Plant hunting in China - Part 1

Spring 1996



Part 1        Part 2      Part 3       Part 4

MAY 21, 1996 - TUESDAY - 9:07 AM


Just checked into the airport, feeling a little nervous, a little numb, waiting for Jack. Is this really happening to me?  I think that much of the trip will feel like this. It is a solitary journey, even with companions. Am I prepared? I feel like I know so little. I wish I had remembered to have business cards made. I wish I knew more about using my watch. I think I remembered almost everything.  


I wait with anxious anticipation.  I look at the people in this airport, imbibed with a common consciousness and philosophy, just because we are Americans - affected by the Christian ethic, whether we are Christians or not. We can't escape. How will it be different in Yunnan? Will the people have a different consciousness of who they are and their place in the world. Will it feel different to be there?



As we descend, great banks of thick clouds line the horizon, like distant mountain ranges, a fantasy landscape, illusive  peaks and valleys, a hidden landscape beaming into space. Layers upon layers of clouds. Mass changes to mist as we near - we don't detour, we plunge right through. Through breaks in the clouds I catch glimpses of ocean, there are dark patches of cloud shadows on olive green water. It looks like leather, like great dark sheets of motionless ripples.



We arrive in Taipei after 13 long hours. I have slept a little, and wake up over Japan. We have followed the sun all the way. Flew right over tonight into tomorrow. We run to catch the flight to Hong Kong. This is the first time in my life I have been in the minority. It's feels okay. It makes one an observer. The Asian stewardesses are beautiful.  Americans, both men and women, seem coarse in comparison.


We arrive in Hong Kong  late, 9:00?  The lights of the city are beautiful.  We grab luggage carts, get our luggage, then wheel them clumsily around and around, until we find the 'left luggage' area. We leave our luggage, change our American money for Hong Kong dollars, and get on the bus for Kowloon 




What a place! At 11:00 P.M., in my disoriented overstimulated state of mind, the lights and bustle and people of Kowloon give me the feeling of being on the set of the science fiction movie 'Bladerunner'.


Jack and Dusty have been here before. But I'm a newcomer. I follow them around, hoping I don't lose them in the crowd.  We find a room at the Chun King Mansions, a legendary dump of a hotel in the center of Kowloon, an old old building of about 16 floors, above a plaza of shops, in the very center of Kowloon on Nathan street.  It is a labyrinth of dingy dirty hallways, cracked dark stairways, a maze of seperately owned and operated groups of guest rooms.  Even before we enter the plaza at ground level we are accosted by people wanting to rent us rooms.  We accept an offer of a room in the section called 'The Dragon Inn' on the third floor. We decline the offer to to take the rickety elevator and instead we walk up the 3 flights of back stairways.  Music wails and smoke wafts from behind closed doorways as we pass by the landings. As we come to the third floor we enter through a locked door and into a hall, suddenly bright with clean white walls, small but clean rooms - very incongruous. My room is large enough for a single bed, (it has pink flannel sheets with kittens on them! ), a small table with a TV, and a hot water jug with 2 glasses.  A small curtained window looks out onto a brick wall. The bathroom is large enough for a sink and a toilet, with a shower head coming out of one wall, no shower stall of any kind, a tile floor with a drain in the floor. I guess it's so you can shower while you pee.  I am about to try it. 


I lost Jack and Dusty. They are in another room in the next section, but I seem to be locked in and I don't know how to contact them. I hope they are still there in the morning. The 'Dragon Inn' at the Chun King Mansions.  600 Hong Kong Dollars, about $35.00 American money. 



I'm in my cubicle, showered. reorganized, not sure what to do. The gate to get into this section (about 6 rooms) is locked. Jack and Dusty are in the next section over. I don't know how to get out of here or to contact them. I safety-pinned a note on the gate letting them know that I am in room #2. I think I just have to wait to be rescued. Plane leaves at 2:15.


I slept good, about 4 1/2 hours, but I feel ready and anxious to go. 



We have made it back to the airport.  We are aboard  'Dragon Air', ready to take off to Kunming.


What a morning. I finally got rescued. Jack came to get me - turns out that I just didn't know how to lift the latch on the grated door, and was not being held prisoner after all.  It was okay - kind of fun really. 


We spend the morning wandering Kowloon. There is such visual stimulation here. Bright colorful signs everywhere, noisy traffic. I wander alone, while Jack and Dusty are off doing something else. I walk through Cowling Park, a very nicely kept park, a gentle oasis in the middle of all the bustle on Nathan street. Old men are immersed in silent tai-chi under the palm trees. There are neat, clean, park benches. 2 women are pruning and watering the vines that cover the walls.  I feel comfortable walking, taking pictures, not out of place at all. There are lots of westerners here.



