A Blog Around The Clock

The fifth installment just came in – read under the fold. (Oh, and BTW, I was wrong – the installments ARE in the correct chronological order)

Muyu, extended stay, report
(Mu – you, as in newt)

I never thought it would come to this, having to give a report on my finds and experiences in the town, but fortunately there has been enough of a mix of activity to keep me interested.

My town experience started when we left Dongxi on the 14th of June and headed back to Muyu. From the 14th until the 23rd I stayed in Muyu (that’s 10 days!!) and on occasion went to some places nearby.

15 – 16 June

Checking up on emails, uploading pics, writing reports, pretty boring stuff. There is a single woman at the reserve office that has the key to the museum portion (where all the specimens are kept and equipment), and she was currently in Wuhan, so I was unable to prepare any specimens. Hi Yin was absent on the 14-16th, which was unfortunate because I wanted to show her the Rhabdophis tigrinus lateralis (“Tiger Keelback”) and the Zaocys dhumnades (“Big Eyed Mtn Racer” – I’m putting names in just so people unfamiliar with scientific names will have something easier to pronounce; unfortunately many of the Chinese snakes do not have established common names, so that’s why I am making these up) before they became specimens. But since I did not know when she was showing up, I felt it was cruel keeping them alive without feeding them, so they became specimens on the 16th.

17 June

Well I am 25% through with my stay here in China, the time sort of flies by at times. Other times it doesn’t; primarily when I’m in town. Hi Yin came back into town today. I was still asleep. I got a knock on my door around 11, I mumbled a “come in” and saw her peek around the corner and I lit up. Of course she had to show up the day after the snakes became specimens. Oh well, hopefully I’ll find another Rhabdophis and Zaocys. It was great seeing her, but I think I have dwelled on her enough and I won’t continue rambling on about her in following reports, unless it’s something relevant. Which in this case it is a bit. She said something about lunch and pointed downstairs, so I told her I would get up.

I got downstairs and she led me down the street to a small restaurant where she ordered me a meal. So far every time she has ordered food for me I haven’t had any complaints. Actually, anytime anyone orders for me, or when I close my eyes and point somewhere on the menu, I have yet to be disappointed. For the most part I receive two decent meals per week, and the rest would be classified as excellent. Only on very few occasions has there been a dish that just is not appetizing whatsoever. One of these three instances was one of the dishes Hi Yin had ordered.

She ordered me some potatoes, which were excellent, some tree fungus with eggs, which was good as well (I have never seen so many different type of fungi sold as food – Shennongjia has around 20 different types of edible tree fungus and then another dozen species of mushrooms on top of that). The dish I wasn’t terribly pleased with was some kind of soup that must have had seaweed or something in it. The soup basically tasted like fish, and as most people know, with the exception of Hogfish, I am not a fish fan. Luckily the first two dishes were plenty big enough to fill me up.

One of my hopes while in China was to lose some weight. Later that day, after eating an early dinner with Linsen, and upon returning to the hotel, Hi Yin and her brother are sitting down to their first lunch and invited me to eat with them. Not wanting to be rude, I partook. And then later that night while I was in my room she knocks on my door and tells me to come downstairs for dinner. My plans of losing weight certainly are not going to happen if she’s in charge of feeding me. I was quite delighted though when she brought out a bunch of sweet potatoes! After the immense dinner, I don’t know why, but for some reason her older brother wanted to arm wrestle me. I don’t know if arm wrestling is a typical Chinese custom or if they just wanted to arm wrestle an American or what. He was much stronger than the guy from Xiagu. After the match, her brother pointed to my muscle and gave me a thumbs up… A fairly fun day for being cooped up in a city.

18 June

I didn’t think I’d be making an entry for “Muyu,” but enough happened today to warrant one. Linsen knocked on my door around 9:50am this morning. He asked if I wanted to go to the scenic area of Shennongjia. I told him I did, and thought he was referring to the little natural area semi-close by (maybe a 45 min walk). He said a car would come in about 30 mins. So I got dressed. I just brought my camera and a couple of bags. I waited outside for Linsen.

