Feb. 21, 2024

Yellow River Decade (15) Vast and Bountiful Grasslands

Reported by: Lina Wang ,Yongchen Wang

26 August. Our original itinerary was to arrive in Maduo County from Xinghai County, and from Maduo head to the Niutou monument. However, because the only road there is undergoing roadwork, we have had to postpone the journey until the next day.  Although we didn't have much fieldwork in the mean time, we learnt a lot on the bus from our speaker Zhao Lianshi, a specialist who has spent many years on the plateau, and the debate he sparked.

Yellow River valley leading to the plateau

4,499 meters above sea level

Bridge over a dried-up river

At this altitude, the sunlight is very strong and we had to wear sunglasses to look at the vast grasslands, the clear blue sky and the herds of cattle and sheep grazing in the purity of the Tibetan landscape. Despite all the beauty, however, we could still see from the windows of the bus rivers that had dried up.
The speaker today pointed out the window toward the cattle and sheep grazing outside, and pointed out that they were not separated but grazing together. The only mark to distinguish to whom they belong is a painted mark upon their hides.

Sheep grazing

Life on the plateau

For a very long time, herdsmen, in accordance with the conditions of their natural environment, developed this sustainable grazing method to give their pastures the chance to recuperate. Depending on the state of the different grasses' health, the livestock were able to graze upon different types of grass, thereby ensuring that pastures maintain a high degree of biological diversity and also controlling the numbers of field mice.

Many farmers and village leaders told us that after the snowfall of 1985 the grass was unable to recover, and there is now irrefutable evidence to prove that climate change and excessive grazing are to blame. As we were eating and talking with the local people, they told us that this was the best of recent years for the grass's growth, since rainfall had been relatively high. Actually, though, many grasslands here have succumbed to desertification. Under these circumstances, the country has produced policies that they hope will help the grasslands recover—but are these plans really enough to help the grasslands recuperate? What kind of effect will they have on the lives of the herdsmen? Plans include building synthetic eagles' nests, exterminating field mice, installing new fencing and constructing a water tower.

Grasslands in Tianshan


New housing on the plateau

The fencing plan proposes that the herdsmen settle in one place, around an area of pasture ground which they will not be allowed to use for certain periods of time. In this way, the grasslands can be more effectively managed. However, many ecologists and other experts believe that this plan is unscientific.

On the bus, Zhao said that the only advantage to fencing the pastures is that it solves the problem of confused ownership: over the years, animals in heat, since they were not always with their own group, mated across different families, resulting in conflict amongst herdsmen. However, the plan also creates new problems: the winter and summer pastures will be separated by other families' grazing grounds, and therefore fences must be demolished and one family's animals will inevitably pass through other families' grounds. This will need to more conflict than we see with the present system.

To solve this problem, the government has also created a channel through which livestock could pass, but the distance channel is several times that of the traditional ones. Several families share a truck as this saves some time but using trucks and petrol increasing both the cost and environmental impact.

Also, the grassland ecosystem is knocked out of balance and the problem of rodent infestation becomes more sever.

Grazing pastures



Mouse holes and gravel

Therefore, a plan to control the numbers of mice has also been introduced. However, mouse poison also kills humans, not to mention many others animals on the grasslands. For some time after the plan has been implemented, the mouse population may indeed be controlled; however, steppe cats, sand foxes, jackals and eagles also suffer. With fewer predators, the mouse population easily rebounds.

After the field mice and eagles were both terminated together, the state introduced a plan to erect long poles with artificial eagles' nests at the top. This could be a far more successful method. We saw many different types of eagles on the grasslands, including some with wing-spans as long as four meters.

Artificial nest


Taking flight 


With the state of the grass getting worse, the government has also proposed a plan to build a water tower in the Three Rivers region and establish a nature preserve, which would be surrounded by a barbed wire fence. However, the science behind this plan is also controversial. Some accuse the plan of being motivated by profit, and from the all the bundles of barbed wire we see strewn along the road we assume that the costs of these materials must run to the billions.

Damaged grasslands

No man's land

Enclosing the grasslands

In the view of some ecologists, the existence of fences also has a negative impact on grassland ecosystems. Surrounded by barbed wire, wildlife becomes segregated into small population pockets and this results in inbreeding. We will continue focussing our attention on their successes and failures over the next ten years of the project.

During our interviews, we also learnt that these programmes deeply impact the lives of the herdsmen. Because the costs of the fencing plan are so high, the government has decided that one-third of the project will be financed by the central government, one-third will be financed by local government, and the remainder must be paid for by the herdsmen themselves. They have therefore had to begin relying on loans; they have fallen into debt and have had to sell off a large proportion of their livestock. Even where herding has been forbidden and herdsmen have settled in villages, they must deduct from annual subsidies the costs of the fencing plan.

Regarding the migration of wildlife on the grasslands, we on the Yellow River Decade bus have differing viewpoints.

 Zhao Lianshi believes that Tibetans do not want to become the objects of government support. What they need is not money, but understanding and respect for their way of life and the ability to live with dignity and determine their own future. Tibetans displaced by the water tower have had to move 60km away, and find it hard to earn a living in these settlements since they don't speak Chinese.

Qi Pu posited that although the migrants may not adapt to their new environment, over time their children will be able to adapt to the city and modern life.

Zhao replied that indigenous people have lived on this land for countless generations, living in perfect harmony with nature. They have lived off the land, eating beef, drinking milk, wearing leather and burning cow dung. Forcing them off their land would only result in the loss of one of the world's most harmonious and natural cultures.

Luo Kanglong, an anthropologist, says that if you cannot truly understand other people, then you shouldn't judge them, and you especially shouldn't interfere with them.  Wang Yongchen said that under the ethos of 'man can conquer nature', we in modern times have done many foolish things, which today we've still not properly reflected upon. Instead we continue to force our values onto others and try to replace their civilisation with our own.

We all continued to argue, each drawing upon their own values and experiences to express their different views on the problem. Mr Qi looked out at the vast grasslands and fertile soil and said that he hopes he can bring his grandson to plant trees here. In the end, the Tibetans themselves are often willing to migrate, and we should be asking them what their opinions are. We should also wait to see if some of the policies being implemented here are effective in safeguarding the region.

Tibetans blessing the mountain

Tianshan people

Animaqing County

Today, we approached Mount Animaqing, which stands 6,282 meters tall over north-west China's Maqin County. The glacial area is comprised of 57 glacials totaling 126km sq: the Halong Glaciar, at 24km sq, is the Yellow River's largest glaciar.

Since we were only passing through, we did not have the opportunity to climb the glacial and could only find images online.

Mount Animaqing

Wildlife in the area includes the white-lipped dear, snow leopards, snow-cocks and more. The mountains are the soul of the Tibetan people, who often come to worship around the bases of the mountains.

Mount Animaqing

Mount Nima lies in a continental climate with highly variable weather conditions. Sometimes the weather changes drastically within a single day, alternately snowing and hailing. Tornadoes sometimes occur, and 10mm of rain might fall for 20 days straight. Legend has it that Mount Nima is the resting place of the Tibetan hero King Gesar. Each year pilgrims climb the mountain to honour his memory.

Mount Animaqing

Tomorrow, we will leave the bus behind and hire three cars to go to the Niutou monument. Along the way, we will pass the stunning E'ling Lake and Zhaling Lake; we will also look for the throne of King Gesar and the Xingxiuhai plateau.

Translator: Ryan Kilpatrick

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