I spent two days in Yueyang and I didn’t want to leave. It’s a special place. The first day wasn’t long because it was the same day we arrived from Beijing. The second was immersive. It was a day of nature and heritage fused into one and I was ready for all of it.
East Dongting Lake; haven for endangered species
Nature is predictable and the same. There’s hardly any difference between humans and other species. Humans migrate when there’s threat to their lives. People are littered around the world away from their homes because of wars and instability. That’s what animals and other species do as well. It’s a default instinct to avoid danger as much as possible. Since Yueyang, and to a large extent Hunan, provided a peaceful environment for the species, it has become a true heaven for endangered animals.
Welcome to the stunning Hunan East Dongting Lake National Nature Reserve in Yueyang, the bird watching capital of China. It’s sourced from Dongting Lake, the second largest freshwater lake in China. Four decades ago, the reserve was eaten into by human activities with a significant portion of the lake replaced by farms. However in 1982, it was designated as one of the earliest six wetland sites of international importance in China under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands and upgraded to a national nature reserve 12 years later.
With State Council’s approval five years ago, the reserve has now been adjusted covering an area of 157, 627 hectares, including a core area of 33, 286 hectares, a buffer area of 32, 369 hectares and an experimental area of 91, 972 hectares.
This means the reserve has now been given back what was taken from it as a result of farming. It now covers the entire waters of East Dongting Lake and the farmland, fishing ponds and lakes around it. It’s a miraculous restoration project initiated by a visionary leader in President Xi Jinping and implemented by a discipline people in Yueyang. The people have now succeeded in saving an almost extinct lake, making it a comfortable home for thousands of animal and bird species.
With diversity and uniqueness, East Dongting Lake reserve is home to 359 species of birds, with 18 species under the top level of state protection, and 64 species are protected at the second level under state protection. There are 486 species of vascular plants and 117 species of fish. There are 12 species of amphibians, 11 species of reptiles, and 31 species of mammals, of which 3 species are at the top level of state protection, namely the white-dolphin, the finless porpoise and the elk, which is currently the largest naturally rewilding population in China. It is also currently inhabited by the one and only largest naturally rewilding rare Milu deer population in China. Even though I didn’t get to see the much talked about finless porpoises, I observed—through the lenses of stethoscopes and binoculars—the serenity of the birds as they swim and enjoy lasting peace. The reserve was rated as one of the first 23 protected areas in the world by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 2015, and was praised as “a place of hope for saving globally endangered species” and “a paradigm of harmonious coexistence between man and nature”. That peaceful coexistence is why over 70,000 migrating birds stop by the East Dongting Lake every year for at least three months before flying to the northern part.
Liumenzha: fish, preserve and make money
In the same area of the East Dongting Lake reserve lies Liumenzha, an ecological fishing village in Qianlianghu town. The village has an exceptional tourism resources and a thriving air-dried fish processing industry with 100,000 tourist visits every year. There was a 10-year ban in all pivotal waters of the Yangtze and that spurred the fisherfolk to find new jobs to resettle ashore. Most of them actually voluntarily took part in restoring the Yangtze River. There is some uniqueness to preserving fish in Liumenzha.
The fish are caught in an eco-fish farm nearby and then the local people are employed to take care of the process. First, almost all the fish are similar in size, which means a specific net is used in order to avoid overfishing. The local people, mostly women, then remove the scales and intestines using a device like hair clippers which is plugged into a power socket. After the intestines and scales are removed, the fish is then split into two almost equal parts. The process has eight steps with emphasis on no additives to preserve the taste and flavour of the fish. The process is also entrusted to the locals mainly to provide them employment and also to protect the unique taste of the fish instead of using machines to do the work. Then, in a smartly arranged line longer than the village itself, the fish are dried by the air breezing from the river and packaged for consumption. I was really impressed with this local initiative because the amount of fish that get spoilt in my country is more than we actually consume. One standout reason is we don’t have fish processing facilities but these are some of the processes we could adopt. Yes, we do dry fish but with additives and by the time it’s dried, the taste and the smell change into something you dare not eat.
River Gambia is our biggest asset but we have two major problems. One is illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. There is indiscriminate hauling of fish in massive amounts and that has been a huge problem. Foreign vessels enter our waters and fish. No regulation or not enforced. If anyone is caught, serious penalties should be imposed. These illegal activities have continued to threaten marine biodiversity and exacerbated poverty in The Gambia. The local initiative in Liumenzha to protect the river and create employment for people is worth emulating. According to the local officials, the output value of the air-dried fish industry has exceeded 200 million yuan for two consecutive years by 2021. That is incredible!
Yangtze River and Junshan Island: Love, beauty and heritage
In between East Dongting Lake and Liumenzha, we visited Yangtze and Junshan Island. Once an illegal sand and gravel mining hub, the Hualong wharf has seen an outstanding transformation in the last seven years after President Xi Jinping instructed for the activities to stop. Junshan District acted upon the instructions and dispatched dedicated law enforcement and cleaned up of all facilities at the wharf, carried out ecological restoration of the bare land and implemented more than 33,000 square meters of eco-environmental restoration around the wharf along the shoreline. The wharf is now full of life and beauty with the Yangtze River a scintillating view.
Five years ago, President Xi Jining inspected the wharf and praised the rectification work which gave birth to incredible ecological conservation in Junshan District. We took a tour of the wharf, the Yangtze River and the Junshan Island park. The scenic decorations, the beautiful Chinese performances and sacred places. I watched in awe as a stunning Chinese girl do the traditional tea art performance. With moving instructional music and spectacle, she followed the seven steps in making a good Chinese tea, starting from ensuring the cup is spotless to the tea flavor, the Yellow Tea. In both fast and slow motions at different stages of the process, she maintained admirable balance and soft mannerisms. That’s how I want my tea made.
There are over 70 peaks of different sizes on Junshan Island, the largest in Dongting Lake. Junshan is the Love Island of China. Therein lay two imperial concubines Ehuang and Nuying, of Emperor Shun. Legend has it that the two concubines died of heartbreak while on the Dongting Mount after hearing the death of Emperor Shun. The tomb of the couplet concubines has been preserved for over four thousand years but was renovated by the city government in 1979. Walking around the garden of love is chilling.
A sacred place I saw next was the Liu Yi well. It’s actually close to the tomb of the two concubines. A Tang Dynasty intellectual, legend has it that Liu Yi passed Jingyang County on his way home after failing in an imperial examination. He chanced upon the Dragon King’s daughter who was mistreated in her marriage. As lucky men would normally do, he rescued the damsel in distress and later married her. His nobility was honored by naming the well Liu Yi.
The bravery acquired him both a beautiful, high-class woman and eternal legacy. I should have been born in that time. I would have fought Liu Yi for the dragon daughter’s love. What’s striking is that the man who married and mistreated the princess is not even remembered by the gods. But the one who rescued and married her will forever be remembered. Love gives you immortality. Even though the well looks different, I was assured that the water is clean and sweet, used especially for brewing wine. I also found a lovely woman inside the well, rinsed the water and paid her respect to Liu Yi. I did too. Sacred places have a special place in my heart. I also learned that the silver needle tea, a tasty Chinese white tea, is made from the water in the well. I also saw the 2-ton Feilai Bell, a symbol of resistance during an uprising.
The beautiful flowers. The amazing trees. The serene environment. The love story. The heritage. All these have made Junshan Island a symbol of love and match-making spot for young people in search of romantic relationships. If you want to find love, visit Junshan Island in Yueyang. Thank you, Yueyang. Until next time. Changsha, here I come!