Trail of the Takin

I began to write about takins long before I began to care. For years I have traveled and written about the Min Mountains in central north Sichuan, where a conservation effort has put large adjoining areas under protection, and where the takin is one of several conspicuous animals – others include black bears, pandas, blue sheep, wolves, and so on. And on account of its rarity and strangeness I felt compelled to mention takins every time I wrote wildlife and adventure in the mountains. But takins meant nothing and elicited neither memory nor feelings – not even curiosity. I dismissed the takins as dull and dumb animals.


But that all changed one day at 3,400 meters high, where I was surrounded by a large herd of takins in a milieu that had mystical or heavenly qualities. I was then endeared to the takins’ outlandishness and social intelligence. The animals around me were handsome and alert and intelligent and enigmatic, living in organized social groups, and then I began to perceive the takins for what they truly are: the dark stars of the Min Mountains in Sichuan.  


I became a convert, and now I have to educate others who wonder why I make such a fuss about an animal they have never heard of. Unfortunately for takins, their obscurity is inversely proportional to the fame of the giant pandas, which share the same geographical range and habitats. It is the pandas that everyone talks about; it is the pandas that everyone who joins me in my travels wants to see.   


The strongholds of the pandas – and the takins – are situated in the Min Mountains, a range of mountains that are equivalent to the size of Sri Lanka. These mountains straddle the geological divide between the Sichuan basin and the Tibetan plateau, forming what is probably the steepest and densest range of mountains in the world. No wonder the landscapes within are also among the wildest places on earth, offering endless routes for adventurers and trekkers, particularly in the nature reserves. Four of the nature reserves are now open for trekkers, and I have traveled to all of them – as well as others not open for tourists – more than once in the past few years.   


On this particular trip I was accompanied by my wife, and we set out to explore some new trekking routes. We wanted to create a new traveling route focused on ‘panda tracking’; the idea is that our private clients would go trekking in panda habitat. There are hundreds of pandas in the Min Mountains, and they are not that hard to find if you know their behavior. Pandas are solitary and sedentary and territorial animals, and they live between 1,000 and 3,000 meters where the bamboo forests that is a source of their food occurs. Each panda has a territory of about four square kilometers, although it migrates seasonally – downlsope to low valleys in winter, moving to higher slopes in summer – and can also stray beyond its normal orbit in its search for a mate in spring. 


Our quest on this two-week trip was to find pandas in the wild, and we were visiting three nature reserves. I had been to all of them before, but on this trip we were doing different treks than I had done in my previous visits. Our first stop was Jiuzhaigou National Park, where we wanted to do a three-day trek that takes place in a part of the reserve that was newly opened for trekkers by the administration.  


Jiuzhaigou is the most famous outdoor attraction in China, and the statistics for the park are mind-boggling: the 720-square-kilometre park is elected as a World Heritage Site and a World Biosphere Reserve; there are more than 90 hotels outside the park to service the tourists, which amount to almost 2 million annually; and within the park visitors are herded in 300 biofuel buses that shuttle throughout a single road in the park. The park is famous for dozens of translucent lakes, which are formed by limestone deposits, as well as several thunderous waterfalls. Virtually all the tourists tour the park via the hop-on hop-off buses that shuttle within. It is something of a merry-go-round, the experience is contrived, and the best viewpoints are invaded by crowds all jostling to take pictures. It is not an atmosphere conducive to the contemplative enjoyment of nature, but if you are traveling this way, you have to see the lakes and waterfalls. See it, tick it off, then move on: now it is possible to veer off the beaten track and trek in Zharu valley, the part of the park that is newly opened for trekkers only.  


Our plan was to do the three-day ascent of Zhayiga Mountain, the highest mountain in the region and a Buddhist holy peak. The path starts in Rexi village, a small village consisting of Tibetan farmhouses built of slate and wood and inhabited by Benbo Tibetans, an endemic subgroup of Tibetans. Prayer flags are everywhere in the scenic village, and the old women are as colorful as peacocks: they wear heavy robes, long pleated hair, and bombastic jewellery. A high and wide cliff looms behind the village, called Mirror Cliff, and on the outskirts there is an attractive Tibetan temple with intricate carvings on its exterior walls and a large stupa that is allegedly filled with gold. There were no tourists here, only us.  


We began our trek beyond the temple, where the path steepened, and soon we were cutting through dark forest on the pilgrimage trail – the path is used by pilgrims who walk to the holy peak to pay their respects. We walked through forest dominated by Chinese pines and an understorey of arrow bamboo – panda habitat. But the bamboo was sparser than I had seen elsewhere; it still had not fully grown back after it had flowered and died in the 1980s, an event which devastated the panda community in Jiuzhaigou. Now there is only an estimated 17 pandas in Jiuzhaigou, and I was not confident that we would see a panda at all, whether on this trip or any other future trips.   


