Tibetan Plateau, 2015

Kiang, Equus kiang, on the plateau

The Tibetan Plateau – one of the last major ecozones left on my bucket list – had been on my radar for several years. I’d been saving a trip for a rainy day, or at least for a year in which I would struggle to meet my 50 life mammals annual quota. But by 2015 I could wait no longer and began organizing a trip for the second half of September.

A trip around Tibet is an expensive undertaking, especially alone. But such is the draw of this remote destination, and mega mammals like Pallas’s Cat, Wild Yak and Tibetan Antelope, that it took just 48 hours to find 4 travel companions. Six months later Dominique Brugiere, Paul Carter, Holly Faithfull,  Phil Telfer and I were making our separate ways to Xining, in the Chinese province of Qinghai.

When and where to go

Banyakala Pas: elevation 4,800m 

Early Autumn/Fall might well be the best time to mammal watch.  We had pretty much perfect weather for the second half of September, but as we were leaving there was a tangible taste of winter in the air.  The Marmots and many rodents were visible, and it also seems to be one of the best periods to see Pallas’s Cat.  I imagine summer is also good, other things equal. However other things are not equal: Qinghai is an increasingly popular summer destination for the Chinese; and bus loads of tourists would be unlikely to add to the experience. There were very few tourists in late September.

We did not spotlight on the trip, mainly because there was little enthusiasm for going out at night after a 6 a.m. start and 12 hours in the field. In any case, the temperature at night was usually below freezing and I’m not convinced we’d have seen much (most of the nocturnal species we were chasing, such as Asian Badger, are also sometimes active in daylight).  If we’d have been there in summer  my hunch is that spotlighting would have been quite productive.

Yak herder

We followed the “classic” Qinghai loop, driving about 3,000 kms over 10 days from Xining west to Gonghe, then south down to Yushu and Nangqian, before heading north along the roof of the world road through to Golmud and back to Xining. I’ve been quite vague about the specific sites, primarily because they were discovered by Jesper and so the information is not mine to broadcast.

Wild Yak, Bos mutus

Practicalities

Getting Around

Travel in Qinghai is complicated. Very few people speak English, only some hotels are licensed for Westerners and you need permits to travel into certain areas (though these permits are not always checked). And so you’d be well advised to use a guide. Jesper Hornskov is probably the best known, and arguably the most knowledgeable, wildlife guide for the area. He was truly excellent and had spots nailed down for pretty much all of our target species. True, he may not be the cheapest operator in the region; but for our group of 5 (the ideal number to fill a couple of Land Cruisers together with a guide and two drivers) the cost was comparable to other operators. And in terms of mammals/$ I can’t believe anyone else offers better value.

Prayer Flags, Banyakala Pass

Altitude

Most of the trip is at  an altitude of 4,000 – 5,000 metres, which is seriously high. You will notice the effects, which might range from a mild headache some mornings to serious illness. Obviously talk to a Dr before undertaking a trip like this if you have any concerns. Popular opinion advises that it pays: 1) to spend a couple of days in Xining before the trip proper to help acclimatise; and 2) to take it cautiously when you arrive.

Many people swear by a drug called Diamox as a way to adjust to the altitude, and I took it as a precaution for the first few days. Perhaps most important to remember is that the effects of altitude are difficult to predict, differ from one person to the next and differ over time for each individual.

Searching for Snow Leopards, at just under 5,000m

Other Things to Note

The food was good and every meal comprised a variety of tasty dishes (though difference in our tolerance for chili meant there was a gradual loss of spice over the trip). Hotels were for the most part reasonable, even if there was usually some small problem with every room, ranging from broken lights to no hot water. Two places had communal – for which read “disgusting” – toilets. And In Qinghai toilet paper is rationed zealously: if a hotel bathroom had left you more than 10 sheets it must have been an oversight. No matter, because the paper itself was particularly unfit for purpose. It is funny the things you miss….

Glover’s Pika, Ochotona gloveri

My cell phone worked almost everywhere, though I was only able to get data close to Xining (though Jesper, with his Chinese SIM card had data most places). Most hotels have Wi-Fi. The Chinese govermnent blocks access to Facebook, it also blocks Gmail much of the time and even blocks this website. Bastards. China does not, however, block some VPN sites and so it was simple to pay $10 for a VPN to bypass all the craziness. Go figure.

Chinese drivers are either fearless or insane.  Probably both. They overtake whenever and wherever physically possible. “Physically possible” means that there is space on the road (or off it!) for a car to physically squeeze past…. possibly. It bears no relation to the risk involved. Overtaking at 100 kmh around a blind bend is culturally appropriate. That said, our two drivers didn’t speed and would probably rate as cautious by local standards.

