TEXT ONLY VERSION
The objective of this trip was to see the primary tourist sites of the country, using four different cities as bases – any birds would then be seen as a secondary consequence to this, with little or no time devoted to birding per se. I did prepare with a list of potential birds, but was also aware that some reports had indicated that less variation in species were encountered than would be expected for the land covered. This was certainly true in the city bases, although I would suggest that the numbers seen in suitable habitat were perhaps also on the low side (although this could also have been a function of the amount of time and focus which could have been attributed to the task).
The focal points visited were of no particular surprise, since they offered the wonderful mix of a new and fascinating country:
Timing and weather
This is one of the difficult arts to master when planning a trip to a country as large and diverse as China. The problem is that any one time of year will offer varying climates from the different weather zones. We chose May mainly for the best balance in the North – Beijing and Xi’an are freezing in Winter and oppressively hot and humid in the Summer. It isn’t actually the ideal time to visit Guilin, since the wet season is from April to June, although we only had one wet day there. Chengdu tends to be wet at any time of year, which is why the pandas are there in effect – they like wet and lush bamboo forest.
I have no doubt that many visitors to the country do so under their own steam, but China is one of those countries which makes it difficult for independent travel, due to language barriers, only recent opening up to the outside world, and a bar on hiring cars. The latter is a moot point, since the driving in China is chaotic, resulting in an every man for himself attitude. In addition, some English signs do exist, but possibly not enough to guarantee arriving at the given destination. Various companies offer both packages and tailor made tours – we chose a smallish company called China Direct (www.chinadirect-travel.co.uk), who I can unreservedly recommend. As opposed to another company who we contacted, they offered a tailor made holiday for just the two of us in the true sense of the phrase (including our own driver and guide at all locations), for a very reasonable cost.
Flights outside of the London hubs can be very convenient. We flew from Newcastle, which hosts both Emirates and KLM. The latter was chosen since it offered flights from Chengdu as well as Beijing. Internal flights were also the norm within the country, due to the large distances between points of interest. There seem to very various Chinese airlines to choose from, all with a more than adequate service. The booking of these was left to the agent, as was the train from Beijing to Xi’an. The soft sleeper, arranged in four beds to a compartment, is fairly modern and a different way to cross the miles.
The currency in China is the Renminbi, of which the Yuan is the main denomination. We had been told that the $US was widely accepted, and to take $US travellers cheques. In reality, the Yuan rules – I took a small amount with me, and this was the standard currency, with no $US seen in the two weeks we were there. We were told that not all hotels will change $US travellers cheques, so I relied on withdrawing Yuan from cash machines – this worked, but only on ones owned by the Bank of China.
The food we encountered was excellent, and so much more varied than the Chinese food from back home. The Chinese have a very much more liberal view of what can be eaten than in the West, and this is often reflected in the menus encountered. We found the restaurants with English subtext (and even pictures) helped sieve out the choice.
Electricity is interesting, since there are often several types of socket in hotels. The standard is similar to the US style two flat pin, but the adapter must have these angled, and a flat pin earth must be included to access the socket. In some hotels, there was also a UK style 3 pin socket included.
Almost four days were spent in the Beijing area, all bar one being within the city itself. The third day was spent on the Great Wall at Jinshanling, which is about two hours drive from our hotel. It offered the chance of some magnificent countryside, scenery, and smog free clean air. All that is said about Beijing in terms of the pollution haze that seems to envelope the city most of the time is indeed true. The roads choked with traffic and the sheer size of the place is indisputable. This also results in most of the city, and certainly the parts which we saw, being generally concrete and road.
Predictably, most of the time here was spent with our guide seeing the immense and imposing cultural sites such as The Summer Palace and Forbidden City, etc – all wonderful spectacles and profusely populated with copious tourists. Within the vicinity of our hotel, and only about 20 minutes walk away, was what appeared to be the hub of leisurely Beijing life, set around the three lakes of Beihei, Houhai, and Qianhai. The usual suspects of Tree Sparrow and Black-billed Magpie were found here (as well as throughout the metropolis). Treats during lunch next to Qianhai Lake were a small group of perched and fishing Black-crowned Night Herons, and a sole male Mandarin Duck swimming by (interesting to see one that wasn’t originally a cage bird – or main course!).
