I'd always thought of the Tibetan Plateau as a sort of mystical, remote corner of the globe only accessible to specially equipped expeditions.... but a chance meeting with fellow Welshman Geraint (Sid) Francis deep in central China's Sichuan Mountains soon changed all that. Sid is a Chinese resident and runs Sichuan Birding (http://sichuanbirding.cloudaccess.net/) providing birding and mammal watching trips in China and it was through him that I arranged my week-long trip to the plateau in October 2016. Altitudes of over 5,000 meters above sea level, temperatures ranging from minus 5 to plus 30 in one day and huge trucks hurtling at full-speed along single-track roads... it wasn't going to be a relaxing trip, but it would certainly prove to be one of my most memorable.
Day 1 - Yushu to Zhidoi
After a sleepless night on the sub-zero pavements outside Xining Airport (I had a midnight transfer and they close the airport between flights) I arrived at Yushu in bright mid-morning sunshine to meet my guide and driver ZZ (pronounced Zee-Zee, I never did find out his real name). Within minutes we'd left the gleaming new buildings that have sprung up following the devastating 2015 earthquake and were climbing the bleak mountain road up to the plateau.... it wouldn't be until I retraced my steps a week later that I'd see another tree.
We quickly spotted a number of Himalayan Griffon Vultures circling overhead and not long after found the reason why; a dead yak on the hillside with a couple of dozen vultures gorging themselves and more arriving all the time. I grabbed the cameras, jumped out of the car and headed up the hillside toward them... then ground to a halt gasping for air. We were already at over 3,500 meters and I was going to need time to acclimatise to the thin plateau air.
I slowly made my way up to the carcass and was surprised how close the vultures let me get without flying off, then the reason became clear. They'd eaten so much they could no longer fly... instead, when I got too close they all ran away together up the hillside!
We continued on our way, winding higher and higher, spotting more and more plateau wildlife on the way. First snowfinches, Hume's Groundpecker and cute little Plateau Pika diving into their burrows as we approached, then as it got more remote, Upland Buzzard and Saker Falcon. A Tibetan Fox appeared beside the road, but was chased off by a huge Tibetan Mastiff before I could get a decent shot then high up on the mountain-tops I spotted a herd of twenty-plus White-lipped Deer.
Finally at dusk, 4,500 meters above sea level, we reached our destination Zhidoi; something of a sprawling frontier town teeming with a mixture of long-distance truck-drivers, building workers and Tibetan peasants.
All I really wanted was a decent night's sleep and the chance to acclimatise to the altitude so after a quick meal of local noodles I retired straight to my hotel room.
I fell asleep almost instantly... only to be woken an hour later by five Chinese policemen hammering on my door. When I opened it they barged their way in demanding (in Chinese) that I get dressed and go with them. I was not impressed and pretended not to understand. They weren't threatening, rather giving the impression of being bored and after some entertainment. I just stood there looking blank and eventually they photographed my passport with a mobile phone then left, but I was disturbed twice more before they finally left me in peace.
A herd of White-lipped Deer (Przwalskium albirostris) on the mountain-top.
Tibetan Fox (Vulpes ferrilata) Plateau Pika (Ochotona curzoniae) White-lipped Deer (Przwalskium albirostris)
Day 2 - Exploring the Suojia Mountain Region
6:00am start to reach Suojia in time for sunrise... and it was well worth it to see the mountains lit up by the early morning sun. No sign of Snow Leopards, but Lammergeier, Tibetan Gazelle and lots of pika. As I got out of the car to scan the mountain tops I heard a Wolf howling, then another and another. There was a pack somewhere nearby and after several minutes scanning I spotted a cluster of animals high on the mountainside. Grabbing the cameras I set off in their direction. Still painfully slow work in the thin mountain air, but it soon became clear that I was watching a pack of Wolves gathered round a kill.
There was no cover of course so the they could watch me approach and one-by-one they headed out-of-site over the top of the ridge. Disappointed not to get a decent photo, I was slowly working my way over to see what they'd been eating when suddenly the whole pack of nine full-grown Wolves appeared coming back over the crest straight towards me. On my own, half-a-mile from the car, I started to feel slightly nervous but they had no intention of approaching and turned sharp left up towards the mountain peaks padding steadily out of sight again... a superb wildlife experience!.
A pack of wolves (Canis lupus) crossing the plateau.
On the way back, I photographed a Small Tortoiseshell butterfly at over 4,600 meters above sea level... is that the highest recorded butterfly in the world?
By now the sun was too strong for good photos so we headed back into Zhidoi to find some lunch and a hotel that didn't include night visits from the police, returning as the sun was starting to descend in the early afternoon. ZZ quickly spotted a large flock of Blue Sheep climbing the mountain opposite so once again I set off with the cameras and proceeded to spend an excellent couple of hours photographing mountain wildlife.
First were the vultures, choughs and Lammergeier continually circling overhead. To start with I thought they were just following the flock in the hope of some afterbirth, but then I spotted a Lammergeier on the ground feeding on the corpse of a young Blue Sheep. It tore frantically at the carcass, removed a whole leg and took to the air clearly intending to drop the bone to break it open and access the marrow. I hoped I might get a shot of the drop, but it went much too high and released the leg over the other side of the mountain.
