29 October 2009

I have been very remiss in keeping my blog up to date, which has prompted one or two people to e-mail me, concerned about my whereabouts.

No news, in this case, is good news – I have been in Zhongdian, or Shangri-La, for just over three weeks, and the reason for the silence is that I have been out and about painting the alpine flowers I find in the hills just 15 minutes from the hostel in Old Town. The first time I stumbled into a small meadow beyond the decaying mud brick city wall I was astounded to find carpets of vibrant blue gentians – and then I discovered more and more tiny mauve and purple species.

Gentian veitchiorum 9633

My Painting of Gentian veitchiorum

So I’ve been rather busy painting them – and trying to find out more about the flowers and plants of the area. Rather late in the season, I know – and since I arrived the weather has changed rapidly. The first week was warm and wet, if a bit chilly in the evenings.  It has now turned very cold at night – with heavy frosts in the hills – and scorching hot in the day with clear, azure skies.

The mountains are predominantly a mix of conifer, silver birch and evergreen oak. The leaves have suddenly turned – a dusting of yellow, now mostly blown with a chill northerly wind and crunching under foot. Larch glow in the late afternoon light, holding onto their needles longer.

But there are many species that I can’t identify, so I have been asking around for information on the plants and ecology. The bookshops have nothing. The Shangri-La Alpine Botanical Gardens has a big, picture, reference book “The Wild Flowers of Hengduan Mountains” tucked away upstairs on the shelves of its café; I have seen another book on “The Flowers of the Three Rivers”; I have been lent a large, out of print copy of “Highland Flowers of Yunnan” in Chinese and English, interestingly written, edited and photographed by people I met at the Kunming Institute of Botany.

But there is nothing available for the traveller or trekker who might just want to know a bit more about the plants they may see on their walks around the area.

And that’s got me thinking!

So apart from busily painting the gentians before the frost kills them off, I’ve been talking to different people about whether there’s a need for some sort of field guide – something you can stuff in your pocket and take on a walk. Something to underpin the cultural aspects of eco-tourism that already exists: you can take any number of tours to visit a Tibetan village, eat a meal in a traditional house, see an example of traditional crafts – but no-one can tell you anything about the plants you might see on the way.

So I’ve been busy on my computer writing up a proposal and passing it by various people here who might be interested in funding it. There are quite a number of NGOs working in the area on social and environmental projects, so it’s been a matter of talking to this person or that, trying to feel my way through a whole new network. And it all takes time – time for people to get to know you, time to write up a sensible proposal that’s deliverable, struggling with a budget. All the sorts of things I was doing when I was working for charities in England…

So I’m planning on staying here just long enough to find out if it’s something that might fly – which I hope won’t be longer than another week or two as it is REALLY getting cold, I only brought my small pack with me leaving the rest in Dali, and the beaches of Vietnam will be so temptingly warm…

Other than that, I have met a really interesting crowd on Westerners living here, running various businesses, tourism, restaurants, bars etc and heading up the different NGOs. Others come here for a few months at a time doing research into different aspects of the environment – many from the US on PhDs.

Being able to find English-speaking people takes a lot of the stress out of travelling and makes battling the language less of an issue, although the long-termers all speak Chinese – and some Tibetan. So evenings at The Raven can be an interesting mix of conversations in various languages, especially after a few drinks…

On Saturday I have a wonderful opportunity to go on a trip to Nidzu – a small town about 6-hours drive away – with a whole bunch of these long-term residents to stay in a eco-hostel that one of them is developing. And there’s been mention of a Horse Festival too – so it should be a really interesting time! We stumble back on Monday, so more later on that one.