|China is the only
natural home of the giant panda. This creature of fame and fable lives in the mountains of
three adjoining provinces: Gansu and Shaanxi in the north and Chinas biggest and
most populous province, Sichuan, in the west of China proper.
Sichuan the land of clouds
Sichuan is by far the biggest of the three panda provinces, and the most interesting, geologically as well as biologically. It is a magical place, shrouded in mist and mystery. Many strange animals and plants are found only here, evolutionary products of an area insulted from past geological and climatic upheavals by an almost complete ring of mountains. These mountains are ancient beyond telling. They have witnessed the rise and fall of many mountain ranges during geological time, including the worlds loftiest, the Himalayas. By Sichuans standards, the Himalayas are adolescents, created a mere fifty millions years ago when the Indian subcontinent collided with the East Asian landmass and cause the earth to buckle and rise up. Remaining largely unperturbed throughout this momentous event, and off from outside gene pools, Sichuan became the breeding ground of numerous species found nowhere else on earth.
During the last Ice Age, Sichuans ring of mountains also acted as a rampart that prevented the advance of the vast southbound glaciers. The land within was a welcome refuge against the ice. Many species that were once widespread across Eurasia thrived within the protective flanks of the mountains and mingled with an exciting array of endemic species. That much of this diversity survives today in Chinas most populous province is due to the fact that the peaks are too cold and steep for agriculture.
It is the lowlands rich red soil that has conferred the name of Red Basin on this area of Sichuan. At one time the Red Basin was covered with broadleaf evergreen forest, but now, shorn of its woodland for more than 2000 years, it is Chinas most productive agricultural area. Here, crops of tea, maize, sweet potatoes, tobacco, rice and sugar-cane are grown, the moderate climate and rich soil supporting up to three harvests in a single year. Many of hills are terraced and the structured luxuriance of these low-walled fields, some clinging to 45degree slopes, is a distinctive feature of the Red Basin.