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In the Realm of the Ice Queen

Central Asia, a plant-hunter’s paradise, has long held Chris Gardner under its spell. For two decades the Antalya-based botanical writer and photographer has traversed countless miles of steppe and mountain in search of the hardier cousins of many of his favourite Turkish plants – from towering foxtail lilies to the tiny ‘Trollius lilacinus’, exquisite ice queen of the Tien Shan

  • 'Eremurus albertii' Central Asia is a feast of foxtail lilies in summer. Known as the ‘desert candle’, the rare Eremurus albertii, one of the region’s 30 species, favours earthy slopes and banks. Here it is growing south of Shakhrisabz, in Uzbekistan. It can also be found in Kyrgyzstan
  • 'Trollius lilacinus' Above In June this ice queen – one of the finest flowers in Central Asia – floods areas of snowmelt in the windswept landscapes of Barskoon, on the southern shore of the Issyk-Kul lake in Kyrgzystan. In a perfect combination of beauty and place, this delicate ice-blue 'Trollius', here almost white, changes with the light

Saddle-sore was putting it mildly. I am definitely not a born rider. Thankfully, back in 1999, my 30-year-old body recovered swiftly, helped by a shot or three of finest walnut-flavoured vodka, as prescribed by my friend and fellow naturalist Vladimir Kolbinsev, a long-time researcher and wildlife guide in Kazakhstan. The next day we were off again, riding (or clinging on) as the horses powered up to a 3,000-metre pass in Kazakhstan’s fabulous Aksu-Dzabagly Nature Reserve in the Tien Shan (Celestial Mountains). Once at the pass, any aches quickly dispelled, the landscape and flora were all-consuming. Around us loomed snowcapped peaks. Below us foothills were riven.

This was my introduction to Central Asia, a massive region that for so long had been shrouded in Soviet-era mystery and seemed impossible to reach. Only now was that beginning to change. The ex-Soviet states had their independence, and tourism was growing, fuelled by the lure of the fabled Silk Road, whose ancient hub was Central Asia. Of course, the notion of the Silk Road is an artificial one that we ourselves (or more correctly the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen, in 1877) have imposed on the landscape. Yet for botanists it is very real and very rich, a plant-hunter’s paradise, a 5,000-mile route from central Turkey to China and Mongolia, passing through the southern band of Asian steppe, and blessed with the most spectacular flora on earth≤…

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Chris Gardner and his wife, Başak Gardner, organise and lead botanical tours worldwide, including Turkey and the lands of the Silk Road ( Their books, ‘Flora of the Mediterranean’ and ‘Flora of the Silk Road’, are available from

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Issue 62, 2021 Travellers’ Tales
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Other Highlights from Cornucopia 62
  • Life after Life

    An affectionate tribute to Suna Kıraç by Özalp Birol

  • Sweet endings

    Fruit poached to perfection, the fragrant ‘hoşaf’, or compote, is a simple, soothing finale to any meal

  • Living the Ottoman Dream

    Berrin Torolsan is enchanted by the House of Hindliyan. Photographs by Tim Beddow

  • Behind palace doors

    Philip Mansel on a book that tells the story of the Pera-born dragoman Mouradgea d’Ohsson, the ultimate cosmopolite who lifted the lid on the Topkapı. This special 24-page feature, Cornucopia includes 28 of the images from Mouradgea’s magnum opus, Tableau général de l’Empire othoman

  • Adventures of the Three Donketeers

    Anatolia on foot 40 years ago, by Christopher Trillo, with photographs by the author and Stephen Scoffham

  • The Fabric of Life: Ergun Çağatay’s Epic Journey

    Caroline Eden tells Ergun Çağatay’s remarkable story

  • King of the Gobi

    John Hare on how the two-humped wild camel was saved from extinction

  • The art of letter writing

    Tim Stanley on a celebration of Şeyh Hamdullah and the 500-year-old calligraphy tradition that almost vanished

  • ... And a magnificent Süleyman

    A newly discovered 16th-century painting of Süleyman the Magnificent, sold by Sotheby’s London this spring (and subseqently donated to the Istanbul Municipality by an anonymous businessman), is the most ‘immediate’ portrait of him until the last years of his life. This is Süleyman in his pomp. By Julian Raby

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Issue 62, 2021 Travellers’ Tales
£12.00 / $15.24 / 490.98 TL
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