Part Two. Soaked Mountains

After a month spent in this country, you think you know
everything about it. But after a year, you realize you know nothing.
Graham Green. The Quiet American

August 1-2. The cheapest cars in Chinese trains are much like suburban trains of Russia, but the ride might take days. The level of comfort depends on the degree to which the train is overcrowded. I crossed the Loess Plateau and Hwang He River, very fast and muddy. Then I visited Lanzhow, Yang Xian (site of the last colony of crested ibis, one of the rariest birds in Asia), Xian City (absolutely splendid), the ancient sites around it (most known for Terracota Army, although there are many other interesting things there), and Hua Shan, one of the country's most sacred mountains. Such mountains are scattered all around China, serving as Nature reserves in an ocean of fields and cities. All of them are very beautiful, too. Hua Shan is 2,160 m high and takes about eight hours to climb if you are in good health. Parts of the climb are stretches of vertical steps. Some very old people climb it, too, sometimes in a week or more, and frequently die before reaching the summit. It was my first experience with Chinese forest fauna, so I spent many hours at the summit, chasing birds and turning over every rotten log I could find.

August 3. Northern Sichuan looks very much like the Black Sea coast of Georgia. I got off the train at a tiny station, and found a bus to Nanpin in the mountains. Riding through the emerald-green world of tiny Switzerland-like villages, sunlit fog, and constant drizzle, I tried to get some language practice by talking to other passengers. But most conversations followed the same pattern:
"E-li-sy hao-buhao?" (Is Yeltzin good or bad?) would they ask.
"Go-lu-ba-cho hao-buhao?" (What about Gorbachev?)
"Sta-li-ny hao-buhao?" (And Stalin?)
"Mao hao-buhao?" At that point they started looking around, and as soon as I answered "Buhao!", the conversation was usually over.

I hitchhiked the last 40 km to Jushaigou, a large Nature reserve, famous throughout China for its scenic views. The road goes through Mediterranean-style forests of low oak, maple, and various cypress-like conifers, but as soon as you enter the reserve, it's mostly giant firs, spruces, hemlocks, and pines, some up to 70 meters tall. Except for a few botanists, attracted by the unparalleled diversity of conifers in the park, few foreigners get here: the road is too rough, and the entrance fee for them is $25. As a Great Russian Writer, I didn't have to pay the fee at all, and even got a free hotel room.

August 4. Jushaigou Valley is Y-shaped if seen from above, about 36 km long, and about one mile deep, with almost vertical granite walls, decorated with hundreds of small waterfalls. Every 50-100 meters the valley floor is crossed by granite dykes, and there's a lake above each dyke. Most lakes are dark blue, with very clean water, excellent for snorkeling (I counted about thirty fish species there). The hotel is located at the central junction. There's plenty of wildlife in the upper parts of the valley, but it can only be seen at night or at dawn. Later hundreds of buses arrive, filled with Chinese tourists, who are very noisy. I left the hotel shortly after midnight and got to the lake at the end of the left valley just before the first bus. Two dholes were digging up the garbage dump; further up, there were Thorold's and snow deer, rare moles in forest litter, dwarf blue sheep on rock faces, and some nice birds. Interestingly, some species endemic to this area, such as Severtzov's grouse, Sichuan jay, or Asian junco, have close relatives in the Boreal forests of Eurasia and North America.

Chinese tourists differ from Western ones not only in being more noisy, but also in being less weather-sensitive. Despite heavy rain they continue riding around the park and never hesitate to give me a lift. I got to the other branch of the valley and spent a wonderful afternoon in high-elevation rhododendron forest. There were almost no flowers left on the trees, but lots of orchids on the forest floor, and some strawberries for lunch.

At night I picked my backpack from the hotel and hiked down to the park exit. The rain was as intense as a good supercell thunderstorm, and the road was crawling with toads, small snakes, and salamanders. I found a cozy dry cave to camp in. Dozens of small horseshoe-nosed bats were hanging from the ceiling. It was nice having company, but in the morning my sleeping bag was covered with a layer of bat droppings.

