In the Footsteps of the Great Plant Hunters
Henry R. (Hank) Helm
Bainbridge Island, Washington
Reading about the great plant hunters quickens the pulse of those who have the urge to see plants in the wild and visit the fascinating country of China. Travel to China became possible for westerners beginning in the mid 1880s and again in the early 1980s after borders reopened, having been closed in the late 1940s. We marvel at the exploits and collections of Robert Fortune in 1843; the French missionaries Soulié, Delavey, and Farges in the 1870s and 1880s; E. H. Wilson and A. Henry from 1899 to 1910; Kingdon Ward, George Forrest, and Joseph Rock from 1917 to 1949. The very recent explorers including Peter and Kenneth Cox, Warren Berg, Dr. D. F. Chamberlain, Steve Hootman, Jens Nielsen, Björn Alden and many others from England, Sweden, Denmark and the United States provide tantalizing stories of reintroductions and new discoveries. Literature describes the perils of travel, the adventures, the spectacular plants, and the scenery those plant hunters experienced.
In the spring of 1998, a group of fourteen traveled to Yunnan, China, to visit previously explored areas from which many species of plants, including rhododendrons, have been introduced to our gardens. This was a trip planned to see as many species, particularly rhododendrons, as possible in a three-week period without having to trek and travel long distances by foot. The group traveled by bus and stayed in local hotels each night. Timing of the trip coincided with the maximum bloom time for the greatest number of species of rhododendrons and prior to the monsoon rains. We hoped to be able to cross the high pass called Bai Ma Shan between the Salween and Mekong rivers. This crossing could only happen if we were just late enough for the snow to have melted at 14,000 feet (4,267 m).
Dr. Ben Hall, a professor in the Department of Botany at the University of Washington, organized the trip with the assistance of Dr. Amy Denton of the University of Washington Department of Genetics. Ben and Amy made contact with the Kunming Institute of Botany who sponsored the group, made arrangements for transportation, food and lodging in China, and furnished the guide. Amy acted as the official botanist and, along with our guide Dr. Sun Hang from the Kunming Institute Herbarium, helped identify the many plants. The Kunming Institute secured scientific visas for us to insure we could gain access to areas of plants that are not open to tourists. They also issued specific invitations to each of us.
An opportunity to follow in the footsteps of the plant explorers to see rhododendrons and other plant species in the wild drew a diverse group of individuals that included Rollo and Winnie Adams, Redmond, Washington; Hank Helm, Bainbridge Island, Washington; Anita Denton, Hauppauge, New York; Jean and Pat Cummins, Kent, Washington; Karen Swenson, Edmonds, Washington; Marilyn Corum, Jacksonville, Oregon; Dean Stout, Medford, Oregon; Dr. William Ehret, Centralia, Washington; Bruce Cobbledick, Oakland, California; and Torben Stein, Denmark.
The majority of the group met in Seattle and traveled by Northwest Airlines on May 3 to Tokyo, Japan, for a short stop where Bruce joined us. We changed airplanes and then headed off to Bangkok, Thailand. We met Dr. Hall and rested for a few hours (at a hotel near the airport) before flying on to Kunming, China, arriving on May 5. Yang-Song, our bus driver, and Sun Hang met us and took us directly to the Kunming Hotel where we changed US dollars into Chinese Yuan and acclimated to the time change.
The next morning we went to the Kunming Botanical Institute to meet Dr. Guan Kaiyun, director of the institute's Botanical Garden, who reviewed our itinerary and arranged a tour of their Botanical Garden. We had the opportunity to see numerous plants, including Pseudolarix amabilis, Rhododendron simsii, and a very interesting species of dogwood, Cornus oblonga. We visited briefly with the Director of the Kew Herbarium and the Director for Orchid Protection of the Hong Kong Orchidarium while being treated to lunch at Longdu, a convention center and recreational resort. They were finishing up a trip that included locating some of the very rare and endangered species of orchids in southern Yunnan. This was part of a three-year study of cypripediums. We spent the afternoon at the Golden Temple where we visited their Camellia Garden and saw a Camellia reticulata tree dating from 1602.
|The region of Yunnan, China, explored by the author and his fellow travelers.|
Because we were trying to maximize the time in areas where plant hunters had collected the greatest numbers of plants, we flew from Kunming to Dali. This is only a short flight via Yunnan Airlines, but would have otherwise taken a full day by bus because of the distance and road construction. Those plant explorers who drove this route along a portion of the Burma Road in earlier times generally saw several species of rhododendrons we would not see. Rhododendron spinuliferum, R. sinogrande, R. arboreum ssp. delavayi and R. simsii can be found in that area.
