Over the Doshong La
"There was snow everywhere, snow and tumbling water. Far below...the valley...broadened out a little, and vast avalanches of snow, forty or fifty feet deep, blocked the way...And halfway down towards the fringes of the forest, in dense scrub, I caught a glimpse of orange, vivid among the crimson glory of the Rhododendrons; a billow of foliage shone blue-green."
Frank Kingdon-Ward wrote in Romance of Gardening his impression of his discovery of Rhododendron concatenans 'Orange Bill' (now R. cinnabarinum ssp. xanthocodon Concatenans Group) on the southeast side of Tibet's Doshong La1 on June 29, 1924. Kingdon-Ward returned over the pass the next November at some peril and great difficulty to retrieve seed capsules. This was the first of only two introductions of the plant, which lives in a place described as possibly having the worst weather in the world.
In June of 1995, a party of 19 Western flower hunters set out to retrace the footsteps of Kingdon-Ward and other renowned English plant hunters, Frank Ludlow and George Sherriff. They had described dozens of new species of rhododendron and primula from S.E. Tibet, particularly from the Doshong La. Among them was the elusive 'Orange Bill'. Could we find Concatenans; did it still exist? Was it really a breeding population; a possible species? Kingdon-Ward had found only two or three plants. Cullen had sunk its specific status into R. cinnabarinum, with only cultivated specimens in the herbarium.
At 13,500 feet, the Doshong La is the lowest pass over the eastern Himalayas, and one of several verdant mountain passes in the region of the great bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo River in S.E. Tibet. Here the Tsangpo, which runs 1,278 miles west to east draining the north slope of the Himalaya, changes character from its gentle flow to a raging cataract. The river gorge begins between the last two great sentinels of the Himalaya, Mt. Namche Barwa (25,445 feet, until 1992 the highest unclimbed mountain in the world) and 23,460-foot Mt. Gyala Peri. Then, in only 24 miles the river level drops from 9,600 feet to about 1,000 feet as it makes a nearly 180 degree turn to run southwest into Assam, India. There it is called the Brahmaputra, the great holy river of India. Kingdon-Ward and Lord Cawdor, in 1924, explored the farthest down the great gorge of the Tsangpo, but they were unable to traverse the entire length.
|The Namche Barwa - Doshong La Area of Southeastern Tibet.|
Our own prime target was Kingdon-Ward's "Rhododendron Fairyland," the Doshong La, followed by the Nyima La and the Temo La. After Kingdon-Ward's exploration, Ludlow and Sherriff, with Taylor and then Elliot, explored this region again in 1938 and 1946-7, making one quick crossing of the Doshong La. Then, foreigners were not allowed into Tibet until the 1980s.
In May of 1986, Warren Berg led a group mostly from the Northwestern U.S. to the Doshong La (see Journal ARS, Vol. 41, No. 3, Summer 1987). One of us (CM) was on that trip. Forested hills and valleys were full of the white and pink of R. principis and R. uvariifolium. Darker pinks marked R. faucium and R. hirtipes. In the last few days of our stay, yellow R. wardii came into bloom. But the snow was still deep on the Doshong La, and we left without seeing the carpets of alpine rhododendrons that Kingdon-Ward had described.
