First Snow in 2006

Posted on 01 January 2007

Chen Yongbing, male, aged thirty-two, has spent over fifteen years as a field ranger, working on the frontline of nature conservation.

From 2003-2005 he participated in four WWF-supported projects on tourism and conservation management in the Qinling Mountains-Taibaishan Nature Reserve.

In Qinling Project Phase I, WWF collaborated with the Shaanxi Forestry Department to establish a giant panda conservation network composed of eight panda nature reserves and five corridors.

In Qinling Project Phase II, WWF has supported giant panda habitat restoration, monitoring and patrolling, and has helped integrate the resources of individual nature reserves so these tasks can be performed consistently throughout the network. This work allows more comprehensive collection of information about panda population, panda habitat, area vegetation and bamboos, human disturbances, neighboring community development, etc. Since the changes executed through this project, the nature reserve has instituted daily patrolling and twice weekly large-scale monitoring.

The data collected as a result have given the Shaanxi Forestry Department a clearer picture of the current state of panda protection and better understanding of what to strive for in the future. WWF has supported this initiative by providing equipment for field work, and by training rangers in panda monitoring specifications, database management, Web GIS applications, vegetation monitoring and plant identification.

Because of the progress made through this work, the State Forestry Administration (SFA) has selected two nature reserves in Qinling to serve as pilot sites to be molded elsewhere. During the monitoring, rangers have recorded their work in diaries.

Nov. 19, 2006 Sun. Fine
Having completed initiation and training for the National Giant Panda Monitoring and Patrolling work, I was under orders to return to Houzhenzi Protection Station, Laoxiancheng Nature Reserve and participate in the giant panda monitoring. I was accompanied by staff from other nature reserves in the province. Senior Engineer Li Zhijun, three guides and I drove from Houzhenzi to Dudumen in the Laoxiancheng Nature Reserve, to join Meng Xiangming, Section Chief of the Pingheliang Nature Reserve, and Yin Hejian, Farm Leader of the Forest Farm of Huangbaiyuan Nature Reserve. Our main task was to monitor animals and plants along the set route, in the South Dragon Cave Valley of the Taihang Mountains. This area reaches an altitude of over 3100 meters: really an arduous undertaking!

The red Beijing jeep (fire fighting vehicle) was zigzagging along the mountain road, with cliffs on one side and a deep valley on the other. As we have driven along this road many times, we no longer felt fearful, and without realizing it, we crossed the Qinling Border. Suddenly our guide Xiao Xiong cried, "takin!" The driver came to an abrupt stop and pointed. Following his finger, we could see a takin on the opposite slope, moving down to the bottom of the valley on a path made by a landslip. Being far away and covered by tree leaves, we got out of the car to see more clearly. I took my camera out of my bag but could not find a good angle to take a photo. I managed to take two pictures by standing on a stump of a poplar tree, holding a tree beside it. Lao Li said that it must be an old male takin, as takins usually live in a community. Only the old and sick takin, defeated in fights for mates, are forced to leave the group and roam alone. These takins are often bad tempered and may attack unprovoked.

Joining Meng Xiangming and Yin Hejian, we continued downstream along the Xushui River for one kilometer until we came to Lao Zhang's house in Dudumen. After a brief rest, we took maps, forms, a forest compass, a GPS positioner and band tapes with us and headed for the Dragon Cave Valley.

We call Lao Li "teacher" because he is an expert in botany and whenever we had problems we asked him for help, and he would, with great patience, explain everything to us. For example, he explained that the green poplar grows small leaves and black bark while the Persian poplar has big leaves and white bark. Now we are at 1,740 m above sea-level, with over 120 species of trees, mainly white birch, green poplar and pine, and no bamboo. Since we were a bit far from the Dudumen, we returned before dark. The Zhangs' hospitality consisted of all the healthy "farmer" dishes -- mellow maize wine, fried potato chips, wild vegetables and smoked pork. Afterwards, we chatted by the fire stove, our faces reddened by the fire's warmth.

Nov. 20, 2006 Mon. Cloudy & Snow
We got up at daybreak. Lao Zhang's  wife had already prepared breakfast for us. I asked her to prepare some sauce with fried smoked pork and assorted dishes, then boil the eggs we had brought with us, so that we could eat these while in the mountains.

We were about to pack up to start after breakfast when Wen Zhanqiang, leader of the National Forestry Bureau, and Jin Xuelin, senior engineer from the Provincial Forestry Office, came to Dudumen from Laoxiangcheng village. They also planned to walk down the Xushui River for about twenty li (ten kilometers) to investigate the Huan Baiyuan Conservation Zone in the Taibai Mountains. The six of us, Meng Xiangming, Ying Hejian, myself and three guides, went into the mountains, while Lao Li went to Huang Baiyuan with Mr. Meng and Jin Xuelin.

