Preserving China's Silk Road

June 2, 2008

  • In China’s Gansu province, cultural heritage protection was under-funded; tourism infrastructure under-developed
  • Silk Road project is changing the province’s approach to conservation and development
  • Local communities will reap benefits of tourism along the way

Maijishan, China – June 2, 2008 -The wooded enclave of Maijishan, in the eastern part of China’s Gansu province, was once a welcome rest stop for the merchants and monks who traveled a segment of the Silk Road wedged between the Qilian mountains and the Gobi desert.


There, devout notables sponsored statues and murals that became one of China’s four largest Buddhist cave complexes. Three monumental figures, representing Buddha flanked by kindly Bodhisattvas, were carved into the face of Maijishan mountain and covered in clay in the 6th century during the Sui dynasty. They tower over tourists at almost 16 meters tall. All told, some 7,860 statues are half-sheltered in mountain grottos and traditional temples clustered in different parts of the park. Together, they form an extraordinary sculptural tableau documenting the spread of Buddhism from India into China.

Maijishan’s cultural and natural riches, spread over 215 square kilometers, are a precious asset in one of China’s poorest provinces. Yet resources such as this one are quickly deteriorating under various pressures. Wind erosion and humidity, combined with poor infrastructure and very limited conservation funds, have left important heritage sites in Gansu stranded in a state of disrepair.

World Bank project approved on March 20, 2008 seeks to correct the situation in Maijishan and at eight other cultural and natural sites dotted along the Silk Road in Gansu province. The idea is to develop sustainable tourism to pay for stepped-up conservation and increase opportunities for local residents.

Seeing the value in cultural assets

Gansu is one of China’s richest provinces in tourist resources but tourism areas are not mature yet,” says Li Feng, the vice-director of the provincial project management unit.

Tourism represented only 3.5% of the province’s GDP in 2005, well below China’s national average. “We have lots of work to do. No question, this project will be a big step forward,” said Mr. Li.

The growth of the local tourist industry, if managed properly, will also provide better livelihoods for people living near the sites. Forty-two percent of the households in Maijishan live under the poverty threshold of 860 Yuan per capita per year (about US$ 120).

Although the World Bank project was just approved, careful project preparations have already had an impact on the way local authorities envision the area’s development. Instead of adding entertainment or artificial lakes to chase after short-term tourism revenue, “planners are thinking in terms of sustainable development, social impact and conservation,” says Mara Warwick, the World Bank’s team leader for the project.

Part of the World Bank loan of US$ 38.4 million will go toward financing significant, high quality conservation work in neglected parts of Maijishan. Better roofs and drainage will help protect relics from weather damage and theft. The loan will also allow local authorities to pave roads inside the scenic area to create new sight-seeing routes and spread economic benefits to the villagers who live there.

Infrastructure upgrades will benefit area residents

In fact, improved infrastructure is at the top of the project’s to-do list. When a 30-kilometer mud track leading to Quxi (a beautiful valley where two ecosystems meet in the Maijishan area), residents of Caotan village will also gain better access to markets and jobs.

Right now, there is little choice between limited subsistence farming and hard-knock migration. Tourism could provide a gentler alternative at a time when farmers are encouraged to quit farming on sloped land and plant trees to prevent erosion.

Consider Sun Jinsheng, one of Caotan village’s residents. Mr Sun has three children – two of them are migrants working in factories on China’s booming coast, a world away from home. But his youngest daughter is able to work as a waitress in a large guest house in the scenic area, just an hour away.

Small-scale tourism is already having an impact

Others are making the most out of existing opportunities. On a recent visit,

- Lili Piang, a local farmer, stood at the foot of Maijishan’s signature hay-stack mountain, taking photos of tourists from Lanzhou, the provincial capital.

- Youxu Dong, a 12-year old boy in middle school, milled around hoping to sell crabapples to tourists to pay for his school books.

- Lu Suihua, in Qianchuan village, showed visitors the good luck charms carved out of peach wood she sells during the peak tourist season.

Near the western entrance to Maijishan, the village of Houchuan is decked in welcoming red lanterns. About 40 village households now offer small bed and breakfast services for tourists. A new road and hourly bus service linking the scenic area and Tianshui, the closest city, have helped increase the flow of independent travelers who want to stay overnight to tour the area.

Per capita income in Houchuan village has gone from 600 Yuan (US$84) to about 2,400 Yuan (US$336) since the opening of the home-stays. “You couldn’t do that through farming,” comments Zhu Tian Sheng, a 44-year old ex-farmer who began hosting tourists in 2003. “You could only feed yourself.” Mr. Zhu now owns a car and an impressive calligraphy collection.

Chen Shun Cheng, the 50-year old deputy-head of the village, says tourism has raised income and educational levels significantly. “There are 120 children in school right now and more than 20 in university. Fifteen years ago, we didn’t even think about it. We only raised them to work in the fields,” he says.

The flow of visitors to Maijishan is expected to grow from 300,000 visitors in 2004 to a million visitors this year. But direct and indirect revenues from tourism are hard to predict. What’s certain is that “farming is no longer an option,” says Mr Chen. Over the years, 90% of the village’s farmland has been replanted with trees to improve the environment.