A Blog Around The Clock

A broken taxi, a mouthy snake, and a question about snake embryology.

Jiuchong, revisited

16 August

Day of rest. Day before I was at Banqiao, tomorrow I’m heading for Jiuchong. I discovered to my absolute horror that Independence Day has been taken off the air. My savior, my light at the end of the tunnel, my safety blanket has vanished. No one except for Vanessa and Emma will be able to empathize with me. The line up is no longer Shaolin Soccer, followed by Independence Day, followed by the bank robbery movie, followed by the Russian movie, now the line up is completely different. The line-up now is some sort of Chinese-Batman rip off with the villain from Crouching Tiger. Followed by the bank robbery movie, followed by a movie with Tommy Lee Jones and Cedric the Entertainer; some kind of movie about a hit out on some cheerleaders, it is in dual language with the Chinese voices much louder than the American voices, but if you listen carefully, every now and then you can hear Tommy Lee Jones giving authoritative orders of some kind. Following this is the Pacifier with Vin Diesel, which is not dubbed, and then Hitch, with Will Smith and the dude from King of Queens, it is also in duel language, but it is easier to hear than the Tommy Lee Jones movie.

17 August

Apparently for the remaining portion of the trip Linsen is no longer with me and Xie Dong has taken his place. He is a fun guy. Good sense of humor, though his English is worse than Linsen’s – no matter though, I’ve picked up enough Chinese that I can communicate pretty well with him and basics with complete strangers, the important things such as “have you seen any snakes?; where did you see it? What time did you see it?” The plan was to revisit Jiuchong for 3 or 4 days. It has been about 3 months since I was last there. It is hard to believe that much time has passed.

We took a taxi, 30 Yuan – the first time we came the reserve taxi was 150 Yuan. The road to Jiuchong is pretty bad, about as bad as the road to Qianjiaping; I was in the front passenger seat. It is good that the poor condition of the road limits speed. As we were moving along, all of sudden the driver hits an average rock, the right side of the vehicle drops down, and out the window I watch as the front tire rolls off the cliff. “Holy sh*t” I say out loud. The vehicle came to a stop and we all got out. About that time I hear what sounded like an explosion in the valley below. I thought to myself no way could a tire explode – it sounded like a shotgun. I suppose it’s possible that the tire could have landed on the rubber portion and simply popped, or the metal hub had hit a rock and that was the sound. I found a large rock and tossed it into the valley and after 7 or 8 seconds there was an extremely loud “bang,” so I have no idea if it was the tire popping or the metal hitting a rock.

The driver pulled out his spare tire from the back and a jack, but he obviously hadn’t inspected what really happened yet. Apparently the vehicle had drum brakes all around, and not just the tire, but the drum brake cover itself had popped off with it, meaning there were no more studs where you would mount a spare tire. The jack and the spare tire would do nothing. The only thing he could do at this point is get a tow truck out there, or get a friend to buy a new hub and bring it out to him. I have not seen anything remotely close to a tow truck my entire time in Shennongjia.

Another taxi finally came by and we hitched a ride with them. It was nice coming back to Jiuchong. I saw the same innkeepers as before. Mr. Wu and the cook were very happy to see me, and then later that evening Luming Gin stopped in as well.

We didn’t stay with the innkeepers this time; there was a portion of the “reserve” housing that had some empty rooms. After seeing the rest of Shennongjia, Jiuchong is kind of behind in times, but they were making a lot of progress. Last time I was here, across from where we would eat was just rubble, now it is a huge building, still under construction. I asked what they were building and Xie Dong said they were building a new housing unit, it will be identical to the units found at Pinqian, Dongxi, and Banqiao, which are all replicas of one another.

