China is a land of myth and mystery.
Almost inconceivably vast and diverse.
From the eastern coastal plain... through mountain ranges and forests...
to the high plateau of Qinghai.
From this magnificent landscape are born countless lives.
Each of them part of a much larger story.
An all-encompassing circle of life... that is fueled by the love... the losses, and the hopes... of many different creatures.
Our story takes place far from the bustling cities... we often think of as China.
It is a story of cranes... pandas"... antelope... monkeys... and leopards.
All of whom call China their home.
Among all the creatures in Chinese mythology... the crane holds a very special place.
A symbol of longevity and good fortune... it is one of the oldest and most prominent figures in Chinese art... dating back thousands of years.
It is said that when a crane takes flight... it carries along the spirit of a departed creature... from this world to the next.
The Qinghai Plateau in western China... is the highest mountain plateau on Earth.
And here, the elusive snow leopard... rules the range.
This is Dawa.
And this incredible dreamscape is her home.
At an altitude of 14,000 feet above sea level... the climate here is too cold for most mammals.
But Dawa thrives here.
Every part of her body is designed for this unique terrain... from her exceptionally long tail... that helps her maintain balance... to her gray-dappled fur that provides the perfect camouflage... in these rocky surroundings.
Dawa is at the top of her food chain... and at the top of her game.
She knows every crag and cranny of this mountain.
This is her turf.
But she's picked up a scent.
An unwelcome visitor.
The intruder knows she's in Dawa's territory... but challenges her, nonetheless.
They face off in a chilling test of nerves.
Dawa must convey strength or risk a full-on battle.
The intruder finally submits.
Dawa retains her supremacy.
Dawa is not a feline to be messed with... and right now nothing could shake her resolve.
After all, it's not just her hunting grounds... she's protecting.
To her, these two little cubs... are the most important things on Earth.
Providing for them and keeping them safe... is her life's mission.
Far to the east of Dawa... in the Sichuan mountain valleys of central China... a mere 8,000 feet above sea level... golden snub-nosed monkeys run wild.
Monkeys have long been figures of rebellion and mischief... in Chinese folk tales.
And one of the most mischievous monkeys on this mountain... is Tao Tao.
He's the class clown of his troop... and an aspiring kung fu master.
At two years old...
Tao Tao no longer needs to be overseen by his parents.
But he still likes to come home to his father's side... after a long day of adventuring.
Tao Tao just loves his dad.
His dad, however, isn't big on showing affection...
leaving TaoTao feeling a little unappreciated.
He can always count on his mother to shower him with attention.
But the recent arrival of a new baby sister in the family... has spoiled some of that maternal magic on the home front.
While monkey families only have one father... they each have several mothers, who all help one another care for their young.
Tao Tao misses the days when he used to be the center of attention... despite the danger involved.
He's quickly coming to the realization that he's no longer... the darling of his family.
This new little bundle of joy has taken his place.
It seems so unfair... when all the comfort and acceptance you've gotten used to... is suddenly stolen from you.
"Fine, forget it, then!"
This is exactly the kind of thing that makes a monkey turn to mischief.
Right next door to Tao Tao... in a lush bamboo forest on the other side of the mountain... life is decidedly less stressful.
This is Ya Ya.
A giant panda.
Pandas are basically the opposite of monkeys.
They're not interested in stirring up trouble.
They just wanna be left alone to eat... and relax...
various, different areas.
And once Ya Ya has completed her morning chores... she returns to her real focus in life...
her newborn daughter, MeiMei.
Outside of raising cubs... adult female pandas live almost completely solitary lives.
So, for Ya Ya... this is the most treasured time of her life.
These two will be spending the next several months... snuggled up here inside this den.
But then they'll step out into the world...
and the real journey will begin.
Up in the higher elevations of western China... a very different kind of family roams the plateau.
Chiru antelope are worshipped... as sacred creatures in this region.
They are the living embodiment... of nature's back-and-forth, seasonal cycle.
Every spring, thousands of female chiru... embark on an epic journey.