Beijing duck and beyond

I left New York at lunchtime on a Saturday and arrived into Xining (pronounced She-ning) via Beijing on Sunday evening, thanks to a 12 hour time change.

Yak hides make for a pleasant aroma

Jesper arranged rooms for us at a comfortable city hotel. Paul, Dominique and Phil had arrived that morning and spent the day in the mountains. Although we’d corresponded with each of them over the years, dinner that night was the first time we met. I only had a chance to say hello and good night to Phil, who was already suffering from the altitude after thinking he pushed himself to hard on his hike that afternoon.

Monday 14 September: Hu Zhu National Park

Dawn over Hu Zhu National Park

The trip was set up to give us 3 nights “pre-trip time” in Xining to acclimatise before the official start on Wednesday 15th. Jesper kindly offered to show us around for the pre-trip days, taking us today north north-east of Xining to Hu Zhu National Park. Our key target was Siberian Roe Deer, an animal we’d be unlikely to see elsewhere on our route. At 5 a.m. we left the hotel (minus Phil who was still suffering from the altitude) and were in the park just after sunrise. We stopped at a vantage point for breakfast and thirty seconds later Jesper had spotted a pair of Siberian Roe Deer. We were off to a flying start.

Siberian (Eastern) Roe Deer, Capreolus pygargus

After breakfast, and a second pair of Roe Deer and a Woolly Hare, we drove down the road a few miles to spend the morning in lovely forest where Jesper had seen both Chinese Red Pika and Tsing-Ling Pika. Though we saw neither species we enjoyed the early autumn sun and the birds (and Roe Deer) calling.

Hu Zhu Forest

An afternoon hike across a bushy slope also failed to produce a Tsing-Ling Pika, though we did see our first Himalayan Marmot of the trip. Back at the hotel we found a note from Phil: still suffering from the altitude, and worried that that he would ruin the trip for the rest of us, he’d decided to fall on his sword and fly home. A great pity for him and us.

Tuesday 15 September: Lake Koko Nor

Near Lake Koko Nor

We drove west to Qinghai Lake (aka Lake Koko Nor, Mongolian for “blue sea”) to increase our chances of seeing the very rare Przewalski’s Gazelle, one of the harder targets for the trip. Jesper stopped the car not long after sunrise within sight of the lake. Some distant gazelles were confirmed in the scope as Przewalski’s: their distinctive horn shape and black bob of a tail were diagnostic.

We were able to approach the two groups on foot and got reasonably close. Beautiful animals

Przewalski’s Gazelles, Gazella przewalskii

Breakfast down the road was next to a large colony of Black-lipped (Plateau) Pika, another lifer for me. After which we took a slow walk along the edge of wetlands towards a small rise.

Black-lipped (Plateau) Pika, Ochotona curzoniae

Jesper had seen Asian Badger a few times in broad daylight here as well as Steppe Polecat once or twice.  We found badger setts and a long dead Badger but no sign of the animals themselves.  The only mammals were more Himalayan Marmots, and we heard, but didn’t see, small rodents whose burrows were everywhere.

Koko Nor Wetlands

Returning to Xining we detoured to the east, not so far from where Coke Smith had seen Przewalski’s, and picked up a herd of 20+ gazelles through the scope.

Holly, our final group member, was waiting for us at the hotel. After dinner, featuring some excellent Peking Duck, we organised our gear ready for an early departure the next day.

Wednesday 16 September: Xining to Gonghe

Dominique behind the scope

The first day of the tour proper. Yesterday’s promising signs of badger activity led us directly back to the same small rise. We arrived before 8am and staked out the area for over 2 hours. No badger, though a Red Fox was a new mammal for the trip.

After lunch near the lake we headed into the South Koko Nor range, scanning along the way. Enormous numbers of Black-lipped Pikas flanked the road: the mammalian biomass of this plateau is incredible.

We spent time at one overlook where a group had once seen Chinese Desert Cat. Though we weren’t so lucky, we did get close to Himalayan Marmots and a couple of very confiding Mountain Weasels put on a show.

Himalayan Marmot, Marmota himalayana

We also saw the first Tibetan Fox of the trip, and went on to see another 10 animals that afternoon alone. Further down the road another Weasel ran around us like an athlete with ADHD. I’d seen Mountain Weasels in Ladakh but they seem even more confiding here.

Mountain Weasel, Mustela altaica

We spent the night in Gonghe. A comfortable hotel in an ugly town.