Our plan for today was to camp at the 2,500 m dilapidated Daping Temple, to monitor the MSQ0220 animal route, and then measure the plant route between 1,900 m and 2,200 m. Acting as the host, I gave a brief introduction to the other two members to the Dragon Cave Valley, the southernmost point of our Taibaishan Nature Reserve, a core zone, Huanbaiyuan Nature Reserve, Laoxiancheng Nature Reserve and Hou Zhenzi Forest Farm in Zhouzhi County. These areas contain the Qinling Giant Panda, Golden Monkey, Takin, Red Tragopan and other nationally protected wild animals. The valley runs from north to south with a gentle gradient and is rich in bamboo from 1,670 m to 2,880 m above sea level. Higher up, from Paomaliang to Baxiantai, the Taibai Mountains peak at 3,767 m above sea level.

There are six temples along the way, which was the only route used by pilgrims in the old days. Now, many travelers ignore the regulations of the Nature Reserve and enter the zone at will, damaging the vegetation, littering and disturbing wildlife (such as the giant pandas) and their habitats. Moreover, the situation is deteriorating. At present, there is a lack of effective means to protect the zone. And, as luck would have it, as we were taking measurements of the plant route at a sea level of 1,910 m we saw a party of travelers ascending in the distance. We counted fourteen of them in total.

Towards noon, we arrived at Taibai Temple at an altitude of 1,980 m. We ate some bread, boiled eggs and preserved eggs by the river. This was the starting point of our MSQ0220 monitoring route. During the third National General Monitoring of the Giant Panda fresh panda faeces were discovered in this area, but in the past four or five years I have seen no signs left by pandas when I searched in the bamboo forest. Traces of the Golden Monkey and faeces and rubbish left by humans are more frequently found. It is my guess that the Giant Pandas have migrated elsewhere, and the Golden Monkeys have come into the area to pick up the traveler抯 leftovers. It was so dirty here that even the travelers will not camp here. Instead, they have started to find some new places, and begun again to carelessly drive away the Giant Pandas and throw food to the Golden Monkeys. They also leave faeces, adding, to our great unwillingness, an extra mark in our originally blank form.

It was getting more and more cloudy, and like everyone who often goes out into the wild, rain worried us most. I remarked jokingly, "I have been in Houzhenzi five years, and three of them I witnessed the first snow on the 20th of November. Maybe we'll have snow." I was thinking that, after all, snow was preferable to rain, so I prayed to myself that I would have snow rather than rain. Unexpectedly, we were sampling the vegetation at a height of 2200m when it started raining. We could do nothing but go on with our work. By dividing the work among us, we finished our work quickly.

As planned, we came to the dilapidated Daping Temple at 16:50, where we found only a broken chime stone and many long stone lengths lying down there. The first difficulty confronting us was the shortage of water, the nearest water source being the one Lao Zhang and I had dug the previous year. The water was now used by the takins, and undrinkable. About one kilometer from here there was a stream, our ideal water source. The three porters, seeing that we were exhausted, offered to fetch water, although they themselves, having carried our belongings all day long, were also tired out. In about forty minutes, they brought back a huge pot and three bags of water. It was enough for us to use for the night and the next morning. We called it supper, but it was really little bags of instant noodles boiled and mixed with cabbage, together with smoked pork sauce. We stirred them and had a delicious supper, as if we were having a rare delicacy. While we were eating, snow really came down, not heavily but in flakes, and it seemed to the others evidence of the truth of my prediction: snow falls on the 20th of November.

The evening was cold and peaceful and we fell asleep very soon.

Nov. 21, 2006 Tues. Fine
We woke up extremely early today, everyone in both tents were woken by 04:00 by the extreme cold and kept moaning. Although the tents and sleeping bags we were using were the "Pathfinder" brand, they were unable to withstand such severe cold as this. I felt like I was sleeping in icy-cold water, cuddling up to myself. A wound I had acquired four years earlier tortured me again, a cutting pain in the right knee. I fell back to sleep again after some time and didn't feel it anymore.

The sun came out after breakfast, and we spread our tents and sleeping bags to dry. I took a big bag of sanitary towels out of my pack and shared some with the others. Of course, they stared at me in astonishment. I explained, saying that it was "for men" and that they were essential for me to use when mountain-climbing. I use them as foot-pads, and they absorb sweat and keep in warmth. Later, Lao Ying and Mr. Meng reluctantly put them into their shoes. Slipping their feet into the shoes, they exclaimed "It feels so great!"

Actually, this was not my invention; I had learned it from the porters. Then, our guide, Xiao Sun and I went on to finish our work on the MSQ0220 animal route. The four others sampled the plants at 2,510 m. We searched along the road we had monitored two weeks before, in hopes of catching sight of the Giant Pandas we had spotted last time. On a WWF sponsored Giant Panda monitoring trek in Shaanxi two weeks prior, Xiao Niu from the Nature Reserve and I came upon two pandas: a big one and a small one. Today when we were walking through the bamboo forest, the snow on the bamboo leaves fell into our collars now and then. Finally, we came to the end of the sample route and waited on a huge stone in the bamboo forest for about thirty minutes. All was silent except for the sizzling sounds made by the sun melting the snow on the bamboo leaves.