Eventually the reserve SUV, with the camo paint job pulled up. Linsen’s wife and 4-year old son were also coming along, so that was a tip-off that it wasn’t going to be an intense day. Another fellow and two other girls also piled into the car with us. We drove up town a ways and the driver pulled up to some women and waited. After a few minutes, two more women piled into the car. 10 people were now crammed into this SUV.

We drove south through town, and luckily one of the girls got out, but it was still a pretty full load. We finally started to head out of town and as we approached the scenic area, the driver showed no signs of slowing down. So now I had no idea where we were going. Up and through the windy roads we went. I think the curves were getting to two of the women. Linsen’s wife had her head resting on the open window, and the girl next to me was covering her mouth. I was kind of worried.

Eventually Linsen’s wife couldn’t stand it anymore and had to pull over. She was quite sick (car sick). I was also worried that her sounds were going to trigger a response in the girl sitting beside me, but luckily she held her own. After awhile she climbs back into the car and we continue along our way. My next guess was that we were going to stop at the Golden Monkey reserve (Dalongtan), we bypassed that as well.

Shortly after though, we pulled into a semi-zoo like place. There was a small gift shop, which had stones, about 20 different types of mushrooms, and two species of dried, unrecognizable snakes… There was a restaurant, which is where we had lunch, and for the most part the meal was decent, not as good as most of the other meals I’ve had. There was one really awesome dish that I hadn’t had yet. It was basically like they went to a pepper plant (I do not know if it is the capsasine pepper, or black pepper plant) and basically pulled up the whole plant, cut off the roots and stuck it in a pot of fritter batter, leaves, steams, everything. It was excellent.

From here we toured the “zoo” – some poorly constructed confinements for some of the reserve animals. The first cage had five Macaques (Macaca mulatto), picking through some corn on the floor. The next cage had a species of bear (Ursus thibetanus), similar to our black bear, but a tad bit smaller in size and with a tuft of white hair on the chest. The cage floor would bounce and wobble under the animal’s weight as it walked.

The cage adjacent to the bear contained about six Golden Monkeys, four adults, and two juveniles. The juveniles were hard at play. One seemed to be slightly older than the other. The “older” brother had a plant in his mouth, which the younger one was very interested in. The two ran around the cage, jumping on tree limbs. The older brother would bat away his annoying sibling, or push him as he was teetering on a branch. The younger one finally succeeded in taking the plant, and the tables quickly turned. The chase eventually progressed to the two animals wrestling on the ground and biting at one another. It finally concluded when the older brother ripped the plant into a big enough chunk that he was content with.

The rest of the cages had a species of raptor, Accipiter virgatus, and some kind of small mammal that looked like a giant vole. I wasn’t at all impressed with the setup and was hoping this was not all that was on the agenda for the day. Luckily it was not.

We loaded into the car again and continued up the mountains. Linsen’s wife lost the lunch she had eaten just an hour before. Our next stop was towards the top of the mountain range, where Linsen and I had passed twice before, once on our way to Xiagu, and again on the way to Dongxi. We spent the next hour or so here, walking the “Secrets of Nature” trail. Lots of beautiful scenery.

The day was warm enough to see some wildlife and I was somewhat surprised that I did not hear any noises in the underbrush; a fleeting lizard or a snake on the prowl. While sitting around, waiting for Linsen’s wife, son, and the others to return, Linsen and I were talking with a local at the little shop at the top of the mountain. He asked what we were doing, and Linsen explained the project. The guy mentioned “yo du” and “she” in the same sentence so I perked up. I asked Linsen if he had seen any snakes close-by and Linsen said that he says there are many “poisonous snakes in the forest.” (An aside: I do not bother correcting the Chinese when they say poisonous, apparently there is only one word, and they don’t have a distinction between venom and poison).

I asked the only two venomous snakes I knew; “Jin wen fu? Yan jing she (Deinagkistrodon acutus and Naja atra, Sharp-nose Viper and Cobra)?” It was neither. But of course, what are the chances the snakes he saw are actually venomous? Another bit of information I have to take with a bit of salt is when someone says “common” or “many.” To me, due to the sandhills, these words mean that you are fairly guaranteed to find said snake in a day. I would say without hesitation that pigmies are common at night, cottonmouths are common in the water, and that racers are common on the refuge during the day. I have to remember that when someone else says “common” it may mean they see a species of snake twice a week.

