Interview: Discovering the Snow Lotus with Heli, 2013 WildChina Explorer

WildChina > WildChina Explorer Grant > Interview: Discovering the Snow Lotus with Heli, 2013 WildChina Explorer
In 2013, the WildChina Explorer Grant was awarded to Heli, a botanist whose passion for rare plants brought him all the way to remote Xinjiang in search of the Tianshan Snow Lotus. This rare flower, which grows in some of the most extreme conditions that plant life can tolerate, has long been the subject of songs, poems, and legends. In China, it is believed to have magical powers that prolong life, and is used as a traditional medicine by the various ethnic groups who inhabit the region. The Uighur word for the Tianshan Snow Lotus is “Tagilis”, which translates as “the king of the plant kingdom.” Heli set out on a quest to find a Snow Lotus the Tianshan wilderness, one of the most remote places on earth, and here he takes the time to describe his experience. 
finding the snow lotus

Tell us about your experience with the WildChina Explorer Grant.

The WildChina Explorer Grant is like a fresh spring that inspires and nourishes young people with passions and dreams. This proposal gives wide range of acceptance, it states: the purpose of expedition is to discover or rediscover certain kinds of culture, history, and biology etc. This enriches the meaning of travel and highly reinforces the idea of high-quality travel that WildChina advocates.

The $3000 funding may not seem like much to people who work, but it is a large amount for us who are studying in schools. This amount is enough for me to search the Tianshan Snow Lotus. People always say one has plenty of time but not enough money to start a journey when he is studying, one has enough money but has no time to travel when he works. So I feel very grateful we have such a wonderful chance to get the supportive funding to start a journey when we are young and passionate.


What inspired you to search for Tianshan Snow Lotus? What kind of things inspired you?

I first came across the snow lotus in the television shows of my childhood, which demonstrated the mythical powers that Chinese legends attribute to this flower. In old stories, people would have to brave the snow and rock to find the snow lotus needed to cure a dying friend or break a spell. Due to fateful coincidence, I studied botany. Although I didn’t taste hundreds of herbs like the mythical Chinese Shennong, I have climbed over countless mountains in search of these rare plants.

By chance, I found the Baoye Snow Lotus in Sejila Mountain. It gets harvested in the snows and its flowers are gorgeous. I became friends with this beautiful and magic plant, and afterwards I could always come across the Baoye Snow Lotus in the mountain. This flower reminded me of the Tianshan Snow Lotus, and I thought it would be romantic to find this miraculous plant.


These plants live in a very extreme environment. Had you traveled in this kind of landscape before your expedition?

The Tianshan Snow Lotus is a genus of Saussurea in the family of Asteraceae. Most of Saussurea species are high altitude plants; the Snow Lotus is one of them, growing high on the rocky slopes of Tianshan Mountain. In the past, I went to Xiaowutai, Taibai Mountain, Motuo, Meri Snow Mountain and Aza Glacier for hiking. Though these places are at high altitude, the weather there is not as harsh as in Tianshan, where sleet and snow accompanied us the whole way.

When we found the snow lotus, we could see it was covered by snow… even in July. Growing in such an extreme environment, this plant had taken four to five years to bloom from a seed. Thinking of this, I feel so lucky and think we should treasure this small resilient life.


The camp in TianshanMaking camp high in the mountains

What was the most amazing thing you experienced during your travels?

As we had to carry all of our equipment and food, the traveling was often very difficult. In the first few days, this was made worse by continuous wind, rain, and snow. In the third night, the weather suddenly cleared up. Lying in my tent, savoring this tranquility and watching meteors cross the beautiful sky surrounded by mountains, I nearly forgot where I was. In the next day, the snow lotus burst into bloom under sunshine and blue sky. It was amazing and just like a sweet dreamland.


Did you run into any challenges during the trip?

Climbing over the Baiyanggou Daban and descending into the valley, I was attracted by the boundless meadow and the vagaries of mist surrounding the mountain. Inspired by the gorgeous blooming snow lotus I felt the unknown world in front of me, and wanted to go deep into the Wolf Tower in hopes of encountering an ibex or wolf.

Although we had enough food and goods, I had to consider my teammates’ physical condition and the original expedition plan. Therefore, I faced the challenge of deciding whether we should go into the Wolf Tower. The place was quite tempting for me. I asked myself, “Should I enter the place with another hiking team? Should I ask my teammate to come with me? Or should I just stick to the original plan?” After considering these options, I decided to explore one part of C route of Wolf Tower. Afterward, we returned to our original route.


Tianshan rangeLooking out on the expanse of the Tianshan range 

What was it like to explore rural Xinjiang? Did you meet any interesting people there?

I did some physical training half years ago particularly for this expedition. According to the predecessor’s experience, I wouldn’t feel tired if I run 10km in one hour before getting into the mountain. Even though, hiking would still be hard and tough. We went there in the summer, so there was a lot of run-off from the snow-melt’s increased precipitation. As a result of all this water, parts of the highway into hills had been destroyed. In order to even begin our hike, we had to take two separate cars.

Unfortunately, as the mountain roads were submerged water, we were forced to wade at points. This was extremely freezing. Since our team had only a few members we spent a portion of the journey with another group we had met along the way. When we found the snow lotus, we stopped to re-adjust and take photos. This other team continued to move forward, but later encountered troubles during a crossing of the Pu Xi Ke Horse River. Two of their members were stuck in the middle of the river and almost didn’t make it to the other side.

Despite the challenges that we faced through this particular stretch of the journey, we all feel that it was worth it to take C route of Wolf Tower. Yet, amazing as it was, this passage is a fatal tempting place, and required much determination to complete. I met one man in his 60s who takes the C route every month. His thoughts and experiences must be legendary.


Do you have any adventures planned for the future?

I want to trek the central mountain in Taiwan. I want to have a look different varieties of botany at various altitudes.


Enjoying a well earned meal on the trail

 Heli and his teammates enjoy a well earned meal 

For the chance to win $3000 dollars of funding for your own adventure in China, don’t forget to apply for the 2014 WildChina Explorer Grant!