Lotus Tour of China

by Pat Clifford
Senior Horticulturist, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh
Click images to enlarge

In July of 2007, following the IWGS Symposium in Thailand, "lotus emperor" Grant Mitchell led a multi-national group on an eight day tour of Nelumbo sites in the Middle Kingdom of China. The quite eclectic group got on brilliantly. For me it was the trip of a lifetime.


Enter the Dragon

Being truthful this was the part of the journey that filled me with trepidation but also excitement and with this in mind I flew from Bangkok to Kunming on Monday 23 July. Fortunately I met up with the rest of the party at the Symposium who were also going on to China, so this helped, and we made it safely and uneventfully to Kunming. Well apart from one of the group who had problems at immigration because the Chinese authorities had never seen a Costa Rican passport, but this was soon sorted out when he pointed out he had American citizenship. It was a really mixed group and the whole experience benefited from this. 


One of the few old buildings left

A traditional site

The first day was spent at a leisurely pace because of the altitude difference; Kunming is 1800M above sea-level and we walked to the fabulous Cui Lake Park. This is in the heart of the city and had some massive lakes which were filled with Nelumbo and Nymphaea cultivars and all around the park local women were dancing in large groups to many different styles of music emanating from large Ghetto-Blasters. In the quieter areas of the park the older generation were practising the ancient art of Tai Chi amidst some beautiful Lagerstroemia indica, which were in full bloom.

Unbelievably we were to visit Kunming during the wettest spell anyone can remember apparently it rained practically non-stop for twenty-two days. Kunming is known as the city of "Eternal Spring", it had certainly sprung a leak when we were there!


^ Old and new in Kunming >

"Relaxing" foot massage --
aarrrgh!! >


Making green tea in a
local hostelry >



Cui Lake Park


Massive Nymphaeas >

Tai Chi

My first sighting of Nelumbo in China

Old and new again in Kunming


The coach taking us to Sha Ping
(the bus from hell)

Sha Ping and
Strange Dragon Lake

This trip promised to be truly authentic and if anyone was still in doubt the bus trip into the countryside proved it. No luxury hired coach for us oh no - public transport Chinese style - what an experience! Being 6' 4'' tall it was no fun being squeezed into a seat for 6 hours that was designed for the average Chinese man, and sharing the bus with live chickens and locals who continually ate boiled eggs certainly added flavour.


I should add here that finding out any actual facts and figures relating to the places in the rural areas we visited was nigh on impossible. Although our guide was fluent in Mandarin and Cantonese he had spent most of his time in Kunming where the dialect of the city is completely different from the outlying areas, so although we had no problems in finding out the basics, trying to get in-depth information was difficult. This only added to the excitement of the trip though, as there was always this air of uncertainty and the feeling we were going places not many westerners had been before us.

After a rather circuitous route through the beautiful countryside we arrived in the small but rapidly expanding city of Sha Ping. We were staying in a government hotel where you were awoken at 6 a.m. with stirring Martial music which was supposed to set you up for the day; personally I'd rather have been woken more serenely. I decided to stand outside the hotel which was situated on a roundabout and have a smoke, but quickly realised that I was going to cause an accident because everyone was swerving and slowing to have a look. My appearance was so alien to the locals, and I suddenly realised I'd finally arrived in "China". From then on I was constantly being scrutinised, but far from being disconcerting it was actually quite nice and although the people were naturally curious they were ever so friendly. The small children were the best though and the look of bemusement on their faces was a joy to behold. 

We took some taxis the next day to Strange Dragon Lake, where there were many varieties of Nelumbo growing naturally. We hired a small boat and spent the day right amongst the lotus, taking loads of pictures and just soaking up the amazing feeling that was created being surrounded by this truly wondrous plant. That evening we had dinner on the lake which was prepared by the boatman using only ingredients from the lake and its environs.

I'm usually quite conservative in my eating habits but on this trip you had to eat what you were given. Because of this, I tried many dishes throughout the journey that I wouldn't have dreamt of touching in my wildest dreams. Admittedly some were awful but some were lovely. I'd like to think that since returning I'm not so fussy and would at least try most things once, another little character building episode. Of course every meal we ate included some part of the Nelumbo and now I must have eaten every part of the lotus cooked in every conceivable way, and an unbelievably versatile plant this proves to be.

 Strange Dragon Lake

The group preparing to paddle out
into the lotus fields

Finally in amongst the lotus

< Peasant fishing 


Michael, guide, Pat

Would you look at the size of
these wild blooms? >


Nightly entertainment in Sha Ping

Local children and Warner with
some of the produce of Nelumbo >



Lakes Abounding With Fish and Shrimp

We left Sha Ping aboard another coach bound for our next destination which was a small Shanni minority village on the shores of one of the lakes. This was situated 150 miles south of Sha Ping and was set in the midst of the Witches Hat Mountains'. It was truly the most breathtaking scenery I have had the pleasure of visiting. I thought my camera was going to go into meltdown.

