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 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, Common (or Rufous-tailed) Rock Thrush, Plain (or Père David’s) 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 Black-winged (or Adams’s) Snowfinches, and Twite. Père David’s (or Small) Snowfinch favours the sandier stretches of steppe dotted with bunchgrass.
Best of all is the delightful little Ground Tit (or Groundpecker) that bounds 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 long-term 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 Chinese 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, 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 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, 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.
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 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.)