Our drivers with the buses and everyone's luggage had made the trip while we briefly explored the area around the hotel in the evening and while we slept that night. They picked us up at the nearly new Dali airport and we traveled to old Dali Town to stay in the Red Camellia Hotel in the shadow of the Cang Shan. We would begin following the footsteps of plant explorers into the mountains from here. Many recent plant explorers have visited this favored collecting area of George Forrest. Dali is located along Lake Erhai at approximately 7,000 feet (2,133 m) elevation. It is a center for the carving of marble and splitting granite from quarries along the foothills of the Cang Shan mountain. There is an agricultural area in the lowlands along the lake. Fields that had grown wheat from the just completed harvest were being flooded, tilled, and planted with rice. A large animal breed that appeared to be a hybrid between cattle and yaks did the tilling. We saw occasional pairs of water buffalo. Hundreds of people were in the fields as we drove by, cutting and carrying wheat, scattering manure, plowing and planting rice. Many of the trucks we passed carrying produce had sprigs of plants or bouquets on the top of the loads. We noticed one truck carried a rhododendron spray.
We spent several hours in the markets of Old Dali Town shopping for marble carvings, fabric, scrolls, paintings, jewelry and enjoying the sights and sounds. Most of us were able to bypass the temptation of grilled chicken feet being sold on sticks from vendors along the streets. Some of our number, however, found it impossible to resist the persistent street vendors selling jewelry. They would not accept a no - especially when a smile accompanied the no!
A great deal of construction was taking place, mostly by hand, which was typical in the smaller towns. It was common to see women carrying basket loads of concrete, brick, and other building materials along the streets and alleys and up ladders. Women did much of the heavy work of lifting and carrying heavy loads on their backs. Men seemed to do most of the mixing of concrete, finishing, and supervision with an ever present cigarette in their mouth.
After viewing a group performing Tai Che Chuan on a sports court behind the hotel in the morning, we were off to visit the ethnic minority Bai village of Xizhou a short distance up along the lake. Here we saw and sampled fava beans being roasted and shot into a basket. The village presented many photo opportunities, including a 100-year-old house and men gathered in the square playing a card game. We then returned for more shopping in Old Town Dali. That evening we had one of many interesting and different culinary experiences. Each meal consisted of several dishes with almost always one dish or more that most of us had never experienced. That night it was Rhododendron decorum flowers and a root from the mint family that had a resemblance to caterpillars. The previous night it had been lichen. Green tea and Chinese beer were served at every lunch and dinner. We ate with chopsticks and members of the group soon adopted unique and inventive ways to cope with these implements.
