(Apologies for the cheesy title)
It’s been an exciting 9 days, having just returned from traveling in 2 rural counties in Sichuan province. On the 5th of July I set out with Professor Sarah Bexell, another staff member from the Chengdu Research Base for Giant Panda Breeding’s Conservation Education Department, and 6 college students. We’d already spent 3 days together training for the summer camps we were going to lead (LINK) and we were ready to get started. Our first day involved a charter bus ride to relatively nearby Le Shan (famous for its giant stone Buddha carved into the mountain side), a bus across the city, another charter bus to E’Bian, and a city bus ride– and the trip took all day. The trip was a good opportunity for me to see Sichuan outside of Chengdu. The region is incredibly mountainous and has a lush green environment due to heavy rainfall and excellent clay-rich soil. Our ride took us winding through mountains very different than the Rockies. These mountains bore more of a resemblance to cliffs or ridges rather than gradually sloping mountains. As we snaked on roads along the Dadu and Min rivers, we cut across ridges that generally had grades steeper than 45 degrees. This region is home to the Yi people. The Yi are an ethnic minority who live in the southwestern provinces of China. The dominant ethnic group in China is the Han. Like whites in the United States, Han control most of the wealth, power, and official positions. Yi speak their own language, in addition to Mandarin, and have a distinct culture. Traditional clothing incorporates a black vest or jacket embroidered or brocade with gold and bright colors. Adult women also wear headdresses of a similar style.
In E’Bian we met the staff of Heizhugou nature reserve, who would collaborate with us to plan the nature hikes and bird watches in the camp. The next morning we set out for a 2 hour bus ride into the mountains to reach Ha Qu (pronounced ha-choo), a village less than 10 miles from the nature reserve. (Nature reserves in China are protected lands where only staff are supposed to be admitted and even they are restricted from the centermost regions. In reality, illegal collection of wildlife and plants is present; poachers and mushroom and bamboo shoot collectors illegally enter reserves.) We had 20 students from a nearby village and their teacher join us in Ha Qu—meeting us there as the village could accommodate the camp’s needs. Half of the town had recently been reconstructed with western development funds. While eastern and coastal China has seen huge development and modernization, central and western China has remained a network of small villages. While Ha Qu had electricity and plumbing before the redevelopment, even afterwards few people had cell phones and many homes still had earthen floors. We were informed that $4 million RMB (roughly $626,000 US) had been invested to construct 2-dozen houses complete with balconies and multiple indoor bathrooms, a restaurant, a plaza, a general store, and a community center. The village lay in a river valley surrounded by mountains and we took several hikes up to ridges similar to wild panda habitats. The high mountains were also inhabited by leeches, which we encountered on our second day.
We ran similar camps at both sites for 8-12 year olds: scavenger hunts, nature hikes, water and bird walks, games involving animals, camouflage, or habitats, and a final performance which resembled a talent show. Videos below shows a bird watching trip and camp members performing in Ha Qu. My role in the camp was that of an English teacher. The Ha Qu campers had some preliminary knowledge so we went over basic introductions and phrases, animals local to Sichuan, words for the environment (tree, leaf, etc.), colors, and numbers. We played the hokey pokey (a huge hit) and sang nursery rhymes. We performed “I’m a little teapot” for the finale. Each camp lasted 3 days.
After the first camp we drove back to E’Bian, took a bus to Ma’Bian (the next county), and a car to Sha Qiang The trips together took nearly 2 days. The most exciting part was the road to Sha Qiang, the village where we held the second camp. We spent the trip winding through the mountains, half of the time on unpaved roads while traveling 40 miles/hour (video posted below). Sha Qiang was a small village with one a single road that deviated from the main thoroughfare. We stayed in the local school’s dormitory with half of our 26 campers—because some of them lived as far away as a 2-hour walk. Our second set of campers were just as friendly and engaged as the first. While they had less experience with English, they still loved the hokey pokey (and danced it in the final performance). The area had experienced heavy rain and storms the day before our arrival. As mentioned Sichuan is a fertile region with steep mountains, this is combined with an intense harvesting (one might categorize it as pillaging) of natural resources. Nickel mining is an especially prevalent industry—on our trip we passed more nickel-laden trucks than all other vehicles (although motorbikes were the dominant presence). Agriculture and construction have also increased in the region. Mining and logging has resulted in a loss of natural growth, resulting in rock falls and land slides after heavy rains. While these are natural occurrences, human activity has greatly increased their frequency. When traveling, our car frequently had to dodge fallen rock. This also extended our travel time as traffic was often limited to a single lane on a two-directional road. Overall the trip was an extended roller coaster ride that was quite fun and worth filming.
The trips gave a great perspective on how large Sichuan province is. The shortest route between Sha Qiang and Chengdu was 7 hours total although both cities are in the same province. Coming from the East Coast, it was still surprising that one could travel 7 hours in one direction and remain in a single state. The camps were also a great opportunity to spread basic information on animal welfare and conservation with the aim to have children teach their peers and families. Our counselors were local college students in order to help spread conservation education at the university level as well. One significant barrier to the camps, however, is the cultural attitude towards animals in China. While many people in the US have pets and can be tempted to appreciate animals when shown pictures of cuddly, baby mammals, Chinese culture is overall very different. Domestic animals in rural areas are working cats and dogs—or sources of food or income. Wild songbirds are caught in cages for singing competitions. Pets are often luxury objects appreciated for their ability to act cute and move. Very few people I’ve encountered treat animals as Americans would, making it difficult to increase the human-animal bond. That’s not to say that our campers were apathetic to animals though—quite the opposite. They just needed a little extra education—and have their work cut out for them. We wish them the best.
I’ll be off to visit a few sites in Chengdu and travel around the country for the next week. My internship is winding down but ahead are still visits to Jiuzhaigou Nature Reserve, the Le Shan Buddha, and the terracotta warriors of Xi’an—and one final blog post.
Here is a video taken during a bird-watching nature hike nearby Heizhugou nature reserve. We had 20 campers from a nearby village. On our hour-and-a-half trek we climbed up a nearby ridge and spent time looking at the wildlife.
The finale of our camp performance included a group song with all Chinese counselors and all 20 campers. This is taken in the village square at Ha Qu near Heizhugou nature reserve.
This video was taken on our route back from the village of Sha Qiang, where we held our second camp. We’re en route to the county seat, Ma Bian. The trip lasted nearly two hours- half of which was on unpaved roads.