Graduate Liberal Studies academic director Dr. Mark Kulstad has a passion for birdwatching that carried him 8,000 miles away from home and deep into the heart of China. Just as liberal studies takes an interdisciplinary view of the world, so Dr. Kulstad’s adventure provided a multi-faceted look at many aspects of the Shaanxi province besides just beautiful birds.
The ultimate destination for the trip was the Qin or Qinling, Mountains, located in southern Shaanxi. Along the way, Dr. Kulstad detoured into the nearby Lintong District for a rare chance to see the famous Terracotta Army – an unearthed collection of sculptures dating back to Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China (seen in the image to the right).
The zoology of this region boasts more than exotic birds and butterflies. Almost 300 rare Qinling pandas also roam in a hidden sanctuary and represent about one-fifth of all giant pandas on Earth.
Leaving human history and protected pandas behind, Dr. Kulstad and his experienced guide traveled deep into the Qin Mountains. Exploring this area, rugged and sparsely populated, meant going so far off-road that dirt and gravel felt like upgrades. For example...
“We were coming over a rise to turn a corner, and the road just stopped right at the banks of a river,” Dr. Kulstad describes. “Water was rushing past the front bumper. I had just a second to take that in before the guide revved the engine and started across.”
Here’s video of their dam-daring drive, plus bonus footage of the return trip.
Notice that the water over the dam is shallow enough to be safe for this high-water SUV. Please don’t cross unknown flood waters -- turn around and don’t drown!
Once on the other side, the rest of the road wound up the hillside for only a short way before ending abruptly. At a solitary home nearby, the guide surprised Dr. Kulstad by going to the door and asking the family if they would be willing to make a meal for the travelers. Amazingly, they did.
"The curious children of the family eventually edged toward us and used their fragmentary school English to ask questions," he remembers. "It was a special moment, heightened by the fact that not so long ago, English instruction might never have reached such a remote area of then-fully communist China."
After saying good-bye to the hospitable family, Dr. Kulstad and his guide shouldered their gear and made their way on foot across rough stretches of stony creek beds and fallen trees. Birds, butterflies, flowers and fungi dotted the landscape as they wound deeper into the mountains. Swipe through the Instagram post below to see some of the hidden beauty from their expedition.
So what was the best discovery from going into the wild?
“Probably seeing a beautiful plumbeous redstart up close,” says Dr. Kulstad. “They love the water, so it was no surprise to find one right beside a stream. They’re territorial, but I was able to get very close and really enjoy the moment.”
As you can see in the image to the right, the redstart made sure to display his best side. We know it’s a male from the colors: slate blue with a rusty tail. Females are pale grey with white tails.
Wherever your curiosity takes you in the world, creativity and critical thinking will always serve you well. So if you love to engage with new ideas, explore new worlds and meet others who appreciate the same, our Graduate Liberal Studies program is saving a place for you!
All images credited to Dr. Mark Kulstad, Rice University. Follow us on Facebook
About Dr. Mark Kulstad
Mark Kulstad, Ph.D., is an emeritus research professor of philosophy and the academic director of the Graduate Liberal Studies program at Rice University. He has published numerous books and articles and has given presentations around the world in the field of history of philosophy. Dr. Kulstad holds a bachelor’s degree from Macalester College and a doctorate from the University of Michigan.