The Ultimate In Birding Tours

Asia

TIBETAN PLATEAU – the Ultimate Endemics itinerary, including Sillem’s Mountain Finch

Sunday 11th June – Sunday 2nd July 2023

Leaders: Julien Mazenauer and a skilled local bird guide

22 Days Group Size Limit 8

TIBETAN PLATEAU: OVERVIEW

Birdquest’s Tibetan Plateau birding tours are a real adventure as we travel across the Tibetan Plateau, known as ‘The Roof of the World’, in both Qinghai and Xizang Provinces. The Tibetan Plateau is divided between several Chinese provinces and Xizang, pronounced ‘Sheezang’, is the formerly independent Tibet while Qinghai, pronounced ‘Chinghigh’, was long a part of China. Our ultimate Tibetan Plateau birding tour provides the most comprehensive coverage of the many Tibetan Plateau and Tarim Basin endemics, including the fabled Sillem’s Mountain Finch, not to mention numerous other regional specialities.

A vast high tableland, out of which rise great mountain ranges, the Tibetan Plateau is truly the ‘Roof of the World’. Here there are towns, villages and grazing lands at heights greater than those of the summits of the Alps! Defended since the dawn of human civilization by the great wall of the Himalayas to the south and by lower but still lofty ranges to the west, east and north, the Tibetan Plateau for long escaped the tides of history.

Independent for much of the last two thousand years, the modern political entity known as Tibet (which excludes the northeastern part of the plateau, called Qinghai by the Chinese, which has been under rule by China for around 300 years) was incorporated into China in 1951 and now faces an uncertain future as Han Chinese immigrants flood in, altering the ethnic balance year by year. The Tibetans are a resilient people, however, and even today their unique culture is still strong, resisting assimilation. Buddhist monasteries reopened after the Maoist ‘Cultural Revolution’, when many were completely destroyed by the nihilistic Red Guards, and prayer flags once more flutter in the breeze around villages, nomad encampments and mountain passes.

For the birdwatcher, as for the traveller, Tibet’s appeal lies in the sheer inaccessibility of its marvels. Closed to outsiders for many centuries, it is only in recent times that Lhasa and much of the Tibetan Plateau has been opened to visitors. During this great adventure, we will explore areas only rarely visited by western ornithologists and we have an excellent chance of finding all of the Tibetan Plateau’s endemic birds, including the biggest attraction of all, the strange Przevalski’s or Pink-tailed Finch, the sole member of the family Urocynchramidae. You simply have to visit the Tibetan Plateau these days if you are wanting to see all the world’s bird families.

Late spring and early summer (and summer only comes very late to the Tibetan plateau, in late June) is a superb time to go birding in this region, as the weather is at its mildest, breeding birds are in full song, wildflowers are at their peak and the grasslands are a dazzling shade of green, contrasting with the icy summits of the highest mountain ranges. Indeed the incredible mountain and high plateau scenery on this journey is probably the most outstanding of any Birdquest tour!

We shall tread in the footsteps of such early investigators of the Tibetan Plateau’s avifauna as Przevalski, Kozlov and Roborovski. These Russian explorers penetrated far across the plateau during expeditions sponsored by the czars, expeditions which had valid scientific purposes but which were doubtless also part of the ‘Great Game’ played out between the Russian and British Empires north of the borders of India during the nineteenth century.

Nowadays, while still a real adventure, huge improvements in the infrastructure, both roads and accommodations, mean that a visit to the Tibetan Plateau is no longer as difficult as it once was, so one can bird on ‘The Roof of the World’ without having to put up with nearly so much in the way of discomfort, although it is still a place that is much more demanding than the average bird tour destination. This is a unique journey, so if you have always yearned to see the extraordinary scenery of the Tibetan Plateau and its special birds then this is truly a tour not to be missed.

Our comprehensive Tibetan Plateau birding tour itinerary focuses on the endemic birds and other regional specialities of the Tibetan Plateau and the adjacent Tarim Basin.

We shall begin our tour at Xining, the capital of Qinghai province, from where we will visit several localities in the surrounding region in search of such specialities as Gansu Leaf Warbler, Crested Tit-Warbler, Chinese and Przevalski’s Nuthatches, and Pale Rosefinch.

From the Xining region, we climb up onto the Tibetan Plateau itself. First, we explore the dry steppe country and eroded hills in search of Tibetan and Mongolian Larks, the strange Ground Tit (or Groundpecker), Rufous-necked, White-rumped, Père David’s (or Small) and Tibetan (or Adams’s) Snowfinches, and Mongolian Finch.

We will also explore the margins of the famous Koko Nor, one of the largest lakes in Asia, and an important breeding area for the endangered Black-necked Crane, Bar-headed Geese, Pallas’s and Brown-headed Gulls, and other waterbirds.

