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October 22, 2009

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Reclaiming fabled Mt Lushan

RUNNING a small restaurant on Mt Lushan, Yu Hongxing has found little trace of the political aura that used to surround the mountain decades ago.

"People come to Lushan just for a cool and comfortable vacation, and not many are really clear about what happed here in the past," says Yu, 30, who is also a part-time tour guide.

It was the place for Chinese leaders, including Chairman Mao Zedong, who held Party gatherings there. It was the holiday spot for honored model workers and heroes. There's a century-old cluster of villas, one that belonged to writer Pearl S. Buck, but they came to be crowded with poor families.

Located in east China's Jiangxi Province, Lushan has long been known for its cool climate, wooded hills and glistening waters. But unlike other mountain reserves, Lushan has a small town of 120,000 people at the top, most of them relying on tourism.

When there are not many guests, Yu lets his wife run the restaurant business and travels around the mountain, trying to offer guide service to tourists for an extra 50 yuan (US$7.40) a day. If he's lucky, tourists will also eat at his restaurant.

Yu has a deal with the cable car company on the mountain - for each person he persuades to take the tram, he gets 2 to 4 yuan.

"Some of the tourists don't like us. But it's getting more difficult to make money now, so we have to try more possibilities, just like businessmen in other scenic areas," says Yu, who has a nine-year-old daughter.

The difficulties stem in part from a sightseeing bus project started in May. Planners were determined to restore the mountain's historic and environmental glory and purchased 110 Toyota Coasters for two sightseeing routes to cover all the major scenic spots.

The new system has made Yu's tour guide business more costly, as during the daytime it bans private cabs, travel agency buses and other vehicles from outside Lushan, including trucks from the meat and vegetable market. Yu has to get up before dawn and rent a car on the mountain to carry meat and vegetables back to his restaurant before 7am.

"Developed as a summer resort much earlier than other mountains, Lushan has good roads for driving almost everywhere, but increasing cars have become a big threat to the mountain's beauty and tranquility," says Cui Feng, an officer in charge of economy, trade and traffic with the Lushan Administrative Bureau.

Development goes back to the end of the 19th century, although a devastating era of invasion by Western powers had just started in China at that time.

To escape the hot season by the Yangtze River, foreigners fled to Lushan on its southern bank. Edward Selby Little, an English missionary, was the first to arrive. In 1895 he rented a large tract on the mountain where he developed and sold real estate for summer villas.

Little named the new place Kuling, implying "cooling," which later formed the current Guling Town. He never thought this summer retreat would someday bustle with cabs run by Guling residents, private cars and travel buses.

"Many make a better living because of Lushan, like the cab drivers. But people have rested too much upon the mountain's past fame and thought too little about how to protect it and develop tourism in an environmental and scientific way," says Cui.

Exhausting task

For more than 10 years he has been urging consolidation of sightseeing bus tours to reduce emissions, but has faced many setbacks. Some people worry that shuttle buses, running every five to 10 minutes will leave too little shopping time for tourists and dampen the local economy.

"It's normal to have some complaints from souvenir stores and travel agencies at the beginning," he says, "but the project will benefit the mountain and the tourists in the long term, with better traffic management, fewer cars and clean air."

To launch the project, the Lushan Administrative Bureau removed more than 200 autos on the mountain, mostly cabs not meeting state emission standards. It purchased the cars and gave each owner an annual compensation of 8,000-16,000 yuan for lost profits, based on autos' expected life after depreciation.

Apart from the new sightseeing buses, the bureau plans to relocate some Guling residents to a new town at the foot of the mountain in a couple of years to ease the environmental pressure.

Cui Xiaoyi, deputy director of the Lushan Administrative Bureau, says 67 hectares have been allocated for the new town, where 1,000 apartments, a school, a tourism center and a re-employment center are under construction. In time it will have 4,000-5,000 new apartments.

Those living near water sources or in core scenic areas and old villas on the mountain will be among the first to move due to the urgent need for preservation.

The 683 Western-style villas left by Englishman Little and his followers used to be Lushan's most precious attractions. Among them, the most famous one is Meilu Villa, which had housed both Chairman Mao and Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek. The two were old rivals during the three-year civil war till the founding of New China in 1949.

Chiang and his wife Soong Mei-ling spent many summers on Lushan between the 1930s and 1940s. After 1949, all the villas became state property. Mao hosted three plenary meetings of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee on the mountain, remembered as the Lushan Meetings, from 1959 to 1970.

"Though there was no air-conditioning in those years, China was not short of cool mountains. But no mountain other than Lushan had so many nice villas to accommodate more than 1,000 CPC Central Committee members, nor could they compare traffic and living facilities with Lushan," Cui Xiaoyi says.

But except Meilu and a few other villas, these century-old structures are now filled with people all year long. A villa of less than 300 square meters is usually home to seven or eight families and some villas even have temporary kitchens and bathrooms built alongside, says Cui.

Li Zhen, manager of the scenic compound consisting of six old villas in Lushan's east valley, thought relocation of residents would help maintain and renovate the villas.

Working for a tourism development company in Wuhan, Hubei Province, Li first came to Lushan in 2002 and was shocked to see the dilapidated old villas used for family residences, guest houses and dining halls. So he rented six villas, including one used by Nobel Prize laureate Pearl S. Buck, and started to develop them into a scenic spot in 2003. Li named his project "Stories of Old Villas."

"Before my project, no one here realized the history and stories of these villas could be good resources for tourism. It was hard to imagine that the mountain was among the first to activate the tourism industry in China after the reform and opening-up policy was implemented in 1979," Li says.

Before 1979, tourism remained a strange concept to Chinese. Mao's repeated visits to Lushan added a political aura to the mountain, and it became place to receive Party cadres, model workers and heroes for vacations between the 1960s and the 1970s.

"Honored by their work units, they gathered here from May till October every year to enjoy a holiday," recalls Yin Yinyuan, a retired local commerce official. "But no one came as individual tourists, and the public didn't even have the idea of 'tourism'."

That lasted until 1980 after the release of a hugely popular film titled "Romance on Lushan." It told the story of the daughter of a retired Kuomintang general who returns from the United States, revisits the mountain and falls in love with the son of a CPC general.

It featured China's first on-screen kiss.


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