Par­adise of Desert Relicts

China Scenic - - Feature - By Fu Ming & Zong Feng Pho­to­graphs by Yang Yong, and as cred­ited

As we drive north to­wards the Ma­zong Moun­tains, stretches of the road — and places where there is no road to speak of — are mot­tled with desert golden sand, black­ened min­eral cake, and patches of green­ery. Then the desert turns to gravel. I no­tice some­thing strange on the now rocky ground: the gravel cov­er­ing the ground is not uni­form. As we drive, we pass ar­eas with rounded and smooth gravel, while other ar­eas have sharp an­gu­lar pieces. Mr. Feng tells me that the shapes of these stones are rem­nants — ge­o­log­i­cal mem­o­ries — of the past life of the desert. “In the past rivers once roared through this land. They mi­grated, weav­ing side­ways and even­tu­ally dis­si­pat­ing into noth­ing­ness when the climate changed. In their ge­o­log­i­cal wake is left a re­minder, these wa­ter-rounded stones, of where the wa­ter once ran”. He picks one up and rubs its smoothed edges between his fin­gers. Point­ing to an al­most square rock be­side it, he con­tin­ues, “and the an­gu­lar ones tell a story, too”. They are the re­mains, he tells me, of in situ weath­er­ing, cy­cles of wet-dry and freeze-thaw dy­nam­ics that snapped them from their orig­i­nal po­si­tion high up on ex­posed rock faces, toss­ing them to the desert floor be­low.

Fi­nally ar­riv­ing at the Ma­zong Moun­tains, we park our trucks and set out on foot up a dusty moun­tain slope. We pass by a mas­sive gran­ite boul­der, its un­gainly beauty both strik­ing and strange amidst the fea­ture­less desert land­scape. At its base is a tell­tale sign of the salty wa­ter that in­fre­quently mists the land. A slim dust­ing of a salt stain, crys­tal­ized and frail, it clings to the rock wait­ing for the next rain or melt­ing snow to whisk it away. Though this wa­ter is scarce, there is enough. The lit­tle that does fall here as rain or snow gets caught in crevices, ei­ther evap­o­rat­ing away and leav­ing a salty residue, or freez­ing when the tem­per­a­ture drops and weath­er­ing the rock into smaller and smaller frag­ments. In this way desert bedrock dis­in­te­grate into smaller pieces of rock, those three to ten cen­time­ters wide grav­elly frag­ments we just passed. With help from the min­i­mal wa­ter that given to the desert, it not only sus­tains hearty plants but also turns, in slow mo­tion, from rock to gravel to sand.

In the salty boul­der’s shade is an­other desert spe­cial­ist: naked­fruit. Be­fore the up­lift of the Qing­hai-ti­bet Plateau, the an­ces­tors of this species were dis­trib­uted all across the north­ern coast of the an­cient Mediter­ranean. With the up­lift of the plateau, naked­fruit was able to spread west to what is to­day the Gansu re­gion of the Gobi Desert, as well as far reaches of In­ner Mon­go­lia. Be­ing of a salty Mediter­ranean an­ces­try these plants have an in­her­ent tol­er­ance for salty con­di­tions, a tol­er­ance that must have helped it find a new home here in the Gobi Desert.

The fo­cus of Dr. Yang Yong’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion is an­other drought spe­cial­ist, the leath­ery bract daisy.

With their dark green, leath­ery leaves, the plant looks much like the com­mon dan­de­lion. This species, like the dan­de­lion, is from the Aster­aceae fam­ily, and is to­day mostly found within the con­ti­nen­tal Africa. These plants in the Gobi are or­phans, part of a re­main­ing clus­ter of species sep­a­rated in time and space and iso­lated from the rest of their fam­ily. They are, just like the naked­fruit from the Mediter­ranean, “relict species”; ge­netic stow­aways, iso­lated pieces of a tax­o­nom­i­cal group that is no longer here.