Because of unrest in Tibet no other explorations were allowed until Kenneth Cox received permission after five years of petitioning to take a group back to the Doshong La. Many had been on the waiting list for years. The seven Americans2 (all members of the ARS and the Rhododendron Species Foundation) met the 12 Scots and English3 members in Kathmandu on May 29, 1995. The next day, in a spectacular flight, we crossed the Himalaya between Mts. Everest and Kanchendzonga and landed at Gongkar Airport (at over 11,500 feet; a two-hour drive from Lhasa). Meeting us with the traditional Tibetan welcome of white silk scarves was He Hai, the "Trail Boss" in charge of transportation, camps, food and quarters. Accompanying us were five experienced camp crew from Nepal, three Tibetan guides, and the drivers of the five Land Cruisers and one truck required for our journey. From Gongkar we followed the ancient, winding, single lane track 318 miles east along the south bank of the Tsangpo. This rough dusty drive descended from 11,650 feet to 9,500 feet. Throughout the trip, the roads were the greatest hazard, no more than one-and-a-half lanes wide, with speeding trucks, slippery mud, no signs, and proud drivers. We drove the first 200 miles through typical Tibetan highlands: arid, spectacular, gouged land. Monasteries and stupas dotted the skyline and cliffs. Terraced barley and wheat fields were just above river level near the Tibetan villages. Here, the road was often lined with willows and cottonwoods. It was delightful to be in the brilliant sunshine and the sweet, fresh air. We discovered that the Tibetans were just as curious about us as we were about them. Westerners are a rarity in these parts.
We spent two nights at Chinese guest houses, one with no running water or lights. Quite good Chinese dinners were found by our savvy guides. Breakfast was dough balls, rice gruel and boiled eggs. Luckily, the green tea was excellent.
On the second day of driving, we crossed a 15,500-foot pass, the Gama La. Near the top we explored dry, rocky hillsides of R. primuliflorum and R. nivale, with the occasional Primula chionantha ssp. sinopurpurea. At the top, only a few of us were able to find enough energy to locate androsace and arenaria cushion plants, and Primula calderiana. The prayer flags beckoned us down the other side, into a slope of R. aganniphum blooming pink and white, accompanied by Cassiope selaginoides. Down at the Tsangpo we struggled through sand dunes, and gazed at the Cupressus gigantea and Pinus densata stands. The predominant plant was the blue-flowered legume Sophora moorcroftiana. Before dusk, we drove along the banks of the Tsangpo surrounded by berberis, salix, and blooming Rosa sericea and spirea. At one stop, we found flowering Iris decora, Clematis graciflorum, sweet jasminum and yellow Arisaema flavum.
The following morning, we left the village of Meiling early and drove past R. triflorum var. mahogani. By late morning, with the Tsangpo on our left and the Himalayan foothills now green on our right, we were gazing into the heavily forested valleys to the south, when we spotted a hillside near Lusha covered in purple. David Burlinson, our trek leader and the only Westerner among us not "into" plants, ran up the hill, and immediately shouted back in his British accent, "I believe they are rhododendrons".
This was our first real find of the trip. R. bulu was collected by Kingdon-Ward in 1925 and described by Hutchinson in 1929, but no seed was successfully propagated even though Ludlow and Sherriff recorded several other populations in 1936 and 1938. The species has gone largely unknown since then, as it is not in cultivation. What we found were 3-5-foot-high dense shrubs, very floriferous, with purple to light purple flowers; much like a large R. nivale, growing on an exposed north-facing dry hillside.
Ahead, we forded rivers flowing from the Himalaya, and drove by fields of Iris decora with a few Paeonia delavayi. This was familiar territory to me (CM.), having crossed the Tsangpo on one of its few bridges just west of "Bulu hill" in 1986. We missed R. bulu on the previous trip since it wasn't in bloom in May. By 1 p.m. we reached the base of the Doshong La at the town of Pe, just above the Tsangpo at 9,600 feet. The town's most conspicuous feature is an old Chinese military camp with many sets of abandoned barracks. At the little store we purchased canned coconut milk, a sweet orange soda called jinlibao, and rather weak beer.
