Photo: Photo by 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 1420 or so birds are endemic or near endemic and many are poorly known. We’ve operated dozens of tours to the fantastic Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau and on this radically revised itinerary we’ll explore some truly remote parts of the ‘Roof of the World’ in search of Snow Leopard. Stunningly attractive, rare and endangered and notoriously elusive, some would even say mythical, the Snow Leopard inhabits some of the highest, most remote and isolated parts of our planet. Solitary for much of the year, they inhabit essentially impenetrable mountain terrain. In summer they venture high above the tree line, but in autumn they are forced to descend to lower altitudes in search of food – and it is at this time that we have our best chances of seeing one and, although a sighting of such a rare creature can never be guaranteed, we have a very good chance. Wolf, the numerous Blue Sheep, and even Lynx are among the other creatures we have a chance of encountering and what a backdrop to search for them in - the starkly beautiful, seemingly barren mountain scenery is absolutely stunning in itself. Sparsely populated and only marginally impacted by man, this is a true wilderness area. Nor will we neglect the region’s numerous ornithological delights.
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 13,500 feet. Now more accurately known as the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, the region is home to an impressive array of charismatic species. Mammals we should see on the optional extension to Lhasa also 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 more than 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 an extension to Lhasa on an overnight sleeper train, a journey that is rapidly becoming one of China’s “must-do” experiences. We’ll enjoy some truly magnificent scenery and wildlife watching from our modern train, which offers comfortable four-berth sleeping compartments. Our ultimate destination on the extension is Lhasa, the historic capital of the Tibetan region and long 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 expect to see Tibet’s three main ornithological attractions: Tibetan Eared Pheasant, Brown-cheeked Laughingthrush, and Giant Babax.
The local Tibetan Buddhists, found throughout Qinghai and Tibet, must rank as some of the warmest and most hospitable people on Earth and this tour is guaranteed to be a real adventure and one that will show you animals, 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 close to 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 late September there should be some bird song in the forest, some of it hopefully from the rare and localised, and relatively recently described, Gansu Leaf Warbler. Other top attractions at this fabulous site include Przevalski’s and Chinese Nuthatches, Chestnut Thrush, Chinese White-browed Rosefinch and White-browed Tit-warbler. We’ll spend that night nearby in Datong.
Day 4: After another full morning at Huzhu Bei Shan, we’ll head slowly back south 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 and White-browed Tit-warbler. Later on we’ll search for Crested Tit-warbler and Plain Laughingthrush. Night in Datong.
Day 5: Leaving Datong we’ll drive west, climb up onto the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau and head for the spectacular Qinghai Hu (Lake Koko Nur) some 3,200 metres above sea level. Spending the next five days on the Plateau, we’ll visit as many different habitats as 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 going birding in? 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 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 the night in a comfortable three-star hotel near ‘Bird Island’ at the western end of this magnificent lake.
Day 6: Spending the morning 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. 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, the glistening gem-like White-browed Tit-warblers, a Eurasian Eagle Owl or a 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 7: 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 and Mongolian Finch before heading back east. We’ll take our time and will spend that night back in Xining.
Day 8: Having gently acclimatized on the edge of the mighty Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, we’ll move higher and take an early morning flight from Xining south to Yushu. Yushu, a modestly sized regional centre, is geographically well outside what’s now called the Tibetan Autonomous Region, but it’s an area with an immensely strong Tibetan and Buddhist influence. We’ll soon head off driving southwest to the small rather remote town of Zhaduo (Zadoi), our base for the next six nights. We’ll drive through areas of rolling grassland - alpine steppe, alpine shrubland, alpine meadows, and alpine tundra, passing houses adorned with prayer flags and often complete with tiny, terraced fields for wheat or barley, pens for their Yaks, ponies or goats and sparsely vegetated, wild, rocky and untamed hillsides. We will obviously stop to look for birds on route and would fully expect these to include Black-necked Crane, Saker Falcon and several snowfinches. Night in a simple, clean, hotel in Zhaduo.
Days 9-13: Based in Zhaduo we’ll make various day trips south to search the spectacular mountainous surroundings for our primary quarry, the magnificent Snow Leopard. China boasts the majority of the world population of this magnificent, yet highly secretive, creature and with five full days to search for them our chances of spotting one are good. It’ll already be cool in early October with morning temperatures below freezing but they are the temperatures that bring the flocks of Blue Sheep and herds of domestic Yaks off the higher, rugged peaks and down into the valleys. The Snow Leopards will be following them.
Snow Leopards prefer remote rocky outcrops, valleys and ravines – habitat that their cryptic plumage blends into superbly well, and habitat that their favourite prey item, Blue Sheep, thrives in. Apparently not as aggressively territorial as other species of cat, the home ranges of several Snow Leopards can overlap with the size of their territories depending on the supply of food, but there are plenty of Blue Sheep here south of Zhaduo, plenty.
Nevertheless, Snow Leopard is undoubtedly one of the world’s rarest and most elusive cats. Stocky, with short ears and muzzle, large, broad feet and long tails they also possess a perfectly camouflaged grey coat of dense insulating fur that is variably marked with darker rosettes. They are perfectly adapted to thrive in their extreme high-elevation habitats. Insulated by thick hair against the severe winter weather, their broad, fur-covered feet even act as natural snowshoes. They’ll take a great deal of searching for – some of our time will be spent driving around and looking from the vehicles but much of it will be spent scanning, often for hours on end, from preferred vantage points.
During our week-long reconnaissance trip we saw two Snow Leopards in the Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve in South Qinghai – one of them briefly, the other for a total of about 10 minutes. Nevertheless we considered ourselves lucky as they can never be guaranteed and we’ve little doubt that Snow Leopards are among the rarest and least seen mammals on the entire planet. Their incredibly cryptic colouration, secretive habits and the sheer scale of the remote, high altitude mountain terrain that they live in means that any encounter is a blessing – that’s why they’re often called the ‘Ghost of the Mountains’. Apparently capable of killing prey three times their own weight, they regularly take feral Yaks but in this region a comprehensively backed, community-based conservation scheme compensates livestock owners for their losses. Fortunately hunting has never been part of Tibetan or Buddhist culture.
The region’s extraordinarily unique habitat harbours healthy populations of Blue Sheep, the commonest prey item of Snow Leopard, as well as a tiny number of Common Leopards, Tibetan Wolves and Eurasian Lynx. There are also some very interesting birds with regional specialities that we stand a good chance of seeing including Kozlov’s Babax and Szechenyi’s Monal-Partridge. Ibisbill breeds near Yushu airport and we hope to see them, as well as Snow Pigeons, and the distinctive giganteus local race of Chinese Grey Shrike. We’ll explore several areas and distinct environments including stands of gnarled ancient juniper forest.
Day 14: Leaving Zaduo in the early morning, we’ll drive back to Yushu before flying from there back to Xining where we’ll take another flight to Beijing. Night in Beijing.
Day 15: The tour ends this morning in Beijing.
Optional extension to Lhasa
Day 14: Instead of returning to Beijing those opting for the extension will embark 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 15: We’ll spend most of today on the train - a journey that 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, at almost 24 hours, 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, three species of snowfinch, and even Tibetan Sandgrouse 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 16-17: 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 outside 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 18: Today we’ll fly from Lhasa back to Beijing arriving in time for dinner. Night in Beijing.
Day 19: The tour ends this morning in Beijing.
Updated: 21 May 2020