Recognised as the least developed province in China, Sichuan has turned its challenges into an income generator for further development. In this feature BUKOLA OGUNSINA takes you on a perspective changing journey into the mountains.
The weather is hot and humid, and mostly cloudy just like it would be in some parts of Africa. Light drops of rain welcome you to Sichuan, a rural part of China located in the south western hinterland region. While Sichuan, history going back to about two million years ago, is famous for its Pandas, there’s a lot more to this mysterious yet welcoming province with its population of 91 million.
The journey took about three hours before arrival at the place in the mountains were visits would be made to Lixian and Wenchuan Counties. What was this region’s secret? It did not see the mountains as a challenge but rather took advantage of the beautiful scenery as a selling point to tourists and investors in a bid to attract international tourism. It used the scenic views of the, Glacial Mountains, Grassland Mountains, landscapes and versatile cultures to its advantage. According to reports by officials, in 2016 the region had over 4.72 million tourists.
Women in traditional Tibetan attire sang welcoming songs in their native tongue lifting up the ambience as a visit is made to the popular Taoping Qiang Stockaded Village, reported by Chinese and foreign scholars as a ‘living fossil of Qiang architectural art ’and ‘mysterious Oriental castle’. Walking through the labyrinth gives one a sense of the ancient times. It was constructed for protection from outside attacks. The guide explained that strangers would often get lost while the natives easily found their way. The structure is recognised as the World’s most completely preserved architectural complex. The village’s yearly gross income is estimated at 1.986 million Yuan. After an exploration of the village, Qiudi village was next.
The natives of Qiudi village were happy to receive guests, and presented white scarves as gifts. Qiudi in Guergou town, is a Jiarong Tibetan village at an altitude of 2407.6 metres in the northwest of Lixian County. In 2016, it achieved a total revenue of 3.06 million Yuan. According to reports by government officials, the village was relocated to its present location, Dagoukou. Before this the village made a living from vegetable plantation, wild medicinal material collection and village enterprises payments, thanks to the mutually sponsored pasture with over 800 yaks, and a 160 KW hydropower station.
“Most ethnic people live in the high mountains up in the plateau. It’s the closest County to Chengdu,” said the Governor of Lixian County, Wang Shiwei, who was the host. He spoke of the people living on the mountains stating that the altitude of one of the inhabited mountains was at 5900. “It’s not a large population, Tibetan people account for 50 percent, Han Chinese 20 percent,” he said, adding that the area’s second industry is tourism, boasting of a variety of landscapes and versatile ethnic culture. “Last year we received 4.72 million tourists coming to this County, and have generated revenue of 3.2 billion dollars. Our farm produce is synonymous with this area.” The county was also said to have lost 110 people in the tragic May 12 earthquake which haunted the region years later in the aftermath of its shock.
Deputy Director of Foreign Affairs Office of Sichuan Government, Xiao Yonggang, reminiscing, shared an experience of kindness from a Tibetan he hardly knew. “When I was in the Tibetan mountains, a Tibetan mother feared I would not survive the cold. With wool she knitted me a sweater. I still keep that sweater up until today,” he said hauntingly.
The next day, it was a bumpy ride to Yingxiu town, southeast of Wenchuan County. The region is at an elevation of 900m, and epicentre of the earthquake. Many lost their lives, there was a high casualty record and property destruction. Information gathered is that the town was rebuilt at its original location with help from Dongguan City, in Guangdong Province. The newly planned areas include; schools, hospitals, farmers markets, sewage disposal works, water works and youth activity centre among others. The memory of the huge loss still quietly haunts the town.
The museum of the epicentre was the proof. The guide at the museum described a witness’s account of what the earthquake had sounded like, ‘250 nuclear bombs going off at the same time’. He explained that its magnitude was estimated at 8, adding that 69,000 people had lost their lives.
There was a memorial ground constructed for the victims. Yellow flowers were handed at the gates to be gently placed on the memorial pavement in respect. It was a sober occasion. And then there was the school where the tragedy had struck heavily. Collapsed storey buildings remained eerily through time as a testament to what had happened that day so many years ago. One of the buildings which used to be five storeys high was now just one that had managed to stay above ground amidst the tremor, while the rest of the four were sunken under.
The guide further explained that some of the bodies, about ten, could not be removed from the collapsed part of the building that had sunk into the depths of the ground, adding that 51 students had lost their lives during the earthquake. The town is said to have received lots of support, an example was Dongguan City in Guangdong contributing towards its reconstruction. With basements built for balance and safety, the guide noted that the newly reconstructed city can survive any magnitude of earthquake. Walking along the paved pathways, flags of various colours fluttered in the wind, making a rhythm. The guide explained that they were Tibetan prayer flags whose rustling sounds as the winds blew through them, chant a mantra for protection against such disaster reoccurring.
The next visit was to the Dujiangyan Irrigation System. It was a beauty to behold, even more so because it was not just generating income through irrigation, but attracted visitors to the site. Reportedly the world’s single retained oldest large scale irrigation system displaying diversion of water without use of a dam. The irrigation system has three main sections namely; the Fish Mouth Water Dividing Dam, the Flying Sand Dam Spillway and the Bottle neck Channel. According to the government, the rushing flow of Minjang River, puts the natural terrain to good use for irrigation, flood control and sand discharge.
Afterwards, a visit to Jiulong community also affected by the earthquake, revealed more work that the government had assisted with to rebuild the community, infrastructure and livelihood wise. The Secretary General of CPC in Jiulong Community, Mr Long Bo gave a tour of the reconstructed and organised community. Wondering why the inhabitants were mostly the elderly, it was explained that the youth at the time were at work. While some worked in the irrigation system, some of the others have moved to the big provinces such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong for work. Reflecting on these experiences, it was time to return back to Chengdu.
These mountainous counties taught the lesson that in the face of adversity, there was hope. The region had made use of what it had and turned it into an income generator. In the wake of the tragic earthquake, it continued relentlessly to survive.
Sichuan in general is a hub of attraction for tourism; Chengdu’s Research Base of Giant Pandas, Kuan and Zhai Alley riddled with an atmosphere of a more traditional Chengdu, Wuhu Shrine, said to be the only temple serving both Emperor and his minister, Jinli street, rebuilt and said by legends to be the oldest commercial street in history of Xi Shu, and the famous Sichuan Opera known for its quick changing faces among others. Again, the mountains and the people have also left a long lasting impression of Sichuan, on how determination thrives above challenges.