“In old stories, people would have to brave the snow and mountains to find the snow lotus. They would need it to cure a dying friend or break a deadly spell.” Heli, a student botanist and the 2013 WildChina Explorer Grant winner, tells how a passion for rare plants took him to the rugged province of Xinjiang in search of the Tianshan Snow Lotus.
What inspired you to search for the Tianshan Snow Lotus?
I first saw the snow lotus on television shows when I was a child. The shows often demonstrated the mythical powers that Chinese legends attribute to this flower. In old stories, people would have to brave the snow and mountains to find the snow lotus. They would need it to cure a dying friend or break a deadly spell. I studied botany at University and although I haven’t tasted hundreds of herbs in search of the flower, like the mythical Chinese Shennong, I have climbed countless mountains in search of legendary plant species.
The Tianshan Snow Lotus lives in a very extreme environment. Had you traveled in this kind of landscape before your expedition?
In the past I have climbed many mountains and although these trips often took me to a high altitude, the weather was never as harsh as it was in Tianshan.
When we found the snow lotus it was covered by snow, even in July! Growing in such an extreme environment, this plant takes four to five years to bloom from a seed. I feel so lucky to have seen this small, resilient life form.
Tell me about the day you first saw the flower.
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. On the third night, the weather suddenly cleared up and as I lay in my tent savoring the tranquility and watching meteors cross the beautiful sky I nearly forgot where I was. It was the next day that the snow lotus burst into bloom under the sunshine and blue sky. It felt like a dream.
Although we had enough food and supplies, I had to carefully consider my teammates’ physical condition and be sure to stick to the original expedition plan. I often faced the challenge of deciding whether to explore valleys and caves that we encountered along our journey. We often strayed from our original plan for short periods of times but were careful to not lose sight of the expedition’s purpose.
It was definitely more difficult than I had imagined. My professor told me that if I could run 10km in under an hour then I should be able to complete the hike, but it was still really tough. It was summer when we arrived in Xinjiang and there was a lot of water from the melting snow flowing down the mountainside. At points we were forced to wade through freezing water.
Along our journey we met people who take the route through the mountains regularly. I would love to have had more time to hear their experiences.
People say that you have no time to travel when you are in full-time employment and no money to travel when you are student. I feel very grateful to have had the wonderful opportunity to receive supportive funding whilst I was still completing my studies.
Applications are now being accepted for the WildChina Explorer Grant 2016. This year we have extend our scope to accept submissions beyond China and the winner will receive a $5000USD travel grant to help them make an impact through exploration. Front runners throughout the online voting period will win prizes courtesy of TOMS shoes and Gregory Mountain Products.
This year we are searching for applicants who can inspire us with their photos and have teamed up with the UK’s Royal Photographic Society to offer an additional prize to the person who submits the best photograph as part of their application.