Travel from Jinzhou to Lanzhou – All that Glitters Is Not Gold

Today we covered a lot of ground. Our options were either to travel by bus three hours back to Shenyang and take two flights to reach Lanzhou or to drive six hours (450 km) by bus to Beijing and take one flight to Lanzhou. It was decided to do the latter. So we departed at 6 a.m. flat (once again) and set off by expressway to Beijing. We stopped in a rest area at 8:15 for breakfast. It was a Chinese breakfast but it turned out unexpectedly well. Coffee can be hard to come by outside of the major cities, but we managed to score some (volcanically) heated cans of Nescafe. Surprisingly palatable under the circumstances. We also had Chinese tea, steamed buns and then a really tasty tortilla-like roll-up with egg, meat, onions and seasoning. It was very satisfying. Resuming our journey we passed underneath the eastern end of the Great Wall at Qinhuangdao where it descends out of the nearby mountains and reaches the sea, right at the boundary between the provinces of Liaoning and Hebei. That is the only noteworthy feature of an otherwise unremarkable drive. We will not miss our bus driver—his antics behind the wheel were not much appreciated by his passengers. At one point he was leaning on his horn to try to open a wedge between two slow moving vehicles ahead of him. Nothing was happening ahead but we were nearly blasted out of our seats by the horn. Rob wondered out loud if his horn only sounded on the inside!

map of Gansu province

Not long before we arrived at Beijing Airport Rob received a text message informing of us of the Phillies’ exciting 9th inning two-out  5 – 4 victory over the Dodgers on the double by Jimmy Rollins – aren’t modern communications wonderful?! We arrived at the airport around 12:45 p.m., with time to spare for a quick (shudder) Burger King meal (perhaps not the end of civilization but close to it!). It is a long way to Lanzhou – 1800 km southwest of Beijing, squarely in the center of China. The 2:30 p.m. flight was slow to depart, and it was nearly 5:30 when we arrived, but still light. By this time it would have been nearly dark in Liaoning. Strangely, the entire country is on the same time zone despite its immense size. By traveling so far west we pick up light in the evening but lose it in the morning.

We were met at the airport and loaded onto our new bus to bring us into Lanzhou, an hour’s ride away. Lanzhou is a reasonably attractive city with many colorful lights located on both sides of the Yellow River (Huang He in Chinese). Our hotel, the Hot Springs Hotel, stood up proudly near the banks of the Yellow River. Its gleaming lobby and attractive exterior made it look quite promising. When we went up to our rooms we were all unhappy for a variety of reasons. For me the clincher was that there was no shower enclosure – water from the shower is designed to run all over the floor. That violates my lower limit of acceptability. I just don’t feel it is necessary.  Moreover, a variety of products for sale in the rooms suggested the hotel might rent rooms by the hour. When we met downstairs for dinner at 7:30 p.m., we all voiced displeasure. Pip Gilmour, our series producer, is a decisive gal. Whereas I would have toughed it out for the night and moved in the morning, she determined we would move out that night.

Lanzhou hospitality

Lanzhou hospitality

First we had dinner as guests of my very dear colleague and friend Li Daqing. He is an extremely friendly and hospitable man, and dinner with him is always a memorable affair. His wife Guo Lei and his workers always attend his dinners, which was held at a restaurant just around the corner from our erstwhile hotel. My colleagues basked in the warmth of his friendship. Anyone who is a friend of mine is a friend of his. The food was abundant and superb. We drank ba bao cha, eight-treasure tea, a wonderful local specialty with fruits and flowers. We also drank Chinese beer and just a little bit of baijiu, the often dreaded white alcohol that so many Chinese, including Daqing and his workers, love to consume. Guo Lei does not drink, and so she is the designated driver. Daqing never pressures me to drink baijiu, but I drink a little bit out of courtesy. They provide us with very tiny glasses, barely thimblefuls.

We returned to the hotel at 10 p.m., packed our bags and moved. We have settled in at the Lanzhou Friendship Hotel. I always stay there. I have never considered it the lap of luxury but at least the bath water does not spread across the floor!

