JARS v40n2 - The 1985 American Expedition to Western Yunnan

The 1985 American Expedition to Western Yunnan
Warren Berg
Port Ludlow, Washington

China's province of Yunnan borders Tibet, Burma, Laos and Vietnam. It contains the great rivers of Asia, the Yangtze, Mekong, and Salween. It is this ecosystem that produces some of the most exotic flora in the world, particularly rhododendrons.
The destination of this expedition was the Hengduan Mountain Range of Northwestern Yunnan, which is just northwest of the remote city of Lijiang.
There were five members in our group. The leader, a very capable mountain climber and blacksmith by trade, was Jerry Coe. He represented Mountain Travel, the agency that set everything up with the Chinese. The other four members included an electrical engineer, lawyer, zoologist, and yours truly, now a retired airline pilot. The zoologist was a remarkable young lady teaching English in Beijing. All in all, we were a highly compatible group.
We had flown to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, then traveled west 400 km along portions of the old Burma Road of World War Two fame to the great lake of Dali (Tali) and the walled city by the same name. We then traveled another 200 km north to the Lijiang region. It's interesting to note that in Rock's time, it was a 45 day walk from the nearest railhead. We did it in two days by minibus and jeep.
While in Lijiang, we particularly enjoyed wandering through the old narrow streets and alleyways. The people would stop and stare and the children would follow us like the Pied Piper. We met one elderly gentleman that had come from India 20 years earlier to escape a skirmish between the Chinese and Indians. The Chinese would not let him return to India so he married a local woman and started a second family.
It seemed that whenever we arrived in the villages where foreigners had not traveled before, we were viewed with much curiosity and friendliness. Of course, we in turn viewed them with equal interest.

R. rubiginosum
R. rubiginosum at 11,000', good form, heavy substance.
Photo by Warren Berg

We traveled from Lijiang, by jeep, to reach base camp at 10,300'. It was located on a gentle slope of the Hengduan Range in a forest landscape of gnarled pine, black fir, hemlock, rhododendron and untold numbers of other trees, shrubs and rock garden plants. Scattered throughout the area, within a short distance of camp, were blooming plants of R. racemosum , R. heliolepis , R. rubiginosum and R. oreotrephes . R. decorum also grew nearby in a burned off area. I was the only member of the group especially interested in plants so I had very little help in identification.
In the near distance above the fields of blooming rhododendrons lay the eternal snow covered peaks of solid sandstone reaching to 18,900'. It was, as Joseph Rock said, "a scenic wonder of the world".

R. racemosum
R. racemosum at 10,200', in burn area near base camp.
Photo by Warren Berg

About three years ago, a forest fire burned over several large areas of timber. The first plants to recover seemed to be the rhododendrons, R. racemosum being the most prolific. There were also many plants of R. decorum which were too small to have any flower buds. Of course, they would not bloom for another month anyway.
We spent seven days at base camp, each day exploring a different area. The first day's climb was to the top of a 13,000' peak. Two of the group were experienced mountain climbers. I would climb only in hopes of discovering more rhododendrons, which turned out to be the case. Six more species were seen on the first climb. Just above camp, at 10,500', was a single, large, blooming R. vernicosum . R. traillianum was found at approximately 11,000', extending to 12,000, where R. beesianum started. This was also the beginning of the snow line. One member of our group couldn't climb any further, so the rest of us continued on up thru the patches of trees, brush, and snow. I was glad I didn't go back before reaching the top, as I found R. phaeochrysum between 12,000 and 13,000', as well as two or three different species of R. lapponicum on the snow free south facing slopes and wind blown ridges. The trees here were mostly larch, just starting to show the blue green foliage of spring. The larch usually grew at the upper most timber line, in this case about 12,500'. We were too early to see blooming rhododendrons above 11,000'.