August 5. Riding South with various tourist groups. Unlike poor local folk, tourists from rich cities of coastal China always give me rides for free, because they are more interested in English practice than in my money. Locals sometimes ask for money, but showing them my Datzybao is enough to avoid being charged. Traveling with Sichuanese tourists has its own advantages: they are crazy about red pepper and other spices. When a group of tourists from Chengdu (the capital of Sichuan) visits a roadside restaurant, and various meals are served in large communal plates, they race to pick up spicy pieces with their chopsticks, giving you some time to quietly get some meat

I visited a small Nature reserve called Hualong Shi, with a chain of green travertine lakes, and explored the Southern edge of Sichuan Swamp Plateau. Then the road followed Min Jiang river, 380 km of spectacular rapids. Traveling in Sichuan is fascinating, because each time you get from one river valley to another, you find yourself in a different country with its own language, architecture, clothing styles, and agricultural practices. Ming Jiang Valley is inhabited by Tsank people. They look like Tibetans, but their language sounds more like Mongolian, and they wear blue overalls similar to Mongolian deli. Their houses have log frames, covered with brightly painted wooden boards, with huge shales for roofing.

I made a small discovery in that valley. The Tsank have an unusual breed of cattle: bulls are black, and cows are gray or brown. It was always believed that there was only one cattle breed with such sexual dimorphism, a Central European breed called Gray Steppe. Wild aurochs had also had this trait prior to their extinction in the 14th century. (Later I published the information, and this primitive breed from Ming Jiang will probably be used in ongoing experiments aimed at recreating the auroch by selective breeding - V.D.)

August 6. The road was washed away at one point, so I had to hike the last stretch to a small place called Inshuo. From there, it was only a two hours' walk to Wolong Panda Reserve. It is known for the greatest biodiversity in all of Eastern Asia, in part because of its size (75x40 km) and altitudinal range (from 1,000 to 6,240 m). Its lowest part looks almost tropical, with tree ferns, swallowtail butterflies, geckos, giant walkingsticks, herds of macaques, and huge green royal cicadas. Up to 2,000 m the slopes are covered with deciduous forests and bamboo thickets. Higher up it's a mixture of dozens of species of conifers, first with bamboo, then with red birch, and above 3,000 m - with tree rhododendrons (alas, their blooming was over). The headquarters are at 1,500 m, surrounded by very steep, densely forested, waterfall-laced slopes. Trails lead into narrow deep side valleys. I hiked into one of them and spent night on a flat rock between two parts of a waterfall. Half a mile above me, there was a huge martin colony, more than a thousand nests.

August 7-9. I spent three days exploring these forests, packed with rare and little-known wildlife. The best place proved to be one side trail, blocked by a landslide. I got around the slide by wading up a small creek and found no human footprints on the other side, only tracks of small deer, wild boar, dhole, yellow-throated marten, and many other tracks I wasn't familiar with, probably civets and pandas. Eventually I climbed into the clouds and could approach wildlife closely because of dense fog and constant dripping sound. The gorges were so narrow that I could often watch animals on the opposite slope, which was less than a hundred meters away, but would take a few hours to get to. I saw takins (subtropical version of a muskox, covered with silky golden wool), ghorals, red pandas, golden monkeys (the most beautiful Asian primates), and numerous small creatures, such as flying squirrels, moonrats, and mustached toads. One night when I was sleeping in a tree hollow high above the ground, a breathtakingly beautiful golden cat climbed the same tree up to the first branch, and rested there for about an hour, probably waiting for a deer or a hare to walk a path below. Small creeks were full of aquatic shrews and salamanders.

The main valley was lined with small villages of Chang people. Unlike the Tsank a few miles away, they build stone houses with thatched roofs. They also have tiny stone temples, resembling Svan churches in the Caucasus. I tried to help them with the harvest, but corn was still unchewable, so I was limited to apples. The rains caused the river to flood some meadows - a good place to look for escaping moles. Wolong has more species of moles than any other place in the World.

The best site for birdwatching was the immediate vicinity of the headquarters. Bright lights attracted lots of insects at night, mostly Geometridae moths. They were hunted by a pair of eagle owls, and at dawn, a huge mob of birds showed up to collect what was left. The most beautiful birds were blue magpies with gorgeous tails. In the surrounding forest large mixed flocks of babblers, titmice, leaf warblers, and other birds could be seen.

I hitchhiked to the high pass at the reserve's upper border at 4,700 m. Early in the morning the cloud layer was between 2,500 and 3,500 m. As the truck climbed out of it I saw a splendid view: sharp-pointed peaks, sticking out like flames, with pools of clouds between them. Suddenly the "pools" became stormy, and the layer rose almost instantly. By the time I got my camera out of my backpack, only few highest peaks were visible, then only one was left: Gunngaobaishan, "the invisible mountain". It can only be seen few days a year because of the clouds.

