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July 8, 2018

Botanizing Yunnan: Western China and the Tibetan Plateau




I've been home a day and a half now from nearly a month in China. Clearly I am recovering from jet lag after more than 20 hours on flights over three days (I wrote this post twice and then somehow forgot to save it! SO I lost it.) Third time is a charm, right?

Over the next few posts I will attempt to summarize some of the highlights of this trip to what Frank Kingdon Ward called 'The land of the Blue Poppies' (yes, we saw a few those amazing Meconopsis species), but all of. the floristic wonders in this remote part of China are immense, and covering all of what we saw will be impossible - as I have a few thousand photos -probably enough content for many posts. I will just share the highlights, probably saving the juicy details for the talks that I will be giving about this incredible trip.

Contradictions exist everywhere in rural China. Our luggage arrived at our inn in Lijiang old town this way.


So, some of you were wondering "Why Yunnan and western China?". The answer is simple. This part of the Himalaya and the high Tibetan plateau is floristically one of the most diverse and species-rich places on earth. Why wouldnt any plant person want to come here? I will admit that it was ajourney and an adventure, and while nothing as adventurous as the orriginal 19th and early 20th century explorers encountered, the ten of us still found parts of the trip challenging,beit high elevation and altitude sickness, or something as mundane as a lack of ice and only warm beer.



An open air restaurant in old town Lijiang at least kept us dry in the early monsoons which were plaguing much of south west Asia a month early this year.

Our inn was old, and romantic with the sound of pouring rain running off the roof, and these open hallways with langerns. It was as if I stepped back a hundred years - both in the good and bad way!



A peak into a home in Lijiang.

For the first few days the monsoons drenched everything and everyone. Sometimes even too much for umbrellas. but not for the live fish in these plastic bags outisde ofa local market.

This alley leads to Joseph Rock's house, just on the left. A fascinating bit of history that still wasnt too commerical to experience.



Joseph Rock's residence featured an outside alley and door through a gate which lead to a courtyard. This is the view from the inside.

From the outside,Joseph Rock'sresidence looked like this. Almost as if he was still here with Donkey's drinking water from a well, the scent of incense and even live pigs.


Inside Jospeh Rock's home were photos and paraphenalia that the locals still use as a bit of a museum to help raise money for this tiny village.

We sae 'low' elevation plants (well if 10,000' can be considered low!) like this Thermopsis barbata on the Zhongdian plateau -it had nearly black flowers...

...and high elvation plants like these Sausaurea species at nearly 16,000'.


We were able to fields of primula, like these P. sikkimensis both at high and lower elevations. In fact, we saw primula almost everywhere in every color.



These Tibetan borderlands are home to so many favorite genus like Primula, Rhododendrons and alpine plants, Well collected over a hundred years ago by the names we all know like Wilson, Ward, Forrest, Farrer (even Dan Hinkley and Darrell Probst for that matter), we were not really looking for new species as we were looking to see something very special instead - something few modern plant collectors ever see - a chance to see these areas in full bloom rather than in the autumn, when most seed collecting happens. So how could I turn a trip like this down?



The great bend of the Yangtze River.


Incense at a monastary scents the air.

Our trip leader was Panayoti Kelaidis from the Denver Botanic Garden and NARGS.



This trip is the third under the umbrella of the NARGStours (North American Rock Garden Society Tours a group which I have been president of for the past 5 years, but now retired from). All participants are NARGS members however and each cames with a special expertise about a specific genus ranging from Corydalis to willows or Primula to woody plants. Panayoti Kelaidis (of the Denver Botanic Garden and currently VP of NARGS) acted as our tour leader which made for even a more extraordinary experience. 


I rest briefly (to catch my breath?) at 14,500' on Shikashan, Snow Mountain in NW Yunnan.


In Shangri-La (once known as Zhongdian) Tibetan monestary's and prayer flags add to the motif's everwhere you look.



Prayer wheels at monastary's and even at sacred mountains became a daily exercise routine - must spin ever one.



Rhododendron wardii, a rare yellow rhododendron only found in this area around Shikashan Snow Mountain in Yunnan. We were fortunate to be there during peak bloom and even sunshine - this part of the country has the cleanest air in China.



The upper meadows of Shika Shan in bloom with many small rhododendrons. It was hard to manage our time hiking down the 14,500 foot mountain to get to the bottom before dark, but treasures were everywhere.





At lower elevations many plants proved to be common in our gardens at home, from rodgersia to polygonatum to lilacs. Scotty Smith from Denver examines a lilac species looked over by Panayoty and Jeff Wagner (Colorado)- our 'woody' guys.


While I spent time in Beijing up front and then a few days in Kunming, much of our focus ranged from the lower right of this map of NW Yunnan to the upper left ending up in Dequin.



A random photo of lunch? We were well prepared for changes in diet and food, and knowledgable about avoiding fresh veggies and driking water that wasnt bottled. Still, as a foodie, I ventured out trying to experience everything.



Mangosteen at a local market. Sweet and delicious, we limited out fresh fruit consumption to that which could be peeled rather than relying on washing.



Mop handles were just as attractive as some of the plants.

Hygene varied of course, in one village all dishes from restaurants were washed this way.



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