Kevin in China #20 – turtles and crocs and Steve Irwin

Kevin has only 5 more days in China so, apart from rain, various farewell dinners are keeping him too busy to do much collecting. Except, this time, it is a different kind of herping altogether, watching the alligators at a farm and diving for turtles.

4 September
My last complete day in Muyu; as this day had been approaching I have been thinking about all my experiences. The most beautiful hikes would have to be the hike on the 31st in Xiagu, when we followed the river back down to the trail. We saw many sights that we know no one else ever went to, due to the remote access and danger. An equally beautiful hike was the hike Vanessa and I had with Linsen and Xiang Bing on the 25th of June. As for strenuous experiences went, that would belong to several; the hike on the 31st at Xiagu is one of them. Along with the beauty, this hike included bushwhacking, portions called for rock climbing skills, leaping across huge gaps where an error would almost certainly mean death, and then the simple distance of the hike contributed to it being one of the more strenuous hikes. The hike at Dongxi, on the 13th of June, when we covered a vertical distance of 2,780 ft in two hours (uphill); this hike stands out simply for the sheer numbers and time frame. It was incredibly tiring. And the final hike, which is by far the most strenuous hike of the trip, was when we walked from Bancang to the ghost town of Yinyuhe. The hike was from 9am until 8:17pm, during the hike I drank more water than I have ever drank on a hike before and practically all of it came from the river. I also had my first experience with heat exhaustion.
My fondest finds would have to be the 78.5″ king ratsnake and the first time I found a Protobothrops viper. Oh, and the Mandarin Ratsnake I found the second time to Dongxi. This snake ended up being the last live snake of the trip and it is a splendid finish to go out on. Anytime I caught a species that I hadn’t caught before was always an incredible rush. Any of the times I had to think fast and run through several obstacles to catch a snake was always the most fun. When the snake is right in front of you and an easy catch it isn’t quite as exciting. Luckily many of the kingrat finds were these types of circumstances.
Even though this was my last day, I had a lot to do. Send out some emails, take the new specimens to the museum, put them in jars, photograph all the questionables, purchase any last minute gifts, write HiYin that note, get the recipes from my favorite restaurant, have lunch at Linsen’s parents-in-law’s house, and then dinner that evening with the reserve. Luckily I was already completely packed.
1st step was to go to the museum with the laptop, camera bag, and the four new bottles of specimens. I dropped the specimens off in Linsen’s office. The woman with the key to the animal specimen hall was at Dalongtan and would be back in the afternoon. I checked my mail, talked with some friends over IM. Found out about Steve Irwin today. Very terrible news. Though I didn’t have a tremendous amount of respect for him as a professional herpetologist (mainly cause of all the goofy antics on his show), I would imagine off camera he was much more professional. All the work he did to get young kids excited about wildlife is where he really shined. It is a pity for his children, I’m sure he was awesome father, and his children would have had such incredible experiences; his son will basically never know his dad because he is too young. It is hard to believe (especially the fact that it was a stingray and not a snake or croc) and he will be missed.
Around 11 or so Linsen asked me to lunch. His mother-in-law had prepared zhidan bisa; one of my favorite dishes. The version she had made, however, was in a soup and very thin. My favorite version is much thicker and is served with lao ro (bacon) and green peppers. It was still awesome of course. Also one of my favorite types of tofu was there, along with celery, which was an interesting combination – can’t say my favorite. A dish of nio ro (beef), and a dish of green beans. After lunch I wanted tohead back to the office but had forgotten that it was closed until 2:30pm (lunch is from 11 to 2:30). So I went back to the hotel until then. Shortly after getting back it started to pour. The past 3 or 4 days has had a huge amount of rainfall every afternoon. Come 2:30pm it was still raining. I didn’t want my camera to get wet, so I used an umbrella. Headed up to the 5th floor where my computer was, finished up there, and then went down to the animal hall to see if it was open. Linsen and the lady were just unlocking the doors. I set down the new bottles and started cutting them open. Linsen brought our some jars. Before putting them in their final resting places, though, I had to take some post-mortem photographs. I photographed all the individuals considered to be Frog B, photographed all possible angles and appendages. Then I went through and photographed all the previously collected Frog B’s. I photographed both of the adult salamanders from Pinqian and the immature salamander caught from the first trip to Dongxi.
We didn’t have time to put labels on the new jars. Several of the jars will have to wait until I get back to the States and get some positive IDs anyway. After we were done with the animals I went back to the hotel. I still had to put the snake in HiYin’s bed (usually her mother is in the hallway knitting – and I want it to be a surprise, so I need to do it when no one is up there), I had to write her letter as well as the recipe request letter. I started translating the recipe request first. By the time I was finished, Linsen popped in and asked if I was ready for dinner. I told him I would be right down. I walked down the hallway, no one was there so I went back to my room to get the snake and placed it in HiYin’s bed, under the covers.
