TIBET BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
Tibet: Day 1 Our tour begins this evening at Xining, where we will stay for two nights. 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.
Tibet: 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 (split from Lemon-rumped), the delightful little Crested Tit-Warbler, Elliot’s Laughingthrush, Chinese Nuthatch, Przevalski’s Nuthatch (split from White-cheeked), Chinese White-browed Rosefinch (split from Himalayan White-browed) 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 (split from Pacific), 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 (split from Great), Grey-backed Shrike, (Asian) Azure-winged and Eurasian Magpies, Red-billed Chough, Large-billed Crow, Oriental Crow (split from Carrion), Oriental Rook (which lacks extensive bare skin on the face), Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Grey-capped Greenfinch and Common Rosefinch.
Tibet: 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-eared Kite (sometimes split from Black), 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 (split from Mongolian), 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.
Tibet: 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 Xinjiang Shrike (split from Isabelline). 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.
Tibet: 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 (split from Lesser Short-toed), Crested Lark, Pale Martin (split from Sand Martin), Tibetan Wagtail (split from Citrine), Rock Petronia, Mongolian Finch and Black-faced Bunting.
Tibet: 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 do not usually need to make much effort to encounter the striking Güldenstädt’s (or White-winged) Redstart, (Prince) Henri’s Snowfinch (split from White-winged) and Plain and Brandt’s Mountain Finches, all of which seem to be able to eke out a meagre living from the stony slopes. Most exciting of all, the poorly-known Tibetan (or Roborovski’s) Rosefinch is not uncommon in this high altitude habitat and we are likely to find the deep-pink males and sandy-grey females feeding their newly-fledged young. Those able to ascend to higher altitudes have a good chance of encountering the uncommon Tibetan Sandgrouse.
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 Common (or Northern) 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.
Tibet: 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.
Tibet: 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 especial 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 (split from Lemon-rumped), Alpine Leaf Warbler (split from Tickell’s Leaf) 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 (split from Songar), 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 (split from Eurasian), 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.
Tibet: Day 11 After some final birding in the Nangqian region we will retrace our steps to Yushu for an overnight stay.
Tibet: Day 12 Today we will head off into new and dramatic landscapes as we travel northwards through gorges and over 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.
Tibet: Day 13 We continue northwestwards, if anything into even wilder country than the day before. We are crossing the immense Kekexili Nature Reserve and this is 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.
Tibet: Day 14 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.
Tibetan Sandgrouse is fairly straightforward to find in this area and requires no uphill hike in order to do so! Additional Tibetan Plateau endemics and other restricted-range species that may be observed in the area include the interesting Tibetan (or Roborovski’s) Rosefinch, Güldenstädt’s (or White-winged) Redstart, Groundpecker (or Ground-tit), Blanford’s, Rufous-necked, White-rumped (or Taczanowski’s), Tibetan (or Adams’s or Black-winged) and (Prince) Henri’s Snowfinches, and Brandt’s Mountain Finch. Mammal watching is excellent and we should observe many of the species already mentioned for the previous day.
Later we will cross the Kunlun pass and 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.
Tibet: Day 15 We head westwards 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 descend through the dramatic Altun mountains that mark the border between Qinghai and Xinjiang, the northwesternmost province of China. Here, the Margelanic Whitethroat (sometimes treated as a full species but usually considered a subspecies of Desert Whitethroat) is common. Our destination is the town of Ruoqiang, situated on the route of the historic Southern Silk Road, at the edge of the Tarim Basin and the forbidding Taklimakan Desert, where we spend two nights. (Note: This border region with Qinghai province is a calm, and peaceful area, free from the issues affecting other parts of Xinjiang.)
Tibet: Day 16 Today we will explore the southern edge of the Taklimakan (or Takla Makan) desert that occupies much 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 (or Xinjiang) Ground Jay, a species endemic to Xinjiang, as it occurs quite commonly in the desert country on the periphery of the Takla Makan dune sea. 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. The endemic Tarim Babbler (or Tarim Bush-dweller), finally recognized to be a sylviine babbler rather than a warbler, also occurs here and is now treated as a distinct species rather than a subspecies of the very-different-looking and sounding Beijing Babbler (or Chinese Bush-dweller).
Tibet: Day 17 We head back across the Zaidam to the city of Golmud, stopping for some birding along the way. At Golmud we will board our overnight sleeping car train bound for Lhasa.
Tibet: Day 18 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.
Tibet: Day 19 Today we will visit a very scenic area in the mountains outside Lhasa where the beautiful Tibetan (or Elwes’s) Eared Pheasant, Tibetan Blackbird (split from Common), 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.
Tibet: Day 20 The tour ends this morning at Lhasa airport, which is situated in the Tsangpo (or Brahmaputra) river valley to the south of the city.