Archives for posts with tag: Laohegou

Until I started working in the Laohegou Land Trust Reserve last month, I had never strayed very far off the beaten path in China. Nanjing was a bustling city filled with foreign exchange students. Lijiang was one of the top tourist destinations in China. Sure, I’ve been to rural areas and visited villages accessible only by foot, but almost all of these places had been developed with tourism in mind. There were always guesthouses and hotels to stay in. There were always vans or buses set up to transport visitors to local areas of interest. I almost always saw other foreigners traveling the same route I was, usually a route outlined in The Lonely Planet or recommended on Trip Advisor.

But when I traveled to Laohegou for the first time, I knew that I was in for a different experience. Laohegou is located in Minzhu Village, Pingwu County. Pingwu County is technically under the jurisdiction of Mianyang City (Sichuan’s second-largest urban center), but a good two or three hours away by car. The receptionist at the hostel where I stayed in Chengdu had never even heard of Pingwu County, and had no idea that Laohegou existed. Same thing with several of my friends who had spent extensive time in Sichuan.

Following my supervisor’s instructions, I took a bus from Chengdu to Pingwu, getting off at a stop called Baicao. I stood in the middle of a tiny intersection as the bus drove away. There was a convenience store to my right, a couple of houses to my left, and nothing else. I had a moment of panic when I realized that it was almost dark, I had no idea where I was, and this might not even be the right stop. Luckily, barely a minute had passed before a big muddy pickup truck stopped to pick me up, and we rumbled off into the mountains, past Minzhu Village, through the big metal gate marking the entrance to the reserve, and finally arrived at the compound where Laohegou staff eat, sleep, and work.

It would be overly romantic to call Laohegou “wild.” The forest is all secondary growth, having been logged for timber in the past. Scattered throughout the woods are old stone walls and the decaying foundations of hunting cabins. But the lack of human presence has inspired a resurgence of wildlife in the area. In my short time in the reserve, I have already seen wild boars, tufted deer, and Sichuan snub nosed monkeys.

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Laohegou is no Yellowstone, teeming with busloads of tourists all year round. It’s no Laojunshan, in Lijiang, where visitors from all over China come to experience a (literal) breath of fresh air.

Laohegou is different. Over and over again, various staff members have emphasized to me that the reserve’s first and foremost goal is conservation. That means a strictly enforced “core zone” in which no human activity is allowed. That means limited access to the reserve, and a big metal gate blocking the entrance (although locals are still allowed inside, and I see visitors almost every weekend coming from nearby villages to check out the reserve or visit the dilapidated little temple up the road).

There are no plans to develop tourism in Laohegou, and there likely never will be. The area is beautiful, yes, like all natural places are—forests, mountains, stonebed rivers—but the landscape isn’t spectacular enough to attract visitors from across the country or even from Chengdu. The local villages aren’t set up to accommodate travellers. Everyone agrees that an influx of tourists would bring more harm than good. With a solid source of funding from the Sichuan Nature Conservation Foundation, backed by some of China’s richest investors, Laohegou is free to focus on protecting biodiversity for biodiversity’s sake.

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A ranger checks one of the infrared cameras used to monitor wildlife in the reserve.

It is interesting to me that such a “pure” nature reserve would be founded by The Nature Conservancy, an organization known in the United States for cooperating with Big Business and supporting “sustainable” industry development. Mark Tercek, CEO and president of The Nature Conservancy, believes that quantifying natural resources for financial markets is the only way to make lasting improvements in the health of the global ecosystem. In a New Yorker article published last spring by D. T. Max, Tercek explains that without catering to the needs of industry, environmental protection would never gain enough support to make a real difference.

My high school classmate Ethan Linck wrote a great discussion of this New Yorker article here.

On one hand, I absolutely agree with Tercek. If we truly hope to achieve a sustainable global society in the future, in which human beings thrive without damaging ecosystems or depleting natural resources, then every industry, every business, and every individual must be committed to achieving this goal. Simply walling off choice patches of natural landscape isn’t going to cut it.

However, I also believe that “nature” is more than the sum of its parts, and that in quantifying nature, you lose sight of the reasons why it’s worth protecting in the first place. As the New Yorker article points out, it’s all well and good when a big factory realizes that it is both more cost effective and smog-reducing to plant a thousand acres of trees, rather than to install new smoke scrubbers. But what if it hadn’t worked out that way? What if it was actually more cost effective to install the scrubbers? The factory would have no incentive to plant trees, the local people and animals would never benefit from the beautiful forest, and the factory’s air pollution would continue as it has always continued.

I was lucky enough to have grown up in a natural place, with the freedom to run around and climb trees and catch salamanders. There was no economic value to my childhood exploration, and it would be impossible to quantify how these experiences have influenced my adult life.

This is why I believe that there is no single blanket approach to conservation; every natural area should be evaluated individually, taking into account the needs of its particular people, plants, and animals.

Therefore, Laohegou represents an extremely interesting—and I’d argue, successful—approach to nature conservation. Laohegou recognizes that to succeed as a protector of biodiversity, it must maintain friendly, neighborly relations with the surrounding communities. Staff members are currently working with local farmers to develop a market for custom-order agricultural products: walnuts, honey, persimmons, meat, and poultry.

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But the reserve still puts conservation first. The locals may never get rich selling walnuts and sausages, but they won’t be destitute either. They won’t have to change their lives around completely to accommodate tourism or another new industry with no history in the area. They will always have a beautiful natural area to visit, without competing with busloads of visitors from all over the country.

