Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Life on the Roof of the World, Part I

Greetings Everyone,
We’re in China searching for rare and elusive mammals. You may think that a country with 1.5 billion people wouldn’t have much wildlife but there are still remote areas where animals find refuge. We’re in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province in central China, to start our quest. It’s October 3 and the rest of our Greentours group is due to arrive at the airport for our flight to Xining. Xining is the capital of Qinghai Province and the largest city on the Tibetan Plateau at an elevation of nearly 7500 feet. After reaching Xining and checking into our hotel it was off to dinner and bed for an early start in the morning.

The next morning, we drove to Huzhu Beishan National Forest Park, about an hour and a half to the northeast of Xining, arriving in time to watch the sun rise over the mountains.

Huzhu Sunrise

The target was Siberian Roe Deer which were quickly spotted but a lone Alpine Musk Deer spotted by Erling on the top of the ridge stole the show. With a head shaped more like that of a kangaroo’s, the Alpine Musk Deer is easily identifiable. Sadly this primitive deer species and other members of its genus are endangered due to overexploitation for its musk, a brown waxy substance that the deer use to scent mark. Musk is highly prized for its cosmetic and alleged pharmaceutical properties and can fetch $45,000 per kilogram on the international market. 

Alpine Musk Deer

We took a short walk in the forest to look for two pika species, Chinese Red and Tsing-ling Pikas, that are endemic to central China. Many people think that these small mammals are rodents but they are more closely related to rabbits and hares. We came up empty for the Chinese Red species but I spotted a very obliging Tsing-ling Pika sitting under a rock.

Tsing-ling Pika

The next morning we hit the road on a 2-week journey of exploration on the Tibetan Plateau. We divided our Greentours group of 9 led by Jesper Hornskov and Phil Benstead into three very comfortable 4x4’s, perfect for a long road trip.

4x4 Caravan

Our first destination was Qinghai Lake also known as Lake Koko Nor, the largest lake in China! We were on the search for Przewalski’s Gazelle, one of the rarest large mammals in the world. Jesper was quick to spot a herd about 2 kilometers from the road. We approached very carefully on foot but the gazelle were very wary and did not allow us to get within 1 kilometer. Their behavior is understandable since they have been hunted to near extinction. Fortunately, they are now protected under Chinese law and their population has grown to as many as 1600 individuals. As a result, they were reclassified from critically endangered to endangered in 2008. They still face habitat loss and competition with domestic livestock. We counted 41 individuals in two herds grazing on the dry grasslands.

Przewalski’s Gazelle

An early start from Gong He brought us to a site known for Pallas’s Cats. As the sun rose we scanned the nearby rocks hoping that the cats had come out of their hiding places to warm up but the rocks were empty. Suddenly Jennie spotted an animal moving on a ridge across the river. It was a long way off but through a spotting scope, we could see that it was a Pallas’s Cat! But wait, it wasn’t alone... The cat was being harassed by a Red Fox. Did the fox actually consider the cat a potential meal or was it just trying to get rid of a competitor? I suspected the latter. We watched as the cat fended the pesky fox off with an arched back and a few swipes of its paw. Finally, the fox got the message and sauntered off. The Pallas’s Cat hung out on a rock before heading up the ridge and out of view.

A Red Fox (left) and Pallas's Cat (right)

That afternoon brought us to the Er La Pass, at nearly 15,000 feet, our highest point so far. We climbed on foot high above the pass on the lookout for more cats but a lone Tibetan Fox and Snow Leopard tracks in a small patch of snow would have to suffice. The glorious views from the top were ample reward for our efforts.

Above the Er La Pass

We successfully stalked a small herd of Tibetan Gazelle or Goa grazing close to the road below the pass. They looked very similar to the Przewalski’s Gazelle we saw yesterday and at one time the Przewalski’s Gazelle was considered a subspecies of Tibetan Gazelle but today they are considered distinct species. Goa too are threatened by habitat loss and competition with domestic stock. The increase in fenced pasture restricts the movement of the gazelle and access to forage.


Tibetan Gazelle 

We arrived at our cozy truck stop accommodation in Wenquan for the next two nights. It allowed us to spend more time in the area so that we could resume our search for cats in the morning.

