23 Jan 2022

The world from a drawer of old negatives

 Part One: -  the “Sea of Grass” in 1991

Our 21-day quarantine requirements are a big disincentive to leaving the Territory, and we couldn’t go to China even if we wanted to.

So, I’ve been “scanning” old slides and negatives, and was pleased to stumble over these negatives in one of my folders. (I won’t pretend that my filing has been very diligent).

Some reminders of long ago and far away.

Thirty-one years ago, this would have been a Christmas and New Year Trip to join up the Public holidays with some casual leave.

WWF HK was set up in 1981, and - in its early years - had quite a lot of liaison with officialdom and nature reserves in mainland China as well as educational programmes in Hong Kong. It was WWF who had the contacts, and had sent a group to visit Caohai a couple of years earlier. The HK Birdwatching Society and WWF HK were close in those days, and we took a chance to follow-up.

In Guizhou Province, we were officially hosted by the Forestry Bureau. I’m grateful to them for allowing us to disturb their routine.

Curious youngsters

To me, in those pre-internet days, southwest China had an air of mystery.  Even though the total number of species to be seen during a few days there could never match places like Malaysia or other nearby tropical destinations, the trips were fun because we never knew what we might find.

We flew Dragonair from Hong Kong to Kunming, then got an evening train, to be dropped off at Liupanshui in Guizhou Province at 03:00hrs. Met by our hosts from the Guizhou Forestry Bureau, the sun rose over western Guizhou as we headed for Weining. Once there, we could scope Black-necked Cranes from our accommodation block.

Cameraderie and cold beer.  Birds, people and scenery. Clear air and good winter weather. I went two New Year breaks in a row - 90/91 and 91/92.

Most of the bird shots were taken on slide film and here are a couple from a sunny day.

Weining Town in the background

On the particular day I used this print film, the weather had turned cold and we had been persuaded to try a smaller reservoir in the hills a few miles from the main lake.

The cold snap meant that the lake was actually steaming, it was very atmospheric.

A Kowa scope and a Slik aluminium tripod look a bit old-fashioned now, but they did the job.

Guizhou is a province with many ethnic minorities, and these included Miao and Muslim Hui villagers. 

People were naturally curious to see what the foreigners were doing.

My yellowing notes of what we saw that day have long been discarded. We scoped the waterfowl carefully after a rumour of Crested Shelduck (but it was just a rumour). 

But there were buntings in the hedgerows and White-cheeked Laughingthrushes near the village - mostly too quick for Kodachrome 64 and my efforts at manual focus with my 600mm lens.

Emberiza elegans

The remoter the area, the warmer the welcome. Dried corncobs were used as cooking fuel, in a place where, by necessity, nothing got wasted.

Two of our number walked around the lake, while the rest doubled back to the vehicles at the end of the track.  The place had an “other worldly” feel. 

On the way back the windows of the vehicle frosted on the inside with the moisture from our breath.

I really had wanderlust for travel in those days, and since then I’ve been lucky enough to have travelled over a lot of southwest China. But Ill still remember the Sea of Grass as a special place.


  1. It is really quite fascinating to see these old photographs, John. i hope you will post more. It reminds us that pre-internet days are part of very recent memory, and in the time before its ubiquitous reach, there was still a good deal of mystery, and a sense of adventure attached to travel. Ironically, I have visited Taiwan and Hong Kong, but I have never set foot in China - depending on who you ask!

    1. There’s a temptation to some birders to take today’s usually abundant information for granted... but I shall not.

  2. Wonderful trip into the past John. Great pics and hope to see more like this. I enjoy going through my early HK pics too.

    1. Thanks Jeremy, Caohai is frozen in my mind in its 1992 state, but the local residents are probably glad to have moved on.

  3. Almost as good as your cricket photos!

    1. Thanks, Stu - scenery moves slower than cricketers, so I have more photos of the former !

  4. This is a great post. Really interesting to see the old pics.

    1. Thanks for letting me indulge in nostalgia !