The storm had picked up by this time. Linsen said he was going to get Xie Dong and for me to wait there. After awhile he returned with Xie Dong. We walked over to the fancy hotel where Vanessa and I had dinner once, and where Craig, Emma, Xue, Dr. Li, and I had dinner as well. When we walked in all the big names were there (except Mr. Yu) – Mr. Yang, Mr. Wong, and the guy that helped me at the police station that 1st day. Shortly after we started, Li Yin also joined us. Dinner was elaborate of course. Mr. Wong, the boss of the bosses, told the waitress to pour me some liquor. As she started to fill the cup I would say “hao hao hao” basically like “ok, that’s good, don’t need any more.” And as soon as she stopped, Mr. Wong would tell her again to fill it to the brim. Mr. Wong had beer, which is what I preferred. I asked if I could have beer after I finished my glass. They said I had to have two glasses, then I could have beer… Based on the container it was in, and based on who was present at the dinner table, I can only assume that it was one of the more expensive labels. Linsen said that Mr. Wong was very impressed with the work I did and that I was a very hard worker. I was pleased to hear this of course. Most of the directors at all the various field stations would usually say I was a hard worker as well. I guess because I always wanted to hunt as soon as we arrived at a station, then wanted to hunt right after breakfast, then right after lunch, then right after dinner – whether I was drunk or not.
We all had many toasts. Li Yin would toast me with her beer. The gentleman with the police force continued welcoming me to China, welcoming me to Shennongjia, and was telling me that I was very welcome to come back. They all asked when I was coming back. “As soon as I have money, probably 2008.” I hope I can get funding. I have several more ideas I’d like to employ and if I keep up the Chinese lessons, hopefully I’ll be able to have conversations with all the friends I have made. They asked me if I liked Shennongjia. “I love Shennongjia.” They asked if I was satisfied with my stay, which was followed with an immediate response of “yes.” They wanted to know if I had any recommendations for herp management/ conservation; I told them I had plenty and would include them all in my report.
We made our way through the food into just drinking, chatting, and laughing. After finishing my second glass of liquor they brought out the beer. After tonight there will most likely be no more massive toasts, thankfully, as it seems to be a Shennongjia thing, so I decided to drink up since it would be my last. Linsen’s English was improving and I wanted to teach him a new word. I asked him if he knew the word “chug.” Such as “to chug a beer.” He said he didn’t. So obviously I demonstrated. Oh, I can’t believe I haven’t mentioned this before; the beers in China are 600 ml’s (20oz), compared to the American beer of 12 oz. Everyone applauded after I finished the beer. I told Linsen, that is called “chugging a beer” and it is a very common practice in America.
Mr. Wong and Mr. Yang eventually had to hit the road. The rest of us finished shortly thereafter. Xie Dong started walking with me back to the hotel but I told him I had to go somewhere 1st and headed up the street. I wanted to go to the Shiweitan restaurant (with the help of Michelle I found out the name translates into the “Food is Heaven” restaurant) to get these recipes. The restaurant is right beside a BBQ joint – which are the places where you go to for after dinner meals. I walked past the BBQ place and Xie Dong was yelling “no no, right here” pointing to the BBQ place. “No, over here” I responded. “No, this is wrong” the other drunk replied. By this time the owner of the restaurant, Chen Xue Feng, had walked outside; “but this is wode pongyo (my friend)” as I laid a hand on Xue Feng. I pulled my translation from my pocket and handed it to Xue Feng. He looked it over, smiled, and started writing. He wrote one of the recipes and then gave it to the 2nd cook (also a friend) for the other. Michelle, my tutor has already translated the names and instructions. One has a simple name of “beef and potatoes” but it includes beef and potato cubes, peppers, onions, garlic, ginger, and of course the sauce. The other dish, a more recent discovery, is called “Villager’s Stir-fry meat” and is also quite good and spicier than the first dish. I discovered this dish one afternoon when I asked Xue Feng just to serve me his favorite dish. I thanked them very much and told them I was leaving in the morning.
As Xie Dong and I got up to leave, the owner ran to the back and came back with a gift. It is some kind of liquor. I’m not going to open the box until I get back to the States, then I’ll see if I’ve had it before or not. As we walked outside we ran into Wong Ming (my friend from Xiagu). I was glad to see him again as well. I told him I was leaving tomorrow morning and that I was sad. The three of us started heading towards my hotel. The lady at the bakery store stopped us and started talking to Xie Dong and Wong Ming. I recognized some of the words and told her the same (in Chinese); “tomorrow morning, 6am, I go to Yichang, and then home.” This was much easier than saying “I am going to Yichang, then to Wuhu for a few days to look for alligators and golden-headed box turtles and am then going home.” So she told us to wait there. She went behind the counter, got a bag and filled it with my favorite rolls – the ones that taste like Golden Corral, and are covered in sesame seeds. I thanked her very much and told her goodbye.