Our Cozy Room

We drove to the top of the Wenquan Pass arriving at first light. It was here that a Greentours group got exceptional views of three Pallas’s Cat kittens two years ago and we were hoping to repeat the experience. We scanned the nearby ridges to no avail so we headed out on foot to search the upper valleys. 

Hiking Above Wenquan Pass

We reached a viewpoint and stopped to scan nearby rock outcrops but there were no Pallas’s Cats to be seen. The sun made a brief appearance drawing a Tibetan Dwarf Hamster out of its rocky lair. Although not the Pallas’s Cat that we were seeking, we were happy to get close views of this seriously cute rodent, another China endemic.

Tibetan Dwarf Hamster

The next morning we left Wenquan for Huashixia, an area of dunes covered in willow scrub. We were on the search for Gansu Pika that inhabit the thick undergrowth. After searching for nearly 4 hours we had all but given up hope of spotting these elusive creatures when one appeared out of nowhere. It was so close that we were caught off guard and Marc was unable to take a photo before it slipped back down its burrow. We waited for it to reappear but it remained underground. All was not lost as we did see our first Kiang, the largest of the wild asses, and a bit further down the road we got even better views.

Kiang

The day ended with our closest view yet of Black-necked Cranes, the world’s only alpine crane species. These birds breed on the Tibetan Plateau and in late October head south, flying over the Himalaya at incredibly high altitudes.


Black-necked Cranes

It was a very cold (-14 degrees C) start to the day on the top of Bayankala Pass at 4824 meters, nearly 16,000 feet! Buddhist prayer flags whipped in the stiff wind.


Bayankala Pass

It was too snowy underfoot to explore from the pass so we walked down the highway at a brisk pace to meet the rising sun.


Walking down from Bayankala Pass

We rejoined our vehicles and stopped to scan for animals below the pass where Jesper spotted a lone Tibetan Wolf hunting for pika. He seemed unconcerned by our presence so we tried to get closer on foot. However, an icy river blocked our path so we had to settle for a distant view.


Tibetan Wolf

After lunch, we crossed a second pass called Xiewu at 4458 meters. From here we took a short walk encountering more domestic than wild animals. The bushes were covered in a thick white fiber to protect them from the harsh conditions.

Xiewu Pass 

Further down we explored a side valley where a Tibetan family was preparing for the long winter ahead by piling fodder for livestock on the roof of their stone house.

Tibetan Family 

Just before Yushe, we crossed the mighty Yangtze River whose source is on the Tibetan Plateau. At 6380 km it is the longest river in China and the third longest river in the world!

Crossing the Yangtze River

A final surprise awaited us as we entered the town, a pair of Ibisbill, a bird so distinct it has its own family, Ibidorhynchidae!


Ibisbill

Another day, another pass. This morning we crossed over the Galaga Pass at 4493 meters (just below 15,000 feet) and headed down to a secret valley dubbed “Greentours Valley”.

Galaga Pass

We stopped before a bridge too narrow for our vehicles and had breakfast. Cathy spotted a Tibetan Fox, our closest encounter yet and we all got great views and photos.

Tibetan Fox

We crossed the bridge on foot and headed into the valley on the lookout for Glover’s Pika that hang out on the rocks. I missed the first sighting but luckily there was another more obliging individual.

 Glover’s Pika

There were many Himalayan Marmots that had come out of their burrows to bask in the warm sunshine and a large family of Tibetan Partridge stopped right next to the road for a drink giving us fantastic views and photographic opportunities.

Tibetan Partridge

Past a small village, the canyon narrowed and Buddhist deities had been carved into the stone wall and painted with bright colors.

Buddhist Carvings

Further up the valley, an Altai Weasel ran across the road in front of Jesper. We feared that we had missed it but the weasel reappeared and we followed it down the road as it ran along the rocks.

Altai Weasel

Further up the valley, I spotted a large flock of White Eared-Pheasants. They get their name because of their white coloration and their prominent ear tufts, not because they have white ears! We got great views as they scrambled up the rocky slopes and finally out of view.

