Sprawled across the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau, in the remote northern tip of China’s Sichuan province, Ruoergai grassland is an extraordinary place. By day it is a world of Tibetan nomads, and by night the grassland is transformed into a vast wilderness where wolves and foxes roam the valleys and wild cats lie in ambush for unwary prey.
It is the wild cats of the Tibetan Plateau that brought me to this remote corner of the world.
After a scenic 10-hour drive from Chengdu, 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.
A close encounter with the Pallas’s cat
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 October 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 in a small crevice and didn’t seem to mind our presence.
Pallas’s cat is a master of camouflage; it relies on its 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 40 species of wild cats in their natural habitat. That’s 40 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.
On the trail of the Chinese Mountain cat
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.
Across the Ruoergai (Zoige) Grassland
The next morning, I woke up to a gloomy sky and drizzling rain. ‘We probably won’t see much wildlife in this weather’, mused Sid and suggested a visit to the nearby town of Langmusi, which is home to two large Tibetan monasteries.
‘Nearby’ by Tibetan standards turned out to be 86 kilometers away, which meant plenty of opportunities for sightseeing. The road meandered across the vast landscape of the Ruoergai Wetland National Nature Reserve that stretches over 2,600 square kilometers on the Eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau.
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: The Yangtze and the Yellow River.
We travelled through the 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 yak 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.
Langmusi – the Tibetan Hogwarts
By the time we arrived in Langmusi the rain had stopped and the sun was fighting its way through a thick layer of clouds. Encircled by forest-covered mountains and bookended by two white-washed Tibetan monasteries the town is inhabited primarily by Amdo Tibetans and Hui Muslims.
My first impression of Langmusi was that of a Tibetan Hogwarts. There were as many young novice monks on its narrow twisting streets as there were plain-clothed locals. I half expected them to pull out their wands and conjure up a ghostly Patronus.
We stopped for lunch at a Muslim noodle shop, and while we waited for our meals, two young 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 headscarf, took their order. Another table was occupied by a Han Chinese family, making their way through a large helping of noodles. The two of us added some exotic flavor to the ethnic diversity of the clientele.
Chasing the ghost
After dark, we returned to the quarry and found the Pallas’s cat sleeping in the same crevice as the night before. Sid spotted another pair of feline eyes shining from the darkness on the slope of the neighboring hill. Surely this couldn’t be another Pallas’s cat. Cats do not like company. Sid peered through the scope and burst out: “The Chinese Mountain cat!”
I could barely make out the shape of an animal concealed in a thick patch of grass, but I had learned to trust Sid and, without questions, I hurried after him up the slope. Despite the hurrying, however, our progress was painfully slow.
At this altitude, even a slight incline in topography felt like a mountaineering challenge. My lungs were starting to struggle to get enough air. The ground underneath our feet was peppered with broken rocks ranging in size from small pebbles to baseball-sized rugged lumps.
The rocks were concealed underneath a thick carpet of wild oats — an obnoxious plant with its entire reproductive strategy based on the ability of its seeds to burrow into the hide of a passing animal to hitch a ride away from the parent plant.
As we slowly made our way up the hill gulping air, tripping over unseen rocks and assailed by sharp seeds drilling themselves into our feet and ankles, we knew all too well that at any moment the cat could get up and leave. Eventually, it did.
Helplessly, we watched it walk away. As it reached the crest of the hill, almost out of reach of Sid’s powerful torch, it stood out against the black sky like a ghostly apparition, before disappearing out of view.
Having climbed so far, in very relative terms, we were reluctant to give up. We laboured up to the crest of the hill and scanned the grassland below. Distant eye shine told us that the cat was circling back to the quarry. We followed it again, struggling to keep up.
The next time we spotted it, it was sitting contentedly on a pile of rocks mere few meters away from the Pallas’s cat’s layer. Shivering underneath all my clothing, I felt envious of its thick winter coat. Unlike me, the cat was completely at home on the cold, windswept plateau.
We watched the cat through the scope for what seemed like an eternity and I felt a profound sense of gratitude for this moment in time that meant so much to me. If I could find the Chinese Mountain cats, the rares of Tibetan cats, then perhaps my quest was not that impossible after all.
Visiting Ruoergai Grassland
I visited Ruoergai Grassland on a wildlife watching trip with Sichuan Birding. If it is wildlife you are hoping to observe, I could not recommend them highly enough.
If you would like to keep the costs down you can always opt for an organized tour such as those offered by WindhorseTour agency. Try to keep the group size to a minimum to keep that spirit of exploration alive.
Alternatively, you can make your own way to Langmusi and explore the area from your base in town. It will take a little more commitment to get to the plateau by public transport, but it is by far the cheapest option.