Thursday 13 August

I arrived at the Kunming Institute of Botany at around 3pm and was met by Feng Shi, the Assistant to the Director. She’s charming, and has enough English for us to be able to just about communicate.

Because I’d arrived at such short notice, they hadn’t been able to secure a reasonable room for me, and was shown to a small dingy room with four beds crammed into it – and nothing else. The toilet across the dark corridor was not that far off one of the worst I’ve seen, and there was no wash basin or shower. However, I was assured I could move to better accommodation the following night.

As it happened, when I pressed about being able to have a shower (I was told quite seriously by the “matron” it wasn’t good for me because I had a cold) they finally moved me into a slightly less dingy room with a bathroom if I agreed to leave after three nights. I’d have agreed to almost anything at that point to get a bathroom!

This is a very active research base and there are a lot of students in live-in accommodation on site (hence the “matron”) giving the place quite a buzz. I wandered around in the late afternoon after sorting out the accommodation and was thrilled to see many groups of older people enjoying playing cards or mah-jong (the gardens are free to the elders) and the occasional man finding a quiet spot to play a musical instruments or sing. After the formality of Wuhan Botanical Gardens, these have a lovely natural feel, where real people can enjoy living their lives, not just visiting as an attraction.

I found the student canteen for dinner – they eat early here, 5.30 sharp – and was fascinated by how fast Chinese people devour their food. Maybe students are particularly skilled at this, but the trick seems to be to put your face as close to the bowl as possible so not a second is lost in flicking rice, meat or veg directly into the mouth. Some chewing seems to take place, but probably while the mouth is still open! Tonight I was one of the first to be served, and about 25 minutes later, one of the last to leave. In the meantime, around 60 students and come and gone. It was breathtaking!

I met the Acting Director, Professor Sun, this afternoon and it was a most rewarding experience. He gave me a good deal of his time as I explained how things had not quite worked out the way I’d expected in Hubei. We discussed Botanical Art, and it was he who had tried to set up a Conference with GABA, the Asian Botanical Art association, last year, but had been thwarted through lack of funds – mostly diverted towards the Olympics it seems.

He suggested I stay at Kunming Botanical Gardens and paint here, because of the difficulties in painting in the wild (and someone taking responsibility for me if anything happens) but do day-trips to the Western Hills a bit later. I felt such gratitude at this generosity after my previous experiences. There was no suspicion, and he has set me up with someone here who speaks English who can take to see plants I’ve already identified I want to paint, or maybe Henry plants I haven’t yet stumbled upon in these gardens.

He also said I could stay as long as I wanted – which should mean remaining in at least this level of accommodation. It’s certainly not the fancy Guest Accommodation I was anticipating, but I do have my own room – and as far as I can tell there’s no student bar here, so no late night revelry.

Last night the thunder started at around 8.30 (I was already in bed, exhausted from Xi’an and this dreadful cold I’m now suffering) and then the rain tipped down in stair-rods. It had eased by the morning, but there were occasional downpours in the morning as I wandered around the Medicinal Plant section, photographing beautiful, strange flowers – sadly not all labelled.

But now I have someone to help me identify them, and now I will have the time and ease to paint them. No matter that I won’t be painting all from the wild, I will at last be painting.

And in a place that I can settle – for it to become familiar – even if only for a short while.

Saturday 15 August

It’s just gone 3pm and I’ve come back to my room to shelter from the rain, having spent a good four hours in the Medicinal Gardens drawing and making colour references.

Codonopsis tangshen is a sprawling mass of delicate leaves and fine, climbing tendrils supported, in the herbaceous beds, on a low bamboo A-frame. Perched on a couple of bricks in the middle of a cultivated bed of beautiful red soil, I straining to grasp its structural details as the sky darkened and huge wasps sought out the last of the flowers. I really need to get a small folding stool – I’d bought one for our trip to Shennongjia, but sadly it disappeared, along with Scotty, in the taxi at midnight.

My next sketch saw me peering upwards to study the intricacies of Polyala arillata with its small, pea-like yellow flowers hanging carelessly over the path – not a Henry plant, but native to Yunnan and the mountains around Kunming. Carelessly, because the winged petals seem to be barely held together and the tiniest of movements saw them drop, spiralling down to scatter over the path. Just as I was setting up to paint, someone brushed the plant aside and I was startled to see the cluster I was studying fragment – instantly I recalled a dream I had last night. I had foreseen this event exactly. I was startled by this memory and wonder now about its significance. Those times when I have felt completely attuned to life seem now so distant; but they were real and perhaps that is what I must most strive for again.

