In search of China’s alpine wildflowers

Correction: A previous version of this article mistakenly said explorer and naturalist Roy Chapman Andrews journeyed to Yunnan to collect flower specimens. Although he traveled to Yunnan and wrote about its flowers, he was primarily a collector of fossils and animal specimens. This article has been updated.


China’s Yunnan province, which includes the Daxue Mountains, is among the world’s major hot spots for plant diversity. (Mike Ives/For The Washington Post)
June 27, 2013

Igrew up on New York City’s suburban fringe — not exactly a haven for biodiversity — and most of my early nature experiences were linked to mowing grass or raking leaves.

My obsession with alpine wildflowers, by contrast, stems from a 2010 trip to southwest China’s Yunnan province, which scientists say is among the world’s major hot spots for plant diversity. Since then, I’ve returned to Yunnan once a year to glimpse the pretty petals that blossom from mid-spring into early summer.

The first three times, I mostly hiked solo, but this month I went with my girlfriend, Cat, my friend Robbie Hart and his wife, Elsa. Our destination was the remote Daxue Mountains, or Big Snow Mountains, and our flower hunt would be my most ambitious yet.

Robbie, a Yunnan-based graduate student at the Missouri Botanical Garden, graciously offered to plan the trip by consulting his Chinese botanist contacts. My only responsibilities would be chipping in for food and a car rental.

But to get to the Daxue, Cat and I would need to fly about two hours from Hanoi, where we live, to Guangzhou, a megacity on China’s southern coast, and another two hours from Guangzhou to Yunnan’s capital, Kunming. Then we’d rise before dawn the next morning to catch an hour-long flight to the mountain city of Zhongdian, also known as Diqing, or Shangri-la.


And on the third day, after joining Robbie and Elsa in Shangri-la, we’d take a five-hour Jeep ride along extra-bumpy roads to reach a Himalayan base camp ringed by Tibetan prayer flags and snow-capped summits.

Persuading Cat to come along required delicate diplomacy: She’s a Londoner and a self-described “urban girl” who has lived in Southeast Asian capitals for much of the past decade — in large part because she dislikes snow and cold weather. And although she loves to walk, she doesn’t own hiking boots and has avoided tents most of her adult life.

She eventually agreed, on the condition that we also take a vacation on southern Vietnam’s Phu Quoc Island.

Deal, I said. It seemed like a win-win, at least for me.

Hello, rhodies

In China, our flights took off on schedule, and as the last plane taxied toward Shangri-la’s tiny airport, Cat was Instagramming a photo of a rainbow she’d taken with her iPhone from her window seat. She seemed to be in excellent spirits.

But when we left baggage claim, the air temperature was hovering at around 50 degrees — or about 40 degrees cooler than it had been in Hanoi. Cat then developed a sudden and severe case of cold feet.

“Why are you taking a girl who loves the beach to a cold mountain?” she asked sharply after we checked into a modestly insulated guesthouse in Shangri-la’s touristy old town.

I didn’t have the heart to tell her that we were only at about 10,500 feet and that it would be significantly chillier when we hiked — and camped — more than half a mile above our present elevation.

We met Robbie and Elsa for lunch the next day, Saturday, and after reviewing last-minute logistics concerning tent rentals, water filters and extra layers, spent the rest of the weekend drinking yak butter tea and shopping for prayer flags.

On Monday morning, we searched for nuts and fruit at a bustling market, and Cat bought a palm-size cone of fresh yak cheese from a sidewalk street vendor. That tickled her, because she’d never seen yaks or their products.

As we rolled out of town in a battered Toyota Land Cruiser, Robbie’s wristwatch altimeter began to climb — from 11,000 to 12,000 to 13,000 feet. Our driver, Li Hong, a botanist at the Shangri-la Alpine Botanical Garden, was heading north across alpine passes toward Yunnan’s border with neighboring Sichuan province.

The view was mainly of Tibetan villages and fields full of brown yaks, and the mountain streams that hugged the roadside were increasingly flanked by clumps of small, purplish-blue Rhododendron hippophaeoides.

