Monday, 31 October 2011

The mists descend

There was only light rain at the Research Station this morning, but it was misty higher up the mountains and this apparently means that the trackers don't go out in case they unintentionally get too close to a panda and disturb it. The rain stopped and we waited for the mist to clear but it didn't, so eventually we went for a general walk in the forest. I enjoyed photographing the leaves and fungi - which looked lovely in the clear light after the rain - and a spider's web 'decorated' with dew.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Takin tracking

This morning, with our guides feeling rather confident about panda sightings, we headed off in another direction in search of golden takins. We saw lots of signs, but no animals. Early clouds burned off and it was warm and sunny - with hindsight, perfect weather for panda-tracking:-/

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Panda tracking day 2 - pandas but no photos:-(

Today it was another crisp sunny morning, and I decided to head out on my own before breakfast. I didn't spot any mammals but the autumnal scenery looked fantastic in the early sunlight.
At breakfast we got fresh home-made flatbreads which were scrummy. At mealtimes we are always joined by a variety of dogs including our favourite who we have named 'Stumpy'. She was evidently at the back of the queue when they were giving out legs, and there were only half-size ones left. We walked 5km into the forest and then got word from the trackers that they had found a mother panda and her youngster. We climbed up an impossibly steep mountainside (or I would have said it was if there wasn't a panda somewhere at the top of it), with the aim of getting ahead of where the trackers anticipated the pandas would emerge. It was extremely warm climbing, and the local guide offered to carry my camera-containing rucksack. Our group had got strung out negotiating the steep slope when the mother panda (who evidently was not familiar with the trackers' tactics for delighting tourists) suddenly appeared not far below me and cut across the path of our group - a clear view for me if only for about 10 seconds, but the local guide had disappeared with my camera - no photos even if I had been quick enough! We all regrouped and waited quietly, and eventually the cub (about 12 months old) came bumbling along looking for its mother. It was slightly obscured by the vegetation but close enough to see how cute it was.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Panda tracking day 1

I joined the birders for an early morning walk in the hope of spotting some mammals but no luck. Here we are in the 'restaurant' having our first breakfast at the Research Centre. (Note the little dog in the bottom left-hand corner - more of her soon.)Breakfast was interesting - a grey rice 'porridge' which appeared to be just rice boiled in far too much water, and rice dumplings/dough balls which were freshly-baked but possibly slightly undercooked and didn't taste of much. As the week progresses I shall learn that (a) a dollop of jam makes them more edible and (b) they appear to continue cooking for some time, so a dough ball or two stashed in one's rucksack becomes positively edible at lunchtime especially after an energetic walk!
The skies were blue today and the temperatures climbed as we walked - it was hot for late October. We went about 5km through the forest in several stages, waiting in between for news over the radio from the trackers, but they had nothing to report so we settled down by the beautiful river to eat our lunch.

After lunch, we got word that the trackers were on to a panda so we bushwacked up steep hills and through tall, thick bamboo, but the panda evaded us. All we saw was some panda poo, which is enormous! (Fellow guest Alf's hand included for scale - he wasn't touching it, honest.)

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Foping NR and Sanguanmia​o research station

After lunch, we continued to Foping Nature Reserve. No vehicles are permitted inside, so our bags were loaded onto some hard-working little ponies and we started the 8km walk to the Sanguanmiao Research Station which was to be our base in the Reserve. Most of the path was concreted but parts of it and some bridges had washed away earlier this year in the worst floods in around 50 years, so we had to divert onto unmade paths. The forest was beautiful in its autumn colours - a mixed woodland still rich in many of the plant species that failed to survive the last ice age in Britain and never managed to recolonise as they had done in Foping.
We arrived at the Research Station as it was getting dark, but this is our 'hotel', photographed later in the week (when the mists had descended). Hmmm - not quite so 4-star:-)Inside is better, with an LPG heater to warm the room and a big flask of boiling water each day for washing, although the mattresses appear to have been stored at a pressure of several atmospheres and are quite 'firm'. I shall resort to sleeping on top of one duvet and under another - the joys of having a spare bed!

Weird monkeys

Today we set out from Xi'an for Foping Nature Reserve. It was good to escape the smog that unfortunately characterised much of Xi'an and its environs, and after passing through an area of farmland we started to cut through the mountains and the road ran alongside a beautiful turquoise river.

We stopped en route to Foping to visit a group of golden snub-nosed monkeys in another part of the Qinling Mountains. The group is regularly fed by the local people and has become habituated to humans so we got some good photos. This species is endangered and found only in China, so it was quite a bizarre privilege to get so close to them. As well as looking weird, they have a strange call a bit like a plaintive human baby.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Arrival in China

Today I landed in Xi'an city (from Manchester via Amsterdam and Beijing) at the start of an 'expedition' to look for giant pandas in the Qinling Mountains. I say expedition because it wouldn't be most people's idea of a holiday! (See later posts).

I was transferred from the airport to a 4-star hotel at which I had 1 night to stock up on as much luxury and comfort as possible to last me over the next 9 days. En route from the airport, I was surprised at the sheer amount of construction taking place - mostly roads and high-rise buildings to accommodate the huge numbers of people moving into China's cities from the rural areas.

The rest of the group arrived at the hotel from Heathrow via Beijing a little later, and we were taken to the Muslim quarter of Xi'an's old town for our evening meal. Not the best place for a veggie to forage!, but we enjoyed the atmosphere of the market stalls and shops, and saw the Drum Tower - part of the old city wall.