We walked next door to the hotel and I told Ming to wait a moment. I went upstairs to get my camera. I asked one of the people playing power in the lobby if they would take our picture, then I said goodbye to Ming once again, and definitely for the last time, and headed upstairs. I needed to drink some water and eat some rolls. I still had the letter to write to HiYin and I had to make a CD for her niece (who wanted pictures of me because she was sad I was leaving). I wrote the letter in English as well as Chinese. HiYin doesn’t know pinyin, so I wrote out the characters – which took me forever! I was almost done with the letter when she came into my room. I let her read what I had and what I had yet to write, and though she had already seen it, I still wanted to finish it and give it to her. She did a lot of smiling as she read the letter. She left, and I crept to the edge of my bed as she walked down the hall and opened her door. Another 10 seconds pass. Then I hear a scream followed by shouting. Her mother gets up (she was staying in the room next door to HiYin’s) and they start talking back and forth. I’m sure she was asking HiYin what was wrong, etc etc. Eventually I heard the exhausted laugh HiYin gives after coming down from a harmless scare. I finished the letter and walked down to her room. She had the evil eyes going. “Did it scare you?” I asked innocently. She nodded. “I’m sorry.” She smiled and said it was ok. I asked her where it was, I wanted to flip it over and make sure she saw the message on the belly. She pointed out the window. “What?! Are you serious?” I said in English. “One minute” and I went back to my room to retrieve a headlamp. I scanned the ground below and didn’t see anything. “Where??” She shook her head and walked over to her dresser and got the snake. I flipped it over. I wanted her to know that it was more than just a wooden snake I was giving her. I handed her the letter and told her goodnight. I went back to my room and started the CD for her niece. I don’t remember her name, but I remember the Stanford kids telling me her name translated into “colorful cat.” While the CD was burning I rearranged my gear to accommodate the alcohol Xue Feng gave me. I have been surprised I have been able to fit all my gear in my bags and still have room for all the gifts as well. Once the CD was done, I set my alarm on my phone and went to sleep. Linsen and Xie Dong were going to see me off in the morning.
5 September
Woke up at 6:09am, looked out the window and see Xie Dong, Linsen, and the bus out on the street. The bus leaves at 6:30. I brushed my teeth, took my bags downstairs, ran back upstairs and knocked on HiYin’s door and whispered her name. I heard some shuffling inside and she opened the door. I told her I was finally leaving. I gave her one last kiss and told her I would miss her and said goodbye. She said she would miss me too. I really hope she’s still here in 2008 (and that she’s still single). I went downstairs and threw my bags in the bus. I thanked Linsen and Xie Dong for everything and told them goodbye. I had two rolls left over that I was saving for breakfast on the ride to Yichang.
I don’t know if it was from all the rain or not, but we spent a lot of time in “traffic” on the way out of Muyu. We were an hour and a half behind schedule, arriving in Yichang at 1:30pm. Luckily it was overcast with a slight drizzle, because had it not been, Yichang is like a sauna and I was carrying 5 bags, plus I was wearing the photographers vest (traps heat), and had my hat on (traps heat). Linsen had written some instructions in English and Chinese for me to show taxi drivers, hotel people, or people at the train station in order for me to get to where I need to go. He also wrote the name of a cheap hotel, but I had seen a hotel immediately across from the bus station, and since tomorrow morning I would be catching a bus, I just decided to go there. It would save a lot of walking. As soon as I walked in the lady behind the desk radioed someone. As I stood waiting in line, another receptionist came up to me and asked how she could help me, in English. I told her I just needed to stay one night because I was going to Wuhan the next day (actually going to Hankou, the northern district of Wuhan). She asked if I already had tickets and if I needed help getting them if not. “That would be great.” “By bus or train?” Both Zhangfang and Linsen looked up trains on the internet and said there wasn’t one from Yichang to Wuhan, but apparently there was. She said the train would be cheaper and leaves at 8am. I told her that was perfect. A bunch of the staff took all my hear and took me to my room. I had a single king bed, internet in my room, A/C of course, and one of the coolest, most missed devices, a toilet!
The room was 200 Yuan/ night. A bit high (about $25), but they were very helpful and very kind. I cranked the a/c, cooled off for awhile, and then headed downstairs to get the tickets. While there I asked if I could go ahead and purchase a ticket from Wuhan to Wuhu. They said that wasn’t a problem. My trip just got A LOT easier compared to how it was looking the day before. Now that the transportation task was done, it was time for food. Yichang offered the change of pace known as McDonalds. In a place like Muyu, I do not mind trying a new restaurant, because there is a limited number to try, but in Yichang, I could go through a dozen restaurants without hitting any of the best ones. So rather than tempting fate, I took the easy route and just went for Mickie Dizzles. I went to the one where Vanessa and I had eaten. It was a bit further to walk, but I liked the layout more than the one next to the train station. I ordered a double cheeseburger, no onion, biggie fries, and biggie drink – 17.50 Yuan ($2.18). What is the price for the same combo in the States? This was my 3rd American meal in the past 112 days. I quickly ate it and then headed back to the hotel to check mail, enjoy a/c, watch TV, and take a shower. I messed around with some pictures that weren’t labeled either. I stayed up until 1am or so talking with friends on IM and then went to bed.
6 September
Got up at 6:30am, got my gear together, checked out, and walked to the train station. I was riding the hard seat, which was more comfortable than what I was expecting (prior to coming to China and reading about it), but now as comfortable as Linsen had made out. We had a 6-hr ride to Hankou. My seat was next to a recent English major graduate from a university in Wuhan, so that was nice. We talked most of the way. The average elevation in Shennongjia is around 1,100 to 1,300 meters. In Yichang the elevation is about 115 meters. In Wuhan, the elevation was 20 meters, and it was quite hot. I had to walk out of the train station just to walk back in. I was 5 hrs early for my train, but I had too much gear to go walk around the city, so I just decided to wait and write in this journal. As I was writing, a girl came up to me and started asking me all sorts of questions (in broken English). I don’t remember her whole name, but her middle name was Mei. She had been there at the train station for 4 hrs already and still had another 8 to go. I showed her some snake pictures and some scenery pictures from Shennongjia. She said it looked like a beautiful place. I told her it was a very beautiful place.
