificent grand ice waterfall, over 1,000 meters high and 1,100 meters wide, is 10 times larger than the famous Huangguoshu Waterfall in Guizhou Province.

In this world of ice and snow, there are dozens of hot, warm and cold springs, exuding from underground. The highest temperature of the spring mouth can be up to 90 . The ancient forest is also an important feature of the valley; Admission: 72 yuan (US$11.38) per person;

Places on the Southern Branch of the Sichuan-Tibet Highway

Danba (370 kilometers from Chengdu, 100 kilometers north of the Southern Branch of the Sichuan-Tibet Highway) is the cultural center of the Jiarong region. Situated in the east gate of Garze, Sichuan Province, Danba is hidden among western Sichuan's mountains and valleys. Danba's nickname, "Beauty Valley," is a tribute to the splendid landscapes and the culture. Of course, in Danba, the girls are very pretty, and every year they hold the Beauty Festival. Danba also has a culture of stone cave architecture and is famous for its stone rooms. Its mysterious Feng shui theory combined with the rich religious culture makes the place close to perfect.

Terraced mountain slopes in western Sichuan

Litang (Ganze Prefecture, 400 kilometers west of Chengd) is situated in a treeless valley that is 4,680 meters (15,350 feet) high. It is home to around 54,000 people, 95 percent of them Tibetans. The number of Chinese is growing. They run many of the shops and restaurants. Large numbers of herding families are also moving to the town, happy to gain access to schools, electricity and jobs. The busy government-sanctioned monastery is home to 300 monks. It has 3,000 monks in the 1950s before it was shout down in 1959. It reopened in the 1980s. Web Site: Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Maoya Prairie (western Litang County) is the largest area of grassland in the central Shaluli Range of the Hengduan Mountains. With an altitude between 3,800 meters and 4,500 meters, this boundless prairie is filled with wandering flocks and herds, and is the site of the famous Litang Horse Racing Festival.

Haizi Mountain and Sister Lake ( Daocheng County) is a beautiful Tibetan landscape, with a striking blue lake and a natural hot spring rich in natural minerals. Grand monasteries are found in an of barren empty valleys with by towering mountains and imposing glaciers.


Muli (200 kilometers south of the Sichuan-Tibet Highway) is a remote region of Sichuan located near Tibet. Once a small kingdom, it was an important stop for Tibetan pilgrims in Sichuan on their way to the holy mountains in Tibet. In the 1920s the pilgrims were often terrorized by bandits, that now seem to have disappeared. The Muli monastery has been rebuilt after being destroyed by Red Guard and is now watched over by lamas and acolytes. Poor roads, deep gorges and politics kept Westerners out of the region until the late 1980s.

In 1924, the explorer Joseph Rock crossed a 13,000-foot pass in Sichuan to reach Muli, then a New-Hampshire-size Buddhist kingdom with only 22,000 people. Rock ate "ancient mottled yak cheese, interspersed with hair" and cakes "heavy as rocks" with the overweight, 6-foot-2-inch monarch, whose black, greasy attendant "showed that soap was not in demand."

Describing dinner with the local ruler, Joseph Rock wrote in National Geographic: “The king's uncle, a dried mummy, plastered and gilded, sat in a golden chorten (shrine) in the same room where we had lunch. The king explained, “My uncle died sixty years ago." Thus royalty in Muli is never lonely."” With little knowledge of the outside world, the monarch asked Rock questions like: Was it possible to ride a horse from Muli to Washington? Was Washington near Germany? Could Rock's binoculars see through mountains." Web Site: China Trekking (click under Minority Towns) China Trekking

Diaolou Buildings and Villages for Tibetan and Qiang Ethnic Groups

Diaolou Buildings and Villages for Tibetan and Qiang Ethnic Groups (300 kilometers north to 150 kilometers west of Chengdu) were nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in.2013 These building and villages are scattered over a fairly large area in the mountains north and west of Chengdu. The area lies between The North End (N 32°17, E 104°10), South End (N 30°04, E 101°38), The East End (N 32°17, E104°10) and West End (N 31°29, E 102°12). [Source: National Commission of the People's Republic of China for UNESCO]