Yet the trek would still be exhilarating, offering a rare combination of untouched nature and cultural history in the form of Tibetans doing the pilgrimage of the holy peak, culminating in the ascent of the 4,000-metres-plus summit. But we had woes that day: the clouds coalesced and darkened, and by mid-day we were ambushed by darkly menacing clouds. The clouds smothered everything; we could not see any of the peaks around us. The wind raged; we could taste rain in the air. And we retreated, aborting the trek.  


Afterwards we headed to Wanglang, a couple of hundred kilometers away, where the weather was brighter. There is an estimated 31 pandas in Wanglang – although a recent study suggested that there might be around 66 pandas – and our plan was to go tracking pandas with the resident naturalist, whose name is Chen.  


It was my second time in Wanglang, and it was as I remembered it: moist monumental forests and forbidden granite peaks. The landscape is pure and wild and untouched. On our first day we drove to the edge of the jeep track at the upper reaches of the valley. But I could not find the path, and I became confused. Where was the patch of open ground interspersed with saplings of pines and azaleas that I remembered from my previous visit? Then I realized that the open ground had become closed young forest in the intervening two years since my previous visit. That realization reminded me of something I had once heard from Yang Ming, who previously worked with WWF in Sichuan. He had told me that forests in the Minshan were rapidly growing back and regenerating after logging was banned in the late nineties because “the climatic and other conditions are conducive for natural forest regeneration.” Now I could see that process in Wanglang: the moist climate, the species wealth, and the uninterrupted ecological processes accelerate the forest sprawl. And I would be more daring with my statement: Wanglang seems like a place in an accelerated pace of evolution.   


We eventually found the rarely-used path, and followed it as it wove through an ancient spruce forest where the trees have never been cut. The trees loomed at least six storeys high, and even dead trees remained standing, their disintegrating trunks standing like phantoms. The plants that made up the understorey change according to the aspect of the slope, alternating between rhododendrons and moss and arrow bamboo. At one point we walked into a patch of forest dripping wet, where the moss eerily covered everything like some kind of uncontrollable infestation – moss swaddling the branches of the trees, giving them the appearance of crooked fingers; more moss festooned from the branches in delicate stringy curtains; and a thick layer of moss forming a spongy layer underfoot. It was like a sorcerer’s lair.   


Some way further the forest began to thin out, and the peaks around us rose in a jumble of granite hammerheads and cones and cliffs. A stream rustled nearby, and suddenly we stumbled on a bird that made a clamorous show, wildly squawking and raucously beating its wings. It was a show of distraction: a female bird trying to attract attention to itself in order to deflect the attention away from its offspring – its offspring scurried near my feet, wriggling in the grass to hide. I could not believe our luck: it was a Sichuan hill partridge, a rare and endemic bird.  


Would we have the same luck with pandas?  


We set out panda tracking the next day, and within thirty minutes the naturalist Chen pointed at a cluster of grey egg-shaped feces of the resident panda. The feces were dry and crumbly were two months old, and nearby there were twigs of dried bamboo leaves (pandas only eat the stem of the bamboo and discard the leaves and other tender green parts). “I think this is the old feeding ground here,” Chen said. “The new feeding ground is on the other side of the stream.”  


We crossed the stream and started up the steep slope, where we found ourselves squirming through dense bamboo on soggy ground. I hauled myself up by grabbing bundles of bamboo. It was absolute drudgery. Chen was wiry and nimble, I felt handicapped and clumsy, and I lost a couple of times as he wriggled through the bamboo ahead of me. Whenever I fell behind I called out, and each time was startled to hear his disembodied voice loud and near, just a few meters away. That made me realize how hard it is to find a panda in its habitat – for all I knew, the resident panda could be rolling on its back teasingly only five meters away from me and I would have no idea‚Ķ 


Bits of bamboo got everywhere – in my shoes, rucksack, trouser pockets, ears – and I became hot and sweaty and began to feel claustrophobic. Finally we scrambled on top of an outcrop, and I gazed back: it had taken us two hours to walk about two hundred metres up from the stream. We scanned the trees around us, looking out for the panda – most panda sightings occur when the panda goes up on a tree to snooze or perch itself – but nothing.   


