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!
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”.
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!
For a rapidly expanding city of 9 million people, Xi’an is fortunate to have a number of temples, parks, and gardens that provide islands of green space an places for enjoyment, exercise, and contemplation. Spending day in and day out in a hotel, in an office, and in the midst of Xi’an’s sidewalks, streets, and traffic, I longed for a bit of green and a bit of quietude. So I avidly scanned my otherwise incomprehensible city map (it’s in Chinese, of course) for green spaces and made it a point to visit four of them during my two weeks in the city: the Xing Qing gardens, the Xi’an Botanic Garden, the Green Dragon Temple, and the Ba Qiao wetland reserve.