Thursday 3 September

An hour out of Kunming, and the Expressway heads up through a steep, lush mountainous terrain, sprinkled with small villages, hamlets, settlements, adobe-coloured mud-brick houses with tiled roofs gently curved at the gables clustered together, curiously decorated with large paintings of dinosaurs; taller, mud-brick smoke-houses where the tobacco crop dries standing slightly apart. As the forested hills give way to cultivation, terraces of dark green maize jostle against acid green strips of tobacco crops, their partially defoliated stalks standing stark against the rich brown soil. In the small flat valleys between the hills lie the softer greens of rice paddies.

Scattered up the hillsides in the most inaccessible places, small Bai graves cluster together like ornate beehives.

This journey is bringing a new sense of freedom and adventure – a new beginning. Drawing the Fellowship to a close and moving on from the constant striving to accomplish what I set out to do. Discovering that the way I thought things might be were not at all possible from where I started. Realising that had the starting point been different, had I not inherited a plan based on a completely different premise – that of a botanist on a plant collecting trip – then they might have been. Accepting that while we learn from how other people think, how other people do things, it is only when we follow our own instincts that we find the path that is neither inherited nor a compromise, but which is unique and true to us.

I am not a city girl, and even being on the edges both at Wuhan and Kunming, I feel the weight of city, the people, the busy-ness and the dulling deadness of concrete draw the life out of me.

Perhaps the sense of relief in this journey has also something to do with the anticipation of meeting other travellers and speaking a common language, sharing experiences and discussing places to go, things to see – and perhaps doing things together – so I am not always visiting or eating on my own – a very lonesome experience.

I have caught the luxury, air-conditioned coach-with-toilet with only ten minutes to spare, just enough to grab a bottle of water, roasted cob from a street vendor, and packet of crisps – relying on instinct in my haste, I grabbed a packet I thought I recognised as plain, like Smiths or Walkers, completely failing to notice on the red packet the two chillies dancing brightly against the background…

I had heard that eucalypts were a very invasive species in China, but I can’t help myself admire sea-green foliage shifting like kelp in the tide. But beneath their tall grace they are poisoning the soil – as with rhododendrons in England – creating an acid environment where the native flora withers.

It is all folds of mountains now, puckered together like so much smocking with olive green rivers winding between and small isolated farmsteads. And all the while the wide highway carves through this ancient landscape, raised above the valley floor finding the easiest course through the hills and mountains – as the people who originally settled here would have done. What they must think of this highway now – only 20 years ago the journey I am now making would have taken two days.

Nearly halfway through the 4-hour journey the landscape has flattened and we are passing though fertile alluvial plains given over to cultivation, invaded by a glistening sea of plastic of polytunnels, black horticultural netting, the linear villages straggling out alongside the base of the hills.

White fluttering scarecrows stand forlorn, the ghosts of generations still tending their land, trapped in their futile task long after the landscape all around has changed.

Where the highway has replaced the older road, businesses lie abandoned and land-locked behind the crash barrier. Where the old road survives, it winds through the valley alongside and lorries lumber through Jun Xing Village, suddenly giving way to a lake, brown with silt and a few small  boats – the neck of the lake seeping into meadows where water buffalo and cattle graze. On the other side, small white temples peek through the sparse trees and women walk with baskets along the most convenient route, the railway line.

Further, vacant, grey concrete apartment blocks under construction stand sentinel to the raw gestation of another whole new city. Tall brick chimneys vent and the scarred earth testifies to another new highway bringing the people and jobs, perhaps, for these still ghostly structures.

Small local villages consumed, electrical power stations spawning pylons, their webs strung tight against the sky: a net of energy and power high above the reach of the few lone workers stooped in the soft green rice fields below.

These mountains are home to different ethnic groups, and Dali home to the Bai people, the oldest and second-largest minority group in Yunnan. The walled city sounds about the size of the centre of Bath, being able to walk from top to bottom in under half an hour, but like so many in China is based on a grid with clearly defined streets running north-south and east-west.

I have booked accommodation just outside the West Gate – preferring to be based away from the hustle and bustle of even a small town, but wanting some proximity.

Wednesday 2 September

Just gone 10pm and I’ve packed my rucksack and am wondering just how I’m going to manage tomorrow on a couple of local buses down into Kunming for about an hour and a half, when it’s usually standing room only.

In addition to the backpack – which has heavy stuff like art-paper, books and shoes, computer and photography cables, and bulky stuff like a supply of malaria and water purifying tablets, toiletries and clothes – I have a day-pack which takes my laptop and all my other painting materials, plus various odds-and-sods that I might need to find easily: umbrella for those sudden stair-rod moments, wet-wipes, bottled water, sunglasses and hat, long-sleeved shirt, mozzie spray and mozzie bite relief, and some rather old biscuits for “emergencies”.

My camera bag is quite compact, but with three lenses it’s a noticeable weight. Finally, the shoulder bag takes all the other stuff that didn’t quite fit anywhere else. And then there’s the portfolio I bought the other day to keep my paintings flat when I’m out in the field… And the bum-bag with essential but not valuable things in, the money belt with all the other essentials, money reserves and very valuable documents.

I hope it doesn’t rain.

The last-minute, and exciting possibility of being able to finally paint Emmenopterys henryi in flower was finally buried this morning, when the report from the field was of young fruit – the trees having finished flowering only two weeks ago.

The village I had hoped to visit was near the Vietnamese border, and would have required a driver accompanying me for the duration. One day’s drive there, several days doing field studies and whatever else I could cram in the time, and another full day’s drive back. Having to pay for the vehicle, travel costs and driver’s time, it would not have come cheap. Local knowledge was vital as there are still many unexploded bombs lying off the beaten tracks, left over from the war between China and Vietnam. It would also not have been a comfortable trip, staying in very basic accommodation – possibly a room in a local house and the sorts of things you worry about more as you get older, such as what if I need to go to the loo in the middle of the night – an abundance of mosquitoes, and no-one speaking a word of English. But it was certainly an opportunity worth exploring.

Tonight, however, it is with a much lighter spirit that I anticipate my journey to Dali, blowing away the sense of inertia I am always prone to when I settle into a place. Three weeks at the Kunming Botanical Gardens and a handful of studies. I think I may have had a rose-tinted view of what was achievable, having read experiences of artists going on flower-painting holidays, or believing that the intrepid artists of old, such a Marianne North, just headed off into the wilds with their wonderful talent and came back unscathed with a gallery-full of work. The reality is that the former are paying a huge amount of money for someone else to make all the arrangements for them; the latter have not only the finances behind them, they those all-important Letters of Introduction.

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