I bordered the train around 6pm. I had a fortunate seat. I was sitting on the side of the train that only had two seats, and no one had purchased the seat beside me. But even though I had two seats, it was still extremely difficult to get comfortable. Another reason I thought a hard seat would be better than a sleeper, is because if I purchased a sleeper, I may sleep through my stop. The train was stopping at Wuhu on the way to some other location, so you have to pay attention to each stop. I had Zhangfang send me the coordinates of Wuhu before I left and I made a waypoint in my GPS so I knew when we were getting close (in addition to the time stamped on the ticket). Around 2am or so I tried to get a few hours of sleep.
7 September
Arrived in Wuhu at 4:45am this morning. Zhangfang picked me up at the bus station. We took a taxi to a hotel where he got me a discounted rate of 88 Yuan (usually 188 Yuan). His house is not far away. He said I could have a short rest, and then around 9am we’d get breakfast and then he would take me to his university – Anhui Normal University, where he would show me around, and I could see some captive Golden Headed Box Turtles.
Upon reaching the hotel I passed out fairly quickly, and then around 9am got up and we got some noodles. Then we headed to the university. He said there are about 20,000 students there. 10 yrs ago, there was less than 10,000. Wuhu is a nice little town (little = 400,000 people). It was founded some 2,500 yrs ago. There is a very nice lake and park in the middle of the town and the shopping area is very nice and open, not excessively crowded. Any place in NC that had a similar atmosphere would be flooded with people.
We got to the university and he introduced me to the dean and all sorts of other head individuals. Because they are so strict on who can see Golden Head Box turtles as well as Chinese alligators (when it comes to foreigners) Zhangfang told me that he is telling everyone I am an assistant professor. Otherwise to see the Chinese alligator I would have to pay 10,000 Yuan (about $1,250), and more than likely I would not be allowed to see the box turtles. He showed me the box turtles. A pair of females was in the middle of ripping apart a dead Rana nigromaculata. Two other turtles of some kind were in the same set up. Between the four they destroyed the frog. In a separate tank was a small snapping turtle. I asked Zhangfang if they were found in China, because if they were, they are introduced, but I don’t think he understood the question. As we left the area he mentioned that Golden Headed Box turtles (Cuora aurocapitata) go for about 30,000 Yuan ($3,750). People in Hong Kong buy them for the pet trade. Zhangfang said it is nearly impossible to find them in the wild anymore. The wild population is estimated to be around 150 individuals.
We had lunch at his place. Met his wife. He had brought out a spoon for me but after watching me eat for awhile said that my chopstick skills were very good, unlike when I first came to Beijing.
For dinner they took me to a chaffy restaurant. This is like fondu (spell?) except the bowl is divided into two portions (in a ying yang symbol). One portion has a spicy broth, the other not spicy. The white broth (not spicy) had a base of tomato, and small white mushrooms, the dark broth (spicy) had an onion and star anis base flavor. We then added chicken to either side, lettuce, sprouts, bread, and sea weed. Earlier I had seen some Jim Bean and mentioned it and so Zhangfang ordered some of that as well. As an appetizer they brought out the pickled lettuce/cabbage that was common in Shennongjia, except this version came with some small spicy peppers and was much much better than the pickled lettuce in Shennongjia. This version I could sit down and eat as an entire meal in itself, the stuff in Shennongjia I mainly just used as a palate cleanser. The dinner was very good. I went to bed pretty early that night.
8 September
Today we were going to the alligator breeding facility. The official title of the facility was the Anhui Research Center of Chinese Alligator Reproduction. Here they have around 10,000 captive raised alligators. The park was established in the early-1980s and 200 wild alligators were captured as the stock. Currently the wild population of the Chinese Alligator (Alligator sinensis) is estimated to be around 200.
As with the university, we had to meet the vice director and the director of the facility. Also, as with the university, Zhangfang was telling everyone I was an assistant professor and that maybe I would be able to collaborate with them in the future on some work on the Chinese Alligator. This was the story and later became an invitation. I would love to be able to return and work with the Chinese alligator, and to just be able to work in China again. So much more to see and do, and so many more species to catch. After walking around the facility, the vice director (Wang Chao-lin), some of the police officers, Zhangfang, and I all went out to lunch. The vice director’s treat. We went to the local town and entered a very nice restaurant. There were lots of dishes. One of the two most awesome appetizers were peanuts and bamboo shoots marinating in a type of vinegar. The vinegar was incredible. I need to figure out how to make it, maybe something like vinegar, Asian sesame oil, and a touch of soy sauce? I need to buy a bottle of it before I leave just in case I can’t make it. While we had lunch, I was complimented on my chopstick technique. The exact words were that my “pose was very beautiful.” My theory about the massive drinking being left behind in Shennongjia was wrong. The vice director and all of the officers made many toasts. It is incredible how much of a “bargaining” chip drinking is here in China. I became quick friends with the vice director and all the officers, and this is a good thing. After lunch, and after taking a short rest, the vice director and one of the officers drove us out to a lake where a few wild alligators were spotted. They said I was not allowed to take photographs here (of the alligators) and that normally they do not allow foreigners to the location. As we left the facility, a light rain started to hit. By the time we got to the pond, the rain had greatly cooled things off; the day was overcast to begin with, so it wasn’t very hot. We walked around the pond but didn’t see anything. The vice director took us to a small holding pen covered with some mesh netting. Inside was a farmer cutting down some weeds with a machete. They were building the pit and maintaining the area for a batch of baby alligators they had captured (wild) the week before. The netting was to prevent any birds from getting into the area. He brought out a bucket filled with about a dozen cute little faces. He handed me one of the babies. Very cute. When we left, Zhangfang said I was very lucky to see this place and that that was his first time seeing baby wild alligators. The gators will be kept in the pen for one year before being released into the pond.