Back in our camp, we had lunch and at about 11:00, packed to leave. We conducted more sampling at 2,820 m, the highest altitude where Qinling Bamboo grows.

At 14:50, we went up to Liangding and arrived at Lingguantai, the starting point of the MSQ0219 animal route and the verge of the Bashan cedar and Taibai cedar forest, with azalea bushes, other undergrowth, and even high-mountain pine adding to the beauty of the environment. From Lingguantai to Laomiaozi the slope was gentle, with a wide field of vision and scenic landscape. Drinking in the beauty, we took records and photos. On the way, we found faeces from wild cats, takins, and pheasants. We also saw some lovely wild hares. At 14:30 we reached Laomiaozi, an old three-room temple, 50 m from a water source. It was good water from the high mountains. There was rubbish around: waste gas canisters, plastic clothes, tissue paper, etc., all human offences! Our companions who had arrived before had already spread their sleeping bags over the stone. The supper we had was maize porridge we had exchanged with the Zhangs for our rice, very delicious! It is said that maize in the Laoxiancheng can be sold for 3 yuan half a kilogram! We all worried that camping at such a high altitude in the evening would be much colder than elsewhere. However, at night we slept soundly, not feeling cold at all, although the sides of the temple had been burnt as firewood by some people and a very big window was open. It was quite different setting up camp inside a house!

Nov. 22, 2006 Wed. Snow
I was still lying in my sleeping bag in the morning when my ears were greeted by the hissing sounds made by snow blown by the wind onto the roof of the tent. Getting up and out, we found a silvery world around us. After breakfast, we decided to move on, trying to finish monitoring the ZSQ025 plant route and get to Dudumen before dark. The last sample was at an altitude of 3,120 m, a place with mainly cedar trees and azalea, and no bamboo. Snow was falling more heavily when we were making measurements and records. Our hands were so numb from the cold that we could not hold our pens, so we had to take records in turns. As we could not stamp our feet when we were writing, our feet ached first and then became too numb to have any feeling at all. When the work was finished, we ran for a long way along the path before the feeling came back into our feet. Thus, I believe that a person could really be frozen to death by standing in the snow.

Snow came down more heavily, and we had to turn back when we reached the MSQ029 animal route at 3,200 meters. Back at Laomiaozi, we hastily made some instant noodles for a meal. At noon we took pictures at Laomiaozi and began to descend. The three porters were faster than us and we were left behind. Lao Ying (the Eagle), with a cane in one hand and a chopper in the other, looked like a swordsman. Mr. Meng, by contrast, appeared awkward: the originally thick and durable bottoms of his shoes now became very slippery, and whenever he lost his balance, he fell.

So, Lao Ying gave him the stick he had been using. Mr. Meng, clinging to the stone and branches on the roadside, went on with caution, and since he was not wearing gloves, his hands became red and purple from the snow-water! The two of us walked about ten meters ahead of him, so in times of danger we could help him immediately. Our pace was thus slower. From time to time the sounds of falling down came from behind us, we knew without turning that it was Mr. Meng who again had fallen. At first we did not look back, as he had so many falls so often, we were "used to" it. We counted his falls by the sounds of falling while laughing: from Laomiaozi to Daping Temple, he had 14 falls in all, and we had covered the distance in 2 hours. To quicken our speed and prevent him from falling, I had an idea: tie some "anti-falling chains" to his shoes. We found a towel and split it into two parts, tying each to his shoes. It was funny-looking because it was like a butterfly-knot. Mr. Meng's shoes were not slippery any more, but after only a short time we found that the bottoms were stuck with a thick layer of snow. He had to get rid of it immediately to avoid spraining his feet. They were ugly all right, but safe indeed and faster, really.

At Daping Temple, we had a quick meal of instant noodles and had no water all the way along. I caught sight of Lao Ying and Mr. Meng eating the snow on the bamboo leaves several times and took some snapshots. Seeing this, they joked that the snow tasted like "cotton sugar" soft and sweet. Later, I also began to lick the "cotton sugar" (snow) on the bamboo leaves. We didn't notice when the snow turned to rain and there were no more snow piles on the way. We had a normal walk on this part of the road, and Mr. Meng only fell twice. At 15:15, we reached Taibai Temple. We were anxious to return, and in an hour抯 time we were back at Lao Zhang's. They could see from afar our red Beijing Jeep and green Nissan coming to a stop in front of the door. On entering into the room, Lao Li got up to shake hands with us and asked us to have some water. Without washing, we sat down by the stove to warm ourselves until Zhang's wife served us the noodles she had prepared.

At 18:30, it was dark. We reached Houzhenzi with our monitoring work completed.