Botanical Adventures in Gansu: Field Notes from Our Education Team

At WildChina Education, many of our experiential learning programs revolve around nature – whether that is environmental service, wilderness survival, kayaking down rivers, or hikes and bike rides through beautiful landscapes. However, we don’t just deliver learning to students; we consider ourselves lifelong learners as well. read more details about of the Botanical Adventures in Gansu.

Our team members come with talents and achievements across many fields. Today, we take a look into the life of one of our program veterans, Yunya Wang.

Yunya, as well as being the creator of many camping and nature programs for students, is also an incredible independent expert on China’s flora. Her love for botany began one sunny afternoon during a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) class. Sitting outside in the sunshine, she was suddenly hit by something from behind.

It turned out to be a tiny dried fruit, which she later learned was from Platycladus orientalis (a kind of Cypress). The fruit’s symmetry mesmerized Yunya, making her realize nature was an amazing designer. Eager to learn more, she began her life-long pursuit to learn and share all she could about plants throughout China and the world.

Yunya has documented some of her most exciting discoveries and explorations across China to discover beautiful, exotic, and exceedingly rare plants. Read on to find an excerpt from her field research trip to Gansu.

If you are interested in teaching your students more about China’s immense variety of flora (and fauna), or are curious about the subject yourself – shoot Yunya an email.

Yunya Wang majored in Forestry at the Shanxi Agriculture University and has been conducting independent botanic research in 20 provinces since 2012. Her photo records document over 2,000 species of local and endemic plant species all over China. The below excerpts detail some of her journal entries from her adventures.

Gansu – Deserts, Snow Mountains and Grasslands

Gansu, in the north-west of China, is a name that you might not be familiar with. A former stop on the Silk Road, many go there to see the Mogao Grottoes.

14 years ago, before I studied botany, I read in a magazine that Minqin county in Gansu had the worst desertification in China. The article spoke about a local man who planted the Saxaul tree (Haloxylon ammodendron) in order to combat desertification, as the tree could survive in the most arid of climates. If you check the satellite map of this area, the majority of the greening comes from this tree species.

Gansu’s Gan (甘) character literally means sweet in Chinese, but to me, it felt like it might as well be Gan (干), which means dry.

However, when I had the chance to actually visit the area a few years later, I completely changed my mind. My first stop was the Jade Pass in Dunhuang. Surrounded by the vast Gobi Desert, with drought-enduring shrubs such as Alhagi sparsifolia (1) and Tamarix Chinensis (2) in abundance, there is an oasis (3) that occupies a diameter of just 500m. It wasn’t all dryness after all.

Botanical Adventures in Gansu

(1) Alhagi Sparsifolia

Botanical Adventures in Gansu

(2) Tamarix Chinensis

Botanical Adventures in Gansu

(3) Oasis

The next day, I traveled five hours by car to Jiayuguan, Gansu. What I found there went far beyond my expectations. My research indicated that there should be an alpine meadow within one hour’s drive of Jiayuguan. But even the local driver I had hired to accompany me was disbelieving. ”I can only see desert here, I have never heard of grasslands around here,” he told me.

At my insistence we struck out to find the grassland. The scenery did not change for a long time, but as we drove further south into the mountains, and as the altitude increased, the views became greener. We even saw an eagle soaring past the car window; it was the closest that I had ever seen an eagle in the wild.

The first flower I saw as we drove was Clematis tangutica (4) – its bright yellow sepals were so vivid I asked the driver to stop immediately. We would stop like this whenever I saw flowers in bloom. One in particular was very special and ended up taking me 9 months to identify: the Marsh Cinquefoil (Comarum salesovianum) (5).

Botanical Adventures in Gansu

(4) Clematis tangutica


(5) Comarum salesovianum


When I first saw this plant, especially its leaf, I immediately suspected that it belonged to the genus of Cinquefoil (Potentilla). However, its flower was too big, and while most Potentillas are yellow, this one was white. After combing through the genuses in the Rose family and identifying it as the Marsh Cinquefoil, I realized that Gansu is more humid than I had originally thought.

We stopped our exploration at an altitude of 3,500m, after finding two species that I had dreamt of encountering for over four years: Paraquilegia anemonoides (6) and Androsace tapete (7). The former often grows on rocks, while the latter on gravel.

The two plants use different strategies to protect themselves from strong winds that occur on the alpine meadows. Paraquilegia anemonoides is short and soft and will go along with the wind like it is dancing, while Androsace tapete is soft to the touch like a cushion (they are commonly known as cushion plants) – growing so close to the ground in this way means they are not as exposed to strong winds.


