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In the far west of China, where the atlasmarks in streaks of purple the greatplateau of Tibet tumbling to the southand east into the plains of China, the greatprovince of Sichuan lies. Its subtropicalfertile plain, known as the Red Basin, isringed by mountains, and its remotenessfrom the centres of power and its relativeinaccessibility, until recently ensured thatthis region was China's 'Wild West', toboth Chinese and foreigners alike. Thewest of the province, dominated by thosegreat mountain ranges with peakstowering to over 7,000 metres, was part ofKham, an old province of Tibet thatremained under the control of the DalaiLama until early in the last century. Todaythe Tibetan people of western Sichuancling fiercely to their distinct way of life,language and culture, as do other ethnicminorities such as the Hui and Qiang,despite the upheavals of the 20th centuryand the incursions of the Han Chinese. The great range of environmentalconditions here, from alpine slopes totemperate forests and high grasslands,has given rise to one of the richest andmost diverse temperate floras in the world.Towards the end of the 19th century, andinto the early 20th, the great plant-huntersErnest 'Chinese' Wilson, George Forrest,Joseph Rock, and Purdom and Farrertravelled through Sichuan and collectedwhat, today, are some of our best-knowngarden plants, and introduced them forthe first time into cultivation inEuropean gardens. It is only in recentyears that Sichuan has becomeaccessible again to travellers fromoutside China, making it possible forintrepid plant enthusiasts to see inthe wild some of these species. Thesheer range of plants is breathtaking,and there is still a long way to go inassessing their potential in horticulture.Change is happening very fast but thevast reaches of western Sichuan are stillinfrequently visited by Westerners. We begin our journey in Chengdu, thecapital of the province, which lies on thewestern side of the Red Basin. Then,leaving the subtropical plain behind, wehead into the mountains to Kangding, thegateway to Tibet. We break the journey atYa'an, in order to provide time in which totake in the countryside and, of course, itsplants. Kangding, with its monasteries andbustling market, is an ideal base for plantexploration. It is surrounded by mountains,including Gonga Shan (western China'shighest peak at over 7,500 metres), and acountryside composed of a varied mosaicof lakes, steep forested valleys, grasslandand high passes. Within easy strikingdistance are fertile plant-hunting grounds:rhododendron forests, moist meadowsabounding in Primulaand Pedicularisspecies, grasslands holding Meconopsisintegrifoliaand screes where the bluepoppy Meconopsis horridulamay befound. With four nights in Kangding, we visit the 4,300-metre Zheduo passwhich looks out over the Tagonggrasslands (a 3,700-metre plateausurrounded by snowy peaks), as well asKandingxian Lake and the Dadu River. Leaving Kangding, we skirt the base ofErlang Shan, and then head north up theremote Baoxing Valley to the small town ofBaoxing where we spend the night, theslopes of the valleys we pass throughproviding ample reason for regularwayside exploration and new plantdiscoveries. We then continue north beneath several 5,000-metre peaks beforecrossing the Balang Shan pass andentering the Pitiao Valley and the WolongNature Reserve. Wolong is now well knownas the largest of China's 20 Giant Pandareserves, as well as a haven for many birdand animal species. However, it is thePitao Valley and its many side streams, aswell as the Balang Shan pass, on whichwe focus, for they are a botanicalparadise. To do this we will spend threenights at Wolong and explore hillsides ofIris chrysographeand meadows wherePrimula sikkimensisand AnemoneandPedicularisspecies grow in profusion,amongst them such treasures as thestatuesque Veratrum nigrumand theslipper orchid Cypripedium tibeticum. Near the pass we may find the scarletMeconopsis punicea, a plant that Wilsontravelled 600 miles to collect! Leaving Wolong we head north up the Min Valley, through gorges in which we will look for Lilium regale. Stopping for thenight at Maoxian, a town overlooked byvillages of the indigenous Qiang people,we head the next day to Songpan, and thereserves of Huanglong and Jiuzhaigou.Set in the Min Shan range, and nowdesignated World Heritage Sites, thesereserves provide some of the mostspectacular scenery in the world. Despitethe arrival of Chinese tourism it is veryeasy to get away, appreciate the countryand discover botanical wonders. Wespend four nights at Huanglong with itshundreds of impossibly blue lakes, andthree at Jiuzhaigou with its Y-shaped valleyset amongst snow-covered peaks fringedin thick forests. Heading south again, wereturn to Chengdu and the outside world,having sampled a small portion of thebotanical and cultural wonders of this little-known plant-hunter's paradise.China - Plant-hunting inSichuan, Land of the PandaA pioneering 21-day botanical tour to Sichuan Province, following in the footsteps of the early plant-hunters.Monday 17th June - Sunday 7th July Cost: £4,995Book direct on 01962 733051or see page 284 for Booking InformationSICHUAN TIBET QINGHAI GANSU SHAANXI HUBEI GUIZHOU YUNNAN CHENGDU KANGDING WOLONG HUANGLONG JIUZHAIGOU Outline itineraryDay 1Depart London.Day 2Arrive Chengdu.Day 3Ya'an.Day 4/7Kangding.Day 8Baoxing.Day 9/11Wolong.Day 12Maoxian.Day 13/16Huanglong.Day 17/19Jiuzhaigou.Day 20Maoxian.Day 21Fly London.AccommodationHotels of varying standards; mostwill have private facilities but in morerural areas this cannot beguaranteed.FoodAll included in the price.GradingB/C. Moderate walking, but travellingin this part of China can bedemanding.FocusPlants.LeaderJohn Shipton.Single room supplement£550.Web quick search: CHN02219Meconopsis puniceaRheum alexandraeYakherderParaquilegia anemonoides

