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China Daily Global / 2023-01 / 27 / Page010

The breathtaking height of adventure

By Huang Zhiling and Li Ning | China Daily Global | Updated: 2023-01-27 00:00

With history and heritage, including a famous Red Army maneuver and the panda, Baoxing county offers visitors a stunning experience, Huang Zhiling and Li Ning report.

Any mention of Baoxing county in Southwest China's Sichuan province would likely remind history buffs of June 1935, when soldiers of the Red Army crossed the snow-capped Jiajin Mountain in the county during the Long March.

The Long March began in Ruijin in East China's Jiangxi province, where the Provisional Central Government of the Soviet Republic of China was established in 1931.

The central Soviet area had to be abandoned in 1934 after the Red Army failed to break through a yearlong blockade launched by Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek, who built blockhouses with machine guns to obstruct all routes out of the area.

The Red Army managed to find a way out and traveled thousands of kilometers, enduring unimaginable hardship, before arriving at the northern part of Shaanxi province to join the revolutionary base.

Jiajin was the first snowy mountain the Red Army crossed during the Long March.

Being more than 4,000 meters above sea level, it is covered with snow all year round and the air is very thin. The weather on the mountain is constantly shifting. According to a book on the Long March published by the Party History Press, the weather could quickly change from cloudy to sunny, rain to snow, with hailstones and strong winds a constant menace.

Most of the Red Army soldiers had no experience navigating icy terrain and their footwear consisted of either cloth shoes or straw sandals, according to the book.

Despite it being June, a blizzard swept through the heights and the soldiers' thin clothing was quickly soaked. The biting cold and great difficulty in breathing wreaked havoc.

From the base of Jiajin to its final peak, several hundred people perished during the 40-km hike. Some who were so exhausted that they had to rest were unable to get back on their feet, Dong Biwu, a Long March veteran, told American journalist Agnes Smedley in Yan'an, northern Shaanxi, in 1937.

Despite the awe-inspiring Jiajin, the more temperate Baoxing is known to visitors as the habitat of the giant panda, one of the most iconic animals in the world. Located on the western edge of the Sichuan Plain, Baoxing is an important ecological area in the upper reaches of the Yangtze River. It covers 3,114 square kilometers, 99.7 percent of which is mountainous. Three quarters of the land is in the core area for the protection of pandas.

From 1957 to 1982, China sent 24 pandas as national gifts to nine countries. Seventeen of those animals were from Baoxing.

After 1982, China no longer sent pandas as national gifts abroad, but adopted the way of cooperative research. More than 50 pandas and their descendants went abroad in this way, according to a display in the Dengchigou Catholic Church.

China's fourth panda census, the results of which were released in 2015, tallied 1,864 wild pandas as of the end of 2013. Of those, 181 were in Baoxing.

In July 2006, Sichuan's giant panda habitat was included in the World Natural Heritage List of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Covering 9,245 sq km, the habitat includes Baoxing.

The giant panda species has lived on earth for around 8 million years. But the West only learned about it in 1869 thanks to a French missionary trying to convert people in China to Catholicism.

Jean Pierre Armand David (1826-1900) was born in Espelette, France. A Vincentian priest and a naturalist with an extensive knowledge of ornithology, zoology and botany, he started working in the Dengchigou Catholic Church in Baoxing in March 1869. Soon afterward, he was invited to tea at a local hunter's home where he saw the skin of a giant panda.

Suspecting it to be a new animal species, he had the hunter capture a live panda, made a specimen and mailed it to the Museum of Natural History's Henri Milne-Edwards in Paris. In 1870, Edwards published a paper declaring the panda to be a new species.

The specimen, kept at the Museum of Natural History, aroused Westerners' initial interest in the bear unique to China.

The church, where David worked and lived, is a blend of Chinese courtyard and Gothic architecture. Located deep in the mountains, it draws in visitors and is connected to David's hometown.

