Mid November 2009

The clouds rolled in this morning, spreading lead-grey behind the sunlit Chicken Temple – my farewell visit yesterday afternoon now just a wind-swept prayer.

It feels right leaving now. I have taken the idea of a Field Guide for Shangri-La as far as I can, staying another week to discuss it further with interested parties; anything else that needs to be done will now have to be by phone or e-mail.

It has felt so worthwhile investing this time here, getting to know how the NGOs work and a small insight into their funding streams and time-frames. I was delighted to hear that the Shangri-La Alpine Botanical Gardens are very interested in the Field Guide as well as one of the main eco-tourism organisations in the area. Other NGOs have expressed interest, and I have set up a meeting with an international organisation in Kunming who certainly have the funding to support this. I’m also hoping that the Kunming Institute of Botany will put their name behind this project. As part of the Chinese Institute of Science this would add great credibility.

My proposal isn’t without concerns, however, that there will be a belief that the project could be achieved more economically through the use of stock photographs or new digital ones, altering the concept of the project dramatically.

There doesn’t appear to be a consistent history of botanical illustration in guides in China unlike in the UK. When I was in Shaxi with the Hubers, they showed me a copy of a Medicinal Herbal guide with full colour well-executed illustrations. And a picture of Chairman Mao on the Frontispiece – a great intention to encourage the use of local plants for health purposes; a lost legacy whose time has come again perhaps… That was a few years ago and before photography was commonplace. Since then illustrated books about the flowers or plants of China have used photos: scientific floras have traditionally use line drawings.

This would be so different – a Field Guide with ethno-botanical information where fine illustrations are a key component. And I believe a first for China. What a great opportunity to return to paint the flora of NW Yunnan next year!

The timing to leave Zhongdian also felt right as so many of the people spent time with, who are mainly or partially resident here, have heading off for the winter. And I relish the thought of painting tropical plants in the south of Yunnan, larger than the 5cm or so of the gentians that flourished on the hills behind old town , but which are now withered away remnants lost amongst the dried grass and leaves.

The hostel had organised a Winter Party the night before I left, and I commandeered this as my unofficial farewell do. Thrilled of course that so many of my Western contacts and friends came; aware that the main attraction might have been the “all you could eat roast beef, roast potatoes, veg etc and two home-made puds”.

Next day was packing up the few things I’d brought and discarding the many dried flower specimens I hadn’t managed to paint. Hard choices! You always think you’ll have time to paint some desiccated specimen – but then you’re on the road again and something new catches your eye.

I missed the direct bus to Dali, so did a quick change at Lijiang. It felt good knowing how the system worked, having been through Lijiang a few times now. Good road maps are great for this, and the Nelles maps have been an invaluable resource – the Chinese don’t seem to have a clue as to where anything is. They don’t know North from South and don’t seem to think that this even important. I really wonder what their idea is of their own country. Perhaps it’s all just gleaned from images on TV…

I am becoming excited now to see how the valley around Dali has changed in the 7 or so weeks I have been away.

Certainly I am struck by the changes in vegetation I see as I leave Zhongdian.

The earth skin is cracked and peeling in the thin, dry air. Long strands of green-grey lichen Usnea longissima, looking like ‘Spanish moss’, hangs from the dark green pine branches like bedraggled hair on the moist, updraft side of the valley. The land is gauged and torn by man, the scars of timber runs betrayed by jagged stumps. Amongst the plumes of bamboo on the hillside, yellow ochre/burnt umber stains seep into the dry valley riverbed.

Now just an hour south of Zhongdian, Tibetan houses give way to brick and stone with tiled roofs. Gone are the wooden shingles weighted down with rocks. No drying racks, but stooks of corn stems piled by the roadside.

The burnt copper of deciduous trees splashes carelessly into the viridian pines and evergreen oaks in the hills. Below the roads-cut into the hillside, slips of shale stain down to the mountain stream. This lower landscape has escaped the heavy browsing of Yak and cow/Yak crossbreeds and thick dried grass and ground cover alleviate this dry and browning landscape.

The river spreads out in the valley, a reservoir: below the dam the parched vein of riverbed is dry grey rock until assuaged by fresh white streams. And now another dam just minutes south and again a parched rocky riverbed; stark silver pylons stride out the hills from the hydro-electric power station, spreading their web through grey poles of dead trees to isolated homesteads in the hills.

And now the river tumbling again over jagged rocks a vigorous frothy green, with urgency and force. New crops stain the terraced strips a vivid green in small patchworks. Houses now stark white and tall elegant eucalypts along the river bed and in the clefts and runnels.

At Ciotou and the start of Tiger Leaping Gorge, the river stills run urgently along a thin channel in a wider river bed unaware that moments later its vigour and purity will be subsumed into the chocolate expanse of the Yangtze. The flat dry pans are now an  industry of gravel extraction and tiny toy blue trucks. This wide, dry expanse betrays the river’s glory before its disempowerment. And now we turn and follow this wide brown mass – the industry of the riverbed lining the road with small dusty factories of breeze blocks.

Leaving the flat slow river behind we wind up into the warm pine-fragrant hills. The roadside stalls of myriad fruits of just two months ago replaced by red braids of dried chillies above large white jars of chilli paste. The bunches of corn have dried a deep yellow, their stalks still standing brown and ragged in the fields or heaped in piles against the roadside.

We leave the mountainous terrain of Zhongdian to Lijiang, and drive through the flat fertile rice valley. The corn has all been harvested, and irrigation channels cleared, leaving neat rectangles with formal stubble, or tilled and planted out with another crop – lettuces, beans, peas, pack choy… All around, this fertile plain is being hoed, ploughed, irrigated, the wood is gathered in: all returned to order for the winter.

There has been something very reassuring about having spent so much time in one place – getting to know it, feeling more confident in China, in travelling and understanding how things work.

I have less qualms now about travelling alone, finding hostels and ordering food, although my lack of knowledge of the Chinese spoken and written language can still be rather daunting.

I am determined, if I am able to return in March to produce the Field Guide, to study the language so that I can be a lot more independent.