R. vernicosum
R. vernicosum at 11,000', mountain
in background about 16,000'.
Photo by Warren Berg

The second day we headed north along the east side of the range where we encountered huge areas of R. tatsienense and R. rubiginosum , all in full bloom. We also found more R. racemosum , particularly in the burned over areas. These ranged from deep pink to almost white. I did not find any pure white forms.

Unnamed lepidote rhododendron
Unnamed lepidote, only flower in bloom, note
interesting foliage.
Photo by Warren Berg

The following day we explored an intriguing dead end canyon near the south end of the range. At the head of the canyon was a rather large glacier that kept breaking off, sending an unbelievable roar bouncing off the surrounding cliffs. There were many fascinating plants in this canyon including deep pink forms of R. rubiginosum and the only blooming R. phaeochrysum . Near the foot of the glacier were some nice plants of R. chryseum , about ready to bloom, and an exceedingly rare rock garden plant, Solms-Laubachia pulcherrima , a striking blue with the scent of carnation. The elevation here was 12,500'.

Solms-Laubachia pulcherrima
Cruciferae sp. Solms-Laubachia pulcherrima
found at 12,000', very rare.
Photo by Warren Berg

On the fifth day out of camp, we topped out on a plateau used by the local tribesmen to run sheep. They provided some fine subjects for photography, especially the leader. He carried an old muzzle loader and with the help of sign language was persuaded to show us his gun and shot bag. The shot consisted of rusty nails, bits of metal and even small rocks. Two of the herders were young girls carrying flowers of R. racemosum . On our return from the plateau, we encountered members of the Lolo tribe, who were certainly the most interesting tribal people we had seen, especially in regard to their dress. On passing their camp, one of the women invited us in for what was probably tea. We would have liked to accept the invitation, but they were a bit dirty looking (to put it mildly). The Lolos live in a wood structure. The floor is a combination of mud, dung, and straw. Their idea of cleaning a dish is wiping it with an unwashed apron, caked with filth. The odor inside their huts would be impossible to analyze and difficult to describe. The women do all the work even though they have more than one husband.

Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yangtze Rive
Tiger Leaping Gorge,
Yangtze River 5,600'.
Photo by Warren Berg

On our next to last day, the local authorities gave us special permission to visit a place called "Tiger Leaping Gorge". The Yangtze river flows thru it in an unusually narrow cut in the mountains. It is located in a remote valley, at the northwest end of the range. The river elevation is 5,700'. The only other American to have seen this exciting wonder was Rock. According to legend, a tiger could leap across the river at this point. Now the width is about 90'. It was quite hot in the gorge and too low for rhododendrons, but we did see large areas of R. yunnanense at the 9,500' level on the long jeep ride to the gorge. One form was especially fine with a yellow blotch in place of the normal pink. There were also a few plants of R. delavayi , but only one in bloom, a good deep red.

R. yunnanense R. delavayi
R. yunnanense at 10,000', rare yellow throated form.
Photo by Warren Berg
R. delavayi at 9,000', one of two plants found in bloom.
Photo by Warren Berg

Now just a few comments in general. Even with modern transportation, it still is difficult and expensive to reach this remote area of China. It took almost two weeks total to get there and return, leaving a limited time for exploration. We did have good weather. The cooperation of the Chinese Mountaineering Association helped to utilize the time in the wilds. We had a good cook and the interpreter did as well as could be expected.
I haven't described the sights of Beijing or other common tourist stops as they have been noted in previous articles. I would however recommend a visit to Kunming, as this is a notably beautiful and charming city, with many interesting sites.
Shortly after this article comes to print, I will be on my way to Namche Barwa, Tibet (May 1986). This promises to be an even more exciting area. We will be based at 10,000 to 12,000' at the foot of the highest unclimbed mountain in the world. Ludlow and Sherriff said "this is the epicenter of all rhododendrons".
All in all, the 1985 expedition, being the first to visit Northwestern Yunnan since the days of Rock, provided a unique opportunity to observe one of the most varied geographic, ethnic, plant and animal habitat regions of the world.