Although China has hundreds of nature reserves, few offer nature lovers a guaranteed experience of encountering wildlife, especially mammals. Beautiful landscapes are often the only selling point of many of these reserves.
Tangjiahe, however, is an exception.
Although the administration tries to attract tourists by promoting its flowers in the spring, colorful leaves in the autumn, spectacular alpine meadows and a few historical sites dating back to the Three Kingdoms (AD 220-280) period, with an eye on mass tourism, the reserve's real attraction is its wildlife.
According to a survey done by the reserve, it is home to more than 3,000 plant species, 200 different birds, some 90 species of mammals and 37 amphibians and reptiles.
Below is a list of six common mammals and a common game bird that I saw during a recent 10-day trip to the reserve. You too can see them with a little patience.
Although the reserve was built in 1978 mainly for the protection of takins, giant pandas and the golden snub-nosed monkeys, takins are no doubt the reserve's flagship species. With an estimated population of 1,200, Tangjiahe is the place to catch a glimpse of the huge furry animal with curved horns.
In this season, the slopes road between Maoxiangba and Caijiaba patrol stations are the best places to find these animals, as they are attracted to the lowland valleys by the tender spring leaves. The best time of the day to spot them is early morning and late afternoon, when they feed among the open bushes and shrubberies.
But keep your distance with this animal. If cornered or surprised, it can attack with its dangerous horns.
In the five days that I spent in Maoxiangba, I saw takins every day, including more than 10 in a single day.
The Reeve's Muntjac wandered the woods opposite the Maoxiangba patrol station.
A 4-km circuit trail, connected to the hotel area at Maoxiangba by two cable bridges, takes visitors into these woods.
I took this trail every day and every time I could see these small deer with reddish fur and a short tail, sometimes in groups but mostly alone.
It was hard to spot them at first as they would sprint away as soon as I came near them. As they scampered off with their tails upright, I could see that the underside of their tails was conspicuously white.
Sometimes, even when I failed to see them, I could hear their loud barking. When alarmed, they let out a series of deep, bark-like sounds; hence, they are also known as "barking deer".
If you hear a barking in a forest in Tangjiahe, don't move, wait. You might just chance upon these animals.
I saw a wild boar twice on the circuit trail at Maoxiangba. One of these encounters was quite scary.
I walked into the woods late in the afternoon. It was getting dark and I failed to see a black pig with coarse hair rummaging through the topsoil with its flat snout until it suddenly ran away from a small pit beside a rock, only 3 m from the trail.
Wild boar can be seen everywhere in Tangjiahe. Although I didn't see any at sites other than Maoxiangba, I found plenty of the pits they created while trying to find food.
I was very surprised to run into a young tufted deer at the start of the trail to Dacaotang, an alpine meadow lying on the border between Sichuan and Gansu provinces.
This happened on an open slope dotted by bushes, lying about 2,000 m above sea level. This species has no antlers, but two big and round ears, with white hairs on its tips.
As I stood on the trail and watched the small deer with its coarse but glossy fur, it continued to work on the tender leaves of those bushes, with no fear of my presence. Squatting on the ground quietly, I watched the deer for more than 10 minutes. It was a very pleasant experience.
Pere David's Rock Squirrel and Swinhoe's Striped Squirrel
The Rock Squirrel is rather big, has dark brown fur and is commonly found at lower elevations near Maoxiangba and Caijiaba. I saw a few of them almost every day while staying at Maoxiangba.
The Striped Squirrel is much smaller, has an olive-gray coat covered with several dark and pale stripes. They are common at higher elevations. While making my way from Motianling patrol station to Dacaotang, situated at an elevation of more than 3,000 m, I saw this cute squirrel a couple of times.
Native to forests in western China, the game bird is commonly seen in zoos and aviaries, but is hard to find in the wild.
In Tangjiahe, however, they are one of the most common big birds.
Driving from Motianling in the morning, you can easily find them by the roadside, often in pairs or in groups.
The male golden pheasant is one of the most beautiful birds found in western China, with its golden crest and tail and bright red body.
April is the bird's breeding season. I was lucky to see a male bird preening itself and its deep orange crest looked like an alternating black and orange fan that covered all of its face, except its yellow eyes. Under the morning sunshine, the bird's beauty was dazzling.
Besides these common species, I also saw many traces left by animals I hadn't seen, like thin branches of trees skinned by snub-nosed monkeys on the way to Dacaotang and fresh giant panda droppings on the stone-paved trail near Motianling.
There were so many species I didn't see during my trip - but who knows? With any luck you might see many more on your trip to Tangjiahe.