(1994 KingBird Manchuria/Inner Mongolia Tour)


James Plyler

"I think it's a Relict Gull!" our leader spoke up excitedly. "Yes! Notice the way it feeds, like a shorebird." After the six of us had looked quickly through the scope and checked off the gull on our lists, Ben attached the higher magnification eyepiece for a longer, closer look at a bird we didn't expect to see, since it is usually found farther west in Mongolia. Our group was spending most of June birding with KingBird Tours in northeastern China. What a great start to the three-week trip!

A few days earlier we had flown from the United States to Beijing, via Tokyo. The day after our arrival, our itinerary called for a late-afternoon flight from Beijing to Hailar, a large city in northeastern China and our jumping-off place for the grasslands of Inner Mongolia. So we had all morning to do some sightseeing.

The Great Wall was a "must see," even for the four hard-core birders who were accompanying leader Ben King on the trip. Originally 6,700 kms. long and now partially restored, the Great Wall is an incredible sight as you contemplate the immense effort and manpower required to build it without modern equipment. Even though we visited on a Monday, thousands of Chinese swarmed over the area. This spectacular stone construction was erected over the centuries under the direction of different emperors trying to protect provinces or territories. Of course, we took our binoculars on the trip to the Wall and saw some good birds: the Plain Laughingthrush, Chinese Babbler, Daurian Redstart, and several beautiful Yellow-rumped Flycatchers. With a little more effort we also spied an Asian Paradise-Flycatcher, its long tail shimmering in the breeze.

A few days later, we were bumping along dirt roads through the grassy expanses of the steppes of Nei Mongol, the autonomous region of China we call Inner Mongolia. After an overnight stay in Hailar and our last shower for five days, we headed southwest on dirt roads without road signs, hoping the burly driver (whom we dubbed Gengis Khan, because of his fierce countenance) knew where we were going.

Our first destination was the small village of Medamuji, composed of a cluster of mud huts and mud fences, some brick houses, and wide, dusty streets. The town was located on a small meandering river that provided marshy habitat for many types of waterfowl, including the Swan Goose and three crane species: White-naped, Red-crowned, and Demoiselle. Cranes, one of the most spectacular groups of birds in the world, like to live and breed in open vast prairies and plains, and China has an abundance of crane habitat in relatively unpopulated areas.

The guest house provided us with one large room for four men, and a small adjoining room for another. Michael, our 25-year-old guide and interpreter, shared a room with our driver and another guide. Despite his youthful appearance and quiet demeanor, Michael was quite effective at dealing with any problems that arose. We five birders ate at a small table in the kitchen. Since Inner Mongolia has no wood, coal, or oil, the fuel for cooking and heating is dried cattle dung, or "meadow muffins," as some folks call them. Every house and courtyard has a large pile or two handy to the kitchen. I watched one of the ladies of the house shuffle through the pile to select some choice patties of the proper size for cooking supper.

Our stay in Medamuji and in other parts of northeastern China was probably the event of the year for the locals; big white giants do not visit this part of the world very often. Also, our associate, Dr. Peter Riesz, from Victoria, Texas, is probably the friendliest naturalized Texan this side of the Pecos. Peter was constantly surrounded by kids, babies, teenagers, adults, and cows. He seemed to have an endless supply of postcards from Victoria to pass out at every opportunity.

Our "bathroom" was about 75 yards behind the guest house: an airy brick structure, men at one end, women at the other. Slotted holes in the floor were made for folks younger than I, and outhouse visits at 3:30 a.m. meant threading one's way through the cows inside the fence. These animals were rounded up and penned every evening; at dawn, they headed out to pasture again, usually with a herdsman in attendance.

Besides the area's chief attraction, the cranes, the region featured a "migrant trap" about 30 minutes from town. Traps are natural areas with shrubs and small trees, amidst the vast grassy steppes, that provide cover, water, food, and rest for migrating birds. Although we were a little late for peak migration, which had occurred several weeks earlier, we saw many birds passing through to the more northern areas in Siberia: Siberian Blue Robins, Schrenck's Bittern, Yellow-breasted Buntings, Siberian Rubythroats, Gray Nightjars, Pallas's Warblers, Common Buzzards (both migrants and residents), and many Old World warblers. The latter are "little brown jobs" that all look alike except to people who spend much time learning the differences. Our beautifully-colored wood warblers in the Western Hemisphere are all the more striking by contrast.

