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.
There are day hikes, overnight camping and for the very fit a three day trek around the holy mountain, Zhayizhaga, reaching altitudes over 4,000 meters.
Local Tibetans follow a branch of Buddhism called Bon, which is rooted in animistic traditions. They fought hard to prevent logging in the area in the 60s and 70s, and have always been careful guardians of the land.
“We never cut trees or hunted animals on the sacred mountain,” said guide Langjie, who turned down a well-paid oil industry job to return and work in the valleys where he grew up.
The creation of the park added legal force to the religious injunction that has helped preserve one of China’s most bio-diverse areas, with animals ranging from the famous giant panda to the tiny but also rare Duke of Bedford’s vole.
Langjie, whose father was a blacksmith and grandfather carved print-blocks for prayer flags, told recent visitors about edible plants and herbs, and life in now-deserted villages perched a long walk up mountain slopes to avoid flooding.
Li now has his eye on opening hikes to one of these villages, in the neighboring Hejiao valley — a name that he says means paradise in Tibetan. It is a clutch of wood and adobe houses with roofs anchored by stones, cradled in bird-filled mountains, he says. For now, he needs to show the park that the pilot eco-tourism project has a viable, sustainable future in a country where hiking and camping are only just starting to become popular.
Visitors to the main valleys already stump up around 300 yuan ($44) in entrance fees so authorities are not short of income.
But China has a tradition of nature loving stretching back to figures such as eighth century poet Wang Wei, whose most famous verse, about sunlight-dappled moss in an evening forest, could have been written about Jiuzhaigou.
Jack Li is convinced Wang’s heirs will find his program.
“This is a new kind of tourism for China’s national parks, but I know that we are ready for it.”
For details of eco-tourism in Jiuzhaigou, go to the park website www.jiuzhai.com, email Jack Li at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call +86 0837 7737811