Wow! No sooner had we posted Q&As No. 3 than we got a new set of great questions, enough for a whole new Q&As post. We’ll get to them in a few weeks – they raise some interesting issues we really haven’t covered – but we do need to catch up on our regular posts.
Meanwhile, here’s Q&As No. 4. Keep the questions coming!
Do we see many birds and what are they?
Before we answer this question directly, it’s important to understand that northern China is an ecological disaster. As you can see from our photos, there is rarely any forest cover, and often no ground cover at all.
This is not a natural phenomenon. Although the area of China traversed by the wall is and always has been semi-arid to arid, in ancient times there were open deciduous woodlands across northern Shaanxi and Shanxi, extensive forests on the Helan Shan in Ningxia, and there would have been riparian forests all along the Hexi Corridor.
That is all gone and likely has been for a long time. Over the course of 2500 kilometres covered by foot, we have never seen a natural woodland, and we have probably only seen a handful of trees along rivers that were not planted by humans. Virtually every other tree we have seen was directly placed into the ground by human hands.
As a result, there is practically no wildlife along the Great Wall. To the two of us, having grown up in countries with comparatively rich native fauna, it is shocking. We have seen only three native mammal species on our trip to date – jackrabbits, a few ground squirrels, and amazingly, some antelope. And we only saw the antelope on three occasions. It’s a red-letter day when we see a ground squirrel.
We’ve seen only a handful of native reptiles and amphibians.
We have, however, seen quite a few birds, and bird life is the one gratifying exception to what is otherwise a pretty disheartening natural landscape.
Cock of the walk
Naturally, most of the birds we see are those that have adapted to survive in an intensively cultivated and grazed landscape. We see lots of domestic chickens of course, but also their wild relatives – quail, chukars and pheasants. These ground birds are extremely common and they are beautiful; however, they are also a bit shy and it’s tough to get a good photo of one. We spent a good bit of time stalking chukars to get the photo below, and we’ve been trying for weeks to get a shot of a ring-necked pheasant. We probably flush 10-20 a day, but we almost always have our packs on and never have our cameras out at the critical moment.
These birds, and most of the birds we see generally, are familiar to me (Brendan) from my childhood in northeast Kansas. Though northeast Kansas is a lot wetter than the areas we’ve crossed, it’s at the same latitude (39-40° N) and the temperature’s roughly similar, albeit less extreme. The birds we see are almost certainly different species from those I grew up with, i.e. they are Asian species, but the general types are the same. (In the case of ring-necked pheasants, even the species is the same – they were imported to Kansas from China as gamebirds.)
The other ground bird we see, and which we’ve written about before, is the “wall owl” (see The Tengger Desert).
In addition to ground-dwelling fowl, we’ve also seen quite a few waterbirds. Most of the small irrigation dams we see are earthen, and they leak, creating small wetlands downstream that provide some slight mitigation for the extensive wetlands destroyed on riparian floodplains in irrigation country. In these wetlands we’ve seen stilts, avocets, sandpipers, killdeer and other common waterbirds. Less commonly, we see migratory waterfowl on the larger waterbodies.
A stilt below a dam in the Hexi Corridor
Two geese on the Yellow River in early March
About the only forest birds we see are woodpeckers, which seem to have adapted very well to using the poplars lining many roads in irrigation country. There is a large red-crested species similar to crested woodpeckers from the southeast U.S., and a lovely greenish flicker-type bird unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Like the pheasants, these birds are all too quick for us to photograph.
Songbirds, dependent as they are on natural woodlands, are much less common. We do see a few, none of which I recognise, on higher mountains where the shrub cover appears more natural.
Do you ever get lonely?
China’s a tough place to be alone – and by that we don’t mean that it’s difficult emotionally. It’s hard, bordering on impossible, to get any time to ourselves. Countless times every day people shout greetings, run up to us to practice their English, crowd around and pepper us with questions, try to sell us things, try to buy our things, and offer us rides, tea, dinners and stays in their homes.
Loneliness is something that doesn’t come up a lot.