The plains provided good habitat for Great Bustards, Oriental Plovers, Mongolian Larks, and many Amur Falcons, while the marshy areas were good for Swan Geese, Reed Parrotbills, and beautiful Asiatic Dowitchers in breeding plumage. The area can be dangerous for cattle, though; we encountered a cow stuck in the mud and watched as a gang of men arrived with a small tractor and 150 feet of strong rope to begin rescue operations. We were glad to see a very frightened animal eventually pulled to safety.

After leaving Medamuji, we spent two days completing the trip around Lake Hulun, ending up at the border city of Manzhouli, only a few miles from Russia. Yurts--round tent-like structures and home to the wandering Mongolians--were a constant sight, and we stopped at one to take pictures and visit briefly with a very friendly but somewhat shy family. Relict Gulls, a Bean Goose, a Small Snowfinch, and a Little Curlew made up for the often-rough ride. In Manzhouli, we appreciated hot showers and laundry service.

We stayed only one night in Manzhouli before heading back to Hailar and the beginning of another adventure. The drive back to Hailar on a hard-surfaced road was a welcome change from the mud and sand tracks of the past few days. Our van had seen better days, but the motor was reliable and we completed the loop back to Hailar without incident. This city is the largest in northern Inner Mongolia, with about 400,000 people. Hot showers again! In fact, I took two, so I'd be one ahead--none forthcoming in the near future.

We boarded a "hard sleeper" on one of the ubiquitous passenger trains for the trip north to Genhe ("Gun-huh"), the closest city to the lumber camp where we would lodge for four nights. A "hard sleeper" is a small compartment with seats and beds for four to six travelers. In keeping with the train's descriptive name, the seats are on the firm side, but one can stretch out and nap on the beds. One disadvantage of a "hard sleeper" is the inability to close off one's compartment with a door to keep out cigarette smoke and the stares of curious onlookers. A "soft sleeper," on the other hand, is a closable compartment with softer beds and more privacy. We traveled on this more luxurious alternative most of the time; an error in scheduling let us experience both varieties of train travel.

Genhe, in the Greater Hinggan Mountains, is surrounded by thousands of square kilometers of boreal forest. The entire forest, predominantly larch, is managed as a tree farm. Small lumber camps, scattered throughout the forest, are manned by workers who cut the timber and plant new trees. We stayed for four nights at one of these camps. A narrow-gauge railroad ran to the camp and beyond, and we travelled on a "local" train en route to the camp from Genhe. Because there are relatively few good roads in rural China away from the large cities (at least in the regions I've visited), trains are as important as they were in the United States 100 years ago.

At the camp we were again housed in the guest quarters. Quite a few workers lounged around, but with the exception of the crews repairing the railroad bed, hardly anyone was working. Michael explained that there was less to do at this time of year. The workers live in the camp for a week and then return home for a week.

The area where we stayed lies above 50 degrees north latitude, and first light begins between 2:30 and 3:00 a.m., so you have to sleep fast! We were usually on the road by 4:00 a.m. Due to the lack of roads, we traveled to our birding sites on old buses equipped with wheels to fit the narrow gauge of tracks normally used to carry out logs and lumber. After birding, we'd re-board the bus/train and ride back to camp. The hours were long, so each day we napped after lunch before going out again in the late afternoon.

Our accommodations here were similar to those at Medamuji, with a three-person room and two singles. The service was good: a "maid" saw to it that we had hot water for sponge-bathing and for coffee or instant soup in the morning. The camp workers eat in a central dining building; we had a separate VIP room in which to take our meals. By this time, our fat cells began to long for a little indulgence beyond our typical Chinese menu. We presented the challenge to Dr. Peter, who could work wonders with the kitchen staff. He came through with some nice greasy french fries and omelettes to supplement our healthful but low-calorie standard fare (dishes that we nicknamed "eggs/tomato combo," "beans/mushroom mixto, and "garlic-stem/chicken-bone platter" heretofore characterized our diet). Problems with excess weight seemed nonexistent in rural China, since the diet obviously contains little fat. I lost only five pounds in three weeks, because I delved frequently into my duffel for treats like instant soup, chocolate, candy bars, deviled ham, and gorp. (Several years ago, on a trip to Sichuan Province, I took fewer provisions and lost 12 pounds in three weeks. I don't, however, recommend these trips for weight reduction alone--too expensive!!)

Our target bird in this northern boreal forest was the Spotted Capercaillie. This beautiful grouse-like bird, found only in coniferous forests, is glossy purplish-black and about the size of a hen turkey. We bushwhacked for three days; in the end, only Big Ed White was lucky--or skilled--enough to flush and get a good look at this elusive bird. The rest of us had to be content with other species, including the Hazel Grouse and Siberian Jay.