(6) Paraquilegia anemonoides


(7) Androsace tapete

But it wasn’t just the flowers that were beautiful to me. The Qi Lian Mountain range  in Gansu, was still covered in snow (8) and beneath the range was an amazingly blue lake. My driver told me this was a reservoir (9) of the waters from the Qi Lian Mountains. It became clear to me why the flora was so abundant here, and I cannot wait to go back to Gannan for more botanical research.


(8) Qilian Mountain Range


(9) Reservoir

Xiahe – Streams, Buttercups, and Vultures

Xiahe is also in the Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture – a Gansu region well known as a biodiversity hotspot in the planting world. Xiahe was much more developed than I expected. The main street is filled with all kinds of shops selling clothes, phones, and souvenirs. After a leisurely afternoon in town, I went to scout out the starting point of the hike I had planned.

There were dozens of tourists taking selfies at the trail’s starting point, but none further down the trail itself. It was a shame; it was so much more tranquil, and far more breathtaking, just a few meters in.

I did find two quite unique species just along the crowded road though. The first was Microula pseudotrichocarpa (10) whose type locality (where the species was originally found) is Xiahe, and Pedicularis curvituba (11), which is endemic to the area.


(10) Microula pseudotrichocarpa


(11) Pedicularis curvituba

The next morning, I set off on my planned route. There were just a few tourists; instead, Tibetan people sat on the grassland enjoying their morning tea in the sunshine. It is blooming season for the shrubby cinquefoil (Potentilla fruticosa) (12) and they form a golden flower sea. The only people I encountered were Tibetans on their way back from prayers (13).


(12) Shrubby cinquefoil (Potentilla fruticosa)

13.Local Tibetan walking back from prayer

(13) Local Tibetan walking back from prayer

Along the way, a cow stood in the middle of the path – we startled each other and I ran away… very quickly. When noon came, I sat in front of a sea of alpine buttercup (Ranunculus tanguticus) (14) and had a simple picnic with my packed lunch. After lunch I found Primula gemmifera (15) – and though many of them had incomplete petals, I was thankfully able to find some that were still in full bloom. Gradually, I trekked away from the stream (16) that I’d been using as my guide and the valley became wider and wider. Marmots were busy running from one side to another. One stared at me for two minutes before going back to its burrow. Here, I found Corydalis curviflora (17), beautiful in the same shade of blue as the day’s sky.


(14) Alpine buttercup (Ranunculus tanguticus)


(15) Primula gemmifera


(16) Stream & valley


(17) Corydalis curviflora

My original plan was to hike a bit further and come back the same way. However, when I came across Meconopsis integrifolia (18), even though it was just a common fruit plant, I felt thrilled and decided to hike further off my original route to see if I could see any in bloom. I was rewarded by finding a lot of Meconopsis quintuplinervia (19). Using my GPS and map, I spontaneously decided to chart my way to a different valley further east.

I hiked up a very steep slope where sheep were grazing; the panorama (20) was breathtaking. When I finally re-encountered paved road, I was so tired that I had to sit for half an hour.

(18) Meconopsis integrifolia

(19) Meconopsis quintuplinervia

(20) Panorama

At my next stop in Langmusi, I documented Meconopsis racemosa (21) and Meconopsis punicea (22) where they grew on the grass by the rocky mountains (23). On my final morning, I went on a walk to see a sky burial and found a type of orchid called Herminium alaschanicum (24).

(21) Meconopsis racemose

(22) Meconopsis punicea

(23) Rocky Mountains

(24) Herminium alaschanicum

When I arrived at the burial site the ceremony had ended, but the alpine vultures still hung in the sky (25). I stayed there for a while simply because of the beauty of the place.

After returning home, I have recommended many friends, family, and clients to go to Gansu – as one of many places that I have traveled to for botanical research, it has definitely become one of my favorites.

(25) Alpine vulture in flight

Check back soon for more of Yunya’s botanical adventures in Gansu and other parts of China, or get in touch with us today to learn more about discovering these incredible parts of Chinese flora for yourself.

As the Middle Kingdom protects and heals itself during the COVID-19 outbreak, we want to share stories with you of the people of China – the people that make this country so beautiful. Before we can welcome you back here in person, we want to bring the people to you.

These stories illustrate the deep complexity, humanity, and beauty that resides across this vast nation, and we hope that by sharing these real people with you, you’ll get to know a different side of China. This is #OurChina.

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