The following morning we drove up into the mountains towards the tallest peak in the Cang Shan which reaches over 13,300 feet (4,054 m). We traveled up through fields, quarries, and then forest to elevation 10,000 feet (3,048 m). A short altercation occurred between our driver (whom we henceforth called Arnold, after Schwarzenegger, for his ferocity), Sun, and several road builders who wished to charge us a tax to use the road. After a heated discussion, resulting in payment of a small fee, we proceeded. On the way, we passed Rhododendron decorum in full bloom on plants as small as 1 to 2 feet (0.3-0.6 m). Also seen was a species of R. maddenii (possibly R. pachypodum) as well as R. yunnanense and R. microphyton. As we began the hike up towards a television tower at the top of the mountain, we saw many rhododendrons. First came R. neriiflorum, then R. trichocladum and R. racemosum. Sun found a single plant of R. sulfureum in bloom. As we climbed past one of the two pagodas on the trail we were suddenly in a forest of R. cyanocarpum in full bloom with a few R. neriiflorum, R. selense and R. rex ssp. fictolacteum mixed in. The R. cyanocarpum formed large trees to 20 feet (6 m) tall. Some overhung the trail and grew up the hillsides amongst limestone cliffs and spires. At about 11,500 feet (3,505 m) we began to see R. lacteum in full bloom amongst the beautiful Abies delavayi with its horizontal branches and upward swept needles. Lower down we had seen Pinus armandii and Pinus yunnanense. Most of the group had stopped and turned back by the 12,500-foot (3,801 m) level when we encountered snow. The elevation definitely affected our stamina. Amy, Sun, and Torben went on up to near the summit at the 13,000-foot (4,054 m) level above the tree line where they saw R. taliense and R. haematodes. On the way back down the mountain, we saw one flowering R. rex ssp. fictolacteum as well as a single plant of R. edgeworthii. Numerous R. virgatum ssp. oleifolium were growing along the road. Other species observed were R. simsii (both red and carmine), R. rubiginosum and what looked like R. fulvum, although it is not suppose to occur on the Cangshan.
May 9, following what would be a typical breakfast of rice gruel, dough balls, fried eggs (or hard boiled eggs), and toast along with a hot noodle soup dish served either with green tea or instant coffee which Sun provided, we boarded the bus and headed for Lijiang. On the way we stopped at a low ridge where the temple called Shibao was tucked into the slope overlooking a village and farmland. Here some of the group walked to the temple while others walked back along the road to look at plants and the scenery. Low plants of many kinds were growing in profusion in this logged area. The replanted tree had been Pinus armandii. Rhododendron decorum grew everywhere along the slopes. The plants here were blooming at 1 to 2 feet (0.3-0.6 m) tall as on the Cang Shan. Typical color was white with some green in the throat. We saw an occasional light pink. We also saw Pleione, Cotoneaster, Clematis montana, and several wonderful groundcovers. As we drove back down the ridge, we stopped to have a close-up view of R. arboreum ssp. delavayi that grew alongside the road with R. decorum. Here we saw the plant known as x R. agastum, really a hybrid of R. arboreum ssp. delavayi and R. decorum. As we drove, we saw occasional plants of R. yunnanense. Lunch that day was along the road at a small village restaurant. The proprietors, being overwhelmed by the group, allowed Sun help them cook. Among the dishes was pig intestine which many of the less adventurous of us decided to pass up!
That night we stayed in a government hotel in Jianchuan, the county seat. The accommodations were sparse and the bathrooms left much to be desired with a trench in the floor being the toilet and with no hot water! They told us they were firing up the hot water tank and we would have hot water in the morning, but it was exhausted before most of us were able to get hot showers. I shared a room with Torben that was on the fourth floor (no elevator), had no door lock, and was adjacent to a nightclub. Not only were we denied entrance to the night club, the noise of disco music kept us awake until the wee hours of the morning. An early morning walk down the street through the market found many people stirring who lived in their small cloth stalls. Farmers and other vendors arrived early with boards for shelves and with their wares to set up shop. The houses in the village ranged from simple one or two room hovels to expansive homes with courtyards filled with plants. Sewers were open ditches along the streets. The only power seemed to be enough for dim open light bulbs. Main streets were paved but side streets were cobble stone or dirt.