Thursday 17 September: Gonghe to Wenquan

Pallas’s Cat habitat

A 5 a.m. departure, a 2 hour drive, and a short track off road got us to one of Jesper’s favourite Pallas’s Cat spots. We had, as always, a picnic breakfast and then walked up a valley somewhat dispirited that Yak herders and their enormous, noisy dog were camped in the valley.

Yak herders’ camp

Our low spirits were short-lived.  As the sun hit the far side of the valley Jesper spotted a distant Pallas’s Cat and we had excellent scope views for the next 30 minutes. We approached the animal to get closer views before it headed over the top of the ridge and out of sight.

Searching for Pallas’s Cats

Jesper recommended we search a small patch of bushes on a steep slope, close to the car for Gansu Pika. Sure enough, after 10 minutes we spotted a couple of animals. Pretty dull as Pikas go.

Gansu Pika, Ochotona cansus

We continued on past the Pika bushes and I spotted a second Pallas’s Cat moving along and over a high ridge. Dominique picked it up again a couple of minutes later among a pile of boulders and close enough to photograph. The scope views were fabulous.

Pallas’s Cat, Felis manul

As we were leaving a Red Fox put on a show, chasing – but failing to catch – a Woolly Hare, while the Marmots paid no attention whatsoever. What a morning!

Erla Pass

We continued on via lunch to Erla Pass, which at around 4,500 metres was one of the highest passes of the trip. This is an area where Jesper has seen Pallas’s Cat as well as a Snow Leopard once.  It was snowing, which didn’t help visibility, but though we didn’t see any cats we did spot see our first distant Tibetan Gazelles.

The view from 4500 metres

We walked on looking for, but not finding, Blue Sheep. Heading back Jesper heard – and then spotted – some rodents. The first of many small mammals on the plateau over the next few days.

Blyth’s Mountain Vole, Neodon leucurus

The jury is still out on some of the rodents we saw, but this one appears to be a Blyth’s Mountain Vole (Neodon leucurus).

We spent the night in the small town of Wenquan: a basic hotel, a great dinner and a promise of a lie in until 6.15 a.m.

Friday 18 September: Wenquan to Maduo

Kiang, Equus kiang

Our original itinerary had allowed for 2 nights at Wenquan to try to ensure we found Pallas’s Cat. But our early success meant we could press on to spend an extra night in the south. The only stumbling block was whether the hotel in Maduo had space for us. Only certain hotels in China are licensed to take westerners and, in Maduo, one hotel had the monopoly. They couldn’t confirm they had rooms until midday.

Tibetan Fox, Vulpes ferrilata

So we drove south and hoped for the best. The first stop was just south of the next pass: a patch of sand dunes out on the plateau covered in dwarf willow bushes.  There was, Jesper said, a very long shot at Chinese Zokor, a species he had never seen but which one of his tour participants saw here last year.

Catching gophers in the USA requires finding a fresh mound and opening up the tunnel to the elements: the fastidious gopher generally arrives quickly to repair the damage and seal the tunnel. I figured something similar might work for Zokors. There were mounds everywhere, and I kicked the soil from the top  of a fresh one and used a stick to find – and open – the tunnel. Half an hour later a glimpse of a grey furry head was followed by dirt flying out of the hole. I called the others over and the animal returned 4 times over the next 20 minutes, only giving a glimpse of fur each time.

Chinese Zokor, Myospalax fontanierii (Photo by Paul Carter)

I wanted to catch it by hand and knelt over the hole poised for action. It didn’t return. Beware: pins and needles at high altitude (or perhaps on Diamox) are very unpleasant. Good to know that this technique works so well though be prepared to give it an hour. It was used to good effect in Sichuan by the rest of the group after they left Qinghai and the photo above was from that trip.

Other mammals that morning included several Woolly Hares, many Black-lipped Pikas and a Tibetan Fox.  The very fresh remains of a Woolly Hare, and fresher poop, suggested a Lynx may have been in the area several hours earlier, though some other beat may have been responsible.

Woolly Hare remains

Closer to the road we could hear, but not see, a colony of rodents. Meanwhile the Maduo hotel confirmed they had space.

After lunch we stopped for our first – very photogenic – Kiang, looking good in front of the snow capped mountains.

Kiang, Equus kiang

A colony of rodents, active near the side of the road, appeared again to be Blyth’s Mountain Voles. Maybe.

Blyth’s Mountain Vole, Neodon leucurus. Maybe.

Ten minutes further on we took a walk east of the road to get away from the traffic noise and enjoy some peace. Rodents were everywhere. I mean everywhere. Black-lipped Pikas aside, there were hundreds of Blyth’s Mountain Voles showing themselves well in the afternoon sunshine, and leaving their burrows (it was here we found a freshly killed specimen that I was able to measure to my heart’s content back at the hotel).