In the “weath­er­ing Gobi”, there has been lit­tle dis­tur­bance over the re­cent gen­er­a­tions from flood­ing. Be­cause of this, the naked­fruit that have re­mained clus­tered in this ge­o­log­i­cal set­ting and have had lit­tle chance of dis­pers­ing their seeds. They have pre­vailed in iso­la­tion, qui­etly breed­ing, suc­cess­fully enough, for thou­sands of years. To a passerby these plants would seem un­re­mark­able — sim­ple low-grow­ing shrubs, with un­event­ful flow­ers perched upon un­event­ful stems. How­ever, with the eye of a pro­fes­sional botanist their his­tory can be un­der­stood and their ex­cep­tion­al­ity un­veiled.

Driv­ing along the an­gu­lar, frag­mented Gobi ground we are care­ful to avoid large sharp pieces; a flat tire out here is not high on our priority list. As we slowly make our way out of the desert and into a tran­si­tional land — slightly greener but still de­fi­antly “desert” — we come across songar­ian sun­rose. Point­ing them out from his pas­sen­ger-side seat, Dr. Yang barely waits for the truck to stop be­fore leap­ing out with his cam­era and note­book. Fol­low­ing him, once the truck has stopped, I kneel be­side the lonely plant. It has more than ten flow­ers, each with five or­nate yel­low petals. This species is one of par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est — ob­ses­sion, more ac­cu­rately — of Dr. Yang. The sun­rose fam­ily, Cis­taceae, has about one hun­dred or more species in it. But this one — the songar­ian sun­rose of the Gobi Desert — is the only one found in such north­ern re­gions of China.

Be­ing a spe­cial­ist is a dou­ble- edged sword: at one mo­ment you are ex­cep­tion­ally able to sur­vive in a spe­cific, unique set of con­di­tions, at the other you are, of­ten, only able to sur­vive there. As such, ranges for spe­cial­ists, such as the Mon­gol cot­ton­spire and the naked­fruit, are quite nar­row and they are in­evitably quite rare. Other less- spe­cial­iz­ing spe­cial­ists, such as Cis­tanche and cynomo­rium, are also rare but for an­other rea­son — they have been for gen­er­a­tions dug up from the wild and sold in mar­kets. Other species still have been re­moved by herds­men for fire­wood. When you look the desert ecosys­tem, it is clear that it is not the desert it­self that these plants have to bat­tle against — the arid, salty, cold, and nu­tri­ent-poor world they call home — but more im­por­tantly the im­pos­ing forces of hu­mans. It gets worse. Where these plants are com­monly found co­in­cides with large un­der­ground de­posits of coal and iron. And where there are lu­cra­tive re­sources to be dug up, lit­tle con­cern is given for the sub­tle, unas­sum­ing — yet rare and en­dan­gered — plants on the sur­face. What lit­tle habi­tat these plants have left is un­der threat of be­ing lost to the diesel-fu­eled shov­els of the boom­ing min­ing in­dus­try.

In keep­ing up with de­mands for tourism, and min­ing, there are plans to build a high­way through this sec­tion of the desert. When the Ma­zong Moun­tains be­come a tourist hub, a place eas­ily ac­cessed by coal laden trucks, diesel pow­ered load­ers, and end­less streams of tourist-laden busses, will these hum­ble flow­ers re­ceive at­ten­tion? Will they be pro­tected?

I don’t tempt fate with op­ti­mism. I have learned too many times that op­ti­mism in the face of eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment is but a fan­tasy. I just hope that these mys­ti­cal, his­toric desert plants don’t go qui­etly when the wheels and as­phalt come to take their land.

To ge­ol­o­gists, they are me­an­ders: sim­ple geo­met­ric swerves in a river. But from air, from atop a moun­tain or on a satel­lite im­age, they take on a deeper mean­ing; they are much more than a sim­ple geo­met­ric shape — they be­come alive, dra­matic, and artis­tic. They are like snakes weav­ing around the land­scape. In Chi­nese, these me­an­ders are given a name wor­thy of their ethe­real ser­pen­tine ap­pear­ance: “snake bends”. China has many rivers that fa­mously slither through grass­lands and wet­lands. In the up­per reaches of the Yangtze River, one lit­tle known trib­u­tary of more than four hun­dred kilo­me­ters, the Tong­tian River, is filled with these breath­tak­ing flu­vial curves: it is the river of “snakes”. Com­pared to the rivers that cut through flat lands, this snaking sec­tion of the Tong­tian River has cut out a grand and im­pres­sive basin, cre­at­ing mas­sive walls along the river’s edge, cre­at­ing a unique three-di­men­sional “snake” — me­an­der­ing not only side to side, but also up and down. The re­sults are dra­matic and beau­ti­ful. Through this rugged cut canyon of sharp cliffs and ver­dant banks, the lit­tle known Tong­tian River weaves in ser­pen­tine flow, etch­ing out a land­scape both mys­ti­cal and mag­nif­i­cent.

