Wong How Man
Dunhuang, Gansu - 21 January 2010

Wild Yak crossing frozen riverThe sound is disturbing. With each step, I can hear the ice cracking behind me as I cross the frozen river. Rather than walking, I am waltzing awkwardly on ice, sliding one foot after the other, as I glide gingerly towards the other bank.

The five yaks we are trying to approach are on the other side of the river, still 500 meters away. We cannot make just a single crossing to reach them. As the river meanders, we have to cross over it several times. And then there are other smaller streams between us and the yaks. So the sound of cracking ice becomes more frequent - and foreboding.

As with the weather and temperature outside, suffice to say time was also frozen. My watch stopped ticking at 1:30am as I left it outside my sleeping pack the night before. This was my old hunting ground, the Big Khartan River, for many summers in the 1990s. I used to explore these same mountains at a time when CERS maintained a research center in Dunhuang, an oasis town along the ancient Silk Road. But entering during the winter is a totally different challenge, an experience that will freeze in your mind as hard and deep as the ice block of the outside terrain in front of me.

Given the long winter and extreme low temperature, the cracking sound with each step I take must be from the top and newest layer formed. I presume there are several hard and frozen layers of ice further below. Nonetheless, the sound of ice cracking under your body is never reassuring. And in other places, the snow is knee- deep.

Land Rovers in winter snowstormMy team has been driving for a week from Kunming to meet me in Dunhuang. From there, we climbed toward the Qilian Mountains, the border of the Tibetan plateau with the Gobi Desert. In the summer, the Gobi is extremely hot as people are toasted in over 40-degree heat. In the winter, though, those two vastly different ecosystems have one thing in common: Both places are freezing cold. As an explorer, I have always maintained that once below minus 20 degrees, it feels all the same, be it minus 20, 30 or 40. Our body becomes numb and can no longer register the difference. So here we are, at that very trying margin of human sensitivity.

Our brand new Land Rover Defenders are out in force, all three of them in a test-run during this winter expedition. Unfortunately we are only able to fill up with minus 20 grade diesel, and night-time temperatures certainly drop below that. One car developed a fuel-delivery problem, possibly from the heavy wax and water in the diesel fuel. By then, we were 150 kilometers off road into wilderness. Perhaps the vehicle felt numb, too. We managed to tow it almost 300 kilometers back to safety in Dunhuang.

If I can still write with some coherence, it is because I am wrapped in down gear from head to toe. The night before, my soft-leather Ugg boots were frozen so hard and stiff that I could not get my feet into them the following morning. Luckily I have a back-up pair of boots in the car. Batteries which usually last a long time can only be useful for a fraction of their standard span. Having spares of every item is essential.

Chris filmingSome may think we must be masochists to execute an expedition against such odds and in such hostile elements. But explorers do take on a few exceptional challenges, even if they are of sound mind. Maybe our physical faculties are so impaired that we need to be in extreme conditions to feel some sensitivity.

The wild yak that we are studying can be spotted most easily in the winter, when they stand out clearly against the white snow. It is also during this season that they descend lower to the foothills and river banks, exposing themselves to our lenses. Even the elusive and evasive Argali Big Horn Sheep are easily spotted, as are wild ass and Tibetan Gazelle.

From past experience of being charged by single bulls, we know better than to get close to such solitary animals. They chase us not because we are a target for mating. To the contrary, lone bulls live solo because they lost in mating battles and were forced to leave their herd. These individuals are usually the former kings of the herd, until one day a younger and stronger bull takes over his harem by challenging the leader. Losing face after his long rein, the king leaves his herd to lead a solitary life. Like other mating losers, their temperament becomes unpredictable and irritable, to the point where the simplest provocation could trigger their attack.

We approach one single bull, but stop half a kilometer away to observe it. This present herd of five includes a large male and four females. It is ideal for close-quarter viewing from within a couple hundred meters. Their long bushy ‘skirt’ seems some form of high fashion of the animal kingdom. Brushing their furry skirt from side to side as they stride, they walk around gracefully while stopping now and then to graze on the grass that is barely visible above the deep snow. At one point, as they cautiously crossed a frozen river, I think their heavy weight - up to a ton for a male - must wreak havoc on the ice. Apparently they know what they are doing, and successfully cross without incident.

Fetching water in ice streamAn overnight snowstorm has buried almost all our tracks. To retreat now would make good sense. After all, one car is down and I have 13 members under my charge and my responsibility. Another storm would strand us, possibly until spring. And we have only brought provisions for one week.

I recall the words of my favorite poem, from the famous Tang poet Wang Zhihuan: “The fragrance of spring would not blow beyond the Jade Gate”. The Jade Gate stands at the bottom of these same hills we are exploring, at an elevation of barely 1,500 meters - and we are at about 4,000 meters. I don’t think I dare wait for spring’s arrival.