Everyone appreciates that great things are in store in the coming days!

Blogger’s Fatigue

This blogger has not run out of things to write about – that will never happen, least of all in China. But when we return to the hotel at 8:45 p.m. without supper and schedule a 5:45 a.m. check out the next morning, it tempers the exuberance of the writer a wee bit! Today is my beloved daughter’s birthday; there are times when it tugs at my heart strings to be halfway around the world.

The day dawned sunny and brisk. There were two filming venues today, one at the street market in Jinzhou, and the other far out of town. Staying at the hotel was an option for me, but in a quantum event I materialized out of the ether and was filmed in the marketplace before blinking out of existence again. Phil and Hailu did their market tour first. Standing outside at 9 a.m. proved to be pretty invigorating so Kelly thought it best for me to be inside. She located a coffee venue for me, which turned out to be an intriguing western-style fast food restaurant called “Popland.” It served well indeed. When Hailu was finished he came inside and I took his place; the film crew and producers had no such luck. When I came out in mid morning it was definitely warmer. Phil and I walked to another spot in the market and had our stroll through, discussing the pleasure of his first visit to China, and the reasons scientific and personal why I have been coming here for nearly 15 years. The walk involved interactions with some of the fish mongers, including some brief conversations in Chinese. We did multiple takes (wide shots, close shots, talking shots, silent walks) so there is no way of knowing which version (if any at all) will appear. At the first walk one of the young merchants engaged us in lively conversation, both English and Chinese, but then could not be roused on subsequent pass-bys, because he was engrossed in a foursome of cards!

We all lunched at Popland on fish sandwiches and chicken burgers. They were decent but took a long time coming. What did come in seemingly endless succession were orders of French fries. I declined the first half dozen times or so but finally succumbed. They were actually quite respectable. We then drove 1 hour and 45 minutes to the extremely important site of Sihetun, the quarry from which came Sinosauropteryx, the small proto-feathered dinosaur that in 1996 signaled the start of the paleontological explosion that brought China to the fore. Other fossils from here include Protarchaeopteryx, Beipiaosaurus, Sinornithosaurus, and legions of fossil birds, above all the bird Confuciusornis. This is truly holy ground for paleontologists and I dearly love coming here with Hailu. An added treat is meeting Mr. Li, the farmer who found Sinosauropteryx. He is a sweet man and always smiles broadly when he sees me. An in situ museum shows specimens of Confuciusornis and my beloved dinosaur Psittacosaurus in position on the bedding plane as first discovered. Outside the spoil piles underneath the cliffs (man made cliffs) are bursting with fossil insect larvae (Ephemeropsis) and a clam like crustacean (Eoestheria). Hailu and Phil filmed outside until the sun went down. They then filmed inside the splendid museum until 7 p.m. We were all pretty chilled by this time and happy to board our cozy warm bus for the return trip to our hotel in Jinzhou.

Descent into the Earth – Perilous Cinematography – Part 2

This entry is provided by Dr. Phil Manning

Yesterday (Sunday the 18th) I learnt a healthy respect for Chinese farmers who risk life and limb digging deep pits into the bedrock of Liaoning to plunder the Cretaceous beasties entombed in the sands of time….in this case, mud and volcanic ash!

Before we could get to the site of my decent in the paleontological world, Peter, the crew and I drove across the busy city of Jin Zou. Our driver is a positive sort of chap, who had already attempted grafting several pedestrians, cyclists and rickshaws to the front and sides of our crew vehicle…usually at speed. This morning was no exception. Driving at a pace through an impossibly busy market, squeezed onto a one-horse street, our driver pressed hard on the gas-pedal. Whilst we all found this quite exhilarating, the local population in the market did not. Our vehicle pushed and shoved its way through the alleged ‘short-cut’ to our final destination. The bus almost acquired a new Ass (see photo) in one very close shave….in addition to the one already driving our bus!

