CHINA’S TIBETAN PLATEAU BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
Tibetan Plateau: Day 1 Midday tour start at Lhasa where we will stay for two nights. Airport transfers will be provided.
(There are daily flights into Lhasa from Chengdu and Beijing. We can easily book domestic flights for you on request, even if you are not obtaining your international tickets through us. Negotiating Chinese airports is easy. Almost everyone speaks at least some English and the signage is bilingual and good. All announcements are bilingual.)
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 2 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 3 After a final morning birding in the Lhasa region we will take an afternoon flight northwards to the city of 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.
Tibetan Plateau: Day 4 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, 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 5 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 Lark, Hume’s Short-toed Lark, 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 6-7 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 Mongolian (or 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 Giant (or 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 8 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 be looking for Turkestan Short-toed Lark, Crested Lark, Pale Martin, ‘Tibetan’ Citrine Wagtail, ‘Margellanic’ Lesser Whitethroat, Rock Petronia, Mongolian Finch and Black-faced Bunting.
Tibetan Plateau: Day 9 From Gonghe we set out early and head south to Wenquan, where we will stay overnight. Nowadays, to anyone who remembers the dire dirt roads that we used to crawl along in Qinghai, it seems almost incredible to be able to travel on the fast expressway, remarkably engineered through the fierce terrain, that connects Xining to Yushu!
The journey is a spectacular mix of high plains, dramatic mountains 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. We will be spending much of the day here as plenty of time is needed to get the best from the area.
Birds are sparse in this deeply inhospitable terrain but very special! Here we will encounter the striking Güldenstädt’s (or White-winged) Redstart, Tibetan (or Prince Henri’s) Snowfinch, Tibetan (or Roborovski’s) Rosefinch and Plain and Brandt’s Mountain Finches, all of which seem to be able to eke out a meagre living from the stony slopes. There is also a very good chance for Tibetan Sandgrouse for those who are fit enough to reach its habitat.
Tibetan Plateau: Day 10 Today, as we head further south, we will travel across almost endless expanses of grassland that are 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.
After a time, we will pass over the first bridge over the Huang He or Yellow River near the town of Maduo (or Madoi). 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 where we will spend the night.
Tibetan Plateau: Day 11 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.
We will arrive in Nangqian, where we will spend three nights, in time for some initial exploration.
Tibetan Plateau: Days 12-13 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 the 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: Days 14 After some final birding we will retrace our steps to the town of Yushu for an overnight stay.
Tibetan Plateau: Days 15 Morning tour end at Yushu Batang airport.
(There are daily flights between Yushu and Xining, from where it is easy to connect to Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou 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.)