Lammergeier (Gypaetus barbatus) feeding on the carcass of a young Blue Sheep (Pseudois nayaur) then flying away with the leg.
Blue Sheep (Pseudois nayaur) and Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes)
By then a beautifully marked Red Fox had turned up and started feeding on the Blue Sheep carcass so I photographed that, then finished up with more Pika and Rufous-cheeked Snowfinches before heading exhausted back to Zhidoi... desperately hoping to finally get a decent night's sleep.
Tibetan Fox (Vulpes ferrilata) Plateau Pika (Ochotona curzoniae) White-lipped Deer (przwalskium albirostris) Tibetan Gazelle (Procapra picticaudata) Wolf (Lupus lupus) Blue Sheep (Pseudois nayaur) Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes)
Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae)
Day 3 From Zhidoi to Budongquan
Another 6:00am start for the long drive north to the remote highlands around Budongquan. Superb scenery all the way and once it got ligiht we started to see Tibetan Gazelle and the odd red and tibetan fox. Upland buzzard, Saker Falcon were with us all the way and Lammergeier in the high mountain passes.
Male Tibetan Gazelle (Procapra picticaudata) and Black-necked Crane (Crus nigricollis)
After a couple of hours I spotted a large crowd of vultures and closer examination showed they were waiting for two Wolves to finish feeding on a dead yak. When the Wolves finally moved away there followed a feeding frenzy on the remains of the carcass and it was picked clean withing minutes.
A pair of Wolves (Canis lupus) feeding on a dead yak surrounded by Himalayan Griffon Vultures (Gyps himalayensis) which rush in as soon as they've finished.
Shortly afterwards I spotted a small shape moving on the bank of a stream and on closer inspection it proved to be a superb little Pallas's Cat which entertained us hunting pika for half-an-hour. By now we were working our way along the side of a large valley with the occasional Black-necked Crane and Kiang. This then gave way to arid desert where we spotted a couple of Tibetan Antelope before we were hit by a sand storm which quickly evolved into a blizzard.
With huge trucks hurtling towards us out of the gloom and the snow starting to settle on the road the going was far from easy, but we eventually reached our destination... a pleasant, basic hostel at a truck-stop high in the mountains. There followed in quick succession: Fried-rice, omelette and very welcome sleep!
Tibetan Fox (Vulpes ferrilata) and Pallas’ Cat (Felis manul)
Tibetan Fox (Vulpes ferrilata) Plateau Pika (Ochotona curzoniae) Tibetan Gazelle (Procapra picticaudata) Wolf (Lupus lupus) Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) Kiang (Equus kiang) Tibetan Antelope (Pantholops hodgsonii) Pallas’ Cat (Felis manul)
Day 4 - Exploring the Tibetan Highway
View of the Tibetan Railway and mountains from the window of my room in the a truckers hostel.
The Tibetan Plateau consists largely of remote, desolate wilderness but there are two main routes running through it from Xining in the east to Lhasa in the west; the Tibetan Railway and the G109 highway which run quite close together for much of the way. Most passengers take the train, wisely leaving the highway to the army of enormous goods trucks which thunder incessantly along the 3000km of monotonous, narrow tarmac. Along the route are dotted occasional rough shanty towns to cater for the truckers needs and it was in one of these that our hostel was located.
My main target on the fourth day was the elusive Tibetan Antelope which roam the wide plains in small herds and the best way to find them was drive slowly along the G109 searching carefully on either side. The only problem with this strategy was the continuous stream of juggernauts racing past... and the smashed-up wrecks lying at the side of the road didn't help to calm my fears. With nerves of steel, ZZ persevered giving me great views of Kiang, Tibetan Gazelle and eventually the impressive Tibetan Antelope.
Tibetan Antelope (Pantholops hodgsonii)
After having taken our lives in our hands for a couple of hours (but in the process managed some really nice shots) we came across a steep valley with a small half-frozen river running along the bottom... so I took the opportunity to get away from the traffic and jumped out with my cameras leaving ZZ to find a safe parking spot.
I spent the next couple of hours tracking a small family of Kiang and photographing the Horned Larks picking seeds from the frozen ground. We grabbed a fairly rough meal in one of the little shanty towns and then headed back to hostel, arriving just as the light was fading.
The aim for the fifth day was to try and find wild yak. There aren't many truly wild ones left and they only live in the most remote parts of the plateau, so it was never going to be easy. The most famous location is 'Wild Yak Valley' but ZZ wasn't keen on making the trip there because it's a very long, arduous drive on rough, unmade roads and even if you do eventually manage a sighting it will only be on a distant hillside. Instead, he and Sid reckoned they new a better place, not quite such a long drive and with better views... so with another 6:00am start, off we set.
