Gaomeigu, Yunnan, ChinaWe trek along thousand-year-old mule trails, through the dense pine and oak forests of Yunnan province in western China, past the tracks of wild boars, under the croaks of gliding crows, over the pale caps of wild mushrooms, and then spot: An astronaut. A Mars lander. A UFO. And many stars and constellations—Sirius, Betelgeuse—all glinting brightly in broad daylight.
This is not a delirium triggered by altitude. (The air is thinner at 6,600 feet.)
No: It is the remote village of Gaomeigu, whose humble farmhouse walls are enlivened by large and gaudy murals of space travel, ringed planets, solar systems, comets—and a water cistern repainted as a flying saucer. In the surrounding clay-colored fields, ethnic minority Naxi farmers stoop in floppy hats, digging up harvests of potatoes.
“In the future, the plan is to make our village famous as China’s best Starry Sky Town,” says Wang Mangmang, the manager of the village guesthouse, explaining the hamlet’s cosmic decor. “We are like an experiment, or test site.”
Gaomeigu is a laboratory of hope pinned literally to the heavens: 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.
Proof squats atop a nearby ridge.
The white dome of the Lijiang research observatory houses the largest optical telescope in China, with a mirror nearly eight feet wide. Scientists at the facility have discovered dozens of new black holes and documented more than 160 supernovas. Now, a business entrepreneur from the megalopolis of Guangzhou, in eastern China, has decided that this scientific attraction, plus the diamond-clear firmament above tiny Gaomeigu, can attract tourists. His lone guesthouse, a refurbished primary school, provides rooms for astronomy hobbyists who mount their telescopes on its flat roof. A big-city artist has been hired to paint astronomical themes on the farmers’ tile-roofed homes. And the village leadership is encouraging residents to adopt light-pollution measures—downward-shaded streetlamps, closing the curtains at night—to keep the night’s darkness both pure and profitable.
How seriously such edicts are taken by local farmers is unclear.
“I haven’t seen any astronomers around, but I’d welcome them,” says He Wan Jun, who grows quinoa grain as well as potatoes. “The only outside visitors I ever see come in the summertime, to take wedding pictures in the wildflowers.”
Like several other Gaomeigu farmers, his concerns appear more earthbound: A short growing season. Potato exports to nearby Myanmar shriveling because of the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on cross-border trade. Limited job prospects. Neighbors leaving to seek opportunity in cities.
Yet it is precisely these rural hardships—insists guesthouse manager Wang—that make Gaomeigu’s novel rebranding as an “astro village” so timely.
“Once local villagers see a cash flow from these ideas, they will care about it,” she says.
One village light-control proposal: Equipping farmers with strategically placed video cameras to record their fields at night. Such monitoring would offer an astronomy-friendly alternative to using floodlights to discourage crop pilferage by animals and humans.
Nighttime dark is indeed a rare commodity on an electrified Earth.
According to the International Dark Sky Association, “Eight out of ten people live under a light-polluted night sky,” and “virtually every species studied has been harmed by light pollution.” An explosion of artificial lighting during the past century has triggered untold cases of sleep deprivation. Human-created glare draws generations of light-attracted sea turtle hatchlings to their deaths. Billions of children in cities worldwide never experience the wonder of seeing the Milky Way.
Gaomeigu does not appear on global lists of “dark sky places” favored by astronomy buffs. (The darkest sky in the world, according to one astrophysics lab, cloaks the Canary Islands off West Africa.)
But the isolated Yunnan village still boggles when you look up at night.
Located 24 miles by mountain trails from the nearest town, called Lijiang, Gaomeigu’s stars and planets blaze like sunlight pouring through a vast colander—only in colors impossible to source to our own star. Steely blue. Mauve. Peach. Mustard yellow. The band of the galaxy arcs, like a well-lit road, down to the cold forested horizons, silhouetting black cedars and pines. Meteorites slide down through constellations, leaving wakes of green.
Yang Hong Zhang, a local shaman—called a Dongba among the local ethnic Naxi community—says 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 says, briskly 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.”