Next, we explore the dry country around the Chaka salt lake and the rugged mountains that surround it, home to a superb selection of specialities including Przevalski’s (or Rusty-necklaced) and Daurian Partridges, Pallas’s Sandgrouse, Przevalski’s (or Ala Shan) Redstart, Smoky Warbler, Henderson’s Ground Jay, Blanford’s (or Plain-backed) Snowfinch and in particular the enigmatic Przevalski’s (or Pink-tailed) Finch, which is now treated as a monotypic bird family.

From the north of Qinghai, our Tibet & Tibetan Plateau birding tour heads for the far southeast, enjoying a feast of scenery en route. At high passes we will watch Güldenstädt’s (or White-winged) Redstart, (Prince) Henri’s Snowfinch and Brandt’s Mountain Finch at the roadside amongst some truly awesome scenery, while at lower altitudes the steppes in this area still hold numerous Upland Buzzards and good numbers of Saker Falcons.

Still further to the south, two more of Asia’s greatest rivers, the Yangtze and the Mekong, flow within 100 kilometres of each other through deep, arid gorges. On the spectacular mountain slopes and in the juniper and spruce forests we will look for two of Asia’s least-known birds, Tibetan (or Kozlov’s) Babax and Tibetan (or Kozlov’s) Bunting, as well as other specialities such as Szechenyi’s Monal (or Buff-throated) Partridge, Tibetan Partridge, Tibetan Snowcock, White Eared Pheasant, Giant Laughingthrush, Chinese Fulvetta, Sichuan and White-browed Tits, and Red-fronted (or Red-breasted) Rosefinch.

From the southeast of Qinghai, we strike off northwestwards through some of the wildest parts of the Tibetan Plateau, at the edge of the huge Chang Tang plains, crossing the vast Kekexili Nature Reserve on our way to the wild and little-known Kunlun Mountains.

Here, we will be visiting the area where during 2014 and 2018 we became the first (and still the only) bird tour company to see the near-mythical Sillem’s Mountain Finch! This is also a great area for seeing the sought-after Tibetan Sandgrouse, and mercifully on flat plains without any need to climb a mountain!

The Chang Tang and Kunlun will surely be the best part of the tour for mammals, with Kiang (Tibetan Wild Ass), Tibetan Gazelle and even Tibetan Antelopes (Chiru) being positively common. There are even high chances for Grey Wolf and Wild Yak. We have even seen the wonderful Pallas’s Cat in this magnificent area!

From the Kunlun we make our way westwards across the Qaidam (or Zaidam) Depression, a huge tongue of desert country extending deep into the Tibetan Plateau. Beyond this fascinating landscape, we briefly leave the plateau behind, dropping down through the Altun Shan, where Great Rosefinches are common, to the edge of the Tarim Basin in search of the endemic Biddulph’s Ground Jay and the distinctive endemic Tarim Babbler, as well as White-winged Woodpecker, Desert Whitethroat and Saxaul Sparrow.

Finally, after crossing the Tibetan Plateau by train, we visit the famous city of Lhasa and its surroundings. The long-forbidden city of Lhasa is dominated by the immense Potala Palace. As well as visiting this greatest of all monuments to Tibetan Buddhism, we will also explore the more atmospheric Jokhang Temple, which is a magnet for pilgrims from all over the Tibetan Plateau and beyond.

The Lhasa region is home to some special Tibetan Plateau endemics. Here we will explore a valley in the mountains where the scrub and meadows hold Giant Babax, Brown-cheeked (or Prince Henri’s) Laughingthrush, Tibetan Blackbird and the beautiful Tibetan Eared Pheasant. We will also visit an area of woodland that hosts a population of the beautiful Lord Derby’s Parakeet.

What a truly great birding adventure this is!

Birdquest pioneered Tibet and Tibetan Plateau birding tours as far back as 1984.

Accommodation & Road Transport: The hotels are mostly of good or medium standard, but there are some nights in fairly simple hotels (although all rooms have private bathrooms). There will be three nights in basic accommodation at ‘Wild Yak Valley’. Road transport will be by minibus/passenger van (and occasionally in 4×4 vehicles). Nowadays many roads in the region are good, or at least of reasonable quality, but we still have to use rough dirt roads in some places.

Walking: The walking effort during our Tibetan Plateau birding tour is mostly easy or moderate (most of the walking would qualify as easy if it were at low altitude). The vast majority of the Tibetan Plateau endemics can be seen without major physical effort, but a few, including Sillem’s Mountain Finch, require optional more demanding hikes.

