I stepped out of the car into complete darkness and was immediately chilled to the bone. The car thermometer showed 6 degrees, but it was probably closer to zero, factoring in the windchill. Here on the Tibetan Plateau at 3,600 meters above the sea level, the wind seemed to be a constant presence.
To my right, the imposing shape of an abandoned quarry towered over the grassland. Beyond it, the landscape dissolved into the night. I scanned the area with a powerful spotlight and immediately saw two bright green dots – an animal’s eyes, reflecting back at me from halfway up the face of the quarry.
‘It’s a cat!’ exclaimed Sid, my guide on the Plateau. The cold and the wind immediately forgotten, I held the light glued to the spot, while Sid hurried to set up the scope and train it on the shining eyes. Once it was focused Sid motioned for me to have a look.
The sight quite literally took my breath away. A beautiful face of a Pallas’s cat appeared to be inches away, its little pink nose sharply outlined against the silvery grey colour of its face, its dense fur all fluffed up against the cold of the late September night.
Cautiously, we made our way to the face of the quarry, huffing and puffing in the rarefied air. The cat was snugly curled up inside a small crevice and didn’t seem to mind our presence. Pallas’s cats are masters of camouflage; they rely on their ability to remain motionless to avoid detection. Perhaps it thought we didn’t see it. It appeared completely relaxed and only bothered to look at us once every few minutes.
A few years ago, I have set myself on an impossible quest to see all 38 species of wild cats in their natural habitat. That’s 38 instances of sheer luck, of being in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. What are the odds? Yet here I was, standing on the roof of the world, looking at one of the most beautiful and most unusual members of the feline family.
Grateful for the opportunity of such a close encounter, we didn’t want to push the friendship and after taking a few photographs we slowly returned to the car.
Our next challenge was to find the ghost. At least, that’s what it felt like. Most cats are rare, of course, but some are much more elusive than others. The Chinese Mountain cat, in particular, is so rarely seen in the wild, that not much is known about its ecology, behavior or even the exact distribution range. How do you find a cat that no one ever sees?
Enter Sid Francis, the expat birder and a wildlife guide, who has, against all odds, found the Mountain cats, as well as Pallas’s cats at his birding sites here on the Ruoergai grassland on the northern edge of China’s Sichuan province. So far, Ruoergai has lived up to its fame.
We headed down the quarry road. Despite the increasingly cold temperature, I kept my window completely rolled down, so I could spotlight out of the car as we drove along.
We’ve been driving for all of five minutes when I picked up another eye-shine off the road. Two burning dots against the blackness of the night. There was no time to set up the scope, so we examined the animal through a pair of binoculars. Unbelievably, it was a Chinese Mountain cat hunting on the grassland. It paused to look at us briefly and then turned back to its unseen prey, following it deeper into the grassland away from the road until it disappeared into the night.
The following morning I woke up to a gloomy sky and drizzling rain. A good day for indoors activities, and what is a better place to explore the cultural heritage on the Tibetan plateau than a Buddhist temple? We decided to make a trip to a nearby town of Langmu, which is home to two large monasteries.
‘Nearby’ by Tibetan standards was 86 kilometres away, which meant plenty of opportunities for sightseeing. The road meandered across the vast landscape of Ruoergai Wetland National Nature Reserve that sprawls across 2,600 square kilometres on the Eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau at the average altitude of 3500 meters. This harsh and remote region is considered to be the largest high altitude peat marsh in the world and is a major source of water for two of China’s biggest rivers: Yangtze and the Yellow River.
We travelled through an endless succession of yellow-hued meadows and rugged hills interspersed with greener, wetter patches of marshes and bogs. White nomads’ tents with smoky chimneys grew like mushrooms on the sides of the road, surrounded by the obligatory herds of domestic yaks and protected by the menacing Tibetan Mastiffs. The smell of burning yak dung hung in the air, mixed with the pungent scent of the animals themselves.
By the time we arrived at Langmu the rain had stopped and the sun was fighting its way through a thick layer of clouds. Langmu is town from a different world. Encircled by high hills, its steep and narrow streets are a melting pot of cultures and religions. We stopped at a Huawei Muslim noodle shop for lunch, and while we were waiting for our meals, a pair of young Tibetan monks wrapped in dark burgundy robes walked in and took a table by the wood burning stove. A Muslim serving girl, hair tucked in underneath a head scarf, took their order. Another table was occupied by a Han Chinese family. The two of us added some exotic flavour to the ethnic diversity of the clientele. No one seemed to notice how different we all were.
After exploring the grounds of the stunning yet sombre Langmu monastery we headed back towards Ruoergai, but instead of continuing all the way to town we took a side road that led deeper into the hills. Once over the first pass we were greeted with a vast wetland cradled on the bottom of the valley. A single tent perched at the foot of a hill, a herd of yaks grazing on the autumn grass. Sid pointed to a couple of white blobs in the distance. As the car came level with them, the blobs transformed into a family of the rare Black-necked cranes. Ruoergai wetland is one of the last breeding strongholds of these regal birds.
At night we revisited the quarry and managed to find the Mountain cat again. It must’ve already finished its hunt and was now sitting on a pile of rocks contentedly cleaning its fur. As I shivered underneath the multiple layers of clothing, I felt envious of its thick, luscious coat. Unlike me, the cat was completely at home on the cold, windswept plateau. In the age of human domination of the environment it is humbling and rewarding to face a situation where a wild animal is a master of its domain, while you are an unequipped visitor. Sid set up the scope again and we watched the rare feline until it withdrew into its den underneath the rocks.
The Pallas’s cat was sleeping in the same crevice as the night before, it’s exceptionally thick and fluffy coat protecting it from the chill of the night. I considered leaving it alone and simply walking away, but I couldn’t fight the temptation to have another look at its beautiful face. The cat didn’t mind. As if it knew that it was irresistible.
Over the next four nights we saw two more Mountain cats at different locations, as well as a pair of Tibetan wolves, a multitude of Tibetan foxes, Asian badges and even a Steppe polecat. Often referred to as ‘The Top of the World’, Tibetan plateau is a harsh and remote place, but it rewards the adventurous souls that make their way here with sweeping vistas, rare and abundant wildlife and unique mix of cultures that are not found anywhere else on earth.
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