JARS v38n2 - "China At Last"

"China At Last"
Oct. 12-Nov. 1, 1983
Warren Berg, Pt. Ludlow, WA

Finding and collecting Rhododendrons has been my hobby for many years. I have had the good fortune to find and introduce several rare and unique forms from different parts of the world. The one place I never expected to explore was Western China. However, with the change in political climate that has taken place and the joint effort of Reuben Hatch and Mountain Travel of Albany, California, a plant oriented trip to Siguniang Alps in western Sichuan was arranged.
There were nine in the group - Reuben Hatch, David Goheen, Kathy Green, Janet Lindgren, Nickolas Nickou, Fred Nilsen, Jacob Sigg, my wife Pat, and myself. Our trip leader was Bruce Klepinger of Mountain Travel.
Pat and I spent two days in Japan looking at gardens and getting our body time clock adjusted. We then joined the group at Narita International Airport where we picked up our flight to Beijing (Peking). We stayed there two days looking at the more popular tourist attractions. The sights of China have to be seen to really appreciate them. A good example is the Great Wall at Badaling, dating from the Ming Dynasty and over 6,000 km. long. The amount of time, work, and lives spent erecting this wonder of the world staggers the imagination. Also, the Forbidden City, the elegant architectural masterpiece which used to be the Imperial Palace is a vast treasure-house begun over 550 years ago in the Yuan Dynasty and enlarged over the centuries to more than 9,000 rooms.
There are many impressions one receives in the cities of China; I think I was most impressed with the tremendous mass of people, the number of bicycles, and the amount of brick, rock and stone used everywhere. It seemed like all buildings were surrounded with brick walls. The people pretty much fit the same pattern in their dress, habits, and life style, due I am sure to their socialistic environment. They are all very hard working, clean, and seem to be happy. There are no beggars anywhere.
After the two-day visit in Beijing, we flew to Chengdu, the capitol of Sichuan, China's most populous province. The flight was uneventful except for the lack of comfort, poor toilet facilities, food and noise. We flew there in a Russian turbo prop airplane which I understand is soon to be replaced by new aircraft. None too soon, I might add.
In Chengdu, we picked up our very fine interpreter, M. Chuan. In addition, we were joined by a representative of the Chinese Mountaineering Association. It is impossible to travel in the more remote areas of China without proper representation from a sponsoring group such as the C.M.A. They take care of all coordination between the travel agent and the Chinese government.
The C.M.A. arranged a banquet for us on our arrival in Chengdu. This was really something special. There were twenty seven different courses, and three types of liquors consisting of beer, wine, and white lightning (something like Akvavit and kerosene). Guess which one they used for their many toasts! I don't believe we were able to keep up with the Chinese, but some of us tried as evidenced by the headaches the following day.
There were many interesting sights in Chengdu, including a visit to the zoo where there were several Pandas and lesser Pandas; also other animals not normally seen here.

Public market at Chengou.
Public market at Chengdu.
Photo by Warren Berg

Early the following morning we departed for the high back country in a mini-bus. It was a two day trip to our end-of-road destination of Zelun. After the long, hard first day we stopped at Wolong where the Panda reserve is located. Wolong is at about 6,000 foot altitude and located in a near vertical mystical valley resembling a Chinese scroll painting. Everyone thought the first day's ride was rough until the following 10 hour day over the worst one way dirt road I have ever seen. It crossed over Palung Pass at about 15,000 feet, then dropped down to the little village of Zelun at 10,000 feet. The compensation for this horrible ride was the fantastic scenery and range of plant material. Rhododendrons were seen from about 8,000 feet on up to the top of the pass.

R. oreodoxa at 10,000 ft. Probably R. traillianium.
R. oreodoxa at 10,000 ft.
Photo by Warren Berg
Probably R. traillianum .
Photo by Warren Berg

There were six to eight different species below 10,000 feet including R. galactinum , R. hunnewellianum , R. heliolepis and probably R. ambiguum ; three species from 10,000 to 15,000 feet were probably R. przewalskii , R. oreodoxa , and R. traillianum .
We were given very little time to check plant material on this two day bus ride. Had it not been for a flat tire and getting stuck in the road, we would have seen even less. Lucky for us the weather was clear or we would not have been able to make it over the pass. Passing logging trucks, etc., with a three to four thousand foot sheer drop-off in many places would have been impossible had it been snowing. The Chinese don't wait at a wide spot for on-coming traffic; they just keep going and try to squeeze by at the last second.
Shortly after crossing Palung Pass, the Siguniang Range could be seen in the far distant west. These mountains are called the "Four Sisters". The highest, Mt. Siguniang, is 21,600 feet. This was our final destination.

Mt. Siguniang, rhododendron in background. Four Sisters mountains
Mt. Siguniang, rhododendron in background.
Photo by Warren Berg
Four Sisters mountains
Photo by Warren Berg

Here on the west side there are fewer trees and less vegetation. Rhododendrons are fewer in number, growing mostly on the upper, north facing slopes. The descent to 10,000 feet was uneventful and we were one tired bunch by the time we reached the village of Zulun. The people here are of Tibetan origin as might be expected this close to Tibet. The food and accommodations were the poorest so far, but the people were very nice as well as interesting.
The next morning after a light breakfast, we put on day packs and headed up the trail for Mt. Siguniang. Horses and yaks carried the heavy gear as we were to be in this far valley for eight days. The weather could not have been better and the scenery became more breathtaking the further we went. Trees and vegetation became more numerous as we followed a small river. It was ten miles to our base camp and at this altitude, (10,000 to 12,000 feet) a rather strenuous climb taking most of the day. In fact, it took all day for a couple of the fellows who had not trained sufficiently. As Pat and I arrived in camp, the sun was hitting Mt. Siguniang and although I took lots of pictures, nothing could portray the beauty of these Chinese Alps that surrounded us on all sides. The camp was directly at the foot of Mt. Siguniang (21,600') on one side and Celestial Peak(18,500') on the other. In between was the river we had followed on the way up.

