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Snow overnight! It snowed about 4-5 cm ....  very beautiful, but the Chinese cope with snow similarly to people in London - not particularly well, it does not happen that often - so I am lucky. Here though people were out in force from early one - sweeping away the snow with twig brooms as it fell! My plane takes off in a few hours - if it is clear the view over Mongolia will be spectacular!

 

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Early in the morning I found the fishing boats came in close to shore and tourists from the high rise hotels flocked to buy fish – about an hour later they chugged off to the next door bay, presumably to do the same thing.

 

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Yalong Bay

 

After our exciting success yesterday with Solanum nienkui, Mr. Huang decided we needed to see the tropical rainforest resort where he had provided botanical help, labelling trees and providing environmental impact support. It is great to see trees in a place like this labelled with names (scientific and Chinese), distribution and uses – really possible to learn something.

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Tree label

 

It was truly a wonder and could only be in China – a luxury hotel with cabins (“camping”!!) set in lovely forest, all accessible and ready to host hundreds of guests. One of the (many) swimming pools just dropped off into nowhere – stunning. I did find a solanum - Solanum procumbens, a spiny vine I had only seen once before, so I was pleased!

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We then returned to Sanya to stock up on fruit from the local open air fruit market before our return to Beijing in the evening – what a place! Mangoes from tiny to huge, jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus, related to the breadfruit of Captain Bligh fame) [jackfruit] – and bedlam from bargaining, card playing and general motorcycle plus human traffic.

 

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Fruit seller

 

Many of the vendors were local people from mountain villages – their lips and teeth were stained red from chewing what is often called “betel nut”. The nut is the area but, from the palm Areca catechu, and it is sold together with betel leaves – the leaves of the black pepper (Piper nigrum). The nuts are a mild stimulant with vasoconstricting properties, causing a hot sensation and heightened alertness. The red staining is from the coloured seed inside the palm fruit. The nut is important (in conjunction with the pepper leaves) in both Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Ayurvedic medicine and is widely used in Southeast Asia.

 

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Betel nuts

 

At 8pm we took off for Beijing, laden with fruits, and arrived nearly 5 hours later – China is a huge country, and we even flew the short axis! The shock was considerable, coming to 0 degrees centigrade from 39 a few hours before – snow on the ground and ponds frozen over. Thank goodness the herbarium is heated!

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Liondancers

 

After a true Cantonese breakfast with dumplings and all sorts, we set off to the tip of mainland China to see what we could find. It was chaos going through town, everyone was out and about; it is nearly last day of Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) and the celebrations are reaching their peak in south China, where the holiday is taken very seriously! In the village of XiaoLiao we encountered lion dancers who went from house to house to the accompaniment of firecrackers and drums – in some places the firecrackers were so many you couldn’t see the dancers for the smoke!

 

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Aubergines, ready to go

 

This is a true mega-production zone – irrigated and full of vegetables – including aubergines! They were being harvested and readied for sending to the north. We spoke to one farmer in his field where he told us they were all planting the new variety Nong Feng #3, it gave two crops a year and after two years they took the plants out and began again.

 

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Aubergine field

 

We passed through areas of chilli peppers and onions as well, where the air changed scent depending on what crop was being harvested. Despite it being a festival the harvest was going on. We also collected much Solanum undatum, the putative wild progenitor of the aubergine, in several villages – the local people say it is a wild plant and is not now eaten, though it used to be and is still used as medicine.

 

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Salt pans (click images to enlarge)                                                      Fishing boats

 

We reached the southern-most tip of mainland China, after going through black plastic evaporating tanks for making salt. There we found fishermen mending their nets at low tide, waiting to go out again. They had a piece of red coral that had caught in their net (collecting it on purpose is not legal) – it was beautiful, you can see why it is endangered.

 

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Red coral (click image to enlarge)

 

Then off to catch the ferry to Hainan Island. Tiangang and JinXiu said this was truly travelling Chinese style, and they would never do it again – it was wild. The pushing and shoving was intense and the ferry was stuffed with people, cars and buses. We made it though, and the solanums of Hainan Island await!

 

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The Hainan ferry (click images to enlarge)                                            The ferry queue

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View from Pao Tai (click to enlarge pictures)

 

More amazing karst formations all day long - such spectacular landscapes make up for no solanums! We climbed several mountains to see the truly endemic and interesting forest that grows only on these karst mountains - not easy, as there are often no trails! It is wonderful to be in forest that feels familiar (to a person more used to South America), but with camellias in the understory. Mr Lu, from the forest protection unit, showed us places to go - he also went with us to make sure we did not stray into any mined areas left over from the war in the 1980s. The border between Vietnam and China was heavily mined and this was part of the front line.

 

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Sugarcane, Yao village

 

In our last stop of the day, to climb Pao Tai mountain, we were greeted upon our return by the truly inebriated chief of the village (Yao people, a minority group), who was thrilled to have an English person (the niceties of my actually being American as well we decided to leave out!) in his village and made me photograph the mud walls of the houses to show the world - so here they are!

 

As in the rest of this area - farming is carried out on every available surface - all done by hand or with water buffalo. It is planting season so the fields are filled with people - mind-boggling.