The mighty snow-capped peaks of theCaucasus Mountains sweep from theBlack Sea to the Caspian Sea formingan imposing natural frontier between thevastness of the Russian Federation to thenorth and the Republic of Georgia which,prior to independence in 1991, was also amember state of the former Soviet Union.Winter snows and fierce winds make thehigher elevations of these mountains aninhospitable and barren environment butmany of the specialised birds frequentingthese Caucasus summits during thesummer months survive the winter seasonby retreating to the lower slopes whereconditions are less severe. With the onset of spring, the increasing warmth of the sungradually melts the snow cover to releasethe high pastures and crags from their icywinter blanket and allow these denizens toreturn. During this transition period, thenorth Georgian village of Kazbegi hasacquired a reputation as being the perfectlocation from which to see many highlyprized Palearctic rarities before they ascend higher into the mountains and thisexciting new tour is timed to coincide withthis short interval when most of the desired species can be readily found close to the village.Our tour begins in the Georgian capital,Tbilisi, but we quickly leave the city behindand head north through an impressively wildlandscape towards the mountains where wewill stay for four nights in Kazbegi. Thevillage lies in a valley at an altitude of 1,800metres and even in early May snow flurriesare a daily possibility, although the trend isinexorably towards the warmth of summer.With three full days at our disposal we will have ample time in which to search for ourprincipal objectives on these mountainslopes. In the scrubby areas on the outskirtsof the village we may expect to find plumpGreat Rosefinches and stunningGüldenstadt's Redstarts, the latter the largestand arguably the most beautiful of a genusnoted for attractive plumages. CaucasianSnowcock betray their presence with curlew-like calls from the rocky crags above thevillage but, to complete a quartet of mouth-watering Palearctic rarities, we may have toexplore further afield to discover anotherlarge bird with a Caucasian prefix, theCaucasian Black Grouse. These rare grouseare perhaps more demonstrative and easierto locate earlier in the spring but there areseveral favoured areas in the vicinity wherewe should be rewarded with views of thehandsome black males and their moresombrely plumaged females. Birdwatching atKazbegi does, however, offer so much morethan just these four celebrities and, duringour stay, we can expect to see a fineselection of species in these magnificentmountains. Lammergeier, Red-billed Chough,Rock Thrush, Wallcreeper, Alpine Accentor,Mountain Chiffchaff, Snowfinch, Red-frontedSerin and Twite all breed here, whilst thevagaries of migration are certain to result in aconstantly changing mixture of north-boundtravellers which could include such speciesas Red-throated Pipit, Thrush Nightingale,White-throated Robin, Red-breastedFlycatcher and Golden Oriole. Just a fewweeks later, unlocking the avian treasures ofthe High Caucasus would require a greatdeal more effort, but thanks to the window ofopportunity in May we should be able toenjoy all this superlative birdwatching withrelative ease.Returning to Tbilisi for a further three nightswe will discover some other very differentfacets of Georgia as we undertake dailyexcursions from the city to visit the semi-desert steppe around the monastery ofDavid Gareja and the Iori Valley. Here too,migration should be in full flood and one ofthe joys each day will be the eclectic mix ofbirds we'll encounter, ranging from eaglesand harriers soaring overhead to colourfulBee-eaters, Rollers and shrikes. The rollinggrasslands are populated by Calandra Larksand Isabelline Wheatears, bushes maycontain Barred Warblers resplendent insummer plumage, whilst other species toanticipate include Common Crane, WesternRock Nuthatch, Rose-coloured Starling, PiedWheatear and Black-headed Bunting. Theregion also boasts a number of fine lakesand marshes which, shimmering in thespring sunshine, will divert our attention fromthe steppe with such attractions as PygmyCormorant, White-tailed Eagle, variousherons, Whiskered and White-winged BlackTerns, and Great Reed and PaddyfieldWarblers among the wealth of birds nestingor feeding in these wetlands. An absorbingtwo days of birding will be in prospect but,before returning to London, there will also bean opportunity to take a look around Tbilisi,a historic capital city endowed with manysplendid churches and cathedrals. Georgiais a delightful country, full of surprises, andis certain to become a popular Naturetrekdestination in the years to come.Birds of Georgia's Steppes & Caucasus MountainsA 10-day birdwatching tour in search of the special montane species of the high Caucasus Mountains and the lowland birds of central Georgia's distinctive steppe habitats. Friday 3rd May - Sunday 12th May Cost: £2,495Outline itineraryDay 1Fly Tbilisi.Day 2/5 Exploration from Kazbegi.Day 6/9Exploration of DavidGareja and Iori Valleyfrom Tbilisi.Day 10Fly London.AccommodationSimple hotel at Kazbegi; standardtourist hotel in Tbilisi. All rooms haveprivate facilities.FoodAll included in the price.GradingA. Easy/moderate birdwatchingwalks.FocusPrimarily birds; some other wildlife.LeaderChris Kehoe, plus local guides.Single room supplement£195.Web quick search: GEO01220Call now or visit www.naturetrek.co.ukfor your free Trip ItineraryTURKEYARMENIAAZERBAIJANRUSSIAGEORGIATBILISIKAZBEK MOUNTAINSKAZBEGIDAVID GAREJAIORI VALLEYMount KazbegiGüldenstadt'sRedstartGreat Rosefinch