Blyth’s Mountain Vole, Neodon leucurus

Blyth’s Mountain Vole, Neodon leucurus

Blyth’s Mountain Vole, Neodon leucurus

One animal looked rather different, with much darker fur and whitish ear tufts, and an academic has now told me its an Irene’s Mountain Vole (Neodon irene).

Irene’s Mountain Vole, Neodon irene

We set up the scopes and enjoyed an hour watching many distant Kiang and Tibetan Gazelles as well a Tibetan Fox or two.

The Tibetan Plateau: hope to rodents great and small

Rodents on the Plateau: some tips

The sheer numbers and density of rodents on the plateau is something to behold. Although it is easy – if the sun is shining – to photograph many animals, identification is far trickier. It’s often important to get a photograph of the tail, as the length and colour (both top and bottom) is a particularly helpful diagnostic. Of course to get this shot the animals need to leave their burrows, which they seemed to do most often when the sun was shining and the wind had dropped. Even then the angle of view often means the tail stays hidden. Patience is important but luckily for Paul (another rodent aficionado) and me, our group was tolerant of our long spells of vole chasing.

Identification is another problem altogether. There seems very little solid information on the species here, reflecting an absence of work on them (which is in turn reflected in the Field Guide to the Mammals of China …. trying to identify species according to the plates in the book is not easy). I have gone overboard with the pictures here in the hope that someone can identify some of these animals one day.

I have contacted two people who are working on these animals and it seems that most of the animals we saw were Blyth’s Mountain Vole (Neodon leucurus). This is the only species, they say, that is active in large colonies in the day time. It is also a very variable species (though that variation may in fact be because it’s a complex of several species). Watch this space.

Other species on the plateau tend to be more secretive and nocturnal and more likely seen in a trap. That said the animal we saw alone in the early morning in Wild Yak Valley had a totally different tail though and has to be something different, most likely Irene’s Mountain Vole (Neodon irene) and I think we may have seen this elsewhere too. I am still pursuing advice on some other animals which also looked different to me… but what do I know.

Kiang in the evening

The final hour or so of the drive to Maduo was simply spectacular. I am not sure I have ever seen anywhere more beautiful than the plateau in the evening light and autumn colours. All shades of green and rusty red, studded with ponds and creeks, and herds of Kiang and Tibetan Gazelle. The occasional Gir the only sign of humanity. Magical.

Kiang, Equus kiang

The hotel in Maduo was comfortable (once I’d opened the window to let out the subtropical heat from the room) and dinner was, as always, tasty.

Saturday 19 September: Maduo to Yushu

Glover’s Pika, Ochotona gloveri

We continued south stopping for breakfast in the snow at the peak of Bayankala Pass, at an impressive 4,824 metres.

Banyakala Pass

Walking across the snow covered rocks didn’t seem wise, so we took a slow stroll down a largely unused road. As soon as the sun broke through the clouds there were rodents everywhere. Many of them out of their burrows feeding, conveniently showing their tails in the process.

Though I was initially convinced there were two species here – a smaller grey and a larger browner rodent – careful examination of hundreds of pictures led Paul and I to think there was just one species. And discussion with academics confirms they are all Blyth’s Mountain Voles. Again. Though the animals looked somewhat different from the yellower, fiercer looking rodents we’d seen in huge numbers out on the plateau. Here are some of the voles from today.

Blyth’s Mountain Voles, Neodon leucus

Blyth’s Mountain Voles, Neodon leucus

Now compare to the dead one we saw on the plateau

Dead Blyth’s Mountain Vole, Neodon leucus 

Jesper also picked up our first Tibetan Wolf of the trip in the scope. Enough to distract Paul and me from obsessive rodent photography. Briefly.

Driving on down the pass to the plateau, we passed numerous herds of Kiang and fewer Tibetan Gazelles.

Tibetan Gazelle, Gazella picticaudata

In the mid-afternoon we hiked through some scrub where Jesper had occasionally seen Siberian Roe Deer. It wasn’t a good time of day and we left, the only mammal a vole near to the car that I guess was a Blyth’s Mountain Vole.

Blyth’s Mountain Vole, Neodon leucus. Maybe.

Not far north of Yushu we stopped to look at some Tibetan Partridge at the side of the road. This proved to be lucky stop because our first Glover’s Pika was sitting on the boulders by the birds, looking like a cross between a Rock Elephant Shrew and Mickey Mouse. A fabulous animal and not at all shy.

Glover’s Pika, Ochotona gloveri

The hotel in Yushu was one of the best of the trip. Dinner again was excellent. I began to crave a steak and fries.