After about an hour or so of concentrated detail work and struggling to keep the umbrella over the paper (tucking the handle into my shirt pocket), I was starting to flag. There’s no public café in the gardens – everyone brings their own food and drink – and having already missed lunch at the students’ canteen, it was back to my room for some biscuits and a cup of Nescafe (sachets with creamery and sugar, but the closest one can get to coffee here).

Yesterday I spent the whole day walking the gardens with Professor Yuan Hui Kun, head of the Glasshouse section. He’s been with the gardens for a long time, starting off in the Herbarium and at some point spending five years in England at Wisley. Armed with my not-very-extensive-list of Henry plants and a copy of “An Enumeration of Plants Growing in Kunming Botanical Gardens”, we found a few species in flower, but mostly now starting to fruit.

Many of these plants in the Medicinal area are native to Yunnan, and some very rare, so I was pleased to see so many in flower – and some also bearing fruit which is a great bonus. Yuan Hui Kun’s extensive knowledge enabled him to easily identify interesting plants which bore no labels – and my notes and photographs which I downloaded last night enabled me to prioritise my painting time this morning.

The tired and outdated “hostel” that I’m staying in is just inside the West Entrance to the gardens; the canteen is opposite the driveway, and the main blocks of student accommodation to the right, and slightly up the hill. There is one modern block, two of similar construction but look as though they should be condemned, and two which have been completely gutted and are in the process of renovation. There are mounds of sand, bricks, and other construction materials, and works continue throughout daylight hours. This morning I was woken by the delivery of a truck load of aggregate at 6.15am – about two hours after the fighting dogs, which was about an hour or so after the thunder, which again was a few hours after the security vehicle beeped and flashed its way past the window. No wonder I’m exhausted by about 8pm!

But I have a treat in store for tonight, as I asked “matron” if there was anywhere to buy a beer and she, most concerned that I’d get lost if I attempted to catch a bus anywhere, offered to arrange for a couple to be bought for me. And this morning, while washing out my clothes in the covered courtyard, a young girl brought me two large bottles of amber liquid, setting me back 12 Yuan – or about 60p each. Now, how to figure out opening them…

Yesterday evening I walked across the botanical gardens to the main entrance, curious to see if the elders were still around, but they had gone to their respective homes. These seemingly gently folk are not all as benign as they might first appear. Preferring “natural” plants to shop-bought ones, they forage the gardens, picking young shoots, flowers and seeds, and even stripping bark off trees which have particular medicinal properties – Eucommia ulmoides was suffering such a fate, with a large strip of bark cut from the trunk.

Their “Food for Free” can cause considerable damage in the gardens and is problem that is now long-established and will be difficult, if impossible, to address. Other age-groups cause other problems; the reason why so many plants don’t have labels is that students in particular pinch them! Another favourite pastime of visitors is collecting fungi, and I saw people of all ages rummaging around in the grass and undergrowth searching for their prized specimens. As these are only the fruiting bodies, hopefully this activity causes the gardens a lot less grief.

The garden is divided into sections, with the Gymnosperms dominating the northern end. There’s a magnificent avenue of Sabina chinensis rising up from the ground in dark green spiky pinnacles – and a surprising number of towering Eucalypts, their silver-green foliage delicate in the evening light.

On the way back to my room, I thought I heard the start of gently rain – but there was not a cloud in the sky. I stopped, curious. I noticed the path was covered in small black specks and, looking upwards, the tree was startlingly bare – it had been completely defoliated. The culprits were thousands of yellow, black-banded caterpillars, now quite obvious on the branches and in the undergrowth, their droppings hitting the leaves and path below – sounding so much like rain! Some were spinning out a fine thread of silk, lowering themselves to the ground where they would continue feeding before cocooning to emerge some time later, no doubt, as spectacular butterflies. One or two had obviously thought going down was not a good idea and were laboriously working their way back up their silk threads. I didn’t hold out much hope for their future.

Later – I had hoped to move into a better room on the upper, second floor, where I have seen some large windows which would be perfect for painting when it’s raining. I have indeed just moved to an upstairs room, but I think there’s been a communication problem as the room is an upstairs replica of the one downstairs. Only it’s hotter, presumably absorbing heat through the roof during the day.

It seems the rooms with big windows are doubles – for couples not two single students, and I might just be out of luck. There’s certainly nothing I can do about it until Monday, when Feng Shi will be back in the office. I’d be more than happy to pay double the amount if it gives me the light I need. Being confined to your room by the rain is one thing – being unable to continue sketching or working on a painting quite another!

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