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As for me, I’m excited for the chance to play a small role in the continued success of such a unique nature reserve, as a volunteer for The Nature Conservancy. Although Laohegou is very isolated (I often find myself craving a bubble tea or wishing I didn’t have to beg somebody to drive me half an hour to the nearest store just so I can buy shampoo), I am enjoying living in a truly non-touristy area of China. As a foreigner, I actually feel less conspicuous here than I do in China’s second or third-tier cities. City-dwellers, raised on a diet of Hollywood movies and stereotypes about white people, are likely to point and stare and giggle.

Rural people might express mild surprise at finding a foreigner in their midst, but they are generally too preoccupied with more important matters to give me a second thought.

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I said in my last post that I’d write about conservation in Laohegou, but then I went to Chengdu for the weekend…and now I can’t think about anything but food!

I visited Chengdu with two Nature Conservancy employees, both of whom would soon be flying out to their respective offices in other parts of China. Before leaving, they wanted to experience the capital of Sichuan Province in all its glory, and I was more than happy to accompany them. All three of us had the same goal for this trip: to eat as many local specialties as possible.

The Great Food Odyssey started earlier for me than it did for my travel companions. Having slept through breakfast, I decided to get something to eat from the food carts when our van stopped for a break outside Jiangyou. I pointed to some dumplings that looked good—chaoshou 抄手—not realizing that they would be served in a bowl of red-hot soup. The van honked and I clambered back on, trying to balance the soup on my lap. Turns out, nobody else in the van had gotten anything to eat at all, and there I was with my full meal of messy, soupy dumplings. Oh well, they were delicious!

When we arrived in Chengdu, we joined a big group from Laohegou for a fancy sit-down lunch of old fashioned Chengdu fare. Although many of the dishes were predictably spicy, some were much subtler than I would have expected, emphasizing the tangy flavor of Sichuan pepper without the usual mouth-numbing effect.

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After lunch, the three of us split off from the group and ventured downtown. First we stopped for a local snack called sandapao三大炮, which are balls of sticky rice coated in ground peanuts and served with sweet syrup. They are named, I’m assuming, after the loud “pow” sound of the rice balls being thrown into the peanut mixture.

Still full from lunch, we nevertheless made another quick stop at this place, famous for its local Chengdu snacks. Between the three of us, we polished off one order each of tianshui mian 甜水面 (thick noodles in a sweet and spicy sauce), zhong shuijiao 钟水饺 (dumplings), and liangfen 凉粉 (bean jelly).

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After a few hours of wandering around the department stores downtown, it was time for dinner. We joined two more Nature Conservancy employees to eat Sichuan’s most famous contribution to Chinese cuisine: spicy hotpot.

In addition to the usual hotpot favorites—beef slices, potatoes, mushrooms—we also tried some local specialties like frozen tofu. Apparently, freezing the tofu expands its pores, thus allowing it to absorb more hotpot flavor.

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We ordered our hotpot weila 微辣(mildly spicy), and it was pretty much at the upper limit of what I could enjoy. I wince to imagine the kind of stomach that could withstand tela 特辣 (extra spicy).

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The next morning, we stopped for some buns and fresh soy milk before exploring Chengdu’s famous Panda Breeding Center. Although the center felt more like an ordinary zoo than like the natural sanctuary I was hoping for, it was still incredible to see so many adorable pandas in one place, lounging and napping and eating bamboo.

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By the time we left the Panda Center, I was starving.

Perfect! An excuse to eat more food.

We found a little noodle shop that served feichang fen 肥肠粉, glass noodles with pork intestine, which is another Chengdu specialty. These were served with a fried pastry called guokui 锅盔, which was stuffed with deliciously tingly Sichuan peppercorns.

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Although this was one of my favorite meals from the whole weekend, we still wanted to eat more afterwards—so we hopped over to the Halal restaurant next door for some Lanzhou-style beef noodles.

Finally stuffed, we moseyed on over to one of the traditional teahouses in People’s Park to experience the “slow life” (慢生活) of Chengdu. I remember learning about Sichuan teahouses when I was studying abroad in Hangzhou in 2011, and it was gratifying to see that the abstract articles I’d read were actually true. Compared to the high-brow establishments in Hangzhou and other eastern cities, Sichuan teahouses are very informal and relaxed. We sat outdoors on simple bamboo chairs and sipped tea from gaiwan 盖碗 (cups with lids and saucers).

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All around us, people were hanging out, chatting, playing cards, and eating sunflower seeds. Some were having their ears cleaned by the professional ear-cleaner guys wandering around with scary instruments. We decided to pass on that aspect of the Chengdu Teahouse Experience, but we nevertheless managed to while away several hours drinking cup after cup of delicious tea.

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Eventually, even though nobody was hungry, we decided that it was time to eat again. We picked a random restaurant and ordered two Chengdu specialties that none of us had tried yet: fuqi feipian 夫妻肺片 (lung slices) and tihua 蹄花 (pig trotter soup). The pig trotters were a little bland and cartilage-y for my taste, but the lung slices had a surprisingly nice texture, and came smothered in a delicious chili sauce.

From there we moved on to another restaurant for some tangyuan 汤圆 (glutinous rice balls filled with sesame paste). Finally, we finished the night in Starbucks, since by then everybody was craving something sweet and hydrating.

The next day we split up and went our separate ways, but not before sampling some chuanchuanxiang 串串香 (skewers dipped in hotpot, basically the same as malatang). As a final taste of Chengdu before returning to the Laohegou nature reserve, I got a bowl of suanlafen 酸辣粉 (hot and sour glass noodles) at the bus station. A perfect weekend!

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