The next two stops were basically the same thing, both at the peaks of the mountain range. There was one particular trail that I was really surprised with the amount of mosquitoes and insects. They were so dense that you had to be careful not to inhale them as you hiked along the way. Since coming to Shennongjia I have also been very surprised with the mosquito’s lack of interest. I do not know if they are going to get worse in July or August, but so far I have been in several mosquito infested areas and have yet to get bitten. I have not put on any of the bug spray I brought over with me yet. If this avoidance is simply the result of spray my shirts with that promethrin spray, then that is an incredibly effective product, as they are not just avoiding my shirt, but my arms and head as well.

Our last “high rise” stop was the highest field station on the reserve, sitting at 2,900 meters, and from which the highest peak is across the valley, sitting at 3,105.4 meters. Though it was windy and cool in the shade, the sun provided plenty of warmth and I was busy flipping rocks, hoping for something – nothing.

From here we started our downward descent. We stopped at another beautiful spot with a small waterfall. Here one of the girls wanted to a picture of the two of us. At the base of the waterfall was a small pool where a local farmer was selling cucumbers. Linsen, knowing I love cucumbers, told me that they were only 2 Yuan. So, even though they were floating in the water, I went ahead and tried it. We will see what sort of impact this has on my gastrointestinal track later.

We continued walking along the trail, with several other tourists, a few of which say “hello” to me. One girl in the group said “excuse me, sir.” Always surprised to hear the English language, I asked what I could do for her. She asked me why I was in Shennongjia and the typical questions. When we got down to the end of the trail she asked if she could have a photo with me. I asked what her name was and she said “Emma” – I was again surprised. I think she saw this surprise and my face and commented “I think it is a German name” – I guess perhaps one of her parents is German or something.

The day was getting on, and it was time for dinner, so we continued down the mountain. Linsen’s wife got sick again (She ended up getting sick 4-5 times that day). We stopped at a nice little restaurant. The dinner was excellent, with several wonderful dishes. One of these was again the plant fritters, where they practically stuck the entire plant into the batter, minus the roots. This plant was a different plant from the one we had at lunch. Linsen didn’t know the English name for it. I asked him the name of the dish and if he thought I could find it in Muyu, as it was one of my more favorite dishes. He said he didn’t think it could be found in Muyu. That’s unfortunate.

20 June

Today started boring and ended up one of the better days. I was bored with town, so I walked up to the scenic area to photograph the Cyclophiops from Dongxi. I had held on to him because I wanted more photographs of the species. It turned out that the little scenic area costs 30 Yuan just to walk around. So I just headed back and walked into the woods to photograph the snake. I eventually got back to HQ and checked my mail. Dr. Stanford had an email telling me about Vanessa and all his upcoming plans. In my reply I asked him where Vanessa was, because I really wanted to meet her.

The majority of my English conversations have been maybe 3-4 sentences. Later than afternoon, Linsen had told me that the person teaching the English classes was having a class that evening at 7 and that I was welcome to sit in on. So come 7pm I walked up to the room, breathless from all the stairs, and looked around. A woman came up to me and said “you must be Kevin, I’ve heard so much about you. Your legend precedes you, they talk about how all of these snakes bite you and that you suck the poison out?” I laughed and shook my head and told her that it was nothing like that.

After the class, Mr. Yu, one of the directors, took us all out to dinner. I was already stuffed, but told him I would eat a little bit. After dinner I went to show Vanessa some snake pictures, because I wanted her to catch any snakes she ever saw, if she was somewhere. We talked long into the night, until the hotel doors had to be locked and she had to leave. She is from Georgia and has been teaching English to Native Americans in New Mexico. Her mother is Chinese and her father is American, so she knows plenty of Chinese – enough to teach English to the reserve staff at least. I was soooo happy to meet her. That night I showed her basically all of the pictures of the possible snakes she could come across.