R. rubiginosum, 99 Dragon Rd., Yunnan, China, May 10, 1998.
Photo by Henry R. Helm
Perhaps the most exciting day of the trip for rhododendrons followed. We drove past a sawmill to many small brick kilns where we turned and drove up a valley past farms and the ethnic minority Yi houses into the mountains. This was the Laojun Shan area. Arriving at a gated entrance where we stopped, Sun went into a small compound and, we presume, paid a tax for us to gain admittance. On the way up the mountain we began to pass Rhododendron yunnanense, R. rubiginosum, R. selense and R. hippophaeoides. The R. rubiginosum formed vast expanses of pink along the hillsides, and in every low area the light blue R. hippophaeoides grew in abundance. After driving up to about 12,000 feet (3,657 m) elevation, Sun advised us we would not have time to go on over the top of the mountain if we were going to be able to explore some of the area we had passed on the way up. We elected to walk down from that elevation and explore as we walked. Immediately alongside the bus in a stream bottom we spotted R. anthosphaerum with a lovely pink truss. Next to the stream was Primula sonchifolia. As we walked down the road, we passed large trees of R. rubiginosum with trunks to 10 inches (25 cm) in diameter. Some of these trees were 20 feet (6 m) high. We also saw R. rex ssp. fictolacteum trees to 50 feet (15 m) tall and covered in flowers. We passed the occasional R. selense as well as R. selense ssp. dasycladum with hairy stems. Then someone noted some small R. roxieanum seedlings along the bank of the road. Looking up, what did we see but huge trees of R. roxieanum that were at least 20 to 25 feet (6-7.5 m) tall. I photographed Amy as she stood on the trunk of one that grew out sideways from the slope of the road before growing up at least 8 to 10 feet (2.4-3 m) above her head. The trunk was 12 inches (30 cm) in diameter before branching to two 8-inch (20 cm) diameter branches. Along side a small bush of R. roxieanum in full bloom that we had stopped to photograph grew the only plant of R. oreotrephes seen that day. Among the rhododendrons were occasional Abies delavayi and an unknown Betula with beautiful reddish brown peeling bark. The hillsides we could see in the distance were pink with white splotches from the R. rubiginosum with R. rex ssp. fictolacteum and R. roxieanum. This was truly a rhododendron heaven. We passed two open pasture areas with horses grazing and with R. hippophaeoides in low areas, R. impeditum, R. tapetiforme and other dwarfs growing up the hillsides to the edge of R. rubiginosum thickets continuing up to the top of the ridges.
R. rex ssp. fictolacteum, R. rubiginosum,
R. selense, and R. roxieanum,
99 Dragon Rd., May 10, 1998.
Photo by Henry R. Helm
We stopped for a break at a camp where workers were building cabins and a tea house for the Park. Two young women in colorful costumes of the ethnic minority Naxi people served us tea. Torben entertained them along with the workers with pictures of themselves he had taken on his camcorder. We watched them hand sawing timbers for the cabins. The roofs of the cabins were hand split shakes held down with stones. As we walked on down the road, we began to see Rhododendron racemosum, R. selense, R. orthocladum and more of the same species we had seen above. We passed a road building crew that had camped along side the road in a blanket lean-to. They were working entirely by hand with hoes, shovels, and baskets to level and grade the road. Rocks were being broken into smaller pieces with little hammers. One of the workers was a young boy of perhaps 12, and at the camp a young woman tended the campfire and worked on the adjacent road. The bus soon caught up and we drove the rest of the way back down to the valley and on towards Lijiang.
As we climbed out of the river valley and up steep switch-backs, prior to arriving at Lijiang, we passed dry land farms up to 9,000 feet (2,743 m). The crops at the lower elevations were potatoes, tobacco and hay, while at the high elevation they appeared to be vetch. Log trucks traveling from further north in Yunnan and from Tibet passed us frequently. There were many cultivated Eucalyptus trees in rows along the road that had been harvested heavily for the oil from their leaves. The trees looked like 30-foot (9 m) tall stumps with short branches sticking out to the side and with only a few leaves at that time of year. We also passed mile after mile of pine plantations. After harvesting the native trees, pine seemed to be the reforestation tree of choice.
R. rex ssp. fictolacteum truss, 99 Dragon Rd., Yunnan, China, May 10, 1998.
Photo by Henry R. Helm
Our hotel in Lijiang was the Jade Dragon Mountain Hotel. May 11 was spent as a cultural day visiting Old Lijiang, the home of the Naxi minority people. We visited the house where Joseph Rock had stayed during many winters and saw his desk, chair, and some books that had belonged to him. Across the street from our hotel was an open air market where merchants butchered a pig each morning on one of the tables. Old Town with its narrow crooked streets, open front shops and stalls, many streams with small bridges, and open air markets was very colorful. Women walking along the streets carried heavy loads in baskets on their backs. Many children, being cared for by grandparents, were playing in open areas and in side streets. Older women wore the traditional Naxi dress with blue bonnets and back pads for carrying baskets secured by straps tied around their foreheads. While there had been considerable damage to many of the old buildings from the earthquake that occurred in 1996, rebuilding was taking place to restore the town.
We drove north towards Yu Long Xue Shan (Jade Dragon Snow Mountain) to the White Water Valley and Ganhaizi the following morning. The drive went past the village where Joseph Rock made his summer home for much of the time he spent in China. This was a day we saw only a few rhododendrons including Rhododendron decorum, R. yunnanense, R. racemosum, R. arboreum ssp. delavayi, and R. cuneatum. We did, however, see many other plants which included: Pinus armandii, Primula forrestii; two Iris species, Pinguicula alpina, Aquilegia, Pleione delavayi, Daphne, Roscoea, Incarvillea delavayi, Ligularia, Camellia, Androsace rigida, and three Salix species including a very dwarf creeping form. The valley ran along a glacier stream. A group of minority people known as Yi gathered near the main road. Dressed in their native costumes, they posed for Chinese tourists for small sums of money. They also offered horseback rides.
We headed for the dry lake bed of Gang Ho Ba the following day. This area had more forms of Rhododendron yunnanense than I ever imagined could exist. They varied from pink to white and from no spots to red, green, yellow, or brown spots. Some were completely deciduous while others retained their leaves. Also seen were R. cuneatum, R. selense, R. orthocladum - as well as the ever present R. decorum. Here we saw Picea likiangensis, Larix potaninii, an Arisaema, Primula forrestii, Roscoea, and Cypripedium tibeticum. That afternoon we went back to Lijiang where we enjoyed a culinary experience of candied potato with dinner. We also had eel that we learned were raised in the rice fields among the new crop.
Driving to the high plateau and Zhongdian, we stopped for lunch at Qiaotou and then drove along a new road to the Tiger Leaping Gorge. This is the very narrow canyon between mountains rising over 6,500 feet (2,000 m) from river level. Legend has it that a tiger was able to leap across the Yangtze River here as it was so narrow. This area is just north of the great bend in the river where it turns from flowing nearly south to north before it turns again to flow south.
As we reached a small ridge before reaching Zhongdian we stopped to look back at Haba Shan. This is a mountain peak adjacent to Yulongxue Shan. Tiger Leaping Gorge lies between these two mountains. The mountain was spectacular from that vantage point. On this ridge, Rhododendron racemosum was the predominant low shrub growing between pine trees. At the edge of the road was a rock cairn with many prayer flags on bamboo sticks. As we drove on, we saw R. hippophaeoides in many low moist areas.
We spent three nights in Zhongdian at a new Bita Hotel built for tourists. The sign on the gate stated "Hotel Approved for Foreigners." Our culinary experience the first night was yak meat. It was rather tough but otherwise similar to beef. A chicken soup dish served had every part of the chicken in it including the beak and comb. During the trip we experienced many vegetable dishes and, although different, all were quite good. That night we ate a large sliced vegetable, white and pale green, served cold. After dinner, Sun and the drivers convinced (it didn't take much persuasion) Amy, Torben, and Bruce to join them for a toasting session. The drink was a very strong clear alcoholic beverage. Sun and the drivers joined in the Karaoke session while the rest of us walked back to the hotel. Breakfast in the mornings was served cafeteria style. I was unsure about some offerings so settled on vegetables, rice and noodles. There was also yak milk and yak butter tea that I did not find to my taste. The boiled eggs, described as seven years old, were not bad even though they were nearly black.
The local outdoor market displayed many different foods including vegetables, squash, peppers, fruit, melon, yak cheese, goat cheese, eggs, live chickens, meats of all sorts (laid out or stacked on and under tables in the open air and cut for customers as desired). The merchants dressed chickens and cleaned entrails for stuffing near the meat market. In addition, the market had cloth, clothing, hats, hardware, farm implements, containers, pots and pans, cooking utensils, jewelry, animal skins, animal horn, and toys. Some vendors cooked various dishes such as bread, potatoes, meat, and corn on small stoves for themselves, other vendors, and visitors to the market. These dishes were fried or barbecued on the top of the stoves (metal drums).
he second night (May 14), Ben and Bill had a rat in their room and the following night Karen had one in her room. The people at the desk did not speak any English, so you can imagine the problems Karen had trying to make them understand that she was not very happy and that she wanted the rat taken care of! It was eventually chased off down the hallway.
