Monday, August 15, 2011

Timberland Earthkeepers: With you in the summer rain...

(Photo from Timberland Singapore)

During one of our briefings before this trip, Cheryl did mention how it rained unexpectedly last year, catching the Timberland Earthkeepers participants unaware and out in the open. I came here expecting to experience the scorching sun and blasting winds of the desert, only to end up cold, wet, but definitely not at all miserable here in Horqin.

(Photo by Jervis Mun)

The rain started early this morning, at around 2am or so. By the time we left at 8.30am, it was still drizzling. Nonetheless, despite the unexpected change in weather, we were still in high spirits as our buses brought us out of town and into the Wafang area. Each of us was given a plastic raincoat, although I didn't bother to put it on, trusting in my Timberland gear to keep me warm and comfortable. In this regard, both my 6" Premium Waterproof boots and Packable Benton Jacket excelled, and I remained snug and dry for the entire day.

(Photo by Jervis)

When it comes to encountering bad weather while outdoors, having your clothes soaked by the rain, or getting your feet soggy due to water seeping through your footwear, is a surefire way to ruin your mood. Factor in strong winds, and electronic equipment that should be kept as far away from water as possible, and you have the perfect recipe for a cold, wet, and miserable experience, especially if you can't find any proper shelter. This was what I experienced during my trip to Mount Kinabalu in 2009, when we were caught in a heavy downpour during the descent, far from the rest stops and huts. Good waterproof gear that prevents you from getting a bad case of damp underwear or pruned toes can make a whole lot of difference.

In fact, while I had been mentally prepared for searing desert heat, thanks to the rain, it was overcast for the entire day, and cool enough such that I hardly perspired at all.

The whole mental image of hiking through the desert was further ruined by the fact that we were surrounded by lush and green vegetation; the ground was carpeted by various grasses, herbs, bushes and shrubs, with a mixed forest comprising largely of pine and poplar trees. Of course, most of the precipitation in the area falls during the summer, so it's hardly surprising that this is when plant growth is at its peak.

As we walked, the crisp morning air was filled with a pleasant aroma, released by some sort of herb that grew amongst the wildflowers and grasses.

So much for fighting desertification; here I was in the desert, and ironically, not only was I standing in a nice patch of greenery, it was raining!

However, this luxuriant vegetation was just a thin layer on the surface; it soon became clear why erosion was such a problem in Horqin. Here, even though it was drizzling, the soil remained loose and crumbly, almost like sand. In places where there is insufficient vegetation, especially on slopes, it easily collapses beneath your feet, causing miniature landslides. Imagine that happening on a much larger scale, with entire areas nearly denuded and stripped clean of all ground cover due to overgrazing, and you can visualise these newly created wastelands eventually merging with the dunes of the Gobi.

Here's what it looks like across the road, on the other side of the fence. And further in the distance, some of the dunes (not pictured) appear to be quite bare of vegetation.

Our first real task was to prune a grove of poplars, which had been planted as saplings by Timberland and Green Network ten years ago. Today, the trees have matured and now form a woodland, an oasis of green amongst the yellowish-brown sand dunes. Because this 'forest' of sorts was largely created through planting of saplings, most of the trees are spaced fairly wide apart at regular intervals, and there is little competition between them for sunlight. Also, because livestock are excluded from these areas by fencing, and most of the wild mammalian herbivores such as deer have been wiped out, the only browsing pressure probably comes from herbivorous insects such as beetles, caterpillars, and grasshoppers.

Hence, a large number of trees have a profusion of branches low on the trunk, with many of them also bearing suckers, shoots that sprout from the base of the tree. This is undesirable, because the tree's energy is diverted to these suckers and lower branches instead of crown growth. And so, in order to encourage the poplars to grow taller, and to sprout more leafy shoots higher up so as to serve as a more effective windbreak, they need to be pruned.

Here's an example of a poplar before pruning; note the dense growth of shoots growing from the base of the tree.

And here is a different poplar that has already been pruned.

Armed with garden shears, we started pruning the poplars, snipping away at the branches and shoots within reach. Branches too thick for ordinary shears were left to be tackled by others wielding hand saws. The trick was to cut as close to the trunk as possible, since a stub left behind would soon sprout fresh growth, completely negating one's efforts.

(Photo from Timberland Singapore)

Yoshio Kitaura, the managing director of Japanese NGO Green Network, demonstrates the finer techniques required to prune the trees safely and effectively.

(Photo by Jervis)

For some reason, pruning is an incredibly therapeutic activity. I worked alone, and started to get really absorbed with the task at hand.

(Photo by Jervis)

(Photo by Tan Chee Fan)
Here's Jervis in the act of pruning.

