Thursday, February 23, 2017

China: October in Sichuan

By October 2014 Eileen had spent almost all her time, over the previous three months and more, with our little grandson Royce while he was being treated for cancer in Singapore (I, by contrast, had spent weeks gallivanting around Kuching with Royce's older brother Ryan). Eileen, who had been by Royce's bedside almost continuously, desperately needed a break. Besides, she was caught by a little-known Singapore rule requiring Malaysian citizens who had been in the island state for 60 days to leave for another 30. We eventually got around that rule, but she had to leave for a while. 

The opportunity to do so came as an invitation to join our friend Mui Ling and her husband on a week-long bus tour In the fabled province of Sichuan, China. The trip was already all arranged, the time was right (October 16-23, 2014), and all we had to do was sign on.  Sichuan had always been one of my dream destinations, so when Eileen suggested it I eagerly agreed. 

Sichuan, to a naturalist, is first and foremost home to rare pheasants, a host of endemic songbirds, and, for mammal watchers, goat-antelopes, pandas, and snub-nosed monkeys. This trip, though, was to be a standard trip to local tourist attractions, designed to take expatriate or non-mainland Chinese (and in my case, their non-Chinese spouses) around government-selected high spots at a discount rate. A good part of the tour would be spent in government-approved shops - nature-watching would definitely be seated at the back of the bus. There are tours like this all over China, and we had already been on one visiting the area around Shanghai, so I knew what to expect (and what not to expect).

Our first views of Sichuan, out the window of our tourist bus, were not quite what I had imagined they would be. The name 'Sichuan' conjures up images of  vast, rugged mountain ranges and windswept plateaux. Its capital, Chengdu, nonetheless lies in a flat-as-a-pancake alluvial plain at a comparatively low elevation. To reach the Sichuan of my imagination, after a decent interval crossing vegetable fields and slow, meandering streams, we had turn off the highway and drive north, almost immediately entering a narrow mountain gorge, and follow the rushing torrent that carved it, upwards and upwards. On the way we passed the unbelievable devastation wrought by the 2008 earthquake, or as much of it as is visible from the road.

The mountains were scrub-covered and barren, brightened by occasional clumps of aster (Aster sp.) along the roadside.  Sichuan has suffered from widespread and thorough deforestation outside of remote areas, sacred Buddhist sites and nature reserves.

About the only animals on view were tame and bored-looking white yaks waiting patiently for tourists willing to pay for a ride (or, at least, a photo-op). 

We made only a few extended stops. At one, Taoping, a post-earthquake reconstruction of a Qiang village that is home to about two thousand people, I took off for a brief uphill stroll...

...past colourfully-painted stone walls and replicas of ancient monuments...  a tiny stream coursing through the village past some attractive wooden houses.   Rapidly-flowing streams can have their own special birds, with distinctive calls and behaviours that draw attention to themselves over the noise of the rushing water.

Plumbeous Water Redstart (Phoenicurus fuliginosus)
Plumbeous Water Redstart (Phoenicurus fuliginosus)
Here, I came across a pair of Plumbeous Water Redstarts (Phoenicurus fuliginosus).  The male, a deep blue bird with a bright reddish tail, would not allow me to get a photo, but the female was much more cooperative.

Plumbeous Water Redstart (Phoenicurus fuliginosus)
Many years ago I wrote a paper on the relationships of this interesting little bird, so I have a personal affection for them.  I had last seen them in Taiwan, and readers interested in my thoughts on their female plumage (unique among redstarts) can consult my post on the subject, with photos of the Taiwanese birds, here.

On the way down, I attracted (unsurprisingly) some curious looks from the villagers.

Our tour pressed on, driving further into the mountains,,,

...Until we reached our first stop in a genuine natural area - but I'll save that for my next post!

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