We spent the next five days on the Doshong La, some of the group exploring the north side of the pass and the rest attempting the crossing of the Himalaya into the province of Pemako. The first afternoon was a brief course in what was to come. Packed into the Land Cruisers, we drove up the rutted road as far as possible. The sun brilliant, we were full of expectation as we left the dry dusty river valley for the forested slopes. We passed hillsides of blooming Clematis montana, yellow/red R. triflorum var. mahogani, drifts of yellow R. wardii, meadows filled with dark purple Iris chrysographes and swampy flats of orange Primula chungensis. The vehicles were stopped at 11,650 feet, a half-dozen switchbacks below the end of the road, by snow and fallen fir trees. The fresh cold mountain air invigorated the lungs, and we were filled with the sensations of rushing water, snow-clad peaks, peeling red and silver bark of birches, and yellow, pink and red of rhododendrons. All around us were the larger rhododendrons of the area: R. principis and R. uvariifolium (both past their bloom); R. faucium, with peeling bark and pink trusses; the smaller yellow R. wardii and R. campylocarpum, and the glossy red hanging trusses of R. cerasinum. Bristly branches of R. hirtipes demanded attention. At the forest edges were dark yellow flowers on leafless R. mekongense. Only one insect was actively collecting pollen: A large, slow bumblebee with distinct black and orange markings was frequently found in rhododendron flowers.
We found many natural hybrid rhododendrons on and around the Doshong La. The first was a uvariifolium - wardii hybrid with a dull flower. Of more interest were the numerous intermediate forms between R. wardii and R. campylocarpum, difficult to distinguish without close examination of the red glands on the style. This site (specifically the alpine-forest interface) is where the ranges of R. wardii and R. campylocarpum overlap, and either the two closely related species are forming a population of hybrids, or perhaps are diverging from one another.
To facilitate our explorations, we moved our camp to the meadow at 10,700' that had been the base camp of the 1986 trip. There was less snow than found on our 1986 visit, and attempting the pass seemed possible. So, the next day we explored the upper reaches of the Doshong La, and assessed the possibility for crossing southeast to Pemako. Past the end of the road at 11,970 feet, snow fields surrounded us but the trail was mostly mud and rocks. At 12,020 feet singing birds, yellow R. wardii, and the strange forms of Abies spectabilis on the far side of the stream provided a buoyant feeling - or was it the altitude? By 12,200 feet, the R. wardii were only in bud, but gave way to purple R. charitopes var. tsangpoenss. Leafless salix provided a tangle of limbs to climb through as the trail was buried at the base of the first large snow field.
Our Tibetan guides broke a trail through the soft snow, and we followed cautiously using walking sticks or rhododendron branches to help prevent a slip into the steep stream still half hidden under the snow. Atop the snowfield was a more level area clear of snow; a place never to be forgotten - an alpine garden that could not be matched by any man-made effort. Between about 12,500 feet and 13,000 feet we found more species of rhododendron in bloom than imaginable in such a small natural area. All were accompanied by Cassiope fastigiata, Cassiope selaginoides, and purple-flowered Primula chionantha and Bergenia purpurascens.
Above us to the east was a tremendous cliff, ahead a long and steep field of snow, and to the west, fields of R. campylocarpum, an impenetrable thicket well deserving Kingdon-Ward's moniker "Yellow Peril." Through this miniature rhododendron forest ran the rocky alpine stream, and above it lay snow-clad slopes studded with windblown firs. But at our feet, and growing on moss-covered rocks and boulders, and hidden in crevices, were the pink, purple, yellow, red, and white flowers of the "Rhododendron Fairyland." The largest plants (1 -3' tall), although few in number, were the namesake R. doshongense (now submerged into R. aganniphum), with large pink trusses. A single specimen of pink R. pumilum (Kingdon-Ward's "Pink Baby") peeked out of its cassiope bed. Most common here was R. cephalanthum, both yellow (Nmaiense Group) and pink. White R. primuliflorum and red-pink R. kongboense were scattered here and there. A few R. calostrotum were brilliant purple. Another rarely spotted species was R. campylogynum, unfortunately not in bloom. Two other species were not in bloom here, though we would find flowers later: R. nivale and R. fragariflorum. The latter has leaves of a deep bronze-brown before flowering and new growth, appearing almost dead. We were revived and enthused by the delightful display. But ahead lay two more steep snowfields, which we climbed wondering if it would be worth the effort. What could surpass the "Rhododendron Fairyland" we had just left? We staggered up a final rise, approaching 13,000 feet.
| R. cephalanthum and larger R. doshongense (R. aganniphum)
on the Doshong La, about 12,500 feet.