But it's a bittersweet occasion.
They must bid farewell to the males... who will not see them again for several months.
In the meantime... these bucks will have to make do on their own.
The migration of these revered creatures... washes across the mountain plains of western China... like an ocean tide.
The legendary Zhuonai Lake... in the remote uplands of the Qinghai Plateau.
Dawa's cubs are now old enough... to venture outside their cave into the sunshine.
To them, this vast mountain range... is just one big rocky playground.
Like pandas, adult snow leopards live very solitary lives.
So with no one infringing on her territory... no competition for Queen of the Mountain... she can focus all her attention... on her young.
Dawa could not be more content.
Nothing compares to being loved by the ones you love most.
And while Dawa would love nothing more... than to just sit back and watch them climb and play... she has other responsibilities.
She needs to hunt.
These yaks offer a bounty of meat... but are far too powerful and dangerous.
She considers this marmot.
No, she doesn't.
But these glorious creatures?
This is what dinner looks like.
Bharal sheep are Dawa's main prey.
Her intimate knowledge of her home terrain... helps her locate her prey and maneuver them... into rocky narrows and steep slopes... where they are more vulnerable to attack.
Like Dawa, these sheep are built to survive in these mountains.
Their blanched fur is the ideal camouflage... and their strong legs make them remarkably fast and nimble.
But Dawa is smarter.
Her cubs will go to sleep with full stomachs tonight.
This one meal could tide them over for an entire week.
In Dawa's world, you must take life to give life.
Tao Tao has become increasingly dejected... and has been spending a lot of time... just trying to avoid his little sister, and his family.
But today, he's come across some interesting neighbors... who could change all that.
These are the Lost Boys... a gang of young male outcasts... some of them as young as TaoTao.
These guys know all about rejection.
Being a Lost Boy is sort of like running away to join the circus... except with fewer rules.
These kids don't seem to have a care in the world.
This is Rooster...
the leader of the Lost Boys.
He's been in a lot of battles.
You see that eye?
TaoTao's father had a hand in that.
He's certainly taken notice of Tao Tao.
Maybe Tao Tao reminds him of himself at that age.
Or maybe he just stares at stuff a lot.
In any case, if Tao Tao has been looking... for a way to vent his frustrations... he's come to the right place... because on this sunny afternoon... the Lost Boys have invited him... to play an ancient traditional monkey game... called Let's Break Branches.
This is exactly what TaoTao needs right now.
Some of their shenanigans, however, go a little too far for Tao Tao.
Like stealing a baby... for kicks?
But hey... it's not like it's his sister.
Being mischievous troublemakers... is exhausting work.
For TaoTao, though, life with the Lost Boys seems... pretty sweet.
Goshawks are virtually the only natural predators these monkeys have.
And they're always on the lookout for abandoned babies.
In the blink of an eye, Tao Tee's world is turned upside down.
That came out of nowhere.
Why wasn't anyone keeping an eye out?
It's a harsh dose of reality for Tao Tao.
That easily could have been his little sister.
The summer winds, carrying the warm scent of fresh pastures... have led the chiru to their sacred destination...
And the real purpose of their heroic journey... now reveals itself.
The whole fantastic, continuous cycle... that is chiru existence... is built on this first moment of bonding... between a mother and her baby... sharing each other's scent.
Miraculously, baby chiru are able to walk... within 30 minutes of being born.
It's that "standing still" part that's so difficult.
Within a few days, they can run like their mothers.
As mothers and their calves learn to identify each other by smell... they're forming the essential, unbreakable connections... that bind the herd together and allow it to survive its return migration.
Sometimes, it takes a while... for calves to figure out whose smell is whose... and they are gently encouraged to keep sniffing.
The chiru will stay here until the calves are capable... of making their long return journey.
Then their pendulum will swing back toward home... where they'll be reunited with the males they left behind.
Up in the mountains of Sichuan... the turn of seasons unfurls... in a breathtaking kaleidoscope of color.
Ya Ya and her baby have finally emerged from their den of solitude.
