Located in the Yunnan province, near the border with Myanmar, Gaomeigu is a remote village with seemingly the ideal conditions to attract tourists infatuated with astronomy and the mysteries of the universe.
1. Cosmic references
At first, Gaomeigu resembles like any other woodland scenario, with forests and wild boars, crows and mushrooms. But going a little deeper, a series of cosmic references start popping up: an astronaut, a Mars lander, a UFO, and plenty of stars and constellations, from Sirius to Betelgeuse, all shining brightly in broad daylight. The references go on, with the remote village of Gaomeigu unveiling murals of space travel, ringed planets, solar systems, comets, and a water cistern repainted as a flying saucer.
“In the future, the plan is to make our village famous as China’s best Starry Sky Town,” Wang Mangmang, the manager of the village guesthouse, told National Geographic, explaining the location’s cosmic decor. “We are like an experiment, or test site.”
2. Lijiang research observatory
The Lijiang research observatory is within Gaomeigu, housing the largest optical telescope in China, with a mirror nearly eight feet (243 centimeters) wide. While Lijiang is famous for its ancient city and tourism, Gaomeigu is famous for its starry sky. Yet, the iconic region seems to remain a hidden treasure. “I haven’t seen any astronomers around, but I’d welcome them,” said He Wan Jun, a local farmer who grows quinoa grain and potatoes. “The only outside visitors I ever see come in the summertime, to take wedding pictures in the wildflowers.”
The Lijiang Observatory has been operational since 1992 but it was only officially unveiled in May 2007. It is part of a governmental program to develop modern astronomical facilities in China and is being primarily used to search for planets and to study the age of the universe.
The Lijiang telescope is state-of-the-art and is suited for both imaging and spectroscopic observations throughout the visual and near infrared spectrum.Li Yan, former director of Yunnan Astronomical Observatory
Lijiang hosts the “most productive research optical telescope in China,” the observatory’s director, Jinming Bai, wrote in the preface of its 2016 annual report. Moreover, Liang Chang, the chief optical engineer at the Observatory said that about 30% of active galactic nuclei identified in the world were viewed at Lijiang. The sophisticated telescope offers extremely precise tracking and pointing controls, allowing observations over longer distances and those requiring better clarity.
3. High elevation, clean air, lack of light pollution
For those who have experienced Gaomeigu, they reckon it is a laboratory of hope pinned literally to the heavens, given its natural settings and surroundings. With a combination of high elevation, clean air, and lack of light pollution, the village claims one of the darkest, dazzlingly star-lit night skies in China. That’s the reason why Gaomeigu means “a place higher than the sky”, in the language of Naxi people, the only ethnic group in China that has maintained traditions of a matrilineal clan.
Yang Hong Zhang, a local shaman known as Dongba among the local ethnic Naxi community, said he doesn’t yet follow the village’s light discipline and draw his curtains at night. But he will, if astro-tourists begin to arrive. “Our world had stars first. They came like everything else from an egg“, Yang said, demonstrating his people’s ancient pictographic script by inking suns, moons, and stars on a piece of rice paper in his farmyard. “It’s a really good idea for the world to come here to see them.”