From the pass the road goes to Markam and eventually to Lhasa, but I chose to walk back down, throw alpine and subalpine meadows. The sea of clouds flooded everything by the time I got to the pass, but it was still one of the most interesting hikes of my life. This is probably the best place in the world for gallinaceous birds. I counted ten species that day, most of them pheasants. It's also the best place for edelweiss, with at least five species covering the meadows. The timberline was at 3,500 m. At dusk I finally saw Sichuan's most famous animal, the giant panda, feeding on bamboo on the far side of the river.

August 10. In the afternoon I dragged myself out of Wolong, and hitchhiked out of the mountains, to flat "rice deserts" of Central Sichuan. After sunset the roadside towns were filled with bat shrieks and sounds of fighting (the country was watching a new Kung Fu movie on TV). Sichuan is the only place in China where you can find good bread, in the form of large flat cakes with honey. It is difficult to find a dry field with no houses within 50 m, so you have to wait till midnight before going to sleep.

August 11. Chengdu doesn't have such an immense cultural heritage as Xian, but it's still a nice colorful city with lots of old temples and parks. The best way to explore big Chinese cities is by bike. Bike rentals cost close to nothing, and once you get on a bike, everybody stops paying attention to you. No more "Hello!" cries from every kid encountered (with an average of ten per minute), no more staring crowds gathering every time you stop walking for more than five seconds, no more pickpockets and prostitutes of both sexes lining up to try to get access to your supposedly unlimited cash reserves.

After only a few weeks in China I realized that European faces became more difficult to tell apart than Oriental ones. All Westerners seemed to be tall, skinny, long-nosed, and with dirty hair. They were sometimes more interesting to watch than the locals. In their home countries they wouldn't mind paying a few extra bucks to park their cars fifty meters closer to their homes, but here they could spend hours bargaining with street vendors to save ten cents' worth of money. All of them had Lonely Planet's China guidebook, worshiped it as sacred, and quoted it constantly during conversations. The book is useful, but it has many errors; besides, its author apparently hates the Chinese and liked the Tibetans, as do most Westerners. In Xian I'd got a used book in exchange for my old down coat, but a few days later someone spilled a can of fuel oil on my only other coat, so now I had no warm clothes except for one sweater.

August 12. I got a look at a giant Buddha statue in Lushan, and then went further South to Emeishan (pronounced O-o-meishan), a 3,075 m-high sacred mountain. You can climb it in a cable car for 20Y, or hire a pair of porters with stretchers for 200. Many women choose the potters, probably for the pleasure of being carried. The climb goes through subtropical jungle with wild bananas, small palms and lots of orchids, and through deciduous forests. Above 2,000 m it's mostly fir and spruce. The trail passes by some ancient temples and is heavily crowded, so there's little wildlife, except for tame macaques and numerous songbirds. The most beautiful temples were on the summit, which I reached at midnight, wet as seaweed after crossing three layers of clouds. There was a small monastery on the summit which served as a hotel. The room prices in English price list were 25 times higher than in Chinese one, so I had to use my Datzybao once again.

August 13. Hundreds of people climbed the peak before sunrise to see the so-called "calling Buddha", their own shadow on the clouds surrounded by a circular rainbow. (You can easily see it by looking in the direction opposite to the sun while flying in an airplane low above the clouds). Until a fence was installed at the cliff edge, the old people sometimes jumped from the summit towards the "calling Buddha". The sunrise over the undulating sea of clouds was beautiful, and the "Buddha" did show up, but then the clouds swallowed the summit, and it started raining again.

I found an overgrown trail leading down the other side of the mountain and followed it to about 2,500 m elevation, but then it disappeared in a sea of bamboo. It took me hours to break through the bamboo to a small creek, which led me out of bamboo thicket. There were some interesting animals in the forest: bamboo partridges, bamboo rats, muntjak deer, and cliff squirrels. Further down I found some rare tropical conifers in the jungle. Below 1,000 m there were lots of small clearings in the forest, all planted with cannabis. Some of the World's most beautiful pheasants were grazing in these clearings. Finally I got out of the forest and found some cabbage fields, so I could have dinner before going to sleep in a haystack.

