A field researcher for 35 years, Yang Xiaojun has experienced some of Yunnan's wildest terrains
Field expeditions are a must for most scientists who study the protection of diverse environments. It's not unusual for them to trek over mountains and cross rivers to look for flora and fauna in sparsely populated areas.
The work sounds fascinating for those who like outdoor adventures. But the experiences of veteran field researcher Yang Xiaojun tell a very different story.
A researcher with the Kunming Institute of Zoology, an auxiliary of the China Academy of Sciences based in Yunnan's provincial capital, Yang embarked on his first field expedition only days after joining the institute in 1985.
In those days, what to eat and where to sleep while on an expedition in remote areas were major considerations. In addition to notebooks and telescopes he carried in his travel bag, Yang always took along supplies of brown sugar during his field trips in the 1980s and '90s.
The sugar was the best available option to quickly replenish strength, especially when trekking in mountainous areas in the middle of nowhere, Yang said.
"Once you have set off you never know when you will reach the next populated area," the 58-year-old recalled.
With no sleeping bags available back then, he often had to huddle with shepherds in makeshift shelters they used when herding their livestock.
But he added that there was no guarantee the cozy sleeping arrangement would keep him warm from the elements.
"A fire was lit in the shabby cabin but the cold air kept penetrating inside," he said. "I felt like a hot brick on one side and bitterly cold on the other. I had to turn my body over frequently as if I were a pie that was being cooked in an oven," said Yang, breaking into laughter.
Both food and accommodation improved after the 1990s as larger field expeditions were conducted.
There were porters to help transport the research teams' luggage and food supplies, such as dried beef and sweet potatoes. Despite the advances, there were still difficulties.
Among Yang's bitter memories of his field research is an expedition to the Gaoligong Mountains, which neighbor the Tibet autonomous region, in 2000.
"At the beginning of the eightday expedition, one of my colleagues described the route we were to take as one for hunters," Yang recalled. "The man, however, downgraded it twice as we proceeded. He soon nicknamed it as a path fit only for monkeys, but later sneered it was a mouse trail when we wrapped up the tough journey. He said he would never set foot on it again."
One of the team members sustained a mild injury after they set off, but their guides refused to take him back for treatment. "They (the guides) said those who left their team would die in such an area," Yang said.
Sleeping conditions were perilous. One night they pitched their tents on a slope so steep they were constantly rolling around in their tents.
"One of my colleagues said he wished he could nail himself to the ground so he could feel fixed to something," Yang said.
They took enough food for 14 days, but ran out on the seventh as they ate more than usual due to exhaustion from crossing the harsh terrain.
Along the way they walked on cliff edges, labored up and down mountain slopes with dangerous loose rocks, and traversed slippery rivers and wetlands.
Near exhaustion, they came across a hunter on the eighth day who sold them maize flour so they could complete their expedition and return home.
For Yang, the true indication of how tough the trek had been were the leather hiking boots he bought before the expedition.
The shoe shop owner had given him an assurance about the high quality of the boots, and promised Yang he could exchange them if so much as a scratch appeared on them in the first six months.
"When I went back to him with the shoes he was astonished and asked if I'd hacked them with a saw," Yang said laughing.
Over the eight-day trek he lost 1 kilogram every day, a more serious indication of just how physically demanding the trip had been.
Today, field expeditions have become much easier thanks to better access to roads and highways and use of high-tech instruments such as infrared camera traps.
As a long-term legacy of his journeys, Yang suffers from stomach illnesses and rheumatism, health problems which he manages with medication and proper care.