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Sunbird – Itinerary

China: Lhasa and the Tibetan Plateau

Saturday 8 August to Saturday 22 August 2020
with Paul Holt and Wang Qingyu as leaders

Maximum group size: 10 with 2 leaders

2020 Tour Price : £5,350

  • Single Room Supplement : £790
  • Plus flights estimated at : £900

Protected for centuries, the magnificent Tibetan Eared Pheasant can be remarkably tame at a quiet mountain nunnery outside of Lhasa. Photo: Paul Holt

China is a vast country, the third largest on earth, with a dazzling array of landscapes and environments that rivals anywhere else on the planet.  A good number of the nation’s 1415 or so birds are endemic or near endemic and many are poorly known.   On this popular tour we’ll explore parts of the fantastic Qinghai-Tibetan plateau, the ‘Roof of the World’, in search of the numerous ornithological delights to be found in one of the world’s most isolated regions.

The Tibetan Plateau resulted from the dramatic geological upheavals that created the Himalayas and this stark landscape is effectively a high altitude desert, with more than half of the plateau at over 13500 feet.  Now more accurately known as the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, the region is home to an impressive array of charismatic species.  Whilst we are extremely unlikely to encounter a Snow Leopard, mammals we should see include Tibetan Gazelle, Tibetan Antelope, Kiang (or Tibetan Wild Ass) and possibly even a wild Yak. Bird life should include majestic Black-necked Cranes, the elusive Kessler’s Thrush, stunningly patterned Güldenstädt’s (or White-winged) and possibly Przevalski’s (or Ala Shan) Redstarts, six species of snowfinch, numerous larks, engaging White-browed Tits, and the attractive Henderson’s Ground Jay. In over 20 tours to the Plateau we have never failed to find Przevalski’s Finch (aka Pink-tailed Bunting), a gorgeous and enigmatic species recently placed into its own family. Spending time in forests just off the Plateau we’ll visit Huzhu Bei Shan, an area only recently opened to foreigners and one that harbours an impressive remnant ancient forest thronged with Phylloscopus warblers, redstarts and buntings, as well as many other regional specialities.

A special attraction on this tour is our overnight train to Lhasa, a journey that is rapidly becoming one of China’s “must-do” experiences. Our modern train offers very comfortable four-berth sleeping compartments, and it takes us through some truly outstanding scenery right across the roof of the world.

Our ultimate destination is Lhasa, the historic capital of the Tibetan region that has long been isolated from the outside world.  A visit to this remote city will be a thrilling climax to the tour and we’ll take time to soak up the atmosphere of this magical place and experience some of the fabulous Buddhist culture for which it is famous.  Among many other species, we would also expect to see Tibet’s three main ornithological attractions - Tibetan Eared Pheasant, Brown-cheeked Laughingthrush, and Giant Babax.  This tour is guaranteed to be a real adventure and one that will show you birds and places seen by very few.

Day 1: The tour begins this evening in Beijing. Night in Beijing.

Day 2: We’ll transfer to the airport for a flight to Xining, the ancient capital of western China’s Qinghai Province. We’ll then drive a couple of hours north to Huzhu Bei Shan, an impressive forested reserve on the border of Qinghai and Gansu provinces. Night in Huzhu Bei Shan.

Day 3:  We’ll spend the entire day in the bird rich forests of Huzhu Bei Shan, a reserve that has only recently become accessible to foreigners.  We’ll be one of only a small number of groups to have visited this amazing site. Lush grassy pastures in the valley bottoms, conifer forests on the lower and middle slopes and stands of gnarled junipers at higher elevations all support unique avifauna. Conspicuous species here include White-winged Grosbeak and both Hodgson’s and White-throated Redstarts, but it is the more difficult species that are Huzhu’s primary attraction. Pheasants rank highly on everyone’s list of difficult birds to see and there are several species here; Common Pheasant should not be too difficult, but Blood and Blue Eared Pheasant, as well as Chinese Grouse and Verreaux’s (or Chestnut-throated) Monal-partridge, will require much more effort, and a modest amount of luck. Even in early August the forests abound with bird song, much of it from the many species of Phylloscopus warblers, nine of which (including the localised and recently described Gansu Leaf Warbler) make Huzhu their summer home. Other top attractions at this fabulous site include Przevalski’s Nuthatch, White-bellied Redstart, Siberian Rubythroat and Red-flanked Bluetails of the distinctive albocoeruleus form.  We’ll spend the nights at Huzhu Bei Shan.

