A few days later, together with Horng-i, Miss Li, and driver Uh Tao, we head west across the mountains of Guizhou. It is early spring, and the Mei Shan (’Plum Mountains’) are hidden in fog.
On the hotel reception counter, I notice a sign, written in English: ”Expensive anything keep”. At first sight, the meaning of this sentence is not quite obvious, but some light is thrown on it with Judy’s help: Guests are requested not to leave any valuables in their room.
Weining is a small, sleepy town, situated among the barren hills east of Cao Hai. Small yellow motor taxis zoom about in the streets, and, together with horse carts, pulled by very small horses, they are the means of local transportation. As everywhere in China, people have a very relaxed attitude towards garbage, and the streets are littered with plastic bags and paper, flying about in the wind together with the ubiquitous dust.
Accompanied by Li Ching, we drive along the shores of the marshland, and soon we spot the first flock of black-necked cranes, feeding in a field.
”You can go into the field”, says Li Ching. ”The cranes are used to people.”
This fact is clearly demonstrated by several men, who are angling in draining ditches near the birds, which are busy feeding, oblivious of the men. I succeed in getting very close to the cranes, which by now are somewhat alert. After a bit of trumpeting they take off, landing a moment later in a nearby field. I am somewhat subdued that I disturbed the birds too much, but Li Ching assures me that they often fly about anyway, without any obvious reason.
Several places along the marshes, we observe small flocks of feeding cranes, often accompanied by other bird species, including bar-headed goose (Anser indicus), ruddy shelduck (Tadorna ferruginea), and common crane (Grus grus). Li Ching is of the opinion that c. 400 black-necked cranes spend the winter in these marshes. The species has declined in later years. Some years ago, up to 800 could be counted in the area. In the neighbouring province, Yunnan, a larger flock of cranes are wintering, and possibly some of the Cao Hai birds have moved there.
In the afternoon, we hire a boat, with a local woman to punt it into the marshes. Initially, we pass through large stands of club-rushes, among which ruddy shelducks swim about, mostly in pairs. We also observe many citrine wagtails (Motacilla citreola) and moorhens (Gallinula chloropus), while great white egrets (Ardea alba) and grey herons (Ardea cinerea) are wading about, looking for fish. In an open expanse of water, hundreds of ducks are gathered, mostly wigeon (Anas penelope) and ferruginous ducks (Aythya nyroca), besides a few common pochards (Aythya ferina) and tufted ducks (Aythya fuligula).
This forest is quite young, as it is regenerating after being completely cleared. The supply of wood was exhausted, mainly due to a former common belief in this area, stating that if your kitchen fire was extinguished, a member of your family would die. This meant that an immense amount of wood was burned for absolutely no use. The forest is now protected, and collecting firewood is banned.
Many other trees and shrubs grow here, including three species of rhododendron, Photinia, spicebush (Lindera), and wintergreen (Gaultheria). Bird life is scarce, but I manage to observe Elliot’s laughing-thrush (Garrulax elliotii).
We continue towards the highest mountain in Guizhou, Suei Gau Fong (’Highest Peak’), where Li Ching wants to show me a huge specimen of Magnolia liliflora, which displays large, white flowers with a pinkish tinge. Late afternoon is spent at an old Daoist temple, situated on a mountain named Fung Shan (’Phoenix Mountain’). This temple dates back from the 1300s, but was somewhat damaged during The Cultural Revolution, when it was utilized as a stable. Several old stone slabs with inscriptions were fired at with guns. How barbaric!
Next to the temple is a small restaurant. We eat outside, and on this cool spring day, a pot of hot noodles, served with fried potatoes, peanuts, spring onions, stems of heart-leaved fishwort (Houttuynia), and chili sauce, does a lot of good!
Trees and bushes are powdered with snow, and flowers of rhododendron and Prinsepia utilis are covered in a thick layer of rime. Out in the open, an icy wind is blowing, and blankets of fog come and go. In the afternoon, sunshine manages to pierce the fog, and the rime must yield.