Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Tanya vs the Mountain

On the final day of our stay in Tam Dao village we were given the option of climbing to the top of the first peak of the Tam Dao mountains, about 1500 metres in height.  This really didn't mean much to me as I had never done any climbing.  Altogether it was a 1.5 hour walk to the base followed by a 3 hr climb to the top. Not being in peak physical condition I knew this was going to be a major challenge but I did not want to miss out an opportunity to climb my very first mountain.  Oh how naive!

The team started off at an even pace, the path winding up and down through a beautiful bamboo forest, gradually getting higher and higher.  Viet, one of the scientists, took the lead and we were all in high spirits, laughing and joking along the way.  Then during one of our frequent rest stops, Steve made an interesting observation of the team.  "So do you guys want to be a duck or a fox?"  

He was saying that we were acting like ducks, making a lot of noise as we walked along, walking quite closely to each other along the way, and not really paying much heed to our surroundings.  He said that if we were to act like foxes, treading carefully, being silent and spreading out we would be far better positioned to appreciate the environment.  

All of a sudden I could feel the forest change around me, I noticed how thick and dank the air was, the ground was slippery with leaves and the silence deafening, occasionally broken by the odd insect sound.  2 hours in and my legs were aching badly but I pushed on thinking there was not too much further to go.  

The final leg was extremely steep and slippery, I was hauling myself up a near vertical path using the bamboo trees and rocks as leverage, some of my more seasoned team mates called it a "scramble" - not quite rock climbing but pretty close.  If it wasn't for my team mates around me, whom I had gotten to know and trust throughout the trip, I would not have been able to make it to the top, that is for sure.  By now my legs were numb, my arms were sore from the strain and I was starting to get worried about how on earth I was going to get back down again!!

Finally, we made it to the top and on to a small clearing with a spectacular 360 degree view from the top.  Several open habitat butterfly species danced around the peak and I soon found myself dizzy trying to keep my eyes on them!!  We all sat down for lunch and had pictures taken, my favourite of which is posted above.

I then learnt that the hardest part of the climb was coming back down again.  By this stage, my leg muscles were barely functioning and I took it very, very slow down the steep path.  Again, could not have done it without my wonderful team mates who were so encouraging and patient with me.   Although I was so glad of the experience - I could barely walk for the next 5 days or so! 

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Forest Butterflies

By far the most common butterfly species we saw were from the Satyridae family: Browns and Arguses. They are usually small, brown and grey with eye spots and as they are not powerful fliers stay close to the ground making them easy to miss! 2 species in particular were often hard to tell apart, Ypthima imitans and Ypthima baldus.  Luckily each team had at least 1 experienced scientist with them to help with the identification. 

Butterfly or moth?

One of the first things we learnt on this Earthwatch project was how to tell the difference between a butterfly and a moth as both would by flying along the transects. This proved surprisingly more diffcult than I had thought!

1. Butterflies tend to have clubbed antennae while moths antennae taper to a point
2. Butterflies are able to fold their wings up vertically over their back, where moths often hold their wings horizontally.
3. Butterflies tens to have large, more colourful wings than moths, although many moths are large and colourful also.
4. Butterflies fly during the day, while moths are nocturnal.

Hill Tribes of Sapa

There a hundreds of minority groups who live in the mountains around Sapa, the French called them Montagnards (highlanders or mountain people). Each tribe has it's own language, customs, mode of dress and spiritual beliefs and it has been one of the undoubted highlights of my trip to visit some of their villages and meet them.

Most minority people live a rural / agricultural lifestyle with their houses raised on stilts and finished in natural materials in harmony with the environment. It is a hard life and despite improvements in rural schools and regional healthcare, many minority people marry young, have large families and die young.

The Red Dzao, pictured with me above, are one of the most colourful of the tribes and are easy to recognise due to their red head dress, intricate weaving, silver-coloured beads and coins on their clothing. Like in other parts of Asia, the traditional culture of so many ethnic minority groups are gradually giving way to outside influences, but it seems to be the women who are helping to keep their traditional culture alive, weaving traditional clothing and passing on this knowledge to their daughters.

While an increase in tourism has led to more revenue, cross-cultural understanding, improved infrastructure, such as roads, and employment opportunities such as guides, there is also a downside. Often the minority people themselves are not the main beneficiaries of tourism activities and have no say or control over its development. Tourism also increases litter and pollutants, lead to dependency on the tourist dollar, and potentially the erosion of local values and practices.

A good resource on how to minimise your impact when visiting such villages is

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Steve's Haiku

Butterfly, ah, see!

On the wind, up, down, here, there.

Beautiful; now gone.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Lost in the clouds

Arrived in Sapa today around 8:30am absolutely knacked after a very uncomfortable overnight train ride. The mountain town of Sapa is located at 1650m above sea level and minority people from villages all around come to the markets everyday but particularly on the weekend. A huge tourist drawcard is the "Love Market" held every Saturday - a kind of speed dating for the minority people who live in tiny villages dotted around the countryside. Arriving on the Monday I seem to have missed the weekend rush which I was happy about as I it made everything much more intimate. I hired a motorbike and guide who took me to 3 villages nearby. It is an incredible experience to drive on the back of a motorbike from the bottom of the valley from Ban Ho (Tay and Zay village) which is located at 600m up to Sapa and feel the change in temperature and climate from warm and muggy to what feels like an icy chill in Sapa. The road gradually winds through the mountains with no fence between you and the vertical drop on your left side. The scenery is stunning with jaw-dropping views of cascading vertical rice terraces that spill down the mountains like a patch work quilt. As we climbed higher, a thick mist rolled in so visibility was reduced to only a hundred metres or so, and to my left all I could now see was a wall of white fog and the air heavy and chilled. Quite a scary experience but amazingly exhilarating once you got over your initial fears. I truly felt like I was lost in the clouds.

Bear Rescue in Tam Dao

Steve mentioned that there was a bear rescue centre in Tam Dao and I said that I would be up for coming along if it could be arranged. Bears are one of my favourite animals and I am a supporter of Animals Asia Foundation who among other projects are working to end bear bile farming in China. Lien successfully managed to arrange a visit for the Earthwatch team one morning with the help of the Tam Dao National Park Director as it was not yet open to the public.

Once we arrived, I was greatly surprised to find that this was a brand new facility that Animals Asia Foundation had set up to continue their work in Vietnam which I faintly remembered reading about in one of their newsletters but had not put 2 + 2 together that it was the same place. What a wonderful coincidence that it was located right in the very national park that I was visiting!

The facility was extremely impressive and contained quarantine enclosures, a vet surgery and bear houses. Once completed it will be able to house a total of 200 bears. It also plans to use it as a base to raise public awareness about the barbaric practice of bear farming. They even have planted a beautiful herb garden to promote the numerous heal alternatives to bear bile. The staff were very friendly and professional and one of the Bear Managers, Bec, did a fantastic job of showing us around and explaining how it all worked.

Donning gumboots which had to be disinfected as they were sick bears in the surgery, we were lucky enough to see 2 cubs aged about 6 months who had just been rescued from the boot of a car crossing the Laos/Vietnam border. They were absolutely adorable, playing and tumbling over each other - clearly very happy and unaware of what could have been a very horrible fate.

The aim of Animals Asia Foundation is to end bear farming entirely in Vietnam. According to official figures in Vietnam there are currently 4,000 bears incarcerated in tiny cages for bile extraction, the physical and mental suffering that they endure is extreme - and the mortality rate is high.

Check out their website for more info: