The unBalanced ecoLOGogist: Climbing onto the Roof of the World

Early Saturday morning, Eryuan Liang and I flew from Beijing to Xining, the capital of Qinghai Province, which is the province to the east of Tibet. Qinghai and Tibet together span the Tibetan Plateau, but it’s much easier to travel into and around Qinghai. Even for Chinese scientists like Eryuan, who is a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute for Tibetan Plateau Research, which itself has a branch campus in Lhasa, it is far easier to do research in Qinghai than it is to do research in Tibet. And here be treelines, which are the focus of this nine-day field expedition.

Panorama from the lower treeline at the Wulan site (click for a larger version)

Saturday did not start especially auspiciously, however. I awoke at 4am to a seemingly dead laptop; the graduate student who was supposed to accompany us was turned back by security at the Beijing airport because the battery pack in her Hobo datalogger rig had too many amps for either checked luggage or carry-on, and Eryuan and I were the last to board the plane – just in time!

But we made it to Xining, a bustling (and rapidly growing) city of 2 million, which naturally had a Lenovo service center where a cheerful technician performed minor surgery on my laptop and returned it to seemingly working condition. And I learned how to open it up and reset the battery connections. So by 10am, we were on the road to Wulan, via Qinghai Lake and Chaka Lake.

But first, about two hours literally up the road, as Xining is at 2275 meters above sea level (m asl) and Qinghai Lake is 1000 meters higher, we stopped for lunch.

My introduction to cuisine on the Tibetan Plateau included a local savory round cake, succulent spare ribs, undercooked noodles, and a bowl full of raw garlic, which apparently aids in digesting all of the former. At least we’re all friends in the Leopaard (not-a-typo) Land Rover knock-off. I learned later (today) that most starchy things are pressure-cooked on the plateau, because water boils here at such a low temperature. Our 20-20 hindsight suggested the noodles had been boiled but not pressure-cooked (Click on any image to start a slide show of larger ones).

We soon approached Qinghai Lake, and proceeded to drive by it for at least an hour or two. At more than 4000 km2 Qinghai Lake is the 2nd largest inland salt lake in the world, and the largest such lake in China. It’s surrounded by small villages raising yak, sheep, and rapeseed (for oil and for the beautiful floral display), and the farmers have all learned that they can charge visitors to drive the farm tracks down to the lake shore, where they offer flowers for offerings, horseback rides, and ATV trips (Click on any image to start a slide show of larger ones).

From Qinghai Lake, we continued on to Chakha Lake, a smaller saline lake, but one which has been transformed in the last few years from a salt mine to a salt mine with a large tourist area. Visitors come from throughout China to soak in the saline pools, admire the outsized sculptures made of salt, breathe the clean air (the weather station displayed a PM2.5 of < 5 – the average Chinese city is well over 150 on a good day), and walk or ride small trains around the many km of developed walkways. It being early fall, the heavy visitor season is past, and the grounds were comparatively empty (Click on any image to start a slide show of larger ones).

The walking paths are bordered by new plantings, and visitors are gently reminded, about every 5 meters, to stay on the path (Click on any image to start a slide show of larger ones).

By the time we had finished our walk at the salt mine, it was nearly 17:00, and we exited – passing through the requisite souvenir stalls – and headed on to Wulan and a light dinner of yak & potatoes, potato pancakes, eggplant and peppers, and a few more cloves of fresh garlic, all washed down by date & goji-berry tea (Click on any image to start a slide show of larger ones).

Wulan is a small (~50,000 people) farming town in the southeast of Qinghai Province. It has one functioning hotel, a handful of small restaurants, and plentiful fields of goji berries and quinoa—the latter a recent import that is well-suited to the high, dry climate of the Tibetan Plateau.

Leaving Wulan behind, we headed for the hills, and a short (2-km) walk up to see the area where Eryuan had established one of the plots we discussed in a recent paper on treeline dynamics. But a short walk at 3600 m asl is no mean feat, and we spent a good two hours or so hiking around, looking at the Qinghai spruce and endemic juniper (Juniperus) clinging to the raw slopes while a Mongolian Kite (Milvus migrans) hunted small mammals (click on any of the thumbnails to start a slideshow of larger ones).

When we got back down to the car, our driver, Li, had collected a large pile of mushrooms  (left photo below) that grown associated with the roots of the Stipa grasses (the “rings” of vegetation in the foreground of the right photo below; click on either for larger versions). We had them in a delightful soup for lunch!

Then it was onward to Dulan for dinner and bed.




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