Our driver almost hit them

Our driver almost hit them

After an eventful, bumpy, rocky and swerving drive, akin to being thrashed about in a stormy sea (this driver could make a seasoned sailor as sick as a marine parrot), we arrived in Liaoning. The museum starkly stood-out in a relatively bleak rural landscape, atop a low windy hill. The modern grey building was in stark contrast to its surroundings, but the welcome we received from our host was warm and laced with excellent coffee.

After greetings and coffee we headed outside the museum towards a shallow ring of bricks, with a tripod of scaffold over the top. A large iron door was sat within the brick ring, as our host lifted back the door, dust gently drifted into the void…gulp…that was where I was going. Peter grinned at Alex (cameraman) and Ihe was to be our host paparazzi with Hailu-You at the surface–whilst Alex and I grappled with ropes, cameras, torches and hopefully some fossils…at the end of a long rope.

The long descent

The long descent

Peter has already provided a great account of life topside, but the rip in the space time continuum that Alex and I would occupy, would make hours seem like minutes. By the time I had descended the hole dug by local farmers to collect fossils, I had new-found respect for their hole digging and tunneling abilities. To see what I saw, alas, you will have to wait till the Nat Geo series next year, but let’s just say Liaoning was no disappointment!

A stunning salamander fossil

A stunning salamander fossil

Once ascended, all I wanted to do was stay in my cramped, dark, dank hole…but weather up on the surface was rapidly worsening, so Alex and I had to call it a day. My first descent into Liaoning’s Cretaceous past had been thankfully smooth and uneventful. Our journey back with the psycho-driver from hell…well, the less said, the better. 🙂

Regards,

Phil

Descent into the Earth – Perilous Cinematography

Liaoning is a magical terrain for paleontologists. Since 1996, discoveries here have set the world on fire and have brought China to the number one position in the world for the diversity of dinosaurs. But Liaoning in northeastern China, part of old Manchuria, is not noted for its giant dinosaurs. Quite the contrary, dinosaurs here are noteworthy for their very small sizes, and also for their feathers. Here, as nowhere else in the world, the transition from small meat-eating dinosaurs to birds of modern aspect is documented with literally thousands of fossils pertaining to dozens of species and genera. In addition, fossil plants, insects, fishes, turtles, lizards, crocodiles, flying reptiles and even mammals are found in spectacular states of preservation. There is even a large mammal that had the chutzpah to eat a baby dinosaur—imagine! Death was its proper reward! I first visited Liaoning in 1997, at the very beginning of the fossil rush, and I have returned here numerous times. I never need an excuse to come!

Today’s goal is the new Yizhou Fossil and Geology Park near the town of Yixian, located roughly an hour and a half’s drive from the city of Jinzhou. The day dawned chilly—no more late summer as in Shandong. We were on an early call, and departed at 7 a.m. flat (the sharp part was lost when one of our crew got stuck in a hotel elevator for 15 minutes with disgruntled patrons who blamed him (correctly) for the mishap). As I sit here on the second floor of the fossil center tapping out these words in the warmth, I see an interesting panorama out the window of hills and low mountains so characteristic of western Liaoning, and farmers with mule-drawn wagons in the foreground working over the stubble, evidently collecting mounds of dried corn stalks for fuel. It is really very picturesque. The keen observer will also note certain subtle pocks on the landscape that represent farmers’ excavations into the rich fossil beds beneath the corn fields. Although the pits are illegal, the rewards are potentially great. A single spectacular find of a bird or a feathered dinosaur can mean one to 10 years’ wages for a poor farmer. We arrived at the fossil park before 9 a.m. and were greeted by Damien Leloup, a gentle, soft-spoken Frenchman, who speaks both English and Chinese as well. After a quick coffee and a tour of the exquisite treasures of the small museum, we headed out across the landscaped terrain to a hole in the ground, which represents one of the illegal farmers’ pits. It is now surrounded by a low brick wall and has a tightly fitting metal cover. This one evidently was dug by three farmers in about four days working clandestinely. It reportedly produced five coveted fossil birds! For our visit this morning a tall sturdy tripod with a winch stands over the circular hole, which measures about 6 feet in diameter at the top. The object of today’s exercise is to drop Phil into the bottom of the hole so he can examine the beds and find some fossils. Phil seems to prefer the term ‘controlled descent,’ the pit measuring somewhat more than 60 feet in depth. Peter Dodson is invisible today; indeed, Peter Dodson seems not to have traveled to Liaoning. It complicates the story line to have too many characters, especially speaking ones. The producers will have to deal with my mother later over this one.  Hailu is a new principal. In any case, there is no possibility of having extra bodies down the cramped hole. But there had to be two—a camera man plus Phil. Interesting logistic challenges.

