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.
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.