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A Journey to Hoh Xil--A Diary of an Environmental Volunteer
Hoh Xil, which means "beautiful girl" in Mongolian, is one of the main sources of the Changjiang (Yangtze) River and encompasses an area of 83,000 square kilometers between the Tanggula and Kunlun Mountains in the northwestern part of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. It is China's largest and the world's third largest uninhabited area. Despite its adverse climate, it is a paradise for wildlife and home to more than 230 species of wild animals, twenty of which are under state protection, including the wild yak, the Tibetan antelope, the wild donkey, the white-lip deer, and the brown bear.

Because of human interference though, Hoh Xil is suffering devastation; and a growing number of Tibetan antelopes and other rare animals have been killed. In order to strengthen the protection of Hoh Xil's natural environment, groups of volunteers, acting as environmental guards, have been sent to this area since May 2002. This article is an extract of the diary of Wang Ting, a professor at the Qingdao University of Science and Technology and one of the first volunteers to go to Hoh Xil. During his days with the volunteer program, Professor Wang not only kept a diary, but also captured exciting scenes with his camera.

Making Preparations

The moment I was informed that I had been selected as a volunteer to safeguard the Tibetan antelope in Hoh Xil, I was extremely excited and couldn't wait to make preparations. Many of my alumni, friends, and students, who had heard the news, extended their congratulations by phone. They urged me over and over again to be careful; and some supported me generously with financial aid. My father, who had just turned 80 at the time, also called to encourage me to work wholeheartedly and not to worry about him. My wife withdrew almost all of our savings. Every person was doing something to show his/her support for the environmental-protection undertaking. I didn't stop teaching until the May 1st holiday, so I had to spend my spare time packing.

Being the eldest among my group and possessing past experiences on the plateau, I assumed the role of vanguard. Seeing that we were the first group of volunteers recruited by the Hoh Xil Nature Reserve from around the country, I was quite aware of our duty and of people's expectations of us.

Jobs Assigned

At 6:00 p.m., on May 11th, we were assigned to different work units-the Ice-Free Spring Protection Station, the Wudaoliang Protection Station, the Tuotuo River Protection Station, and the Chonai Lake Protection Station, all of which can be found on a map. Together with another volunteer, I was assigned to a mountain patrol team. Our task was to patrol, at intervals, the uninhabited hinterland of Hoh Xil by truck. Each time the patrol team made its rounds, it traveled 2,000 kilometers and took 15 to 20 days to circle the hinterland. It's a real survival challenge: eating outdoors and sleeping in trucks.

Wang Zhoutai, head of the patrol team, told me this story: One day, their truck sank into a river, and they had to walk to a hot spring to evade the cold night air. The ground near the spring is very hot, giving off steam at times. That night though, they had a heavy snowfall. Sleeping on the ground, the patrolmen had to warm themselves by tossing and turning. When they got up the next morning, they looked as if they were wearing armor made of ice and snow. They made the 70-kilometer journey to camp on foot, making their way through the snow-carpeted ground. Almost everyone suffered from snow blindness and experienced its symptoms: sore eyes and fear of being exposed to light. "At that moment," said Wang Zhoutai, "we really felt homesick."

Tomorrow I will go to the Ice-Free Spring Protection Station for altitude acclimatization. Hopefully, I can do well in my current physical condition.

The Test of Altitude

May 12th. All of the 11 volunteers arrived at the Ice-Free Spring Protection Station for acclimatization. The station is 4,600 meters above sea level. Everybody remained in good health until the evening, when a woman from Shanghai suffered mountain sickness and reluctantly left.

May 13th. Cheng Xuejun, from Hunan Province, was the second to be sent off the plateau because of altitude sickness. We all felt sorry for him, and many shed tears.

In the daytime, we visited the Curmar River Protection Station and the Wudaoliang Protection Station. If we hadn't seen it with our own eyes, we wouldn't have believed the simplicity of the Curmar River Station. The Wudaoliang Station, however, had been elaborately decorated before we came-clothes hooks were nailed into the wall, and the part of the wall behind the hooks was pasted with a new sheet of white paper. We couldn't help but being moved by their careful consideration.

When we returned to the Ice-Free Spring Station in the evening, the director of the Chonai Lake Protection Station was already there to meet two other volunteers, from Beijing and Shandong Province, who were expected to check in at the Chonai Lake Protection Station that night.

Early morning, May 14th. Cheng Yong, from Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, finally left our group because of the terrible effect the high altitude had had on him; after 48 hours, his heart rate continued to race at 120 beats a minute.

Now that we are three members short, we need to rearrange the job assignments. Together with a volunteer from Sichuan Province, I was transferred to the Tuotuo River Protection Station.

Days at the Tuotuo River Protection Station

The routine work of the Tuotuo River Protection Station was to patrol along the Qinghai-Tibet Highway to prevent the illegal taking of sand, earth, and rocks. During my days at the protection station, I joined the patrolmen and successfully stopped illegal acts four times.