Our original plan was to drive back to Wuhu and spend the night and then go out the next day. Zhangfang told the vice director his plan and he recommended we go with them instead and said we’d waste too much time on the road if we went all the way back to Wuhu. We drove for a few hours before meeting up with another police car in a small town where we had dinner. I was still a bit tipsy from lunch, and of course the new batch of officers wanted to drink just as much as we did at lunch. One of the officers gave me two little gifts. A small LED flashlight one a key chain, and a measuring tape (also on a key chain, 36″). As usual, everyone cheered and clapped at all the drinking. Nothing that night was especially outstanding – well except for the lotus dish. I think it had been marinated in that vinegar for awhile.
After dinner, we all drove to a hotel, courtesy of the vice director. Zhangfang and I shared a room. Shortly after getting in our room the phone rang. Zhangfang picked up and talked for awhile and then hung up. Jokingly I asked “was it a prostitute?” “Yep.” I was surprised, I didn’t really think that happened. Zhangfang had said before, often times when you go to a hotel, in the evening you will get a call, someone asking if you want a prostitute or not. I had not received any calls in my hotel in Wuhu and Zhangfang said that was very surprising. I figured he was just exaggerating, and so that’s why I was joking around when I asked him if it was a prostitute calling. Guess he wasn’t exaggerating. We both went to bed around 9pm that night I think.
9 September
Despite all the drinking from the night before, everyone woke up early. Today we were going to check on a release site where they had released 6 gators back in April. Each year they take a number of individuals from the facility and release them at various sites around Anhui Province. This was another location that foreigners weren’t allowed to go to, but they were allowing me.
As we left the hotel we discovered that it had been raining most of the night and was still raining in the morning. I hate the rain. It was around 70ºF and Zhangfang said our chances of finding a wild alligator were low because of the temperature. Of course I already knew this.
Once we finally arrived at the release site we changed our boots and put on some small waders. Walking down the muddy trail to the ponds I found a DOR F. limnocharis (the species of frog that was so common at Dongxi). We walked around the ponds but didn’t see any alligators. It was just too cold. Because of the rain we decided to head back to Wuhu, there was no point in being in the field that day.
The vice director said they would drive us back to Wuhu. On the drive back the cops blew the sirens and were driving in the shoulder, going around 120 km/hr. Had they not we would have been stuck in traffic for a very long time.
When we arrived in Wuhu, Zhangfang invited them to have lunch with him and his advisor from the university. We stopped into the university and found his advisor, Dr. Wu. The restaurant was across the street from the biology department. After getting a room, several of the other officers from the other night came in as well. It was basically the same crowd as before plus Zhangfang’s advisor. Once again, they broke out some kind of expensive liquor that came with a novelty lighter wrapped around the mouth of the bottle. It was much dryer than the previous liquors and I didn’t enjoy it as much.
I asked Dr. Wu what his area of study was and he said herpetology, primarily alligators. He said he first studied “Elaphe.” Of course I perked up, “oh really, did you ever study wong jing she (Elaphe carinata, the kingrat)?” “Yes, that’s exactly what I studied.” I told him it was a very common species in Shennongjia.
The lunch spread was huge, there was some dish similar to Cajun shrimp with some spicy peanuts, another dish with greens and baby white shrimp on top, a tofu dish, a couple of different types of soup, one was a bamboo shoot soup, some duck tongue, to do se (potatoes thinly sliced to look like noodles), and a huge sturgeon (which I have never had before). The to do se was the first potato dish I had seen since coming to Anhui, whereas potatoes were very common in almost every meal in Shennongjia. Oh, there was also another dish that was practically identical to BBQ sandwiches back home, except with chicken. It was strips of some kind of BBQ chicken, which you placed in the middle of a mantou (is that right Vanessa?) roll and ate just like a sandwich. I devoured much of this dish. After most of the meals were eaten they brought out some sort of mild fig Newton cake.
As I had done at the last supper in Shennongjia, I taught Zhangfang (and his advisor) the definition of the word “chug.” Strangely enough, as with Shennongjia, afterwards everyone applauded and was very impressed. I found it quite humorous. Drinking is basically a skill admired by everyone here in China, and the more you can drink, the better person you are, so long as you’re not a drunk that is wasted 24/7. It at least helped grease the wheels for getting permission into secret places or getting invited back to do some more work. Zhangfang said if I am able to come back and help out with the Chinese alligator he may be able to get enough funding to pay for me.
10 September
Today we had breakfast in the hotel lobby (since it’s free). I had some gherkins (that is British English for “pickle.” I learned this word from Emma. I picked up some other words besides Chinese words). Today we were going to look for the golden headed box turtle. It was quite a drive out. Zhangfang made a deal with the driver for 200 Yuan for the day. The drive was maybe 2 or 2.5 hours, but unlike in Shennongjia where most of the mountain roads limit your speed to a few miles per hour, this distance was mainly highway distance.
