Eric Wagner is a graduate student in biology at the University of Washington. He reports from China, where a group of students and faculty from UW and Sichuan University is working to help create a management plan for a popular national park.

Saturday, 22 Apr 2006

On the road, Sichuan Province, China

“It’s weird,” Yuh-Chi Niou says to me as our bus bounces and rattles its way across the Chinese countryside. “The words they use to describe Jiuzhaigou come out in English as ‘fairyland’ or ‘heaven.’ They do sound kind of silly.”

A little slice of heaven.

Photos: Eric Wagner.

An undergraduate at the University of Washington, Niou is talking about her recent feat of translating an introduction to Jiuzhaigou National Nature Reserve, where we are headed. I’ve just flipped through it, and am asking about the verbal excess. “Fairyland” seems just too, oh, Tony Robbins trying to make the park feel good about itself. (“You’re a fairyland! Believe it and it’ll be true!”) Nothing could be that amazing.

But when we arrive at the park six hours later and I stumble out of the bus and see what everyone has been trying to describe, I forgive the hyperbole.

Jiuzhaigou Reserve, in Sichuan province, is one of the best-known national parks in China. It encompasses about 280 square miles of mountains and waterfalls, lakes and forests, with elevations that range from 6,000 to nearly 16,000 feet. This results in a suite of habitats, and the park is home to an impressive collection of biota. It is one of the last places to see a giant panda in the wild, as well as the golden monkey — two of China’s more high-profile endangered species.

The Chinese government created the park in 1978. After it opened to the public in the early 1980s, about 5,000 people visited annually. Today, about 7,000 come in a single day. The increase is due to a series of designations starting in the 1990s, when the park caught the world’s keen green eye. It was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992, a World Biosphere Reserve in 1997, and is certified as sustainable by Green Globe 21. (Jiuzhaigou is China’s only park to have all three designations.)

Will tourists crowd out views like this?

These accolades have had a marked impact. Last year, more than 2 million people passed through the entrance gates. This year, the park aims to raise that number by half a million more. And those people will want places to sleep and eat. They’ll want to see the amazing views that travel agents promise with their colorful brochures. And they’ll want to do all of this in a fragile landscape that isn’t especially suited to handling so much sustained human traffic.

This is where Niou and I (and several others) come in. We’re part of a contingent of students and faculty from the University of Washington and Sichuan University in Chengdu, China. Pitching along with us on the bus was a crew of engineers, chemists, ecologists, anthropologists, and archaeologists. We’re all here because of UW Worldwide, a program sponsored by UW that’s designed to foster multinational collaborations in research, education, and service.

Over the next nine days, we’ll work with the park’s science staff on projects ranging from wastewater management to environmental monitoring. Our goal is to help the park develop a more comprehensive management plan for its natural and cultural resources.

And on that note, one small bit of trivia: “Jiuzhaigou” literally means “Valley of Nine Villages.” All of those villages, some of which are still inhabited, were Tibetan, and speak to the uneasy relationship between the park’s conservation goals and the area’s original residents.

But that’s a story for tomorrow. My stomach is still recovering from the bus ride, and I want to play tourist for a couple more minutes. I’ll test my camera’s robust promise to capture “the unique essence of your chosen image,” or something like that. Most of my photos will turn out to be some variation on two ridges converging into a valley with an awesome peak towering behind. At slide shows to come, conscripted family and friends may wonder why I took the same picture 800 times. But I will remember that each shot was, at the time, both singular and spectacular.