21 June

Vanessa called me around 8am this morning to tell me that there was a small yellow snake with black bands at the headquarters. In my sleep haze, I took the definition of “headquarters” as the headquarters at Dalongtan – her destination for the day. I told her that the snake was not dangerous and was safe to catch. After hanging up with her my mind was searching for possibilities, all I could think of was a King ratsnake, but they are primarily black with yellow, not vice versa, and plus I thought she would be able to ID that species.

I kept thinking of other yellow and black snakes, and the only other species I could think of was a krait. I was a tad bit worried, but kraits have never been recorded in Hubei, or Sichuan province, so the chance that this was the first one seen was pretty unlikely, and even more so was the fact that she found it during the day. Everything I had read said that kraits were highly nocturnal, but on occasion they were found during the day, and that they would seldom bite if found during the day – they would, however, not hesitate to bite if found at night. Before hanging up, I told her that Linsen and I would pick it up on our way to Pinqian. Later that morning I called Linsen, the Pinqian station trip is continuing to get delayed for some reason. When I called he said he didn’t think we would go today. But he said that they found a snake up at the office there. I was thinking awesome, two snakes already.

When I arrived, in a jar was an absolutely gorgeous yellow and black snake – Elaphe porphyracea (common name is Bamboo ratsnake), goes for around $900 or so in the US pet trade. This one was a baby. I was thinking, “wow, this must be the same species Vanessa found.” I had never expected this to be the species she found. She has no idea how lucky she is, I thought. I was hoping the one she found was an adult. I told Linsen that Vanessa had also found a snake that morning at Dragon Pool Station (Dalongtan). I asked if he could hire a taxi and tell the driver to just drop me off there and that I would get a ride back with Vanessa and everyone else. This idea didn’t really get across and Linsen said he would come. The taxi was 150 Yuan “for the day.”

We walked up to the area, to see Vanessa, Mr. Yang, Mr. Yu, and a few others walking our way. Vanessa asked if I got the snake. I told her I didn’t and thought she had it. She said it was back at HQ in Muyu. “oooooooohhhh…..” Now I understood. Oh well, at least we weren’t in Muyu. We got to watch while the staff fed the monkeys – Snub-nose Golden Monkey (Rhinopithecus roxellana), an endangered species only found in China. I took around 200 photographs with the telephoto – many excellent ones. It was a very awesome experience.

Afterwards, Linsen and I walked along the trail. We found another species of toad, aptly named “Toad B.” Oh, and speaking of toads, I found out the species we found in Dongxi – Bufo gargarizans. We continued along the trail until we came upon a really cool cave. Walking along, I spotted some tin (carbon fiber), and then with a flash of movement on the ground, an “oi” from Linsen, a Jerdon’s Viper (Protobothrops jerdonii) emerged from the trail, heading for the woods. I quickly jumped in front of the snake and asked Linsen for his stick. I hadn’t taken any gear with me because I didn’t think we would find anything venomous, and I told him if we did I would improvise.

Seeing that viper really made my day. I was so happy to have finally captured a truly venomous species. The tiger groove-neck was fine and all, but it didn’t really give you that sense of danger. It was a very laid back species. This viper however, was not laid back. We got back to the car around 6pm or so, and Vanessa’s class starts at 7pm. We had the driver drop us off at the HQ and I went straight to the class. During the break I was showing one of the girls the bamboo ratsnake. I told her that there was also a venomous snake in there as well. About that time Vanessa had wanted me to give a talk up at the front and on the snakes. So I passed around the bamboo ratsnake and pinned the viper and showed everyone it as well. Everyone was very pleased and impressed. Vanessa too, was very thankful that I showed up.

22 June

Stayed in Muyu, got a haircut (with Vanessa’s assistance). The haircut cost 10 Yuan, so about $1. The procedure involves about a 20 minute scalp massage, followed by the haircut. I was pretty impressed. The day was fairly boring, mainly just hanging around town, chatting with Vanessa. This was the day the woman from Wuhan returned and I was able to get access to the museum portion of HQ.