The area we were going to was very beautiful. Mostly bamboo forests at the base a few mountains, the highest of which was around 450 meters. We met up with Mr. Dong, the expert in the area. The town was very similar to many of what Linsen calls “peasant towns” in Shennongjia. Mr. Dong too would be classified as a peasant according to Linsen. Compared to Shennongjia “peasants” he was leading a good life and had a very nice home. In the kitchen was a huge indoor pond where he had a softshell turtle and several species of frogs, as well as fish and plants (both aquatic and terrestrial). It is like he built his house around a pond almost. Something I would like to do, either that or build a house around a portion of sandhills habitat; have a pine snake burrow leading into my living room or something. That would be superb. Zhangfang talked to him for awhile and then we set out.
The day felt nice. Finally some sunshine. The drive over was pretty cool, but when you were in the sun and blocked from any wind, it was very nice. Not long down the road I found another Fejervarya limnocharis in a flooded tire rut. We walked until we reached a trail that lead down to a shallow stream. Mr. Dong took off his pants and waded across to the other side. I asked Zhangfang what he was doing. Zhangfang pointed to a bunch of boulders lining the shore on the opposite side of the stream. “The golden box turtle likes to hide in these crevices.” Mr. Dong walked from boulder to boulder, poking his head behind each one with a flashlight in one hand. He came up on one huge cave, took off his shirt, so now he was just wearing a pair of underwear, got on his belly and crawled behind the big rock. “Wow, that’s pretty cool.” I was hoping he would lead us to some more boulders where I could do some crawling around. Mr. Dong spent a good 10 to 15 minutes in there and I was starting to wonder if he got stuck or was hurt or something. Eventually I saw some feet starting to back out of the cave. Apparently he didn’t even have room to turn around once inside and had to back out the entire way. That explained a bit of the time. He emerged empty handed and started shouting something to Zhangfang. Zhangfang had a look of surprise on his face. I had a feeling I knew what happened. I asked Zhangfang “he found one didn’t he.” “Yes, but before he could grab it, it went deeper into the cave, out of his reach.” That sucks. These turtles are incredibly rare, and I really wanted to get some photographs in a natural setting, not to mention just being able to say I found one in the wild.
Mr. Dong jumped in the water and swam over to our shore. Zhangfang said this cave was a very well known area for them and that when the WWF (World Wildlife Fund) and WCS (World Conservation Society) came here a few years ago, Mr. Dong led them to this cave, went inside and came out with a young turtle. I had no idea the species was as aquatic as it was. We walked back to the road. I was checking every rock along the way for lizards, snakes, frogs, and turtles, but didn’t find anything.
When we got to the road we started to head back. I checked my watch. Of course, it was almost lunchtime. Ok, maybe we’ll go out again after lunch, I thought to myself. I guess I’m too optimistic…
We had lunch at Mr. Dong’s house. It was perfectly fine. Nothing spectacular, but you can’t expect something like that from this sort of place. After lunch, Zhangfang said goodbye, I then said goodbye since apparently we were leaving now, and we loaded up in the taxi and hit the road. I kept an eager eye on the road for anything moving across but nothing did. I was disappointed. This wasn’t the type of “herping” I was expecting for the day. I am starting to wonder what kind of a herper Zhangfang is as well. When I met him I had asked him what all he studied and what all he liked, etc etc. He said that he studied the Chinese alligator and the golden headed box turtle, but that Dr. Li was assigning him to take some recordings of frog calls. He said he was afraid of frogs. How can you work with alligators, yet be afraid of frogs. He was also afraid of snakes. The day before when we went looking for the gators, we maybe spent 30 to 45 minutes in the field. Granted it was either overcast or raining. Today we had spent maybe 30 minutes as well. When I think of spending the day in the field, I envision at least four hours or so.
As we headed back, Zhangfang asked if I wanted to stop by Nanling and check out another gator site. “Of course.” He called a friend and asked. He said his friend said the water was very low, but that we could go look anyway. He said whenever CCTV (Central China TV) wants any video footage of the Chinese alligator, this is the site they go to. Our driver got lost, but we eventually found Zhangfang’s friend, who instructed the driver how to get there. We walked up on a little farm on the outskirts of a small town. They asked the farmers (the local “watchmen”) if we could look around. They said it was fine. The pond, perhaps I should say “puddle,” was incredibly small. I asked how many gators lived in this pond and Zhangfang said four. In the middle of the pond was a tiny island where you could see some gator holes and some foot tracks leading into the burrows. “When the water is this low they spend most of their time in their burrows.” Another no-show.
We got in the taxi and headed back to Wuhu. Maybe tomorrow. The taxi driver’s meter read 500 Yuan, we had traveled 250 km. This was further than the driver had expected and he asked if he could have 300 Yuan. Wanting to stay on good terms with Zhangfang and his friends, I told him that was fine. He said when he agreed on 200 Yuan, he did not know we were driving so far, the gator side trip was something we decided at the moment and Zhangfang hadn’t told him about that before, so it was semi-understandable.
That night for dinner Zhangfang and I went to a little snack bar at one of the corners in Wuhu. A snack bar that Zhangfang frequents. We had duck soup. The noodles were rice noodles. They are kind of weird. Very long, and basically transparent. The soup was very good.