(Photo by Jervis)
As well as Chee Fan.

(Photo from Timberland Singapore)
Here's Gillian hard at work.

And here's a photo of me giving a poplar a much-needed trim.

(Photo by Jervis)

There is a certain technique to pruning. First, one sizes up the tree, looking for a place to start clipping. Your average poplar will have branches and twigs growing in all directions, and may even have a slightly smaller bunch of shoots sprouting from the roots. It can be overwhelming, especially if you don't know where to begin. I adopted the practice of clearing the smaller twigs and branches, leaving the largest main branches to be dealt with once I had trimmed away the rest of the limbs. I often started at eye level, progressively working downwards until I'd reached the branches and shoots that were growing close to the ground.

(Photo by Chee Fan)

You achieve some sense of satisfaction when you're tackling a thick branch and after repeated attempts, you hear that 'click', indicating that the shears have snipped all the way through, and the branch has been fully removed. These leafy boughs are tossed to one side, where they will eventually decompose and return nutrients to the soil. That feeling of accomplishment grows when you've finally completed pruning one tree, and all the remaining branches are way above your head. After pausing for a moment to admire your handiwork for a while (and maybe entertain thoughts of switching careers to work in the horticultural or landscaping industries), it's time to start on the next tree, which presents a new configuration of branches to remove.

(Photo by David Fuhrmann-Lim)

Of course, there are risks. You won't amputate fingers with the shears if you pay attention. And while you are trimming branches above your head, make sure that you're not standing directly beneath the branch that you are clipping, or you might get slapped by leaves as the branch falls, or even have the branch falling on your head.

And then, there were some trees that we chose not to prune. I had started work on this particular poplar, and was about to clip off a nearby branch, when I saw this wasp colony.

I suppose the rainy weather and cool temperatures meant that the wasps were still rather inactive and not really in a defensive mood.

Here's another view of the wasp nest from the other side.

You can see a fat white grub occupying one of the cells.

Besides wasp nests, I did encounter quite a number of other invertebrates.

Even before the briefing began, a few of us had already noticed this mantis.

I don't usually have the patience to stalk butterflies, but this one stayed still long enough for me to attempt a few shots. Maybe it was reluctant to fly off and get pelted with raindrops.

Grasshopper nymph.

A shield bug of some sort?

And I think this is a different type of shield bug.

I have no idea what kind of insect this is. Treehopper, perhaps? I regret not taking these photos at the maximum resolution, and for not taking more shots of this peculiar bug from different angles.

A spider that was running through the leaf litter. I'm not sure if this is a wolf spider (F. Lycosidae) or nursery web spider (F. Pisauridae).

I did inadvertently disturb a few orb-weaver spiders (F. Araneidae), some of which had spun their webs amongst the branches I was cutting.

Time passed quickly, and by the end of the session, I had single-handedly pruned six poplars.

(Photo from Timberland Singapore)
Here are some of the poplars after pruning.

(Photo from Timberland Singapore)
The mobile toilet proved to be an object of curiosity for many of us.

When it was time for all of us to gather for a group photo, a large mantis tried to get in on the act and landed on the person next to me.

Here's a closer look.

(Photo by Jervis)

As we were walking back to the buses, I continued to scan the vegetation, and managed to spot this caterpillar.

A particular bush was infested with a large number of these leaf beetles (F. Chrysomelidae).

A tiny six-legged jewel.

Besides the insects and spiders, I haven't seen many other animals around, besides livestock; it's impossible to miss the random horses, donkeys, and cattle grazing along the road.

While the bus was ferrying us, I kept my eyes peeled, looking out for birds. I know very little about the birds that I can expect to spot in this part of Inner Mongolia, but part of my preparation for the trip did involve visiting various libraries in Singapore and borrowing a few books about the wildlife of China.

Birds of East Asia: China, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, and Russia by Mark Brazil and A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Japan and North-East Asia by Tadao Shimba proved to be very useful.

(Photos by aweilee)
I did manage to see a few birds, but the bus was moving too quickly for me to confidently identify most of them. i did however manage to get a good glimpse of two species of bird I've never encountered before; the first was a male watercock (Gallicrex cinerea) in breeding plumage; the overall chicken-like shape and the red crest on the head were very distinctive features, while the other species of bird I could identify was the Korean magpie (Pica sericea). I was able to take a long look at a pair that was flying, and the black and white plumage and long tail were unmistakable.

(Photo by Jervis)

Lunch was held at an eatery in the nearby town. Overall, the food isn't too exotic or alien to me, although the people of Inner Mongolia do have an inordinate fondness for steamed plain buns or mantou, which appear to replace rice as a dietary staple in this part of China.