Day 4: After another full morning at Huzhu Bei Shan, we’ll head slowly back to Xining but expect to make numerous stops en route. On one of these we’ll search the mountain slopes near the summit of the Huzhu pass for Tibetan Snowcock and Rosy Pipit and the nearby roadside bushes for White-browed Tit, White-browed Tit-warbler and Spotted Bush Warbler.  Night in Xining.

Day 5: Leaving Xining we’ll drive west, climb up onto the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau and head for spectacular Qinghai Hu (Lake Koko Nur) some 3200 metres above sea level. Spending the next five days on the plateau we’ll visit as many different habitats as our time permits. We’ll be seeing the rolling alpine grasslands at their very best and the meadows will be awash with blossoms of buttercups, forget-me-nots, gentians and poppies. Combine this with a backdrop of Koko Nur (or ‘Blue Sea Lake’ as it’s known in both Chinese and Mongolian) and dramatic, often snow-capped, peaks - what better place could you imagine to go birding! Looking at the stunning pristine landscape, it will be difficult to believe that we are still in the world’s most populous nation.

On the shores of Koko Nur post-breeding Bar-headed Geese, and both Pallas’s and Brown-headed Gulls and will vie for our attention. We’ll also search for, and expect to see, the rare Black-necked Crane and have a good chance of encountering one or two Pallas’s Fish Eagles. In the neighbouring grasslands, among the domesticated yaks and horses and scattered Tibetan tents, we should find species such as Tibetan and Mongolian Larks, six of the world’s eight species of snowfinch - Henri’s, Tibetan, White-rumped, Pere David’s (or Small), Rufous-necked, and Blanford’s (or Plain-backed) - plus comical Ground Tits. We’ll spend this and the following night in a comfortable three-star hotel near ‘Bird Island’ at the western end of this magnificent lake.

Day 6: Spending another full day at the western end of Koko Nur we’ll have ample time to search for more of the region’s specialities. Plateau Pikas are common throughout the grasslands and constitute an important food source for Saker Falcon and the numerous Upland Buzzards. We’ll also expect to encounter large numbers of migrant waterfowl and a few waders but the day’s primary targets will come in the shapes of the gorgeous Przevalski’s (or Ala Shan) Redstart and Przevalski’s Finch (or Pink-tailed Bunting), the latter a bizarre species that has recently been given its own family.

Day 7: We’ll continue west from Qinghai Hu and spend the morning exploring a ravine rich in birds. It’s a moderately steep walk to the top, but we’ll move slowly, our steps perhaps enlivened by encounters with a Tibetan Partridge, Wallcreeper, Kessler’s Thrush, Blue-fronted Redstart, glistening gem-like White-browed Tit-warblers, Eurasian Eagle Owl or Lammergeier. In the afternoon we’ll drive over a road pass to Chaka, a bizarre area rich in mineral salt deposits and yet with tracts of intensive and surprisingly lush agriculture. We’ll be looking particularly for Pallas’s Sandgrouse and Henderson’s Ground Jay.  Twice before we’ve even been fortunate enough to encounter several parties of the enigmatic Tibetan Sandgrouse here. Night in Chaka.

Day 8:  We’ll leave early for a dry wash near Chaka where, in the early morning light, we’ll look for Przevalski’s (or Rusty-necklaced) Partridge, Pallas’s Sandgrouse, Desert Wheatear, and Mongolian Finch. In the afternoon we’ll head back east, before turning south to the oasis settlement of Gonghe where we’ll spend the following two nights.