“It’s the perfect time for the rhodies,” Robbie announced. He meant that we were traveling to northern Yunnan at a time when there had been enough rain to coax many rhododendrons into flowering, but — assuming that the sunshine held — Asia’s summer monsoon would not make our hiking trip too soggy.

China’s Galapagos

Scientists say that Yunnan is biologically fascinating in part because its mountain peaks, fed by the Asian monsoon, are “islands” of species diversity — alpine versions of Darwin’s Galapagos that were carved over thousands of years by the Yangtze and other mighty rivers.

A handful of intrepid American and European explorers — including the gun-toting, pipe-smoking Roy Chapman Andrews, who is said to have inspired Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones character — journeyed here between the late 19th and mid-20th centuries to collect animal and flower specimens for Western museums, botanical gardens and seed companies.

Today, some of the flowers they brought west are still blooming at London’s Kew Gardens, the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and other famous institutions across Europe and the United States. Robbie is studying the explorers’ plant archives alongside contemporary flowering data to chart how Yunnan’s alpine vegetation is reacting to climate change.

He also volunteers with the Global Observation Research Initiative in Alpine Environments, or GLORIA, a project that maintains 15 observation summits in northwest Yunnan and three in the Daxue Mountains alone. GLORIA’S working hypothesis is that many alpine wildflowers are migrating to higher altitudes in search of colder conditions and that some of those already at the top are beginning to disappear.

“As a kingdom, the plants don’t mind” climate change, Robbie told me. But the plant communities that will colonize future alpine meadows will be more heat-tolerant, less diverse and more homogenous.

Poppies and louseworts

Li Hong drove on, taking us above the tree line and into the heart of the Daxue Mountains — a collection of jagged peaks whose profile reminded me of mountain chains in Montana and Colorado. Thick mists were drifting past, and Elsa, a writer from the Washington area, said that the view reminded her of Chinese landscape paintings she’d seen at the National Gallery of Art.

From a distance, the peaks where we planned to hike and camp looked bare, brown and rocky, and their tiny patches of white, pink and purple seemed insignificant. But as the view came into focus, the patches turned out to be composed of thousands of blooming rhodies.

Li Hong parked the SUV beside a steep embankment. He and Cat promptly sped off toward the summit — as if they were hustling to catch a London bus. But Robbie, Elsa and I strolled slowly, stopping every 20 or 30 feet to analyze flowers and discuss their respective genuses.

The flowers of some plant species, such as Pedicularis siphonantha, a type of lousewort, were the size of a thumbnail, whereas many of the flowering rhododendron bushes were as big as a three-person tent.

“Oooh, look at that Meconopsis!” Robbie said, pointing at a yellow-flowered species of Himalayan blue poppy that he said plant hunters of yore, like Andrews, had considered one of their “holy grail” plants.

“Mecca what?” I asked.

That and other novice questions prompted Robbie to dish interesting scientific background. I learned, for example, that alpine wildflowers make themselves pretty in part because they’re trying to attract pollinators.

And although the southern slopes of the Daxue receive more sunshine in winter, the northern slopes actually are more hospitable to wildflowers, Robbie said. That’s because the sun melts southern-facing snow packs faster, subjecting southern-facing plants to more intense freezing.

We climbed farther, through fields of alpine buttercups. The mists began to lift, revealing a clear, panoramic view of mountains, forests and the occasional yak herder’s cottage. From our vantage point at nearly 14,000 feet, a blue truck traversing the pass below looked smaller than a rhododendron blossom.

Cat was waiting for us at the summit, bundled in Gore-Tex. She grumbled that the difference between the Daxue Mountains and the English countryside was that in England, many of the nicest walking routes lead to pubs. Where was our celebratory pint?

But I could tell from her wide smile that she was thrilled by our adventure.

As we descended, the sky clouded over and I felt a sharp stinging on my face and arms: hail. Then the icy balls morphed into rain drops.

It seemed that the Asian monsoon was upon us after all. So we decided, at Li Hong’s suggestion, to spend the night in a ramshackle roadhouse in a nearby valley — and to return in the morning for a second day of hiking rather than camp in a downpour.

Even Cat looked disappointed at our turn of fortune. But it was no great hardship to spend an evening eating yak cheese and sipping yak butter tea around a toasty wood stove.

Ives is a writer based in Hanoi.

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