There we stayed in a typical Chinese guesthouse that Grant our guide had stayed in frequently over the years. He told us how about twelve years before he had travelled alone to this region from Kunming in search of these lakes someone had told him about. He literally stumbled upon this village and as a traveller was befriended by this family. He had returned regularly but it had been three years since his last visit and he was welcomed like the long lost friend he was. He was saddened to learn of the death of the old grandmother whom he had told us so much about, and wanted us to meet.


The amazing Khast Mountains
with lotus lakes everywhere

Dan, Grant, Walter and Nola at our
guesthouse in Shanni minority village
My room looked out onto one of the sixteen lakes this area has become famous for and I could practically pick Lotus flowers from my window. This place was so idyllic and peaceful that we were awakened in the morning by the cock crowing at daybreak, far more civilized than the music in Sha Ping. All the meals were prepared and eaten in the courtyard. It felt like we had been transported back in time.

Views from my room in the guesthouse



Over the years as China has changed politically and economically this tranquil part of the world has unfortunately been a victim of the surge in internal Chinese tourism. Every weekend thousands of the more affluent city-dwellers from Kunming descend on the area and turn it into a huge water playground. This has really only happened in the last five years and the village we were staying in has been earmarked for demolition to make way for a massive tourist resort. Sadly the villagers have no idea what will become of them, particularly as they are a minority group which has not fared very well under the Chinese government.

Early next morning after our usual breakfast of noodles we headed for the main lake where the tourist boats were moored. Regrettably it was a Saturday morning and the throngs of tourists had begun to arrive and were arming themselves suitably. Here I have to explain what the Chinese tourists use these beautiful lakes for.

They come down from the city in all shapes and sizes, ranging from groups of young men to large family groups including grandparents and they take to the water with the sole aim of soaking anyone they can. They all dress in full waterproof clothing and arm themselves with pots and pans, bamboo water cannons and high powered water blasters. This pastime has really taken off in the last few years and Grant was shocked to see what had happened to the place he loved.

He decided that our best plan of action was to be completely passive, and this coupled with lots of warnings shouted in Chinese saved us from a soaking. We were the only Westerners on the lakes and the Chinese thought it was really funny, this white guy shouting abuse at them in a broad Kunming accent. It was a bit of a shame, but we just paddled clear of the main war-zones and took in the wonderful scenery and lotus fields. We spent about six hours on the lake then climbed one of the Witches Hats to get an awe-inspiring view of the lake system and the surrounding landscape. The hike to the top of the hill certainly wasn't easy. Walter who is 78 years old put me to shame, and he and Dan had already climbed one before breakfast to see the sunrise. On the return journey the boatman dropped us off right at our guesthouse which backed onto the lake. 


Canoe trip on "Lakes Abounding with Fish and Shrimp"

Chinese tourists having fun

< These lakes had both pink
and white lotus



That evening we were treated to some entertainment which was provided by the villagers and featured traditional Shanni music and dance. It was really enjoyable but also a bit sad as we were watching something that was rapidly dying out.

The next morning was spent wandering through the lotus lakes and surrounding countryside where the farmers were mainly growing corn, tobacco, chillies, rice and of course lotus. Many were still using water buffalo as a means of transport and harvesting their crops using sickles. Then it was time to get on the dreaded coach, which I was starting to enjoy in some masochistic way, and return to Kunming.

Great credit must go to Grant Mitchell for organizing this exceptional trip as I don't think anyone else could have pulled it off and I only hope I will be able to join him on another trip in the future. Cheers Grant! 



Traditional Shanni entertainment

< Beautiful playground




Me being arty

 Stopping for a roadside snack

 Black Dragon Lake

A particularly rainy day

Chinese graffiti


Bonsai Garden

Back in Kunming, Big Guan Park

Sad looking lotus after all the rain

Strange boat-shaped temple

Local fishing in
Big Guan Park

Pat and a massive lotus lake

By meeting so many people with their vast reservoir of knowledge and skills, my experience will truly benefit the RBGE over the coming years as I continue to tap into this unique source and look forward sharing information and any new techniques that I discover. I already have my first project planned for next spring when I will begin an experiment with the Victorias, which will measure the relationship between final leaf size and how early the plant is allowed to flower.

Attending the Symposium and visiting China was truly one of the most fulfilling experiences in my career and will live with me for a long time and writing this report has brought back so many fantastic memories. I was fortunate to meet so many like-minded people and I came back from the trip not only with great memories (and 1800 photos) but also with a renewed enthusiasm and interest. All this reinforced the theory that I already had -- I must have one of the best jobs on earth.


Additional Gallery by Nola and Michael Fenech, Australia

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