The palaces were easily the best locations to spot Azure-winged Magpies, with marauding bands in both the Temple of Heaven and the Summer Palace, as well as obvious Large-billed Crows around the buildings. In my limited experience of these “lusher” parts of Beijing, this more or less wrapped up the variety that was seen.
The trip to Jinshanling was a different kettle of fish. The haze from Beijing seemed to last most of the journey, which was a little worrying, since we were hoping for clear skies for the wall itself. With these fears unfounded, we boarded the cable car to elevate us to the wall itself, which was impressive both for the feat of building and the magnificent surroundings. A variety of species were singing tantalisingly from the fairly dense low tree cover which carpeted the whole of the surrounding hills. As in the city, Black-billed Magpies were the most obvious resident, and it was perturbing to hear the familiar call of the Common Pheasant in its natural surroundings. While walking the wall, some of the vocalisations revealed small numbers of Daurian Redstarts, and a separate brace of Godlewski’s Buntings. The washed out subspecies of grey Great Tits were almost ubiquitous, although one or two birds a little lower down towards the cable car entrance showed the yellow and green wash of the more northerly race. One treasure seen from the wall, and repeated on the cable car descent, was Red-billed Blue Magpie. Perhaps even more of a surprise was a Chinese Nuthatch perched at the top of one of the conifers at eye level from our carriage as we neared the station below. Among the copious Tree Sparrows around the restaurant in the village was a single Grey-capped Greenfinch, which added to the small groups seen from the wall. Final bird was a single singing Meadow Bunting next to the car park.
The two days in Xi’an were spent mostly within the city, the only break from this being the required excursion to see the terracotta army. The location of the hotel seemed to be some distance from any recognised parks (or in fact anything interesting!), leaving any birds seen titbits amongst the city bustle. As usual, Tree Sparrows were ubiquitous, but the odd Azure-winged Magpie was picked up. A visit to the Moslem Quarter was very interesting, due in part to the wonderful smells of cooking from the streetside vendors, and the architecture within the mosque, where a couple of Common Blackbirds were present. A pair of Pale-vented Bulbuls were perched on wires just outside of here. Small numbers of Swifts and Swallows were overhead, which included a single Red-rumped Swallow over the city wall. A second pair of Pale-vented Bulbuls were also seen from the city wall, and a Hoopoe flew across one of the small areas of grass within the wall.
The excursion to the terracotta army did offer a little more variety, since from the time of the finding of the army in 1974, not only have the shops, houses and other tourist additions been developed, but also a small adjoining area of vegetation has been planted. It is possible that walking through most of this isn’t allowed, but the short walk from the entrance to the pits unearthed a couple of local birds. While waiting for the electric transfer bus, a single White-cheeked Starling and a few Pale-vented Bulbuls were seen, with a couple of Grey-capped Greenfinches singing from the treetop perches.
With a population running into the hundreds of thousands rather than the millions, this city is very much smaller than the previous two city bases. This is very evident from the physically smaller area covered by the city, although it is still fairly large by UK standards. However, much of the area is still fairly well developed, while being softened by the surrounding limestone karst hills which even seep into the city boundaries. April to June is reputed to be the wet season for this semi tropical location, but we were fortunate in only being exposed to this for half a day (during the Li River cruise). Our hotel was situated next to one of Guilin’s lakes, which was surrounded by a line of trees. Pale-vented Bulbuls were the predominant bird throughout the city, with lesser numbers of Tree Sparrows, interspersed by the odd Oriental Magpie-robin and Oriental White-eye.
Much better habitat was served during the cruise down the Li River, and subsequent time within and around the town of Yangshuo, which was where the boat docked, as well as the hills to the North-west of the city, which we visited to see some of the minority people and dragon terraces. The former trip along the river was primarily to see the stunning karst scenery. Birds could occasionally be seen from the boat, but were generally difficult to make out. A trio of Black Kites overhead was easy, with a Eurasian Hobby a little harder. A Red-billed Blue Magpie looked soaked and forlorn while perched on wires next to the river. A Common Kingfisher flew into view and landed over the water as we passed its favoured fishing spot. We paid extra for a “golf buggy” trip through the farmland and villages a short ride from Yangshuo, where Crested Mynahs were occasional, and a single Plain Prinia called while walking the track next to the rice paddies.
