Thursday, April 28, 2011

Shapatou: Yellow River Oasis on the Silk Road

Traveling toward Shapatou National Nature Reserve, we came upon a viewing tower for tourists being constructed on the bank of the Yellow River--at exactly 38º00'N!  Shapatou was a major crossing on the Silk Road, where Tengger Desert sand dunes meet the Yellow River.  A section of the Great Wall rises up east of the river, crumbling but still impressive.  Ancient travelers crossed the river on rafts made of inflated sheepskins, which are still used to give rides to the tourists.
            The 50-year old Desert Research Institute is within the park.  We found a graduate student, Dr. Liu, studying soil samples in her laboratory.  Forty researchers work at the Institute, which pioneered a straw-squares system for control blowing sand.  This technique is especially important for keeping sand off the railroad tracks through the desert, from Inner Mongolia to Gansu.
            Desertification is a major concern in this part of China. 
blowing sand treatment
Tree planting is happening all over the country, as a carbon sink and an attempt to control sand storms.  Winds on our second day in Shapatou gave us a small taste of the sand storm potential, which sometimes is so heavy in the spring that haze from China whitens the sky in our Sierra Nevada home.
Our rooms were right in the park and we enjoyed the river and wetlands at dusk and dawn. The meeting of sand and river at this ancient human crossing is truly spectacular.  Riding camels up the dunes was unforgettable, and surprisingly comfortable, though there were jolts when the camels stood up and sat down.  It was a treat to dip our feet in the cold river after a long day of walking.
            If quiet contemplation of Yellow River history and nature if not enough, there are also bungee jumping, zip-lining, hang gliding, sand sledding, dune buggy riding and jet boating here!
            Next stop is a half-day drive south along the Yellow River to the big city of Lanzhou.

(Thanks to our guide, Kinder Shu Jinde, for use of the Yellow River marsh photograph)

National Parks of Yinchuan: Playgrounds or Preserves?

            The city of Yinchuan (38º30'N; 106º20'E) sits near the Yellow River, in the shadow of the Helan Mountains just south of Inner Mongolia.  We visited several national parks in the area including Sand Lake, known for its birdlife.  A huge entrance arch in the shape of a crane greeted us, along with a bank of fee collection stations.  One must pay the entry fee, then also buy a boat ride, the only way to really see the lake.  Dave, being a senior, got to go in for free to scope out the boat docks.  We decided to enjoy the birds outside in the fish rearing ponds instead: Grey Heron, River Lapwing, Great Crested Grebe, Grey headed Lapwing and White Wagtail.
            The same situation repeated itself in the other parks; massive entrances, beautiful fountains, gleaming buildings, marble staircases and plazas, along with high entry fees and extra costs for trams, boats, movies, etc.  It is an interesting cultural contrast in park presentation, with grandiose facilities  (plus fees) accompanying landscape preservation.  At the Helan Mountain rock art preserve, thre were magnificent museum displays of petroglyph replicas.  We were happy to get outdoor onto the canyon trail with the real petroglyphs.  There, hundreds of intricate petroglyphs date back as much as 6000 years, and exploring the canyon became one of our favorite experiences in this region.  The interpretive signs were well done.  True to form, the stream through the canyon had been re-sculpted into a series of man-made pools.
            A few miles away, two Buddhist Twin Pagodas sit on a windswept hillside true to the ideal of feng shui: with “the mountain behind and the river in front.”  Hundreds of bells on the towers gonged, blown by the wind.  Here there was a staircase with twin lions, but no grand entrance arch or high fee.
            Our final stop was a “wetlands national park” located in the city, built for the 50th anniversary of the Ningxia  Autonomous Province.  A huge staircase led up to Romanesque arches framing a stadium, at the edge of an artificial lake, with water from the river that runs through the city.  Birds and fishermen were enjoying the lake while wedding couples took photos amid the columns in the afternoon light. 
            Playground or preserve?  China has impressive examples of both.  Our next stop is the Shapatou National Nature Reserve, on the Yellow River south of Yinchuan. 