Climate: Rather variable. Temperatures range from warm (sometimes even hot in the middle of the day in the southeast of the Tibetan Plateau and in the Tarim Basin) to cool or sometimes cold. At this season there is a mixture of dry and sunny weather interspersed with overcast conditions and rain, hail or snow showers.

Bird Photography: Opportunities during our Tibetan Plateau birding tour are very good.

TOUR HIGHLIGHTS

  • Travelling across the highest landmass on the surface of our planet, and taking in its unparalled majesty!
  • Birding around the once-forbidden city of Lhasa!
  • Watching noisy Przevalski's Nuthatches, Crested Tit-Warblers and Gansu Leaf Warblers in the coniferous forest at Dongxia, the last time we will be this low for some time
  • Climbing up onto the Tibetan Plateau for the first time and seeing the vast blue expanse of the famous Koko Nor, one of the largest lakes in Asia
  • That feeling of relief and 'job well done' when we find the beautiful Tibetan-endemic Przevalski's Finch, sole member of its family
  • All those snowfinches, some co-habitting with scampering pikas. No fewer than six species!
  • The wonderfully strange, bounding Ground Tit (or Groundpecker). A monotypic bird family to come?
  • Our first Black-necked Cranes feeding quietly beside the Koko Nor
  • Getting to grips with Przevalski's Partridges and lovely Pzevalski's Redstarts in the hills, and Pallas's Sandgrouse and Henderson's Ground Jays in the plains
  • The ever-wilder and more spectacular scenery as we penetrate further onto the Tibetan Plateau
  • Drinking special tea, with dried fruits and a big lump of crystalline sugar, in a tiny Hui-muslim restaurant a million miles from nowhere
  • Finding the mega-spectacular White Eared Pheasant, beautiful Blood Pheasants and noisy Szechenyi’s Monal-Partridges in Southeast Qinghai
  • Watching handsome Ibisbills along a rushing mountain river
  • Finding noisy Tibetan (or Kozlov's) Babaxes in a dramatic gorge and watching Tibetan Buntings in the high mountains
  • Tracking down Tibetan Sandgrouse near the dramatic Kunlun Range, with no need to hike up a mountain in order to see one!
  • Enjoying smart Tibetan (or Roborovski's) Rosefinches feeding quietly within a few metres!
  • Watching Kiang (Tibetan Wild Ass), Wild Yak, Tibetan Fox and Chiru (Tibetan Antelope) in the wilderness, while hoping for a Pallas's Cat!
  • Encountering the fabled Sillem's Mountain Finch, lost fror so many years, amidst extraordinary mountainscapes.
  • The amazing contrast, after the High Tibetan Plateau, of crossing the Zaidam Depression and reaching the edge of the Tarim Basin
  • Watching Biddulph's Ground Jays at the roadside and skulking Tarim Babblers
  • Taking the train to Lhasa! Whoever would have imagined that?
  • That first view of the Potala Palace rising above the city, and visiting its dim, mysterious (yes, even now) interior
  • Seeing the devotion in the faces of the pilgrims at the Jokhang Temple
  • Close encounters with Tibetan Eared Pheasants and Tibetan Snowcocks near Lhasa
  • Not to mention the noisy Brown-cheeked (or Prince Henri's) Laughingthrushes and aptly-named Giant Babaxes

OUTLINE ITINERARY

  • Day 1: Late afternoon tour start at Xining airport, Qinghai.
  • Day 2: Dongxia Forest. Overnight at Xining.
  • Day 3: Xining area, then drive via Koko Nur (Qinghai Hu) to Chaka.
  • Days 4-5: Exploring the Chaka region.
  • Day 6: Chaka area, then drive to Gonghe.
  • Day 7: Drive to Maduo.
  • Day 8: Drive via Yushu to Nangqian.
  • Days 9-10: Exploring the Nangqian area.
  • Day 11: Drive to Quamarleb (or Qumarlai).
  • Day 12: Drive via Kekexili Nature Reserve to Budongquan.
  • Day 13: Budongquan area, then drive to Yeniugou (Wild Yak Valley).
  • Days 14-15: Exploring Yeniugou (Wild Yak Valley) region.
  • Day 16: Descend the Kunlun to Golmud.
  • Day 17: Drive across Zaidam Depression to Ruoqiang.
  • Day 18: Tarim Basin in Ruoqiang region.
  • Day 19: Return to Golmud and board sleeping car train bound for Lhasa in Xizang.
  • Day 20: Early afternoon arrival at Lhasa. Visit Potala Palace and Jokhang Temple.
  • Day 21: Lhasa area.
  • Day 22: Morning tour end at Lhasa airport.

To see a larger map, click on the square-like ‘enlarge’ icon in the upper right of the map box.

To see (or hide) the ‘map legend’, click on the icon with an arrow in the upper left of the map box.