There was a television in the room and they even offered some US programs! One was professional wrestling (men and women tag teams) and another the Seattle Sonics professional basketball play-off game! If any of the native people watched the wrestling, I can imagine what they thought of our culture!
On May 15, we drove to Tianchi Lake at elevation 12,500 feet (3,810 m). During the drive up we saw Rhododendron yunnanense, R. rubiginosum, R. racemosum, R. hippophaeoides, and R. decorum. The forests near the lake and in an extensive surrounding area had been devastated by insect attacks. Tree planters were working in the area replanting. Chinese botanists were at the lake digging Primula to take down to Kunming for showing at an international agricultural exposition scheduled for 1999. The snow had not melted from all the slopes above the lake, and the dwarf rhododendrons we could see in vast expanses were not in bloom. We believe the species included Rhododendron telmateium, R. fastigiatum, R. russatum, R. impeditum, and possibly R. rupicola var. chryseum. The dwarf species are very difficult to identify when not in bloom and there are undoubtedly many hybrids. As we walked around the lake, there were many plants of R. beesianum, some with 10-inch (105 cm) diameter trunks. We believe we also saw R. aganniphum var. aganniphum growing in nearly standing water and possibly R. adenogynum. On the way back down the mountain, we stopped and collected some leaves of R. wardii that Amy intended using for DNA studies.
R. rubiginosum, Bita Hai, Yunnan, China, May 16, 1998.
Photo by Henry R. Helm
The following day we drove over a long hot dusty road to 11,800 feet (3596 m) into the mountains toward the area known as Bita Hai. Passing through a farming village high in the mountains we saw young men playing basketball on a dirt court, and one of the village houses had a television satellite dish. There were some different plants in this area including Primula chionantha, Clematis montana (white), Daphne himalense, a brushy Quercus pannosa, a creeping juniper, Larix potaninii, and several Berberis species. There were many Iris species but none in bloom. The area must be beautiful when these masses of Iris bloom. A herd of yaks was grazing at the pass where the bus turned around. Rhododendrons we saw included Rhododendron decorum, R. rubiginosum, R. uvariifolium, R. yunnanense, R. vernicosum, R. hippophaeoides, R. oreotrephes, and R. racemosum. The first R. vernicosum observed was a huge tree at least 40 feet (12 m) tall in full bloom. While in this area, we heard chainsaws for the only time on the trip.
On the drive back to Zhongdian, we passed many horseback riders in colorful costumes and trappings. We learned later that there was a rodeo in the area. The people in the countryside are mostly Yi. Our culinary experience that evening was fish that had been cleaned, dipped in some type of batter, and then deep fried (entire except for entrails).
We left for Benzilan on May 17 and visited Songzhalin, the largest monastery outside of Tibet's borders as they are now drawn. The Communists burned this monastery during the Cultural Revolution. It was being rebuilt with money from the government and from donations of labor and money by individuals. While we were there, we saw many Chinese tourists and worshippers. Of particular interest at the monastery were the tamped mud walls being erected, the hand hewing of large timbers, and the chiseling of granite blocks. The blocks are approximately 2 feet per side being chiseled from granite boulders by workers using small hammers and pointed chisels. There were hundreds of these blocks either being made or already made. Women from nearby areas were at the monastery cooking, doing laundry, and even carrying loads of dirt from excavations. While the hustle and bustle of construction was going on, monks were chanting, tourists were praying before altars, and other monks were selling white silk prayer flags to tourists.