Sometimes you just need to get away from it all – Emma near a beacon tower
That’s not to say we don’t ever miss being with people we know and with whom we share a common history (as well as a common language). We can’t wait to get back to Sydney to see our friends, families, and dog; and we can’t wait to settle back into our house, surrounded by our stuff, and feel at home.
Do you ever get scared?
Feeling scared comes in the shape of two things: dogs and heights.
Heights have always been a problem for me (Emma), but through the radical exposure therapy that is walking the wall, the fear is slowly getting under control.
Dogs are another matter because we don’t have any control over them. We haven’t written about them before but they are a huge concern, probably our most serious on a daily basis. In northern Shaanxi (two a’s) and northwestern Shanxi (one a), many families keep dogs chained outside to act as guards for their sheep or produce. These dogs are large, mostly ill-treated and mean; and they go crazy when they see us. Chained or unchained, they are enough of a concern that we often go completely around a village if we can in order to avoid them, whether we need to get water or not. Our advice to anyone considering a similar trip in this part of China is to carry a walking stick – it’s not a pretty fact of life, but Chinese dogs are very familiar with the meaning of a raised club and they behave accordingly.
Oh, and we’re occasionally ambushed by hostile archers
Would it be possible to ride along the wall on a horse?
Funnily enough, just at the time we were asked this question we were were considering buying a donkey – to the point of pricing them (about 2000 RMB -$330 Australian – in central Shaanxi) and picking out a name (“Wallace”). The reason we were looking was because Brendan’s foot was recovering slowly, but he eventually came right so we dropped the idea.
But while we were thinking about it, we found ourselves looking at the terrain in a new light, asking questions like, “Would this be too steep for a donkey?” “Is there anything around for a donkey to eat?” “What would we do with the donkey if we stayed in a town for a night or two?”
Horses are not donkeys, of course, and over the terrain we walk they are somewhat less versatile – they’re not as good on very steep slopes, they can’t browse on desert thorn-bushes and they need more water. Nevertheless, most of the things we thought about probably apply to horses to some extent.
Walking the wall . . . now wouldn’t that be the life?
We ended up thinking that a donkey or horse could work out well, provided you were willing to accept a few things. First of all, you’d need to be flexible in your route. There are quite a few slopes and canyons along the wall that aren’t practical for donkeys, and less so for horses. At times you’d need to make detours around canyons that are many kilometres long, or where the brush is too thick you might need to travel along the roads below the mountains.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, you’d depend heavily on villagers for food, water and boarding for the horse. Having some workable Chinese, and particularly a strong vocabulary related to caring for a horse or donkey, would make life a lot easier. You’d also need to budget some time almost every day not only to care for your animal, but also to conduct the transactions necessary to care for your animal. And business does not move quickly in rural China.
Finally, it’s not easy to hide a donkey or horse. Every night we try to camp out of sight of people, and we are rarely more than a kilometre or three from a village. We stay out of sight by using small land features to conceal ourselves – zipping around a small hill or into a gully. This would be a lot harder with a horse or donkey.
But where there’s a will there’s a way, and we have no doubt that anyone who is determined to travel along the Great Wall by horse and is willing to research the issues, plan carefully and approach the journey flexibly could have a fantastic trip along the wall.
When did we last speak English to someone other than ourselves?
No matter where we’ve been, the last time we’ve spoken English with someone is generally the last time we’ve spoken with a person younger than 25.
With the exception of some areas of central and northern Shaanxi, most Chinese students and young adults recently out of school in this part of China have some English – usually just simple greetings like hello, goodbye, pleased to meet you and so on, but we often meet kids with basic conversational English at about the same level as our Chinese. It’s not uncommon for kids to have much better English than that.
It’s impossible to overstate how important learning English is to young Chinese people. Having good English skills is seen as a ticket to a good job, and kids study long, hard hours to acquire them. They also go well out of their way to have as much contact as they can with English speakers like us.
On the other hand, if you change the question a bit – so that it is “When did we last speak English to another native English speaker face to face?” – the answer is a lot different. We haven’t met a native English speaker in our entire time in rural China. This part of China isn’t really on the Lonely Planet suggested itinerary.