The flight to Kunming from Hong Kong takes about 2 hours, we are comfortable and graciously tended to, flying at about 30,000'.  Now, we pass a giant anvil thundercloud, erupting hugely out of the sea of stratus, surrounded by smaller swirling cumulus. What a sight. We are now directly over a 'cauliflower cumulus', pure white, looks like I could grab it in my hands and mold it to shape. 


10 months of planning, we're almost there - will reality meet expectations? I can see land forms beneath the scattered cumulus clouds - my first glimpse of China. Kunming is in sight. The city is flat with hills in the distance. The land surrounding it looks dry.


5:00 A.M. next day - the 24th?

Just woke up, 9th floor of the Gangfang Hotel.


Our first day in Kunming was .... interesting.


Mr. Guan Kayam (the director of the Kunming Botanical Garden), Sun Weibang ( the assistant director) and Dusty's friend Zhou, meet us at the Kunming airport. They are very gracious and professional, all smiles. They take us to get checked in at the Gangfang Hotel. This is a brand new, quite comfortable hotel. My room has two double beds, a shower, a bath, a nice view of the city, a TV - not bad. The city is big, modern, wide and flat, with lots of newer high rise buildings.  Bicycles are everywhere, as I had expected. The horn honking is constant, warning bicyclers and pedestrians and anything else to get out of the way. 


First impressions of Kunming - flat, colorful, lots of bikes, honking horns, street vendors everywhere, red umbrellas covering some of the vendors and their products. At night the umbrellas are red beacons, lit from beneath,  the vendors stay up late selling their wares. Piles of watermelons are for sale at frequent street corners.


have only whizzed so far, by van and on bike. Jack, Dusty, and I rent bikes (somewhat rickety) from the hotel and take the 20 minute trip across town to Zhou's home for dinner. The bikes are rickety, but easy enough to ride.  I follow the crowd, and hope I don't loose sight of Jack and Dusty in the mob of bicycles that I am thrust into, moving me along, in spite of myself. The main road is broad and busy, with wide bike lanes.  It is amazing that there are not constant accidents, but even I find it easy enough to maneuver. The ride takes us down a broad main street, then through what seemed to me like alleyways, very narrow streets - people are everywhere. There is a lot of trash around, papers mostly.


Zhou is an older man (78?), speaks English and Russian, a friend of Dusty's from previous trips. He is tall, thin, all smiles, with thin gray hair, and so glad to see us. His home is on the 2nd floor of a big bleak 5 story tenement building. It is almost dark when we arrive, so it is hard to get a scope of size.  Access is through alley-like roads, teeming with people, lots of children playing.  We walk up a narrow dark stairway to the second floor. The apartment he shares with his wife has 3 small rooms, and a narrow balcony. The 'kitchen' is seperated from the main rooms - a concrete cubical off of the balcony, maybe 4-5 feet across, 5-6 ' deep with built in shelves on either side. At the rear of the cubicle is the cooking surface, with a large wok set down into concrete slab, heated from beneath by (coal ?).  The 'bathroom' is a community affair somewhere on the ground floor, serving more people than I would like to think about.


The narrow balcony is jam packed with stuff, including a row of potted plants across the front of it. The small main room, where we sit for dinner, is large enough for a couch, a low table, a single bed, some shelves with a TV (which stays on the entire time we are there) a few stools. On the shelves are some statuettes, clocks, what looks like a tape player, nicknacky things.  Dinner is fried goat cheese, duck, peas, rice, some crunchy fried chip-like things, almost sweet, 'Sour Papaya Juice', tasting and acting very much like whiskey, and very strong coffee served with the grounds still in it, served in a glass. I have the honor of eating the duck head, brains and all. It is interesting. We ride home in the dark, around 10:30. There is still a lot of activity on the street, lots of bicycles, lots of vendors still on the sidewalks, many of them sitting under large red umbrellas lit from below  -  still lots of horns honking.



It's 6:00 AM and as I look out the 9th floor window, I see 3 lone bicycles, no cars on the road (there were a few earlier) that was so active when I went to bed at 11:00 last night. I guess it's a late rising city. We are biking to breakfast this morning, meeting Zhou at a restaurant that my companions have been to before.  




