I’m leaving Xining today on a late flight back to Beijing, followed by a seven-day, six-lecture whirlwind through Shenyang (3.5 hours north of Beijing by high-speed rail), Beijing, and Nanjing (4 hours south of Beijing by high-speed rail) and then back to Beijing again for a full day of meetings and more lectures. So until the next blog posting from the eye of that storm, enjoy my favorite photos from across Tibetan Plateau and be sure to check out the “Best of the Best“.
It took me a while, but on the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival, it finally occurred to me, when we reached Dunhuang with its massive sand dunes and crescent-moon lake presided over by a reconstructed temple, that all of the cities we’d stopped at on our nine-day circuit from Xining to Wulan to Dulan to Ge’ermu to Dunhuang to Shangye and back to Xining tonight were oases in an otherwise parched desert. These ancient springs and watering-holes had been obvious points of layover for camel trains, traders, monks, and charlatans, and now are thriving cities living on depleted groundwater and glacial meltwater-fed rivers.
The last couple of days we took a break from exploring treelines to cross the high cold desert along the Silk Road between the once-oases but now thriving cities Dulan and Ge’ermu (a.k.a. Golmud). This 500-km stretch of the Xining-to-Llhasa highway provided incredible views of geology-in-the-raw, and today’s day-trip from Ge’ermu south to the Kunlun Pass added camel trains, huge herds of sheep, a glacier field, and a railroad built atop permafrost.
I’ll get to the sights later. The really fascinating part of the last two days was the foraging for wild foods in a desert that, in the main, gets < 100 mm, and in many places, < 50 mm of rainfall a year. René Redzepi could have a lot of fun here!
The morning, not surprisingly for a dry desert at 3200 m, dawned bright and blue. Apparently the average 200 mm of annual rainfall here all falls during the monsoon season of June-July (into August). The rest of the time it’s dry dry dry.
I was awakened by a trumpet (recorded or live, I couldn’t tell) playing Reveille at about 05:00 to awaken the high school students for their morning calisthenics.
After a quick breakfast of steamed buns, boiled eggs, and fried dough, we set off for a short drive to a nearby valley; the road terminated at a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, where apparently the monks enjoy basketball.
We parked the car just outside the court, and started our walk up the valley to explore the junipers (Juniperus przewalski) treeline.
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.
Well not really a first look, but my first for this trip and this blog.1 I left Xi’an mid-morning on Tuesday on a high-speed train to Beijing. The Xi’an high-speed train station (across town from the regular train station) is its own marvel. With more than 20 platforms, the whole complex felt a lot more like an airport—complete with security checks, x-ray machines, pat-downs, and gate-checks—than a train station, and it was easily as big as a standard international airport terminal, too.
A number of years ago, Alfred Runte wrote an insightful article on the rationale for the creation of the United States’ (US) National Park System (“The National Park idea: origins and paradox of the American experience,” published in the Journal of Forest History 21, 64-75; April 1977) He argued that in the 19th century, the US was still insecure about its identity as a nation. We felt that we didn’t have the cultural history, cathedrals, and other iconic buildings that Europe did, but we had awesome landscapes that Europe couldn’t match. This fixation on monumentality was enshrined in the enabling legislation for the National Parks (the 1916 Organic Act), has carried forward in management strategies and policies that emphasize retaining the parks in their “original condition”, and persists in such language as “National Monuments”.
But why write about this now, from China?
After a final night in the city of Ya’an, Sichuan Province, we headed north back into Shaanxi Province, following the Bao Jiang (Bao River) towards Baoji. We were on a small, older road, but it is being replaced by the new Baohan Expressway. This superhighway will run 200 or so kilometers (at least 12o miles), and will have been built, start to finish, in about 3 years. According to Chen Dong, building a highway like this is considered an “easy” project: it follows an existing route (in this case, right up a riverbed; the existing road is built above the river on an old terrace), uses established precast concrete technology, and takes advantage of China’s immense and hungry labor force.
But I think that it marks the end of the road for the Qinling panda. The sign at left, overlooking a reservoir (photo below; ironically established as a national wetland reserve – once the lake behind the dam silts in, it should be a very nice wetland!), reads: 熊猫故里 (xióng māo gù lĭ), literally the “hometown” of the panda, but idiomatically meaning “pandas once lived here [in this their native home], but they don’t anymore.”
We had hoped to get to the Wolong Panda Reserve, but the roads, damaged by the 12.V.2008 Wenchuan earthquake (mganitude 8.0) and more recently by heavy rains and flooding, were not passable. We re-routed to Beichuan, which was the city closest to the epicenter of the earthquake, the ruins of which have been left standing as a memorial to the >87,000 people who died and > 15,000,000 who were displaced and relocated.
We did pass through what had been panda reserve lands, but which now, more than eight years after the earthquake, have few, if any, pandas remaining. All the pandas that had been at the Wolong breeding center were relocated after the earthquake to Chengdu (see yesterday’s post, below).
After two weeks in downtown Xi’an, I, along with Professor Chen Yi-ping, graduate student Chen Dong, and an indefatigable driver Liu, set out on the morning of 29 August for a 6-day road trip through the Qinling Mountains of southern Shaanxi Province, northern Sichuan Province, and Gensu Province. The goal of this excursion is to introduce me to the two subspecies of panda (the Qinling and the Sichuan), their remaining habitat, and the challenges associated with conserving this iconic endangered species.
And of course, I am hoping to actually see a giant panda!