To change to a satellite view, which is great for seeing the physical terrain (and for seeing really fine details by repetitive use of the + button), click on the square ‘map view’ icon in the lower left corner of the ‘map legend’.

PRICE INFORMATION

Birdquest Inclusions: Our tour prices include surface transportation, accommodations, meals and entrance fees.

We also include all tipping for local guides, drivers and accommodation/restaurant staff.

Deposit: 20% of the total tour price. Our office will let you know what deposit amount is due, in order to confirm your booking, following receipt of your online booking form.

TO BOOK THIS TOUR: Click here (you will need the tour dates)





2023: provisional

Single Supplement: 2023:

The single supplement will not apply if you indicate on booking that you prefer to share a room and there is a room-mate of the same sex available.

The single room supplement excludes the night on the train.

This tour is priced in US Dollars. Amounts shown in other currencies are indicative.

Air Travel To & From The Tour: Our in-house IATA ticket agency will be pleased to arrange your air travel on request, or you may arrange this yourself if you prefer.

TIBETAN PLATEAU BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY

Tibetan Plateau: Day 1  Our tour begins late this afternoon at the airport in Xining, where we will stay for two nights. A transfer from the airport to our hotel will be provided.

(There are daily flights into Xining from Chengdu, Beijing and other Chinese gateway cities. We can easily book domestic flights for you on request, even if you are not obtaining your international tickets through us.)

Xining is the capital of Qinghai province and lies at about 2500m in a river valley that cuts into the northeastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau. Qinghai, which occupies the northeastern part of the Tibetan Plateau, is a province that has been under Chinese rule for hundreds of years, although largely occupied by people of Tibetan or Mongol ethnicity.

Tibetan Plateau: Day 2  Today we will explore Dongxia Forest. Our main reason for coming here is to look for some superb Chinese endemics and other restricted-range specialities, including Gansu Leaf Warbler, the delightful little Crested Tit-Warbler, Elliot’s Laughingthrush, Chinese Nuthatch, Przevalski’s Nuthatch, Chinese White-browed Rosefinch and the interesting albocoeruleus form of the Red-flanked Bluetail (which may merit specific status). We have a good chance of seeing all of these special birds today, while other interesting birds include Hill Pigeon, Salim Ali’s Swift, White-bellied Redstart, Chestnut Thrush, Spotted Bush Warbler, Chinese Leaf Warbler and Grey-headed Bullfinch.

More widespread species we may well encounter include Eurasian Hobby, Common (or Ring-necked) Pheasant (here in its natural home), Common Cuckoo, Black Woodpecker, Oriental Skylark, Asian House Martin, Olive-backed Pipit, Amur Wagtail, Rufous-breasted Accentor, Siberian Rubythroat, the superb White-throated Redstart, Hodgson’s Redstart, Siberian Stonechat, Greenish, Hume’s Leaf, Large-billed Leaf and Yellow-streaked Warblers, Goldcrest, Slaty-backed Flycatcher, Rufous-vented Tit, Japanese Tit, Grey-backed Shrike, (Asian) Azure-winged and Eurasian Magpies, Red-billed Chough, Large-billed Crow, Carrion Crow, Rook (the eastern form lacks extensive bare skin on the face and is sometimes split as Oriental Rook), Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Grey-capped Greenfinch and Common Rosefinch.

Tibetan Plateau: Day 3  The steep, dry, eroded mountainsides that rise high above the Xining valley offer dramatic views over the city and hold an isolated population of Pale Rosefinch (now treated as an endemic Central Asian species distinct from Sinai Rosefinch), our prime target here. Other typical species of this arid environment include Pied Wheatear, Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush, Père David’s (or Plain) Laughingthrush, and Godlewski’s and Meadow Buntings.

After exploring this interesting habitat we will head westwards to Chaka for a three nights stay.

From the valley of the Xining River, we climb steadily upwards through cultivated valleys hemmed in by increasingly stark and arid hills. Gradually we emerge onto the northeastern rim of the Tibetan Plateau. Much of the landscape in this area is vast dry grassy plains with a magnificent backdrop of distant mountains, but in places, the road winds its way through dry, rolling hills cut by deep gullies or crosses lower areas where barley can still be grown.

These habitats hold Black Kite, Little Owl, Common Swift, the spectacular Mongolian Lark, the huge Tibetan (or Long-billed Calandra) Lark, Horned and Hume’s Short-toed Larks, Richard’s Pipit, Isabelline Wheatear, Rufous-necked, White-rumped and Tibetan (or Adams’s) Snowfinches, and Twite. Père David’s (or Small) Snowfinch favours the sandier stretches of steppe dotted with bunchgrass.