Cameraman Alex gets into his harness

Cameraman Alex gets into his harness

Safety is of paramount importance. Wouldn’t it be helpful if there were an experienced climber around? How very helpful indeed it is that DOP Alex Hubert (who is not a dope but a Director of Photography) is a mountain climber who has climbed on three continents. Alex is a handsome dark-haired dude who could easily be on the other side of the camera. He donned his complicated climbing harness with authority, mastering the myriad buckles and latches, and carefully tested and re-tested his ropes and cables and buckled on his yellow safety helmet. He looked like a GQ commercial for an extremely expensive watch. Then he descended into the hole, let down by electric winch all the way to the bottom. After extensive reconnaissance down below he came up with his report and recommendations. One of them was that he needed a safety shield to protect him from falling debris as Phil descended on top of him. When all was ready he descended to the bottom once more, and when he was ready, Phil, trussed up like a turkey as he described it, descended slowly on top of Alex. They were down together in indecent proximity for a long time. For the longest time little seemed to be occurring. I think they were sorting out their relative positions, which limb went where, etc. We could not possibly see from the top, nor did we try because it was imperative to stay away from the rim in order to avoid causing falling debris. All I could think was claustrophobia (it being narrower at the bottom) and to wonder how Alex could possibly get any footage under these appalling conditions? As time dragged on, now well past an hour below, and little seemed to  be happening we began to get worried and started thinking about ordering them back up. It seems that horizontal shafts exploiting the fossil layer were drawing undue attention from Phil. It was much too risky to permit him to go there.

Phil about to descend into the hole

Phil about to descend into the hole

After a semi-eternity, we started getting reports from below and Phil actually started enjoying himself with his characteristic gushing enthusiasm. We finally got him on script, which required him finding some fossils, which fortunately isn’t difficult.  He was communicating by walkie talkie with Hailu standing at the top of the shaft. Hailu called him up top to show the fossil and with the greatest reluctance he was winched up. His down time was roughly an hour and 45 minutes, which was very long indeed. Alex remained down finishing up shots without Phil in the way (cleaning up after their tryst?). When Alex signaled he was ready to come up, he made multiple filming stops along the way, the last one filming Hailu standing at the top of the hole as he rose to the top and out, as the proxy for Phil’s ascent. Alex was down in what many of us on top thought was a very cramped, muddy and disagreeable spot (did I mention the centipedes?!) for well over two hours, absolutely heroic. It seems that this should be some pretty arresting cinema. If this is half as good as I think it will be, I am nominating Alex for an Emmy! Phil emerged from the hole right muddy, really a disgusting mess, and proud of it. It was 3 p.m. before this filming was concluded and we retired for lunch. The weather had deteriorated badly during this time, and we on top were buffeted by wind under gray skies and cool temperatures. Sure enough it rained after lunch and no further filming proved possible.

Phil returns to the surface with photos

Phil returns to the surface with photos

We did have a fine dinner in Yixian with our colleagues from the Yizhou Museum. It was a hot pot, filled with wonderful fresh spices and tasty sesame paste, washed down the Tsingtao. We got back to our hotel in Jinzhou at 8:30 p.m.

