Wednesday 29 July

The flight from Changquing to Jiuzhai Gou with China Southern Airlines was a much nicer experience than out of Wuhan. The Airbus 319 was cleaner and more comfortable and at least no-one was sick, poor lad. The smattering of people on board had their choice of seats and I settled into for a window view. The rain lifted for take-off, bringing a new optimism to the day.

High between layers of clouds the aircraft briefly dipped its wing revealing a glimpse of a ribbon-river of gold in the evening sunshine. Then cloud below thickened, but was close enough to ground to be pierced by dark, jagged mountain ridges. As we started our decent, the lie of the land was revealed – sharp-edged, crumpled mountains, bare rock giving way to conifers on lower slopes – seemingly completely inhospitable to man. Then we approached an incongruously flattened mountain top which was our landing strip.

The sun was sinking fast as the taxi wound its way down the 80km switchback road to Jiuzhai, passing Tibetan villages bedecked with tall flags. The hotel I had chosen caused some confusion as apparently it was closed. There was much discussion over the driver’s mobile phone where I was being persuaded to spend a considerable amount of money on a “good, clean room” which I declined. I ended up at a small, rather grubby “hotel” where, unsurprisingly, the driver was staying. I was too tired to negotiate and we hauled my bags up into a top-floor, corner room – which ended up meeting one of my requirements – light and airy. It had little else going for it and the next evening I did some investigation and negotiated 30% off saying I’d found somewhere cheaper and was going to move. It was now cheaper than a single room at the Migu International Youth Hostel’s the road, but fell short of any of their facilities.

Wednesday morning I grabbed some street-stall breakfast bāozi, stuffed steamed buns, and headed for the Nature Reserve where I took one of the many buses right to the top of the left hand valley. The scenery was stunning as we climbed ever upwards, passing waterfalls and lakes, each bend revealing another view of a forest-clad mountain. After about half an hour we came to the end of the road and there, right beside the start of the boardwalk up into the Primeval Forest area were some delicate wild, purple orchids! There were other small flowers I was not familiar with, but I was delighted to spot some glorious star-shaped gentians glowing against the low groundcover. While everyone’s eyes were on the scenery, I was head-down, scanning the forest floor and small meadow clearings.

Wild orchid by the top car park, JG NR

Wild orchid by the top car park

Not knowing what the whole biosphere might reveal, I decided day one would be a recky – and I walked for about 7 hours, heading ever downhill along the extensive network of well-constructed boardwalks which circled the lakes and waterfalls and extended into forest and meadow areas. The boardwalks were unfenced, giving a feeling of being right in the heart of nature – thankfully no HSE to spoil the fun! There was not a great deal of flora that was easily accessible from the boardwalk, and for good reason there were reminders not to step off into the forest. But I made notes of where to go back to paint.

In front of waterfall in Jiuzhai Goa NR

In front of waterfall in Jiuzhai Goa NR

The mountain ranges make the weather unpredictable and there were a number of sudden downpours – I was glad of my umbrella although I had bought it for the sun, it was cheap, and allowed through a fine spray.

I hadn’t taken enough food with me, nor enough water, which turned out to be more serious. The water I’d boiled from the hotel kettle smelled and tasted quite strongly of camphor or something similar and I decided to throw it away, leaving me only two small water bottles for the whole day. A low, nagging headache increased in intensity, only slightly relieved by the kebab food I devoured from a stall near the hotel around 6.30pm. But it returning shortly after and although I drank several litres of water, I had a very bad night.

My plans to go back to the Nature Reserve as soon as it opened at 7am slipped away as I dozed until around noon, finally taking some Dioralyte in case I was lacking essential body-salts, which seemed to help a bit. It’s now about 5.30pm and I’ve had some food and wandered a little around the area, managing to find a China Mobile stall where I could top up my phone. I’ve no idea how much credit I have left on it as the help-line is in Chinese.

It’s still about 85o F today and quite close – and frustrating to lose a whole day of good weather trying to recover from whatever has caused this terrible pain – no doubt exacerbated by carrying heavy camera equipment in a back-pack. One of the things I regret now not buying – a good camera and lens bag that I could strap around my waist. It’ll be a while before I’m in a place where I can purchase one of those.

Hopefully tomorrow will dawn bright and clear and I can finally get some painting done. It would be just my luck for the weather to close in for the next few days…