In the far south-west of China lies the province of Yunnan. Bordering Vietnam, Laos, Burma and Tibet, it contains a mosaic of ethnic groups, but its north-western corner is Tibetan, once part of the ancient Tibetan province of Kham. School atlases show the extreme altitude of the great Himalayan range and the Tibetan plateau in purple, and this spills untidily south-eastwards into China. Here, three great Asian rivers — the Yangtse, the Mekong and the Salween — emerge from the heart of Tibet and forge their way towards the sea, carving a path through the highest mountains in the world. In south-eastern Tibet and Yunnan, they chart a close and parallel course, separated by mountains that rise to 6,000 metres and more, before going their separate ways: the Yangtse in a dramatic bend to the east to fertilise one of the greatest of all civilisations, the Mekong into Laos and Vietnam, and the Salween into Burma.
This dramatic region has always been considered remote by the Chinese, let alone Europeans, and it was not until late in the 19th century that intrepid Westerners first penetrated the wild region of Kham. Amongst these explorers were some of the great plant-hunters, who came in search of one of the richest temperate floras in the world. In particular, the cool, temperate climate of the Yunnan highlands, together with plentiful summer rainfall, made plants from this region ideal for establishing in British gardens. The plant-hunters Ernest Wilson, George Forrest and Frank Kingdon-Ward, therefore found rich pickings. Trees, shrubs and herbaceous perennials hitherto unknown to science were brought back in abundance following their adventurous journeys in the early years of the 20th century, and today provide many of our classic garden plants.
After flying to Kunming, we begin our adventure in Lijiang, in the west of Yunnan. This is an ideal place to start as it is situated at a relatively low altitude (2,000 metres). A couple of days in the region will therefore allow us to acclimatise before we explore the higher country to the north. Lijiang is a World Heritage Site and home to the Naxi, a colourful ethnic minority with a matriarchal society; we will stay beneath the beautiful Jade Dragon Mountain, where our comfortable lodge provides an ideal base from which to sample the region’s botanical delights. We will travel around the eastern flank of the mountain exploring its meadows and forests before descending to the Yangtse River at one of its most stunning points — below the famous Tiger Leaping Gorge, where the river cuts between Yulong Xue Shan and its sister snow peak, Haba Shan.
Next we travel to Zhongdian. Now renamed Shangri-La by the authorities, but still known as Gyalthang by its Tibetan inhabitants, this small regional capital sits on a 3,000-metre plateau surrounded by tranquil farmland, forests and mountains, and dotted with villages with splendidly built and ornamented wooden houses. We will stay for four nights in the old Tibetan town, and this will be our base for exploration of the mountains and lakes around. Here, whole meadows are brim-full with Primula — especially P. secundiflora and P. sikkimensis — interspersed with multi-coloured Pedicularis, carpets of Incarvillea and the large flowers of slipper orchids (Cypripedium spp.); rocky banks are covered with the blue poppy Meconopsis horridula and grasslands with beautiful Euphorbia and scented Stellera, whilst higher up, forests of lilac give way to a plethora of Rhododendron species, many now introduced into Britain.
Driving north, we leave the Zhongdian Plateau, and spend the next week travelling a circular route that takes us into the neighbouring province of Sichuan, and through some of the world’s most spectacular scenery. We cross several high mountain passes, 4,000 metres-plus in altitude, and travel through forested valleys before finally reaching the great Tibetan Plateau. Here, the country is entirely dominated by the Tibetan people and their culture, and each town and village that we pass through, and stay in, has its own unique style and character. This is a remote, starkly beautiful and fascinating place, with traditions and dialects that transcend borders and time. We will pass the spectacular Yading massif, with its three giant peaks all rising to over 6,000 metres, and cross some of the great granite plateau of Haizi. Finally, we cross over the glorious limestone massif of Da Xue Shan (which means ‘Big Snow Mountain’) before re-entering Yunnan. After exploring the Birang Gorge we climb back onto the Zhongdian Plateau, where we will stay for a further two nights; on our last day we will ascend the holy mountain of Xe Ka for our final view over Shangri-La.
This exciting and pioneering trip is not only an introduction to a botanical paradise, but to some of the most spectacular and fascinating country in the world, still barely travelled by Westerners.
A perfect, balance tour through wonderful scenery and with the right amount of culture included. John Shipton was a superb leader, flexible when necessary and extremely knowledgeable about China and especially the flora...Zhongdian [hotel] was excellent and good to get back to every now and again...Itinerary was well thought out yet flexible enough to include other interests, such as bee-keeping! Finally, Tsebu, our guide, was great company...[we] learned much about the culture and history of Yunnan.
John Shipton must be second-to-none for his knowledge, enthusiasm, kindness and capability all round. His assistant/agent, Gonpo Tsering, was also wonderful, attentive, helpful, full of local knowledge and a born teacher.
This trip gave us a real opportunity to experience the culture of North West Yunnan. The very excellent Hotel in Zhongdian provided very welcome periodic comfort and opportunity for a good wash and sleep ... John’s enthusiasm for new experiences captured us all in our search for plants, and his spirit of adventure enabled us to cope with any difficulties ... Tsebu anticipated our every need for comfort in terms of food, water and wet-wipes, and introduced us to aspects of local culture.