Some of the Experiences of a Plant Hunter In China
By Dr. Joseph F. Rock
A lecture presented to the American Rhododendron Society September 16, 1954 at Portland, Oregon
Fig. 38. R. vernicosum, Franch, against the trunk of a tree, growing at 11,000 ft.
elevation in the glacier gorge Sa-ba, eastern slopes of the Yu-lung Shan (Jade
Dragon Mountain, Northwest Yun-nan.
(Rock photo. Courtesy National Geographic Society)
Members of the American Rhododendron Society, Ladies and Gentlemen: The Chinese have a saying that a picture is worth ten thousand words. I will speak very little, and then show pictures in the form of slides, and later moving pictures of the way natives cross the deep rivers and gorges on inflated skins and bamboo hawsers or ropes.
Most of my expeditions started in Indo China and Siam. We left Siam and after a train passage of five days we boarded a boat for three days, for elephants had torn up the tracks at night.
One of my first expeditions was for the finding of the Chaulmoogra tree. This tree produces an oil used in the treatment of leprosy. Formerly this oil was imported in many different grades of quality, and this search was undertaken to find this tree, and establish a uniform grade of the drug by controlling the process right from the start. Another early expedition was for the United States Department of Agriculture to get a blight resistant chestnut, for many of the large forests of these trees were dying out in the eastern part of the United States. We went to Bangkok overland to Chinmi, and up into Burma. In this part of the country we heard that a single white man was living amongst the natives. When we arrived there we were told that he was not there but had left. Since these natives were only a generation or two away from being headhunters, and they could not marry until they had taken a head, we thought the answer about his absence quite interesting. (laughter) Later during our stay we were shown how human heads were taken, and the natives would grin and say just like cutting off a human head while slaughtering mutton. Much of this country was only two hundred and fifty feet above sea level and abounded in tigers and leopards. The terrain was a vast jungle with many tropical plants and vines. This area is split by one of the large rivers of the district, and the people belong to a water tribe, that never work more than two hours a day. A mission from the United States was started there, and it was brought to the natives' attention to cut wood and do other tasks. The natives replied: "Why should we work, we are not hungry." We followed the Black River for ten days and yaw much of the very poor grade of tea being raised along the bottom lands. This tea is sent into Tibet by immense Yak caravans, where it is highly prized. I never liked it, and even when our supply of good tea was low I could not make myself believe it was good. The entire stalk and leaves are baled and since some of these stalks are over twenty feet high one may have an idea of the low quality of the product. I must mention here one of the tea parties that I attended when we were camping on the Chonakh River a tributary of the Htse Chu. In the center of the big tent a fire was roaring in a mud stove. Out of curiosity many nomads followed us into the tent, they were husky for in this severe country only the fittest survive. One of the old native women brought out some dishes from a pile of sheep manure, which was also being used for fuel. She took some of this dry manure in her hand and scoured the cups. As a finishing touch she polished them with a dirty old cloth that hung at her side. Then as a matter of fact she also dipped into the container with her dirt encrusted hands and passed us a cup of tea.
At the source of the Red river we found our first rhododendrons R. rubiginosum an evergreen shrubby type at 14,000 ft. Most of these plants were ten feet high, but some grew to over twenty-five feet in height. Here we also found an entire mountain of R. fastigiatum. I will show a picture slide of it later in the evening. We also found R magnificum which makes a very tall tree.
Tali a part of the Tali Range was George Forrests botanical garden "Forrests Reserve" as he referred to this area. Forrest lived here for six years at what is known as the Snow Village. The Jade Dragon mountain is here, its elevation is over 20,000 feet. Most of the natives in this area are not Chinese but rather Siamese, and each tribe has a different language. Each days travel of twenty or thirty miles finds one in an area where the language is changed. Most of these people are aborigines, and little has been done since they were nationalized in 1728.
The Yangtze or Yangtze-kiang river is the principal river in China and it is 3200 miles long from its beginning to where it empties into the East China sea. This is one of the most awesome sights where this stream cuts through the high mountains in tremendous gorges. This wild river drops 1,000 feet per mile through gorges 10,000 feet deep. One follows this river, and by crossing at 5,000 feet and then dropping down to the water level repeated times the miles up and down are many but the forward progress is slight. Rhododendrons and primulas along with meconopsis are in great evidence.
We crossed the Yangtze on 150 inflated goat skins. With the help of 22 of the best swimmers we managed to cross the terrific torrent of the mighty Yangtze to the Likiang side. We lost only one mule.
The ninety day journey took us a good many days of hard travel, we passed by the Op°n Fan peak over 21,000 ft. (I will later show this fantastic mountain in my pictures) We passed through rhododendrons for days to the source of the Mekong and Yellow River and near three peaks over 17,000 feet and not shown on any map. We arrived at the Muli Kingdom which is a theocracy, and the king has absolute power over all his subjects. The novel way he has of picking a guilty person is unique to say the least. Several names are put in a bowl, and the king draws one or more names. The hapless person is then put into a dungeon and kept there, with chains about his neck, or as I will show later placed in stocks. I visited these, and was told why they were there. In order to take a picture I pushed the long hair away from the prisoners face with a stick. I requested that these men be relieved from the torture of the stocks, and my request was granted for when I returned some months later they were only fastened by a light chain. I was considered a good friend of the Muli King, and in order to travel about in his kingdom, it was necessary to get permission so that robbers could be warned not to molest those whom the king favored. Robbers seeking permission to rob were told by the Muli King to rob North, South, East or West but not in the province. Since much free gold is present in Mull everyone is eyed with suspicion, and the fantastic story of permission to hunt plants was never believed. The King nodded approvingly when I presented him with an American twenty dollar gold piece, but he thought I could see through the mountains and see precious stones that I would gather later. The Muli King's Secretary was robbed, but the bandits kept their word, and did not rob or molest us.