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Yellow River Delta


Yellow River Delta 
            The Yellow River enters the Bohai Sea just south of the 38th Parallel (at 37°45'N; 119°10'E), but just a few years ago it occupied a channel right on the latitude line.  Because it carries so much silt—which turns it a yellow-brown color that explains its name—channels gradually fill with sand and the river has repeatedly jumped into new channels across this whole region.  The Yellow River Delta National Nature Reserve has China's newest wetlands, built since the last major shift in 1996. 
            Driving from the city of Dong Ying, out to the delta, it was hard to believe a protected wetlands would be at the end of the road.  Construction zones gave way to farms, then to oilfields, and finally to the wetlands at the mouth of China's “Mother River.”  Our first bird sighting was a massive Oriental White Stork, lifting off in a flash of black and white.  Common Terns raced by in the high wind as we walked down beautifully designed boardwalks with intricate rails to birdwatching towers.
            Our guide from the Reserve was engineer Shen Kai, a supercharged bird expert with a huge telephoto lens on his camera.  We zoomed to spots in the wetlands in our rental car, trying to keep his car in sight (our driver is our Chinese guide and interpreter, Kinder.)  The Reserve was created in 1992 to enhance and protect the wetlands for migratory and nesting birds.  At the edge of a huge oilfield, the managers struggle to keep enough “eco-diversions” from the main river to optimize water levels in the marsh. 
            Surprises abounded, including the strength of a howling wind that, thankfully, abated after lunch.  A modernistic 2-story visitor center, built in 2010 looms over the landscape.  From its roof (6 stories high) we had jaw-dropping views of the marsh and the Yellow River heading toward the ocean, just a quarter mile away.  So far there are no services inside; they seem to have spent all their money on the incredible building, but it looks large enough to handle thousands of visitors.  On less windy days, two boats are available for touring the river out to the sea.

     We were there at the end of the breeding season for cranes and saw red-crowned cranes  in flight.  The Reserve draws in more than 280 bird species and is one of China's largest natural reserves.
The Reserve staff treated us to a mid-day banquet in a nearby village restaurant, and yet another banquet that night.   We asked Shen Kai and Deputy Director Li Juanzhang what they would most like the people of the world to know about their Reserve.  They commented on how difficult water management is (we will be exploring some of the human thirsts for water along the upper Yellow River in the next 2 weeks), but agreed that is was a worthwhile, satisfying goal to serve the birds.
    Called the “River of Sorrow” because of its history of flooding human habitations, the protection of the Yellow River Estuary, now alive with birds, is a hopeful sign that the Mother River will long enter the sea with the “birds of heaven” (cranes) winging above.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Itinerary for China and Turkmenistan

On April 15 we will arrive in Beijing, and the next day begin our exploration of the 38th parallel across China at the delta of the Yellow River, where it empties into the ocean right on the latitude line.  The Yellow River Delta National Nature Preserve is an important site for migratory birds, including cranes.  Our route westward keeps intersecting the river as it swings in great loops, north and south of the line.  Cities that we will visit along the river include Yinchuan, at the edge of Inner Mongolia (38°28'North; 106°16'E), and Lanzhou, once a key location on the Silk Road (Marco Polo passed through) and now a major industrial city.  From there we will go to Xining and the Qinghai Salt Lake Institute, where we will be  educated about the region's salt lakes, thanks to a connection made by Dr. Robert Jellison, a local expert on salt lake ecosystems here in the Sierra Nevada.  Qinghai Lake is China's largest lake and shares some traits with Mono Lake:  it is salty, a key location for migratory birds, and is currently being "saved" by the government from ecosystem declines caused by activities in the surrounding watershed.  We will fly across the eastern half of the Taklamakan desert and then drive along the southern route of the Silk Road from the oasis town of Hotan west to Kashgar.  We will also go to Karakul Lake (37º59N; 75º01E) and Tashkorgan, another Silk Road town along the Karakorum Highway on the Pamir plateau.
After more than 3 weeks spanning over 3,000 miles of China, we will fly direct from western China above parts of Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Uzbekhistan to land in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan (37º58'N; 58º24'E).  We will learn about the 500+ mile Karakum Canal that transports water to that capital city and irrigates farm fields along the way, and also visit Merv, site of an ancient Silk Road city that is half-way around the world from Mono Lake along the 38th parallel.  Merv was perhaps the largest city in the world from 1145 to 1153 A.D., with a population of 200,000 back then (it's a ruin now).

We will only stay 3 nights in Turkmenistan before flying on to Istanbul, then Madrid, and finally returning home on May 18.  Following this trip, only Japan will remain to complete our around-the-world explorations (hopefully in September if conditions there allow).   As always, while exploring the water-related cultural and environmental stories along the 38th parallel, we will blog about our experiences when time and internet connections permit.  Your comments about the blogs are really appreciated.