Lots more photos in our photos tab!
|The Barn Swallow Project||
It’s a bit of a knock against me as a researcher that I failed to realize there is no bridge connecting Hainan Island to mainland China. But there isn’t. Getting to Nanning from Haikou required a 12-hour trip, involving a bus, a gigantic ferry (which the bus was loaded on to), and lots of instant ramen (the preferred Chinese travel food). We arrived in Nanning around 10pm, and found ourselves in a massive, bustling, technicolor city. Giant neon signs crowned huge highrises, and flashing digital billboards crowded the skyline. Our hotel was downtown, close to a series of streets crammed with noodle stalls. We met two of Liu Yu’s college friends- both teachers- for a late dinner outside, before collapsing into bed.
In the light of day, Nanning didn’t seem quite so glamorous- the shiny buildings were outnumbered by drab concrete apartment blocks, and despite a constant parade of city workers picking up trash, everything felt grimy and the sky never lightened beyond pale gray. We set off early to look for birds- our plan was to start in the city’s old neighborhoods, and move out to the countryside if we couldn’t find any swallows. Liu Yu’s friends had suggested some places, which turned out to be excellent suggestions. We took a taxi down a tree-lined 6-lane road, past massive shopping complexes, and found the address directly on the huge main thoroughfare. We off then stepped down a small side street and back in time.
A warren of narrow alleys tangled through a neighborhood bounded by crumbling brick walls. One side of the neighborhood, across the street from the riverbank, was bordered by gardens, where people were bent over vegetable patches. The old five-story buildings with their open-air stairwells, bao shops, and tangles of redundant electrical wires were dwarfed by the surrounding apartment blocks. It was clearly a matter of time before the crumbly old place was consumed by new development. For now, though, swallows nest in the roofs and stairwells and swoop through the alleys and over vegetable gardens, and people harvest vegetables as they always had. A nice girl selling breakfast buns (which she tried not to charge us for), said the neighborhood was at least 50 years old- ancient by the standards of booming China.
We checked four old neighborhoods scattered through the city for birds, and between two of them found 17 swallow nests. All were under first story roofs or in stairwells, so we planned to return at night to catch the birds while they were sleeping. Throughout, the contrast between old and new Nanning was staggering, and nowhere more than the area of Linjang Lu. We found no swallows there, but the network of alleyways was fascinating, lined with jewelry repair shops, noodle sellers, and street food stalls. Most amazingly, after following the twisty main street for a while, we emerged on a shiny new pedestrian shopping mall, complete with McDonalds and a Nike shop. The entrance to the old neighborhood was through what looked like a storefront- a literal and metaphorical window to old Nanning.
After a full day of nest searching, we returned to the hotel to wait for dark. It would take us two days to catch birds at the nests we’d found. As we hung out in our hotel room, I suggested we see if there was anything interesting to see in Nanning the next day during our downtime. The Lonely Planet suggested that Nanning’s main attraction of interest was its old alleyways, a “stark contrast from the shiny shopping centers” in the rest of the city. Indeed. We stayed in our room and checked email, ate noodles and garlic-topped oysters near our hotel, and wandered the neighboring market with its displays of live fish and turtles, piles of river snails on ice, and crates of live chickens. Even new Nanning has its exoticism.
The people of Nanning’s old neighborhoods were mostly amenable to us catching their birds, and after the first couple nests, our novelty wore off and the crowds of onlookers dispersed, leaving us alone in the darkened alleys. Over two nights of work we caught 18 birds- enough to pack up our bags and move on. We then began the unscheduled part of our trip. In planning this field season, Liu Yu and I decided we would visit Hainan and Nanning, take a 24 hour train up to Beijing, then head to the area around Harbin, in the northeastern corner of China near the Russian border. We would finish our fieldwork by flying west to Urumqi. We had contacts in all of these places, and knew we could find birds. But I was bothered by the big geographical gaps in our sampling, particularly between Nanning and Beijing. I decided that if work went well once we got to China, I would try to add some additional sampling points. And it was going well- we were working fast, and after a week of successful swallow-catching, I convinced Liu Yu that we could add some intermediate cities to our itinerary. So from Nanning we would go to Changsha, and then Zhengzhou, and perhaps more cities if possible. We booked beds on the 14-hour train to Changsha, and headed off into unknown territory.
Lots more photos in our photos tab!