August 14-15. Hitchhiking back to Tibet. The idea was to get to the city of Markam, and then turn South into Yunnan. At fist the land remained densely populated, with endless rice fields, and shepherds driving huge herds of ducks along the road. But soon water buffaloes were replaced first with small red cows, then with spotted tzo (cow-yak hybrids), and finally with yaks. I couldn't see much else because of rain and fog. I spent the first night in Kanding, a small Tibetan city with two beautiful monasteries. Here I found a covered truck going to Lhasa and slept in the trunk. After midnight the sky cleared for a while, and I could see Gongga Shan (7,556 m), a pyramid-shaped peak with spreading white tentacles of moonlit glaciers. But then the snow started falling.

Next day we crossed many high passes and Yangtze River, but I couldn't see anything, except for an occasional pheasant or two on roadside meadows. Dozens of large trucks, each carrying 2-3 huge logs, were going in the opposite direction. The slopes around were mostly deforested, and the road was rough and slow. Late at night we entered Tibet and a few hours later stopped in Markam, at 3,630 m above sea level.

I developed an optimal feeding method: my daily diet consists of 2 cups of rice, 1 cup of noodles, 1 pack of crackers, and 3 flat cakes, when available. If there's a chance, I compliment it with whatever can be harvested from the fields. If not, I buy a can of pork or a slice of water melon once every few days. This way I spend about one dollar a day.

August 16. At 5 am I was dragged out of the trunk by the "international police". They told me that the entire area was closed for foreigners, and escorted me to a bridge over Marjang River outside the town, to put me in a truck or a car going back to Sichuan. I showed them my Datzybao, but they couldn't read. Three guys from Switzerland were already waiting there, guarded by a policeman. They told me that they'd tried to kayak down Mekong River from its headwaters near Quamdo to the border with Myanmar, but got arrested not far from Markam. It took them almost a month to get to Dzade, a tiny village at the river headwaters, but then it was fast and easy: they made 1,200 km in ten days.

We spent there more than an hour, hiding under the bridge from showers. Then a cur showed up, and the officer ordered the driver to squeeze in as many people as he could. Two kayakers left. Then I got an idea. I offered the third guy to buy one of the kayaks from him. He obviously didn't need it anymore, but it took me 40 precious minutes to talk the price down from $500 to $50. I put my backpack in the kayak, as if trying to protect it from the rain. Then a truck appeared, and the officer walked on top of the bridge to stop it. I jumped in the kayak and took off. The river was fast, and the bridge was out of sight in less than a minute.

I had enough whitewater experience to navigate Marjang, carrying my kayak around numerous small waterfalls. But after two hours I was in Mekong, and that was beyond any experience possible. Pumped up by summer rains, the river raced South with a speed of a good car. Most rocks were deep under water, and the kayak was light enough to glide easily over small whirlpools, so it was not as scary as it felt, at least in the beginning. Then the mountain slopes became vertical, and the river narrowed from fifty meters to less than ten. At one point, it made two 360-degree turns within a few seconds, and I found myself in a place where probably no human had ever been - a small valley, completely isolated from the outside world by smooth rock faces and raging river.

I spent the night in this small "Lost World". Sandy shallows were covered with tracks of deer, otters, golden cats, and wolves. I made a large fire to dry my clothes, and immediately animals started showing up. They have almost certainly never seen fire in these wet forests. I was visited by two large shrews, a flying squirrel, a fox and a marten. Later, a Himalayan bear showed up, and I had to walk around the fire to keep it between me and the bear. It looked like a scene from Paleolite: a naked man with a heavy stick and a salivating bear chasing each other around a fire. Then it left. A thunderstorm began, and although I tried to keep the fire going, it was flooded within a few minutes.

August 17. Just before dawn the rain stopped, and I floated off. The old-growth forest along the river looked completely intact. Otters played in small tributaries, musk deer and ghorals could be seen on talus slopes. Once I saw a group of red deer on a meadow. (Later I found out that it was the first record of this subspecies in many decades, and sent the information to George Schaller, the only Western expert on Tibetan conservation matters at that time.- V.D.). Large flock of tragopans, monals and other pheasants was grazing with the deer.

But then the rapids began, and I had no time for birdwatching. A few hours later I emerged from the narrows, barely alive after a few dozen overkills. One of my fingers got caught between the kayak and a rock, and hurt like hell. (Nine years later, it is still deformed slightly, a souvenir from one of my most exciting adventures - V.D.) The weather got better, and I could see the mountains all the way to the peaks five to six thousand meters high. But the valley was so deep that there were no more firs around, only some pines, oaks and tree junipers. Here I saw the most beautiful songbird of Tibet, a tiny ball of purple feathers and enthusiasm called crested tit-warbler. Soon the pristine part of the valley ended: suddenly there were fields and villages all around, and no more wildlife. (In the late 1990-s, a new road was built along the river, most forests were logged, and now there are talks of building a huge hydroelectric dam in the area - V.D.)

