Hiking into the secret heart of Tibetan "paradise"

Mon May 17, 2010 12:29am EDT
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By Emma Graham-Harrison

JIUZHAIGOU, China (Reuters Life!) - A dozen waterwheels spin in a quiet woodland above the village of Rexi, powering not mills but prayers, painted onto endlessly spinning drums.

Barely 6 km (4 miles) away, buses ferry thousands of tourists to visit one of China's most famous scenic spots, but this small clearing is filled only by the sound of birdsong.

Jiuzhaigou -- or nine-village gorge -- is one of the gems in China's tourism crown, where lakes tinted jewel colors by minerals and algae are cradled by pristine forests. Tibetan villages dot the mountain slopes.

But gawping at the scenery is a flood of tourists that tops 10,000 a day in high season, who can make the boardwalks running through the narrow valleys seem like crowded city sidewalks.

For visitors longing to get away from it all, a new "eco-tourism" project aims give them a taste for wilderness by hiking down a smaller valley inside the main park, without the spectacular lakes but with equally precious tranquility.

Along with a rich collection of plants, birds and animals, Zharu valley hides a sacred waterfall festooned with prayer flags, an important shrine to a holy mountain, civil war hideouts and two ruined villages, that last year had only 88 visitors.

"I wanted to help people get a better sense of the amazing natural beauty here, to get away from the buses and into the wilderness," said eco-tourism project manager Li Jianyu.

The fluent English-speaker started the program last year after stumbling across long-forgotten plans for a different kind of visit, and has been running it almost single-handedly ever since, doing everything from advertising and translating to guiding, cooking and pitching tents.   Continued...

<p>The abandoned Tibetan village of Heijiao nestles in the mountains of Jiuzhaigou National Park, Sichuan province May 12, 2010. Li Jianyu, manager of the nature reserve's pioneering eco-tourism project in neighbouring Zharu valley, hopes he might one day be able to take visitors to Heijiao. He says its name means "paradise" in Tibetan. REUTERS/Stringer</p>