to roam freely and build its ser­pen­tine land­scapes.

The Tong­tian River, or at least the half of it filled with snakes and me­an­ders, flows through rocky moun­tains; it de­fies ge­ol­ogy and cuts a grass­land river out of a moun­tain­ous land­scape, some 5,000 me­ters above sea level. This set of tight me­an­ders looks not only ethe­real and snake- like, but more im­pres­sively three-di­men­sional: sweep­ing me­an­ders pro­vide one axis, and the scoured val­leys the other. To­gether, the river forms a stun­ningly unique vista that is hard to be­lieve. To cap­ture the grandeur of these me­an­ders and the river as a whole, this dy­namic and out-of-place land­form has been given a spe­cial name: “lay­ered snakes”. Seen from above, the Tong­tian River is not only a weav­ing, three-di­men­sional river; it is a rugged, and rare, ge­o­log­i­cal jewel at the top of China.

In 1985, one year be­fore Yang Yong took his life- chang­ing float down the Tong­tian, Yao Maoshu, at the time a pho­tog­ra­pher for the South­west Jiao­tong Univer­sity, be­came the first per­son to raft the Tong­tian River. Alone, he started his jour­ney along the icy reaches of the re­mote and in­ac­ces­si­ble Tuo­tuo River, a trib­u­tary above the Tong­tian River. Set­ting his raft in the wa­ter one brisk morn­ing, blan­keted by a blue sky and aided by only a blank map of what lay ahead, he started his jour­ney. He sur­vived the re­mote Tuo­tuo and the rugged and me­an­der­ing Tong­tian, but he was not to sur­vive the Jin­sha, the name of the sec­tion just be­low the Tong­tian; at a rugged and nar­row pinch­ing of the river known as the Tongjia Gorge, Yao Maoshu lost the bat­tle with the icy wa­ter, and his life. Since his death, he has be­come a part of Chi­nese lore, and the doc­u­men­ta­tion of his ad­ven­tures on the Tong­tian recorded in his diary has been carved into the minds of the Chi­nese peo­ple. And though he died on the river, his ex­plo­ration made fa­mous this once un­known snaky stretch of wa­ter.

His diary is less like a per­sonal jour­nal and more like than an ad­ven­ture novel. The en­try for July 10, 1985, for ex­am­ple, reads: “The moun­tains along Tong­tian River is close to reach­ing its banks, the river close to flood­ing mak­ing it nec­es­sary to stay vig­i­lant. I do not dare take my eyes off the river ahead. The rapids are high — waves a few me­ters high bring­ing wa­ter into the cabin and soak­ing my clothes. The river is N-shaped, the two sides of the river banks are grow­ing low and with shrub­bery (small cypress) and cov­ered with yel­low-white flow­ers”.

While his words — sim­ple and con­cise — tell us of an ar­du­ous mo­ment in his jour­ney, I am struck by his de­scrip­tion of the river: “…N-shaped”. This must be a de­scrip­tion of the river ge­om­e­try it­self, the snake bends. I am also struck by his at­ten­tion to de­tails, even in the har­row­ing mo­ments where he neared cap­siz­ing tak­ing time to note the bank side veg­e­ta­tion.

His diary con­tin­ues: “July 12, sunny. The weather was very good. The wa­ter was high. At 8:30 in the morn­ing I en­coun­tered a few steep canyon walls. Breath­tak­ing. At 10:00 an­other set of de­mand­ing rapids, with more wa­ter in the cabin. By 11:00 I still had not yet left this wan­der­ing canyon. The bends

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