Saturday, 28 February 2009

...and we're out of here (again)

Once again, I find myself considering the numerous repacking options for my rucksack. Fieldwork beckons once more. We're heading to Taxkurgan today and then on to Mariang, roads permitting. Reports have been drifting through of snow leopard activity in the Mariang area, so fingers crossed they don't all bugger off before we get there. And that the reports are accurate - I'll be SO angry if we get photos of yetis again... Bloody pests.

Right, enough of this banter. I'm off. Updates as before via a satellite phone and the beautiful Dawn's prose. Let's hope I can relay some good snow leopard news and less about border guards and paperwork.

Keep 'em peeled.
WildCRU / Xinjiang Snow Leopards

...and a picture crossing the Kunlun Mountains

Ice Breaker

It's a little known fact that I don't "do" ice, except in a G&T. Ice skating was one of those dreaded events I was sometimes coerced into when a youngster. Never out of choice. The last time, however was different: Dawn and I had a truly glorious day on a ice rink in New York's Central Park. Our skating was abysmal, but we laughed like twats. No pain.

Progress in Shaksgam was all about ice. Frozen rivers were our way into valleys that are watery torrents at any other time of year. I knew this. I've even made a point of informing anyone who'd listen to me that this "is the only way of getting into these parts". But the reality hadn't struck me - walking up (and down) valleys on ice. In inflexible walking boots, which while great on rocks, mud, pavements and all manner of non-slip surfaces, are truly hellish when friction is limited. All I can say is thanks to the inventor or walking poles - and to Tom and Harry who encouraged me to take them. Brilliant. Hand extensions - like walking on all fours without looking like a (total) idiot. Just a bit of one.

Steady as you go.

Yours truly, getting in the way of a stunning view near Shaksgam.


Friday, 27 February 2009

Trade & Commerce

During my morning stroll around Kashgar, searching stalls for tasty treats (found walnut and date toffee - fantastic!) I had the usual conscience tweak (and trouser tugs) from the legions of beggars inhabiting the downtown area. In among them was an old boy who caught my eye. He was characteristically disheveled and needy, however he was sitting carving wooden spoons for sale. Not begging at all - selling something. He immediately got my money and I got four spoons.

As I continued I entered a street that was almost exclusively comprised of pigeon restaurants (where they're eaten rather than dining themselves, lest there be any confusion). This reminded me of an entire district of Changchun in Jilin Province given over to hairdressers and, more recently, a small nameless town in the desert where all shops but three sold decorative knives. Now, I'm no business guru, but if I were planning on entering the decorative knife selling business I would probably avoid opening a shop in this town. If I wanted to distinguish myself as a hairdresser, I'd do well to avoid competition, trust me.

Why do trades tend to cluster in Chinese towns? In a sea of pigeon cafes, I'll always go for the wooden spoons.

Eat up.

P.S. If anyone wishes to burst my bubble and has information about a wooden spoon scam, where innocent beggars are forced into selling wares on behalf of some evil oligarchic organised crime network - please keep it to yourself.

...and we're back again - briefly

I want a helicopter for my next birthday. Dawn has beautifully conveyed the intricacies of our journey to Shaksgam (or Raskam as the locals have it, and who am I to disagree) and our initial surveying efforts (thanks Dawn!). We managed to get reasonably far west towards the border, before the army declined us further access. Despite having all the correct paperwork and permissions on Monday, these were deemed insufficient by Tuesday. Some hurried, covert satellite phoning to higher authorities failed to resurrect our status (we're not waving our equipment around at army stations - there's a real danger of it being misinterpreted as not for snow leopard research, if you know what I mean). Even Dai Zhigong was denied further access to the SW of the reserve and he's the reserve director. He was giving the Officer in Charge a mouthful, when Shifu deftly entered the fray with his characteristic charm and cigarettes ploy, sensing that Dai was on the verge of getting us in trouble. My presence alone in this area was causing some agitation. Our friends in the State Forestry Administration claim they now know what further strings need pulling and are tugging at a higher level. Next time we will get even further, as I understand we already have hospitality sessions lined up with some military top brass when we return to Beijing. Yikes!

