Globe-trotting grandmother, Geraldine's Esther Paddon, writes about her travels in China and finding beauty in unexpected places.
I was mesmerised. I crouched down to take a closer look at a tiny clump of flowers with bell-like trumpets of the brightest, deepest, azure blue I have ever seen. Such unexpected beauty. No sapphire could ever compete with the richness of the vivid blue.
"Grant, look what I have found," I sang out in excitement, "I think we are in Switzerland."
Grant, (our truck driver on an overland tour) ambled over. Being a mere male he was not as excited as I was but nevertheless he was still impressed by my find.
It was so unexpected finding beautiful gentians blooming to perfection high up in the mountains of northwest China.
I had joined an overland truck tour in Kyrgyzstan which was also travelling the width of China and finishing in Beijing.
We had travelled further than usual to find a spot where we could camp for the night and ended up with a perfect spot high in the mountains. At an altitude of almost 3500 metres it was higher than our usual campsites but being mid-summer, plus the fact we had become acclimatised to higher levels over the last few weeks, it was ideal.
Rugged hillsides of greens and blues merged into a backdrop of snowy peaks. Usually it was the jagged peaks, outlined against the sky like a picture frame, which took my fancy but this time it was the lower slopes where a big herd of grazing yak made me jump in excitement. I was absolutely enthralled by the beauty of the scene which filled me with crazy anticipation and the need to explore. It was incomprehensible beauty. Perhaps I was dreaming? Reality or dream, I needed to capture the images on my camera.
Fortunately I was not on cook duty so after pitching my tent in record time I set off to have closer contact with these regal, shaggy animals.
It was as I was leaving our camp that I spotted the little gentian gems.
The yaks appeared to be friendly. They acknowledged my presence with a cursory look while they continued to graze on the succulent mountain grasses.
As one of the human species, it would appear I was welcome to share their domain as long as I did not interrupt their daily eating routine.
I walked quietly so I would not scare them but they hardly blinked an eyelid as I passed close by. It was unreal. The splendour of the mountains, a brilliant blue sky with shaggy mountain animals in the foreground was almost too much for my senses to take in. I felt like bursting into song, - perhaps not as poetic as the original but more befitting the occasion - "The hills are alive with the sound of munching yaks."
I wandered up the rugged hillside finding perfect spots where the mountains offset the splendour of those magnificent bovine specimens. I was almost overwhelmed by the beauty surrounding me.
Already on the tour we had passed the odd yak in the distance. I had eagerly grabbed every opportunity to capture their images.
Yaks grazing in the wild are such photogenic animals and look part of the hillside scene. Here, high in the mountains, we had the privilege of joining them in their natural environment and camping in yak territory.
As I climbed further up the slopes of my yak mountain I came across two nomad tents hidden behind some sheltering rock outcrops. I went closer and could see a woman outside.
She was a little startled to see me and quickly went inside reappearing with a companion. At the same time a young lad on a horse rode up and shyly smiled at me.
I showed my camera and indicated I would like to take a picture. A nod assured their acquiescence. Nervously they stood in a huddled group and I quickly snapped a picture.
Without going too close I held out my camera. Gradually they came near enough to see the picture. The expression on their faces changed from stunned disbelief to hesitant smiles. Then it became too much. They were unable to contain their feelings any longer. Suddenly they burst into excited laughter and chatter. The chatter I could not understand but the delightful giggles were evidence of their pleasure. One picture was not enough. They wanted me to take more and more.
It was getting late and the sun had dipped behind a hill. Reluctantly I said goodbye. They are timid people and hold back from any close contact.
I went on my downward way overjoyed at meeting them. I blessed the modern wonder of a digital camera which can overcome any language barrier. I do wish I could send some photos back to them but in this instance it is not possible.
Like the gentians, my nomad family was an unexpected bonus to a wonderful day. My timing was perfect.
Back at the truck a hot meal was ready and waiting for me.
At camp it wasn't long until goodnights were said all around. The day had been hot and sunny but because of the altitude, nightfall brought a drastic drop in temperature.
Often on the trip we built a camp fire to cook our meal and then we would sit around it afterwards sharing the highlights of the day. However, our supply of wood needed replenishing so this night our meal had been cooked on gas.
With no cosy fire for company, an early night in sleeping bags and tents was the obvious solution to keeping warm.
Next morning we left before sunrise. I did not see my startling blue gentians. Their tiny buds were tightly closed waiting for the sunshine's warmth before showing their beauty to the world.
Our destination was the famed and beautiful walk by the tumbling water and pools of the Huanglong Valley in Sichuan province. It is famous for the most splendid open-air calcified colourful pools and waterfalls. It is unsurpassed natural beauty.
It was a holiday weekend so we had to share the track with hundreds of people who were making the most of a sunny, warm day.
Many of the women carried sun umbrellas in beautiful iridescent colours or glittering designs which sparkled in the sun. I made a mental note to make sure I bought one to take home as a memento. Not that I need anything to remind me of the walk but to see the brilliant colour and sparkles will add happiness to any grey day back home.
Five of us decided to walk all the way. Most of our group took a cable car to the top and then walked down. The upward track should have taken about 90 minutes but I admit it did take us much longer. It was not because of its difficulty, in fact the track was a little too manicured for my liking.
Any blame for the longer time span lay with Shuichi, one of our group, and me. We are picture laggards and always straggle in the rear.
I cannot resist stopping to admire the scenery and take pictures. I like to have tangible evidence later when I look at the pictures and I can relive the magical experience again.
Another night we stayed nearby in the town of Gongjing where I had my first glimpse of the famous Yellow River. It was an impressive sight.
A mass of yellow clay water swiftly swirling on its way. I admit I was a tad disappointed to realise the origin of its name came from common clay but later I was to see a different picture. The last rays of the setting sun transformed the dull clay colour into a glowing mass of gold.
The next day we took a trip up the Yellow River in a speedboat to see the Bingling Thousand Buddha Caves. It was fun whizzing up the river on a speedboat. The morning was hazy and misty but at every turn in the river the sight of strange, ethereal, odd-shaped mountains emerging from the misty background was spectacular. Quite different to our mountains in New Zealand.
Bingling is one of the best ancient Buddha sites in China and dates back to the Ming dynasty. The statues are carved out in natural caves or hewn grottos along the Yellow River. Each Buddha tells a different story. However, apart from size, each Buddha looks similar to me. It was the glorious mountain scenery which took my breath away.
China's mountain scenery is impressive. Such variation and beauty and I only touched on the fringe of the country's natural heritage.
China is a changing country. While its natural resources are one of China's greatest assets it is the people - 1.4 billion - who are most important.
My last night in Gongjing as I walked by the Yellow River I was greeted by one of a group of small boys.
"Hello, what's your name?"
I replied in like manner and we had a conversation of a few basic sentences.
Then I asked, "How old are you?"
Clearly he did not understand. He screwed up his little face in concentration but not to be stumped he said in perfect English, "It's a pleasure to meet you. Goodbye."
I grinned back at him as I said goodbye. It sounded so cute, an adult sentence coming from a little boy who would have been no more than 8 years old.
China's way of teaching its young people English by using polite phrases is a lesson for us also.
Ah yes, China, with its grandiose mountains, is wiser than we think.