Friday, June 7, 2013

Strange Woman Abroad: Chonqing Ichnology Conference, Beijing Tracks

Hello Dear Readers! I am starting a several post series on the amazing ichnology work and conference in which I, Rich, and several other ichnologists were involved in November of 2012. Now that I have all of my photos organized and cataloged, I can take you on a visual tour of the great field and cultural sites to which we were introduced on our whirlwind China adventure.

I was invited to take part in the "China 1st International Dinosaur Track Symposium" (the link contains an abstract of the conference and the location details) that took place November 27 - 30th in Qijiang, Chongqing City. The conference was organized by Lida Xing (whose interview with me can be read here). Once we confirmed that we were attending the conference, Rich and I were asked if we would be interested in participating in the pre-conference field work from November 20 - 26, which would focus on track sites from various regions in China. Would we be interested?? Does an owl hoot in the woods??

We left Canada via Air China on November 17. We remembered our last international airline experience and packed plenty of anti-nausea medication and Pepto-Bismal (for all the good it did me in Turkmenistan).

We arrived in Beijing on Nov. 19th around 10pm local time. After claiming our luggage, we followed the throng of people to the main security exit to the exit area, reading all the signs to see if our names, our conference name, anything seemed familiar...and where was our Greeter? We even went back through to the security gate to see if we  missed an obvious sign after a long flight, but we saw nothing that pertained to us. We had a seat to collect our thoughts. We spoke little Mandarin (hello, how are you, and thank you were the only words we had ready in our repetoire), and were just getting ready to break out our dictionaries and muddle through asking where to purchase a local SIM card or get WiFi access, when we hear an excited shout behind us. It was Lida and the rest of the arrivals! We had somehow missed each other in the crowd, and ended up at different parts of the airport. Hooray! We would  not have to spend the night at the airport!

We had an hour drive to the hotel at which we were staying for the Beijing part of the fieldwork. I did not anticipate that there would be dinner laid out for us on our arrival!
This was considered a light meal.
I had a crash course in official dining customs. It is customary for each host official to make a group toast. It is also customary for each of the officials to go around to each of the visiting dignitaries and personally drink their career, health, beauty (for the ladies), etc. There were two beverages of choice for toasting: a red wine (quite nice - very similar to a Syrah in mouth feel with hints of Merlot) and a white liquor called baijiu.

Oh, baijiu.

I am not a habitual drinker, and when I do imbibe, it's usually wine. However, I was going with the flow (pun completely intended), and when the serving staff came around to fill up the small (thankfully) glasses I didn't question it. Heck, I thought: I'll just sip.

Silly Strange Woman: there would be no sipping. You see, a toast is not effective or meaningful unless you drain your glass. After drinking, you tip the glass over to show your drinking partner that your glass is indeed empty. For each toast. With each official. This begins to add up when you have four or five officials dining with you. As the group toasts and the individual toasts began to add up, I knew there was no way I was getting out of this without being toasty at the end. Getting flat out bombed at a dinner with officials, local dignitaries, and colleagues would make me a disgrace to my profession, my country, and my gender (in my mind anyway: my Granny and Great-Aunt Molly had very strong ideas on how a lady behaves at a fancy dinner). I also had to temper this by not being rude and refusing all of these very gracious toasts from our generous hosts (the odd things my Canadian brain worries about, eh?).
Rich McCrea (center) toasting with a Beijing official. Julian Divey to the left, Dong Jhiming and Martin Lockley to the right. My savior, pumpkin juice, in the bottom right corner.
Words of wisdom!
Pumpkin juice saved me. Don't make that face: it does not taste at all like how it sounds. Pumpkin juice is great! It has a pleasant orange color, and is sweet and fruity without being cloying. It was fairly chilly in Beijing when we arrived (there was snow on the ground), and instead of tea or coffee, hot soy milk or pumpkin juice was served in tall glasses. For each toast I made sure I had at least a cup of pumpkin juice to follow it. Needless to say I kept my cool amid the myriad of toasts and felt no ill effects of the evening's imbibing the next morning. Granny and Molly would have been proud! (Note: I learned later that it is perfectly fine to ask for wine, and then only small amounts are poured for toasting.)
Our friend the goldfish joined us at every meal in Beijing.

