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China Hotspot

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China's Hengduan Mountains

By Virginia MorellPhotographs by Mark W. Moffett

Government decrees protect a fragile habitat where Buddhism alone once stood guard.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

From the valley of the flying lily we drove higher up Mount Gongga to a parking lot just below Hailuogou Glacier. Although the trail to the glacier was still under construction, visitors were already setting out on it. All were dressed as if arriving for a social occasion: the men in suits and dress shoes gleaming with polish; the women in slacks, sweater sets, and dainty sandals, their hair perfectly coiffed, their lipstick and nail polish shining. Few actually walked to the glacier; most preferred to be carried in chairs slung on two poles and hefted by two strong men. “We are seeing our country, the beauty of it,” one couple told me when I asked what had brought them to Hailuogou. “And we want to walk on the glacier.” A few miles up the trail the carriers unloaded their burdens, and the tourists headed tentatively onto the ice in their city shoes, laughing and slipping and then simply stopping to admire the long tongue of the glacier that drifted in and out of view under a low-lying cloud.

At the trailhead local people earned extra money by selling mushrooms, herbs, and medicinal plants they had collected in the forest. In other countries such collecting might be prohibited in a national park, but Yin shook his head at this idea. “These plants are important for people’s health,” he explained. “There are some that can be cultivated, but others have their power only if they are collected in the forest. It may need some regulation, but not all traditions can be changed overnight.”

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.


VIDEO Mark Moffett talks about the relationship between religion and culture in this Chinese mountain locale. Click here.

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Finding the regal lily almost killed Ernest Henry Wilson.

In 1899 the 23-year-old English botanist was employed by Veitch Nurseries to travel to western China in search of the rare and beautiful dove tree, Davidia involucrata. His task was to find a “single tree, in a mountainous area about the size of New York State,” as Alice M. Coats writes in The Plant Hunters (McGraw-Hill, 1969). When Wilson reached the spot, he discovered that the tree had been felled to build a house. He later succeeded in finding not only another Davidia but also hundreds of new plant species.

More expeditions to China followed, earning him the nickname “Chinese” Wilson. It was on one of these trips, sponsored by the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, Massachusetts, that he tracked down Lilium regale, a fragrant white trumpet lily popular in many gardens today. After making arrangements for more than 6,000 bulbs to be shipped to America, he was caught in a rockslide on a precipitous mountain path. A boulder came down on his leg, breaking it in two places. He instructed his men to fashion splints from the legs of his camera tripod, but his troubles weren’t over: As the splints were being adjusted, a mule train came up the narrow path. With no room for 50 mules to pass or turn and the threat of another avalanche imminent, Wilson asked his men to place him across the path so the mules could step over him—which they did, without incident. “Then it was that I realized the size of the mule’s hoof,” he noted in a memoir. Three days later he reached safety, but infection set in and he narrowly avoided having his leg amputated. Back in Boston his leg had to be rebroken and reset. He had a slight limp for the rest of his life—his “lily limp,” as he called it.

Wilson introduced at least a thousand new plant species to the West, including crepe myrtles, hydrangeas, primulas, rhododendrons, roses, and, perhaps the most famous of all, the beloved regal lily. As John Simmons, the former curator of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, says, “When you look around modern gardens today, there’s scarcely one without a plant from China.”

—Kathy B. Maher

World Wildlife Fund
Search this site for more information about the biodiversity of China’s temperate forests, renowned as the home of the giant panda.

Red Panda: The Fire Cat
Miles Roberts of the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park tells how the red panda got its name and provides a wealth of fascinating details about the species in this article from the March/April 1992 Zoogoer.


Conservation International. Biodiversity Hotspots (a map). Conservation International, 2000.

Eckholm, Erik. “A Holy Place in China Fights for Its Life, Body and Soul,” New York Times, June 10, 2001.

Farjon, Aljos, and Christopher N. Page, comps. Conifers: Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan. IUCN/SSC Conifer Specialist Group, 1999.

MacKinnon, John. Wild China. MIT Press, 1999.

Mittermeier, Russell, and others. Hotspots. Agrupacion Sierra Madre, 1999.

Musgrave, Toby, Chris Gardner, and Will Musgrave. The Plant Hunters: Two Hundred Years of Adventure and Discovery Around the World. Ward Lock, 1998.

Schaller, George B. The Last Panda. University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Zhao Ji and others. The Natural History of China. McGraw-Hill, 1990.


Terrill, Ross. “Sichuan: Where China Changes Course,” National Geographic (September 1985), 280-317.

Gutmann, John. “Kunming Pilgrimage” National Geographic (February 1950), 213-226.

Rock, Joseph F. “Through the Great River Trenches of Asia: National Geographic Society Explorer Follows the Yangtze, Mekong, and Salwin Through Mighty Gorges, Some of Whose Canyon Walls Tower to a Height of More Than Two Miles,” National Geographic (August 1926), 133-186.

Grosvenor, Gilbert Hovey. “The National Geographic Society’s YŁnnan Province Expedition,” National Geographic (April 1925), 492-498.

Beech, Joseph. “The Eden of the Flowery Republic,” National Geographic (November 1920), 355-390.


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