The green road to Shangri-La
Almost every morning for the past decade, 67-year-old Yu Jianhua would carry a basket of usnea lichen up the mountains in a nature reserve in the Deqen Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of southwest China's Yunnan Province.
With the blow of a whistle, a group of snub-nosed monkeys, one of the world's most endangered species, would jump down from the tall trees for their breakfast.
"They are my friends, and I can tell each one from the others," the hunter-turned forest ranger said.
The situation was far different two decades ago when the monkeys would flee deep in the forest at the first sight of any human as most local villagers were loggers or hunters.
"With policies such as employing villagers as mountain rangers, China has mobilized local people to protect the environment, and creatively combined its efforts of poverty alleviation and environmental protection, which is a valuable experience worth learning for the rest of the world," said American biologist Bill Bleisch, who is a frequent visitor to Deqen over the past three decades.
In his bestselling 1933 novel Lost Horizon, British author James Hilton depicted an earthly Eden of peace and harmony hidden from the rest of the world, which is called "Shangri-La".
Many people believe "Shangri-La" was in Deqen, a mostly Tibetan-inhabited area of endless mountains and deep valleys. In 2001, Zhongdian County, capital of Deqen, was authorized by the central government to rename itself Shangri-La City.
Dubbed "the epicenter of Chinese biodiversity", the prefecture was carved by three of Asia's mighty rivers. UNESCO recognized the Three Parallel Rivers as a World Heritage site.
For centuries, the large mountains protected the serenity of the natural environment from disturbance, but they also blocked the connection between local people and the outside world. Despite the idyllic scenery, the reality of life in Shangri-La was far from paradise since many of the people there had been long leading a life of poverty and isolation.
As China has initiated a campaign to wipe out absolute poverty and build a moderately prosperous society in all respects by 2020, drastic changes have been seen across the country.
With a belief that "lucid waters and lush mountains are invaluable assets" and a resolve to turn itself into "Shangri-La for the world," Deqen has been exploring a green form to achieve poverty-alleviation.
THE ROAD OUT OF POVERTY
Bill Bleisch remembers that three decades ago when he visited the Baima Snow Mountain National Nature Reserve in Deqen, there was sharp conflict between man and nature.
Local people lived on logging and hunting, posting threats to the fragile high-plateau ecological system and endangering the livelihood of wildlife including the snub-nosed monkeys.
In 1983 when the nature reserve was established, the 75,000 poor villagers living nearby derived over 80 percent of their income from logging, hunting and collecting herbs in the mountains.
"Unlike some other countries where governments drove local people away to build nature reserves, China invited the local people to join the environmental protection efforts," Bleisch said.
The country started to ban the logging of natural forests in 1998. The Baima Snow Mountain reserve employed the local residents as forest rangers.
Yu Jianhua, from Xiangguqing village of Weixi County of Deqen, was paid 180 yuan (about 25 U.S. dollars) a month in the 1990s, but now earns around 1,600 yuan per month.
"The job brings me stable income, and has made me aware of the importance of environmental protection," he said.
Yu patrols the forest for more than 10 hours every day. He knows the monkeys so well that he can tell each different emotion in their calls.
Up to date, near 17,000 villagers in Deqen have been hired as government-paid forest rangers through ecological poverty-relief programs.
THE ROAD OUT OF THE MOUNTAINS
In Gesang Cering's childhood, owning a pair of shoes was a luxury. "We were so poor that the most valuable asset for many families was flashlight," the 34-year-old said, adding that many people carefully wrapped their flashlight with yak skin.
Gesang's hometown is Bala, a village sitting on a cliff surrounded by steep mountains. The villagers raised yaks and grew crops in the barren soil for a humble living.
A dozen years ago, there was no supply of electricity or tap water, and the only road linking the village to the outside world was a winding horse track less than one meter wide.
"We seldom had a chance to get out of the mountains," Gesang said, noting the first time he left the village was when he fell ill and was taken by his father to see a doctor.
The father and son walked for five days until they reached Shangri-La city. "When I was too tired to walk, my father tied a rope around my waist and dragged me forward," Gesang said. "The mountain routes were so dangerous that no one would dare to walk while carrying a child on their back."
The village had a primary school where students could only attend classes from grades one to four. Gesang remembered that when he bid farewell to his parents before going to middle school outside the mountains, his father said to him, "Study hard and never come back!"
"That's the shared wish of the parents in the village," Gesang said, noting he once believed that the Bala village would eventually disappear forever.
But now Gesang is back and so are the other village kids who long dreamed of escaping their hometown.
In 2008, a road six meters wide and 61 km long was built on the mountain cliffs and the journey from the village to the city was shortened from several day's walk to a one and an half hours' ride.
The investor of the road, 55-years-old Sonam Dondrup, left his hometown of Bala at the age of 13. Abundant opportunities outside the mountain allowed him to become a successful businessman. At the age of 40, he returned to the village to fulfill his childhood dream -- to build a road in the mountains.
Thanks to the construction of the road, villagers can easily go in and out village. In addition, international and domestic tourists can visit and explore the magnificent peaks and valleys.
The area, once hidden deep in the mountains, is now a popular tourist site named Bala Gezong, with its original beauty well preserved.
Sonam Dondrup is the president of the Shangri-La Bala Gezong Tourism Development Company. He recalled that some big companies offered him partnership in hydropower and mining projects in the area and promised him high profits.
"I rejected the offers outright. I can not let them ruin the environment," he said.
Over 300 villagers from Bala village and nearby villages work for the company.
Gesang Cering now works as a tour guide at Bala Gezong. "I'm proud to see that the place we once wanted to escape is admired by so many people."
From 2012 to 2017, the roads in Yunnan's ethnic minority inhabited areas were extended 50,000 km, with most of them in mountainous areas.
THE ROAD TOWARDS PROSPERITY
With a well-preserved natural environment and improved transportation infrastructure, local people are expecting an ever brighter future with the booming of eco-tourism.
He Qingling, in Qibie Village of Deqen's Tacheng Town, operates a homestay in his own house not far from the Baima Snow Mountain nature reserve. In April, he invested 1.2 million yuan to restore and decorate the two-storey wooden house with traditional Naxi ethnic style.
"At present, we mainly receive tour groups of students aged 7 to 15. The students can enjoy the natural sceneries, go see the snub-nosed monkeys and also get to know the local Naxi culture," he said.
His grandmother and uncle also joined him in running homestays at their houses. "We also sell our local specialties such as rice, mushrooms and rapeseed oil," He said. He also opened an online store on China's leading social networking platform WeChat.
Currently, Shangri-La has 64 rural homestays and over 140 hostels with local ethnic styles. The per capita income of the rural people has grown from less than 1,000 yuan in 1997 to 5,200 yuan today.
"We have taken tourism as an important way to lift the poor out of poverty," said Song Ping, vice mayor of Shangri-La.
Statistics show that there are 132,000 people working in the culture and tourism industry in Deqen, accounting for 32 percent of the total population of the prefecture.
A decade ago, one-fourth of Deqen's population lived under the poverty line. As of the end of 2018, only 10,586 people were still living in poverty. The government is determined to lift them out of poverty by the end of this year.
"Shangri-La should be a place of peace, tranquility and harmony. Hopefully people from around the world can find their own 'Shangri-La' in Deqen," said Lu Zhijun, head of the prefecture culture and tourism bureau.