I am on complete sensory overload. Just returned from the Kunming Botanic Garden, through unbelievable traffic. Sun Weibang says that the roads are extra busy because it is Friday and now that people have 2 day holidays, not just one as before, they are all going somewhere.  People seem to drive without regard to lanes, weaving in and out from both sides, turning from anywhere, blocking traffic, bikes in the way, as they usually are, constant honking, a wild scene, but apparently typical here. The Chinese equivalant of 'traffic cops' direct traffic in the bigger intersections, sometimes two at an intersection - dressed in crisp, very official looking green uniforms, standing on some sort of platform in the middle of the broad intersection, covered with huge black and yellow umbrellas advertising Duracell Batteries.



We bike to breakfast this morning. On the way we pass a plaza full of people playing badminton. We eat at a restaurant  specializing in a famous Yunnan dish called Crossing Bridge Noodles.  It is a big dingy dark place with big square tables and a concrete floor.  We are the first customers of the day so they set up the table for us. Our food is served in huge bowls, chipped all around the edge. We are given packets of cigarette pack size 'napkins' before we eat, used to wipe down the bowls, chopsticks, and glasses before we have our meal. (afternote: we find this to be the case at every restaurant we stop at throughout the trip) The Crossing Bridge Noodles are served as a bowl of steaming hot broth of chicken and pork, brought to the table in big bowls, with a thin layer of oil on the broth to keeping it steaming hot. Small servings of very thin slices of scallions, dry soy bean curd, chicken, liver, or whatever they are serving this day are brought on individual small plates along with a bowl of rice noodles (already cooked). These are all put into the broth, cooking almost instantly. It is delicious. It is a famous Yunnan dish, and it is all they serve in this restaurant. (The medieval legend from Sounthern Yunnan of how this dish came to be is this: Long ago a scholar preparing for his imperial exams isolated himself on an small island in a lake to study. His wife brought him hot meals every day, across a long wooden bridge, but she was dismayed that the food would always have cooled by the time it arrived. One day, by chance, she discovered that the soup stayed boiling hot if it was topped with a thin layer of vegetable oil, which prevented the heat from escaping. From then on she was able to cook the vegetables and meat on the island near her husabnd, without the stove. And of course, because of her devotion, her husband passed his imperial exams. )


This restaurant is on a narrow cobblestone street with many residences and shops, some with a narrow breezeway between buildings, but usually not. Some people have actual shops but others just sit outside their home or on the edge of the street and sell their products, everyday items - food, cooking items, shoes, dishes, clothes, (there is too much to remember), or they just sit. Directly across from the restaurant are 2 old wizened women sitting in front of a brick entranceway, cooking, I think. They see me with my camera, one gets up and walks inside. I feel bad. Most people do not like their picture taken, so of course I don't.




On the way back to the hotel we stop at the 'Bird and Flower Market' for about an hour. This seven day a week market is a series of long narrow lanes packed with small booths on either side, teeming with people, selling everything, some jewelry, fishing gear, lizards, antiques, pots, dead snakes in jars ( a tonic of some sort), teapots, books, pigeons,  plants, food.  Zhou helps me buy some small stone carvings. Everyone bargains. The vendors mark the first asking price on a calculator, you say no, and they pass the calculator to you to put it your price. They say no, and put in a new price - it goes on an on until someone gives in.  A westerner trying to bargain is a great show, and always draws a crowd.


Sun Weibang came to pick us up today in the van that we would traveling in for the duration of the trip. He will be our guide and interpreter. The drivers for the Kunming Botanical institute are professional drivers, our driver is Mr. Yi.  The ride to the Kunming Botanical Garden took us through areas that seem to go back in time. The houses become dirtier, the road more rutted, street vendors are everywhere, lots of horse drawn carts, old women with yokes draped across their shoulders carrying big baskets, horses with drooping feedbags standing in front of their carts.