 

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Manganese mine

 

As we approached the border with Vietnam we passed a truly gigantic open pit manganese mine - hopefully restoration ecology will take hold in China soon. The border in this region is a river - red flags with one large golden star and four smaller ones (China) on one side, red flags with a single golden star (Vietnam) on the other.

 

 

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China/Vietnam border

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From Nanning we went north (backwards!) to try to find a locality where an old collection of Solanum macaonense, an enigmatic aubergine relative, had been collected. We failed in that, but did find Solanum torvum (pea eggplant commonly used in Thai cooking) growing in the rubbish dump of Gansu – solanums often grow in the most unsalubrious places!

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On the rubbish heap  (click to enlarge images)           Fields, Naling

 

 

Near Gansu there was ample evidence of the threats to these beautiful and biologically interesting limestone hills – mining for stone and gravel is all but destroying many of them, by next year these will be completely gone, along with the endemic flora that grows there.

 

We carried on, passing fields with many people working to prepare for planting, harvesting sugarcane and manioc. Manioc is grown as a starch crop here, where I know it better in South America it is a staple food crop. My companions were surprised at this and asked an elderly man if they ever ate it - he replied something like only if we have to! It is amazing that fields of such extent are all prepared, fertilized and planted by hand, and ploughed by water buffalo.

 

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Solanum violaceum                                                                      Collecting Solanum violaceum


We went to look at the base of some cliffs, found a cave tomb with the deceased in a jar so he/she could be moved if necessary and in the brush found our first exciting solanum – Solanum violaceum. This is a common species, but I am interested in comparing it carefully throughout its range to other species that may or may not be the same.

 

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Field in rocks                                                                                         Polytunnels


Turning south off the main road to head for the Jing Xi, a town near the Vietnamese border, we went through a region of extensive banana cultivation, where many of the crops were being grown as seedlings in polytunnels – the fields looked white striped. This is not only to increase the heat, but to save water – we saw a man with a funnel and a bucket watering each seedling in the tunnel by hand. There has been a severe drought in this region this year – it shows.

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Near Long Ho

 

We then crossed some spectacular limestone mountains, where the Long Ha Nature Reserve is said to be home to monkeys. In these mountains every square inch of cultivatable land is cultivated – between rocks and in spectacular terraces in all the valleys (like near Naling, where the rice paddies were being readied for planting and followed the contours of the land beautifully).

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Staying in the Nanning Public Security Bureau's Science and Technology Hotel and guess what - there is free Internet in the room! We drove from Guilin to Nanning today via Liuzhou, and big industrial (very polluted - you could cut the air with a knife) city. In Liuzhou we went to a protected area, which turned out to the a public park with limestone karst hills - full of people celebrating the New Year! It always amazes me how the concept of wilderness is so foreign in China; in this park, on the top of one of the hills is an endemic species of the Aster family (Asteraceae) found nowhere else. Nature does its best to co-exist alongside people here, and sometimes does quite well in places one might not expect. These public scenic parks are heavily visited, but respected and loved.

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Fireworks in a shop

 

From Liuzhou we drove through kilometre after kilometre of sugar cane fields, all being harvested - by hand. This part of China is a main sugar growing region; we crossed over the Tropic of Cancer, so are now officially in the tropics. Nanning is a very large, thoroughly modern and amazingly clean city - the cleanliness of its streets puts London to shame. Still New Year - the firecrackers go off all night and everyone is having a great time.

We ate the leaves of the black nightshade, Solanum nigrum (a common British weed, thought to be poisonous, but obviously not very, at least in China), at supper tonight - still no aubergines, but I am hopeful for tomorrow!

GPS coordinates of Nanning: 22 deg 49.075 min N, 108 deg 20.330' E

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Approximately twenty four  hours after I left London, I am at the first  destination in China! Tiangang and Jin Xiu met me in  the Beijing airport and we transfered to a (very)  late internal flight to Guilin in Guangxi Province. Everywhere is full of people, it  is the end of spring festival and Chinese New Year, a time when people go to see  their families and relatives in far-flung parts of China – everyone  is on the move and everywhere is brightly decorated in red and gold.

 

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Guangxi Botanical Garden

 

Guilin used to be  the capital of the province, but as it is in the NW corner, the provincial seat  was moved to Nanning, which occupies a more central  position. Flying into Guilin the most extraordinary landscape unrolled beneath  us – sharp, pointed bare rock mountains interspersed with paddy rice fields; all  very green, even though it is what feels incredibly cold (only about 12 degrees  C). It got dark shortly after we arrived, so we went to the Botanical Institute  where we have been given rooms within the grounds – tomorrow it is the herbarium  and a bit of planning.

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Well, tomorrow is the big day for  going to China! If I can get through today  with Darwin’s  Birthday lectures and all the loose ends to tie up here at the NHM, it will be a  miracle.

 

Jin Xiu and Tiangang will meet me “outside” Beijing Terminal 3 – hmmmm  – I hope I find them! We then go straight to another part of the airport to fly  to Guangxi, bypassing completely freezing cold Beijing. Aubergines  await.

 

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