All was not lost - we have a good solid couple of days surveying near Shaksgam and then focused our remaining efforts in the SE of the reserve around Maraz and Kudi. Despite numerous blue sheep and a few ibex, there was unfortunately precious little sign of snow leopard. Reports from villagers emerging from the no-go area suggest there are snow leopards near the border posing problems for livestock. Conversely, in the vicinity of Kudi, to the east, villagers had never seen snow leopards, nor heard reports of them in the last 30 years or so. The wolf population, however, appeared to be thriving.

Despite the inevitable set backs and obstacles, we're all pretty pleased to have got as far as we did and get some valuable data from this difficult (in all senses of the word) region. We're now warming up and eating some nicer food in Kashgar for a couple of days before heading back into the mountains to Mariang. Hopefully here we will be able to verify our suspicions that snow leopards are active in the winter and also get some pictures with these damn heavy cameras. More lamb kebabs please!

Keep on the sunny side.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

The Big Freeze

After several days of 'radio silence', Phil checked in today. He and the team are currently surveying from the remote army base near Mazar, in the Shaksgam valley. (Except Kun who has had to return to Beijing for urgent business there).

They've had a difficult route through the desert from Kashgar, as, other than inhospitable cold, the army are extremely sensitive about the Kashmiri border and they are now at the interface where their permissions are not the 'right permissions' to let them proceed beyond the border control. The upside is that they've apparently been staying in various army shacks along route, which, for the most part, are less cold than sleeping under metaphorical canvas. The temperature drops rapidly to -20/25 at dusk, worsened by the dramatic wind howling through the valley (and virtually obliterating any sense of what Phil was trying to say at the end of the satellite phone).

So far, no recent evidence of snow leopard, just old scrapes, but the next few days surveying are full of promise. They've seen plenty of prey, with increased blue sheep and ibex numbers compared to Mariang, and also sign of greater wolf and lynx activity.

The landscape is predictably awesome, though perhaps less white. They are at c.4000m, and actually the whole area is extremely arid, with the snow line in sight at 6,000m, and frozen rivers in the valleys.

Phil anticipates moving back towards Kashgar on Friday and then heading on to Mariang, so the chances are he'll publish the next post himself. Here's hoping everything goes well, good luck. Dx

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

...and we're out of here

Kashgar is a funny place. I can only imagine what this hub on the silk road must have looked like in its heyday (whenever that was - it has a long history). It has now taken on or rather, been given the anonymous looks of any other Chinese city. The old parts of the city have largely been revamped with square concrete and neon KTV signs. The redevelopment of the area around the Id Kah Mosque offers a sanitised version of the former bazaars of my imagination. As with much Chinese history, selected parts have been cleaned off and put on somewhat inelegant display. Now and then, while walking around the city, I still catch glimpses of old architecture, but these have become rarer in the last couple of years that I been visiting this place.

Work complete, finally we have enough permission and vehicles to move out of Kashgar and towards the mountains. We will begin scouting routes in attempts to find our way in so at long last I might be able to provide snow leopard research entries to this blog. However, I'll have no web access for a few weeks, so the glorious Dawn will post updates from our brief (but blissful) safety check in calls (that's what we're calling them anyway).

Break a leg.

Just Deserts (sorry)

In Beautiful Day, Bono evokes a romantic vista overlooking desert oil fields at first light. The uber-eco-friendly version to greet us was the largest wind farm in Asia.


According to the Taxiversity of Life.