Life Returns to a Dead Horse – and Beer in the Morning

Just as we were getting into a squabble over who would get Phil’s camera and who would get his GPS, Phil actually returned from the dead. At 8 a.m. he was sitting in the hotel lobby with pink cheeks and the twinkle in his eyes that we all so love. The Australian doctor in Beijing with whom we consulted by phone clearly gave good advice. He traveled well and even began munching light snacks in mid afternoon. We set off at 8 a.m. for our 1 hour 45 minute bus ride from Zhucheng to Qingdao airport under bright blue skies. You Hailu was waiting for us at the airport when we arrived, having flown in from Nanjing this morning. You Hailu (Ph.D., geology, U Penn 2002) is the reason for my frequent trips to China. Once my student and now my colleague and friend, Hailu is one of the top dinosaur scientists in the world; I am proud to be his doctor vater. Hailu will be with us in Liaoning and Gansu. After passing through security, we sought out an establishment and ordered a beer. It was 11 a.m., and I do not generally consider consuming a beer at that hour. However, it was not just any beer that I ordered by a Tsingtao! And what could possibly be more appropriate than drinking a Tsingtao in Qingdao, the home of its eponymous brew?! It was too good an occasion to pass up. Actually three or four of us actually sampled the brew, so it was somewhat less hedonistic than it sounds!

map of Liaoning province

Map of Liaoning province

The rest of the day’s travel was outstandingly uneventful. We flew 900 km north across the Bohai Sea to Shenyang, the capitol city of Liaoning Province. We arrived about 12:45 p.m., and by 1 p.m. we had collected our luggage and had boarded our bus for another three hours drive to Jinzhou, our base for the next three nights. The Jinzhou Mansion Hotel is downtown directly opposite the train station. This hotel features large rooms and lightning-fast internet, among the best I have encountered in China. Dinner in the hotel was quite excellent, the first one with all of us together at a big round table with the proverbial lazy Susan in the middle.

Tomorrow we film.

Illness interrupts filming

I awoke feeling bright-eyed and bushy tailed. Obviously holothurian (a.k.a. sea cucumber) agrees with me. (Gustatory hint: don’t meditate on it, just pick it up and poke it in! This is my unfailing advice for eating otherwise dubious food items.) Phil, however, who was fighting respiratory problems yesterday, succumbed to dire alimentary canal issues during the night, and felt like death warmed over, although he didn’t actually look quite that good. We analyzed our food intake from the banquet the night before and I really ate everything he did plus a few other items to boot. Well, truth be told, I do have a reputation as the Badger 5000 food disposal unit! I am rarely flummoxed by what appears on my plate.

Peter and a giant rib

Peter and a giant rib

Further bureaucratic complications arose in the morning, necessitating yet more negotiations with Mr. Wang, the tourism director. Because I had gotten along so swimmingly with him the night before, Pip thought it might be useful for me to come along. I suppose I learned more than I wanted to about this sort of thing. At stake was real money, 50,000 or 100,000. At least the currency is Chinese, and so the dollar amount was only about $14,000. Let us say that an accord was reached and please do not press me for the details, because I will be forced to deny any knowledge at all. But we were driven by Mr. Wang’s driver out to the dig site and filming resumed. Phil gamely joined us. Mainly we filmed me while he languished on our bus. By mid afternoon his condition deteriorated badly. We tried to film one short scene to establish the connection between the two of us, and he came out to attempt it, but was unable. The decision was made terminate filming and seek medical attention for Phil. One option was to drive him to hospital in Qingdao, but it was decided to get medical consultation from an emergency specialist in town. The consultation was made and treatment has begun. The crew is doing in-town filming that does not require either of us. I checked in on Phil in his room on a 30 minute schedule and he slept soundly. This has the potential to wreak further havoc with our travel schedule, but obviously returning Phil to the pink of health is the first order of business. I miss his mirth and joviality!

