Goat Upon the Waters (No Chickens Please!)—And the Ride from Hell

Today was another amazing and grueling day, like so many before now. Yet each day is like no other and continues to surprise this seasoned China traveler. The Yellow River, the sixth longest river in the world, arises in Qinghai Province immediately to the west of Gansu. By a circuitous route it flows generally west to east before entering the Bohai Sea in Shandong Province. Southwest of Lanzhou it unexpectedly bends back westward through an interesting gorge, the site of several important hydroelectric dams. This area in Yongjing County is a favored vacation area for good reason. It is truly lovely. The area is also the site of Liujiaxia National Dinosaur Geopark, dedicated to preserving some superb dinosaur footprints discovered by Daqing in 1999. Naturally this was our goal, but one not necessarily easily attained. There is no established road there. The easiest access is by boat along the Yellow River, or by infrequent narrow gauge railway. Despite the difficulties, 20,000 visitors annually have visited the site since it was dedicated in October, 2005, an event that my wife and I attended as Daqing’s guests. Yongjing is an easy and scenic 1 1/2 drive from Lanzhou, crossing a 2200 m pass. As we drove along the river below Yongjing, we began to appreciate the natural beauty that tourists find so engaging. The banks of the river are lined with lovely willow trees, still green,  that arch over the quiet little road. On our right there are lotus ponds, on our left there are fish ponds.

Sunrise on the Yellow River

Sunrise on the Yellow River

As we arrived at the ferry landing, we found a splendid sample of rural China at its most appealing. There was an old man in a Mao cap, silver goatee and wire-rimmed glasses, smoking his pipe and tranquilly eyeing the passing scene. The deeply-etched lines in his face show great character. There was a young mother and her two children, an eight year-old girl and a four year-old boy. I engaged them by taking their photos and showing them the results, an easy ploy for social interaction. I explained to the girl in Chinese that I am an American and I asked her if she was an American. Her response was a girlish giggle. They were waiting for a bus, but nearby folks were waiting for the ferry.

Penn's cultural attache

Penn's cultural attache

The most charming vehicle in the ferry line was a rickety three-wheeled farm wagon with a splendid white goat in the truck bed. The farmer had a 10-year old pig-tailed daughter wearing a jacket that read ‘ballet buddy’ in English on the back. It was a strange sight to see the goat placidly floating across the river. We had chartered a ferry for the day for filming purposes. Our boatman was a farmer turned riverman; his face too was a character study. Our first run strictly for photographic purposes was straight across the river to the ferry dock opposite. Here a young woman on a bicycle attempted to board but sadly was turned away from our charter. She was carrying a basket of live chickens!

When we turned downriver, we sometimes trailed our second chartered ferry (where our cameramen ground away with their cameras pointed at Phil, Daqing and myself), and sometime we led it. It was travel in comfort, for the water was smooth as glass and the weather unexpectedly warm, probably in the mid 60s. The river was broad, swift and remarkably clean. The waters were neither yellow nor brown; the dam upriver must allow sediment to settle out. Soon cliffs came down to rivers edge, first of Ordovician age and then some granitic basement. But for much of the cruise we glided past well-bedded Lower Cretaceous sediments. We marveled at angular unconformities, small faults and wonderful folds, a geological wonderland.

Cormorant in flight

Cormorant in flight

Moreover, there was birdlife to be seen. The highlight was going past a cormorant rookery above white-stained rock faces. The entire colony took flight when we drifted past. Phil blasted away with his 400 mm lens in his Cannon SLR, and captured some wonderful pictures in flight. We also saw mallards on the river (did I really travel 7000 miles to see mallards?!) and a large group of egrets high on a cliff. After numerous starts, stops and reversals of direction (typical of a film operation), we finally arrived at the boat landing for the Geopark. The sign proclaimed in perfectly plain Chinglish “Konglongwan Wharf. Passenger in turn hing and low.” Let me know if you figure this one out!

Phil leaping into Peter!

Phil leaping into Peter!

There are two footprint sites, one under a permanent shelter and the other not so protected. It now being rather late in the afternoon it was decided that the light was too poor inside to film (and Phil was not permitted inside to ogle them—in order to preserve the spontaneity of his reaction). We will return as planned tomorrow. Instead Phil was encouraged to visit site 2 and collect data. Site 2 is over 1000 square meters in area and contains more than 1200 footprints, about one per square meter. Phil is a techie, and he demonstrated the use of LIDAR to execute a computerized map of the site, using a laser beam that records 50,000 points per second. He stated that he could do it in 1.5 hours. Which he did. Unfortunately this operation concluded at 6:30 p.m., 10 minutes after sunset.

Yellow River sunset

Yellow River sunset

We were about 200 meters above the valley floor, and the ferry had left several hours earlier. Vehicles brought us down to the visitor center below, but the only way to get back to Yongjing is by vehicle—namely our 18 passenger bus and Daqing’s fleet of Mitsubishi SUVs. I had already stated that there is no road in. There is not. There is a rude single-lane dirt track that ascends the steep far wall of the valley. The bus driver was trying to hurry Phil as he was clearly nervous about crossing such a perilous road in the dark. We departed at 6:45 p.m. in pitch dark. I turned weenie and asked to ride in Daqing’s hardy SUV; Phil followed suit. I had a hard time seeing the bus as roadworthy. I was a weasel for deserting my friends in the team bus; for once I cashed in on my seniority privilege. We departed in a convoy of five vehicles (including the bus) and groped our way up though switchback after switch back, and then jostled our way slowly down the other side.

Two remarkable events occurred. We were stopped in the dark by a man demanding a toll to continue–a fine bit of rural entrepreneurship! Daqing handled the situation tactfully, pointing out we were not mere tourists, we were visiting scientists and foreigners on an official trip; Daqing’s name was known to the bandit, and Daqing told the man he was prepared to report this to authorities if he did not let us pass. He backed down. After a bit we came to a darkened farm village on this one-lane track. It might have been quaint, with dried corn sheathes lining both sides an arm’s length away from the car. Suddenly we came upon a padlocked wrought iron gate barring our further progress! Moreover, not a person was stirring; the sun was down and so apparently were the villagers. It took 15 minutes to raise someone to open the gate. He too demanded a toll, but once again Daqing talked his way out of the situation. I thought I had seen it all but I am still being surprised. What a country! We finally passed our last obstacle, but the drive continued forever. We crossed the Yellow River back on to the correct side, but had to cross a mountain before getting back to Yongjing. We got to our hotel at 8:30, everyone feeling exhausted from the journey. Never did water seem so appealing an alternative to backbreaking land travel.

Tomorrow we boat!



  1. Cynthia Harrington said,

    October 26, 2009 at 1:04 am

    Your journey is reminiscent of the early European explorers. What riches there!

  2. Sara ElShafie said,

    October 27, 2009 at 2:25 am

    I am told cars are the #1 peril on a field expedition – good call to go with the sturdy one. I would say the Chinglish sign translates to “Did you bring your motrin?”

  3. Patti Kane-Vanni said,

    October 27, 2009 at 1:24 pm

    Or “Passengers must stoop to embark”/

  4. LiDAR Survey said,

    November 2, 2009 at 5:54 am

    You made a nice journey. Thanks for sharing your experience.

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