The museum was not very organized and I removed all of their snake specimens (40 jars worth, covering 14 species) and rearranged them by genus as much as possible. It still needs a little bit of work. They have a baby Taiwan Beauty in a jar with a bunch of crabs for example, which I have yet to separate. They had one species mislabeled as Azemiops feae (Fea’s Viper), but until I can get the specimen out and take a better look at the head I cannot tell what species it is. The following is a list of their specimens (prior to my arrival):

Achalinus spinalis 2
Cyclophiops major 1
Dinodon rufozonatum 3
Elaphe mandarina 5 jars worth (many specimens)
Elaphe porphyracea 3 jars worth (many specimens)
Elaphe taeniura 4 jars worth (many specimens)
Lycodon fasciatus 1
Pareas boulengeri 2
Pseudoxenodon sp. 10 jars worth (many specimens)
Rhabdophis nuchalis 1
Sibynophis chinensis 2

Azemiops feae 2
Protobothrops jerdonii2
Trimeresurus 1

Unknown 1

I am saving the lizards and anuran organization for another rainy day (boring day).

23 June

Yet another day in Muyu… It was raining today, but despite that fact, I didn’t go organize the remaining herp collection. For the most part the day was pretty boring. The only thing of interest really to report was the dinner that evening. One of the other “big bosses” – there are so many individuals that I hear are the “head guy” and this guy is the “head head guy” etc, etc. Well anyway, this “head head guy” owns a zoo in Wuhan, where he has Burmese pythons (an endangered species in China), King cobras (also endangered), Chinese cobras, and the Chinese alligator (extremely endangered).

The dinner took place at the most expensive restaurant in town. For dinner it was me, Linsen, Vanessa, the head head guy, Mr. Yu, Mr. Yang, another gentleman, his wife, and another woman. The interesting cultural aspect to note was that the most fancy place in town – for a drink, served Pepsi, and if asked, then they would serve tea or alcohol. After dinner, the “head head” guy invited me to come to his museum and visit him sometime. It would be an awesome experience, but I think my wallet will dictate my decision. My fingers are crossed though.

I had asked Linsen about when we would be traveling to Pinqian. He said it was going to be raining the next three days and that we would go then. This wouldn’t do. For one thing, the source for the weather was Wuhan, which is about 1,000 km away. Either way, I told him that we should still go so that we could at least find some amphibians. The other day, I had told Vanessa that we were leaving for Pinqian on Saturday and that she was welcome to come with us for the weekend and head back on Monday for her class. So, I broke the bad news to Vanessa and told her that I sounded like we weren’t leaving Saturday, but would probably leave Sunday. Linsen hadn’t known she was planning on coming with us and since her days are limited to just the weekend, he said we could leave on Saturday. So the original plan was back into action.

24 June

Vanessa, Linsen and I left for Dalongtan/ Pinqian. To be continued on the Pinqian report.

The Muyu report is certainly not near as nice as the other trips, but worth mentioning. Movies watched while in Muyu include Jaws (once in English, once in Chinese), the Wedding Singer (in Chinese except during songs), Back to the Future III (English), and Independence Day of course.


Previously in this series:

Snakes On The Plain: Kevin in China
Kevin in China, part 2: Three Kinds of Natural Beauty in Jiuchong
Kevin in China, part 3 – The First Westerner in Town
Kevin in China, part 4 – Snakebites as a Daily Hobby


  1. #1 Bill Hooker
    June 29, 2006

    I felt it was cruel keeping them alive without feeding them, so they became specimens on the 16th

    So he is keeping specimens. I don’t get this. These are not new species, and his project is primarily a survey — why are photographs not adequate?

  2. #2 coturnix
    June 29, 2006

    He posted a comment to the previous post explaining what he is supposed to do. It is a deal with the local museum to preserve specimens of species that they do not already have. The others get released.

  3. #3 Bill Hooker
    June 29, 2006

    Ah, that makes sense. (I never thought to look for Kevin himself to comment!)

  4. #4 K Reynolds
    July 2, 2006

    I am so grateful to read this excerpt of Kevin’s expedition. Since Vanessa went on her internship without a computer any photo transmission of her location or surrounding was impossible. Thanks to Kevin’s pictures I got a glimpse of her (handling snakes??? yikes).
    Good luck with your continued journey.

    Her mom

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