Sunday 20 September: Yushu to Nangqian

Looking for Musk Deer

This was our last day heading south and we spent it in search of Red (MacNeill’s) and White-lipped Deer.

The scenery was even more spectacular than usual, and after a couple of hours we pulled off of the highway into a secluded valley where Jesper often sees MacNeill’s Deer and started walking. After 30 minutes the sun came out and the wildlife began to wake up. A large group of White-eared Pheasants, and three Blood Pheasants, were a distraction until Dominique’s telescopic eyes picked out a small brown blob on a distant high meadow. Alpine Musk Deer! A mammal I dearly wanted to see but wasn’t really expecting on this trip.  Its small size, colouration and “kangaroo” head and ears were diagnostic. But it was a long way away and even through the scope it wasn’t possible to see much more.

We climbed to a closer ridge, puffing and panting up a challenging 200 metre elevation gain. The deer was close enough now to see the paler fur on the back and front of the neck but sadly still too far to see the trademark Musk Deer fangs. It jumped onto and across some rocks and disappeared before we could get closer.

Musk Deer habitat

Jesper, Paul and I pushed on to the next ridge but despite scanning for over an hour couldn’t locate the beast again. We returned to the bottom of the valley, navigating an aggressive Yak and some ferocious dogs on the way, and seeing only Marmots and a Woolly Hare or two. When Dominique re-joined us he’d spotted a herd of six MacNeill’s Deer that had just appeared from across the top of the mountain. Though I remain to be convinced that these deer are not simply a race of Cervus hushus they do look quite different to the European Red Deer.

The hot sun gave way, very quickly, to a short but ferocious storm with driving winds and stinging rain. Thankfully the car, and dry clothes, were only 20 minutes away.

Macneill’s Red (Sichuan) Deer, Cervus elpahus macneilli

Later that afternoon we visited a spectacular gorge on the Mekong River close to Nangqian. The scenery reminded me of Sichuan and looked perfect for Serow, though our main quarry here were White-lipped Deer. We didn’t find the deer but did see several groups of Blue Sheep and had very close looks at more Glover’s Pikas, one of which allowed us to get within 2 metres.

Glover’s Pika, Ochotona gloveri

Dinner that night was short: I was too tired to be hungry.

Monday 21 September: Nangqian to Yushu

South of Nangquian

We left Nangqian at 6 a.m., heading south to some mountains and a spot where Jesper had seen Alpine Musk Deer several times and White-lipped Deer more often.

A carnivore chasing a hare gave a glimmer of Lynx-excitement but none of us saw it properly and it was most likely a Fox. We only able to confirm MarmotsBlue SheepWoolly Hares and a Tibetan Fox though the scenery was stunning. Really stunning. I would have been happy to sit their all morning just watching the clouds come and go over these mountains, close to the border of the Tibetan Autonomous Region.

Blue Sheep, Psuedois nayaur

At 1 p.m. we drove back to Yushu stopping to scan en route, unsuccessfully, for White lipped Deer at several spots.

Tuesday 22 September: Yushu to Qumalai

White-lipped Deer Cervus albirostris

White-lipped Deer were the day’s main target. The first few hours out of Yushu were punctuated with several Tibetan Foxes and many Plateau Pika. At 10am Jesper stopped to scan a mountain side where he’d seen deer before and let out a trademark “Bingo!” Nearly 50 animals were on a distant ridge. were the day’s main target. The first few hours out of Yushu were punctuated with several Tibetan Foxes and many Plateau Pika. At 10 a.m. Jesper stopped to scan a mountain side where he’d seen deer before and let out a trademark “Bingo!”. Nearly 50 animals were on a distant ridge.

White-lipped Deer, Cervus albirostris

We decide to get closer on foot and spent the next 5 hours climbing the mountain, progressively closing in on the deer, one ridge at a time. Surrounded, as always, by beautiful vistas.

Another day, another glorious view

Paul and I spent well over an hour photographing one vole colony until Paul eventually grabbed the necessary but elusive tail shot: these voles are extremely secretive with their tails and if there was a Pulitzer Prize for rodent photography Paul would be a strong contender. This species is a bit of a mystery. Maybe another Blyth’s though it fits better the description of a Silver Mountain Vole (Alticola argentatus) though is well out of range. I will find out  one day I suppose…

Mystery voles

At about 2 p.m. we reached the “final” ridge: we’d been saying that for the last 3 ridges but by now no one had the energy to walk any more… other than Paul.

Wolf, Canis lupus

Three Wolves appeared, checking out the deer from a distance before crossing back behind the mountain. Fifteen minutes later the Wolves came over the ridge immediately above the deer. Instead of running, the deer calmly bunched together and the Wolves lost interest. Gripping stuff nonetheless. Other mammals included a Red Fox and Himalayan Marmots.