The trip to the hills inhabited by the Yao people was as usual a tourist hotspot, but the ascent through the vendor stalls and traditional village does offer some open and impressive hilly vistas. Great Tits and Pale-vented Bulbuls were as usual the most common offering, although both Barn & Red-rumped Swallows were in good numbers overhead. However, new birds were found here – a handful of Russet Sparrows replaced Tree Sparrows within the village, and a pair of Collared Finchbills were together in a tree at the apex of the uphill walk, with a brace of Grey-capped Greenfinches close by. The earlier journey had many shrikes perched on wires over the paddyfields, but one found here was to clinch the identity of the South-eastern race of Long-tailed Shrike (showing grey head and upper back, and no white on the wing). Another Yao village was visited, about 20 minutes from the Dragon Terraces, which included an inviting river running through it, and an even more inviting Plumbeous Water Redstart beneath the footbridge over it. Within the village, a female Pied Wheatear may have been on migration, since these should be more of a northern bird at this time of year.
Much as with the other cities which we were now familiar, Chengdu is very large and a mass of buildings, roads and people, offering what seems to be very little green birding areas within. The main reason for the stop here was to visit the Giant Panda research base, but the three outings from here proved to offer potential for avian interest also. One night was spent at the Moonstar Hotel in Ya’an. The reason given was to minimise journey times between Ya’an, Chengdu, and Leshan. This did offer the opportunity of a short amount of time for birding around the hotel grounds. Following the large earthquake of 2008, the better known Panda base at Wolong was severely damaged, resulting in the remaining animals being shipped out to a new temporary home at Bifengxia base, near Ya’an. This may have been to our benefit, since the latter is a larger operation in terms of acreage, and may well be a lot quieter. In fact, the first Panda enclosure was accompanied by a calling Common Cuckoo in a tree nearby, which stuck to its task during our entire visit. Predictably, many of the birds were staying within the dense (and soaken) foliage, but a handful could be seen. In addition to the common Pale-vented Bulbuls and one or two Common Blackbirds, a small group of Masked Laughingthrushes were playing around in the canopy. One of the small manicured bushes next to some gift shops played host to a pair of Ashy-throated Parrotbills.
The only time devoted to pure birding was less than an hour amongst the few trees and allotments surrounding the Moonstar Hotel, which is situated on a hill overlooking Ya’an. Great Tits were as usual very common here, but a single Asian Brown Flycatcher was assumed to be on migration to its more northerly breeding grounds. Another group of Ashy-throated Parrotbills were busily working their way amongst the bushes of the allotments, where an Asian Barred Owlet flew from the ground to take up residence in another of the bushes. Above was a characteristically noisy Plain Flowerpecker. The most common bird at the location proved to be the white headed variant of Black Bulbul.
The following day was spent at the Giant Buddha of Leshan. A stop on the way to here at a tea plantation and shop, just on the outskirts of the city, actually proved more fruitful for birds than the Buddha site itself (which did turn up a Collared Finchbill on the descent to the waiting car). The bank above the tea shop, which held some tea terraces, was climbed, and it was here that a couple of White-browed Laughingthrushes were picked out, in addition to the local race of White Wagtail. An unknown woodpecker flew past and into the small copse, but it couldn’t be relocated.
The last day
was spent at Mount Qingcheng, which is a
wooded location noted for its forest trails and Taoist temples. This was yet
another popular location for the Chinese tourists. The cable car here was out
of action, which was an undoubted benefit, since much more could then be seen
on the climb up the many steps. The first of a handful of seen and calling Grey-headed
Canary Flycatchers were located over the shops at the base of the climb, but a
much better catch was a Drongo Cuckoo which landed fairly briefly next to the
steps. A busy little group of Dark-throated Yuhinas was totally unaware of out
presence as they mobbed a lone bush right next to the path. Singles of Collared
Finchbill and white headed Black Bulbul, were in clearings at different
elevations of the walk. Having become so used to washed out Great Tits
throughout the trip, it was a pleasant surprise to see a Green-backed Tit with
food for a nearby brood as we were nearing the end of the walk. Last good birds
of the trip were a little unexpected. The restaurant we used after the Mountain
walk was at the base of the climb, and the garden played host to a noisy group
of Black-throated Bushtits.