Photo by Chip Muller
Fields of brilliant red rhododendrons!! Red trumpets sitting above the dwarf, matted plants heralded R. forrestii and R. chamaethomsonii. With purple primula and bergenia, and yellow and pink Diapensia purpurea providing counterpoint, we found a tapestry of color. Except for Primula macrophylla var. ninguida growing in marshy spots, all were making their home on a delicate mat of old vegetation and broken-down rock. Stepping between larger rocks, one risked breaking through to the ankle or deeper. So this is perfect drainage! We spent hours here, in the strong wind and sun; it was another place none of us will ever forget.
After some initial confusion, it was not surprising to find many intermediate forms between R. forrestii and R. chamaethomsonii. As Kenneth Cox said, "Well, after all, they've been up here in bed together for thousands of years". The next day, half the group prepared for the pass and the province of Pemako. The others would have three days to explore the north sides of two passes, and to leisurely examine the rich plant life around the meadow camp. During this time, Scott Vergara discovered a specimen of R. cerasinum with both pure red and red and white flowers like those of 'Cherry Brandy'!
We left early for the pass, on a cloudy but calm day. Today we were accompanied by a dozen local villagers who we paid as porters. They frequently travel the pass to trade, but only in the relatively dry months of June, October and November. "Dry" on the Doshong La means frequent, as opposed to constant, snow or rain, with cold blowing mist in between.
By 11:30 we had arrived back at "Forrestii ridge." Above it, two rock buttresses ended in a snow-filled cirque just below the pass. Huge boulders stood out against the swirling clouds rising from Pemako. Climbing the deep snow of the cirque's edge, we knew we were gaining our objective, for prayer flags could be seen fluttering on rock piles above. The wind was blowing harder as our feet sunk into the soft wet snow at the top of the Himalayan ridge. We collapsed thankfully onto the rocky outcropping studded with red R. forrestii, deep pink Primula rubicunda and diapensia - the Doshong La!
| The expedition party about to descend into the third cirque
on the Pemako side of the Doshong La.
Photo by Chip Muller
We sought niches protected from the wind and mist blowing over the pass as we waited to regroup for the descent. The first few steps into Pemako on the south side of the Himalaya were both exhilarating and concerning - when the mists cleared, there was nothing ahead but steep slopes of snow. We were not prepared for this; we thought we would "only" be dealing with wet or icy rocks on the way down. Luckily, the snow was perfect, not too soft nor slick. We gingerly made our way down three steep slopes until at last we arrived back on rocky trails without mishap.
Our efforts were not wasted. In addition to plants seen on the north side, we quickly found R. parmulatum - not seen in the wild by Westerners since 1947, and only introduced once, by Kingdon-Ward in 1925. Another stunning plant, this one never successfully introduced, was Primula falcifolia, Kingdon-Ward's "Daffodil Primula" with large clear yellow flowers. Small alpine meadows were covered with Primula dickeana in both yellow and purple forms, Pleione scopulorum was nestled in protected spots, and Ann Chambers found an arisaema that may be a new species.
| R. cinnabarinum ssp. xanthocodon Concatenans Group - the real
thing on the south side of the Doshong La. The population
grows in a thin band about a half-mile long, at 11,800 feet.
