Thursday 16 July

I wake with a start in the night thinking I am still in England and have to catch my flight that morning. The hotel is silent apart from the air conditioning. It’s stifling hot outside – even at night. But construction work starts early on an extension, with metallic beats regular enough to dose off again.

The flight is uneventful – sleep through most of it – but look for some light entertainment from the movie selection, catching Amelie on the small screen, while managing to eat a really very good BA chicken dinner. Haven’t eaten properly for days what with the stress of packing up all my belongings to put into storage and making final arrangements for China. As it is I remember, in the middle of the night, that I’ve forgotten to cancel my electricity bill…

I arrive at Wuhan airport and waited for around 20 minutes before deciding that no-one is, after all, coming to meet me. I make my way to the upper level and the airline desks, where I approach a China Eastern Airline lady who speaks a little English. I am so glad that I’d had the presence of mind, in amongst all the turmoil of packing, to print off the Chinese home page version of the Wuhan Botanical Gardens’ website. I explain that I need to get there and she comes with me, outside to the taxi rank, and negotiates with the driver. An hour later and ¥100 lighter, after a silent drive across the city, I haul myself out of the cab and arrive hot and sticky at the gates to the Gardens.

I show them the e-mail from Prof Liu hong-tao and I’m waved on down a path.

Lotus Flowers

The gardens are lush with large grassy areas, huge palms, greenhouses and fountains – there are vast lakes covered in lotus flowers and water lilies: the cicadas are deafening.

Sunlit Lotus

Water Lily

It’s dazzlingly bright and the strangeness of it all, along with my exhaustion, makes me confused and disorientated.

Fountains at Wuhan Botanical Gardens

I haul myself along the path, eventually finding a student who speaks a smattering of English, who directs me to the Professors office.

He is away on business, no-one knows I’m coming, and no accommodation has been booked at the gardens for me – I’m told this is usually reserved for “guests”. It’s now quite clear that I’m not one of them.

Damselfly and Lotus bud

Several bemused ladies later, I’m helped to check in to the Hotel just 10 mins walk away. No-one at the hotel speaks English, they won’t take a credit cards or travellers’ cheques and when I say I’m not sure how long I want to stay, they want one week’s money in advance. So it’s my emergency American Dollars. Exhausted, I have a shower and go to bed 6.30pm.

I sleep on and off for 20 hours, finally dragging myself out of bed at 2.30pm the next day, aching all over with exhaustion and stress. I make my way

Wuhan Botanical Gardens Avenue

back to the Gardens where Lei, who’s been acting as translator, seems to have found me a student who speaks English and can act as a guide. No matter his speciality is the evolution of Kiwi fruit from tropical to temperate – something to do with a mutation of chromosomes…

Garden Pagoda

I spend the late afternoon in suffocating heat and humidity exploring a large part of the 70-hectare site being bitten (unbeknownst to me) by mosquitoes. Today I’m smothered in Deet.

Sunlit Lotus

I feel anxious that I am not able to communicate back home as my mobile has no connection (despite being reassured when I bought it a few weeks ago that it would work in China) and my laptop has no internal modem. The broadband (!) connection at the Hotel doesn’t help, nor at the offices in the Herbarium.

Water lily info, Whuan Botanical Gardens

I meet Tao Shi (or Scotty if preferred) outside the gates at 8-ish and we meet his friend – the annual swim across East Lake takes place that morning, so I pile into a bus with them and drive through open forest to the edge of the Lake. Way across in the distance are flags marking the finishing point back at the Botanical Gardens. The tradition commemorates the day Chairman Mao swam across the Yangtze – why he did it in full spate is a mystery to me, as we are now nearing the end of the monsoon season and the river is high.

Scotty’s friend comes second and is exhausted – he gets a certificate. Scotty is second from last and chugs happily in on the back of a boat. Then the whole entourage of 50 or so descend on my hotel for a celebratory lunch sweeping me along without question.

Scotty and Zhang Tingbo try to sort out my mobile, which involves several hours at a massive mobile phone emporium – success in part as a new SIM card is installed.

Pachystachys lutea

I manage to phone England, but texting proves more problematic. I now have a new mobile phone number which no-one knows, and can only partially communicate. One step forward…

This afternoon we met the elusive Professor who holds many titles here at the Gardens. Through Scotty he explained that I would need to apply independently to the Nature Reserves for permission as a tourist to enter.

Orchid House

The Gardens apply on a scientific basis, but could not endorse my application as I am not directly connected with the Academy of Sciences. He offered to help me identify and find Henry plants held within their collection – but it appears that the Emmenopterys henryi that I’d been assured was here, no longer exists, probably dying shortly after being identified by Seamus O’Brien! I’m beginning to feel like I’m chasing a “will o’ the wisp”…

The Professor also said that if I’m not used to field work, it will be very

Leaf detail

difficult to identify the plants – and it’s unlikely that the Guides at the Nature Reserves will know them.

So if I can’t locate and paint many Henry plants in the Hubei province, maybe I’ll have better luck in Yunnan, and head down earlier than planned. Scotty also has connections I believe at Guangzhou where South China Botanical Gardens are based – and, incidentally, the ex-Director of Wuhan BG is now based. I hadn’t been planning to go there, but who knows? Better to get in some painting time than spend days fighting bureaucracy

Scotty can take a week off, starting next Monday, and we’re still hoping to get to Badong first to see the 250-year old Eh if I can get a permit – and after a 7-hr bus ride.

I’ve just eaten a huge bowl of bamboo shoots in the mistaken belief that the photo I’d pointed to was noodles. The portions are large and, with a selection of other dishes, intended to be shared: they don’t really cater for people eating on their own…

An amazing number of young people are employed in restaurants and shops – in fact almost everywhere – who seem to spend most of their time hanging around waiting for something to happen. Guess it’s egalitarian – better for everyone to have a little bit of something than a whole lot of nothing.