Our driver, known to us as Shifu (Master), is brimming over with facts and opinion. Perfect for two days of solid driving with a captive class. Shame I don't understand too much of it, but the rest of the team are having a great time, and his ebullience transcends language. The downside is he is easily distracted from his primary task (what I think it is anyway) and so far he has been pulled over four times for speeding. The first time he gruffly paid the fine and shrugged words to the effect that the police should stop wasting time etc etc... serious crime going on etc etc... what they doin' about it etc etc... This I believe is a universal response to such injustice. The second time the officer responsible for pulling him over was a young lad (they are, like doctors, getting younger [except yours truly - medical doctors only rule]). Shifu sensed something akin to naive uncertainty on the part of the young'un and he jumped from the car to vigorously protest his innocence and demand to know why he is not out catching real criminals etc etc... it's all about getting money and easy target hitting etc etc... To be fair the officer gave as good as he got and things began to escalate. When the young officer's grizzled old chain smoking superior then stepped out of the shadows I began to ask questions of the team, such as "how much does it cost to bail people in China?" and "is it even possible?" and "who else can drive?". Shifu's no fool. The speed of change from outrage to contrition was remarkable.

He paid another fine and, balanced against what we are paying him, went into the red for the day.

The next occasion was apparently paid in cigarettes and jocularity. He got away with it. By now, you'd expect him to be particularly eagle-eyed when it comes to the numerous speed cameras alone these roads. He might need glasses. I'd see these things coming from way in the distance, but he kept constant speed until about 5m from the camera and then throw out the anchor. Baggage everywhere. Repack everything in the back and then wait for the next one. Bang! Weighty sack of camera traps to the back of the head.

The fourth time I thought an arrest was certain. And, from the heavy dragging motion of a dead man walking as he got out of the car, so did he. Whatever the combination of charm, cigarettes and charitable donation, he returned to the car, his wallet relieved of its load. His drivers licence however was freshly decorated with six shiny new points. Four more and he's off the road.

That was day one on the road to Kashgar. Day two saw steady law abiding progression and a grimace on Shifu's face each time he was overtaken by all and sundry. Onegai shimasu.

Belt up.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

No - we're F freezing (chill induced stutter)

Urumqi is covered with somewhat grubby snow, laying around like sand in the negative numbers. Having failed to ground the plane with our excess baggage; permissions having been granted; a car secured; and batteries charged we are ready to embark on the next step. Across the Taklamakan Desert to Kashgar (Kashi). The Taklamakan Desert is what's known as a cold desert, but apparently none the less inhospitable for that. I am reliably informed (a cab driver in Urumqi) that Taklamakan translates as "enter, but do not leave". This could b because it is such a paradise that you lose all desire to return. On the other hand... I was also reliably informed (same school of learning, different driver) that during the ice storms that gripped China in 2008, the entire desert was covered in a layer of snow. Apparently never happened before (or since, but that's not saying much). Jeepers!

Drive safely.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Can the team handle the cold?

Having spent too many days in balmy Beijing, chasing equipment, batteries (I’ll stop going on now) and meeting (i.e. getting drunk and singing) with important dignitaries, we are finally poised to strike out for Xinjiang. Urumqi (the capital of the province) will be the team’s first taste of real cold, with -20 °C forecast. It’s been like springtime here. Most people in Beijing have been kept their puffy jackets on well beyond what I consider a comfortable limit. As my grandmother would have said, they won’t feel the benefit of it later.

Wrap up.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Intrigued by interethnic cooperation

Pleasingly, we’ve been noticed by other Bloggers in Xinjiang and had a recent review, of sorts, by the interestingly named New Dominion. They give me a bit of a ribbing about my scintillating accounts of FedEx etc (wait ‘til they see the last batteries entry), but also highlight the issue of interethnic cooperation on our project. They appear to give this more weight than I had previously considered. Our team consists of Tajiks, Uygurs, Han Chinese and yours truly. Is this truly unusual? To my mind the only way to conduct this project is with the inclusion of everyone that has an interest, irrespective of ethnicity. Of course, I not SO na├»ve as to be unaware of the tensions within this region, and I am well aware that conservation IS political in all corners of the world. The politics of conservation cut across many facets, although in our project I have, perhaps wrongly, considered interethnic politics and conservation politics to be operating at different levels. It seems they’re closer than I chose to recognise.

