7 November 2008. Hezheng, Gansu Province

Hezheng County is located in southwestern Gansu Province, very near the Linxia Aotonomous Region for Muslims. As such, the town center in Hezheng has roughly an equal number of Muslims and ethnic Han Chinese.

The town center has two major street end into each other at a right angle; however, most of the county is inhabited by villagers in the surrounding valleys.

We woke up today to a brisk morning, around 3 or 4 degrees Celsius with lots of frost around. It has not snowed for two days, so today we will get to see some geologic exposures without snow in the way.

Although my main goal in Hezheng is to examine new fossil specimens in the local museum, I just could not refuse a chance to see the actual fossil localities. However, these are not typical fossil localities from our work elsewhere. These fossils are dug up by farmer in dangerous makeshift tunnels.

Fortunately, the local government got word of a very rich fossil deposit in the Hualin valley, and designated a new geological park in the area. With a currently estimated area of 120 meters by 80 meters, this is one of the largest bonebeds in the entire Hezheng County.

The bonebed itself is only about 1 meter or so in thickness (see the tannish mudstone containing white bones to the right of the photo above). However, the fossil material (at least what has been exposed) is so complete and concentrated, that it is worth the title of a "Konzentrat-Lagerstätte", or the german term for a highly concentrated fossil deposit of outstanding (dare I say spectacular) preservation.

[an exposed vertebral column of a large mammal]

[two rhino skulls are exposed at the bottom of the photo, with a mandible to the right of Hou Sukuan, who is standing near the top of the photo]

We walked around the protected area for twenty minutes, and as I pondered the enormous amount of complete and rich fossils that beneath my feet, I came across a football-sized block. It turned out to be a hyena skull, a late Miocene bone-cracking Adcrocuta.

Needless to say, I was very impressed (dare I say blown away).

The eventual research on this rich bonebed will reveal much about the paleoenvironment of the time in the northeastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau; the complete hyena skeletons will reveal more about their paleoecology than ever before.

Here I sit on my bed in the museum dormitory, looking out to the hillside, and my mind is full of the possibilities, the potential, and the paleontological revolution that are forthcoming in the continued research of the Hezheng fossils.

I am very, very impressed (again).



Leaving on a heated train

5 November 2008. Beijing, to Lanzhou, Gansu Province

1525. After a week's restful research in the Institute, I am on the road again.

I am catching a train in an hour or so, heading towards the northwestern province of Gansu. Gansu is at the base of the northeastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau.

After the 19.5 hour train ride, I will arrive in the city of Lanzhou, where I will find a researcher in the Gansu Provincial Museum, who will then accompany me to the fossil-rich area southwest of the city.

The town I am heading to is Hezheng, a small place with a Muslim majority. The daytime high temperature there is supposed to be somewhere around the 40's degree Fahrenheit. I packed the same clothes I used on the Kunlun Mountain Pass, because snow has already arrived at the base of the plateau.

I will spend a little over a week there examining newly discovered fossil hyena skeletons, and accompanying two graduate students to a few geologic outcrops where they are currently working.

I packed my laptop and cross my fingers with the hope that the Hezheng museum will have a functioning internet connection. They already told me they do, but it's rural China and a flash flood could wash the DSL modem away any second.



P.S. I will be thinking about our new president and the future of the world on the train.