On our way back to town at the end of the trip, we had fantastic views of the Great Gray Owl from our bus-train. The brick and wooden houses with stone and wood fences along the tracks in this northern area were quite a contrast to the buildings of the treeless steppes. Wood is used here for warmth and cooking; with little pasture for animals, no cow patties are available.

Our next destination was far south, to the small city of Kaitong, in Jilin province. Although it took 3 separate train rides to get from our lumber camp to Jilin Province and Kaitong, we were pleased with our "soft sleeper" and with the luxury of "sleeping in" past 3 a.m.! The national nature reserve of Xiang-hai is less than an hour's drive from Kaitong. Xiang-hai is noted for cranes and storks, but the target bird here was the very scarce Jankowski's Bunting. Perhaps as recompense for the capercaillie, we saw the bunting without even getting out of the van. It was perched on top of a small shrub, singing loudly and persistently enough to afford satisfying scope views. I even took a videotape of the bird through the scope. Farther down the road, we got better, closer views of the cranes and watched an Oriental Stork as it flew around us.

In contrast to the crisp cool air of the boreal forest, the weather around Kaitong was hot and humid. I was glad to head north again to cooler country. In a couple of days our "soft sleeper" took us to Qiqihar, an important city of Heilongjiang province. This "crane city" is named for the nearby Zhalong Crane Reserve, a breeding reserve for cranes and other waterfowl. We visited the pens for closer looks and pictures. Here we also saw the Japanese Quail and the Japanese Marsh Warbler.

Our final adventure of the tour took us to the northern boreal forest at Dailing in the Lesser Hinggan Mountains, via a train ride to Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang Province, and beyond to Nancha. On the ride to Harbin we passed thousands of square miles of wet marshy areas on both sides of the track--wonderful places for waterfowl and fishing.

We hoped to see about a dozen more birds around Dailing, the most important being the rare Scaly-sided Merganser. Fortunately the many roads around Dailing enabled us to move in any direction, and we did. Compared to coniferous Genhe, where larch predominated, the forests here were mixed: pine, spruce, larch, and several varieties of deciduous trees. We also visited scattered patches of "original forests," as the Chinese call them. In addition, much agriculture flourished in the wide valley, and the fields were well-tended. As the elevation was about 2,000 feet, the weather was cool.

Fortunately, our only rain of the trip held off until the last afternoon and we made good use of the four full birding days allocated to this area. We got good looks at all the birds we'd hoped to see: Scaly-sided Merganser; Japanese Sparrowhawk; Rufous-tailed Robin; Long-tailed Rosefinch; Yellow-throated, Chestnut-eared, and Tristram's Buntings; Asian Stubtail; Pale and Gray-backed Thrushes; Gray's Warbler; Mandarin Duck; Band-bellied Crake; and others. (Our only "bad" look was at the Gray Grosbeak.) And in the parlance of birders everywhere, we had "dynamite" views of a Ural Owl, which was perhaps using some daylight to find extra food for the hungry gang at the nest. Nights are short (as most birders know) and the nestlings get very hungry.

Dailing was my favorite spot on the trip. I enjoy hot showers every day(even if hot water is available only between 7 and 9 p.m.). I like boreal forests and cool weather, hot soup and cold beer, a private room with a reasonably comfortable, long-enough bed, and the chance to see "new" birds. Dailing had them all!

All good things come to an end, so we returned first to Harbin by train and then by air to civilization in the huge modern capital of China. Our four-star hotel there had hot water all the time and a buffet breakfast that did not feature hard-boiled eggs (a pleasant change).

An extra day in Beijing allowed us to bird a little, sight-see a lot at the Ming Tombs, Forbidden City, and the Summer Palace, and shop for T-shirts to take home to the family. Some extra sleep came in handy to withstand the 20-plus-hour flight to the United States.

Birding in the west and north of China is not easy. Generally, birders are living away from the big cities and their modern hotels. Most days and drives are long, and the roads are fairly primitive; train rides during the night are satisfactory. If you require clean living accommodations and excellent food, you may not enjoy this trip; however, if you'd be happy with some spartan living and a basic menu, and if you can put up with sponge bathing instead of a daily shower, then by all means go. The rewards of exposure to a very different country and culture, plus some really exciting birds, are well worth the effort. As Ben King says, "This trip demands a sense of adventure. Given that, you'll have a grand time!"

[Editor's note: the late James Plyler was a plant manager in the oil industry.]