By the time the dawn broke we were working our way along a wide valley, criss-crossed by half-frozen streams and surrounded by high mountains. There was a scattering of Kiang, the occasional Tibetan Gazelle and lots of Horned Larks and snowfinches. After about an hour we arrived at the 5000 meter base camp for Yuzhu Mountain, with hordes of big Glover's Pika scuttling about gathering winter provisions. Then on climbing the hillside we spotted a herd of yak way off in the far distance. There was no direct road, but after a couple more hours of winding through numerous small rivers and sand dunes we managed to manoeuvre close enough for some reasonable photos... mission accomplished!
Wild Yak (Bos grunniens)
On the way back we saw a big flock of Twite and a pair of Saker Falcon feeding on what was almost certainly one of them. There were also more gazelle and a large herd of Kiang which wasn't at all impressed by our arrival and cantered away snorting loudly.
There were still several hours before nightfall so we decided to give Wild Yak Valley a try. There wasn't time to reach the Yak area, but the scenery was amazing and we did see more Kiang, Tibetan Gazelle and a very cool little Toad Headed Lizard. At 4,600 meters... the highest living lizard in the world?
Glover's Pika (Ochotona gloveri)) and Toad-headed Lizard (Phrynocephalus sp.)
Herd of Tibetan Antelope(Pantholops hodgsonii) grazing
After five days, I'd seen all the main target species and it was time to start the long trek home, but a two-day journey across the Tibetan Plateau was never going to be dull!. In the first couple of hours we saw more wild yak on a distant hillside, lots of Kiang, Tibetan Gazelle and a couple of herds of Tibetan Antelope as well as all the usual bird species.
We then came across a small lake teeming with Red-crested Pochard so I got out for a closer look and while I was standing at the lakeside an Asian Badger suddenly appeared snuffling towards me through the tundra. Unfortunately it moved up-wind, smelled me and charged off but I managed one quick shot as it turned to stare.
Asian Badger (Meles leucurus) and White-rumped Snowfinch(Pyrgilauda taczanowskii)
Continuing across the plateau we saw our first Himalayan Marmot of the trip, clearly ready for hibernation. They were hugely fat (about twice the size of the ones I'd seen two months earlier) and busy collecting vegetation for the hibernation chamber.
There were also Black-necked Cranes, Lammergeier, a large flock of Bar-headed Geese, more Tibetan Antelope, a large herd of White-lipped Deer and a Saker Falcon plucking a small passerine for her fully-fledged young. All-in-all an excellent day!
Tibetan Gazelle (Procapra picticaudata) Kiang (Equus kiang) Yak (Bos grunniens) Plateau Pika (Ochotona curzoniae) Asian Badger (Meles leucurus) Himalayan Marmot (Marmota himalayana) Tibetan Antelope (Pantholops hodgsonii) Tibetan Fox (Vulpes ferrilata) Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes)
Day 7 – Zhidoi back to Yushu
Tibetan village in the snow
The final day consisted of a morning spent re-tracing my route from Zhidoi back down to Yushu for an afternoon flight. There had been a lot of snow on the local hills while I was up on the high plateau giving everything a very different look from when I'd arrived.
The usual birds were still to be seen, but very few mammals apart from the Plateau Pika... much easier to see now as little dark shapes darting around on the while blanket of snow.
Plateau Pika (Ochotona curzoniae) and Rufous-necked Snowfinch (Pyrgilauda ruficollis) in the hilltop snow
Once we started to descend from the high plateau we quickly left the snow-line behind to find everyone preparing for winter; the Tibetans were busy cutting hay they'd grown during the summer and gathering yak dung for fuel and the pikas and marmots were gathering their own hay on a smaller scale to fill the their burrows for the long winter ahead.
Sleep wasn't too far from my mind either as we drove into Yushu... it had been a tough trip. Between blizzards, a police raid, hole-in-the-floor toilet facilities, hours on scary, rough roads and rather basic food I was well and truly exhausted.
However, having said that there was also a sense of exhilaration! The Tibetan Plateau is a truely beautiful and fascinating place, the people very friendly and the wildlife superb. I'd seen far more species, most new to me and had better views of them than I had ever thought possible. This trip was unlike any other I've made... I'll certainly never forget it and I wouldn't have missed it for the world.
Plateau Pika (Ochotona curzoniae) and Tibetan Partridge (Perdix hodgsoniae) in the lower valleys
Asian Badger (Meles leucurus) Blue Sheep (Pseudois nayaur) Glover's Pika (Ochotona gloveri) Himalayan Marmot (Marmota himalayana) Kiang (Equus kiang) Pallas' Cat (Felis manul) Plateau Pika (Ochotona curzoniae) Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) Tibetan Antelope (Pantholops hodgsonii) Tibetan Fox (Vulpes ferrilata) Tibetan Gazelle (Procapra picticaudata) White-lipped Deer (Przwalskium albirostris) Wolf (Lupus lupus) Yak (Bos grunniens)
Toad-headed Lizard (Phrynocephalus sp.)
Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae)
Thanks very much to Sid Francis of Sichuan Birding (http://sichuanbirding.cloudaccess.net/) for arranging my trip. I have already booked two more looking for rare mammals in the mountains of Central China and I'd stronly recommend Sid to anyone interested in exploring this challenging, but fascinating part of the world.