China 2012 - Part 4

The 2012 Meeting of the International Clematis Society in Yunnan Province, China

This is the fourth and last of my informal blogs about the visit by the Society to Yunnan province, China during the first two weeks of June 2012. A comprehensive set of reports by attendees will be published in Clematis International 2013.

If you missed the previous installments, you can find them at China 2012 - 01, China 2012 - 02 and China 2012 - 03.

Wed 13th June - Shika Shan and Shangri-La

Shika Shan Cable Car

[Editor's note: My thanks to Fiona for the first part of this report covering our time at Shika Shan. She is much better qualified than I am to discuss what we found half way up the mountains.

At dinner the previous evening, Harry Jans warned that the top station of the Shika Shan cable car was at high altitude and some people might find the trek down long and strenuous, especially in the thin air. The weather could also change rapidly and mountain wear was also strongly recommended. Indeed, in each room of our hotel and also at the cable car base station, were oxygen cylinders which one could take with you just in case the altitude caused breathing problems.

Partly for these reasons and partly to give us the opportunity to see a little more of Shangri-La old town, we (along with a few others) opted to go up to the top station but them come down "the easy way". However as you will read, having spotted clematis between the middle and top stations, on our return we stopped off at the middle station and climbed back up, underneath the cable car, to see if we could get close to the clematis.] Top station of Shika Shan cable car©Ken Woolfenden

Today we were going up in a cable car to the top of Shika Shan and hoping to see clematis. This day turned out for me to be the highlight of our trip. We caught the cable car to the middle station and then transferred to the second cable car to take us to the top. You can just make out the top cable car station on the top mountain ridge in the photo where the pylons march upwards to it. At this point we could make out the cable car station at the top as it later disappeared in the mist.

Clematis viewed from the Shika Shan cable car©Ken WoolfendenAs we travelled upwards we were entranced by the clematis we could see growing in the tops of the trees below. There were a number of trees with clematis in their tops dotted around as we travelled up in the little cable car busy taking as many pictures as we could. We observed that the clematis were all in quite a narrow band in terms of the altitude. Quickly we had travelled passed them.

Climbing up under the Shika Shan cable car©Ken WoolfendenAt the top cable car station we found ourselves in a mist enshrouded world. We had been warned that the trip back down to the intermediate cable car station on foot could take many hours and that the first part was very steep. Many of the group were well prepared but for non-serious walkers such as myself this was something of a challenge. I asked Harry, our expedition leader, if I would be allowed to walk underneath the cable car to try and get closer to the clematis that we passed on the way up in the cable car. So six of us (Ken, Fiona, Charles, Samanthi, Linda and Lindy) set off in the cable car back down to the interim cable car station to do this.

It was then quite a stiff climb up the hill as you can see.

The view from underneath the Shika Shan cable car©Ken WoolfendenAs we climbed up the hill Chinese school children going up in the cable car cabins could see us mad Westerners struggling up the hill and shouted down to us to ask us (in English!) what we were doing. We did not have much breath to answer them with! Many of the children were holding small oxygen cylinders and we had been warned that we could need oxygen as we were very high so we took it very slowly. We had an excellent excuse to stop and admire the view that was beautiful.

Charles and Samanthi Hills find clematis©Ken WoolfendenCharles led the way up the hill to the pylon were he thought that he had seen clematis on the way up and down in the cable car. From the ground it was initially more difficult to find, from underneath, the clematis which was growing at the tops of the trees. We found a number of substantial clematis trunks but the flowers were quite a long way up. Being a hardy walker Charles explored on either side of the pylon till he found several clematis plants. We were all thrilled to find the clematis and to be able to get this close to them.

Clematis montana flowers©Ken WoolfendenThere is some discussion about what species of clematis we found. To me the flowers looked like Clematis montana except that a number of the plants had hairier leaves than the Clematis montanas that we find in our gardens. There was some variation with the flowers between the clematis; some flowers were white with some pink ribs on the back and others much whiter. However, I am not familiar enough with the differences between the species in the Montana group and I gather that there is some dispute over the naming of e.g. Clematis spooneri as to whether it is a separate species or not.

Clematis flowers with pink underneath©Ken WoolfendenIn this picture you can clearly see the pink ribbing on the back of the clematis sepal and you may be able to spot that where the sepals join the stem is also pink. There were a number of plants with this kind of colouration in the flowers.