I wake at 5:00.  It's raining. A thunderstorm, wonderful to hear, but perhaps not the best way to start the trip. Sun, (pronouced 'Swin - with a little bit of an sh-sound) at the Kunming Garden will be glad, he says that it has been very dry for the last month. I hope it's not the beginning of an early monsoon season.  We visited the Kunming Botanical Garden yesterday. This garden encompasses about 200 acres, and  was begun sometime near 1938.  It is in some disrepair, but not as much as I had expected. There is a broad rolling landscape, lots of vistas, and open space, a well tended 'medicine garden', a magnolia and conifer collection, big glasshouses, (rectangular buildings with concrete bases and big glass sides and roof.) I saw a beautiful Polygonatum in a pot, about 20" high with clusters of dusky burgundy red flowers near the top of the stems. Polygonatums are medicinal plants, and it is very difficult to get seed or plants of them. The Paris collection is not as big as it used to be according to the collection list from 1989, but it is still impressive. They are grown in raised beds under lath. Paris is also an important component in Chinese traditional medicine. We saw Paris polyphylla var. yunnanense, P. luquanensis (a small groundhugging form with beautiful olive green silver marked leaves, and flowers right at ground level, but less hardy than the others), P. fargesii with extra long spidery petals, at least 3' tall. There was a nicer than expected nursery area, with wooden tables under lath, everything in simple but classic rounded clay pots. They are growing many Pedicularis tricolor, a yellow flowered species, and selecting for good forms to grow as a pot plant. There were tables of Incarvellia, both Incarvellia mairei, I. zhondienensis (formerly Incarvellia  maerii var. multifoliata), and what Sun thought was Incarvellia lutea, but he says is probably Incarvellia  delavayi. They are 2 years old, with one or two big leaves each, but as yet none have bloomed. There were rows of Anemone huphensis,  some Podophyllum emodi, and a few pots of Dysosma veitchii with big roundly star shaped leaves, not as shiny and star shaped as P. versipelle that we grow at home.



Relaxing day in Kunming.  Biked to breakfast with Zhou, Zhou Hua (Zhou's niece), Jack and Dusty.  Another restaurant with Crossing Bridge Noodles - yum. Went to the 'Bird and Flower Market' again. Sensory overload is letting up a little bit and I'm seeing more. Saturday is very busy here, a "holiday".  Live snakes massed in metal cages for sale - to eat I think. Some had their mouths taped shut. One of the vendors pulled one of the snakes out of the cage a bit, it reared up and spread it's neck, cobra style. There were huge, uncovered shallow bowls swarming with black beetles, another with scorpions - used in medicines?  Lots of rabbits, guinea pigs, pathetic kittens for sale. I forgot my camera - big mistake.


We moved to the Kunming Hotel yesterday.  It's an older but quite luxurious place, in the heart of bustling activity. It's so alive here. I spend a solitary afternoon, cruising on foot, taking pictures. It's warm this afternoon, maybe 80 degrees, sunny, perfect for a walk. This area is swarming with street vendors - lots of fresh fruit for sale too. Everyone looks at me - a prematurely gray haired lady in blue jeans, with a camera. The only gray hair I see is on very OLD people.  I smile big, people smile back. I have some wonderful shots of kids - people don't mind pictures of their children, they are proud, but most don't want pictures taken of them.  Every face is a story. I could have taken 10 rolls. 


An old short chubby woman (one of the only overweight people I have seen) with her hair pulled back tight from her round face, a toothy grin glinting with silver, and smiling squinty eyes, accosts me as I walk by, apparently trying to get me to sit on the little white stool in front of her. I didn't understand a word she was saying, or what she would do to me if I did sit down.  I thought maybe she was giving haircuts. Her's was just one of a long row of small white stools each attended by someone, on the walk in front of this plaza, waiting for something, and at last, at the end of the row,  there was one customer, getting a massage. Now I understand, but I decline the massage and continue my walk. On my return trip she grabs me again, literally, by the arm, laughing and jabbering. I'm laughing and jabbering too (I'm sure it sounded like jabbering to her), everyone around is watching, laughing at this odd scene as she tries to pull me to her stool. I finally get a picture of her wonderful face and escape.


Little kids smile, some say hello in English as I pass. I see 4 westerners all day (2 couples). I buy 8 calligraphy brushes for 47 yuan (about $4.75 American money)  at one of the narrow street markets from an old man with a proud look. I buy a book on plants of China, a carved walnut, 2 children's books, a pack of playing cards. I want to bring home some Chinese cigarettes for Bill. The horn honking is constant - I've already tuned it out.


10:15 P.M.,  SAME DAY

Saturday night in Kunming - a spectacle. Everyone is out, mostly dressed up, at least in this 'upscale' part of Kunming. They might be going somewhere, or maybe they're just walking.  Most shops on the main streets are still open after dark. It's warm out. Beautiful people here, all dressed up, no real place to go - just out.  Darkness doesn't stop the mass of bicycles. The women are elegant in silk blouses and skirts, high heel shoes, gold jewelry, and such beautiful hair. 


Tomorrow we head North to Dali.


Part 1        Part 2      Part 3       Part 4

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