The Path of the Panda: A Pictoral Story
The path had long before disappeared. The persistent drizzle was threatening to downpour again. We took a short, uncomfortable rest before starting off again, hacking through soggy bamboo forest taller than ourselves.
“Ugh, no more leeches,” I thought. Whether dangling off dew-soaked bamboo, clinging tightly to the stems of the underbrush, or slowly making their way up my rain-pants, their twisting, spindle-like bodies were everywhere. “I wonder if there are any in my hair?”
This was Anzihe Nature Reserve in November. It lies on the eastern edge of China’s western Qionglai Mountains, and is known for much more than leeches. Anzihe has one of the highest density panda populations in China. It is also one of the few places in the world where pandas and snow leopards collide, roaming the same mix of scree and bamboo ridgelines that serve as the wildlife highways of the Qionglai, from 500 to an imperious 6,250 meters above the sea.
At the time of encountering the leeches, our team had been patrolling these wild alpine roads for over a week, searching for traces of wildlife and the illegal local poachers that followed in pursuit. Armed with bags of infrared sensing animal cameras shipped from the US, we were a ragtag gang made of enthusiastic local Chongzhou porters bearing 40kg burlap packs with teapots strapped on top and pork thighs wrapped inside, Zhou and San, the only two rangers of the reserve, a smart local government official from the forestry department we called Brother Fu, and myself, the only foreign photographer to shoot the reserve and accompany them so deep into its terrain.
This was the first conservation expedition to go so deep into Anzihe, and I was nervous. We were planning for nine days in the mountains, the last four dug deep into mountainous terrain that not even rangers who had spent twenty years here had explored.
“Water, where is the water?”
Thin, brown leaves rattled against my knees, their constant shifting and shaking a stubborn soundtrack to each movement forward. Brittle, sun and winter dried bamboo stalks crunched underfoot. No breeze, no cloud; the 3000m high sun unyieldingly scorched the exposed ridgeline and my skin.
“Look, do you know what these are?”
“Bu zhidao,” I replied negatively to Brother Fu.
“Snow leopard prints!” He replied cheerily, pointing to a set of prints in the ground with his newly made, fire-hardened wooden pole.
“If you stay up here a week you could probably see one with your own eyes.”
This was the closest I had been to the Himalayan food chain king. I was impressed, but surprised. Hardened like cement into the sun-scorched, rocky clay, the prints were smaller than I would have imagined. They were easily identifiable amidst the expressway of takin and sambar tracks cutting through the dry carpet of waist-high bamboo. That is, if you knew what you were looking for.
“Will there be any water soon?”
“Bu zhidao!” Fu responded with a cheerful shrug.
I was forced to accept this semi-dehydrated, chaotic existence. The previous day we crossed three passes, arriving at our 3400m high campsite to find the water source dried up. Fortunately for us, there was enough snow on the peak above to collect and melt for dinner. In the morning, we had spicy porridge made from beans, rice noodles, and leftovers. The porters filled tea into one 500ml bottle each for the entire day to come.
We weren’t here for comfort, but for work. We would get from point A to put our cameras at point B. Water could be found by descending the ridgeline to ravines hundreds of meters below. Campsites would be hacked out of bamboo. The only unknown remaining was how freely the mountains would yield their comforts to us.
Day five took us and the ridgeline below 3000m. Here, dry, short bamboo stalks gave away to lush, dripping bamboo walls that buried us in over our heads, whilst the combination of pine canopy and daily fog prevented absolutely anything from drying. With that, we sank below the cloud line that buries the entire lower, eastern portion of Sichuan in a year-round, primordial wetness. Our hearts sunk with it.
Those days in Anzihe were as far from familiarity as I was from home.
We made camp in a dreary ravine, using homemade machetes and staves to carve out flat spots for tents against the muddy slope. The more hedonistic members concerned themselves with padding the ground in piles of mattress-high, springy bamboo. Others made quick work of wet logs, cutting away the damp outer wood and using the dry inner pieces for fuel and the chips for kindling, whilst thick, wax candles were brought out to ensure the initial flame from the fire would not die.
Though smoky, the fire that night was more than enough to make another simmering soup of pork fat, fentiao rice noodles, tofu, legumes, and wild mogu mushrooms accompanied with a massive kettle of steamed white rice. The grease from the fatty soup was enough to coat your throat, but the baijiu – the homebrewed, 120 proof throat-burning liquor the park rangers brought along in gallon jugs and drank in bowls – was more than enough to scald the lingering taste away and light fires in our stomach.
In this setting I would learn, slowly, that the Sichuan men I was with were not out to enjoy nature. But neither were they struggling against it. They ascended and descended peaks and trackless jungle in plain clothes as casually as they would for morning a commute, all the while I adventured and battled through the snags of the jungle. The mountains finally spat me out, complete with gashes in every expensive goretex outer piece I wore.
Our relation to the wild was worlds apart. This was work, not exploration. Chiku nailao – chore, not play. The westerner sought adventure in uncharted territory, whilst Zhou, San and the others simply worked another day. The necessary, pressing task of surveying the wildlife and removing the poachers’ traps was essential. It governed every move and drove us on long after tents failed, backpacks broke, clothes soaked, and far beyond where I would have opted for the easier way.
Finally, on the seventh day we encountered our first real sign of the panda. There they were; dry and predictably bamboo-filled droppings on a high, untrodden rocky ridge. Later, as we moved deeper into the forest, we removed multiple wire traps and destroyed an illegal poaching shelter hidden behind a cliff. For a further four days we pushed further into the mountains, roaming into new regions of the map. Once there, we would carefully place and disguise our infrared cameras one by one along the alpine highway.
“When will you go back up?” I asked Fu on the last day as we moved through knee-high river water, snow piled on the tree tops of each bank.
“Oh,” he wearily sighed, still sporting a small smile, “We do this at least once every month.”
Respect. For those without the luxury of choice in the wild, dehydration, wetness, discomfort – all this elicited little complaint. Instead, t was countered by the immutable custom to simply achieve – and safely return home.
Standing there in the river with Fu, the freezing water reaching into our very bones, he remained grinning while I was nearly spent. It wasn’t comfortable, but there was so much more to learn from their attitude towards exploration than criticize how differently they did it. Their persistence and aptitude unlocked mountains and jungle I considered unpassable. So, there was always a way, Fu told me. “There will always be a path.”
That’s exactly the kind of attitude you need to make it in the Chinese backcountry. For those driven with purpose, a way in the wild is self-made much more than it is found. For nine days the mountains yielded no comfort to us, and neither should we have expected it. The wild here is impartial, but for those with the humility and daring, the wilderness of China remains a treasure to be explored, and more importantly, protected.
We trudged through the central channel. On each bank, steep forested walls rose out of the water. The current narrowed and the roar of falls drowned out our voices. Onwards.