Morning clouds over Gongshan

26 May

Leaving Gongshan 9.45 and driving south. It’s been raining heavily and the clouds still cling thickly to the mountains.

We have a six hour drive ahead of us to get back to Liuku, with no real prospect of plant hunting on the way, although there will be time for detours or stops if we want.

We pass Ganju on the other side of the river, the timber depot where the border patrol prevented us from driving up the logging road and high into the mountains. The evidence of level of extraction from Burma is sobering.

Along the road we see many people with baskets on their backs full of roughly chopped lengths of wood that the have gleaned or harvested – a clear indication on their reliance on local resources. Some of it is collected where the tributaries cascade under or over the road, washed down by the force of the water. The river is a narrow torrent here – the Chinese government had proposed 14 dams along the length of the Nu Jiang but have reduced this to eight in response to international outcry. This area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

I suddenly recognise the bridge where Jason, Tsabho and I stopped to look at the church on the other side of the river and where I discovered the tall purple spike.

Gordon engages the locals

Gordon is very keen to photograph this and we pour out of the vehicles and across the metal bridge.

There is a lot more activity this time as it’s earlier in the day and people and coming and going to the market along the main road.

We see large bamboo flat baskets of bamboo shoots drying, and I recognise these as ones I’ve seen hanging out to dry earlier.

I lead the group up the steps towards the church – still locked – and there is the purple spike, just a few days later, starting to decay. And smell foul!

Amorphophallus decaying

New spathes growing

Hans identifies this as Amorphophallus – very fast growing as there are now three other spathes alongside, some 2 – 3 feet high already.  Gordon is thrilled – and I’m very relieved that it is still there, but now in abundance.

Back on the road, the hills across the river are thickly forested except for areas of bare rock which is too steep for soil or vegetation to become established.

All is quiet for a while, then Ardong spots a lily growing out of the bank above the road and we stop suddenly, all piling out. All the experts gather around

Lily sp overhanging road

and there is some discussion, but no identification. It’s the same lily that John and Hans found when they wandered up through the rice paddies above the truckers’ hotel.

There are more higher up just coming into bloom but it’s a bit tricky to get to, having to walk carefully through a farmer’s newly planted food crops, maize and Canna lilies, and Pinus cunningania seedlings.

Just as we’re photographing these lilies, we look down and the old woman, who was begging the other day at the moon rock tourist spot, picks the lily and walks off up the road with it!

Hans has wandered off again, and as he gets in the car he throws Klaas a plant sample for ID – they work closely as a team, but Hans is always the first out of the car…

We return to the vehicles and continue south, stopping at a very busy village where the market is in full spate. We find a café for lunch, and wander around taking photos of the local people in their interesting traditional costumes. The women are all dressed in their best, some with headed headdresses and necklaces of red and large white discs.

They are mostly very curious and although shy, willing to have their photographs taken. Some turn their heads and we respect their privacy. But often once a photograph has been taken and we show it to them, they are delighted, and we are able then to take perhaps better ones with their full agreement. It is an interesting situation to be in as they really have no comprehension of what we are doing.

We are, again, a great curiosity to them and it’s clear that they have not seen so many westerners together like this before – or for a long time.

The drive can be quite frustrating as we are constantly slowing for pigs, piglets, chickens or dogs which lie in the middle of the road and are in no hurry to move. The horn is used as a matter of course here to warn anything and everything of your approach. But it sometimes feels like crying wolf as little attention seems to be paid.

It’s 4.20 and we take a detour at a huge sculpture of a guitar – a symbol for one of the ethnic minorities. We head up to Laomodan village, which was apparently a local capital built some 50 or so years ago, but which has been pretty much abandoned.

We gain height rapidly – 400m in three minutes, to where Pinus yunnanensis became apparent – and arrive 25 minutes later at 2,000m, having driven up a virtually newly tarmaced road to find ourselves at the end of the road and facing a large single-storey church. It’s locked, but I manage to open a window and peer inside at the orderly pews, plastic flowers strung across the ceiling and a large chalkboard behind the lectern. It’s obviously in use, but possibly as a schoolroom.

Turning back down the one road, we are in the midst of a collection of very large decaying institutional buildings and a rather sinister sense about the place. There is nothing human scaled about it. The local people of Nu nationality seem to have taken over, squatting in the buildings and cultivating the land around. There is an air of great poverty. In the centre of the town there is a military style pagoda with most of its windows broken and a concrete spiral staircase circling it – the buildings seem to be reverting to nature, albeit too slowly.

A faded painting of Mao oversees the courtyard where a lively group of children play table tennis on a concrete table in front of what looks like a military training centre – and are thrilled by the novelty of our arrival, squirming with excited shyness and hamming it up for the cameras. Jan has brought some balloons from England and handing them out was like a feeding frenzy!

The conversation in the vehicle is a mix of Dutch, interspersed with excited ejaculations of Latin names, yeah’s, no’s, jabbering of Chinese on the walkie talkies between the two vehicles, and the occasional exclamation in English from John. Again, it’s particularly difficult for me to decipher the Latin names I’m unfamiliar with when spoken with a heavy Dutch accent.

We eventually drive back into Liuku and stay at the same high quality hotel as previously – nice to find something familiar. At least we know there is hot water, the beds are clean and comfortable and there is air conditioning. It’s become warmer and much more humid as we’ve driven south, and we know that any washing we do that night will dry if put right under the unit – and can be finished off with a hairdryer if needed.

We walk some distance to a small tucked-away restaurant where the food is good, but there is an amazing explosion of flying insects, like very large ants with huge wings. They’re everywhere, flying around and into us as we eat, gathering around lights, falling onto the floor and quickly losing their wings. It’s a bit off-putting, but there’s no escaping this natural phenomenon. As I walk back to the hotel early to try to catch up with the blog, I see shop assistants sweeping piles of the insects out onto the pavement. I keep the windows closed in my room that night.