Day 9:  Travelling south of Gonghe we’ll face our most strenuous day of the tour. Our destination will be the Ela Pass, which at a mighty 4500 metres is easily the highest road pass on the tour. The pass is a regular site for Güldenstädt’s (or White-winged) Redstart and both Plain and Brandt’s Mountain Finches. Moreover, the Ela Pass is one of only a handful of reliable sites for the little known Tibetan Rosefinch. As well as pottering around the road, if the weather permits we plan to walk another 300 metres up to the summit of one of the nearby mountains. Tibetan Snowcocks breed here but are elusive, as is our primary quarry, Tibetan Sandgrouse. These beautiful birds are incredibly shy and retiring and much of the day will be spent slowly exploring the mountainside in our quest to see the sandgrouse before returning to Gonghe for the night.

Day 10:  Time permitting we’ll have a final morning searching for difficult species such as Przevalski’s Partridge and Mongolian Finch around Gonghe. We’ll then head back to Xining before embarking upon one of those journeys most people only dream about as we take an overnight train to Lhasa, the heart and soul of the Tibetan Autonomous Region.

Day 11:  We spend most of today on the train.  This train journey is rapidly becoming one of China’s ‘must do’ tourist attractions.  Following the highest railroad in the world, our modern train, which offers comfortable sleeping accommodation and decent food, will take us through some outstanding scenery and right across the ‘Roof of the World’. Although the journey is a long one, the comfort of the train and the chance to just sit back and watch this remote wilderness unfold before us should make this a highlight of the tour. We will cross high plateaus and travel through ice tunnels before reaching the heart of the Himalayas and Tibet. We’ve previously seen Saker Falcon, Lammergeier, Ibisbill and three species of snowfinch from the train as well as Kiang (or Tibetan Wild Ass), Yak, Wolf, Tibetan Fox, Tibetan Gazelle and the increasingly rare Tibetan Antelope, so there’s plenty to look for. We expect to arrive in Lhasa in the early evening.

Days 12-13: Today we’ll begin to explore this fascinating region.  Surely one of the planet’s most charismatic cities, Lhasa is the focal point and spiritual heart of this deeply religious region. Buddhism permeates all facets of Tibetan daily life and the name Lhasa actually means ‘God’s Land’ or ‘Place of the Deity’ in Tibetan. We’re sure to be impressed by all that this city has to offer - Lhasa retains much of its old world charm despite significant recent changes and a strong, modernizing Chinese influence. Now a sprawling city of almost a quarter of a million inhabitants, Lhasa remains a popular pilgrimage destination for Buddhists the world over and also continues to enchant even the most weary of foreign travellers!

Spending two full days around Lhasa we’ll have time to combine the best of both worlds spending one day sightseeing and the other birding. We aim to visit the Potala, the vast white and ochre fortress that soars above the flat valley bottom and dominates the city’s skyline. The former residence of various Dalai Lamas, the Potala was built in the seventeenth century and replaced an older fortress that stood on the same spot.

Once the Holy Grail of Asian explorers, there’s lots to do and see in Lhasa city and we plan to visit Barkhor Square and the neighbouring Jokhang Temple right in the heart of the old Tibetan quarter. On our other day we’ll venture about two hours out of Lhasa to a quiet mountain nunnery where many of the area’s birds have been protected for centuries and have become remarkably tame. The main species we’ll be looking for is the magnificent Tibetan Eared Pheasant and although they roam widely they should give themselves away by their harsh, husky barked cries. Other species here include Tibetan Partridge, Brown-cheeked Laughingthrush, Tibetan Blackbird, Giant Babax, Streaked and Stresemann’s (or Pink-rumped) Rosefinches, and we have yet another chance of encountering Tibetan Snowcock.

Day 14:  Today we’ll fly from Lhasa back to Beijing arriving in time for dinner. Night in Beijing.

Day 15:  The tour ends this morning in Beijing.

This tour is organised by our American partner WINGS  

Updated: 20 August 2019