Phil and bones

Phil and bones

After three hours sleep Phil roused in the early evening and I dosed him the Panadol for pain. He also insisted that I go to the dinosaur preparation lab, where filming was being done. I am glad I went. It was an astonishing workshop, on a fitting scale for the size of the quarry. Several skeletons of the giant Shantungosaurus were already assembled, and several more were in the process of assembly, with welding sparks showering the floor. The quadrupedal Shantungosaurus seemed quite plausible, but the bipedal one reared into the rafters of the warehouse—improbable in the extreme but visually stunning! On the other side was a huge lab for the preparation and storage of fossils. There were veritable petrified forests of standing femurs and tibias and shelf upon shelf of vertebrae. So many bones replicated and replicated again—the scene is reminiscent of the terra cotta warriors, but only of dinosaurs, not ancient warriors. Such splendid treasures will not be viewed by the public for three years, when a major museum will open in Zhucheng. But viewers of National Geographic will see the marvels!

Tomorrow, a travel day.

Peter in the bone shed

Peter in the bone shed

The day Peter and Phil die and go to dinosaur bone heaven!

With some lingering difficulty bureaucratic red tape was at last put behind us and filming began. Our quarry site was located in farm country on the outskirts of Zhucheng, not much more than 15 minutes ride from our hotel. Here in 1973, scientists from the Beijing Geological Museum collected a gigantic hadrosaur or duck-billed dinosaur, which was named Shantungosaurus. Last year work began on another quarry over the hill from the first one. It was this site that Phil and I visited today. We had the good fortune to be joined by Dr. Xu Xing of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP). The IVPP is China’s flagship institute for paleontology, roughly equivalent to the Smithsonian in the U.S. Xu Xing is a delightful young man who in the last 10 years has described more new kinds of dinosaurs than anyone who has ever lived. How great to have him with us, even though it was only for today.

Xu Xing, Phil Manning and Peter Dodson

Xu Xing, Phil Manning and Peter Dodson

What we saw and filmed today is absolutely stunning. A year’s worth of excavation has exposed a quarry face that is jammed with bones, more than 6000 exposed to date. Like Dinosaur National Monument, the quarry face dips steeply, which enhances the visibility of bones for the visitor. Unlike Dinosaur National Monument, which is a paltry 100 meter or so long, the exposed quarry runs on for more than 500 meters! There is simply nothing else like it anywhere in the world. Arguably there are bonebeds in Montana and Alberta that are larger in extent, but they have not been excavated for public viewing, and the size and quality of the bones do not compare. Shantungosaurus is a sauropod in hadrosaur clothing, or as Phil puts it, “A sauropod masquerading as a hadrosaur.” The bones are immense. I could not resist pulling out a measuring tape and recording bone lengths. Femurs ranged from 1.5 to 1.6 meters in length, the size of a respectable Camarasaurus. Ribs were 1.6. meters long. The largest humeri were more than a meter long. I found a sauropod in Montana 10 years ago whose humerus was a paltry 75 cm long. This dinosaur was immense! Phil and I clambered all over the deposit photographing and measuring as much as we cold, but in a couple of hours we cold only scratch the surface. It was painful to be called off the surface. We will be back tomorrow, and Phil still has a couple of tricks up his sleeve.

The Zhucheng bonescape

The Zhucheng bonescape

As Sally and Pip were called to take one for the team last night, Phil and I accompanied Xu Xing into the lion’s den tonight by dining with the dread director of tourism Mr. Wang. I was reluctant to go as I was falling off my chair with fatigue, and Phil is nursing pulmonary problems and taking a course of pred. Nonetheless, for our friend Xu’s sake, we agreed to go, stipulating that we did not want to drink baijiu, and that Phil was compromised in respiration and did not want to be fumigated with tobacco smoke. So we went with Xu Xing and had a splendid time. Mr. Wang was very convivial, and he and I ended up best buds. We drank a decent red wine from Shandong rather than baijiu, and the food was sensational, among the finest dinners I have eaten in China (and I have eaten a few!). Among the guests were five comely maidens who work for the bureau of tourism, and they did their part in consuming baijiu and coming around to offer toasts , either of hongputaojiu, the red wine we were drinking, or of baijiu, the white alcohol of legend. Halfway through the wonderful meal I remarked to Phil at my right that we were getting off easy. Later on I conceded to him that, relatively weak as the red wine was, I was definitely feeling the poorer after all these toasts. Nonetheless, I parted on the very best of terms with Mr. Wang, who considered me his brother and who told me he would appoint me to the scientific advisory panel of the dinosaur site. My Chinese is rudimentary but I know just enough to make diplomatic statements at the right time. It was a great evening to conclude a great day!

