In early April I set out to visit DuJiangYan, a large-scale irrigation system built some 2,200 years ago, to prevent flooding in the Sichuan plain during the rainy season. It’s the oldest surviving “non-dam irrigation system” in the world, and the levees and artificial channels are still in use today (albeit with some modern modifications), which is a testament to the ingenuity of the project and its brilliant engineer, Li Bing.
Legend has it that once Dujiangyan was able to tame the Min River and prevent major floods, while simultaneously moving water around when needed during droughts, the people in Sichuan become wealthier and their lives more convenient. No longer plagued by catastrophic hardships, their culture became the most relaxed in China. This is evident today in Chengdu, with its countless teashops and clattering mahjong tiles heard on every street corner, with the blissfully enjoyable pace of life that the city has adapted.
Dujiangyan is just 20+ minutes outside of Chengdu by high speed rail, and I went for a quick overnight trip. I looked through the tourist map a few times, and also studied some scale models they had at the site, but had a lot of trouble figuring out which parts of the structure were natural vs artificial, which parts were used for de-silting the river water, and which channels were used to prevent flooding. I’m not a hydraulic engineer, and sometimes it’s better to just admit defeat, smile and take selfies.
The site requires a lot of walking, and upon entering I was greeted with a series of fantastic gardens with several koi ponds. The nice thing about Sichuan province is it rains a lot, and the ponds were teeming with life and movement, brimming with moving water, fish, and energy.
In Lanzhou, most fish ponds are only half full, muddy, and covered in algae or dead leaves. Here, the walkways and bridges that connect the pavilions were almost submerged into the lake. A most welcome and refreshing problem to have.
One garden had the most picturesque window carved out of a wall, to grant the visitor a perfect view of the waterfall and foliage contained within.
A perfect expression of fengshui 风水!
After relaxing in the gardens I headed north to see the irrigation project. I walked past “the bottle neck”, the “flying sand weir” “Golden levee” and Inner River. Again, they each served a purpose but it was beyond my comprehension.
Eventually, I reached the Fish Mouth, which splits the incoming Min River in two. April is considered dry season, so the water level wasn’t at its peak, but from what I understood, excess water was diverted left to irrigate the Sichuan Plain, and prevented the Inner River from ever flooding.
The hills to the east provide scenic views of the entire irrigation system. To get to them, you need to walk across Anlan suspension bridge. For centuries, this bridge was held together by only bamboo and rope. Thankfully, steel chains now bind the entire structure together.
I suppose if the bamboo and rope bridge ever snapped, ancient visitors would be swept into the Flying Sand Weir and spat into the Outer River. But now, we’ll never know.
At last, I climbed up the hilltop pagoda and was rewarded with an impressive and calming view of the entire irrigation system and valley. Mist was billowing out of lush, green mountains, and the blue waters rushed below… and the birds were singing and delighting in the afternoon drizzle… sitting there, I could not think up a more peaceful or enjoyable way to spend a weekend.