White Eared-Pheasants

It was getting late and time to head back to our vehicles. We still had a 2-hour drive to Nangqian. Our exploration of the Tibetan Plateau was now half over. We had seen so many amazing creatures that eke out a living on this high and dry plateau often referred to as the “Roof of the World”. What surprises await us during the second half of our journey? Stay tuned!
We hope all is well with everyone.
Peggy and Marc

Our route map:


Saturday, November 10, 2018

Splendors in the Ruoergai Grasslands

Greetings Everyone,
On September 25 we flew from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia to Chengdu, China via Beijing for the next leg of our journey. We had arranged a private trip to the Ruoergai Grasslands in Sichuan Province with local guide Sid Francis. Sid picked us up early the following morning for the long drive to Ruoergai on the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau. Along the way, we were amused by the many camps set up to house the throngs of Chinese tourists that would be visiting the plateau during Golden Week, the 7-day national holiday celebrated the first week of October. City folks could get the feel of sleeping in a tent, riding a horse or petting a yak!

Tourist Camp

We arrived in the town of Ruoergai and settled into our comfortable hotel for a 5-day stay. Even after the long drive, we were keen to go off in search of mammals so we drove another 45 minutes north of town to the site of an old rock quarry to look for wild cats. None were around so we headed further north and turned off onto a cement track that led through grasslands to a pass. Amazingly we picked up the eyeshine of many animals: Tibetan Fox, a Pallas’s Cat, a Chinese Mountain Cat, and even a lone Tibetan Wolf! The predators were here but the distance and darkness made viewing and photographing them difficult. We’d have to return in the morning light.

We returned the following morning but fog and drizzle now hampered our ability to spot animals. We did see hundreds of Plateau or Black-lipped Pikas scurrying around their burrows and even a few Himalayan Marmots that had not yet hibernated for the winter. With all this potential prey, no wonder there were so many predators out last night.

Black-lipped Pika

Himalayan Marmot

We returned to Ruoergai for lunch and headed out in the evening to spotlight along a road to the west of town. Unusually high traffic made it tricky but Sid spotted the eyeshine of a feline in the grass. We got out to investigate and after climbing over a few fences we were able to approach the cat to within 10 meters. We could clearly see that it was a Chinese Mountain Cat, a feline endemic to China! Larger than a domestic cat and with tufted ears, the Chinese Mountain Cat inhabits the grasslands and deserts on the northeastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau. Until 2007, the Chinese Mountain Cat was known only from six individuals, all living in Chinese zoos, and a few skins in museums. What a treat to get so close to this mysterious cat!

Chinese Mountain Cat

Early the next morning we returned to the rock quarries to look for more cats. We didn’t find any but we flushed three Red Foxes from their hiding spots in a second, more distant quarry.

Red Fox

We continued to the one-lane cement track which I had dubbed “Canyon Road” since from the pass it leads down into a narrow canyon. The weather had greatly improved and today we got great views of the surrounding mountains from the top of the pass. Sid spotted some Blue Sheep on a distant ridge.

View from the Pass

We headed down into the canyon not seeing many mammals but enjoying the many birds flitting about in the trees. The canyon narrowed to high rock walls adorned with Buddhist prayer flags and paintings. 

Buddhist Painting

We reached a tiny village where elderly Tibetans sat spinning their prayer wheels in the morning sun. It was nice to see that they were allowed to practice their religion which at one time was discouraged in China.

Tibetans in Village

In fact, we were surprised to see that many new chortens and temples had been built in the valley. On the way back we stopped to visit a Buddhist monastery that had recently been constructed. A lone monk invited us inside. Although the building was new many artifacts inside appeared ancient.


Tibetan Buddhist Monastery

By this time it had gotten quite late and we decided to visit a third rock quarry before returning to Ruoergai. As dusk began to fall, 11 female Tibetan Gazelle appeared from the ridges above and approached quite closely. They were followed by a lone male, possibly staking out females in preparation for the upcoming rut.