Photo by Keith White
| Cliffs in the mist. R. cinnabarinum ssp. xanthocodon
Photo by Keith White
Our eyes were also on the cliffs, searching for the glaucous leaves or apricot-yellow flowers of Concatenans. Searching for a half hour, we wondered if the plant was now extinct. There! Well up on the cliffs - and in flower! Three of us scrambled up, much as Kingdon-Ward had done, to photograph the prize with great difficulty. Imagine our surprise when, just around the next corner, the rest of the group found Concatenans growing practically by the trail. There were hundreds, if not thousands of plants, growing in a narrow band at 11,800 feet for about a half mile. There is no doubt that the plant, "species” or not, is growing well, in an isolated population. Perhaps new specimens will warrant re-classification of this special rhododendron back to species status.
| R. glischrum var. rude in Pemako, commonly found
in the valley, around 10,700 to 10,300 feet.
Photo by Keith White
The remaining time, a full day and two nights in Pemako were continuously exhilarating. Exploring the valley down to about 9400 feet, we found more fine rhododendrons, including ones never described from this locale. Rare R. leucaspis and R. exasperatum were exciting finds. A forest of pink R. arizelum (formerly R. rex ssp. arizelum), with unusual winged petioles (aff. basilicum ?) led to an abies forest supporting epiphytic R. micromeres and R. megeratum. Red R. lanigerum was common, and used as firewood by our local staff (much to our concern). R. glischrum var. rude was very common, and hybridized with R. campylocarpum. A field of R. parmulatum with flowers from almost clear to heavily speckled grew by a swamp. Farthest down, Kenneth Cox discovered R. sinogrande and R. keysii. [Those interested in the history of rhododendron collecting should note that we found R. sinogrande and R. exasperatum, but not R. montroseanum - see Davidian, The Rhododendron Species Vol. II, p.237.] A special find was R. uniflorum var. imperator, previously believed to be only from N.E. Burma, very rare, and only previously found by Kingdon-Ward.
| R. parmulatum, a good color form, in Pemako
at 10,240 feet growing by a swamp.
Photo by Chip Muller
| R. arizelum aff. basilicum, common in
Pemako at about 10,500 feet. Note the
winged petioles. This form was not
described by previous explorers.
Photo by Chip Muller
In the lower valley, we found a variety of R. mekongense that matched Kingdon-Ward's R. viridescen from his 1924 exploration of this site. The red-edged yellow flowers of R. mekongense var. rubrolineatum were unmistakable, and common on the south side of the pass at higher elevations. Thus, one of several mysteries surrounding these plants may be close to being solved: the previously unclear origin of the latter variety, and the status of R. viridescens (a cultivated Group, possibly identical to R. mekongense var. rubroluteum). The latter plants were described only from cultivated material derived from Kingdon-Ward's 1922 and 1924 collections in N.E. Burma and on the Doshong La. Now the presence of both R. mekongense var. rubrolineatum and R. viridescens / mekongense var. rubroluteum, with apparently different blooming times and habitats, has been confirmed in the wild, on the Doshong La. Kingdon-Ward had a well-documented dislike of these plants (Trichoclada in general); could he have been less thorough than usual in his documentation? Further examination of these plants is needed.
We reluctantly left the valley of Pemako and its mysteries, and with surprising lightness of spirit, re-climbed the Doshong La. Going down the great snowfields on the north side was made easier by glissading down the less steep slopes, much to the surprise of our Tibetan guides.
On the morning of June 6th we walked the river trail from our meadow camp down the valley to Pe. Surrounding the camp were beautiful, clear yellow R. wardii. However, the species of greatest interest on the trip down the valley was the large, dark chocolate red cypropedium orchid. Also common on the trip down were R. principis and R. uvariifolium, displaying velvety and shiny new growth. On the lower reaches of the trail we had our first of many encounters with Tibetan "free range pork" - the little, hairy black pigs that the Tibetans allow to wander freely.
From Pe we drove to the end of the road at Kyikar. We hiked a few more miles, crossing two glacial rivers to the village of Tripe. There we set up our camp in a meadow. We were the "circus-come-to-town" for the local children. They were constant camp observers, and very cute ones at that. The smallest children wore pants with a slit behind and no underwear (for obvious reasons). The effect is what I (CM.) call "butt hanging out" pants. I said that and laughed enough times that the Tibetan children picked up the phrase. When they would see me coming they would say "butt hanging out" and laugh all the more because I would laugh too.