Clematis with white flowers growing at the top of a tree©Ken WoolfendenThis clematis was right at the top of the tree and we could not get close enough to examine it thoroughly. However, by taking pictures using the zoom facility on a camera we were able to convince ourselves that the flowers on this plant had no pink on the back of the flowers. Unfortunately we do not know whether the plants are different species or just variations of clematis montana, but we suspect the later. After several hours of trying to find, successfully finding and then discussions on identifying the clematis we sat and ate our lunch under the cable car pylons enjoying being in the habitat of clematis growing in the wild before returning to the interim cable car station to catch the lower cable car back down to where our coach waited for us to take us back to the hotel. We were a happy group of clematis enthusiasts!

Shangri-La Old Town

Prayer Wheels at the Shika Shan Base Station©Ken WoolfendenAs we left the base station of Shika Shan, I noticed a very impressive line of Prayer Wheels. So many in one row, where they there so that potential climbers could ensure a safe return?

Wooden drying racks©Ken WoolfendenWe passed isolated farms as we travelled back to Shangri-La, some with a field of yaks, some with these intricate wooden structures. I assume they are drying racks, though whether for crops or skins I do not know. Their construction was always the same, though some where a little more rustic than others. This was a particularly good example.

The weather had improved considerably by the time we reached Shangri-La. We took the opportunity to investigate the old town. A short (10 minute) walk from our hotel, it's in a well-defined area. We were immediately struck by the friendly atmosphere as we walked along the streets. Certainly Shangri-La gets its fair share of tourists, you can see that from the number and styles of shops and restaurants, but that in no way detracts from its appeal. And street food was everywhere, and looked and smelt very good.

Yak meat restaurant©Ken Woolfenden Shangri-La street food©Ken Woolfenden Shangri-La street food©Ken Woolfenden

On a street approaching the old town we came across a site where a building - don't know whether a shop, house or both - was being renovated. It appeared that a new front was being constructed. What fascinated me was the carved beam ends. There was still much work to be done but already someone was carving exquisite figures on the ends of the beams that would stick out of the front of the house. And I know they were being carved in situ since there was one that was only recently started. It's nice that such intricate work continues to be used.

Yak meat restaurant©Ken Woolfenden
Shangri-La house beam end©Ken Woolfenden Shangri-La house beam end©Ken Woolfenden

Much emphasis seems to be placed on house entrances and there were some very fine examples, both using glazed tiles and bricks and more classic (in my mind) wooden structures.
Shangri-La house entrance©Ken Woolfenden Shangri-La house entrance©Ken Woolfenden

Shangri-La market square©Ken WoolfendenAt the centre of the old town is the market square, a large open area, surrounded by shops and restaurants. There were only a few stalls there this afternoon but there seemed a steady trade going on. Perhaps less so in the shops, but the early afternoon sun was fiercely hot.

Shangri-La shops©Ken Woolfenden Shangri-La shops©Ken Woolfenden

Time for a quiet game of mah-jong.
A quiet game of mah-jong©Ken Woolfenden

Wandering the streets of Shangri-La©Ken WoolfendenWe wandered down side streets. Although many of the shops sold largely similar souvenirs, you could find some unique objects if you were prepared to look for them.

Tibetan style pagoda in Shangri-La old town©Ken WoolfendenOff one of these was another square where we found this Tibetan style pagoda, finely and brightly painted and decorated with the ubiquitous prayer flags. In spite of the tourist influence (of which we were obviously an example) it was a very pleasant area in which to wander.

As we walked around we kept getting the occasional glimpse of a large gold coloured tower. In was, in fact, a giant motorised golden prayer wheel. You can see in the sequence below how the main column rotates, whilst the very top section remains stationary.
Shangri-La Giant Prayer Wheel Tower©Ken Woolfenden Shangri-La Giant Prayer Wheel Tower©Ken Woolfenden Shangri-La Giant Prayer Wheel Tower©Ken Woolfenden

Shangri-La Cultural Show

That evening after dinner in central Shangri-La a number of us took up the option of a "cultural extravaganza" in the form of a show containing local dancers and singers and featuring traditional dances and songs. The theatre was quite full when the show started. As we entered to take our seats we were each given a white silk scarf. The reason became apparent later. The production of the show was, in my view, quite modern, with for example much use of dry ice. However the costumes, dances and songs were all traditional and performed by the young artists with much energy and lots of big smiles. It was certainly quite spectacular and made for a fun evening, though a few more English language subtitles would have helped occasionally to understand what was going on.

Shangri-La cultural show©Ken Woolfenden Shangri-La cultural show©Ken Woolfenden
Shangri-La cultural show©Ken Woolfenden Shangri-La cultural show©Ken Woolfenden

Shangri-La cultural show - with white silk scarves But what about the silk scarves? Apparently it is traditional for members of the audience to go up on the stage and drape their scarf around the neck of an artists if they wish to honour the performance, notably with the solo singers. First a (I believe) well known and loved female solo singer was bedecked with scarves from primarily, though not completely, male admirers, some of whom were certainly old enough to be her father, if not grandfather! Then a pair of male singers got similar treatment but with the sexes reversed, so the majority of scarves, but not all, came from young female members of the audience. Some even posed for a photo beside their "hero" and gave to infamous sign of peace and friendship. It may have been a show for the tourist but it was good fun and we went back to the hotel with happy smiles.