Wolves and Deer 

Three female White-lipped Deer were close to the road just outside Qumulai town: this area seems to offer the best chance to see this species.

White-lipped Deer, Cervus albirostris

Qumalai has the feel, smell and dust of a frontier town but the hotel was comfortable enough and dinner was good.

Qumulai town

Some local school teachers struck up a conversation with us over dinner. It was interesting to hear that the local kids get Tibetan language lessons. Tomorrow we would head north from Qumalai, and travel along the Roof of the World Road, the remotest stretch of the trip and the piece I’d been most looking forward to.

Wednesday 23 September: Qumalai to Budongquan

Wild Yak, Bos mutus. The Roof of the World

A White-lipped Deer farm just out of Qumulai at dawn caused a little flurry of excitement until we saw the bells around the animals’ necks. From there we climbed quickly to the high plateau.

Tibetan Fox, Vulpes ferrilata

The Roof of the World, at about 4,500 metres high, was desolate, starkly beautiful and cold.

The first mammals were Tibetan Foxes, a Red Fox and Plateau Pika. Whenever Jesper got the scope out we could see groups of Kiang and Tibetan Gazelles studding the plateau.

North of Qumulai 

By late morning Jesper found our first group of Tibetan Antelope (Chiru). Stunning animals and it was great to get a good look at a herd of males (much to Dominique’s delight in particular), though we were unable to approach them as closely on foot as Jesper had expected.  We saw several more herds that day.

Tibetan Antelope (Chiru), Pantholops hodgsonii

The last target of the day, and a key one for me, was Wild Yak. These beasts are enormous, sometimes standing 2m high at the shoulder. There are many domestic Yak out there, and Jesper advised that size, behaviour, remoteness and an all black pelage are key to separating the wild animals from their domestic cousins. A large lone Yak fitted all the criteria and as we approached on foot it was very clearly a wild animal, nervously looking in our direction when we got to within a few hundred metres: unsure whether to charge or flee.

Wild Yak, Bos mutus

After a picnic lunch we walked across the plains, looking for rodents (which we didn’t find) but we did see another two Wild Yaks, which fled when we got within 300 metres.

Wild Yak, Bos mutus

Our night, at a truck stop in Budongquan, was undoubtedly the worst of the trip – mainly because of the noise during night.  The toilets easily won first prize in the China’s grossest bathroom competition.

Budongquan Westin

After dinner and dark we strolled along the banks of the river hoping to see a rodent or two. But the freezing wind meant the temperature dropped quickly and our excursion was short-lived and mammal-less.

Budongquan cook

Thursday 24 September: Budongquan to Golmud

Wild Yak Valley

The first stop this morning was Wild Yak Valley, the turn off for which is about 45 minutes north of Budongquan and well signposted from the highway. Our main goal here was Argali, a species we had all seen before but were happy to see again. It didn’t take long to find a large herd on a distant mountain slope. Yet again the scenery was spectacular and, Argali aside, we saw plenty of Woolly Hares as well as a Wolf, a few Tibetan Gazelles and many Kiang

Tibetan Gazelle, Gazella picticaudata

There was a good deal of vole activity along the roadside though the animals were hard to see until Paul found one animal that was active and confiding. It came right out of its burrow: our first Irene’s Mountain Vole, its longer unicoloured tail helping us know that it was something different to Blyth’s. Maybe.

Irene’s Mountain Vole, Neodon irene. Maybe

We drove straight to Golmud, arriving mid-afternoon for a few hours of much needed downtime. Though there were still three days left, our return to civilization was cause for celebration and we feasted on Beijing Duck and a bottle of “Great Wall” Chinese Cabernet Sauvignon, which tasted a lot better than you might have imagined.

Friday 25 September: Golmud to Dulan


Qaidam Basin Desert

Today was mainly a travel day through the dusty desert of the Qaidam Basin to Dulan. We stopped at dawn, a little way out of Dulan to check for Mid-day Gerbils in low sand dunes close to the road. Jesper had seen them here before. But although there were plenty of fresh gerbil and (presumably) jerboa holes we didn’t see any animals despite several hours searching (though Jesper glimpsed a gerbillic flash under a bush).

We did see our first Goitred Gazelles however, much daintier and more gazelle-like than the other antelope we’d seen so far on the trip.

Several hundred kilometres later – and in the mid afternoon – we stopped to scan around another wash where Jesper had seen gazelles. He spotted four more animals.  We walked in a kilometre or so and managed to get within 500 metres of them.