To mark the 100th anniversary of his death, some 40 people from Espelette led by its mayor Andre Darraidou went there for the first time in November 2000. Espelette and Baoxing established ties as sister cities.

Darraidou visited Baoxing four times before he passed away at 75 in 2019, says Sun Qian, former vice-mayor of Ya'an which administers Baoxing.

In April 2019, 47 Frenchmen from David's home city visited the church to commemorate the 150th anniversary of his scientific discovery of the panda.

A descendant of David, 72-year-old Jean David, was amazed to find out that the church, where Armand David lived and worked 150 years ago, was so well preserved. He stood for a long time in front of David's photos in a newly-opened hall on the panda's origin. "I saw many of the materials on display for the first time", he says.

The year 2014 marked the 145th anniversary of David's scientific discovery of the panda and the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and France.

On March 18 that year, Luo Weixiao, a 64-year-old citizen of Ya'an, set out from the Dengchigou Catholic Church, and spent nearly four months cycling about 15,000 km to arrive at Espelette on July 10 that year. Because of his promotion of the panda culture along the way, Luo was referred to as "Grandpa Panda".

Just 3 kilometers from the Dengchigou Catholic Church is the Baoxing County Giant Panda Cultural Publicity and Education Center, which covers more than 20,000 square meters and has two residents — Xing Rui, a 14-year-old male panda, and Ying Mei, a 20-year-old female. Seeing them frolicking and drinking water during his recent visit to Baoxing organized by the county government and Vision Sichuan Magazine of Sichuan Daily Group for expatriates in Chengdu, Sichuan, Dariusz Wanatowski, pro-dean of the University of Leeds and Southwest Jiaotong University Joint School in Chengdu, says that he had not seen pandas so close before, and they were cute.

Baoxing has the Dawa Genza scenic spot in Yaoji Tibetan town, which is home to a mountain boasting Asia's largest 360-degree viewing platform. On top of the mountain, which is 3,866 meters above sea level, visitors can live in a tent hotel so that early risers can see the sunrise, the sea of clouds, the snow-capped Jiajin Mountain and wild goats on the boardwalk down the summit.

American associate professor Shi Wenyuan, who is Wanatowski's colleague, recently took photos of the starry sky at night and the sea of clouds during the daytime, and felt that it was worth the trip, especially when the sunrise came.

Yaoji has a population of more than 5,000 people, 95 percent of whom are Tibetan villagers. Visitors to the township can feast on Tibetan meals and join the famous guozhuangwu, a style of traditional Tibetan folk dance that is performed by a group of people dancing in a circle, around a bonfire at night.

Isaac Owusu Asante from Ghana has visited Baoxing with Wanatowski and Shi. A young expert in architecture, he says that he had seen the achievements of rural revitalization when he came across the houses in Yaoji.

Han Dan contributed to this story.


A snow-capped mountain peak seen in the Dawa Genza scenic area in Baoxing county, Sichuan province. LIU LANYING/FOR CHINA DAILY



Isaac Owusu Asante (middle) from Ghana chats with reporters amid majestic peaks. LIU LANYING/FOR CHINA DAILY



Visitors can admire and be inspired by "peak viewing" in Dawa Genza, Baoxing county, Sichuan province, which is home to a mountain boasting Asia's largest 360-degree viewing platform, located 3,866 meters above sea level. LIU LANYING/FOR CHINA DAILY



A panda quenches his thirst in the Baoxing County Giant Panda Cultural Publicity and Education Center in Sichuan. LIU LANYING/FOR CHINA DAILY



The majestic sea of clouds seen from the top of the Dawa Genza scenic spot. LIU LANYING/FOR CHINA DAILY



The Dengchigou Catholic Church in Baoxing county, Sichuan province, is a blend of Chinese courtyard and Gothic architecture. LIU LANYING/FOR CHINA DAILY



Wild goats gather near the steps leading down from the summit of the Dawa Genza nature spot in Sichuan's Baoxing county. LIU LANYING/FOR CHINA DAILY



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