R. beesianum truss, Lake Tianchi, 12,000 ft. (3600 m), Yunnan, China, May 15, 1998.
Photo by Henry R. Helm
Benzilan is a small village on the slope of a steep mountainside with the road passing through the center. On the way we had stopped to look at a Sophora davidii and an Arisaema. These were along the road high above the Yangtze River. Our hotel with the rooms facing out to small walkways in front on two levels above a restaurant was the poorest yet. The very small rooms had two cots, a small table, and windows that would not close. There were no bathrooms in the rooms and the outside "men" and "women" consisted of trenches and no running water. The water was at the end of the building from a hose. In the village we saw wheat being harvested and threshed on flat rooftops with sticks.
We met a young couple from Australia who had bicycled all the way from Thailand and hoped to reach Lhasa if they could obtain permission. They shared our dinner and breakfast. We later saw them at the pass on Bai Ma Shan (they caught a bus to the top). We heard from them via e-mail upon our return to the United States, and we learned they had many adventures including having all their film confiscated. Fortunately they did reach Lhasa.
The next morning (May 18) we drove up the very steep mountains towards Bai Ma Shan. We started up the south side of the valley but stopped at the 12,500-foot (3,810 m) level because of snow blocking the road. The hillsides were covered with rhododendrons where we stopped and took some pictures. We saw Rhododendron beesianum, R. aganniphum, probable hybrids between the two, and possibly R. adenogynum. The rhododendrons grew under Abies delavayi. After the short stop we backtracked down until we could travel up the new road on the north side of the valley.
Every China or Tibet trip seems to have a stuck truck adventure, and ours occurred near the 13,500-foot (4115 m) level. We were delayed until finally one truck made it through a mud hole. Then our bus was able to struggle through. We went on to the pass where we looked out towards the west and a mountain range west of the Mekong River. We were hoping to see Meilixue Shan, a peak having an elevation of 22,469 feet (6,848 m). This peak, known as Kawa Karpo, has religious significance to the Tibetans. Unfortunately clouds shrouded the mountain range. On both the north and south sides of the pass we were able to see 18,000-foot plus (5,500 m) elevation mountains. On the pass was a large wooden frame holding prayer flags. Dwarf rhododendron varieties of at least four kinds stretched off into the distance on the slopes. From previous reports of plant hunters we surmised these were Rhododendron primuliflorum, R. rupicola var. chryseum, R. tapetiforme, and R. saluenense ssp. chameunum. No plants were in bloom at this elevation this early in the season.
On the way back down, we were again stopped by a stuck truck with three more behind and a bus that couldn't pass. While we waited to get through, the young couple from Australia came running up from the bus and told us that one of us had left a billfold at the hotel in Benzilan. Several members of our group loaded the couple down with energy bars. They would not go hungry for a while as they went on their way. It turned out that person with the lost billfold was me and I hadn't even realized it! The innkeeper and his wife and family and friends and children and many from the village were there to greet us when we stopped. Fortunately the billfold was recovered (a small reward was paid) and I suffered from only a little teasing. We did see Primula sinopurpurea, Clematis montana, Rhododendron wardii, and R. oreotrephes on the way back. At one curve in the road, we were within two and one half miles of R. proteoides according to my GPS receiver that had latitude and longitude positions entered from a Swedish expedition. Unfortunately, there was not time to attempt to get to the population, and it very well may have been under snow. We continued back to Zhongdian that evening, arriving at 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, May 19, we drove back to Dali. This was long, hot, and tiring. The roads were winding and up and down along the steep river valley. Torben had become ill during the night and the ride was particularly unpleasant for him. As we passed wheat being harvested, we were confronted with piles being deposited on the highway for vehicles to run over. This was the method of threshing. After enough traffic had passed over the wheat, workers would scurry out and sweep the grain to the side. It was then thrown up in the air with small baskets to separate the chaff and allowed to fall into large three- or four-foot round flat baskets. The job of carrying the wheat to the road fell to women who carried it bundled on their backs. Trucks and buses did not slow down and the whole process appeared to be quite dangerous for those scattering and retrieving the wheat from the road. Brief stops allowed us to see Primula aurantiaca, Syringa, Hypericum, and Rhododendron racemosum and R. yunnanense. A large tree spotted along a stream was eventually determined to be Abies. Pat and Ben looked for cones beneath the tree but none were found. Scattered bracts discovered proved it was not the elusive Pseudotsuga forrestii we had hoped to see.