Thur 14th June - A house, a monastery and an alpine garden

Tibetan style house

Self service packed lunchAnother day, another fine self-service lunch to pack. How Carolyn and our local guide find time to shop and cook for us I have no idea. The selection was, as always, excellent - varied, fresh and very tasty.

As we drove out of Shangri-La I was interested to see the pool tables outside a number of shops. Balanced on bricks and other material to provide a degree of levelness, it's obviously a popular sport. As you can see on the right of the right hand picture, though, there are other uses for pool tables - dining and somewhere for youngsters to play upon!

Shangri-La outdoor pool©Ken Woolfenden Shangri-La outdoor pool©Ken Woolfenden
Another use of a pool table©Ken Woolfenden

The classic Chinese all purpose vehicle©Ken WoolfendenWe were heading for the Ganden Sumtseling Monastery, also known as the little Potala Palace or the Songzanlin Lamasery, but we had a special stop first. In the village close to the monastery we were to visit the house of a friend of our local guide. We passed yet another all-purpose vehicle as we reached the family home.

Enclosed porch of a Tibetan style family house©Ken WoolfendenCrossing the courtyard and avoiding the washing machine which sat in the middle, we entered through a fairly non-descript doorway into a sort of covered porch area in front of the most marvellous wooden carved panelling. This was obviously the "real" house.

Living room©Ken WoolfendenMy most vivid memory was at the moment we entered the living room of the house - how amazingly colourful and highly decorated everything was. It was absolutely beautiful.

Cooking area in the living room©Ken WoolfendenOne quarter of the room was the cooking area, with large cooking pots on a stand over where a wood fire would be lit, and an enclosed hot plate. Above this hearth was a high ceiling with a chimney for the smoke from the wood fire .

Wood panelled walls with built-in shelves©Ken WoolfendenThe wood had a beautiful wooden floor and around the walls were intricate and delicately carved wooden panels. Shelves were set into some of these panels, one appeared to be a shrine, another stored cooking utensils. Some panels were brightly painted with traditional designs and there was a large picture of Chairman Mao Zedong. We asked about this and were told that he was held in high regard by many of the minority peoples for the reforms which he had instigated.

Carved wooded beam ends©Ken WoolfendenI noticed the beam ends were carved with similar designs to those we'd seen in Shangri-La, but much more finely executed.

As we left, Carolyn pointed out an old wooden butter churner - a wooden pipe, over a metre long, blocked at one end and with a plunger. She demonstrated how it would have been used and it looked very hard work. But technology has come to the rescue in the shape of an old manual-style washing machine. The rotor set into the side of the stainless steel tank is perfect for churning milk into butter. Such a simple idea, it's wonderful and so ingenious.
Carolyn and old butter churner©Ken Woolfenden Modern butter churner©Ken Woolfenden

Although we had come to this village to see the temple, for me this home visit was the highlight of the morning, if not the day.

Ganden Sumtseling Monastery

Ganden Sumtseling Monastery©Ken WoolfendenAnd so to the Ganden Sumtseling Monastery, also known as the little Potala Palace or the Songzanlin Lamasery. The temple is set on a hill overlooking the village and surroundings and is quite dominating. The golden roofs are visible from a long way away, as is the crane being used on further construction and the scaffolding and covering on the central roof which was being repaired. In fact. There was quite a lot of building work going on and a number of the temple buildings were closed or had restricted access. Nevertheless you could still see that this was a most impressive complex, of classical design and highly ornate.

Ganden Sumtseling Monastery©Ken WoolfendenA combination of the number of people around and the building works left the impression of a somewhat chaotic place, but looking back I can see there was much to explore and it would certainly merit a further visit - once the building works have finished!

Napa Lake Meadow and Alpine Garden

From the temple we moved on to Napa Lake Meadow and the Fang Zhengdong Alpine Garden.
View across Napa Lake Meadow©Ken Woolfenden

Set on a hill overlooking a wide plain, the Alpine Garden is a large walled area with a research / admin / accommodation building near the entrance, though this was shut when we visited. We sat looking out across the plain as we had our packed lunch before spending some time wandering around the many paths criss-crossing the garden.

