The Natural World: Always have a friend for dinner in China

The aquariums are a bit overwhelming: there are dozens, each with its living display of seafood laid out before me. As with many popular restaurants in China, the customers are poring over and sizing up the food while servers encouragingly prod and corral their livestock. There are clams from Canada, abalone from South Africa, locally caught crabs with their claws held closed by elastic bands.

I am in Nanning, the capital of China's south-western province of Guangxi, about an hour's flight from either Hong Kong and Hanoi – both much closer than Beijing or Shanghai.

I both love and hate eating out in China. The food is always amazingly fresh and wonderfully prepared but the noise and speed means it is rarely relaxing. I'm pretty tired, as we are nearing the end of a field trip that will eventually see us driving 4,000km, staying in 15 hotels and collecting plants in 25 caves.

South China is home to one of the largest and oldest expanses of exposed limestone in the world, weathered into intricate peaks and massive caves over the past 240 million years. We were lucky to get funding to compile an inventory of a group of plants in the nettle family that grow in these caves. These delicate, succulent and stingless plants with very unusual flowers include species which are known to grow only in the twilight of the caverns formed at the cave mouth.

Collecting them has involved some of the most breathtaking experiences of my career, as I stumbled around the bases of massive stalagmites, or on the perfectly flat landscape of the cave floor collecting plants that, to my mind, really shouldn't be there.

As I stare at a small cluster of vulnerable-looking octopuses suctioned on to the side of their aquarium, I feel jolted by the noise and bustle around me. I ask a friend and collaborator why it seems that everyone is always shouting, laughing or singing in Chinese restaurants.

He looks amused and says: "In China, if you eat alone or are very quiet, then you must be very afraid."

When I ask why, he replies: "If you eat alone or are very quiet, it means you have no friends, and if you have no friends it mean you could die!"

This makes me feel a whole lot better, a bit like Eeyore in Winnie-The-Pooh.

Dr Monro is a Natural History Museum botanist. Visitors to the Natural History Museum can go on an expedition of their own at the Butterfly Explorers exhibition, which features a spectacular butterfly house. It runs until 26 September. Visit nhm.ac.uk for details.

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