From this camp, basking in the full view of Namche Barwa, half of the party ascended the small trails leading toward the glaciers. It was the hottest, fastest, and steepest hike of the trip. Predictably, it yielded the least botanically. However, there was an unforgettable large stand of Cassiope wardii, Primula jaffreyana, and a yak surrounded by stinging nettle (Urtica spp.) and 6-foot high rhubarb (Rheum palmatum). The raw rhubarb stems were great thirst-quenchers, and our Tibetan guide demonstrated how the huge leaves could be used as a hat to shade the sun!
The rest of the party hiked the spectacular trail above the rapids of the Tsangpo Gorge. They went four or five miles, "but at these altitudes the exertion to breathe makes every mile a lot farther". For a distance the trail followed a ledge with a 500-foot drop to the river below. The views back up the gorge and towards Tripe and Kyikar were spectacular - especially with Namche Barwa dominating the scene. Hot and sweaty from the hike, they stopped for lunch at a bend in the river where a big eddy had created a good beach. Keith White took the opportunity to take a swim protected from the rapids by the calm water in the eddy.
On sunny June 8th, we read, bathed and washed clothes in the cold stream, and rested around camp. Namche Barwa's stupendous bulk towered over us. The ever-changing clouds around the summit provided a meteorological cinema. That afternoon we had a rollicking two-hour water fight in the stream with the Tibetan teens. It was good fun for all. Little did we know that this was the Tibetan ritual for summoning rain. That night after dinner we traded songs with the Tibetans. Things got really jolly when a Tibetan (the "Chang-meister") brought up his pony loaded with jugs of Tibet's favorite brew, chang. He would fill one's cup with chang, and then the Tibetans would chant their drinking song as the recipient drained the cup. We each got our turn, round and round the table. Once, the lights went out; in the dark Chris Sanders poured his drink under the table. The Changmeister was wise to this and poured Chris another draft. The next morning brought varying degrees of complaints from our group, but the good socializing the previous night was worth the after-effects of the unaccustomed brew.
On the drizzly morning of June 9th, we broke camp and walked back to the road at Kyikar and then drove the steep road back to Pe. Our vehicles left us where we were met by the ferry (which consisted of two long hulls spanned by large planks). All 19 trekkers, a horse and some of our porters crossed the Tsangpo on this rickety craft. Our baggage arrived a couple of hours later.
From the north bank of the Tsangpo we walked the track down-river to Timpe, the start of Nyima La trail. The whole village, dressed in their finest, turned out to meet us. What a friendly people! At every encounter, our ambassador of good-will Rollo Adams, was busy blowing up balloons for all the children. "Balloon" was the English word that Rollo introduced into the Tibetan vernacular.
That afternoon we hiked about three miles up the forested Nyima Valley to "strawberry meadow camp." The wild strawberries were thick underfoot. We picked dessert before the tents were even pitched. We had seen no new rhododendrons that day, but the walk was refreshing and the forest interesting with lindera, viburnum, and beautiful lonicera with lush red berries.
On the second and third days on the Nyima La, we were treated to outstanding botanical walks one only dreams of. Three species of meconopsis in bloom (blue M. betonicifolia, M. simplicifolia and yellow M. pseudointegrifolia), fields of colorful primulae (ten species!), with gorgeous pines and firs overhead. The sweet Primula alpicola 'Luna' and P. bellidifolia offered a treat for those who bent to smell them. A special find was P. latisecta, with geranium-like leaves. This species was discovered on the Nyima La by Kingdon-Ward in 1924. And, another species of rhododendron, R. oreotrephes was in bloom. We slept, surrounded by meconopsis, in a steep rocky clearing at 12,840 feet.