Best of all are the delightful little Groundpeckers (or Ground Tits) that bound across the steppe-like some kind of bizarre wheatear, stopping every so often to peck furiously at the ground. These fascinating birds are currently thought to be an aberrant tit, although previously it was thought to be an aberrant corvid and called Hume’s Ground Jay, so monotypic family status may prove a better solution.

We will make a few stops at the famous Koko Nor (or Qinghai Hu). The vast Koko Nor, one of the largest lakes in Asia, is a classic locality that appears time after time in the annals of the early ornithological exploration of the Tibetan Plateau. The lake is situated at only 3200m (low by Tibetan Plateau standards) and is surrounded by green and brown hills and snow-spattered mountains that contrast with the deep blue waters of the lake and the pale blue sky.

A number of marshy areas fringe Koko Nor, which is known for its breeding colonies of Bar-headed Geese and Pallas’s and Brown-headed Gulls. We will also see the rare and endangered Black-necked Crane here, while more widespread species we are likely to encounter include Black-necked and Great Crested Grebes, Great Cormorant, Grey Heron, Greylag Goose, Ruddy Shelduck, Mallard, Northern Shoveler, Ferruginous and Tufted Ducks, Red-crested and Common Pochards, Common Goldeneye, Common (or Eurasian) Coot, Lesser Sand Plover, Kentish Plover, Northern Lapwing, Wood Sandpiper, Common Redshank, Eastern Black-tailed Godwit, Eurasian Curlew and Common Tern (of the very dark race tibetana). Chinese Spot-billed Duck is also a possibility.

Tibetan Plateau: Days 4-5  A large salt lake, now almost dried out, occupies the bottom of the Chaka depression, which is ringed by high, arid mountains. Here in this semidesert environment, we should find Pallas’s Sandgrouse, the localized Henderson’s Ground Jay, Desert Wheatear and Isabelline Shrike. We will also have our first opportunity for Blanford’s (or Plain-backed) Snowfinch.

In contrast, the grassy and scrub-covered mountainsides hold Przevalski’s (or Rusty-necklaced) Partridge (a species endemic to the northeastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau), Daurian Partridge, the localized Przevalski’s (or Ala Shan) Redstart (also endemic to this region of China), the weigoldi form of the Smoky Warbler, which was previously treated as a race of the Dusky Warbler, the impressive Chinese Grey Shrike (the local form giganteus sometimes being split as Tibetan Grey Shrike) and Pine Bunting. There is even a chance for Himalayan Snowcock. Even more important for visiting birders is the enigmatic Przevalski’s (or Pink-tailed) Finch, which, after being treated as both a finch and a bunting owing to its intermediate characters, is now regarded as a monotypic family! At this time of year, the finches are making their spectacular undulating display flights over the scrubby slopes.

Tibetan Plateau: Day 6  After some final birding in the Chaka area if need be we will travel a relatively short distance southeastwards to Gonghe for an overnight stay.

Around Gonghe we will look for Asian Short-toed Lark, Crested Lark, Pale Martin, Citrine Wagtail, Rock Petronia, Mongolian Finch and Black-faced Bunting.

Tibetan Plateau: Day 7  From Gonghe we set out early and head south to Maduo (or Madoi), where we will stay overnight.

The journey is a spectacular mix of high plains, dramatic mountains, wetlands and gorges. During the first part of the journey, provided it is clear, we may see, far to the southeast, the great peak of Amne Machin (6282m), once thought to be the highest mountain in the world. Soon afterwards the highway winds up over the spectacular Er La pass, 4499m (14,761ft), where the road is surrounded by snow-capped peaks that stretch away toward the distant horizon.

Birds are sparse in this deeply inhospitable terrain but very special! Here, or at the other high passes and mountainsides we will visit during our travels, we will encounter the striking Güldenstädt’s (or White-winged) Redstart, Tibetan (or Prince Henri’s) Snowfinch and Plain and Brandt’s Mountain Finches, all of which seem to be able to eke out a meagre living from the stony slopes.

Further south we travel across almost endless expanses of grassland that is only occasionally punctuated by a mountain range. This dramatic piece of country is home to many raptors and also Northern (or Common) Ravens of the large Tibetan form. As well as many Upland Buzzards, we can expect to see Himalayan Vulture and the splendid Saker Falcon. The grassy steppes are home to large numbers of Black-lipped Pikas, the staple diet of both Upland Buzzard and Saker Falcon. The burrows of these ‘mouse hares’ pepper the flatter areas and provide nest holes for snowfinches and other birds.

Tibetan Plateau: Day 8  We will continue southwards on our way to Yushu and ultimately Nangqian, where we will stay for three nights.

