New Chinese tourist Mecca is finding that success is a burden

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , JIAJU, CHINA

Sun, Sep 10, 2006 - Page 9

The three smiling sirens leaning on a rope-drawn gate would like visitors to forget Shangri-La. Indeed, the large sign just ahead on the steep alpine road proclaims this place to be China's most beautiful village.

This area of Tibetan-speaking hamlets perched stunningly on 3,000m high mountainsides that loom over the town of Danba, has long been a way station on a circuit through the country's southwest, which is home to some of China's most exotic travel destinations.

The sudden rise of a travel industry in Sichuan Province has all the markings of a fairy tale, one complete with a princess and her beautiful sisters, and an errant knight who arrives from far away, changing their lives forever

That was the past, though, distant by eight years. Today, the hillsides here buzz with activity: The felling of trees to build the distinctive Tibetan houses, with their maroon and white trim, which are nowadays put into service as guest lodges, and the smoke-belching, horn-blowing buses carrying tourists who arrive each month in ever greater numbers.

The takeoff has been so pronounced, in fact, that some of the villagers of Danba are wondering whether their success might not one day soon recall another fairy tale, the killing of the goose that laid the golden egg. But that is perhaps to get ahead of the story.

This settlement's break with timeless isolation came in 1998, when an adventurer from Hong Kong drifted through the area, making his way up the rugged slopes that overlook Danba and discovering this village and a remarkable local family.

There were three young women in the household, already known locally as the "three beautiful sisters," including one who had recently won third place in a regional beauty contest. If that didn't get traveler attention, it soon became clear that this was no ordinary family, and no ordinary sisters.

In a region of poor subsistence farmers, where many peasants speak little Chinese and few girls go far in school, the three sisters had been raised by far-sighted parents to speak Mandarin, and they were full of spunk.

"Our father would use a tape recorder to record other people speaking Mandarin, so that we could practice it," said the middle sister, Da Lamu, who is 25. "He was very strict, and made us practice Jiang Zemin's (江澤民) speeches. If we answered him in our native language, he would insist that we speak Chinese."

When the adventurer from Hong Kong lodged in the family's house, an idea was born: This area was so beautiful, and the Tibetan-style houses strung along the steep hillsides so fabulous, the family should turn the house into a hostel.

Neighbors watched skeptically, as Da Lamu's family expanded its pine-beam home, with wooden floors and stunning mountain views through glassless windows. They watched, grudgingly, as travelers began showing up there as paying guests. And then a few years ago, as if a switch had been flipped, they all began converting their homes or building lodges from scratch.

The impact on the lives of people here is beyond dispute, and so far it has been mostly positive. A deeply wrinkled, 95-year-old Tibetan woman named Baibai, who like many people here uses a one-word name, recalled different times when she was growing up.

"We had no shoes to put on our feet and hardly any clothes to wear," she said. "There was very little to eat. It's only in the last 20 years that our lives have gotten better."

A short distance away, a smiling villager was busy putting the finishing touches on a huge traditional-style home, placed conspicuously by a sharp bend in the snaking road.

"We moved to this spot because it is convenient to receive guests here," said the man's young daughter in law.

Along with this boom, however, have come problems often associated with development. State-run logging and home building have left the mountain nearly stripped of the tall pines and cedars that once graced its slopes.

The ensuing erosion washes out the roads and brings dangerous landslides with the least rain. Public services in the hills are scant, and travelers and residents alike dump their trash on the hillsides.

Each morning, bands of children pose by stone-paved roads affecting distant and beautiful gazes. Woe to the photographer who stumbles upon a scene like this without coins, though, because it is a practiced setup. Once the shutter clicks, they tug at you aggressively for money.

In the travel industry one finds examples of this sort of thing the world over, where the quest for the new and exotic is endless, driving herds of tourists from one "hot" place to the next, as destinations lose their exoticism and charm.

"Three years ago, the whole county received 10,000 tourists a year, and now it gets 50,000 in a week," said Lu Hailing, a photographer for a Chinese magazine, which helped create the boom by calling the village one of China's most beautiful places.

"The road to Jiaju village is sometimes jammed with traffic all the way up the mountain," Lu said.

Today, the sisters who pioneered the tourism industry here are breaking new ground, sounding an alarm about the environment and leading discussions on the mountain about managing growth.

"There are not enough rooms here, and some tourists are sleeping in cars or tents," said Xiao Lamu, who is 22.

With that, the older sister, Guihua, 27, was more blunt.

"It will be a disaster if every family builds houses," she said.