Paradise of Desert Relicts
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