The watchtowers in some Qiang village were built with stone and have polished walls. Solid and able to withstand many earthquakes, they are quadrangle, hexagonal, and octagonal in shape. The tallest are 14 stories, as high as 30 meters, tall. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “The Diaolou Buildings and Villages for Tibetan and Qiang Ethnic Groups display the great adaptability and creativity of the local people, as well as their cultural traditions, in the severe natural environment of the Tibetan Plateau, which bear a unique testimony to the Tibetan and Qiang societies and history... The nominated property includes 225 Diaolou buildings and 15 villages owned by the Tibetan and Qiang ethnic groups, which cover the mixed area where Tibetan and Qiang people dwell in the upper reaches of the Dadu River and the Min River in the north of Hengduan Mountains, with a cultural diversity of ethnic groups, languages, geographic conditions, religions and others.

“The Diaolou Buildings and Villages for Tibetan and Qiang Ethnic Groups are located in the alpine valleys in the east of Tibetan Plateau, and include 225 Diaolou buildings and 15 villages distributed in Barkam County, Jinchuan County, Wenchuan County, Li County, and Mao County in Aba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Region, and in Kangding (known as Tatsienlu in the Western World) County, Danba County, and Daofu County in Ganzi (known as Garz, or Garze, or Kardze in the Western World) Tibetan Autonomous Region, in Sichuan Province in the upper reaches of the Dadu River and the Min River in the Hengduan Mountains. The nominated property includes: Buwa Diaolou Buildings and Village of Qiang in Wenchuan County, including 6 Diaolou Buildings; Luobo Village of Qiang in Wenchuan County; Taoping Village of Qiang in Li County, including 3 Diaolou Buildings; Heihu Village of Qiang and Yingzuihe Village in Mao County, including 7 Diaolou Buildings; Diaolou Buildings and Tibetan Villages in Danba County, including 151 Diaolou Buildings distributed in Kegeyi Village, Xiarenyi Village, Boselong Village, Han'eyi Village, Zuobi Village, Moluo Village, Dongfeng Village, Gongbu Village, and Jiaju Village; Diaolou Buildings and Tibetan Villages of Zhibo, in Songgang Village and Zhibo Village of Barkam County, including 4 Diaolou Buildings; Group of Diaolou Buildings of Zengda Pass, in Jinchuan County, including 2 Diaolou Buildings; Ancient Diaolou Buildings of Kangding, including 23 Diaolou Buildings in Kangding County; and Ancient Diaolou Buildings of Daofu, including 21 Diaolou Buildings in Daofu County.

“The numerous and extensively distributed Diaolou Buildings and Villages for Tibetan and Qiang Ethnic Groups are represented by those in Aba and Ganzi areas in the west of Sichuan Province....The altitudes of the area where the Diaolou Buildings and Villages for Tibetan and Qiang Ethnic Groups are located are mostly between 1500 to 5000 meters above sea. From west to east, there lie the Great Snowy Mountains, the Dadu River, the Qionglai Mountains, and the Min River. With several parallel valleys in the north-south direction providing passages as part of the Tibetan-Yi Corridor for migrations of the ethnic groups, the area is important in the exchanges between ethnic groups in West China.”

History of the Tibetan-Qiang Diaolou Buildings and Villages

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “The Tibetan and Qiang ethnic groups, with a long history and rich associations, live together in the areas of the Hengduan Mountains in the east of Tibetan Plateau...The Qiang people is one of the most ancient ethnic groups in China, according to the inscriptions on bones or tortoise shells (Oracle) of the Shang Dynasty (1700-1100 B.C) (1600BC-1046 B.C.), and have lived in this region for a long time. [Source: National Commission of the People's Republic of China for UNESCO]

“The Tibetan people migrated into the region after the 7th Century, and developed into a branch different from that in Tibet through the ethnic fusion with the local people, for example, the Jiarong (Rgyalrong) Tibetan and Zhaba Tibetan Ethnic Groups living in the nominated property are included in this branch. The Qiang and the Tibetan people live together in this region. The folk worship of deities of heaven and mountains, and religions of Bonpo and Tibetan Buddhism prevail in this area. The mode of production is mainly farming supplemented by animal husbandry, which forms a three-dimensional agriculture in the vertical mountainous climatic environment. The Diaolou buildings and residences, farmlands, meadows, and alpine valleys finally compose the cultural landscape of agricultural settlements in the plateau.