The morning was packed with activities. We were scheduled to visit the Beijing National Geopark (China has it's own Geopark system, and the plan is that the parks established under the national system will be submitted to the Global Geopark Network in the near future), which includes dinosaur trackways, a large petrified forest, and even some Precambrian shales.

Oh, did I mention there was snow on the ground? All the weather reports I had checked in Canada claimed that Beijing would be +10C. Does this look like +10C to you? I trust weather reports as far as I can throw a meteorologist, so I came prepared with long undies, a toque, gloves, and several layers.

View through our hotel window the morning of the 20th.

Breakfast was no less elaborate than our dinner the night before.

From left to right: Hendrik Klein, Lida Xing, Rich McCrea, Julien Divey. In the foreground are some of my favorite breakfast items for that day: grilled sweet potato, sauteed celery, sweet bean buns, and a cornbread-like cake with plums. Oh, the red cubes in the bowl between the bean buns and the plum cake is some type of cheese with a sauce made from red berries that grow in the region. That would have to become a required taste.

We started our hour long drive to the Beijing Geopark. We saw a lot of people on the road: not just vehicles, but pedestrians. We also saw a lot of interesting old vehicles.

Our road to the Geopark. We followed this vehicle carrying brushwood for awhile, and saw several people collecting brush in the fields. Notice the white paint on the trunks of the trees. I saw this in Turkmenistan as well.

We disembarked to see the Visitor Center.

The signage outside of the entry Visitor Center. The best I could do with the translation is "Landscape Gallery". If anyone has a (much) more accurate translation, I'd love to hear it!

The snow-covered, tectonically distorted beds within the Geopark.
Small gift shop inside the entry Visitor Center. Sauropods, ceratopsians, and ankylosaurs: oh my!
For the ankylosaur-philes in my life. You know who you are. Ichno-geek note: even though toy ankylosaurs (and many other dinosaurs) are made with plantigrade feet for super standing action, the well-preserved manus and pes tracks of Tetrapodosaurus borealis (likely made by an ankylosaur) indicate a digitigrade stance and a track-maker with long, slender digits. Check out these T. borealis tracks  from the Grande Cache track site in northwestern Alberta.

We re-boarded our bus and made our way to the Precambrian sedimentary deposits. Precambrian or not, I checked for any ichnological signs (I couldn't help myself), but none were to be seen.

Seeing zilch on a fine-grained surface would be my recurring theme for this trip.

Geologists and paleontologists: we attract attention wherever we go. This is likely because if there are three or more of us and we're on a field trip, we flock to roadside outcrops. This trip was no exception. There is a village just across the river from the Precambrian outcrops (and right inside the park!), and we received a few curious looks from a distance. Granted, the majority of our party was more interested in seeing the outcrop at our next stop: the Early Cretaceous!

The village across the river from the Precambrian outcrop, with villagers looking at those weird paleontologists.

We arrive at the track site. A protective metal barricade separates visitors from the site, but we were subtly shown an opening.

How many trackways do you see? Is it a bipedal or quadrupedal track-maker? Ornithischian or saurischian? Unleash your inner Ichno-Geek!
THIS is what we're used to in northeast British Columbia: track sites on vertical surfaces. I've logged over 100 hours on vertical surfaces that are over 60 meters above the top of a cirque. The tracks pictured are only 2-3 meters off of the main ground level: a much more reasonable height for research.

We lost no time in familiarizing ourselves with the track face.

Lida Xing (foreground) holds a scale bar so that Martin Lockley (center-ground) and Hendrik Klein (background) can take photos.