The third day on the pass continued the magic. Between stands of old cedars cloaked in mosses were thickets of R. phaeochrysum var. agglutinatum, with the occasional R. wardii (including L & S form) and R. primuliflorum to provide a contrast to its pink flowers. The second rhododendron not seen before on this trip was R. beesianum (R. dignabilei). After struggling up trails newly created to circumvent wash-outs, we reached the beginning of the alpine slopes. Just below them was the final meadow with yak herders' huts at 13,470 feet. This meadow was home to thousands of purple-flowered Primula calderiana. Nearby we found in bloom two of the most special small rhododendrons of the trip: R. fragariflorum and R. laudandum. The former was the finest specimen of the species I (CM.) have seen in person or in photographs, with large, speckled bright red calyces and substantial flowers. The latter was a special find. R. laudandum is grown in cultivation, but these plants do not match the species descriptions from the wild. One main characteristic of the true species is its very small leaves with numerous small black scales underneath. Another notable character is the tight balled trusses. Altogether, a superb plant. I noted a possible reason for the "missing" characters in cultivated R. laudandum. Almost everywhere we found R. laudandum, there was also R. primuliflorum, and where both were growing, there was a form with leaves and scales intermediate between the two species! Could this be the "R. laudandum" in cultivation? Are R. laudandum and R. primuliflorum two extremes of one species?
The high alpine scree and swamplands held more surprises. Conical green and bright yellow plants, five feet high, attracted our attention. They were the edible rhubarb, Rheum nobile. What an incredible sight they were, towering above the alpine rhododendrons. Lilium nanum and blue corydalis flowered in the deeper soils; Primula macrophylla var. ninguida and P. chionantha ssp. brevicula in more moist areas. And, near the 14,690-foot summit, we were ecstatic to find the clear blue flowers of Meconopsis speciosa.
From the stunning views atop the Nyima La we descended slopes covered with R. nivale, R. laudandum, minute pink-purple Primula tibetica, three species of potentilla, and the strange spikes of last year's Rheum nobile. Passing through fir forests much like those of the Pacific Northwest, we saw that logging practices were modern and destructive. After a third night, we finally reached the flower-clad meadows of the Rong Chu Valley. The meadows were studded with primula, asters, potentilla, Iris aff. goniocarpa and meconopsis. Here we camped near the village of Tumbatse (11,600 feet), and celebrated the return of our vehicles and of sufficient water to bathe in.
| R. fragariflorum, a very good form,
on the Nyima La at 13,470 feet.
Photo by Chip Muller
| The alpine rhubarb, Rheum nobile,
at 13,500 feet on the Nyima La.
Photo by Chip Muller
On June 13th we connected with the Tibet-Sichuan Highway which runs just above the Rong Chu Valley. Notable plants along the road were Clematis montana and Lilium nanum. On top the 14,400-foot Sirge La, we walked the highlands, down through rocky fields of blooming R. laudandum, R. fragariflorum, R. phaeochrysum, R. nivale, Rheum nobile, Meconopsis simplicifolia, corydalis, Lloydia flavonutans, and rhodiola. We had explored this pass in 1986 (then misidentified as the Sang La), when snow still cloaked the rhododendrons. I (CM.) had collected leaves of R. laudandum, not knowing its identity.
| R. laudandum and R. nivale, Sirge La.
Photo by Chip Muller
Near the old Tibetan village of Ningchi we stopped to admire the huge ancient Cupressus gigantea that the pre-Buddhist Bön religion worships as the Original Tree, as old as the universe. We spent that night in a Chinese "hotel" in the newer Chinese town of Bayi. The twelve course dinner was a memorable delight. The next morning we drove back to the Tsangpo and eastward down the north bank of the river toward Temo. We passed many groups of colorfully dressed Tibetans on a pilgrimage circuit of the holy mountain Bön Ri. They waved and smiled at the curious Westerners.
| Tibetan women in mostly traditional dress in a village on the
south side of the Tsangpo. Note Tibetan pony with decorated
saddle in the background.