11 September
Last day in Anhui Province (complete day). Of course it had to be raining again. Oh how I hate the rain. It haunts me everywhere. In the sandhills, it destroys a night of snake hunting, and in China it seems to have the same devastating impact on wildlife as it does back home. Wuhu is at the 31st latitude and has an elevation of only a few meters, it should be hot as hell. This would be equivalent to northern Florida in early September and that is hot! I had asked Zhangfang about this on the day I arrived in Wuhu. He said three years ago they had a massive rain and ever since then the temperatures have remained very cool. Damn the rain.
Zhangfang’s older sister was coming into town today. Her son was going to be attending the university next month, so most of the morning Zhangfang was busy helping his wife and mother-in-law prepare lunch. I spent some of the morning writing in my journal and watching some TV. There was a lot of news about 9/11 and about Bush visiting Ground Zero. I sent Zhangfang a text message telling him I was going to walk around and find some food, so that I wouldn’t bother him and he could concentrate and preparing lunch, but he told me no and that I should wait and he would be right there. So I waited. He came to my hotel and we went back to his place. I took my laptop so I could charge the battery, since the wall outlets in my hotel only had two prongs and I needed one with three.
Zhangfang showed me some photos of some gator pics and turtle pics. At one point he had set up an infrared camera near a wild gator nest and got to take some pictures of the alligator constructing the nest and laying the eggs (though it is very hard to see). The camera turned on when there was movement.
While he and his wife made the last finishing touches on lunch he sat me down to watch the film “Eight Below,” on his computer. Based on a true story, the movie was about a geologist that went down to Antarctica looking for a meteorite. A guide at the National Science Foundation research station takes him out with a pack of sled dogs to Mount Melbourne. During the trip they are warned about an incoming storm and have to head back. It was reaching the halfway point and getting very interesting when Zhangfang’s sister arrived and I turned it off. I will have to watch it back in the States when I get back. Lots of beautiful scenery though.
Tonight I had another… new experience. Zhangfang said he wanted me to experience some more cultural aspects of China. So for dinner, as we were walking down the street, he asked if America had bathrooms. Now the term bathroom to Zhangfang was not the same as it is for us, for us bathroom is defined as “toilet” or “WC” to them, not bathroom. I told him I didn’t know. What happens at a bathroom? He said first you take a bath, then you have dinner, then you relax. I told him it sounded like maybe he was referring to a spa, and that we had them, but that they were very expensive. He said this was about 30 Yuan.
He said he has to tell his wife every time he goes to one. The one he picked was not as “sexual” as the others. He said that he and his family sometimes come to this one. As we entered, we were instructed to take off our shoes and socks, put on some sandals and head up stairs. We went to a locker room where a bunch of guys were coming from something like a steam room behind a drape door. So he wasn’t kidding when he said “we take a bath.”
The Chinese “bathrooms” are basically like the Roman bath houses from ancient times. Basically a huge heated pool where a bunch of people bath together (men and women have different floors). The sides of the baths are lined with reclining seats with jets. Walking to the big bath, you pass a lot of benches where guys were getting massages. This must be where Zhangfang meant this one was less sexual than the others, as guys were giving massages to naked guys that had emerged from the bath. In Beijing, at that one parlor we went to, a guy was not allowed to give a massage to a naked guy, only a female could, and I can see how Zhangfang’s wife may not like him going to those bath houses. I told Zhangfang that I did not know of anything like this in the States and I do not think one would last long if it came up. It would immediately be labeled as a homosexual hangout. In China, homosexuality was considered a mental disease up until 2001. As we were in the bath Zhangfang asked if I wanted a massage. I told him I was fine. If I am going to have someone massage my butt, it is not going to be some hulking guy.
After we soaked for awhile, we washed off in the showers, and then we left the steam area. Immediately a bunch of employees get towels and start drying us off from every direction. We were given some kind of thin throw away underwear and some loaner boxers and over shirt. Zhangfang walked over to a scale to weigh himself. I followed behind. I had been very curious about how my weight had changed since coming to China. There was a scale in Dongxi that I had stepped on the first time and Linsen said I weighed 91 kgs (which means I would have put on weight since coming to China), but given the placement and condition of the scale, I do put a lot of credibility in its accuracy. A scale in a place like this, however, would be accurate. It said I was 74 kgs (162.8 lbs). I had lost 30 lbs since coming to China and was at a weight below my high school weight, though I do not think it looks like it. When Emma and I were sleeping together in the same tent that one night in Qianjiaping, we were talking about how much weight a life style in China would change. At the time she was still going to be spending a year in Shennongjia, tracking golden monkeys. I was telling her how much great exercise she would be getting and how she’d probably lose a lot of weight in the process. I had told her that I was expecting to lose around 30 lbs over the summer. She thought I was crazy; I just can’t believe it’s basically 30 lbs on the dot (30.2 lbs difference). We’ll see how long it lasts once I quench my thirst for pizza.
The next step was to head upstairs for dinner. The dinner was a buffet style with lots to choose from. Most of which I had no idea whether it was good or not, so I just started piling stuff on the plate. I saw some American broccoli, a first since coming to China. They also had something that I thought was spring rolls, but turned out to taste more similar to sushi than spring rolls. I have yet to figure out what they were.