Miles and miles of rhododendrons. Terraced farms at about 12,000 ft. near Zulun.
Miles and miles of rhododendrons,
everything above tree line.
Photo by Warren Berg
Terraced farms at about
12,000 ft. near Zulun.
Photo by Warren Berg

Each of the eight days we spent at this camp, we would go out in a different direction and explore new areas, climbing from 12,000 to 14,000 feet. The weather was sunny and clear every day except for one night when it snowed. The temperature was in the seventies during the day and would drop as low as 20° F. at night.
We took a product called Diamox to avoid altitude sickness. It seemed to work just fine except it is a diuretic which on occasion would require getting up during the night. It was pretty tough getting out of a nice warm sleeping bag, but the sky full of stars and a full moon shining down on the surrounding mountains was a sight to behold. The air at this altitude is so clear, the moon was almost too bright to look at.
Our little valley was full of Laponicum series plants, (maybe R. scintillans or R. rupicola ) averaging two feet in height. They extended up the steep, south, almost treeless slopes to approximately 15,000 feet. The much larger elepidote rhododendrons grew among the trees, and on the bare, steep, north facing slopes above the tree line upward for another two thousand feet. These larger plants were all in the Taliense and Lacteum series and in many places grew so thickly it was not possible to walk through them. The more dense forests were covered with deep moss, as were the north facing granite cliffs, providing unlimited area for wind blown seed to germinate.

R. bureavoides.
R. bureavioides .
Photo by Warren Berg

We found one high, steep, little valley with a stream rushing down at about 45° that was one of the most beautiful spots of the trip. It was here that I found growing out over the creek a form of R. bureavii (or R. bureavioides ) that was the finest I have ever seen. Near by, a plant similar to R. traillianum and halfway between the two, was most certainly a hybrid with characteristics of both. In fact, all the moss covered rocks and logs were covered with seedlings of all ages and variations. The larger plants would extend themselves out over the water as much as 30 to 40 feet. To see an area like this, you just have to believe there really is a Rhododendron Heaven. Other species found, including those previously mentioned, were R. przewalskii or possibly R. phaeochrysum of the Lacteum series, and a R. traillianum look-alike, yet different from those with which I am familiar. Some of these same species were also found in swampy areas much to my surprise. Those above the tree line seemed to be mostly R. przewalskii and would extend for miles as far as one could see, but as I mentioned, only on the north facing slopes. Interestingly, R. bureavii when found in Sichuan is known as R. bureavioides and grows only along rivers and streams. They were never found more than 50 feet away from water.

Budded R. przewalskii.
Budded R. przewalskii .
Photo by Warren Berg

The stream beds coming off Mt. Siguniang were made up of huge chunks of freshly broken granite boulders, with screes of pure granite sand along the sides and hundreds of rhododendron seedlings growing with no apparent benefit of soil.
This entire area contained hundreds of different trees, shrubs and herbs. The predominate forest species were Abies , Larix , Pinus , Tsuga , Juniperus , Quercus , and Betula . The Larix , which is used extensively in reclaiming cleared areas, also seemed to grow the best at the upper tree line. They were especially beautiful at this time of year as fall colors varied according to the altitude. Just a few of the more common dwarf species included a prostrate form of Cotoneaster , Gentianella , Meconopsis , Daphne , Clematis , Cassiope and a dwarf evergreen Quercus .

Rhododendron and larch with 18,000 ft. peak.
Rhododendron and larch
with 18,000 ft. peak.
Photo by Warren Berg

The hike out went well. However Dave Goheen said he could see the bridge at the trail end about two miles before he got there, and with every step it seemed to get further away. The return ride in the minibus was another story. Thankfully the weather was good, but we had to make the two day trip in one day. My mind goes blank when I think of that ride so I will be unable to go into specifics!
After our return to Beijing, we all went out for our last dinner together. A problem developed when Dave and I were to meet the rest of the group at a restaurant called the "Big Duck" meaning LARGE Duck The driver for the others took them to the "Big Duck" meaning Large Restaurant. So you might guess that Dave and I had a problem, considering we couldn't speak Chinese, call a cab, or get proper directions to walk. To make a long story shorter, after much delay and arm waving we found a one man bike-driven rickshaw. (There are almost no rickshaws left in China). We both managed to squeeze into the seat, and two miles later ended up at the other restaurant. The poor old rickshaw driver was exhausted with the double load and could only say "velly heavy, velly heavy".
In regard to some other aspects of the trip, I should mention a few items. First of all, the Chinese were excellent hosts, letting us go and do as we pleased. Also, Mountain Travel, represented by Bruce Klepinger, did an excellent job. Our Chinese cook was also very good considering the limitations he had to work under. However, we were all ready for western style cooking after three weeks of Sichuan food.
The native people just loved to gather around and stare at us, particularly at the three women of our party. We always asked before taking pictures of individuals. We found the back country Tibetans very camera shy; most of the time they would run away or refuse to have their picture taken.
While in Chengdu, four of us had a very nice visit with Professor Fang Wen-pei, who was the director of the biological laboratory at the University of Sichuan. He very kindly gave us autographed copies of his book on the Flora of Mt. Omei, in which he describes twenty different Rhododendrons that are found in that area. I understand that he just recently passed away. He was a very dedicated man and will surely be missed.
All of us would like to go back and are already talking about finding the Shangri-La of Rhododendrons. If we do go back, I could not ask for nicer people to travel with.