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May 30, 2017

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Environmental awareness keeps Jiuzhaigou a 'fairyland'

JIUZHAIGOU, Sichuan -- It was scary to see our chartered jet, an Airbus 319, wind through the lofty mountains and deep valleys over northern Sichuan, so close to them that you'd fear Frank Sinatra's "Now, the end is near" could happen any moment. So, it was a relief to hear the captain's voice wafting through the public address system urging the passengers to get prepared for landing.

Landing? In the middle of craggy mountains? It's no joke. In no time, the airport was in sight, located 3,600 meters above sea level and hidden in the mountains. Oh, it must have taken the spirit of yugong yishan (愚公移山) — the legend about Mr. Stupid's attempt to move the mountain away from his backyard — to carve the runways out of the rugged terrain to accommodate jetliners like A319 and B737. It was only a 40-minute flight from Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, to the high-altitude Jiuhuang airport (九黄机场), so named because of its proximity to Jinzhaigou (九寨沟归来不看水) and Huanglong (黄龙归来不看山), the two tourism spots where we were headed.

It was early in the morning when the plane landed in the middle of nowhere. To the pleasant surprise of some 200 visitors, journalists from the four corners of the world who had just attended a three-day forum in Chengdu, a bevy of local girls from the minority Tibetan and Qiang (羌) communities were waiting in their traditional costumes. They welcomed the visitors with silky white "kata" scarves — the highest symbol of respect and honor. The scarves were more than heartwarming; they also warmed the bodies of the guests who were shivering in the cold and gasping for breath in the thin air of high mountains. We had come to a different world — a fairyland, a fantasyland, a Shangri-la.

But the airport, which opened in 2003, is still 80 km away from Jiuzhaigou and 50 km from Huanglong. An airport highway connecting the two spots is touted as the country's first "Green Highway" because it is environmentally friendly, blending harmoniously with the surrounding landscape, forming a picture of undulating guardrails and leafy trees lining the highway.

Our guide, a young beauty from the Qiang minority who preferred to be called "little Tang" or "Xiaotang" (小唐) in Mandarin, said the work of environmental protection in Jiuzhaigou is probably the best in China. To guard against damage by commercial tourism, the number of visitors is limited to 20,000 per day. Cars operating in the park must use "clean energy" such as natural gas to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, she said.

Jiuzhaigou is relatively new as a tourist attraction in China. But this newcomer quickly became a hit in its own right. It is hailed by visitors as a fairyland because of its celestial beauty. Water in Jiuzhaigou is colorful, like Hollywood's Technicolor, due to the reflection from different minerals lying at the bottom of water. Water, no doubt, is the main attraction of all the allures in Jiuzhaigou, Xiaotang told us.

"Have you ever heard the saying, 'no more sightseeing for waterscape once returning from Jiuzhaigou?'" (九寨沟) she asked, like a teacher testing her pupils. Well, I haven't, to be honest. But I have heard another saying, "no more sightseeing for mountains once returning from Huangshan" (黄山). Anyway, the saying speaks volumes of Jiuzhaigou's incomparable beauty.

There are hundreds of lakes and ponds dotting the landscape of Jiuzhaigou. Xiaotang said the local minority people call the lakes and ponds "sea" because they live so far away from the sea that they imagine the sea must look like that.

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