We once stopped a construction team that was collecting earth without permission. The leaders of the team later realized the importance of learning and following the protection regulations, and invited the staff of the station as well as the volunteers to a meeting. At the meeting, we introduced the management regulations for nature reserves. On behalf of all the volunteers, I delivered a speech about environmental protection. My speech was warmly received by everyone in attendance. In order to show their support for environmental protection, the team leaders promised to halt the construction until the relevant document of approval arrived. In this case, the other volunteers and I fully played out our roles as advocates of environmental protection.

Here is another story: At a construction site along the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, we saw a bulldozer, four excavators, and nearly 30 large loading machines raising heavy dust while collecting sand. When we learned that the construction team had not yet obtained a permit, we immediately held them back. The leader of the team admitted their fault and promised to learn more about environmental protection in order to build the Qinghai-Tibet Railway into a first-grade and environmentally friendly railway.

The Babies

The Tuotuo River Protection Station raises a Tibetan antelope and a Procapra picticaudata, both of which were saved by mountain patrolmen when they were just a few days old. The staff of the protection station cared for them as if they were their own babies and fed them milk mouth to mouth. Now the "babies" are 10 months old. At seven o'clock every morning, they come to the station and eat grains of highland barley that the mountain patrolmen spread over the front grounds of the station. Then, they go up the mountain for grass; and at night, they rest at "home"-the only Tibetan household on the mountain slope behind the protection station.

Recently, a crow with a broken wing became the third "baby" at the station. It was found by a patrolman and has been carefully taken care of. The crow is considered an inauspicious bird in most parts of China; but here, like any other animal, rare or not, it enjoys the tender care of the staff. Lu Feng and I proposed to name it Zhi Yuan (aspiration), and the others agreed.

Patrolling the Mountain

After five days of work at the Tuotuo River Protection Station, Lu Feng and I returned to Golmud and rested for two days. Then, we followed the patrol team that was entering the Hoh Xil hinterland.

From May 25th to June 10th, we carried out a campaign against the poaching of rare animals. It's really a tough job to patrol an uninhabited area. The routes we took were on average 4,800 meters above sea level; and everybody struggled against the cold and anoxia. When night fell, the temperature dropped down to minus 10 degrees centigrade; and the strong wind and heavy snow often deformed our simple tents. The temperature inside the tents was also below zero. While we were in the wilderness, it was common for us to eat one meal of instant noodles a day. In spite of the hard conditions, everyone on the patrol team remained optimistic.

The team also played the role of a mobile protection station. We were quite aware that the longer we stayed in Hoh Xil, the more frightened the poachers would be.

May 30th, windy and a heavy snowfall at night. Temperature: minus 10 degrees centigrade. Zhaba, my fellow patrolman, was feeling uncomfortable before we started off. But he hid the fact and joined us anyway, secretly taking an intravenous drip in his backpack. On the second day of camping, he felt very ill, so he stayed in the truck and used the intravenous drip. Zhaxi discovered the situation and kindly gave Zhaba a hand. Possibly because of the high altitude, the fluid wouldn't drip once the needle was in place. Zhaxi pulled the needle out and tried again. This time, it began to drip, but very slowly. Zhaba was so tired that he fell asleep while he was on the drip. Zhaxi looked after him all the way.

An Encounter with Poachers

A raging snowstorm hit again the night of May 31st. The maximum depth of the snow was 40 centimeters. Fearing that the snow would block the way leading out of the mountain, we decided to leave in the afternoon of June 1st. Unexpectedly, this decision resulted in an encounter with poachers.

"There's a car in front of us, to the left!" shouted team leader Wang Zhoutai as we were bumping along a river valley at an elevation of 4,500 meters. Through the falling snowflakes, we saw a car several dozen meters ahead, appearing and disappearing at intervals. At this moment, associate team leader Cheng Lin loaded his gun, and the driver sped up. In the instant that it took to replace the film in my camera, our truck had caught up with the car and stopped it. I bet the poachers never expected to meet us on such a bad day. We ordered them to get out of the car so we could inspect it.

In addition to the bullets in the car, we found two guns they had dropped in a hurry on the riverbank-a refit semiautomatic rifle and a homemade double-barreled hunting rifle. They had also left behind hundreds of strong antipersonnel case shots, thousands of spare ignition cartridges, and a large amount of gunpowder and bullets. If they had succeeded, hundreds or even thousands of pregnant female Tibetan antelopes would have been killed. And if they had taken action first, the outcome would have been even worse. Imagining we could have been on the verge of death, we shivered with cold sweat.

Our patrol team of seven escorted the four poachers to a detention house in Golmud. We drove day after night without relaxing vigilance. Even though they were wearing handcuffs, the poachers were still very vicious and insidious. I held a gun to guard one of the poachers, keeping myself awake for a full 30 hours.

(China Pictorial December 17, 2002)

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