 

Peter Dodson, Phil Manning and Mr. Wang

Peter Dodson, Phil Manning and Mr. Wang

And now a word from Dr. Phil Manning:

My humble apologies for leading Peter astray this evening, but he was both willing and wonderful company. The Sino-American ‘en tant cordial’ was well and truly mastered by Peter. Attached are images that are testament to the fact.

I have little, again, to add to Peter’s fine prose….other than we both hope to forge and foster a long and fruitful research collaboration with Dr Xi Xing and his wonderful colleagues in Zhucheng. Tonight I learnt much about the concept of moderation, when it comes to hospitality…. Peter, was a gem and stepped forward once more to take one for the team and indulge in a phylogenetic spaghetti soup….that I am sure he is still digesting.  I had no idea that Holothuroidean soup could be so slimy in a swamp of pureed corn…..yum!

Bureau of Tourism dinner

Bureau of Tourism dinner

The sites we both saw today were simply gob-smacking. I have never seen so much dinosaur bone wantonly strewn across a paleo-surface, as we saw today. Tarzan’s elephant graveyard pales into insignificance when it comes to what Zhucheng has to offer from the sands of time. Here frozen in time is a catastrophic moment that saw the demise and entombment of many hundreds, if not thousands of animals…all unpleasantly dismembered by the taphonomic mill that is the fossil record. What is so remarkable, they have been lovingly excavated, prepared and conserved for one and all to ogle. In my 20 + years as a palaeontologist I have had the luck to see some amazing sites, but few compare to Zhucheng. I hold my breathe for the remainder of the sino-dino-tour…..plus my stomach is developing Kevlar capabilities as the tour progresses…..now where did I put those Alka-Seltzer 🙂

Paleontological best wishes,
Phil

Dr. Dodson filmed at the Zhucheng bonescape.

Dr. Dodson filmed at the Zhucheng bonescape.

Travel to Zhucheng, Shandong Province

This morning the entire team assembled in the splendid marble and carved wood lobby of the Xiyuan Hotel. At a hasty breakfast (and perhaps our last coffee for a week or two?) I learned my place. There is a series producer, Pip Gilmour; a field producer, Sally Williams; two film men, Alex Hubert and Rob Grossman; Adrian Kubala, the sound man; the quiet Daming, a camera and lighting assistant; there is a fixer, Eric Huan, a Chinese transplant to New Zealand, and Kelly Kong, whom we met yesterday, the production assistant. Then there are two BOFs. That would be Phil Manning and myself. What is a BOF, you ask? It means Brilliant Old Fart or Boring Old Fart, depending on whom you listen to (and I told Adrian that if I wanted his opinion next time I would ask!). Officially, Phil is Leading Scientist and I am Visiting Scientist. I must say that the planning that goes into a project like this is extraordinary. A month of field reconnaissance preceded my arrival. Nothing is left to chance. Every film venue has been visited, every hotel scoped, every flight booked. Despite meticulous planning, things still go wrong. We decided to send suitcases and camera equipment by land instead of by air. On the way to the airport Adrian recollected that he had sent his passport in the land vehicle, and thus would be unable to provide identification to fly. He cheerfully solved the problem by opting to join the 8 hour drive to Zhucheng.