During the first part of our journey, we will pass over the first bridge over the Huang He or Yellow River. At this point the river is under 100m wide and gives little indication that it will, as it gathers its tributaries, soon become a gigantic force that has frequently reshaped the landscape of northeastern China whilst on its long march to the Yellow Sea, shifting its course by as much as 200 kilometres (120 miles) to the north as the result of just one stupendous flood in 1852! The marshes around the headwaters of the Huang He are important breeding grounds for the Black-necked Crane and also for Bar-headed Geese.

We should also see our first Kiangs or Tibetan Wild Asses and Tibetan Gazelles, and probably also the flat-faced Tibetan Fox. There is even a fair chance of Grey Wolf in this wild landscape. Numerous yaks graze on the thin grasses of these high-altitude steppes, watched over by swarthy-looking Tibetans on tough little ponies (or, increasingly, motorbikes) and sometimes accompanied by huge mastiffs with spiked collars. In spite of the difficulties of living in such a remote place, the people are extremely friendly. The ruddy-faced Tibetan women, sometimes still exhibiting with traditional silver ornaments bound into their hair, look to be every bit as adapted to this harsh environment as their menfolk.

Eventually, we leave the high plains behind and descend a valley that leads to the deep gorge of the Chang Jiang or Yangtze River. The scenery today is endlessly changing and endlessly dramatic, with one beautiful vista following another! Soon after crossing the river, already impressively large, we will reach the city of Yushu.

From Yushu, we will continue to Nangqian. We are now in the ‘gorge country’ of extreme southeastern Qinghai, a unique area where the increased rainfall allows scrub to flourish on the south-facing slopes and even quite mature areas of forest survive in sheltered valleys. The scenery seems almost ‘alpine’ after the Central Asian feel of the high plateau. Along the river valleys, the gravel spreads and flooded meadows provide ideal habitat for Ibisbills and we can expect to see some of these curious birds during our journey. We will also make stops in good areas for the chunky Great and Red-fronted (or Red-breasted) Rosefinches.

Tibetan Plateau: Days 9-10  Nangqian is a town situated on the upper Mekong, which here runs from northwest to southeast through a deep, rather arid but dramatically beautiful gorge partly clothed in scrub. Some extensive areas of juniper and fir forest can be found in the more sheltered side valleys. Through a remarkable trick of geology three of the greatest rivers in Asia virtually coincide at this point – only about 100 kilometres to the northeast is the Yangtze, on its way to the China Sea, whilst some 150 kilometres away to the southwest is the Salween, en route to the Andaman Sea.

This fascinating area of gorges, dramatic alpine peaks, Tibetan scrub, and juniper and spruce forests holds special interest for birdwatchers due to the presence of three very special eastern Tibetan Plateau endemics; Szechenyi’s Monal (or Buff-throated) Partridge, Tibetan (or Kozlov’s) Babax and Tibetan (or Kozlov’s) Bunting. The last of these being known only from the dry valleys of the Mekong and Yangtze in Qinghai and adjacent Chamdo in Xizang (Tibet proper).

As well as these three mega-specialities, other great birds in the area include Tibetan Snowcock, Tibetan Partridge, the impressive White Eared Pheasant, Blood Pheasant, Snow Pigeon, Robin and Brown Accentors, Sichuan Leaf Warbler, Alpine Leaf Warbler, the superb little lilac-tinged White-browed (or Severtzov’s) Tit-Warbler, the gorgeous White-tailed Rubythroat, Kessler’s Thrush, Giant Laughingthrush, Chinese Fulvetta, Sichuan Tit, White-browed Tit, Pink-rumped (or Stresemann’s) and Streaked Rosefinches, and the superb Three-banded Rosefinch.

Other likely birds in the Nangqian region include impressive Lammergeier, Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Golden Eagle, Eurasian Hoopoe, Grey-headed (or Grey-faced) Woodpecker, Eurasian Crag Martin, Red-rumped Swallow, Rosy Pipit, Himalayan Red-flanked Bluetail, Blue-fronted Redstart, the lovely White-capped Redstart, Grey-crested Tit, Hodgson’s Treecreeper, the marvellous Wallcreeper, White-throated Dipper, Alpine Chough, Daurian Jackdaw, White-winged Grosbeak and Himalayan Beautiful Rosefinch.

With luck, we will also encounter one or two of the more uncommon specialities of the area, which include Maroon-backed Accentor, Black-streaked Scimitar Babbler and Tibetan Serin.

Tibetan Plateau: Day 11  Today we will head off into new and dramatic landscapes as we travel northwards through gorges and over mountain passes on our way to the remote town of Qumarleb (also known as Qumalai) for an overnight stay. Luckily for us it has a surprisingly comfortable hotel.

We will surely encounter some impressive Great Rosefinches today during a number of roadside birding stops, as well as many other Tibetan Plateau species.