It's time for MeiMei to meet the world.
"Well, the baby's been fed...
"and put to bed."
"Time for lunch."
Pandas in the wild eat almost nothing but bamboo.
Up to 40 pounds per day.
40... pounds... of bamboo... per day.
MeiMei, however, has a belly full of mother's milk... and is fully rested.
And there's a whole new world to explore.
She can't really go anywhere.
At this age, panda cubs have barely learned to crawl.
But that doesn't diminish her fascination... with all these new sights and sounds.
Like this guy.
A red panda.
He's not really a panda at all.
He's actually closer to a raccoon.
MeiMei doesn't care what he is.
She just wants to climb up there and say hello.
Red pandas spend almost all their time up in trees... which makes him a perfect role model for MeiMei.
Because climbing trees... is all baby pandas dream about.
There's so much beauty.
But behind the beauty... lurks danger.
"And here we go again."
"Oh, my gosh.
"That was so embarrassing."
Moms are always there to pick you up when you fall down.
And to drag you around by the neck afterward.
If she could...
Ya Ya would stay in this moment forever.
All she wants to do is hold onto her baby... and smother her with love.
But MeiMei has had a taste of freedom.
And she likes it.
Pine nuts are only available in the fall... and today Rooster and the Lost Boys... have found a nice patch all to themselves.
And Tao Tao is making sure he gets his fair share.
He's been spending almost all his time with the Lost Boys... ever since his cute little baby sister swallowed up his family.
But when TaoTao's father shows up... with the whole family in tow... the festive mood changes... to less festive.
Rooster probably still has a chip on his shoulder... about that whole eye thing.
Looks like it's time for some long-awaited payback.
Tao Tao can't believe this.
Why is Rooster picking a fight with his father?
The females in Tao Tao's family rally around their man.
Rooster, however, is on his own.
The Lost Boys only look out for themselves.
With nobody to back him up...
Rooster beats a hasty retreat.
Tao Tao is torn.
These new pals of his are turning out to be a bunch of self-centered brats.
Is there anybody in this crazy world you can actually depend on?
Up on the high plains... the chiru have embarked on their journey back home to rejoin the males.
But the smell of young calves has attracted followers.
This wolf tests the herd... trying to separate the little ones.
By now, luckily, those baby legs... are strong and fast, just like their mothers'.
The chiru are united.
The bonds between moms and babies hold strong.
Each calf glued to its mother's scent.
The herd is many... but the herd is one.
The sheer beauty of China... manifests itself in so many different ways... in so many remote corners.
It sometimes feels like another world.
Under Dawa's nurturing... her cubs are growing into two impressive young cats.
And she's just had a successful hunt... which comes none too soon.
Her cubs are now fully weaned and hungry for some fresh meat.
They've been watching and learning the ways of the great hunter... their morn.
But suddenly... across the valley, the intruder has returned.
This time, with her three grown sons.
Scarcity of prey has brought them into Dawa's territory... and they are more than prepared to take all that is hers.
Dawa's old rival is much more emboldened... now that she has reinforcements.
She and Dawa both know...
Dawa would never survive a fight against all four leopards.
Dawa can't bring herself to abandon this precious food, though.
Her cubs must eat, and when it comes to their survival...
Dawa would fight almost any foe.
The trade-off between life and death... is sometimes a very difficult calculation.
But then the sons move in.
Outnumbered and out-fanged...
Dawa must retreat to guard her cubs.
Not satisfied with merely stealing Dawa's kill... the interlopers now pursue her to let her know... they're here to stay.
To save her young...
Dawa must take them and leave the area.
Expelled from their own home.
When your baby is the cutest, fuzziest creature... this side of the Yangtze River... it's not easy to just leave it alone.
At six months old, MeiMei is thinking... she's ready to move about on her own.
Her mother is thinking...
"Yeah, not so much."
That's a tall tree.
And MeiMei is no expert climber.
"Come on! Mom! I just wanna... Argh!"