The garden has a number of different areas, from open sandy low growing heathland to woody groves and some forest habitat. We saw many beautiful flowers, including orchids. You can see more plants, with correct names I'm sure, on Harry Jan's website at, select the album "June 2012 China Yunnan (ICLS-Tour)".
Found in the alpine garden©Ken Woolfenden Found in the alpine garden©Ken Woolfenden

As we drove back to Shangri-La we stopped by the roadside to see what we could find. Apart from some fairly friendly cows, we found wild iris and various other plants. My thanks to Ton Hannink for their identification.
Iris bulleyana, found by the roadside©Ken Woolfenden Nomocharis aperta found by the roadside©Ken Woolfenden
Iris bulleyana Nomocharis aperta

Fri 15th June - Return to Kunming

Hua Ting Temple

An early start and some hanging around as we take a morning flight to return to Kunming. There was a little confusion over from which gate we would depart, but fortunately Carolyn was on hand to make sure we all caught the right flight. The delay meant we were a little later than planned, so on landing we were immediately whisked away for a duck lunch. The restaurant was perhaps a little bit touristy but the food was good.

Hua Ting Temple©Ken WoolfendenThen it's off again to visit the Hua Ting Temple. Original the plan had also included the Dragon Gate but time was tight as we had an appointment at the Kunming Botanic Garden so we just spent a short time around the first part of Hua Ting.

Hua Ting was founded between 1314 and 1320. It has a history of destruction and rebuilding. As you enter you are faced by a large lake, surrounded by a stone carved wall, rather green water and home to many terrapins. Although we didn't have time to explore the complete temple complex, we had time enough to find some colourful and very beautiful buildings, fine statues and exquisite carvings.

Hua Ting Temple entrance©Ken Woolfenden Hua Ting Temple stone carving©Ken Woolfenden
Hua Ting Temple wooden carving©Ken Woolfenden Hua Ting Temple wooden carving©Ken Woolfenden
Hua Ting Temple circular gateway©Ken Woolfenden

There were not many people around and I found Hua Ting very pleasant and relaxing place to visit, especially compared with some of the larger and more popular places when seen in other parts of Yunnan.

Kunming Botanic Gardens

Kunming Botanic Gardens - Harry Jans and the director©Ken WoolfendenThe final visit not just of the day but of the visit was to the Kunming Botanic Gardens, where we were met by the director of the gardens (apologies but I did not make a note of his name) and a good friend of Harry Jans, though I believe they had not met face to face for quite a number of years.

Founded in 1938, the gardens are divided into areas containing different collections. We walked through an arboretum, noting that most of the trees were labelled, then to the magnolias where there were still a few flowers to be seen.

Kunming Botanic Gardens - new glasshouser©Ken WoolfendenIn what was probably the middle of the gardens a large modern greenhouse is under construction. Very state of the art, it should be quite magnificent when completed and stocked.

Kunming Botanic Gardens - Fine cirular gateway©Ken WoolfendenThis fine circular entrance welcomed visitors into a small area of lush green foliage.

Kunming Botanic Gardens©Ken WoolfendenFine clumps of bamboo formed a backdrop to a large and tranquil lake.

Kunming Botanic Gardens©Ken WoolfendenOur guide ensured we saw all the important plants in his collection, of which there were many.

Unidentified Clematis in Kunming Botanic Gardens©Fiona WoolfendenAccording to a resources website, there should have been 80 clematis cultivars within the gardens but we asked, we were told that most of them had been lost. We found one or two in a pergola section but they had no labels so they remain unidentified.

Kunming Botanic Gardens - Camellia changii syn. azalea Ye©Ken WoolfendenOf the collections in the gardens, possibly the most famous is the camellia collection, recognized as an International Camellia Garden of Excellence by the International Camellia Society. There were a few in flower and they certainly are quite spectacular but possibly few as special as Camellia changii syn. azalea shown to your right, which is one of the few camellias that flowers throughout the whole year.

If your interest extends beyond clematis, you can read more about this camellia by visiting

Our gala dinner was a very special event. In another hotel in Kunming we enjoyed a truly international buffet dinner, with cuisines ranging from western steaks, Japanese sushi, Chinese dishes, freshly prepared and cooked fish (probably my favourite). It was a sumptuous end to a magnificent visit.

Writing this four-part blog has reminded me just what a wonderful visit this was, how much we did, how much we saw, how much we experienced. The number and variety of events and activities we managed to fit into our eleven days was quite amazing. Even though we didn't see as much clematis as had been hoped, we did find it growing at Shika Shan.

My thanks Ton Hannink for the idea and to Harry Jans and Carolyn Gao for making it a reality.

If you wish to (re-)read any of my previous reports, please visit China 2012 - 01, China 2012 - 02 or China 2012 - 03.

I will publish my fourth and last report next month.

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