After dinner we headed up another fleet of stairs to the relaxation area. It was just a bunch of big reclining chairs in front of 42″ flat screen TV. Since we were the only ones in the room we were given the remote. Zhangfang flipped through a few channels until we saw a lion tackling a zebra. I told him this was fine, as I didn’t need Chinese to translate the images. For two nature people we found this relaxing, or at least entertaining. I think if anyone else was in the room it would make them sick. The clips were followed by other predators taking down other African wildlife. We finally had to head back. Zhangfang’s sister was at his place waiting for him. It was certainly another different experience, and one I would not have experienced had I been on my own in China.
12 September
I thought our train left around noon, but found out it is actually 7:50pm. Not much to talk about today. It was raining again, so we weren’t able to see the museum specimens (something we were hoping to do since day 1, but they were in the process of moving the specimens from one building to the other, and because of the rain the job was still incomplete).
We headed to the supermarket (mall) to buy some snacks for the train ride. I just got some noodles and some juice. Since I had slept through breakfast (woke up at 9:15am) Zhangfang recommended I get a bite to eat since he did not know when we would be having lunch. We stopped by a KFC in the mall – his recommendation, not mine. There wasn’t much to choose from. They had a twister wrap; in America it is chicken, lettuce, tomato and a tangy sauce, here it was chicken, cucumber, onion, and the special sauce that they used on Peking duck, so I opted for that combo. It was pretty good. I was pleased.
We transported my luggage to Zhangfang’s old dormitory, since I had to check out of the hotel. From here we had lunch with a couple of Zhangfang’s friends, one a middle school teacher, another a professor who studied butterflies, a friend from the ARCCAR (Anhui Research Center for Chinese Alligator Reproduction), along with his wife and daughter (who was also attending the university in the fall), and Zhangfang’s nephew. I insisted on pijiao (beer) as the alcohol as I did not want to deal with more liquor. A cold beer is much more refreshing than room temperature liquor in my opinion. The dinner was very nice. Nothing above and beyond previous dinners, just nice. Some very good lotus dishes, a corn dessert that reminded me of a meal I had in Shennongjia. The corn kernels are fried in a batter and lightly sprinkled with sugar. We had some kind of fish I couldn’t identify that was actually good. I just wish fish didn’t have so many bones. We had chuan bei la pi, a dish I hadn’t had since my first meal in Beijing, one that I loved. It is a transparent noodle, vinegar, and peppers. This was Zhangfang’s description when I asked him if he knew how to make it. I will have to look around the internet and see if I can find a real recipe. Because Zhangfang couldn’t drink as much, I had to help him with his beers and I ended up drinking four of them.
After lunch he had to go see a friend, his wife had given birth to a son and Zhangfang went to go congratulate him. In the meantime I went to his dorm room and finished up this entry in the journal. The train leaves around 7:50pm this evening and we should be arriving in Beijing around 11:30am the following morning. I will be staying with Emma for my remaining days in China. I have about four dinners I have to attend. I have to have dinner with Dr. Li at least once, Emma and I ARE GOING TO GO OUT FOR PIZZA (she had written me an email at some point saying she had gone to The Tree, but was drunk and didn’t remember much and this is unacceptable – I told her it is ok to eat pizza first and then get drunk, but not vice versa, as pizza must be savored), the girls I met at Pinqian on my second time out want me to go out with them, and then the gentleman I met at my hotel after returning from Bancang wants me to call him and go out to dinner with him as well. If need be I can pass up the last request, but I would like to come through on my word (I told him I would call him when I came to Beijing – but I don’t think he realized I had, or would have so many other dinner plans).
I suppose that is about it for my Anhui experience. Not quite what I was hoping for, primarily because of the damn rain. Hopefully I will be able to return and find a lot more wildlife.
Pictures are on Photobucket
Previously in this series:
Snakes On The Plain: Kevin in China
Kevin in China, part 2: Three Kinds of Natural Beauty in Jiuchong
Kevin in China, part 3 – The First Westerner in Town
Kevin in China, part 4 – Snakebites as a Daily Hobby
Kevin in China, part 5 – His Legend Preceeds Him!
Kevin in China, part 6 – The Mystery Snake
Kevin in China, part 7 – Bit By Snakes? Get Used To It!
Kevin in China, part 8 – The Dance and The Snakes
Kevin in China, part 9 – What Really Happened That Night, or, The Night Of Too Many Toasts!
Kevin In China, part 10 – “the poison of that snake, is not dangerous to people?”
Kevin In China, part 11 – How to avoid getting married in China, or, women are more complex organisms than venomous snakes
Kevin In China, part 12 – Chinese Ebola, or, Getting the Taste of Chinese Medicine
Kevin In China, part 13 – Back To Herping
Kevin In China, part 14 – The Lure Of The West: McDonalds and Chinese-dubbed Tom Cruise
Kevin In China, part 15 – Beijing
Kevin In China, part 16 – It’s not easy to catch a swimming frog
Kevin in China #17 – Drinking liquor with a snake heart makes your eyes clear
Is there a Herpetologist in the house?
Kevin in China update
Kevin in China #18 – a mandarin rat, another mystery frog that is NOT in the Atlas of Amphibians of China, and the Chinese-speaking Godzilla
Kevin in China #19 – The snakes are hatching, the peppers are raw, and the amphibians are too damn frustrating to identify

Comments are closed.