Being a helicopter mom can suffocate a cub's curiosity, though.
For young pandas, tree climbing is a rite of passage.
When a cub is able to successfully climb a tree... it means it can be safe from predators.
A cub that can climb a tree... is a cub that no longer needs its mother.
"Mom, relax. I got this."
On the plains of Qinghai... the male chiru stand guard on the home front... awaiting the return of their far-roving females.
The females have traveled long and far... to be reunited with their partners.
Unfortunately... after being away from each other for so long... neither the males nor the females... have the slightest idea who their partners are.
But not to worry... the males are more than happy to impress new females... and start new families.
They've spent the entire spring and summer bulking up... and vying with each other for supremacy.
And they're raring to show off their masculinity.
"Problems with wolves, ladies?"
"Fear not. I'll deal with this scoundrel."
One glance at that imposing male physique... and this scrappy little predator is soon sent on his way.
"It's all good."
"The ice causes a bit of a... whoa!"
Regardless of how they accomplish it... the herd always comes together again as one great big family.
And the never-ending tide of chiru life flows on.
As the temperatures begin to plummet... the once mighty Queen of the Mountain... hasn't made a kill in over a week.
Now, she's forced to share her unfamiliar new territory... with more successful rivals.
She must survey the area constantly... to get the lay of the land and reestablish her dominion... with scent markings.
But she's been spotted by this area's male.
She defends her ground bravely... but is forced to retreat back to her cubs.
Those playful days of summer... seem very far away to Dawa right now.
If only a family's love could determine its fate.
YaYa's instinct is to keep her cub safe.
But she can't protect MeiMei forever.
At some point... she's going to have to let go.
Just... maybe not today.
Winter turns the dense forest... into a majestic crystal fantasy land.
This is the first snowfall Tao Tao's sister has ever seen.
Her pure amazement is a welcome distraction... from the hardships of winter.
"What is this stuff?"
"Whatever it is, it's cold."
"Must get to higher ground!"
Yes, snow is a bummer... and it's really cold on your hands.
The one upside is... it's a perfect excuse to walk like this.
The cold and scarcity of winter... has brought the various groups within the troop together again.
They're so hungry... they'll eat anything.
Rooster certainly isn't giving Tao Tao any handouts.
This is what you get... when you're hooked up with the Lost Boys.
Rooster is scrapping over food again.
And the hostility is spreading.
Before you know it, Tao Tao gets drawn into the fray.
Even his little sister gets caught up in it.
She tries to help her brother and stop them from fighting... but there's just no reasoning with these animals.
TaoTao's father wants nothing to do with it.
There's barely any food here to fight over anyway.
He packs up his family and heads off... to lower, warmer territory.
With the cold biting at his bones...
Tao Tao is longing for some comfort.
For someone, anyone, to just keep him warm.
He misses his family.
Up until now, he's resisted going back to them.
Maybe he's still bitter about his sister.
Maybe he's trying to prove something to his father.
Right now, he needs warmth.
He abandons the Lost Boys...
and follows his family.
His sister welcomes him back.
But life isn't always that simple.
His father won't let him in.
TaoTao has no one to turn to.
He's run out of options.
Between winter's wrath... and plain old bad luck...
Dawa's hunting successes have been few and far between.
But these sheep, seeking shelter from the weather... have just moved within range.
Something terrible happens, though.
The snow has concealed jagged rocks, and Dawa has injured her paw.
Dawa knows if she and her cubs are to survive... she must be in top physical condition to hunt.
It looks like Tao Tao has finally... been allowed to rejoin the family furball.
Or more like cling onto the outside of it.
As long as he's willing to help protect the family against the cold... his father will let him stay.
It's better than freezing all alone.
At least his little sister looks happy to see him.
Maybe Tao Tao is finally learning the true value of family.
Or maybe he's just really cold.
In China... some believe the panda to be the living embodiment... of the yin and yang concept... the curved black-and-white patterns of its fur... mimicking the symbol itself.
This duality of opposing forces exists everywhere in nature.