The travel went on for days up and down, and in some cases almost perpendicular. Some times when the mountains are covered with snow the Gentians are in bloom for areas will be washed free of snow by the great rains. The area is rich botanically, and is covered with willow, scrub oak, and fir. There is however no firs above 20,000 ft. Later we went farther north to the Richthofen range in Outer Mongolia.
I met a General who walked from Lhassa to China with thrombosis in his leg, and he told me of a country which was ruled by a Queen of the territory. This person was not a real Queen, but was rather a fake, for a Moslem had taken her into his home and they had a baby. As a reward he made her a Queen. The King terrified the people and made them pay taxes, which they consented to do if the soldiers left. When the tax collectors returned, the Tibetans killed them. (Laughter)
I visited the Muli King several days, and had lunch with him. He sat at his little table, and I at mine. There were bits of mutton, beef, fried eggs, and usually a dish of sour yak cream. I spoke in Chinese which was interpreted by a Tibetan. This interpreter was the only lama in Kulu who understood Chinese. He would humbly stand for hours in a bowed position even while we were eating. I remarked to the King about his hungry appearance. The King was gleeful and dropped a few tidbits as if feeding his favorite hound. The King made mention of his uncle who was in the room, and when I asked farther he replied that the uncle was a dried mummy who sat in a golden chorten where we had dined.
I have been asked what we take on those expeditions, and I will list most of the important items. Furs, warm bedding, mules, tents, folding chairs, Many trunks, tables, photographic supplies, cut film color plates, coffee, tinned milk, cocoa, salt, sugar, canned vegetables, fruit, and sugar. The men carried dirty salt, butter and flour. For our botanical work we took paper made of bamboo, which would act as dryers for the botanical specimens. Also we took a case of medicines, for in this area a fever is present, and we wished to guard against it. This fever runs rampant in Tibetan country and the previous year I had lost some men with it. Mules are usually used as a means of transportation, but on one trip over a pass it snowed heavily during the night, and when we awoke the next morning our camp was almost buried. I will show the slides of this crossing with Yaks. These Yaks will plow a trail through deep snow and progress can be mace.
I spent nine years of my life in the Snow Village, but I cannot forget a most beautiful spot where I spent a few months. This place was on the Islet of Nyorophu in Youngning Lake. Later we left the Yalung River and explored this river where it forms the border between Kwapieh territory and Muli. I was the first white man to travel across this rugged country. Most of this country is excessively rich, botanically speaking. There were beautiful forests of spruce, willows, and copper birch, along with primulas, and rhododendrons. I collected seeds here, and have heard that only the spruce is still growing in Massachusetts. The synonymy of the Chinese spruce is in a mess as they have been collected before maturity, and have died, and are in herbariums, and of course, look entirely different than the mature specimen.
These moving pictures show the single rope bridge that crosses the Yalung at Baruong. The Yalung is a formidable stream at this point, the steep banks and the fierce current would make an ordinary crossing very dangerous, not that our method was safe. As I mentioned earlier in my talk this rope is made of bamboo and is about 200 yards long. The Hsifan natives were in the act of putting a new rope across which was all right with us since our caravan was of considerable size. One of the natives tied himself to a wooden slider and cross^d slowly, pulling the new rope behind him. When the new bridge was complete, my men were lashed on this aerial tramway, and soon they were going at express speed to land on the other side. Persons who were not heavy would not slide as far on the rope. Heavy objects and the mules would have their speed carry them longer up the swaying rope to the other side. This scene shows the mules crossing, and you will notice that two mules take up so much slack in the rope that they will hit the water. We then returned to Kulu.
This set of pictures shows the dancers of the God of Death as he begins his dance. He gyrates slowly to the beat of drums and cymbals. The Lamas do not like the people who have crowded into the courtyard and you will notice how the monks use long clubs to beat them back. This fiendish dance of whirling is done by Balden Lhamo. From her mouth hangs the miniature corpse of her son whom legend states she devoured. This solo dance is done by Showa The Deer. You will note the antlers on his head. His dance represents him as a messenger of Yama, an underworld character. Take note of his shabby costume in comparison to the wonderful silks and brocades of the others.
Much of the area of China is still unexplored, and maps are inaccurate as is this map. Mountains and their peaks are still uncharted, and rivers are unknown. As to future botanizing, the picture is very dark indeed. Since the communists have taken over, the difficulties have increased many times over. I am reminded of areas that have never been searched over, and who abound in rhododendron, anemone, primula. I am glad to have had the opportunity of addressing the gathering here tonight, and I wish to thank you. (Applause)