“The architectural tradition of the Diaolou buildings originates from the local stone buildings and tombs in the Neolithic Age. Incorporating religious elements such as the nature worships, Bonpo and Buddhism and meeting the defensive and residential demands, construction techniques and rich forms of vernacular architecture were developed, and Diaolou buildings, the tower-form buildings containing both spiritual and physical functions were erected, representing the unique achievements of the traditional architecture of the Tibetan and Qiang ethnic groups.

“The production mode in Tibetan and Qiang areas is mainly farming supplemented by animal husbandry. The locations and layouts of their villages not only manifest the rational use of land and other natural resources, but also express the respect of nature, which create the beautiful landscape and a sustainable relationship between human and land.”

Tibetan-Qiang Diaolou Buildings

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “The Diaolou Buildings and Villages for Tibetan and Qiang Ethnic Groups are the masterpiece of architecture created by the local ancestors restrained and inspired by the severe natural environments, which take stone, earth and wood as the constructing materials, and have fulfilled remarkable achievements in the aspects of stability, height and scale of architecture through the unique, sophisticated and consummate techniques. The Diaolou buildings are 60 meters high at maximum, and the largest height-side-length ratio can reach 10:1. The architectural floor plans have patterns of 4, 5, 6, 8, 12, or 13 corners. Of the large number of Diaolou buildings, the spiritual functions such as nature worship and religious beliefs are integrated with the practical residential and defensive functions. In the combination of folk residences, military camps, temples and others, they developed into various types of buildings. Most of the Diaolou buildings survived the Sichuan Earthquake in 2008, which demonstrate their great aseismatic capacity. [Source: National Commission of the People's Republic of China for UNESCO]

“The Diaolou buildings are some high watchtowers mostly built with stone, with only a few built of adobe in the areas where Qiang people live. A Diaolou building is usually 10 to 60 meters high and covers an area of 25 to 100 square meters. On each floor, it is designed with openings, floor slabs and a single wooden ladder. There are often embrasures on the exterior wall. Besides the square plan, the floor plans of the Diaolou buildings of Qiang are often in form of equilateral polygons with extra ridges masoned on the outer walls, while the plans of the Diaolou buildings of Tibetan are often star-shaped with 5, 6, 8, 12, or 13 corners. [Source: National Commission of the People's Republic of China for UNESCO]

“The residences of the Tibetan and Qiang people are often 2 to 4-storey flat-topped Diaolou buildings with rectangular plans, stone-wood structure and earthen roofs. People rear livestock in pens on the ground floor, live and store on the upper middle floors, and use the top floor as the drying platform. The main living room is equipped with a fireplace and the area of each floor is gradually reduced upwards. White stones are piled up at the four corners of the roof, reflecting the local worship of snowy mountains and white stones.

“The Diaolou Buildings of Tibetan and Qiang Ethnic Groups reflect the unique local culture that has always emphasized the spiritual connection between the height of architecture and divinity ever since the ancient time. The continuously evolving landscape and its relative intangible heritage constituted by the Diaolou buildings and villages, as evidence to their long history and traditional societies, authentically manifest the cultural features and evolving processes of the agricultural civilization on the Tibetan Plateau.”