Does this change anything? I don’t know. We will carry on as before, with our (oh alright, my) banal frustrations and expensive cameras (although there’s a certain Chinese farmer I apparently must see about getting some SL photos). We will continue to provide training and support to these communities, so that together we can better understand these animals and deliver effective long lasting conservation measures. I don’t know if I should dare mention that we are also collaborating with similar projects across the border in Pakistan

Batteries (yes it's a little banal, but vexing me at the mo’)

My reliable source for all things electronic (yes, Stephen) informs me that China is leading the way developments of way-out-there fantastic lithium batteries. If so, then no one has told the Chinese. We have been scouring Beijing all day, chasing possible leads, making calls to battery suppliers & manufacturers but generally getting no where. At long last we managed to get something, although it remains to be seen if they are up to the -30 °C freezer we are about to enter.


Tuesday, 10 February 2009


Landed in Beijing after a great flight (many thanks to British Airways for the donated flights) and immediately thrust into business. Business in China typically (in my experience anyway) involves a great deal of what is best termed extreme hospitality and I have not been left wanting for food and baijiu. The cultural significance of dining, drinking and general merriment for the development of working friendships cannot be overstated. We are now very good friends (moving off the baijiu scale and onto the Karaoke scale) with the Sichuan’s Forestry Administration and have an open invitation to visit some of their suspected key areas for snow leopards on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau. This is a great start, particularly when combined with similar invitations to survey some areas on the edge of the snow leopard range in Yunnan.

Preparations for Xinjiang are fully underway and the team is building. More to come…


Saturday, 7 February 2009

Camera traps

The frustrations of final preparations! Having been generously lent some camera traps by the Snow Leopard Trust in Seattle and Tom McCarthy putting valuable time into arranging the shipment we were nearly scuppered by UK Customs, aided and abetted by FedEx.

Far be it from me to start moaning about the difficulties of life, particularly those faced when dealing with some large organisations. The individuals I liased with in FedEx were great - polite and helpful. However, somehow, between all the polite helpfulness there appeared some gaps into which certain bits of vital communication seemed to fall. I'll skip the tortuous angst ridden account which finally resulted in me having to drive to the airport cargo depot through the most atrocious weather the UK has seen for 13 years, because FedEx don't deliver on a Saturday!

Now, given where we are going and what we are planning to do I can not complain about a bit of snow and some diffiult driving conditions. So I won't. I was more concerned with the shame of losing to a technicality and failing to get the cameras despite the SLT getting them to the UK.

Shame averted and we are all systems go. Now I have to deal with the guilt of abandoning Dawn and the boys. No amount of snow bound motorway driving will get me out of that one.


Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Equipment matters

Those of you who are familiar with the great outdoors will also probably be familiar with the vast array of equipment and clothing on offer to assist us in our pursuits. Good grief! I have spent more time weighing the merits of different layering systems than I care to face. I've opted for the Rab look, combining VapourRise layers with eVent outers and a lovely Extreme down jacket (assuming I can get it back off Dawn). Could have gone buffalo, but didn't. You'll soon find out how successful my choices have been.

Picture in full garb to follow...


Preparations are under way...

I am truly worried about the amount of equipment I am pulling together. We are going to be using camera traps and I have 12 Reconyx (the best) already and a further 10 generously donated by Tom McCarthy at the Snow Leopard Trust (thanks Tom!) waiting for customs clearance at the UK border. These will easily fill two large holdalls and approach the maximum weight limits for each.


We will be camping at 4,000m (or thereabouts) for 4 weeks, so the amount of safety and camping gears is growing. Let alone my size 12 boots! I hope Kun and the rest of the team travel light.

WildCRU / Xinjiang Snow Leopards