But perhaps nowhere more so... than in the mounting relationship between Ya Ya and MeiMei.
The push and pull between freedom and protection... is coming to a head.
Ya Ya wants so badly... to hold on to her precious daughter and keep her safe.
But MeiMei has an uncontrollable... evolutionary urge to just climb.
And yeah, sure, the kid has some issues with gravity.
But so what? Life is risky.
She's going to fall down.
And then, she'll get back up.
But at some point, she has to do it on her own.
And today is that day.
As deep as YaYa's love for her daughter is... there is a force that is stronger.
A force of nature.
And it's pulling them apart.
She's going for it.
The day you climb a tree on your own... without falling out of it... is a big day.
Ya Ya may be a slightly overprotective mother... but she's raised one extraordinary little panda.
She also knows... it will soon be time to say goodbye.
The joy a mother receives... from raising a cub from birth, however... is worth a thousand farewells.
Springtime means more food.
And more babies.
Which, in turn, means... more baby fever.
Though Tao Tao is getting along better with his family lately... he's understandably been spending less time around his father.
And a lot more time by himself.
Tao Tao's sister is growing up, too.
She's starting to show off her own personality.
She's at an age now where her mother can leave her alone... to go forage for food.
Or for someone else's baby.
But wherever there are little babies... goshawks are not far away.
Tao Tao spots the predator and sounds the alarm.
The troop scrambles for cover.
All little ones are accounted for.
Except for one. Tao Tao's sister.
But Tao Tao has been keeping an eye on her... and leaps into action.
He reaches her just in time.
Tao Tao has never felt so valued.
He acted on pure instinct to protect his sister.
And that brave act has made him realize... that he's grown up.
His dad is definitely happy to have him back in the fold.
The young outcast without a care in the world... has grown up into the family hero.
He's certainly a hero in his sister's eyes.
Back up on the high plateau... the winter snow lingers well into spring...
and Dawa is still fighting to provide for her cubs.
The injury to her foot has greatly hampered her hunting ability... and she no longer has the speed to chase down prey... as fast as these wild sheep.
But an opportunity arises.
In springtime, domesticated yaks are released... to graze in the higher elevations.
These beasts are 10 times as heavy as Dawa... and one blow from those powerful horns could be fatal.
Going up against a whole herd is like attacking an army.
But her cubs are relying on her.
It's now or never.
The calf's mother rallies to save her baby.
Dawa refuses to let go.
She knows this is her last chance.
But a yak mother's will to protect her young... is just as strong as Dawa's.
The yak strikes Dawa hard with her horns.
Dawa is injured badly.
One mother's brave rescue of her baby... is another's tragic failure to feed hers.
In Chinese mythology, when a life ends... a crane carries that soul... to rejoin the cycle of birth and rebirth.
From the end to the beginning.
Time pushes this cycle ever forward.
The young become adults.
The adults grow old.
And the old are reborn.
Death is not the end.
It is merely a waypoint in a circle that continues endlessly.
Every creature plays its part... in this great cyclical symphony.
Each life lived... is just one beat in the larger beautiful rhythm.
This vast land breeds both love and hardship.
But in the hardship... there is hope.
This is where they live.
This is where they die.
This is where they grow.
This is where they are born.
We tried to take some time-lapses of the landscape.
As you might see right now... the light is not very interesting.
But the good thing is... the weather is changing every half an hour.
So, if you don't like the weather or the light... you just have to wait a little bit and everything changes again.
Got a snow leopard sneaking up on blue sheep.
It doesn't get any better than this!
Now it's hailing.
Perhaps in half an hour, it will be beautiful sunshine.
So, it's just a waiting game.
I'm done With it.
He's looking at the monitor.
Oh! The camera moves.
Okay, it's, again, half an hour later.
And now it's snowing.
We have rolling mist and a proper thunderstorm.
But I'm still convinced that if we wait another half an hour... we will have best conditions for my time-lapse.
It's really wonderful getting so intimate... with the early family life of such a rare and beautiful bird.