Caohai (草海, căohăi), the 5km-wide “Grass Lake”, forms the core of a regional nature reserve. Caohai is a twitcher’s paradise: wintering wildfowl shelter here in huge numbers, with over 170 different species spotted annually – including 400 rare black-necked cranes (黑颈鹤, hēijĭng hè).
At the lakeshore you’ll be approached by touts wanting to take you out on a boat trip to find the birds; prices are posted, so don’t pay more. Chinese tourists head first for a meal at the hamlet of Longjia (龙家, lóngjiā) on the far shore, famed for its food. On a sunny day, Caohai’s overall tranquillity is a complete break with daily life in China; wintering cranes often hang out in the shallows near the shore and are not too hard to catch on camera. Be sure to bring your boots as it gets quite muddy.