After setting our stuff down, we went for the typical walk. I wanted to walk up to the Mucheng checkpost and get the GPS data from that very first Sphenomorphus skink that I didn’t get for some reason. The walk seemed incredibly easy compared to what I’ve been through recently. Along the way I notice some movement at my feet and see a little fence-lizard like body making a run for the edge of the road. I quickly jump on the tiny critter. He had made it to the grass at the border and I was hoping I had covered enough of an area where he would be trapped underneath. I slowly lifted each of my fingers to see if any had pinned the animal and I saw a tail under my ring finger. I moved my finger to the body so he wouldn’t autotomize his tail. It was a new species for me; Japalura flaviceps! I had been very anxious to find a Japalura species. Hubei has two species: J. splendida and J. flaviceps. “Splendida” is an easy Latin root, meaning “splendid” and “flaviceps” is composed of “flavi-” meaning yellow, and “-ceps” meaning head. I was hoping for an adult, but I’ll take whatever I can get.

We took a rest when we reached the checkpost. The guy working the checkpost said he sees snakes almost every day, usually da wong she (king rat, Elaphe carinata). He said a week after Linsen and I left back in May he caught a huge king rat under the bridge just up ahead. He went into the building like he was looking for something. I was worried he was going to bring out a preserved king rat. He didn’t. Instead he brought out part of a preserved king rat. He killed the snake and cut the heart out and put it in some drinking alcohol. He says drinking the alcohol “cleans your eyes.” Yeah, whatever. The heart was huge, I wonder how large the snake was.

We went to get the GPS data on the king rat find as well as my skink find from back in May. I flipped the same rock that had the juvenile Dinodon under it but no luck. The embankment leading down to under the bridge was incredibly overgrown. It was much harder to find all the various flippable rocks. We got the two GPS points and started to head back for dinner.

As usual, Mr. Wu broke out the bi jiao. To make matters worse, this is when Luming Gin showed up, so I had toasts with him too. Basically, afterwards I was a bit tipsy, but was sure it was just a delayed response. We went for a walk afterwards. It was starting to thunder and looked like it may rain any minute. We walked up towards the north end of town right about when the rain started to come down, so we sought shelter at the little “grocery store.” We hung out here until the rain let up a bit and then headed for one of Xie Dong’s friend’s places. The place was packed. There were maybe 8 people there just watching TV and talking. They said that the rain brings out “tonto” (toads). I perked up at this. I didn’t know what species would live here. I would imagine Bufo gargarizans (Toad A, from Dongxi), just because Bufo andrewsi has only been found in the higher elevation spots so far, and Dongxi is closer in elevation to Jiuchong than any of the B. andrewsi locations, BUT, it could very well be a species of toad not recorded yet.

After hanging out at his friend’s place for about an hour or so we headed back to our room. Xie Dong was pretty drunk and ready for bed. I told him to go to sleep and that I was going to go look for tonto. I told him I was just going to walk the road a little bit, for an hour. He said he would stay up until I got back, though I figured he would just pass out. The rain was barely a drizzle at this point. I headed north. I heard a couple of Rana chinensis every now and then, but I wasn’t seeing any toads, nor any frogs on the road. I walked for about 40 minutes uphill, since the return trip would be faster.

I flipped several rocks along the way. Nothing. As I was walking back I was thinking how awesome it would be just to see a large sharp-nose viper stretched across the road, brought out by the rain like his water seeking cousin back in the states, Agkistrodon piscivorus (cottonmouth), or how nice it would be to see a krait. They are nocturnal, and even come out during the day if it rains, so one would think a nighttime rain would certainly stir them up. I just wanted to find something.

I was nearing Jiuchong when I saw a red and black banded snake stretched across the road. “See, now was that so hard?” I said out loud. I reached down to pick up the large Dinodon rufozonatum. This species I think enjoys biting more than any other snake I’ve found. The name “Dinodon” means “terrible tooth.” The snake wouldn’t really strike so much as it would just lash into anything its head came in contact with, my pants, my arm, my watch. In the days following it would bite the straps on my camera bag, and would even chew on the plastic snaps.

18 August

Dejevue (spelled wrong). Woke up to a cloudy, overcast day with rain heavy clouds surrounding Jiuchong, just like the second day back in May. In other news, my Visa expires today. Xie Dong says not to worry about it and that we’ll take care of it when we get to Muyu. I hope he’s right. I don’t really have as much confidence in his opinion when it comes to administrative things as I would Linsen. Xie Dong said when we were at Banqiao and when all the officers from Xiagu came up, someone wanted to check my passport but he said they wouldn’t let him. That was nice that they wanted to “protect” me like that, even though there wouldn’t have been any problems, all the officer could have said is that it was expiring soon.

As I was checking on my Oligodon eggs, Mr. Wu noticed and said he had some “she dan” as well (snake eggs). We took me over to some weeds where he pulled back some brush and removed 5 enormous eggs, all stuck together. I said they had to be da wong she, the king rat. I took the eggs and made a new nest and covered the eggs with a damp paper towel. In one of my sources, it mentioned that Deinagkistrodon laid eggs, which is odd since most vipers give live birth, but there are some that lay eggs, a few that come to mind off the top of my head are: Fea’s Viper, Bushmaster, and Milos Viper. These eggs would certainly be the right size for a Sharp-nose Viper. One egg was in bad condition and I didn’t think it would make it to hatching, so I decided to sacrifice the egg in order to try and ID the species, hoping the development was far enough along that an ID could be made. I carefully cut the egg from the others and opened it up. The embryo was quite a ways from hatching. It was late August and I can’t imagine the egg hatching until late September at the rate it was coming along. The pupil of the eye was circular. Vipers have an elliptical pupil, but that is only when the pupil is constricted. At night when the pupil is dilated, a copperhead or cottonmouth can have a circular pupil, so .

Tonight while typing some of this up I received my second mosquito bite. My first one was when I returned to Xiagu after the Chinese Ebola, I had gotten a mosquito bite while photographing the gecko. Next time I come, I am definitely bringing less mosquito-protective gear. We’ll see how bad they are when we’re hunting Chinese Alligators (Alligator sinensis) and Golden Headed Box Turtles (Cuora aurocapitata) in Anhui Province.

Today was overcast and looked like it would rain any second. We decided to check out the farmer that had seen a jianwenfu (Sharp-nosed Viper, Deinagkistrodon). He took us to the spot along the river where he had seen a medium sized adult in late June. He also recommended he go further down the road to the Forestry Department building and that they see many snakes there. So we headed down to the Forestry Department building. The lady there said they only see big black snakes and took me to where they are usually seen. I told her it was “hua shu she” and that it was non-venomous. Xie Dong and another accomplice basically sat on the porch while I checked around. I found another Sphenomorphus skink, but it was far too overcast for any Ptyas (Hua shu she) to be active. I told Xie Dong that hua shu she likes the sun, and since there is no sun out, they aren’t going to be out. After checking out the surrounding buildings for maybe an hour we headed back up to the station.

Dinner was basically a repeat of the night before, and much like the night before, I told Xie Dong I was going to walk the road, except this time I said I was going to go up to Mucheng and look around on the trail. He said I shouldn’t go that far. I told him I had to. He said I should look around the bridge and then come back. I told him ok, though I had all intentions, and did, hike the trail. I had compiled a list of the 9 species of snakes we were missing from the reported species in Shennongjia and two of them had been seen at Jiucong, and both were nocturnal; Agkistrodon blomhoffii brevicaudus (a relative of copperheads and cottonmouths) and Pareas boulengeri (the slug-eating snake). The trail looked like an excellent place for slugs and snails, so I figured I’d have a chance at finding one of those, and it was semi-aquatic and very damp and felt like a good place for an Agkistrodon to hang out hunting frogs and such.

As I set out for the trail one of the girls around Jiucong stopped me and asked me what I was doing. I told her I was going up to Mucheng to look for snakes. She asked if I was going by myself. I told her I was. I had a shocked look on her face and started making a “tsk tsk” obviously disapproving of my plans and she said she thought it was very dangerous. I told her I didn’t have a choice. It was night, I HAD to go.

The hike up took 50 minutes. When I got to the bridge I set down all my gear and laid down on my back staring up at the stars. It was a clear night. I often do this sort of thing in the sandhills after activity is done or as the year is winding down. The bridge wasn’t as warm as the Wildlife Drive, but it was still nice to lay there for a few minutes and soak in the experience that was happening.

I got up and headed for the trail. I did not find a single thing. No anurans, no slugs or snails were active. My boots, socks, and the majority of my pants were soaking wet. On the hike back down to Jiucong I thought maybe I’d see a toad or another snake. No luck there either.

19 August

Had lunch with some of Xie Dong’s friends. We ate with what would be considered the equivalent of the “mayor” of Jiucong, and I found out that Luming Gin is the “vice mayor.” As usual, a lot of drinking went on. Afterwards we were suppose to go hiking with Mr. Wu. As we were hiking up to Jiucong (our lunch was in the little village to the south), I saw a long black body crossing the road. I threw off my backup and ran full out, but it was no use. I was a good 10 seconds too late and the snake had scaled a nearly flat rock face. Air temp was 97ºF.

We walked around with Mr. Wu, who had a cold. Xie Dong said he went to the doctor and got some IV fluids. I asked him what his temperature was before he went to the doctor. He said it was normal. I asked why he went to the doctor then. He said he had an upset stomach! I told them that in the States we usually don’t go to the doctor unless we have a very high fever. I guess in China they go for any ol’ thing, and getting IV fluids treats anything. We found a couple more Sphenomorphus skinks and a newborn Taiwan Beauty Snake (Elaphe taeniura).

We got dinner with the same crowd from lunch. One of the guys was a cop and was heading back to Muyu that evening and offered us a free ride, so we opted for the chance. Left for Muyu around 7:40 and got in around 9:40.

21 August

It’s Monday, so I went to see if I could get my passport issue cleared up. I went to Mr. Yu, who took me to Pong Ling Pong, who took me to the police department within the reserve, they talked back and forth for awhile. They needed to make a copy of my passport, my contract, and then take a picture of me. We did all of this, went down to the police station where I had a photo taken, then went back to the reserve, one of the officers made a few calls, and then they said they cannot do it and that I would have to go to Yichang to get it done.

This was disappointing. Not only did that mean that I wasn’t going snake hunting on the 22nd, but that I was spending 12 hours on the road, AND I was going to Yichang where the cops didn’t know me, in addition to not being able to speak well enough Mandarin in case I run into some problems. I’m hoping Xie Dong or Linsen will be able to tag along.

Prior to the Yichang complication, my plans were set as:
Jiucong; 17, 18, 19, 20 head to Muyu
Muyu; arrive on 20, 21, 22 head to Dongxi
Dongxi; arrive on 22, 23, 24, 25 head to Muyu
Muyu; arrive on 25, 26, 27 head to Pinqian
Pinqian; arrive on 27, 28, 29, 30 head to Muyu
Muyu; arrive on 30, 31, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 leave Shennongjia
During the last days I would make day trips to Caiqi, Qianjiaping, the Tower, and mainly organizing the museum and wrapping things up.

So I guess everything is getting pushed back a day which isn’t too terrible since I have so many buffer days in September.

Pictures are on Photobucket

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
Kevin in China, part 5 – His Legend Preceeds Him!
Kevin in China, part 6 – The Mystery Snake
Kevin in China, part 7 – Bit By Snakes? Get Used To It!
Kevin in China, part 8 – The Dance and The Snakes
Kevin in China, part 9 – What Really Happened That Night, or, The Night Of Too Many Toasts!
Kevin In China, part 10 – “the poison of that snake, is not dangerous to people?”
Kevin In China, part 11 – How to avoid getting married in China, or, women are more complex organisms than venomous snakes
Kevin In China, part 12 – Chinese Ebola, or, Getting the Taste of Chinese Medicine
Kevin In China, part 13 – Back To Herping
Kevin In China, part 14 – The Lure Of The West: McDonalds and Chinese-dubbed Tom Cruise
Kevin In China, part 15 – Beijing
Kevin In China, part 16 – It’s not easy to catch a swimming frog