Sikkim and Tibet Rhododendron Country
Maj. Gen. Howard G. Davidson, Washington, D. C.
While I was in Sikkim in June several years ago, the rhododendron all along the mountain trail were magnificent. Though many were yellows and creams and even orange the large tree types which grew over forty feet were a brilliant red. I do not know the name of the particular species, but will state that it was a sight that I shall never forget.
Most of the rhododendron trees grew at about the 6000 to 8000 ft. altitude and became progressively smaller as the altitude increased. In travelling over the Jellup La pass the tree line was at about 13,500 ft. Above that altitude considerable snow had piled up but perhaps it melts in July and August and there may be small bushes on the ground at the top of the pass, but I doubt it. At about 13,000 ft. the rhododendrons were about six inches tall with blossoms on them about the size of a dime and all were of purple or lavender color, but as I recall now some were even crimson and white.
This particular trip was undertaken while I was in the Service and followed travelled routes that were easily accessible. Dr. Rock's expedition was in very little travelled country, country whose precipitous contours stagger the imagination. Anyone inclined to make the trip I made will see many rhododendron and flora of all kind that is most beautiful, but with much of which I am not familiar. The route passes over the Himalayas from Sikkim and into Tibet. It is a very easy trip and should cause little inconvenience. A good trail is built from Sikkim to the top of the pass and after the first mile or two on the Tibet side the trail is equally good. The grade is easy and the trail is about 7 or 8 feet wide with ample room for caravans to pass.
The British have Dak bungalows built about every twelve miles and travelers may remain in them. These bungalows are generally well built structures with separate kitchen and one or more rooms. Each bungalow is equipped with beds, utensils, dishes and other conveniences. The traveler must carry his own bedding and food. The caretaker of the Dak Bungalow can furnish fuel at a reasonable price and in almost every instance the fuel was rhododendron.
These Dak bungalows are clean and comfortable and are correctly spaced for an easy daily march. When we went through, permission to use them had to be obtained from the British Political Officer in Sikkim at Gangtok. Now that Britain is leaving I don't know who will control them. Perhaps the Maharaja of Sikkim will take over the administration of these travel accommodations. The British have Trade agents all along the route as far as Gyantze, Tibet, and one could obtain permission from the British to go into Tibet as far as Gyantze. Beyond that on the road to Lhasa permission to travel had to be obtained from Tibet and the Tibetans are very sticky about granting such permission. When they do grant it they detail a guard of cavalry to escort the traveler and assign him a house in Lhasa.
Our trip into Tibet cost us about $20.00 a day. This included five pack mules, a cook, mule driver and food for seven. The trail is well traveled and the Tibetans ride it with their wives and children.
Caravans of Yaks or ponies bring out a coarse wool and carry back products of India. I saw one caravan of fifty animals all loaded with Indian matches. Why any one would carry Indian matches across the Himalayas is a mystery for these matches will not ignite in India.
After entering Tibet at about 14,500 ft., one descends to Yattung which is a picturesque valley at an elevation of about 10,000 ft. The trail gradually ascends to Phari two days march, and from that point on continues over a more or less level plain at 14,000 feet. This plain is covered in patches with scrub plants, many of which were rhododendron. I can say though that these small scrubby bushes were not nearly as spectacular as the large trees that grew as forests. Of all the rhododendron growing in the wild there was not a single plant that I would call ugly, for in this abundance of growing things nature seemed to place plants of all sizes, colors and varieties just as they should be. I have often pondered this and have come to the conclusion that the vastness of nature makes only casual comprehension of its handiwork perfection itself.
I was stationed in Burma but did not happen to observe the rhododendron there for I was not in the mountains ,vhen the rhododendrons were in bloom. Later in the season I noticed the same large trees and forests of rhododendron when I passed through the higher elevations.
In reading of the little explored Nagya Hills and the intentions of Mr. Kingdon Ward to enter that district in search of new plants I may state that we had a number of Aircraft Warning stations in these mountains. The men got along very well with the Nagya head hunters. These Nagyas collected one another's heads, but never bothered any of our men.
Our men would walk the distance in from two to four weeks, and when they reached a previously designated spot their equipment would be dropped to them by parachute. We dropped their rations in the same manner. The mountains in that part are about 8,000 ft. high and covered with jungle, so Mr. Kingdon Ward should find rhododendrons.