GRAND CANYON, Ariz. - In early November, representatives from Yuntaishan World Geopark in China and Grand Canyon National Park renewed their Sister Park Agreement with a signing ceremony at Mather Point Ampitheater.
As part of the sister park relationship, Inner Canyon Park Ranger Emily Davis, Immersion & Service Learning Program Coordinator Megan Kohli, and Grand Canyon Visitor Center Lead Park Langer AJ Lapre, set off for China on Sept. 12 and returned Oct. 23.
National Park Foundation's Albright Worth Grant allowed the trio to embark on a once in a lifetime cultural exchange. During the trip, rangers shared ideas with their Chinese on how both parks could better serve their visitors.
"Our first impressions when we were there was, 'wow, it is a lot different,'" Lapre said. "We knew a little about what to expect by trying to do Internet research, watching documentaries but until you're there, it's kind of hard to understand."
After a two-day flight, the group arrived in Beijing. The travelers then drove nine hours to Jiaozuo City, located in China's interior.
"We stayed in a city of about three and a half million people which would be about the third or fourth largest city in the United States, but they called it 'tiny and rural,' Lapre said. "We really didn't get a sense of that until we did more travel and went to bigger cities."
Working with Henan Polytechnic University for four weeks, Monday through Friday, the rangers learned basic Mandarin from local volunteers and students.
On the weekends, they went to Yuntaishan to learn about the park, the culture and the region.
"Everybody there, whether it be the school or in the park or just people on the street, were just so inviting," Lapre said. "We got the warmest reception almost everywhere we went. Especially when we got to the interior part of the country where there's not a lot of foreigners, we really stood out like sore thumbs everywhere we went."
Differences and similarities
Kohli described Yuntaishan as having beautiful waterfalls, emerald green creeks and rivers with rock cliffs and layers. The river has carved out much of the rock, similar to the Grand Canyon. They also have active Buddist and Daoist temples that sit on top of the tallest mountain in the park, contributing to the rich historic flavor of the area.
Kohli also said native inhabitants still live within the park, but their livelihood has changed to predominately tourism.
"At the Canyon, if you live within the park, it's because you work here," Kohli said.
At Yuntaishan, Lapre said driving into the park isn't allowed. Rather, visitors park at the visitor's center and are bussed in and out in an attempt to regulate traffic.
"Their park is going through a lot of changes," Lapre said. "I think the way our park fits well with theirs is that we both see about the same amount of people annually, about four or five and a half million people annually."
Yuntaishan's influx of visitors has increased from 10,000 people to 100,000 to four and a half million in just a decade, something Kohli said Yuntaishan partly attributes to having Grand Canyon as a sister park.
"Apparently that lends a lot of credibility to their parks," she said.