Kunming Botanical Gardens

After a long day yesterday we decided on a relaxing morning today.  Pat, Martyn and I had the guesthouse’s tasty pancakes for breakfast while Harry, Sophie and Ed saved themselves for a panini and waffle brunch at the Korean chain Maan coffee, on Ed’s recommendation.  Martyn and I just had a walk round the lake and its islands, stopping to watch the dancers and people doing Tai Chi.  We’ve given up worrying about taking people’s photos after having cameras thrust in our faces many times over the last few days – foreigners, especially in a family group, are pretty few and far between. 

One group of middle aged ladies by the edge of the lake suggested these group exercises may not always be quite as harmonious as they seem.  They switched on their sound system and started dancing then, a few bars in, one of them started haranguing the others and switched the music off.  They went back to their starting positions and started again…. and again… and again.  We could hum along with the opening bars of the song before long but never found out how it ended.

We met back at the guest house at noon to head off to the Botanical Gardens in the northern suburbs of the city by bus.  I hear you laugh, “She managed to drag them all to a botanical garden – what a surprise!” But it wasn’t quite like that – I’d made it quite clear I was happy to go by myself while they did other things, but to no avail.   The North gate of the gardens is two bus rides away from our nearest bus stop; the first just a few stops but the second a 40 minute ride.  All was fine once we realised that we needed the exact money to pay our fares – only two Yuan per person, however long the distance.  The first driver pulled away when we didn’t have the right change but, fortunately, the city buses are very frequent. By the time we arrived in the garden the temperature was pushing 30 Celsius and we were getting hungry. 

The gardens were full of children having fun on school trips; from kindergarten aged children with parents in tow, to primary school children in neat uniforms walking in crocodiles and a large group of teenagers. Unlike every other public space we’ve seen, the grass here wasn’t being constantly watered and there were no signs telling people to keep off it.  Later in the day a group of bright eight or nine year olds and their teacher used us for English practice – they had learned an impressive amount to say by rote but panicked a bit when we asked them questions!

The café in the garden had closed at 1 pm so we ended up walking right through to the east gate, along the main path, to find a café just outside the garden.  Ed’s skills were put to the test again; this was the menu:

The waitress gave him a pad of paper and he had to write down the characters for what we wanted to eat. He managed brilliantly and we feasted on cabbage and taro soup (not soup with fish heads as which he worried he might have ordered), julienne potatoes and green peppers, pork and black beans and mapo tofu.

After lunch we discovered the East part of the Botanical gardens across the road from the café, which turned out to be much more colourful and more of a general people-pleaser.  There is a lovely rock garden and a fantastic display of flowering monocots, especially Alliums and Amaryllis.

One of the most oddly-familiar sights here is a bunch of twitchers on other side of the central pond with camera lenses the size of those normally used by press photographers at home!  Their attention seemed to be focussed on a small brown diving bird which surfaced from time to time – I’ve no idea what it was.

From a botanical point of view, it was not the most interesting garden – what I really wanted was to find out something about the plants indigenous to the region and my Chinese is nowhere near good enough to work that out from the labels.  We did see a Yunnan banana tree, Musa itinerans or M. wilsonii, depending on whether you believe the sign on the plant or the paper on the subject by scientists from the Kunming Institute of Botany, located in the garden! If you look carefully at the picture on the right, below, you can just see the bottom of a pollinating wasp or hoverfly sticking out from the tiny flower, which will eventually develop into a banana.  These bananas are the staple food of wild Asian elephants in the south of the region and, as an endangered species, the seeds became the 24 200th collected and stored at Kew’s millennium seed bank.

Musa itinerans

I was able to get a name for the Persicaria I found growing wild at the Stone forest and for the pretty, mat-forming Phyla canescens growing wild in the park.

Phyla canescens (left) and Persicaria capitatum (right)

I was less successful with the other wild plants, including a delicate white Geranium of some sort with flowers just 1cm or so across and a sky-blue flowered legume, very like the Parochetus we found in the Valley of Flowers in Utterakhand.

It was very hot by this stage so the less hard core botanists found shady seats near a Chinese violin (erhu) player or enjoyed the fact that lounging on the grass here was not forbidden.  I had a quick look round the section of the garden for ‘Plant Species with Extremely Small Populations’, but these turned out mostly to be tree species and not that easy to distinguish from their more common relatives. I did get lovely views through the gardens back to Kunming, though and enjoyed the hedges of red Chinese fringe flowers (Loropetalum chinense) and beds of ferns beneath the shade of the more mature trees.

We regrouped and headed back to the North gate where today’s novel ice lolly was rice and goji berry flavoured – actually very much like frozen rice pudding tasty as long as you like that! Our first bus ride home passed without incident but the second bus didn’t go the way to the lake we expected and we had a bit of a hike back to the guest house.

We decided on hot pot for dinner and Ed took us to a famous chain near the Metro station (name translates as Little Dragon Pit) where we had to queue outside with numbered tickets for twenty minutes or so. We must have looked like we might be an embarrassment as we ended up in a private booth.  Eating hot pot is a warm and messy experience with a stock pot bubbling in the middle of the table into which you dunk things to cook and then try and fish them out to eat.  You do get a ladle as well as chopsticks, fortunately. We had a half and half pot; one side basically a tomato broth but the other a mass of chillies and Sichuan peppers – not for the faint hearted.  I discovered, to my cost, that cauliflower cooked in the hot side has an unfortunate ability to pick up and hide whole Sichuan peppers in its florets…

We cooked and ate beef and beef intestines (some of us), squid, beansprouts, noodles, seaweed, lotus root, winter melon and quails eggs, as well as the cauliflower.  The squid was the only miss – they turned out to be whole and frozen and quite tasteless when cooked, according to those who tried them…

Theatre is added by the waiter pouring hot water onto complementary cups of flower tea in a long arc from something which looks very like a watering can.

We missed the other formal theatre of the evening – a brief Chinese opera performance of face changing masks – because of where we were sitting. Annoyingly, the couple who were given our initial table remained glued to their separate iPad and phone throughout their meal so missed it too. We did get to watch staff meals though, in a mid-evening quiet spell.  I’ve never seen such a huge bowl of rice!

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