China 2015: July 9 Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau

Micranthes atrata in the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau.

Due to the impending feeling that I was running out of time just as my plants were coming in to bloom I started flying to the distant corners of China. On July 9th I flew to Xining, Qinghai. Our guide in Qinghai and an expert on Chinese Saxifrages, Dr. Gao, met us the next morning with a driver. We drove from Xining towards the town of Guide into the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. Sometimes referred to as "the roof of the world" the Tibetan Plateau lies between the Himalayan range to the south and the Kunlun Range to the north. The average elevation of the plateau is over 11,000 feet but this area feels unlike any of the other 11,000 feets I have experienced elsewhere. For one, the plateau spans slightly less than one million square miles and has some inhabitants - mainly Tibetan ranchers. The sky was the bluest I had seen in weeks due to the fact that we had driven above the dense air pollution found in the cities. We steadily climbed in elevation and I felt instantly happy as I noticed the dwarfed and caespitose plants - we were in alpine tundra! We approached the pass and stopped the car a few hundred feet before a temple. It was a majestic area, but Dr. Gao later told us that the temple a faux temple for tourists (no monks lived there). But I soon forgot all of that as I started noticing the flowers: big yellow poppies, bright purple gentians, bold orange saxifragas, and beautiful Micranthes atrata. Within a few hours of beginning our plant hunt we had found our first Micranthes!

Plant collecting in the Tibetan Plateau. 

We didn't waste much time and continued on to the Tibetan town of Zeku (or Zekog). If there was an Old West in China this would be it - dirt roads, people riding bareback on horses down the middle of the road, and men clad in the traditional Tibetan herdsmen garments. This was not a town visited by many outsiders and I drew a lot of attention anywhere I went, but Qinghai was quickly becoming my favorite province in China. The next morning we drove for a few hours passing herds of goats and yaks to a small village where we began our search for an obscure temple. This temple was the only landmark for the mysterious Micranthes zekoensis. In the village Dr. Gao and our driver asked passerby for directions. While they were doing that a young man riding bareback on a white horse tried to get me to get on the horse with him to take a picture. I did not. Anyhow, we got in the truck, turned off of the main road, and started winding around the plateau on dirt paths. We were driving farther and farther away from developed structures - most of the ranchers lived in yerts - and it seemed less and less likely to everyone that we were going to find a temple. We round corner after corner with no leads when we encountered a monk in a maroon robe. Dr. Gao explained what we were doing and told him the vague instructions we had about the locations of this plant. The monk pointed this way and that way and there we were at the temple. The temple in this instance was more of a small village with three or so main structures and lots of dwellings where the monks lived. We split up to search for my plant, so naturally I head up to the highest point I could find. We searched for a few hours but, unfortunately, we did not find any Micranthes. In the late afternoon we turned around and drove back to Xining passing and stopping at many beautiful places (see China 2015 Photos). We said our goodbyes and I began making preparations to fly across all of China from the western border where I was to the eastern border near North Korea. 

The view looking down on the temple. The temple in this instance included a few sacred buildings surround by the homes of the monks. The inhabitance of the village were only the men who were monks and their students.