That night we held our banquet and distributed tips to Sun and our drivers for the great job they had done. Following the meal there was much toasting with the clear, strong Chinese whiskey.
Ben and I walked to a small park early on the 20th where we observed men who hung their bird cages in trees where the birds sang, seemingly to compete with one another. In other areas we found small groups doing Tai Chi Chuan, individuals exercising to music, reading, memorizing out loud, and just walking around. The park was divided by low walls and strategic plantings to form intimate small spaces for enjoyment. One bus and driver left that morning with luggage to meet us in Kunming while the other stayed for the day.
Amy Denton and Sun Hang, trail on Cang Shan,
11,500 ft. (3450 m) and R. cyanocarpum, May 8, 1998.
Photo by Henry R. Helm
Following breakfast we drove out to the slopes of Cang Shan and rode a chair lift up over graves and tea plantations to about 9,000 feet (2,743 m) on the mountain to an area called Zhonghe Si. Here we had a wonderful walk in mist and light rain. The trail, paved with flagstone, wound around the mountain for about six miles. In many places the trail has been carved into vertical cliffs. We saw Rhododendron maddenii ssp. crassum and R. virgatum ssp. oleifolium in bloom clinging to vertical cliffs. Along the trail we saw R. racemosum, R. brachyanthum, and R. edgeworthii. There were red corollas from a rhododendron on the trail where they had fallen from the cliffs above, but we never saw the plants. Perhaps they were from R. dichroanthum, but we could not be certain. There were also wild flowers along the way including Anemone and Deutzia. The steep rock faces along the trail are covered in moss with numerous small seedlings of rhododendrons and other plants sprouting in this perfect germinating environment.
Our remaining driver left the following morning after delivering us to the airport prior to our flying to Kunming. The driver that had left the previous day met us at the Kunming airport and most of us immediately elected to go to the Stone Forest, a two-hour drive. Along the way we passed a great amount of construction, including a new golf course recently completed. It was a surprise not to see a single person on the course. Many new highways were under construction. Tower cranes were being used to construct many new buildings in this large metropolitan area. Construction workers and their families appeared to be living under new overpasses and in the lower partially completed sections of new buildings. Stopping on the way to have lunch we were served duck and donkey along with vegetables, noodle soup, and rice. The donkey was not bad, but the duck, prepared with everything including the bill, was not to my taste. Also served was deep fried cow skin that puffed up to make an interesting dish. The Stone Forest was fascinating, with its strange and unique rock formations, but the huge number of Chinese tourists made it difficult to even move along the paths.
Our final dinner in China was at a Muslim restaurant. The number of dishes was overwhelming with duck, numerous vegetables, beef, lamb, candied apples, mushrooms, and rice. As we were finishing, the mosquitoes became very annoying and bothered everyone. Torben and I were the only ones that had been taking malaria pills, so we all quickly finished and left.
Several of us went for a final walk the following morning along the streets of Kunming. Street cleaners were out and recognized long before they could be seen as they played Jingle Bells through loud speakers as they moved through the streets. Workers who rode bicycles locked their rear wheel with a small lock as they arrived at their places of work. They paid an attendant to keep watch during the day. People could be seen in traditional Chinese dress and in the most modern western dress as they hurried about their business. After lunch in a very large open restaurant with young people dancing and performing on stage we drove to the airport and flew back to Bangkok. We left Torben and the Adams at the airport, and after spending the night of May 22 we were on our way home via Tokyo. We had traveled in the footsteps of the great plant hunters. We had seen many of the wonders in the plant world firsthand without the trials and tribulations they endured although our experiences were certainly unique. We all agreed this was the preferred way to go!
My traveling companions must be acknowledged for their assistance in preparing the account of this trip. They provided invaluable help in proofreading, making spelling corrections of botanical terms and place names and suggesting changes to clarify the account. If I have been successful in providing an interesting and accurate account of our trip it is because of their participation and help. Thanks to all of them!
Hank Helm's account of plant hunting in Sulawesi, Indonesia, appears in the summer 1998 issue of the Journal.