Later we saw paws imprinted faintly on the muddy ground. Black bear, according to Chen; he was referring to the Asian black bear, a relatively small bear that lives in trees. Then we found some more panda feces – two days old, Chen said – and a bit further we saw fresher feces. These ones were still warm: two hours old. Snooping around we found bits of bamboo, torn and tossed, and we also saw some black and white panda fur snagged to the bark of a tree. “I think the panda scratched itself on the bark,” Chen said.   


“You are not lucky today,” Chen said at the end of our walk.   


“At least I now know what it is like to be a panda and live in a bamboo forest,” I said.  


Panda or no panda, there are plenty of other things to see in the core of the Minshan. There are various ethnic groups of Tibetan stock, who live in scenic villages and wear colorful costumes; there is the Bao’en Temple, almost 500 years old, the most unusual Buddhist temple I have ever seen; and in the valley outside Wanglang there are the Baima people. Numbering only 3,000 and living in a scattering of village, the Baima are one of the world’s smallest ethnic groups. They live in large wooden houses, decorated in bright colors, and wear distinct costumes, and white hats that sport a single white primary wing feather tucked into the hat.  


Now we were heading to Tangjiahe nature reserve, just six hours drive away, and driving into the reserve we saw a leopard cat, a common animal in the mountains. I saw two more illustrious local inhabitants the next morning at the riverside: a crested kingfisher with its variegated white and black plumage and its handsomely erect head feathers; and a golden pheasant, all the more striking with its yellow-golden neck and red body and blue upper feathers.  Tangjiahe is different than Wanglang or Jiuzhaigou. Tangjiahe is like a hidden place; the steep and winding valley can more precisely be described as a gorge along some of its sections. Blue sheep are relatively common among the boulders and cliffs, their favored habitat.  


On this visit we were here to do a three-day trek to the second-highest point in the region. Leading our party was Zheng, one of the resident wardens who had worked in Tangjiahe for 26 years. I asked him how many pandas he had seen in that time? Around sixty, he said.  


We didn’t see any pandas, but we saw the first signs of takins in the form of feces on the path itself. Zheng explained that we were walking on the takins’ own trail: the footpath we were on was used by the takins during their seasonal migration, down to low valleys in the winter and up to the highest grasslands in the summer. The trails winds up the steep slope, first passing through mixed deciduous forest and later pine forest. It was a tough trek, and after six laborious hours we reached the shoulder of the mountain, at around 3000 meters high, where we would camp overnight. We made a fire and huddled around it; we were at the fringes of the treeline, and the next day we would continue up to the summit.    


The summit, which we conquered the next morning, is not a classical peak, but a saddleback ridge, the second highest point in the region at 3,400 meters. From an ecological viewpoint, it is a sprawling meadow, attracting the gregarious takins and also monal pheasants – these pheasants are endemic to the Sichuan’s mountains – which I saw through my binoculars. The pheasants are a kaleidoscope of colors: bluish purplish upper wings and tail, orangey neck, and green head.   


I counted more than fifty takins, standing about 200 meters away, and as I studied them through my binoculars I began to understand why naturalists talk of takins as bizarre, mythical animals. Takins have the shaggy appearance of a bison, the long face of a camel, the bulging nose of a dumb mountain sheep, the bulk of a cow, the diminutive horns of an antelope, and other jumbles of features, including a humped back. They look like some kind of deformity from the underworld, as if made from appendages of other creatures, but they are socially intelligent animals. They have a haunted gaze, and a few of them sport striking golden fur.   


And here on top of the mountains the takins look doubly enigmatic; it’s as if they are attracted by some higher intelligence or mystical instinct. All around us peaks tumbled in every direction, the mountains stretching to infinity, and looking down into the deep valleys, where autumn orangey colors were breaking out, I felt light-headed. Then the fog began to rise and thicken, swaddling us and isolating us on the ridge, and it was as if we were marooned somewhere undefined. We had not seen any pandas in the wild, but I had other epiphanies. I had discovered the takins – sociable animals that made me feel their presence intimately – and the purity of the untrodden wilderness made me feel as if we were drifting or suspended at some place out of this world.  


© Victor Paul Borg. This article was publishing in Action Asia, the premier adventure travel magazine in Asia.  


Victor Borg showing pictures to farmers.


 Victor has lived in 6 countries in 3 continents; he understands Asian cultures intimately. 

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 Victor's creative nonfiction is varied: essays & memoirs, geography & travel, tourism & environment, columns & features 

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 Victor has explored dozens of countries; he knows China, Southeast Asia, & the Mediterranean very well.

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 Victor has written extensively about food; he has studious and practical knowledge of Chinese, Indian, Filipino, Thai & Mediterranean cuisines.

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