We wound up standing in the desert in a gray, cold rain, near the border with Inner Mongolia, surrounded by miles of rocky, grass-tufted soil, gazing at a big outdoor film set where they used to film Chinese Westerns. Two massive Chinese lions roared between Pueblo-style gates while a big gold replica Oscar statue loomed behind, and Chinese tourists huddled under umbrellas with their cameras. There were no swallows there.
There were clearly no more easy nests to be found in the city, so the next day we hired a taxi to take us out to nearby villages. The owners of our hotel were eager to help and enthusiastically recommended a few places for us to check. The taxi driver nodded when Liu Yu gave her our destinations, and off we went. As we drove out of the city, the gray clouds opened up into a cold drizzle- something virtually unheard of in the desert province of Ningxia. This was not a good sign for finding birds.
Our second stop was equally unpromising- another tourist site, this one built around an ancient rock art site at the base of the Helan Mountains. Again, we walked around in the cold drizzle, and again, saw no birds. The taxi driver was getting fidgety. We decided to go home.
And then we finally hit the jackpot: a tiny village of mud-walled houses that was swarming with swallows. We walked around in amazement- there were birds everywhere. They, too, had recently arrived from their winter migration and were still fighting over territories. This meant they might not be sleeping on nests, but they had to roost somewhere and the village was tiny. We went door to door through asking permission to catch the birds around people’s houses that night.
I pushed the taxi out of my mind, and we set off down the dark, muddy streets. An old lady we had met earlier that day greeted us when we arrived at her door in the dark. There were swallows perching on wires under her eaves, and she opened her shed to show us more pairs inside. We quickly strung up nets and caught the birds, and she invited us to work inside. I was worried, because she was clearly about to go to bed and it would take us over an hour to process all the birds, but Liu Yu said it was fine, and the house was warm and out of the wind. Inside, we found one dimly lit room, with a platform bed, a small smoky stove and a mud-packed floor. So we set up our equipment and got started, in this old brick and mud house with its yard full of chickens, in a place that used to educate the infamous Red Guards. Even in my hurry to get the birds processed, it felt surreal.
We kept working, and called the taxi driver when we had three more birds left, figuring it would take him about 30 minutes to arrive. We finished measuring the birds, and still no taxi. We went out to the side of the main road to wait. Still no taxi. It was cold and well after midnight. We sat on a concrete block, hands pulled into our sleeves. I grumbled and cursed at the taxi driver. I should have only paid him a quarter of the money up front, so he’d be forced to come back. We contemplated flagging down a passing car and asking for a lift. This was stupid. I was pissed. Why was I in this stupid place in the middle of nowhere chasing birds around?
The taxi finally arrived around 1:30am. We climbed into the car and rode back to Yinchuan, and started laughing in the darkness