In 1998, on a two-day field trip to the Tianshan Grand Canyon organized by his middle school's biology club, Yang spotted a flowering plant bearing a resemblance to the rare genus Diplandrorchis. He wrote to Chen Xinqi, the late leading orchidologist and the discoverer of Diplandrorchis. Chen informed him that the plant was Neottia inayatii, and that this was the first time it had been found in China.
The chance discovery and the publishing of his findings won Yang top awards in national contests, and he was granted admission to Beijing Normal University as a biology major.
Yang spent a few years in profitable careers, but his love for wild plants never faded. In 2014, encouraged by friends, he resumed research on flora, spending his salary on equipment and venturing into the wild whenever he could.
"When I went to the mountains as a teenager, I usually collected pretty flowers that caught my eye. Now, I focus on the inconspicuous ones, which have hardly been studied," Yang says.
In 2017, he founded the Natural Botanical Society, which currently boasts 13 core members, 20 long-term volunteers and more than 200 plant enthusiasts who occasionally volunteer. The society protects endangered species and raises awareness through workshops.
So far, Yang and his team have discovered eight new plant species in Xinjiang - seven of them in the Tianshan Mountains alone - the key contributing factors being the region's altitudinal distribution of vegetation and geographical differences between the northern and southern slopes.
"The Tianshan Mountains host comprehensive growing zones for plants-from desert, grassland and forest species, to those found in subalpine meadows, alpine meadows and the subnival belt. Hence, the plants are all unique," Yang explains.