Thursday 27 August – later

Is it simply chance, that turns an ordinary event into something more special? Or is there something in timing, and the Law of Attraction?

I had planned to visit Kunming’s most famous attraction today, but had a bad night and couldn’t face the 2-hour bus journey. So Shi Lin, the Stone Forest, will have to wait another day. More pressing, I needed to get my back seen to, and started making enquiries into Chiropractors or Clinics – which is really difficult if there’s no-one around who speaks English – and eventually settled on Richland International Hospital (the International bit was the draw).

I left the guesthouse to catch the bus, and hesitated. Coming down the path was a young Chinese man, a research student at KIB studying alpine plants, whose bus home went directly past the Hospital. He insisted on taking me inside – a highly modern construction opened only two years ago, looks more like a hotel – but the Doctors had left for the day. I could be seen, however, for 20 pounds, or during working hours for 5 or 6 pounds – a much better plan.

If I hadn’t left my room exactly when I did, if I hadn’t approached the young man, who acted both as a guide and interpreter, it might have been much more stressful and I might not have got the information I needed. As it was, the whole trip took about two and a half hours, with a bit of shopping for the much needed coffee on the way, I now know where the Hospital is, and how it works, and have saved myself from having to spend out more money than is necessary.

So that’s Saturday morning dealt with, as I’m off to the Western Hills at 7am with Dr Yui-Min Shui tomorrow, Friday.

Monday 31 August

What an amazing – if pretty scary – couple of days!

Went off Saturday Morning with Prof Yu Min Shui, the Taxonomist, to The Western Hills, which has but towering hillsides overlooking Kunming covered head to toe with trees, a very long winding road to the main entrance where you run the tourist-trap gauntlet of stalls, several temples, and very steep steps carved through the rock, just inches away from the precipitous hillside. Amazing views over the lake which unfortunately were masked by low rain and fog.

This trip was less about my exploration of the flora, than about the Prof getting excited about the difference between two delicate Begonias or Impatiens, and then something unpronounceable which he has never seen in flower before; like bamboo it only flowers every so-many years, then dies back completely. His Nikon camera equipment is stunning (ring flash, a macro lens to put mine to shame – enlargements of the tiniest innermost parts of the flower – and he takes his professional shots with Fuji film as well as back-up with digital).

As we walked back to the vehicle, past the stall-holders selling their tat, I noticed a small Begonia on the rock-face and recognized it as Begonia henryi! The tiny flowers were out, unlike the study I had made of the plants collected from the field, but my camera couldn’t do them justice – it was quite dark, flash simply bleaching them out, longer exposures without a tripod rendering them indistinct. However, it was an exciting find and shows that you don’t have to go into the very wilds of the countryside to find little gems.

The following morning, at 7am, I clambered into a minibus on another field trip with two research students, quite sure where we were all going or why. We picked up the Prof, his wife and 9-year old son up from the city, and drove for another 2 1/2 hours past the Stone Forest, off the highway onto a dirt road with massive pot-holes, and half an hour later up a tiny single track past ancient farm buildings made of fired mud bricks in the traditional way, to a small home-stead where we parked up. Then we traipsed for about 10 minutes or so into a beautiful, ancient oak forest on limestone – it reminded me partly of Wistman’s wood on Dartmoor, and partly of The Quantocks.

We had come there to study a species thought extinct, but discovered by the Prof last year, making news on the BBC: Gesneriaceae, Oreoicaris amibilis. And he wanted me to paint the plant – not just the flowers which were tiny, about the length of a finger-nail and about 3-4mm wide, but all the leaves – worse than Primula or Streptocapus for bumps – and also the habitat. The accompanying plants, mosses, lichens, stones, fallen leaves very important to show it was an oak forest.  All this with a bored 9-year old leaning against my little fold-up stool, sucking noisily on sweets, staring at my work while I try – for probably the first time to employ new wet-on-wet water colour techniques in the field – balancing paper, brushes, water-pot (a waxed paper cup which was starting to leak), and pallet on my knee and staring in the gathering gloom at this little plant. Oh, and batting away mosquitoes all the while.

It was really getting dark now, and I heard the amazing sound of rain drumming on the forest getting closer and closer until, moments before the heavens opened, I stuffed the paper into my bag and whipped out the brolly. I huddled under a gnarled oak, stool, backpack and painting materials stuffed between my legs and under my arms as the rain poured soaking the backs of my legs, rivers formed around my feet, and everything was covered in the fine spray which forced its way through the fabric of the brolly.

We bore this stoically for about half an hour, but when it didn’t let up we slithered back to the van and headed home – about 2pm. Then the rain eased up, and moments later we were heading back into the woodland and setting up again for another couple of hours.

By 5.30 it was really getting dark – and starting to rain again. I packed up, but Prof was absolutely absorbed, bending over his petri dish, a research student holding the brolly, his lens inches away from the dissected parts of this poor, thoroughly examined, tiny yellow flower.

Supper was at 6 in the nearly village – lots of thin slices of cooked beef heated up in a central dish, into which various other items – tofu, veg, potatoes – were cooked. We all dunked our chopsticks in and fished out various bits and pieces – washed down with their lethal clear spirit which they say is like whiskey, but I think is a bit more potent, like pocheen.

We arrived back at the Institute, well fed but still soaked, at 10pm. Had it not rained so heavily we would have stayed in the local “hotel” (doss house) and returned on Sunday. Was I glad it rained! I was exhausted, and not sure at all I was doing a good job. I wish I could have sent the 9-year old packing, but I considered it part of the “trial” I was under.

And I think this trial period paid off and I earned the Prof’s respect as he phoned me this afternoon and we spent about 1 1/2 hours discussing the next few weeks. He knows I’m very interested in painting Emmenopterys henryi, and knows a place about 400 k away near the Vietnam border, where it may still be in flower. It’s possible that he can arrange for me to go there – with a driver – for a few days to paint it. It’s going to cost about 300 pounds or more, but if I finally get a chance to paint it, then I absolutely have to take it. Amazing, after all this time…

No-one will be able to speak English, but the driver (an employee of KIB) will ensure my safety, arrange accommodation – which will be extremely basic – and food. Absolutely essential to take my mosquito net…

Then, when I’m back (if this all comes off) I’ll head up to Dali and Lijiang for some R&R and a bit more painting – and practicing! – and back to Kunming where I could spend about a month doing pen and ink scientific illustrations and a paintings again of this plant for publication. Unlike the Chinese, my main interest is not in the publication, more using them as a portfolio for more work – and if they’re already in some scientific paper, all the better.

So I’m now a bit terrified that I can’t actually give him the quality of work he’s expecting, but I’ll jolly well give it a go. Oh, and he also wants me to help check the English grammar and construction of a scientific paper he’s written. We’re both interest in Augustine Henry, and who knows, if this trial works out, there may well be more opportunities in the future.

And if it doesn’t work out, I’ll just head on down to Vietnam and Cambodia – the weather should be a bit more comfortable later, and the rain eased off a bit.

Monday 31 August

Trip into Kunming to find art supply stores, get passport photos, buy a couple of items of clothing if warmer sleeping in a very rural village, pick up international mail and visit hospital for chiropractic adjustment. One of those “process” days.

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