Mudan Series


Peony Tour
of China and Tibet

Inspiration for the Mudan Series
by Janice Mason Steeves

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Read about Janice Mason Steeves

May 6 - Enroute
It’s a long flight to Beijing, China. I look out the window and daydream about going to China and Tibet on a quest for wild peonies, just like Frank Kingdon-Ward and Joseph Rock, famous plant hunters/adventurers of the early 1900s.They journeyed on foot into the rugged mountains of the Yarlung Tsangpo River area, the same area where we are going; the southwest border region between China and Tibet. They collected wild peonies and other specimens for wealthy patrons or botanical gardens around the world. Last night I dreamed that I’m with a group of people and we’re going somewhere for a blessing or a healing. My friend told me that a dream the night before a trip is an omen for what will happen on that trip.

May 7 - Beijing
I meet up with the tour group. Canadians, Americans, Austrians, Germans and four Chinese peony botanists, including Dr. Hong De-Yuan, China’s foremost peony authority. It is an eccentric and very interesting group.


Jing Shan Park

May 8 - Beijing
Oh, thank God. The peonies are in bloom in the Emperor’s Garden behind the Forbidden City, in Jing Shan Park, and at the Beijing Botanical Gardens. I have never seen such big peonies. Mudan (tree peonies) the size of dinner plates. The tour guide shouts, “Peony Group, time to go”. His calls go unanswered. We keep taking photos and must almost be dragged away. 

Jing Shan Park

Bejing Botanical Garden

Bejing Botanical Garden


Market in Maerkang

Toward Maerkang, Western China

Peace Peony Garden

May 10 - Lanzhou
We arrive at the tall, ornately painted gates of Peace Peony Garden. There are 130,000 tree peonies growing here, some over 8 feet (2.4 m) tall. Nestling myself in them, I am completely surrounded by the pink flowers. “I’m in heaven, I’m in heaven and my heart beats so ...” 

< Paeonia decomposita, Peace Peony Garden

May 12
Julia, a member of our group, shouts out, “Stop the bus!” She has spotted a wild white Paeonia veitchii high on the embankment beside the road. We all jump out, cameras in hand and scramble up the scree to reach the “find”. Dr. Hong hasn’t seen a white one in the wild. He wants to call it “Paeonia veitchii, forma Julia”. Move over Frank Kingdon-Ward. 

Panda Wildlife Reserve, Szechuan

Paeonia delavayi

May 15 - Chengdu-Lhasa
I have a window seat as we fly over the Himalayas to Lhasa, Tibet. The sky is cloudless. I can see the snowy mountain peaks the whole way. Lhasa is 12,000 feet (3,658 m) high. Lhasa. “Land of God”, says our guide Tashi. In the afternoon, we go to the noisy Bharkor Street Market where there are hundreds of stalls selling brick tea, yak butter, jewelry, thangkas (painted or embroidered Buddhist banners), and woolens. Pilgrims walk through the market as they circumambulate the Potala Palace, chanting and rhythmically circling their prayer wheels. I bargain for a necklace that looks like amber. The vendor smiles. Sunlight glints off her gold tooth. I know I have paid too much. 

May 16 - Drive into Eastern Tibet over the Mila Pass
16,000 feet (4877 m) say the guidebooks. Even walking slowly, I breathe deeply and feel a bit light-headed. Colourful Tibetan prayer flags are draped across the road, across the hills surrounding the road, blessing the place, the journey. I have my picture taken here. Barren, treeless hills behind me. 

Mila Pass, Tibet

May 17 - Near Nyingchi
Our Chinese botanists take us to an area beside a military base to search for Paeonia delavayi. The guards have guns. Dr. Hong obtains permission for us to cross the military base. We cross over, and slowly climb the steep dirt track to the plateau above. Here, thousands of glorious wild yellow peonies are blooming under the deep blue Tibetan sky with the snowy Himalayas in the distance.

Paeonia delavayi
near Nyingchi
May 19 - Evening
We have a lesson in how to plant the wild peony seeds we have collected. 

Mani stones
May 20 - East of Bomi
We see “mani stones” on the footbridge across the river. Stones carved with sacred text in Tibetan script and offered as blessings. Some say Om mani padme hum. We walk perhaps an hour into the hills, finding more mani stones along our way. Finally, in a forest of tall, twisted holly oak trees, we find a few Paeonia sterniana, tiny, delicate, single white peonies. 

May 21 - Near Nyingchi
For about 18 km (11 miles), the road narrows precariously into an unpaved single lane that hugs the cliff. It runs high above the raging Yarlung Tsangpo River. There are no guardrails. We meet another bus and a stalled car. The buses inch past each other. My hands sweat. I get off and walk. 

May 22 – Lhasa
My eyes slowly adjust to the darkness of the Johkang Temple from the brilliant sunshine outside. We are in Tibet’s holiest temple. Monks are chanting. The sound echoes off the high stone walls. Smoky incense. The floor is sticky from yak butter candles. We walk around the inner chapel. This is one of the three sacred circuits of Lhasa.

A farewell dinner in the evening. Our group sits on comfy sofas around two square tables at a restaurant in Lhasa. Twenty different dishes are served to us. We make one toast after another, as is the Chinese way. We toast each other, the botanists, the tour guides, the leader. In the end, we toast the peonies. Mudan. We toast Beauty. We have been blessed.  

Johkang Temple

Janice Mason Steeves
travels the world in search of beauty to inspire her paintings

Introduction and Index
Lotus Series Gallery | Evening on the Lake of Dreams Gallery and Myth
Mudan Series Gallery | China and Tibet Photo Gallery and Diary

Lotus Pilgrimage Photo Galleries and Narrative
300 K - For shorter downloads
Part 1 - Perry's Water Gardens | Part 2 - Lilypons Water Gardens | Part 3 - Longwood Gardens

Jardin Majorelle Photo Gallery, Marakesh, Morocco
Profile - Janice Mason Steeves

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