Tibetan Gazelle

A very early start the following morning didn’t yield much mammal-wise so we returned to Ruoergai for some much-needed downtime. We headed out in the afternoon but our ability to drive north was hampered by road construction. After a 5-hour delay, we were finally on our way. It had started to rain and I wanted to return to Ruoergai. There was so much oncoming traffic that we had no choice but to continue north. Finally, we reached the turnoff for “Canyon Road” and by this time it had stopped raining. Things were looking up. Soon after we picked up the eyeshine of a mammal. It was our first Asian Badger! But, it wasn’t alone. It was being harassed by two Tibetan Foxes. Sid thought that the foxes follow the badger waiting for it to dig up a tasty pika and then steal its meal. What crafty foxes! We tried to get closer on foot for a better view but the trio moved off after this photo:

Tibetan Fox (left) and Asian Badger (right)

A bit further down the road, Sid picked up the eyeshine of an animal sitting on the top of a ridge. It was a Pallas’s Cat, possibly the same one we had seen on our first night. We climbed to the top of the ridge to investigate, reaching the hollow where the cat had been sitting but it had left. Continuing down the road we detected the eyeshine of three more animals. A look through Sid’s spotting scope revealed a mother Pallas’s Cat and her two nearly grown kittens! They were hanging out on a rock about halfway up the ridge. 

Pallas's Cat Family

We proceeded carefully on foot to get a closer look. The kittens were very curious but mom had slinked off. We were able to get to within 10 meters for some wonderful views and photos. We didn’t go any closer not wanting to disturb the cats further. Wow, four Pallas’s Cats in one night! 


Pallas's Cat Kittens

We continued up the road and down into the canyon. We were on the search for nocturnal squirrels that inhabit the forest. On the way, we encountered two Siberian Roe does and further along this impressive Sika stag grazing next to the road.


Sika Stag

Our search for the squirrels paid off as we spotted three Chinese Northern or Groove-toothed Flying Squirrels high up in the conifers. Marc was able to get a photo of one.


Chinese Northern or Groove-toothed Flying Squirrel

On the drive back we spotted what we thought was a pack of Tibetan wolves but it turned out to be another Asian Badger being harassed by three Tibetan Foxes. Maybe this was the same group we had seen on the drive in but these were on the other side of the road so we speculated that they were different. Again we tried to get closer on foot but failed. 

We slept in the following morning as we didn’t return to the hotel until 2:00 am from our “lamping” session the night before. Around noon we headed north back to “Canyon Road”. We drove past the rock where we had seen the Pallas’s Cat family but it was surrounded by domestic yaks. The fact that so many predators coexist with domestic animals including dogs and their herders was a surprise to me.


Domestic Yaks around "Pallas's Cat Rock"

We decided to head even further north to a massive Plateau Pika colony. On the way, we were sad to see thousands of skinned Chinese Zokor hanging to dry. Apparently, the Chinese government thinks it’s a good idea to trap and kill these burrowing rodents, believing they destroy the grasslands. The weather had deteriorated and by the time we reached the pika colony, it had begun to snow. We didn’t see much except for a few Black-necked Cranes braving the storm.


Chinese Zokor Carcasses

The next morning we left the Tibetan Plateau making one last stop at Baixi. On the drive in I spotted an animal on the grasslands about a kilometer off the road. It was one of a pack of five Tibetan Wolves that had just killed a Tolai Hare!


Tibetan Wolves


We also spotted a Chinese Serow grazing on a ridge above and some great birds like this beautiful Gray-headed Bullfinch.


Gray-headed Bullfinch

We returned to the main road for the long drive to Dujiangyan. We followed the Minjiang River hoping that the detour we had encountered on the way in had been cleared. Not seeing any road closure signs we proceeded on the main road, unfortunately, hitting the roadblock once again. We were forced to backtrack and follow the detour high above the river.


Roadblock

We arrived in Wenchuan after dark and stopped for dinner. This city had been destroyed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake during which 69,000 people lost their lives. The city has been rebuilt in Las Vegas-style with a lot of gaudy lights.

We arrived in Dujiangyan in time for bed. On our last day with Sid, we decided to visit the nearby Panda Center. Although I’d prefer to see Giant Pandas in the wild, this is now difficult since the Chinese government has closed the Wolong Panda Reserve to foreigners. At least we were able to see Giant Panda in their native country and hope that one day these bears will be released into the wild.


Giant Panda

A big thanks to our wonderful guide Sid for showing us the splendors of the Ruoergai Grasslands! In a fast-changing world, we hope that the unique mammals that make the Tibetan Plateau home will continue to coexist with their human neighbors.
We hope all is well with everyone,
Peggy and Marc

Our route map: