15 August 2010 – 12.20pm. All traffic has stopped, just outside Qiaotou, the start of Tiger Leaping Gorge and 2 hours south of Zhongdian. Nothing is moving in either direction, so it might be an accident, or a landslide. There’s no knowing what’s going on as no-one speaks English. And there’s no knowing how long we will be stuck here, so I’ll just take this opportunity to catch up on my blog.

I’m left Shaxi last Sunday for Zhongdian to renew my visa and try to develop further ideas for a project involving botanical illustrations in the area. Although I had received almost unilateral support for the initiative, no-one was offering any financial support. It was time to re-visit the concept and see if moving it in a more “community development” direction would prove more successful. Having identified a number of funders who would support projects of this type I now needed to test out my ideas and develop them further in response to local feedback.

I hadn’t wanted to get up at the crack of dawn to catch the two buses which went direct from Jianchuan to Zhongdian, as I knew this was the main route up from Dali and these buses would pass through the town. So I headed off from Shaxi just after noon and stood roadside, opposite the bus station, waiting to flag down a Zhongdian bus. Four hours later, five buses had gone by – none of them willing to stop to pick me up. Either they were full, or I was standing in the wrong place.

Patience wearing thin, I gave myself 20 more minutes before buying a ticket for the next day. Then a guy approached me and another prospective passenger, a middle-aged Chinese man, also trying futilely to flag down a bus, a ride to Zhongdian for 100RMB. This is about double the rate, but after failing to negotiate him down, I figured it was better to accept and arrive that night than have to head back to Shaxi and start all over again the next day.

It’s an uneventful journey for me – no-one speaks more than two or three words of English, so I take in the changing countryside as we climb through familiar territory: I’ve made this trip twice before. About three hours later the storm clouds sweep down from the mountains and the first thick drops of rain hit the windscreen. The sky grows black and within minutes the road is slick with water.

My phone rings – it’s Matthias, wondering if I got there safely. “Not yet” I explain: “about an hour away – just come onto the Tibetan plateau.” I startle myself with my nonchalance. We have arrived on the Tibetan plateau and I remember my great excitement from just a year ago at seeing the impressive traditional Tibetan houses for the first time, dotting the plain, drying racks, pigs, yaks and horses grazing freely, stupas with prayer flags streaming in the wind, silver birch, ‘spanish moss’ and crops of barley, potatoes and wheat.

We arrive in the new town in the dark and I make my way to the Barley Hostel in old town, to find it full. So it’s back to the familiarity of N’s Kitchen where I spent 6-weeks almost a year ago. The dorms have actually come down in price, but the food has rocketed. Dawan, who set it up, has now opened his own restaurant opposite The Raven. The Marco Polo lacks a certain atmosphere, but has a nice outdoor area, there’s a greater variety of food and its cheaper than N’s. The WiFi is better too.

Next day I renew my friendships – and my visa, which takes less than 30 minutes and costs 160RMB. Then I head off up to The Chicken Temple which overlooks old town, to see what flowers are still around and what new delights await me.

Last year I arrived at the end of the flowering season and was thrilled to discover the gentians – in particular the very last flowers of Helena elliptica, identified from my painting by Dr Fang, the Director of the Shangri-La Alpine Botanical Gardens. Now they grow in small scatterings across the heavily grazed meadow, the plants much more robust than I had imagined.

I find plants other familiar plants, and some I don’t recognise: broad yellow petals in a crescent with a ‘tail’ that rises up and curls over. I saw a plant from apparently the same family last year when I visited Jiuzhaigou National Park but never identified it.

I wander on through the oak scrub, below the stupa and prayer flags, to see what is growing in the wildflower meadow overlooking old town and which was packed with tiny irises and anemones. These have all disappeared in the last six weeks, but I’m astounded to see drifts of purple – a mass of Helena elliptica! I can’t walk without treading on them, they are so abundant. Here, also are the diminutive versions of Roscoea tibetica which are all but over further south near Shaxi.

Zhongdian is much busier than last year – perhaps I notice it so much because we are right in the middle of the tourist season and I didn’t venture up there until nearly October. But many of the people I met then are still here including a number of American PhD students continuing their research. I have made new contacts also, including Dr Gesang, the Director of the Shangri-La Museum of Tibetan Medicine, who has sent me a list of plants that are used – and which are framed, herbarium specimens on the walls of the museum. Since the museum opened 10 years ago, these specimens are starting to fall apart. Being dried, they all lost their colour a long time ago.

When I go back up to Zhongdian in three weeks’ time, I will take some of my paintings to show him. Perhaps he might commission a few to replace these desiccated specimens? Now that would make it a bit easier for the lay-person to identify them…

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