Goitred Gazelle, Gazella subgutturosa

We stayed in Dulan at another nondescript hotel.

Saturday 26: Dulan to Chaka

Mountains near Chaka

My last full day in Tibet began with a 45 minute drive to a valley where Jesper often sees Kansu Red Deer (Cervus canadensis kansuensis).  Winter was fast approaching: it was cold and despite the plethora of marmot holes we only saw two animals all day. The snow showers didn’t help.

Kansu Red Deer, Cervus canadensis kansuensis

It didn’t take long to find a distant herd of deer as well as a flock of 20 Blue Sheep.

Red Pika habitat

Our other main goal for the day was Chinese Red Pika. A fabulous looking beast but rather difficult to see. Jesper had seen a few of them over the years in the gorge (as well as Glover’s Pikas) so we continued climbing, stopping and scanning the rocks.

We stopped at a vantage point but Paul continued up the gorge. An hour later he was waving us up. He’d found the Pika. And when we reached him, after a brutal scramble up a steep slope, we saw the photos to prove it. A hell of an animal and one I now wanted desperately to see. But it had vanished.

Chinese Red Pika, Ochotona erythrotis (Photo Paul Carter)

Despite another hour scanning the rocks we couldn’t relocate it. Paul returned down the valley, and Jesper, Dominique and I continued up over the top of the hill to return along the other side of the gully.

Looking for Pikas

Half way back down we stopped to scan. I was giving up hope but its always darkest before the dawn and the Pika. Jesper spotted another animal and I had a brief but good look at a Chinese Red Pika as it ran up the slope and disappeared into some rocks. Unlike the red animal Paul photographed, this Pika was already in its winter pelage, with a grey body, though the ears were still bright red. Fabulous!

Alpine meadow

Later in the afternoon we drove on to Chaka scanning for – but not finding – Prezwalski’s Gazelles at a couple of Jesper’s spots along the way.

On the outskirts of Chaka Jesper took us to some bushes in the desert, right next to the highway, where he had seen Mid-day Gerbils. It was 5 p.m. and he spotted a gerbil under a bush within 10 minutes. The animal conveniently stayed put, entering and leaving its burrow to feed for the next hour and we had prolonged and close views. Rodent heaven.

Mid-day Gerbil, Meriones meridianus

A great last day that ended with one of the more comfortable hotels – and some of the best food – of the trip.

Sunday 27: Chaka to Xining

South Koko Nor Range

We began our last day at dawn at the salt lake near Chaka looking for rodents and Asian Badgers. Jesper had never seen a badger here, despite many visits, but Sjef Ollers’ report mentioned they were present so we thought it could be worth a look. No badgers and no sign of them, but we did see many Woolly Hares and a few rodent burrows.  

The morning drizzle worsened throughout the day as we drove back to Xining via Lake Koko Nor and it was too miserable to leave the car for more than a few minutes: we realised how lucky we had been with the weather.

At Koko Nor Jesper found some Przewalski’s Gazelles and then, too soon, we were back in Xining and I was heading to the airport for a flight to Beijing and then home.

Prayer flags

Stuff I missed

Without doubt this was was one of the most successful trips I’ve ever taken, largely thanks to Jesper’s knowledge of the area. I saw all the key species I was chasing and more. We missed very little.  

There are potentially many rodent species on the Tibetan plateau and Jesper has recorded a number of other species on trips that we did not see. He will, however, readily agree that he is not always certain of some of his rodent IDs and so I am not at all clear how many of these rodents are remotely likely to be seen, especially in daylight. Identification of many species requires them to be in the hand and even then I am not sure many experts would necessarily agree on what they are!

Kiang, Equus kiang

Based on Jesper’s reports we had a miniscule chance of Snow Leopard and a very small chance of seeing a Lynx or a Steppe Polecat so I was not surprised we missed them. There seems to be a slightly better chance of seeing an Asian Badger but although we saw several setts we didn’t see any live animals. I’d suggest spending a little more time around lake Koko Nor, including spotlighting, to try to see this species if it’s a priority.

The Road on the Roof of the World

We also had an eye out for Tsing-Ling Pika near Xining, and Moupin Pika near Nangqian, though we didn’t try all that hard to see them.

Final Observations

The Tibetan plateau is a superb mammalwatching destination. The quality of the sightings, the number of animals, the remoteness and beauty of the region all make for a fantastic experience. We found 27 species of mammals (a new record for Jesper) and 20 of these were new for me (plus there may be another rodent or two to follow). A lot of our success was down to Jesper’s knowledge of where to look for each species and how to find them when we got there. A big thank you to him and also to the rest of the group – Dominique, Holly and Paul  – who were the ideal travel companions: relaxed, patient, sharp-eyed and dedicated in equal measure.