Tibetan Plateau: Day 12  We continue northwestwards, if anything into even wilder country than the day before en-route to the remote settlement of Budongquan for an overnight stay.

We will be crossing the immense Kekexili Nature Reserve, a truly wonderful area for wild mammals. If anyone ever tells you that the Chinese have killed everything off, well they would have to ‘eat their hat’ if they saw Kekexili!

Here we can expect to see large numbers of Kiangs and Tibetan Gazelles, and as we approach the remote hamlet of Budongquan, where we will overnight, good numbers of the rare and endangered rare Tibetan Antelope or Chiru, much-persecuted for its splendid horns and soft hide. There is another chance of Grey Wolf in this wild area and a very good chance of encountering White-lipped (or Thorold’s) Deer. The broad-faced Tibetan Fox is positively common. There is even a fair chance for Wild Yak and a low but real chance for Pallas’s Cat. Marshy areas hold Black-necked Cranes, Tibetan Larks and many other birds.

Tibetan Plateau: Day 13  We have yet more dramatic scenery to look forward to this morning as we admire the awesome snow- and ice-clad peak of Yuzhu Feng (6178m, 20,269ft), one of the highest peaks of the Kunlun range.

After we cross the Kunlun pass we enter the dramatic Yeniugou (‘Wild Yak Valley’) where we will stay for three nights (or possibly only two) in its upper reaches.

We will have time for some birding and mammal stops along the way, with excellent chances for Tibetan Sandgrouse and other species mentioned for the next two days.

Tibetan Plateau: Days 14-15  We have some truly dramatic scenery to look forward to as we search for the fabled Sillem’s Mountain Finch in its remote fastness. The Kunlun mountains are extraordinarily scenic, with the highest peaks in the region rising to well over 5000m (16,400ft).

Our reason for exploring this remote location is quite simple: the chance to be amongst the first birders to see the almost unknown Sillem’s Mountain Finch, Carpodacus sillemi, a species that was overlooked when the first specimens were collected by a Dutch expedition that visited the area north of the Karakorum Range in the first part of the 20th century (they were misidentified as Brandt’s Mountain Finch, Leucosticte brandti, until C. S. Roselaar worked out that they represented a new species for science, either a new Leucosticte or perhaps even a new Koslowia. After that nothing, until 2012 when Yann Muzika rediscovered the species by chance while on a trekking expedition in southwestern Qinghai in 2012! (More recently, Sillem’s Mountain Finch has been reallocated to the ‘rosefinch’ genus Carpodacus.)

The area where Yann rediscovered the species is decidedly remote, and he again found the species present in 2013. We relocated it in the same area during our pioneering expedition of June 2014.

Almost equally exciting, the poorly-known Tibetan (or Roborovski’s) Rosefinch is positively common in this high altitude habitat in the Kunlun and at this time of year we are likely to find the deep-pink males and sandy-grey females feeding their young.

Tibetan Sandgrouse (the least known member of its family) is straightforward to find in this area and requires no uphill hike in order to do so!

Many other Tibetan Plateau speciality birds are present in the area, although we will most likely have seen all of these earlier in our travels.

Mammals are absolutely fantastic in this area, most unusually for Asia. We should encounter Kiangs (or Tibetan Wild Asses) and Tibetan Gazelles, and also the rare Tibetan Antelope or Chiru, much-persecuted for its splendid horns and ultra-soft wool (this species has only recently recolonized the ‘Sillem’s area’). Wild Yak is another star attraction (we have a very high chance of seeing some here). There is even a chance (albeit low) of both Brown Bear and Pallas’s Cat, both of which were seen during our 2014 expedition! Marmots and pikas round out a panoply of great critters.

Tibetan Plateau: Day 16  After some final birding in the Kunlun range we will descend to Golmud for an overnight stay. Golmud is a small city at the southern edge of the vast, arid Qaidam (or Zaidam) Depression in northern Qinghai province. The Qaidam is considered part of the Tibetan Plateau, but is its lowest region.

Tibetan Plateau: Day 17  We set out early and head westwards today on good, fast roads across the vast, sandy Qaidam (or Zaidam) Depression that is scooped out of the northern flank of the Tibetan Plateau. Henderson’s Ground Jays are quite common in the Zaidam and can sometimes be seen running across the road.

After a time we reach the dramatic Altun mountains. Here, the Margelanic Whitethroat (sometimes treated as a full species but usually considered a subspecies of Desert Whitethroat) is common, as is Great Rosefinch.

Our final destination is the town of Ruoqiang, situated at the edge of the Tarim Basin, where we will spend two nights. Ruoqiang is a small town in an autonomous Mongol district, inhabited by both people of Mongol descent and Han Chinese.

