Where to begin in the story of my first fieldwork in China? Perhaps with the drive there. Something I did not know about China is that for fieldwork you hire a private driver and car to get you from one place to another. It is quite expensive but to take buses would, in some cases, take days instead of hours. So, for this trip to Mt. Jiaozi, approximately three hours away, Dr. Xiang hired a driver that was considered one of the safest used by the Kunming Institute of Botany. At this point in time I had only experienced motorists from the pedestrian perspective, rather than as a passenger, so here are some basics about cars and traffic in China: no one wears seatbelt (except for me which provoked a series of questions), you never see police, traffic is monitored by cameras (that a radar-detector can warn you about as you approach), and horns serve a much wider range of communication than in the U.S. With that in mind, meet our driver - Mr. Du. Mr. Du was in his 60s and had been driving researchers on trips to the field for many decades. He would later drive me on a week-long adventure through Yunnan, and though I speak little Chinese and he speaks even less English, we became good friends. One additional thing to know about Mr. Du is that if he had been a stock car racer, he would have won.
Well, Mr. Du and Dr. Xiang picked me up at my hotel and we were off to the mountains! In addition, we were joined by then grad student, now graduate, Guoxiong Hu, who studies the genus Salvia. We arrived at Mt. Jiaozi in the early afternoon where we parked and were ushered to a shuttle that would take us farther up the mountain. It was cold and cloudy that day so luckily there were not many other people but we still had to wait for the shuttle (I later learned that shuttles are the norm for getting to popular nature spots). We began walking up the mountain and taking step after step after step; the entire trail up the mountain was either steps or boardwalks! At first I was slightly disenchanted by this, focusing on the fact that the designated walkway limited exploration, but the more I thought about it the more sense it made - this mountain was heavily trafficked and received lots of rain and moisture so without these designated paths the mountain would be one giant mudslide. It occurred to me what an undertaking it was to build this trail, and this was later confirmed when we saw men lugging the heavy metal planks that composed the stairs on their backs, five planks at a time.
As we continued up the mountain on one of the many staircases Dr. Xiang pointed out some rocks that looked like good Micranthes habitat. At his urging we crawled over the handrail and climbed around the boulders, and it wasn't long before I spotted some Micranthes leaves. We continued to scour the boulders but we could not find flowers. I was a little dejected, thinking that my first attempt to find Micranthes was going to be futile, but I soon forgot this thought because as we wrapped around a boulder we saw a gushing waterfall hidden from the trail. Enshrouded in mist from both the fog and the splashing water I decided that even if I don't find the plant this was still a worthwhile adventure. Well, we climbed higher up the mountain through spectacular Rhododendron forests, and while I was discussing with Dr. Xiang how much greater the diversity of Primula and Pedicularis is in China compared to North America Dr. Hu saw the first tiny white flower of Micranthes clavistaminea. Saying I was thrilled would be an understatement. I am not a fatalistic person but I could not help but think that after traveling 5000 miles to the other side of the world it was a good omen to find my first plant, on my first attempt, within a few hours of hiking.
I think we all would have liked to continue up the trail, but the mountain closed at 5:30 so we hurried down in time to catch the last shuttle bus back to our car. Coincidentally, as we were leaving we saw two researchers who worked with Dr. Xiang at KIB. They had taken a bus to the mountain so Dr. Xiang offered to give them a ride back to Kunming. So, for three hours I was in a car driving through rural, mountainous China with a chain-smoking, sports-coat wearing, herds-of-goats-dodging driver and four Chinese men stuffed in the back seat. They were apparently telling jokes in Chinese the entire time because everyone was laughing the whole way back to Kunming. It was a good trip.