A four-hour bus ride west of Harbin, Qiqihar (齐齐哈尔, qíqíhāěr) is one of the northeast’s oldest cities, and still a thriving industrial centre. Alas, it’s more fun to say the city’s name aloud than to stay here for more than a day. The only real reason to come is to visit the ZHALONG NATURE RESERVE (扎龙自然保护区, zhālóng zìrán beohùqū), 30km southeast from town. This marshy plain abounds in shallow reedy lakes and serves as the summer breeding ground of thousands of species of birds, including white storks, whooper swans, spoonbills, white ibis and – the star attractions – nine of the world’s fifteen species of crane. Most spectacular of these is the endangered red-crowned crane, a lanky black-and-white bird over 1m tall, with a scarlet bald patch. It has long been treasured in the East as a paradigm of elegance – the Japanese call it the Marsh God – and is a popular symbol of longevity, living as long as sixty years. The birds mate for life, and the female only lays one or two eggs each season, over which the male stands guard. The best time to visit the reserve is from April to June, when the migrants have just arrived, though the viewing season extends through September. Walking around the reserve, although not forbidden, is not encouraged by the keepers – or by the murderous swarms of mosquitoes. Come prepared, and bring binoculars if you can, too. Dedicated ornithologists might like to spend a few days here, but for most people an afternoon crouched in the reedbeds will be enough.
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