Tibetan Plateau: Day 18  Today we will explore the southeastern edge of the Tarim Basin. This region was the focus of a number of Russian and British attempts to win the favours of the local rulers during the period of the ‘Great Game’. One of the members of the ‘British Yarkand Expedition’ was George Henderson, of ground jay fame, and his exploits are recorded in the book ‘Lahore to Yarkand’ by Henderson and Hume.

Here we will find Biddulph’s Ground Jay, a species endemic to the Tarim Basin and also the endemic Tarim Babbler (or Tarim Bush-dweller), finally recognized to be a sylviine babbler rather than a warbler and now treated as a distinct species rather than a subspecies of the very-different-looking and sounding Beijing Babbler (or Chinese Bush-dweller).

Other interesting birds found in the area include Long-legged Buzzard, the restricted-range White-winged Woodpecker, Desert Whitethroat, the restricted-range Saxaul Sparrow and Desert Finch.

Tibetan Plateau: Day 19  We head back across the Zaidam to the city of Golmud, stopping for some birding along the way. At Golmud railway station we will board our overnight sleeping car train bound for Lhasa.

Tibetan Plateau: Day 20  After passing through the Kunlun range (in the dark), we will head south across the wild Chang Tang plains, one of the highest sections of the Tibetan Plateau, until we cross the spectacular Tanggula Shan range by way of a series of embankments, viaducts and tunnels, and enter Xizang, or Tibet proper, on our way south to Lhasa for a two nights stay. This will be a very scenic adventure on one of the true engineering wonders of the world. We will arrive in Lhasa by early afternoon.

Since the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1951 and the eventual flight of the Dalai Lama after the failure of the 1959 uprising, Lhasa, the once-forbidden city, has changed greatly. The former purely Tibetan character of the city has been overwhelmed by rather ugly Chinese residential quarters, shopping precincts and industrial developments, but, in spite of all this, the sight of the huge Potala Palace soaring into the sky on the top of the Marpori (or Red Mountain) as one approaches this historic city is still one of the greatest travel experiences in the world.

This afternoon there will be an opportunity to visit the famous Potala Palace. The interlinked ‘white’ and ‘red’ palaces tower 13 storeys high and completely dominate the city below. This truly enormous structure, built between 1645 and 1694, contains over 1000 rooms, including numerous chapels, shrines, assembly halls and mausoleums, and is undoubtedly one of the world’s most extraordinary and moving buildings. The panoramic view from the roof across Lhasa to the mountains beyond is alone worth the visit.

Those who want to see more of Tibetan Buddhist culture can also pay a visit to the famous Jokhang Temple. Founded in 650 AD by Songtsen Gampo, one of Tibet’s greatest monarchs, the Jokhang is the religious centre of Tibet and a magnet for pilgrims from all over the country. Throughout the day a colourful throng circumambulates the temple, the pilgrims chanting and prostrating themselves outside the temple itself. Inside, past rows of prayer wheels, are dark chapels containing a bewildering richness of frescoes and statues. The overpowering, unforgettable smell of butter candles permeates the temple, which now, following the re-establishment of Buddhism in Tibet, is once more watched over by seemingly ageless lamas. Even ornithological pilgrims soon find themselves captivated by this remarkable, other-worldly place.

Tibetan Plateau: Day 21  Today we will visit a very scenic area in the mountains outside Lhasa where the beautiful Tibetan (or Elwes’s) Eared Pheasant, Tibetan Blackbird, the noisy Giant Babax and Brown-cheeked (or Prince Henri’s) Laughingthrush, four species endemic to Southeast Tibet, occur in good numbers in the scrubby woodland and meadows. We can expect great views of all four species, as well as Tibetan Snowcock, another Tibetan Plateau endemic. Sometimes the pheasant and the snowcock can be seen and photographed at incredibly close range around a small and fascinating Buddhist nunnery!

Along the Lhasa River, we will look for the endangered and rapidly declining Pallas’s Fish Eagle, as well as Russet Sparrow. We will also visit an area of woodland where our prime target is the splendid and sought-after endemic Lord Derby’s (or Derbyan) Parakeet, which we should find cavorting noisily in the tops of the conifers.

Tibetan Plateau: Day 22  The tour ends this morning at Lhasa airport, which is situated in the Tsangpo (or Brahmaputra) river valley to the south of the city.

(There are multiple daily flights between Lhasa and the city of Chengdu and also flights to Beijing and other Chinese gateway cities. We can easily book domestic flights for you on request, even if you are not obtaining your international tickets through us.)

TIBET & XINJIANG, CHINA TOUR REPORT 2018

by Hannu Jännes

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Other China and region birding tours by Birdquest include: