Kevin in China #21 - Frustrating museum collections, eating eels and going home

Kevin is back from China and busy with school, work and herping in the Sandhills so it took him some time to put together this last installment, covering the last few days in China, the last-ditch efforts to ID some of the mysterious frogs, and the glorious return.

We have yet to get together for a beer, but if he decides to continue writing on his own blog, I'll let you know.


13 September

We arrived back in Beijing around noon. It was a good two hours until we finally made it back to the institute of zoology. Emma wasn't getting off work (she was teaching English at an elementary school) until about 5pm. I killed some time on the internet, met up with Dr. Li and talked to him for awhile. Turns out, Emma was kicked out of the reserve basically because of me. Apparently, due to security issues only one foreigner is allowed in the Shennongjia area at a time, and I guess since I was there first, arriving in May, that is why Emma was eventually kicked out. Dr. Li asked me about my plans for next summer, since originally I was planning on returning in 2007, but this was before I had any idea of what Shennongjia was really like. I told him that I didn't have the money to return in 2007 and that I was hoping to return in 2008. This turned out to be best for him as well. "Oh good, that means we can send Emma back into the field then." This is when I asked him what he meant and found out about the whole one-foreigner-at-a-time deal.

Emma showed up around 4:30pm. I gave her a hug. I'm sure Zhang Fang and Luping were mortified (since no one ever hugs the opposite sex unless they are married). We gathered my bags and waved down a taxi and headed to her apartment. I was very thankful for her situation in Beijing. She was renting an apartment while she teaches English until her permits go through and she can return to Shennongjia. If not for her I would have had to stay in a hotel for my remaining days, which would have drained the rest of my dwindling wallet.

When Zhang Fang had asked me where I was staying, I told him I was staying at Emma's place. He immediately responded "oh, where is she going?" Obviously not even considering for a moment that we'd both be staying in the same room together. "Ummm. I suppose she's working until late afternoon, but I was just going to sleep on her couch or something." He didn't really respond.

Emma showed me her new domicile; much nicer than her place in Muyu. With stuff unloaded, the next step was dinner. She had left me a message on my phone telling me that dinner was up to me. There was no question, and no hesitation. "The Tree (the pizza place)!" We pulled out a map of the subway and tried to figure out where the closest stop was. Emma was very familiar with subway by this point. We got off at where we thought was close. After emerging from the subway we looked around, and neither of us recognized any of the scenery. All I remember was a bunch of outdoor bars on the right, and a huge construction billboard on the left. We figured we'd walk around for a bit, and if we couldn't find it, then we'd get a taxi.

We walked around for longer than a bit, but being a male, I couldn't find myself to hiring a taxi and having them drive us right around the corner. We asked one German couple, but they didn't have any idea, then we asked a couple of European guys (I have no idea what nationality), they didn't have a clue either. I was kicking myself for not bringing my GPS. We continued our wandering and eventually stumbled upon a few familiar icons. We could see some construction in the distance, there were lots of flashing lights and outside bars. One thing that was different was a bunch of trees. I thought maybe this was a good omen, since our goal was named "the Tree." But, I did not remember seeing so many trees the first time I came. We decided to walk around the construction site. We thought that maybe one of the four sides would jog our memories or reveal our end. And that is what happened.

I was quite excited. Emma got a margarita pizza, one of the ones we didn't get my first time through. I ordered another quattro formaggi. Both pizzas were excellent. Unfortunately Emma succumbed to some kind of illness during the meal and didn't get to fully enjoy the meal. I felt bad for her.

We got a taxi back to the apartment and had a semi-early bedtime. The couch was pretty small, and not terribly comfortable. Around 3am I opted for the linoleum floor.

14 September

I got up around 8am. I was to meet Zhang Fang at the institute around 9am to go to the museum nearby and check out some specimens; hoping their collection would be able to clear up some ID-issues. I left early so I could find my way to the institute. Emma's place was very close to Nick's old place, basically on the other side of the subway, but despite that fact, I never walked from Nick's to the institute. Emma gave me some directions, but after getting turned around trying to escape the little apartment complex, I resorted to the GPS to get me to the institute. This got me there, but I don't think it got me there in the easiest and fastest way.

The museum was basically a branch of the institute; it was about a 5 minute walk. The woman in charge opened some doors and pointed down a hallway; there were two double-sided, 7 ft high cabinets stretching almost the length of the room, in front of me. I started opening some doors. The first four doors were snakes. Even though my main objective was frogs and salamanders, I still looked at nearly every snake: several king cobras, several Chinese cobras, some many-banded kraits. I couldn't help but think how incredible it would have been to find a king cobra. I noted that there weren't any preserved Oligodon ningshaanensis specimens.

I worked my way from the snakes to the frogs which were right next door. One would think I might find some answers here. Instead I ended up with more questions. Typical research process...

So, to update the frog situation: sending requests overseas, primarily over that damn "Frog B" I had a number of possibilities. My original possibilities were Paa (Rana) boulengeri, Rana quadranus, or Rana kuhlii. The most similar illustration in the amphibian atlas was Rana quadranus. Craig had looked up Rana quadranus in the Herpetology of China book and had told me he didn't think it matched Frog B. I have since looked at the same book and don't think R. quadranus matches Frog B either. Unfortunately there were no preserved specimens of R. quadranus at the museum. Craig had recommended Rana kuhlii, and there were some preserved specimens there with that label.

Prior to reading the label that species of frog had caught my eye as a possibility. However, upon reading the label, Zhang Fang said "that is the wrong label." "What do you mean?" "You see that one frog?" He was pointing to one of the smaller specimens in the jar, of about a dozen individuals. "Yeah." "That is the big-headed frog. See how large the head is compared to the body?" The common name (in Chinese) of Rana kuhlii was the big-headed frog. And the one individual he was pointing to, though you could only see the belly, did look different from the rest of the animals in the jar. This made me realize that I didn't quite appreciate the act of naming an animal after someone else as much as I used to. In the case of Paa boulengeri and Rana kuhlii the scientific names tell me nothing about the animal itself. Compare that to something like Dinodon rufozonatum or Amolops granulosa and you know immediately from the scientific name that the Dinodon is red in color and that the Amolops is covered in some kind of granular bumps. But when a species is named after someone, it gives no clues as to the traits or characteristics of the species. So the common name of Rana kuhlii is big-headed frog, which I didn't know of course (because it was in Chinese) and the common name of Rana boulengeri is the spiny-bellied frog. Now, another consideration I need to take into account is how standardized the common names are. Since so few Chinese scientists seem to use scientific names, I can only hope that the common names are more standardized than those of the States.

So back to the problem at hand. I had a species of frog, that looked similar, but apparently had the wrong label on the jar (except for one individual). Alright, fine. I placed that jar to the side. I found another specimen labeled Rana kuhlii, a single specimen, and the specimen looked like the "mislabeled" Rana kuhlii in the previous jar. But, of course the jar had to be sealed and I couldn't remove the animal to examine it further. I don't know what is with the popularity of these jars that are sealed with Vaseline. I set this specimen to the side as well. Next I wanted to find a Paa boulengeri. I found Rana boulengeri. Just as with the R. kuhlii, I had multiple jars, with varying specimens inside. I had two jars to choose from, both labeled Rana boulengeri. One of the jars had about 20 specimens inside. The other had a single specimen. The single specimen had a bunch of spines on the belly, like the common name suggests. None of the other 20 specimens had any spines whatsoever, all their bellies were as smooth as can be (like all the animals I found in Shennongjia). So again, do I pick the jar with the single specimen or do I pick the jar with 20 specimens. The jar with the 20 specimens has a higher "sample size," compared to a single specimen jar. One would think they couldn't get the wrong animal 20 times, so that gives more credibility to the jar with all the animals, BUT, the jar with the single specimen matched the traits of the common name. Oh yeah, and specimens in the crowded jar looked more similar to my Frog B. The R. boulengeri with the spines on his belly was an obvious negative.

So, to recap. The photo of Rana quadranus does not match any of my Frog B's, only very slightly. I had two different frogs labeled as Rana kuhlii, one of which looked similar to my Frog B. And, I had two different frogs labeled as Rana boulengeri, one of which also looked similar.

Feeling rather defeated and frustrated, yet again, I decided to move on to my mystery toad, Megophrys boettgeri. They had a single jar, and the glass was brown and you could barely see inside. Luckily, this top wasn't sealed. I pulled the top off and pulled two specimens out. I knew immediately that the toad I found in Banqiao was not M. boettgeri, and must have been a juvenile Bufo andrewsi, which was my gut reaction at the time (hence the reason I didn't collect the animal). Ok, so I needed to find a new range extension for that species, but at least I had a definite answer.

Now I needed some salamander answers. I moved another cabinet over and inside were a mix of salamanders, newts, and a few more frog specimens. There was no a single Ranodon shihi or Hynobius chinensis - nor any of their alternate scientific names. I found a few other species of Ranodon's, hoping to get a rough idea of the body plan, but the specimens weren't terribly helpful.

I continued looking around the hundreds of specimens, mainly just curious at this point rather than having a specific goal in mind. One of my questions was answered, several weren't, and several new ones had formed, including "why do they have the same labels for several different species?!"

After a while, Zhang Fang came back in and asked me if I was ready to go. I was. The next thing on my list was to have lunch with Dr. Li, if he was free. We stopped by his office and he said he was available. Luping also came along. We ate at a small noodle restaurant nearby, nothing special. Dr. Li asked if I liked spicy food. I told him I did. So he ordered a beef and pepper dish for the three of us. Luping didn't care for spicy food so she got something else. The dish tasted fine but it was not at all spicy. I was disappointed in that regard.

After lunch I was to meet up with Xie, one of the girls that I met on my last trip to Pinqian. She had told me she wasn't sure if anyone else would be able to show up. She told me she was at some noodle place close to pizza hut at Wudakou (the district where Emma's apartment was). I told her I knew where the pizza hut was and that I would head in that direction. Again, I tried using the GPS to get me back to Emma's place, and as before, I did find my way back, but it took far longer than I think it should have.

I met up with Xie and her sister. They were just finishing lunch. She asked what I would like to do. I told her I haven't seen the Temple of Heaven, the Summer Palace, and the Lama Temple. She hadn't seen the Lama Temple either and she said the Temple of Heaven was pretty small, and as a result, she recommended the Summer Palace. So after she finished her lunch we headed for a bus stop.

The Summer Palace was the place the Emperor would go in the summers to escape the heat. The Summer Palace was surrounded by a huge lake and so was obviously much cooler that the Forbidden City. I thought the Summer Palace might be kind of small, compared to the Forbidden City (the Palace) itself, and perhaps technically it was smaller, but not by much. You could spend the entire day at the Summer Palace and still not see everything. There were some beautiful nature trails with huge boulders strewn about, weeping willows all over the hills, huge lily pads in the lakes and waterways. The place was quite green and quite pleasant. At various locations you could see some senior citizens taking a swim in some parts of the lake. There were lots of people sitting on benches beneath the willow trees as joggers passed by. It was a very nice place. Xie and I walked around the entire lake. She told me her English name was Sheryl, after Sheryl Crow. She picked this name because the name sounds kind of like her name (minus the R and L), and because she likes Sheryl Crow.

She had all sorts of questions for me. She said in one of her English classes her team was supposed to put on a skit in the upcoming week and that she and her classmates had decided to do something with McDonalds. She wanted me to give her some ideas. I told her that McDonalds is considered the lowest of the low in the States and that no one ever plans to actually go to McDonalds. I told her that the only time someone eats at McDonalds is basically if you are out in the middle of nowhere, starving, and there is no other alternative. She was surprised. She also said that she didn't think most Chinese went to McDonalds necessarily for the taste but more for the culture (western culture). I thought that was interesting.

We spent a good three hours or so at the Summer Palace. Xie asked me what I wanted for dinner. She asked if I wanted pizza. I told her that I didn't and that I really wanted some sort of spicy, Sichuan style dish. She called a friend, who recommended a location, and we took a bus back to Wudakou, where the restaurant was nearby. I had called Emma to see if she wanted to join, but she was stuck in traffic and said she wouldn't be able to make it.

The restaurant was very nice. We looked at the menu. I told her I was basically a fan of anything except fish. I also told her I was interested in some spicy dishes. I saw a picture of one noodle type dish that looked pretty interesting, so we ordered that. We got some stir fry green beans, a soup-like dish with corn, and chuan bei la pi (my favorite dish from my first time in Beijing).

The soup was very similar to cream corn, just a bit more fluid. The green beans, one of the supposed spicy dishes, was good, but not spicy. The interesting noodle dish was interesting. It was basically tangy, with a slight hint of spice. There were rice noodles (the transparent noodles), those thin small white mushrooms, and then one other type of "noodle." I picked up a clump with my chopsticks and asked Xie, "so this is some kind of noodle?" "No. I do not know how you say in English." "Is it an animal?" "Yes." The meat was like a thick, concave noodle, with a stripe down the back. It was also segmented. One end tapered down into a tail. I had already eaten one and was starting to worry. It could have easily fit the description of a gutted, small snake. The segments could have passed as the ribs, the concave body, obviously the gutted portion, and the line of the back could have been some nerve tissue or something. Xie was typing away in her dictionary trying to find the English word. I just picked around the mystery meat and ate the mushrooms and rice noodles. She handed me the dictionary and the word "eel" was on the screen. "Ah, much better." Though, I didn't fancy fish, I still ate a few of the little things. She knew I didn't like fish, I guess eel doesn't count as a fish though.

15 September

Today was somewhat relaxing. Emma had to work. I finally got to sleep in. As for my agenda for the day, I was looking into prices for sending my snake gear back to the states. Since I had 4 bags, the rifle case that contained my snake hook, clamp, and pinning hook, would count as a 5th bag. When I came to China, this extra bag cost $130. I figured anything would be cheaper than that, so my goal was to look up FedEx locations and see how much it would cost to send the gear that way. Things are not always cheaper in China. The cost to send the case, the slowest route, would end up costing me 980 Yuan, which is a bit more than taking it on the plane. So that plan was shot, but at least now I didn't have to worry about getting a taxi to the FedEx location and dealing with that. But I still had a problem of a 5th bag that was costing me an arm and leg.

I headed back to Emma's to start rearranging my bags and getting everything ready. On my way back I stopped by a subway. This was my first sandwich since the night before I flew out when mom, dad, and I had dinner at the subway in good ol' McBee. How I miss that place. Not so much for the taste but mainly for the feeling of "being home" and being in the sandhills. The subway was also the first time I've come across mustard and black pepper since arriving in China. The sub tasted like any other subway sandwich I've ever had. I was not disappointed. After lunch, I went to an internet café to email a request to Vanessa. She and her family is coming to Beijing over the winter, so now I was thinking maybe she, or one of her family members could maybe bring my snake gear back with them when they return. Each passenger is allowed 4 bags for free, so hopefully not everyone will come with 4 bags of luggage.

I finally made it back to Emma's, took a shower, and started working on my luggage. I watched some movies on my laptop while I was packing. Emma had purchased a number of DVDs for like 2 Yuan (25 cents) - but they wouldn't work in her DVD player, but they'd work in my laptop. I watched Mr. and Mrs. Smith.

Emma got home around 5:30pm. You could tell she wasn't pleased. "How were the kids?" "Those little f**kers..." She's mentioned that ever since her assistant left none of the kids show her the least bit of respect. It's too bad. Hopefully she won't have to deal with the situation too much longer.

That night we wanted to try a Muslim restaurant nearby. It was good and all, but it didn't really seem too terribly different from a Chinese dish, aside from the bread they served with the meal. It's not really worth mentioning any more than that. When we got back, we put in a few more movies and just relaxed.

16 September

My last "free" day. Tomorrow I was flying home. It was Saturday, so Emma didn't have to teach. The first item on the checklist was to sleep in. That evening, Emma was planning to take me out to Hard Rock Café for my last meal. One of the things she does as she travels around the world is to eat at all the various Hard Rock Cafés, and she had yet to eat at the Beijing location. At 10 or 11, her team, Liverpool, was supposed to be having a major match and there was only one location in Beijing that she knew of that would be broadcasting the match, so after dinner we were to go to that bar and watch the game and have some last drinks.

I wanted to stop by the silk market one last time to see if there were any last minute gifts I could think of, and we figured we would walk to Hard Rock from there. After purchasing one final gift, we headed to the subway so we could get as close as possible. When we emerged from the subway we had no idea which way to go. We knew the road we needed to be on. Emma showed a guy at a newspaper stand a map and he pointed us in the proper direction.

At each street corner we would ask more newspaper stands to confirm our directions. Most were consistent; sometimes you would get someone that didn't know or pointed in a different direction.

It was starting to get dark by this time. Before we knew it we were in the Embassy district. This didn't seem right. We continued walking. We saw a lot of trees and a lot of blinking lights. Now we were over by The Tree! We decided to hail a cab. We told him where we wanted to go. He continued going straight on the road we were on, took a left at the end of the road, drove for another 5 minutes and Hard Rock was there on the right. We were somewhat close, but would not have found it on our own.

Inside was incredibly nice. We could tell it would be an expensive dinner, but we were still hoping that since it was China, the prices would still be a bit cheaper. Emma already knew what she was getting, a veggie burger and a milkshake. The milkshake was 36 Yuan and the veggie burger was 63 Yuan! I got a BBQ bacon cheeseburger, which was 76 Yuan. No drinks. Bottled water was 20 Yuan.

I am pretty sure I have eaten at Hard Rock before but can't really remember it. When I bit into my burger it was an instant "omigod." This burger was phenomenal. Maybe it was just the fact that I hadn't had western food in such a long time, but I am pretty sure it was really just the fact that it was a damn good burger.

After dinner, we went looking for this pub where her football game was being played (all other countries in the world call soccer "football," so for her I am using her terminology). After some more wondering around and taking some left hand turns we found it. It was a very small, quaint pub. There were three other people already inside drinking. One sounded American, the others were Australian I think Emma said. She brought the bartender a Liverpool tie; an item that can't be purchased. She acquired it from working on the stadium grounds awhile back. This got us a couple of free drinks.

She asked about the game. The bartender looked a little confused. She asked again. He pointed to a blackboard on the wall that had all the upcoming games. Emma's game was playing tomorrow, not tonight. She seemed blown away by this, mainly because she was positive it was being played tonight and had looked up all of this information months before, but that was the way it was, and the game wasn't being played until tomorrow night. We decided to have a few more drinks and play some darts. I have no dart experience whatsoever. Emma explained the rules, which seemed pretty complicated at first but eventually simplified. Long story short, "America 3, England 2" - and I now know that I really enjoy darts.

It was a great last night. Dinner was superb. The after dinner drinks and entertainment was also fun. We headed back to Wudakou where there was "college night" nearby, basically pints for a couple of Yuan. All sorts of foreign and Chinese students. We hung around here for a bit and then headed back to the apartment. I think we watched another movie before finally going to bed.

17 September

Got up, got my gear together, and Emma and I headed for a bus stop where a shuttle would pick people up and take them to the airport. My plane wasn't leaving until 3:45pm, but I wanted to get there very early, just in case of problems. I got there around noon or so. Didn't run into any problems along the way.

The Beijing airport was pretty big, at least the international terminal. The flight home wasn't terribly exciting and I won't bother writing about it. Since I was flying out to Texas on the day after returning, I decided not to adjust my clock (internal) until I was in Texas. When I got into Charlotte around 10pm or so, it was 10am to me. Mom and dad took me out to dinner, we went home and started packing for Texas. Since it was now noon for me, I decided to drive down to my beloved sandhills! I knew I wouldn't find anything, but I just had to drive down there to say hello to my jeep and to see the Wildlife Drive again. I was finally home. It was quite an experience.

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
Kevin in China #17 - Drinking liquor with a snake heart makes your eyes clear
Is there a Herpetologist in the house?
Kevin in China update
Kevin in China #18 - a mandarin rat, another mystery frog that is NOT in the Atlas of Amphibians of China, and the Chinese-speaking Godzilla
Kevin in China #19 - The snakes are hatching, the peppers are raw, and the amphibians are too damn frustrating to identify
Kevin in China #20 - turtles and crocs and Steve Irwin


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