Of course, we were not going to be content with just standing back and taking photos: we wanted to get up close and personal with the track face! Our escort anticipated this, and ladders were provided.

Lida Xing (background, black jacket), Hendrik Klein (gray jacket), and Rich McCrea (foreground, hat) wait their turn as Martin Lockley examines the track face from the ladder.

This is a small sample of what we saw once we were up the ladder:

Martin and Hendrik added the chalk outlines. This is common practice when photographing ichnologic specimens, as a two-dimensional rendering of a three-dimensional object tends to obscure many details. Before the chalk outlines are added, innocent photos (free of interpretation) and photogrammetry photos are taken.

The question inevitably arose: which dinosaur was the most likely track-maker? Possibilities bounced between a thyreophoran or a small sauropod: both track types are known from China (and more reports are soon to appear in print).

Descending a ladder while holding a camera leads to some interesting pictures.

After descending the ladder, I started checking out other parts of the surface. I found this nice track that was still infilled with the overlying sediment.

This is one of the nice things about a track surface: if one area erodes, it usually exposes a new track surface, and will also expose fresh areas of existing track surfaces. This print will be quite well preserved once it is fully exposed: check out the digits!
These interesting features are hypothesized to be caused by algal mats dessicating after they had established themselves on the wet track surface.

Our next stop was the Petrified Forest. This place is amazing! The site was designed around an area that contains dozens of in place petrified logs. Stairways and walking paths were constructed to each petrified log. Not only is each log accessible, but they are beautifully covered with a lovely gazebo-pagoda.

This is one of my favorite photos from the trip.
A close-up of one of the pagodas. The petrified log is behind the plexi-glass enclosure.
One of the petrified logs ensconced within the lovely pagodas.
No matter where you are, never forget to look up. The ceilings on all the pagodas that we saw were elaborately painted.
There were pagodas everywhere! Each one can be visited on foot.

There is a small display gallery with this part of the Park, but I did not have the correct camera settings for the light levels. Sadly I have no photos of the displays that are worth posting.

After checking out a few of the lovely pagodas (we had no time for the long trek up the hill to see some of the distant ones), we went to a second visitor center that runs a small but fantastic restaurant. My camera was out of battery power at this time, so I only have images leading into the restaurant.

My stone lion (I wish).
Statues depicting warriors with tigers. Lida pointed these out to me because of my love of cats!
I don't think I could ever get bored with dragons. The faces on these dragons are very intricate: they do not look like a lizard-based afterthought.

Afterwards we were transported back to the hotel-conference center for a meeting with local and government officials to discuss our recommendations for the future of the dinosaur and fossil sites within the National Geopark. This was described to us as an informal meeting, but I am glad I changed into my business wear for this one: there were microphones, cameras, and media!

We all had very good things to say about the sites. One of the points I made was on the lack of visible vandalism and graffiti on the track face: until visiting China I had not seen one track site (that was known to the public) that did not exhibit some signs of anthropogenic degradation. The lack of degradation on the China track sites speaks to the higher level of general respect with which these heritage resources are held by both the public and the government. Another point that stuck in my mind was that research and science were not dirty words with the Chinese officials. I am too used to re-inventing the dictionary when speaking with government officials (and with some of the public) in Canada: it's not research we do, it's "fossil heritage resource interpretation." Having to constantly find ways to say that I do research without using the dreaded "r-word" raises my hackles: needless to say I take every opportunity to jump on my soap-box and use the distrust of the term research as a teachable moment. However, there was no need to do this in our discussion on the future steps to take with the exposed track sites. The consensus was that more and continued research on these sites (as well as searching for others) was essential for targeted conservation and public education.

That was a full day! We finished off with a fantastic formal welcome dinner, and we also found out that we were to visit part of the Great Wall tomorrow before we were whisked off to the airport for our next leg of the adventure: the Shandong Province. Stay tuned!

Strange Woman