I carried my kayak five kilometers to the first large village, and sold it to the locals for twenty bucks. I had no idea how they were planning to use it in a country where you could only move downstream. I also learned that I was already in Yunnan. Then I hitchhiked to Litong on Yangtze River.

August 18. There was a nice trail high above the river with great views of the famous Hutyao Xia rapids. Every kilometer or so, there was a ticket booth, so I had to climb the rocks every time to get around them. After a few hours of hiking I took a ferry across the river. From there I could take a bus to Lijang. But I had less than fifty dollars left, so I decided to walk instead. It was a bit too far (86 km), but I expected to find some good forest along the way.

These mountains are inhabited by Naxi, a nation with unique culture and lifestyle. Their villages are large, with houses scattered over high mountain slopes. It took me two hours to climb from the river to the last house. As soon as I got out of the village, the rain started. The slopes were covered with young planted pines, which couldn't prevent the soil erosion, so the road was crossed by streams of brick-red mud. At midnight the rain turned into snow, but then I finally climbed to the pass, and found shelter under the roof of an old mechanic shop. My left hand swelled and turned black because of the pinched finger, and looked like a nasty snakebite.

August 19. Two hours later the roof started leaking, and my sleeping bag got soaked. I got up and walked through freezing rain towards the second pass. I had no food except for two cubes of dry chicken broth and a large pack of noodles. The pack was dry on the inside, but the outer layers kept getting wet slowly, so I could chew away the soaked parts of the noodles every half an hour or so. I knew I would've collapsed from pain, cold, and hunger if I stopped, so I kept walking. It would be much easier if the road was more interesting, but there was nothing to see, except for small pines, toads in road ditches, and an occasional flock of finches.

In the evening the temperature dropped below freezing. I was only twenty kilometers from the city, but I couldn't walk fast enough to keep warm. I found an old pot in an empty shack near the road, gathered some Suillus mushrooms, and cooked them with the broth cubes and the remaining noodles. Feeling better, I hiked for another hour, and saw a tiny hotel. A group of teenagers greeted me and invited to stay for free. They had just finished the construction, and I was their first guest. They owned the hotel jointly. They could speak some English, but they asked me to write a sign that would attract foreign tourists. I gave it some thought, and wrote the following: Villa Baoshuo - A Hitchhiker's Club. Low Budget Travelers Only. (Later I got a letter from one of the girls. The sign did work! Apparently, all foreign tourists considered themselves low budget ones. Some of them left hundred-dollar tips, though. May be I was a great writer, after all - V.D.)

August 20. Snow was still falling, but the clouds were so high they didn't hide the mountains, and the place looked very beautiful. There was good old-growth forest on the slopes of Satseto Mountain (5,596 m) just above the hotel. I spent most of the day there, watching flocks of parakeets feeding in snow-covered spruces and pines. Then I walked down to Lijang, where it was relatively warm and only slightly raining. It's one of the prettiest small towns in Asia and a popular winter resort. The old city is a labyrinth of narrow streets, channels, bridges, tiny parks, and markets, where you can buy some medicine: tree fungae, moonrat skulls, mongoose skins, and dried lizards. Pineapples are one yuan each. There's a large old park in Lijang, with temples devoted to The Black Dragon, a tiny Hynobius salamander that lives in the lake. I spent night in one of the temples, and saw a large fish-owl wading along the lakeshore, hunting the sacred salamanders. There was also a pair of wood owls in the park, but they hunted tree shrews.

August 21. Still raining. At Lijang bus station, you have to show your ticket only once before entering a bus. That means you can get inside through a window on the other side of the bus. Other passengers don't mind if you ride for free. I took a bus to Dali, the capital of Bai people on lake Er Hai. Fishermen on the lake used cormorants for fishing. The city was nice, but too touristic. The elevation was less than 2,000 m, and there were some tropical birds on utility wires. I met a group of local students at the bus station, and they invited me to sleep on the floor in their hotel room. I couldn't stand the bad weather any more: it had been raining every day for more than three weeks, and my sweater was falling apart. So I decided to get out of the mountains and into the tropical part of China, although going that far from home with almost no money left was a bit scary.

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