Photo by Chip Muller
Driving up the Temo River valley presented a challenge. The first bridge was washed out so we had to search on foot for a ford. The same with the second bridge. Then our Land Cruisers slowly followed horsemen on small Tibetan ponies about two miles farther up the valley. We drove a rude cobble road that could have served as a tank trap. The road ended abruptly at a partially washed out bridge in a farming village. We selected a nearby meadow for a camp site, but it began to rain heavily. Thankfully our savvy crew secured a nearby barnyard as our headquarters. That afternoon we explored the lower reaches of the Temo Valley, finding abundant tree peonies. Only a few still had the big, beautiful, yellow flowers.
"K. W. slept here, 1924." The message was carved into the soft clay cliff overlooking the Temo La trail. It was a practical joke by one of the more playful of our party. But what was so funny was its plausibility. We were following the footsteps of Kingdon-Ward. That night, starting with an excellent hardy soup, we had another of our wonderful camp banquets culminating in a surprise birthday cheesecake for own "K.W.," Keith White. We ended this evening with rousing games of bridge, and retired either to tents or an empty storage building. Regardless of sleeping place, we all were kept awake by the village dogs.
On our final hiking day, we attempted an ascent of the Temo La. Exhausted from the previous weeks of strenuous hiking and the previous night of sleeplessness, more and more of the group reached their limit and turned back to camp. Only five made it to the top (13,400') which was covered with cassiope and R. fragariflorum. However, a few treasures were seen at lower elevations: R. lepidotum in bloom; six species of primula, including P. florindae, P. cawdoriana and P. baileyana; and two species of cypropedium, C. himalaicum and C. tibeticum form corrugatum.
On June 16th we broke camp at Temo and headed for Lhasa. It was raining hard again. We were thankful that we had had such good weather for most of the trip. Kenneth Cox and David Burlinson had picked the perfect window when the rhododendrons on the passes were blooming, but the monsoon had not yet hit. We spent four days exploring the cultural wonders of Lhasa, and on June 20 flew again over the Himalaya to Kathmandu. On June 22 we said our good-byes to the superb plantsmen and women who made this journey possible, over rounds at the comfortable bar in the Blue Star Hotel. A final vote was taken for the "plant of the trip." After many suggestions and much debate, R. laudandum won the honor - and second place went to Rheum nobile, the alpine rhubarb!
Chip Muller is Alternate Director of ARS District2, chair of the Species Study Group of the Seattle Chapter and is on the Rhododendron Species Foundation Board of Directors. This was his second trip to Tibet; he has also trekked and explored in Nepal, Sichuan, and Sikkim. In his "real" life he has a Ph.D. in biology and studies reproduction and evolution. He previously contributed an article about the RSF trip to Sikkim in the Fall 1993 issue of the Journal. Keith White is active in the Willamette Chapter, a member of the Rhododendron Species Foundation Board of Directors, and is chair of the RSF Photography Committee. He has previously explored for rhododendrons in Sikkim. He is a family practice physician and faculty member at Oregon Health Sciences University. The authors thank Kenneth Cox, Scott Vergara, Susan Muller Hacking and Angela Ginorio for their helpful comments. The map was created on a Macintosh computer using Adobe Photoshop™ and Aldus Superpaint™, and is roughly based on topographic maps and maps provided by Steven Fox and Keith White.
1 Short Tibetan glossary: La = pass, Chu = stream, Tsangpo = river, stupa = Buddhist shrine.
2 Rollo Adams, Winnie Adams, Bill Ehret, Ben Hall, Chip Muller, Scott Vergara, and Keith White.
3 Kenneth Cox (botanical leader), David Burlinson (trek leader for Exodus Travel), Bernadette Adams, Raymond Bomford, Ron Cain, Anne Chambers, Tony Cox, Steven Fox, James Fuller, Fred Hunt, Richard Liley, Willie Paterson, and Chris Sanders.