Meals are a lot like what you would have in a typical tze char restaurant in Singapore, but with one main difference: here, one gets to eat the rice along with the main dishes, but in Inner Mongolia, you start on the main dishes, and the rice is treated almost as an afterthought, to be served up only after everyone has eaten their fill and couldn't possibly eat much more.

As far as meat is concerned, beef and mutton seem to feature very heavily in local diets; chickens are kept more for their eggs than for meat, and as a result, you will find eggs in many dishes, but chicken rarely makes an appearance. For some reason I haven't quite figured out yet, pork is rare as well. Perhaps it stems from the fact that Mongols were traditionally nomadic herders, and hence depended largely on cattle, sheep, and horses for sustenance. And no, I didn't encounter any horse meat, unless it was actually served and I mistook it for beef. Does horse taste like beef, anyway?

(Photos by Gillian Wu)

After lunch, there was a session where Han Yu, a 54 year old resident of the area, met us and shared how he has witnessed the changes in the environment over the years. He recounted how in his younger days, several decades ago, the area was covered in grasslands and forests, which were inhabited by wildlife such as deer, hares, badgers and foxes, even wolves and bears. But as the numbers of both people and livestock boomed, much of the land became overgrazed, and he witnessed how once lush grasslands were transformed into barren desert. And today, with the efforts of Green Network and the companies that work to halt and reverse the effects of desertification, he has seen some improvement. The original vegetation of Horqin may never reclaim the full extent of its former glory within his lifetime, but hopefully, one day, it will be deer that are pruning the poplars instead of garden shears.

Meanwhile, some of us met other locals, including this Mongol man who was very keen on taking photos with us. Han Chinese make up the largest ethnic group in Inner Mongolia, with Mongols coming in a distant second.

I also wandered off for a bit, and found a bush that was infested with a different species of leaf beetle.

My guess is that these could be beetle eggs.

And this is why I watch my step, even in the apparently more built-up areas. These cowpats (well, I think they were produced by cattle) were just a few metres away from the entrance of our lunch venue.

(Photo by Jervis)

After lunch, we visited another forest that had been adopted by Timberland, where we took more group photos. We were there for only a few minutes, but I managed to find more orb weaver spiders.

Including this relatively large individual, which appears to be a wasp spider (Argiope bruennichi), which gets its name from its distinctive black and yellow abdomen.

Unfortunately, because of the rain, we were forced to cancel the second activity planned for the day, which was to weave straw nets to stabilise the soil and reduce erosion. And so, we headed back to the hotel, where it was free and easy for the rest of the day.

Some of the Timberland staff, who have been to Horqin in previous years, had a few eateries to recommend. In the evening, when it had finally stopped drizzling, the Malaysian and Singapore teams gathered at the hotel lobby, and we took a leisurely 15 minute stroll down the streets, to a restaurant that offered grilled meats. Shockingly, Mongolian barbecue does not actually come from Mongolia; it's like believing that french fries come from France.

(Photo by Jervis)

I noticed a couple of cages in a corner just outside the restaurant. No, it wasn't anything particularly exotic, just a bunch of very plump pigeons, who got very nervous and started walking about anxiously when I approached.

I know that China is notorious for consuming all sorts of exotic wildlife, but I didn't see any of that in Inner Mongolia. I do regret not having paused to take photos of a couple of eateries within walking distance of our hotel, which apparently feature donkey meat hot pot as one of their specialties. And Chee Fan said that as the bus was making its way from Shenyang, he noticed a restaurant advertising dog meat.

(Photos by Jervis)
Here are some of our friends from the Malaysian contingent (L-R): Cheeryl Chang, Kim Chong Keat, Lilian Chua, Sheikh Abdul Shahnaz, and Chian Huey Tang.

(Photo by Jervis)

It was a wonderful time for us to eat, drink, and be merry. The food was quite good, and the beer was cheap.

And so, my first proper day out in Inner Mongolia came to an end. The rain was a mixed blessing; it shielded us from the summer heat and sun, but at the same time, it forced us to drop one of the activities. I found the pruning of trees to be a most enjoyable experience, and frankly, if I had the choice, I could have just stayed in that little forest, snipping away at poplar branches for the entire day. Of course, maybe it's because of the rain; I might not have found the activity so pleasant and relaxing if I had been baking under the full force of the desert sun.

Tomorrow, we're going to another area, this time to plant pine saplings. I hope it doesn't rain, and in some twisted way, I'm wishing that we get to experience a real desert, scorching sun, sand dunes, and all. And who knows, maybe I'll find a scorpion or two...