The ancient watchtowers of the Qiang people in western Sichuan are no secret; they're in the China Lonely Planet, for a start. But what I wasn't expecting when I visited the village of Suopo (梭坡), where there's a large cluster of these fascinating stone structures, was to be able to climb up inside one of them - from the rooftop of a local family home.
As I clambered up the hillside beside Suopo, a one-hour walk along the Dadu River from the small town of Danba (丹巴), a young guy came up to me and asked where I was going (as if he didn't know). 'The watchtowers,' I replied, predictably. 'I know one you can climb up. Do you want to see?' he asked. Intrigued, I followed him past village homes and three or four of these surreal-looking towers.
Ranging in height from 20m to 60m, the towers, which go back around 1000 years, had a number of uses (a store for valuable goods, a place of worship), but mostly they were used as warning beacons to help protect local villages from would-be attackers. Inside, they had a number of levels, accessed from a window some metres above ground from which a ladder would be sent down to people who were authorised to enter. Unlike the main stone structure of the towers, the inside levels were made of wood and have since rotted away, leaving a simple hollow stone tower.
But one enterprising family, whose traditional three-storey stone house sits next to a 700-year-old tower, has rebuilt the inside levels, added a few wooden ladders and now lets visitors climb up the tower from their roof; for a modest fee, of course (Y15).
Their typical Qiang home had a half-open basement for livestock (30 bleating goats in this case), a ground-floor living area and a top floor used for storing grain, drying crops...and accessing ancient watchtowers.
Once inside the tower, we climbed neat little ladders made from tree trunks, with wedged steps cut into them, up six or seven levels to the roof. Climbing the tower was cool in itself; you could still make out part of the now disintegrated original wooden levels. But the best bit was reaching the roof and being able to look down on the other magnificent towers below, nestled incongruously among village homes, which these days watch over nothing more dangerous than spectacular mountain scenery.
Daniel McCrohan is researching the 12th edition of the China guidebook.