Amidst a number of ongoing distressing events in Tibet, more heart-wrenching news came recently when a 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck Zitsa Degu (Ch: Jiuzhaigou), also known as the Valley of Nine Villages, in eastern Tibet on 8 August.
The quake damaged the Jiuzhaigou Valley located in Jiuzhaigou County in today’s Sichuan Province. Considered an area of exceptional natural beauty, this UNESCO world heritage site derives its name from the existence of nine villages of Tibetan origin scattered throughout the valley. The villagers, who are mainly practitioners of Bon (Tibet’s ancient religion), settled in the region during the southern expansion of Tibet’s Yarlung dynasty under King Songtsen Gampo in the 7th century.
The valley has been described as ‘heaven on earth’ and hides in its embrace a bouquet of stunning natural features, including multi-coloured lakes, waterfalls and springs, snow-capped mountains and lush green forests. For ages, Bon practitioners and yogis have blessed the valley with their presence and practice on their spiritual journey.
According to legend, the lakes were formed a long time ago when Dago, the deity of the mountain, offered a mirror made from wind and clouds to the goddess Senmo after he fell in love with her. Then a devil appeared to cause disruption which led Senmo to break the mirror into 108 pieces. These pieces fell to earth and turned into 108 colourful lakes scattered across the valley. But now, following the earthquake, it is feared that many of these lakes and waterfalls might dry up.
Over the course of China’s occupation of Tibet, the natural resources of this once hidden valley have gradually been exploited and the environment has met the same fate as the rest of the Tibetan plateau. Later, with Beijing hawking Tibet as an affordable tourist destination for China’s growing middle class, the valley’s beauty has become its bane as tourists in huge numbers pour in, putting great strain on the valley’s resources.
The exploitation of Zitsa Degu’s natural resources, coupled with the influx of tourists and frenzied infrastructure building, has caused an imbalance in the region’s ecosystem which may have contributed to the scale and effects of the disasters. The region grew in popularity following its listing as a nature reserve and becoming a filming location for the Chinese drama “Journey to the West”. As tourists continue to flock to the valley year after year, hundreds of hotels have sprouted up, including the Inter-Continental Resort Juizhai Paradise. According to official estimates, over 30,000 tourists visit the valley every day and the majority of them are Chinese.
Traditionally, local Tibetans belonging to the Bon religion have shared a strong bond with nature and consider every lake, waterfall and forest to be sacred homes of gods and goddesses. They believe that disturbing these abodes incurs the wrath of the deities and that the disasters have occurred as a form of heavenly punishment.
When the quake struck Zitsa Degu it was so severe that tremors were felt in cities as far away as Lanzhou and Chengdu. According to some reports, over 1,700 aftershocks, including 30 major ones, had occurred as of 10 August. The quake tore down the areas of Zhangzha Town and Jiuzhaigou Valley, home to thousands of species of plants and animals, including endangered animals like giant pandas, takins, golden monkeys, marmots and blue sheep. The region is also home to several monasteries and Tibetan villages.
Following the earthquake, Chinese state media reported that the government, under the direction of Xi Jinping, had initiated a Level I response with troops and emergency medical rescue teams. However, we later learned that the official rescue teams focused on tourists as their first priority and neglected the local villagers. According to Chinese official websites, it is reported that 31,500 tourists were evacuated on the first day itself and searches continued for tourists to ensure their safety. State media reported that 47,000 tourists had been transferred to safe places as of 6pm the following day. There was barely any reporting on the safety and rescue of local residents.
China’s official apathy towards local residents was evident from local testimonies. A resident from the area said:
19 hours have passed since the quake struck but rescue teams prioritised the tourists. It looks like they forgot us, the local residents. The villages in the mountains have been badly affected, homes have been torn down and there is no light or water. Please help us too. Our lives are equally important.
In order to maintain tight secrecy over the disaster, volunteers have either been shut out or told to wear army uniforms while carrying out relief work. Tibet Watch has learnt that a large number of volunteer helpers from neighbouring areas were prevented from accessing the affected area. A Tibetan helper from the area said:
Different official teams are arriving, but those who are coming from other counties and volunteer helpers are being asked to wear army uniforms, failing which they are not allowed to enter the affected areas.
He further added:
So many groups and individual volunteers are already here. Most of them are not permitted to access the affected areas and instead are assisting the authorised helpers, by providing them food and drinking water from outside the line.
The exact number of casualties and the extent of damage to property in the area is still unknown. According to the US based China Digital Times, government authorities issued censorship instructions that all media must use the Xinhua news agency feed as a template or guide for their own reporting. The leaked instructions state that the use of photos or videos that lead to panic is prohibited. Censors were further ordered to pay attention to changes in online public opinion and to promptly delete ‘harmful’ information.
According to the latest official figures, the death toll is 25 but independent agencies report that over 100 people are feared dead. The truth about the devastating earthquake in Zitsa Degu might never come out but a Chinese journalist sums up the current reality in the valleys:
Everyone has fled except for the ones who are still waiting for transportation … and when they are gone, they will leave a ghost town behind.
Yes, the tourists will return to the comfort of their cosy homes but the ignored local residents will have nowhere to go.
About the author: Wangden is the Tibet Watch Senior Researcher. He is based in Dharamsala, northern India, where he leads the Tibet Watch research team. Wangden was born in Tibet and has a background in journalism. He has been with Tibet Watch since 2013.