Tibetan-Qiang Diaolou Building Construction and Architecture

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “ The techniques used in the construction of the Diaolou buildings include the outward masonry, the batteredwall and the use of wooden bars for reinforcement etc., all of which represent the highest level of traditional Chinese stone tower building techniques. The earliest historic document mentioning the Diaolou buildings was the Book of the Later Han written in the 5th Century. However, among extant Diaolou buildings so far, the earliest constructed one dates back to the Tang Dynasty (618-906) (618-907) and the others constructed in later dynasties until the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911). [Source: National Commission of the People's Republic of China for UNESCO]

“The Diaolou buildings, featuring their large scales, sophisticated techniques and various forms, represent the great achievements of the traditional architecture of Tibetan and Qiang ethnic groups, and constitute a unique landscape of agricultural settlements on the Tibetan Plateau in combination of such elements as folk residences, temples, farmlands, sacred mountains, sacred trees, valleys, rivers and others, which reflect the complicated social transitions in the Tibetan-Yi Corridor area in the large context of time and space through their rich contents and meanings.

“The origins of the Diaolou buildings are associated with the nature worship and the defensive demands of the ancestors of Tibetan and Qiang people, with functions of residence, religion, ostentatious display of wealth, and geomancy (Fengshui) emerging later. They finally developed into various types of architecture in combination with folk residences, temples, and military camps (fortresses of tribal leaders).

“The materials, forms and decorations of other folk residences and temples in the Diaolou villages of Tibetan and Qiang ethnic groups are well preserved as they were, which authentically demonstrate their own features and the differences between them due to different periods, ethnic groups and regions. The traditional construction techniques of the nominated property have been passed down and preserved, with many craftsmen still living and working today. The restoration and new construction of the Diaolou buildings and villages all strictly adopt the traditional techniques, related rites and other customs, and use the local materials.

“Most of the buildings within the villages maintain their original functions. Although the defensive function of the Diaolou buildings has been weakened while the functions of storage, residence and religions have continued, the Diaolou buildings are still regarded as important properties and the symbol of ethnic cultures by the villagers with the associated customs entirely continued.

Tibetan-Qiang Diaolou Villages

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “The villages of Tibetan and Qiang ethnic groups are the agricultural settlements on the plateau, which are usually located on the terraces or gentle slopes between the alpine valleys, abiding by the principles of facing the sun, situated close to water, avoiding the winds, and occupying less arable lands. They are often surrounded with sacred mountains, divine woods, religious and entertaining places. The settlements are diverse in scale, with the different distribution: concentrated, dispersive, or along the mountain ridges. The Diaolou buildings are distributed inside or outside the village or close to the strategically important places according to their various functions. The number of Diaolou buildings varies in different villages, with that of the Tibetan villages relatively larger.”

“The forms, functions and techniques of the Diaolou Buildings of Tibetan and Qiang Ethnic Groups and the locations of the villages and their diversity in layout are the results of the inheritance and developments of different ethnic groups in various areas for more than 2000 years, which manifest the diversity of languages, ethnic groups and religions in the Tibetan-Yi Corridor area in Southwest China, and their ethic migrations and cultural evolutions as well, especially the transformation from nomadic to agricultural civilization, and the cultural exchanges and communications between the Tibetan and the Han people.

“The locations, layouts, surrounding agricultural landscape and natural environments of the nominated villages all authentically display their original appearances, and the production modes and religious beliefs have also been well preserved. The original inhabitants of Tibetan and Qiang ethnic groups still live in all the nominated villages, who highly identify with and are very proud of their ethnic cultures.

“The locations and layouts of the villages of Tibetan and Qiang ethnic groups manifest multiple functions of defense, disaster prevention and relief, production, religion, providing an outstanding example of human settlements with full respect to the natural laws and an example of the three-dimensional agriculture in vertical climatic zone in the Hengduan Mountains. At present, with the severe challenges of urbanization, energy exploitation, tourism development to the natural environment on the Tibetan Plateau and to traditional cultures of Tibetan and Qiang ethnic groups, the lifestyles represented by the Diaolou buildings and villages should be properly protected.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, Nolls China Web site; CNTO; Perrochon photo site;; University of Washington; Ohio State University; UNESCO; Wikipedia; Julie Chao photo site

Text Sources: CNTO (China National Tourist Organization),, UNESCO, reports submitted to UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, China Daily, Xinhua, Global Times, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2020

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