Sunday 23 August

The watercolour paper I brought behaves quite differently in these temperatures, and I’m still struggling to get used to it. Initial washes dry rapidly, and can leave a hard edge which is difficult to remove; keeping the paper damp runs the risk of destroying the surface and ‘cauliflowering’, while taking too long to apply the paint runs the risk of having the paint well evaporate, increasing the intensity of colour or drying up altogether.

I need to spend several days just experimenting and re-familiarising myself with my materials. But I’m constantly starting to feel the pressure of time, and of how little I seem to have achieved.

Yesterday I discovered a whole new world outside the East Gate of the gardens, when I went for breakfast with The Swiss Family at a local market just 10 minutes away. The gate’s not marked on the visitor map as the entrance if for the Institute, rather than the Botanical Gardens, so I was unaware of its existence. It’s a thriving market, with areas dedicated to selling all sorts of meat products, fruits, vegetables and fungi, and tofu in all shapes, colours and textures – not much time to explore with the two little ones becoming fractious, but a great place to go back to with my camera.

I had planned to return this morning, or go into Kunming itself, but it turned into a bit of a non-day, and I just spent a few hours early afternoon enjoying a bit of sunshine and exploring tucked-away parts of the gardens – those shady spots behind the greenhouses, or barely-trodden paths past the compost bays and broken pots that disappear into the trees.

I also managed to get into the Admin building (it’s locked in the evenings and weekends, but students have keys so that they can use the computer room) and did some internet research on Ethnobotany at Kunming. I also discovered that I can bring my laptop and connect to broadband there, rather than having to use their computers. This will mean I can download my e-mails directly onto my machine rather than holding them in Mail2web ether – another technological advance.

I took a few photos of the sketches I’ve been doing – sadly, no-where near the quality of a professional scan – but evidence that I am trying to accomplish something here. The Codonopsis tangshen and Eucommia ulmoides are Henry plants, but Platycodon grandiflorum one of the more attractive plants in the medicinal garden.


Codonopsis tangshen


Eucommia ulmoides


Platycodon grandiflorum

Still feeling a bit restless, I turned on the telly for the first time today – CCTV9 is an English channel which seems mostly to have regular Asian news and weather updates, current affairs, political or financial discussions of cultural programmes – although I haven’t watched enough of it to know what else they might offer. It’s the first news of any sort – national or international – I’ve been aware of since I arrived. I haven’t sought out English newspapers, or even know how easy they are to obtain. And I must admit I haven’t felt deprived, not knowing what’s going on in the world.

I have been reading though. The one non-travel book I brought is Dreams From My Father. Just one of the books I bought some time ago but, like so many other things over the past few years, never made time for. Barack’s journey of self-discovery is gripping – more so reading now with the hindsight of his Presidency than when the book was first written in 1995. There are numerous passages that are inspiring and illuminating – but what I read last night was more immediate and vital and resonated like a taut wire.

On his way to Kenya after his father’s death (the Old Man), he stops by Europe for a few weeks – and discovers that it is a mistake:

“It wasn’t that Europe wasn’t beautiful; everything was just as I’d imagined it. It just wasn’t mine. I felt as if I were living out some-one else’s romance; the incompleteness of my own history stood between me and the sites I saw like a hard pane of glass. I began to suspect that my European stop was just one more means of delay, one more attempt to avoid coming to terms with the Old Man.

“Stripped of language, stripped of work and routine…I had been forced to look inside myself and had found only a great emptiness there.”

That, perhaps, is when the real journey begins.