The Tibetan Plateau

Trip List

Lifers are marked with an F

F Blyth’s Mountain Vole Neodon leucurus: I am reliably informed that this is by far the most common vole on the plateau and the only species you are likely to encounter in large colonies by daylight. Seen in large numbers on the 18th and 19th (at Banyakala Pass) and probably elsewhere.

F Irene’s Mountain Vole Neodon irene: a different looking vole, confiding and alone in Wild Yak Valley with a noticeably different tail, was likely this species on the 24th.

F Gansu Pika Ochotona cansus: This species seem to have quite specific habitat requirements (bushy areas near Wenquan). It didn’t take long to find an animal on the 17th and we spotted another there later that day. Also seen at the Zokor site on the 18th.

F Black-lipped Pika Ochotona curzoniae: if you don’t see these you might as well hang up your binoculars for good. Thousands seen on the plateau.

F Chinese Red Pika Ochotona erythrotis: this species seems quite hard to see. We looked for, but didn’t see one, near Xining on 14 September. But eventually saw two skittish animals on the 26th on a steep slope with big boulders. (Photo by Paul Carter).

F Glover’s Pika Ochotona gloveri: We saw several of these among big boulders near Nangqian. The animals were not at all shy.

Woolly Hare Lepus oiostolus: several seen most days on the plateau, mountains and desert.

F Himalayan Marmot Marmota himalayana: several seen most days. I would imagine they’d all be hibernating by the middle of October.

F Mid-day Jird Meriones meridianus: this species likes to burrow under bushes in the desert between Dulan and Chaka. One seen very well for an hour in the late afternoon on the 26th.

F Chinese Zokor Myospalax fontanierii: we saw mounds in several places but made a concerted effort to see one – successfully – on the 18th using an open up its tunnel entrance and wait method.

F Pallas’ Cat Felis manul: two separate sightings on the 17th. This cat is quite widespread but seems most likely between Gonghe and Wenquan. We didn’t look for it again after our early success.

F Tibetan Fox Vulpes ferrilata: easy to see in many places on the plateau and we saw several most days from the 16th to the 24th.

Red Fox Vulpes vulpes: not as common as the Tibetan Foxes on the high plateau, but we saw animals on the 15th, 16th, 17th and the 23rd.

Gray Wolf Canis lupus: seen on 3 days, always distantly, with singles on the 19th and the 24th and a pack of three aggravating the White-lipped Deer on the 22nd.

Mountain Weasel Mustela altaica: seen several times with very confiding animals on the 16th and the 18th coming right up to members of our group.

F Alpine Musk Deer Moschus chrysogaster: one on the 20th. Their small size makes this species easy to overlook though their willingness to graze on alpine meadows helps make them easier to see than some of their forest-dependent relatives.

F White-lipped (Thorold’s) Deer Cervus albirostris: we searched for this on several days in the south but the area around Qumulai (on the 22nd) seems the most reliable place to see this.

(MacNeill’s) Red Deer (Elk) Cervus canadensis macneilli: we saw this subspecies of Red Deer on the 20th after a considerable search.

(Kansu) Red Deer (Elk) Cervus canadesnsis kansuensis: easily found on the 26th at a reliable spot.

F Eastern Roe Deer Capreolus pygargus: two pairs easily found on the 14th in Hu Zhu National Park at first light.

F Goitered Gazelle Gazella subgutturosa: widely scattered and not hard to find in the Qaidam Basin on the 25th September. They seem to like washes with scattered vegetation.

F Tibetan Gazelle Gazella picticaudata: common on the plateau with many small herds seen between the 17th and the 24th.

F Przewalski’s Gazelle Gazella przewalskii: there are estimated to be fewer than 600 of these endangered animals left in the wild, though the area around Lake Qinghai (Koko Nor) seems a reliable spot to find them (the 15th).

F Tibetan Antelope (Chiru) Pantholops hodgsonii: we saw several herds on the roof of the world on the 23rd.

Argali Ovis ammon: Wild Yak Valley (on the 24th) is the place to scan for these.

Blue Sheep (Bharal) Pseudois nayaur: seen several times on the 20th, 21st and the 26th. Also often see at Er La pass (the 17th).

F Wild Yak Bos mutus: a few individuals spotted on the Roof of the World and easy to see further up in Wild Yak Valley (on the 23rd and 24th).

F Kiang Equus kiang: very common on the high plateau with hundreds seen between the 18th and the 24th.

27 species plus perhaps more rodents to be identified. 20 of them new for me.

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