The Forbidden City in Beijing, China

The Forbidden City in Beijing, China

Off to the splendid new Beijing Capital City Airport, one of the architectural wonders of the modern world. This immense soaring and graceful structure was the largest enclosed space in the world when it opened it last summer in time for the Beijing Olympics. It has since been relegated to number 2 by Dubai’s new air terminal. Despite the immense size and passenger volume, the terminal is a pleasure to encounter. With its soaring ceiling, it feels neither crowded nor cramped. Unencumbered by baggage, we flew Air China to Qingdao, an easy one hour 20 minute flight across the Sea of Bohai and the Shandong Peninsula. We did a nice fly-by of the prosperous port city of 3 million plus, coming past the rugged slopes of 1100 meter Laoshan, whose springs provide the water for Tsingtao beer. At the airport we boarded a comfortable small tourist bus and headed inland for Zhucheng, 40 miles west. We at first passed fish ponds and then corn fields with columns of drying stalks. I was frankly expecting a rude rural town, but Zhucheng has a population of just over a million, and seems reasonably prosperous (as is all of Shandong). Its industrial base is clean and modern—electronics, machinery, garment manufacturing, not smokestack industry. The Mizhou Hotel greeted us with English-language signs, which is always reassuring. As is so often the case in Asia, the hotel pays great attention to esthetics. It has buildings on three sides of a courtyard with a centerpiece garden and sculpture. The lobby presents an elegant two-storey tall etched glass waterfall, which is really quite arresting.  Before we checked in, each of us received a forehead scan with an infrared sensor—no good saying you feel fine if you really do not. I thought once I entered the country it was OK to feel sick. It is not! After the SARS debacle, China is taking infectious diseases very seriously indeed—very commendable.

Map of Shandong province

Map of Shandong province

Today is a designated travel day. Unfortunately a conference with local officials is required before filming begins. Tomorrow we see some bones! Tonight we enjoyed an excellent group meal at a modest little family restaurant not far from the hotel. The food was simple, ample and tasty: beef, spicy pork Xinjiang style, a shrimp dish, egg with onion and pepper, broccoli, pancakes (bing), peanuts and spinach, celery, an unfamiliar melon, rice, soup, and others I don’t remember. We also had green tea and Tsingtao beer. A very satisfying meal. The bill for eight people? 231 yuan, about $33! What is not to like?

Dinner in Zhucheng

Dinner in Zhucheng

Arriving in Beijing

Travel to China was smooth as it could have possibly been—Amtrak to Newark Airport, very smooth, agreeable flight to Beijing. (I could not be more anxious for the Philadelphia to Beijing flight to begin next spring!). Weather fine all the way—actually hot in Beijing – 75 degrees and bright sunny skies! I was met at the airport by Kelly, an intern production assistant, who is a senior in film studies at Shanghai Jiao Tong University. She whisked me off to the four-star Xiyuan Hotel. Something tells me this will not be a hardship assignment!  We depart at 6:45 a.m. for Qingdao (better known to beer-drinkers as Tsingtao) to begin our work in Shandong. Gotta get some sleep—what am I doing awake at 10:45 p.m.? Well, I guess the three hour nap from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. helped. We all know how addictive e-mail is! I learned of the Phillies’s white-knuckle game four victory in Colorado. Go Phils!

Preparing to leave for China

Flying across 12 time zones is always a big deal—day becomes night, night becomes day. Where is the passport? Will I be met at the airport? What did I leave behind in my office? Will I have all the necessary medications? Will my suitcase be overweight? Mainly anti-diarrheals. The one thing I never worry about—will I have a good time?! I just got the itinerary yesterday.  I arrive in Beijing on Tuesday Oct. 13 after a 14 hour flight from Newark up and over the North Pole, which is now settled into perpetual night for five and half more months. We will not linger in Beijing. Filming will be focused on three dinosaur sites, two in northeastern China not too far from Beijing, and one in northwestern China. The first destination will be Zhucheng in Shandong Province, where I have never been. This is a spectacular discovery which was just announced last December. I am especially interested because it is reported to have a horned dinosaur of the sort only known until now from Western North America. Few details of this site have reached the West yet. It will be a privilege to film here. Next we head to Liaoning, the site of the discoveries of feathered dinosaurs and birds that truly put China on the world map of paleontology beginning in the mid 1990s. I have already spent a fair amount of time in Liaoning, and look forward to going back. The third site will be in Gansu in northwestern China, where I will meet my friends and colleagues You Hailu and Li Daqing. National Geographic followed my suggestions for filming there. Good times loom ahead. Stay tuned!

China map

Map of China showing the three shoot locations

 

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