This visit to China was a ‘recce trip’ organised by Worldwide Birding Tours and as such came with the prospect of some unexpected turns of event.
Our trip to China started on 7 June 2011 in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province. The original plan had been that a night in Chengdu would be followed by a flight the next day to Lhasa the capital of Tibet. Unfortunately despite already having the necessary permit the authorities declined to allow us to enter Tibet. The first full day in China was therefore spent visiting some sites around Chengdu, including the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base.
The following day the authorities relented and we were allowed to travel to Lhasa, although it appeared we were the last foreign tourists to be allowed into Tibet for 6 weeks due to the impending 60th anniversary of the ‘Liberation of Tibet.’ Since we had lost one day of our itinerary instead of staying one night in Lhasa we went directly from the airport to Nam-tso Lake, the largest salt-water lake in China. This proved to be extremely difficult since we had travelled from 500m altitude in Chengdu and went within one day to 5200m. We did leave the lake later in the day to stay at a slightly lower altitude overnight (4800m) but it resulted in a very uncomfortable night in a poor cold hotel plagued by symptoms of altitude sickness. Next day we returned to Lhasa and there recovered somewhat from our sickness, sufficiently to undertake some sightseeing in Lhasa. Our somewhat truncated trip to Tibet ended with our return flight to Chengdu in Sichuan.
By immediately leaving for our next destination we were able to return to our original schedule. The first stop was Wawu Shan and we stayed at a hotel right at the entrance to the park, unfortunately the first day the weather was rather poor and we spent time on the slopes of the mountain. The second day was bright and sunny and we took the cable car to the mountain top where we saw a good range of birds and a red panda in the wild. The persistent mist descended again on day three which prevented a return to the mountain top.
Our second location in Sichuan was Rilong focussing on Balang Shan. Rilong is on the opposite side of the mountain to Wolong where the Giant Panda Research Centre is located, however, Wolong is still recovering from the major earthquake which struck Sichuan in 2008 and about 40km of the road around Wolong is still extremely difficult to travel. Balang Shan proved to be an interesting place not only for birds but also for the profusion of flowers, including species of Meconopsis, Primula and Corydalis.
The next step in our journey took us into the Tibetan part of Sichuan on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau to the town of Maerkang, a surprisingly large and bustling well-kept place. There was continuing sensitivity by the Chinese authorities to foreign tourists in the area and we had to pass a number of checkpoints. Further progress took us to Ruoergai, which is even closer to the Tibetan border, and into a hotel complex which was under construction and which left us musing about the overall development plan for such a large complex in a remote area. While out walking in the area close to the village of Baxi two of our party were interrogated by plain-clothes police and a short while later the whole party was intercepted by uniformed officers who insisted that we return with them to Baxi ‘for our own safety.’
The final site we visited was Jiuzhaigou National Park, which is an enormous tourist magnet for Chinese visitors attracting millions of people each year. The park does not allow entry to private vehicles and you have to use the buses provided, although it is possible to walk around from one bus stop to the next. The number of birds here was very low and apart from the wonderful scenery the location was not really one which we enjoyed too much. The following day we visited an area outside the park, ie. Gonggangling Forest and had a more successful experience, although again bird numbers were low. Due to the great distance between Jiuzhaigou and Chengdu we took a flight back to the capital before returning to Europe the following day. The most productive and interesting parts of the trip were definitely those spent on the summit of Wawu Shan and on the open grassland of the Tibetan Plateau.