Hua Dian Ba – 6 April 2011

I had heard about this wild-flower medicinal-plant meadow back in 2009, but never had a chance to go there. Now, in my final week I jump at the chance as Lily and two Finnish travellers are keen to make the trek.

We leave Shaxi at 8am for Xizhou, a small town on the north-western bank of Lake Erhai, near Dali, and arrive around 12:30. They continue on into Dali old town where the Finns are ultimately heading: they drop off their big bags and Lily hits the bank. The banks in Shaxi and Jinghong, the main metropolis in the area, only service Chinese accounts, which can be a bit of a problem if you’re staying in the area longer-term. Lily, like me, has made it her creative base, to complete part two of her novel current.

Rhododendrons in courtyard

I take the opportunity to drop in on the Linden Centre again and take a poster for Matthias’s medicinal plant garden near Shaxi.

M will be producing postcards of my paintings which they agree to sell in their small shop.

We finally all meet up again and head up the dry, dusty road at about 3pm. It’s later than we would have liked, as we know that the walk will take us at least four hours. But we should be there before dark.

It is hot. Very hot. At the entrance to the mountain path we sign in with officials and read the comprehensive notice about “no fires”. It’s as dry as tinder. Even the large bundles of magenta incense sticks placed at the small local holy sites are left unlit.

On our way up, we meet groups of locals coming down from the hills with huge bunches of Rhododendron decorum – the beautiful white, scented, blooms that are a local delicacy.

R decorum

Although they might be gong to put them in a vase and just enjoy them as is. I would have loved to have painted them, but sadly I’ve now run out of time – it’s now just five days before I leave Shaxi, and China, and I’d rather spend my final days enjoying the tranquillity of the area than putting myself under pressure to start a new project.

We climb up, and up, cutting off huge bends in the road by stumbling along donkey-trails, through small graveyards and deep pine forest. These paths have been worn into steps where the hooves have pushed the earth down into ridges. They’re amazingly even and well-spaced, presumably donkeys having legs of relatively same length…

Donkey "steps"

The road peters out and is only traversable by foot or pack-animal.

Local coming off the mountain

Rhododendron sp

We pass mules, donkeys and horses coming down off the mountain with some rather bemused locals. First it’s another five hours (what!?) then it’s three. We hope we’re misunderstanding them – maybe three miles? – but we are realising now that we won’t make it before dark.The problem is we don’t know what “it” is. We asked Veve to phone ahead and book us into the medicinal plant co-operative for the night, and ask them to prepare dinner for us, but all we know is that once we finish climbing up, it’s at the end of the plateau. Exactly where is a complete unknown.

The path continues climbing and we’re going at a pace much faster than I’d like. The Finns, Ilkke and Henny are both in their 20s, and Lily’s an avid hiker.

I stumble breathlessly along some way behind, grateful for the occasional short stops and sips of water – and a few grabbed photos of flowers along the way.

We know we can’t afford to rest for any length of time.

Rhododendron sp

The path levels out and turns into a wide stone-paved “road” which has a history which intrigues us. Possibly one of the main routes from Dali to Eruan over the mountains? Part of the Tea & Horse Caravan Route?

We’ll have to wait until we’re down to research this – our Chinese is completely inadequate and no-one up here speaks a word of English.

(Note: have since discovered that it was built by the People’s Army – thanks to Chris Horton of Go Kunming, a network and website I found very informative for all ex-pats and other things relating to Marmite or cabbages and kings.)

The long un-winding road...

It reminds me of Offa’s dyke. As it grows darker, we stumble on the loose rocks, kicking and sliding – it’s incredibly tiring, and I’m already exhausted. We walk through a spate of freezing rain and round the mountain into a ferocious wind. Along the plain it settles down, and the clouds clear – but the moon is just a fingernail and casts little light.

We pass two homesteads with small burning lights and stumble on, desperately hoping that we’ll come across the lights of a village proper before it’s so dark we can’t see anything. Once we turn on our torches, we will only see the light in front of us, our eyes losing their “night vision”.

Then we come across a light shining from a large complex of buildings – whatever this place is, we can’t continue any further. As we walk through courtyards it looks more and more like a co-operative “factory” – and indeed it is! We have finally made it. It’s 8:20, virtually pitch dark, and we descend on the food and a bottle of beer with enormous pleasure and relief.

The medicinal herb co-operative

Next morning is clear and sunny – but the only wild flowers we can find are tiny gentians, an amethyst fumitory (Fumaria sp) and a few rather indistinct yellow things peeking through the heavily grazed grass.

Partially derelict

Awash with horticultural netting

Fumaria sp

We’re probably about six weeks too early.

In situ plant ID

Do I have competition?

Then it’s another four hours back down the hill – and we’ve started out a bit later than I would like.

Lone Rhododendron...

Again it’s a fast pace but we get down to Xizhou just after 3:30 and I’m on a bus back home, arriving in Shaxi just before 8pm. Utterly exhausted!

Now that's the way to travel!

Snow-capped Cangshans above Dali

Now it’s packing time – my visa expires in just a few days’ time and I must leave China for Hong Kong.

But not before my birthday celebration…