JARS v41n3 - Rhododendron Exploration in Tibet

Rhododendron Exploration in Tibet
Warren Berg
Port Ludlow, WA

The following commentary by Sir Edmund Hillary gives you a good idea of the feelings one gets among the rhododendrons of far away countries.

"Men the world over have looked to the mountains for inspiration and stimulation. For many years I have walked and climbed in the Himalayas and each time has been as exciting and stimulating as my first visit.

There is much to see and much to do. The lack of roads and modern methods of transportation force the adventurous visitor to travel on foot over the steep hill paths - but surely this is an adventure even for the city dweller who aims to cram the maximum of experience into the shortest space of time.

In Tibet the tempo is slower. As you walk the body gets strong; the mind has time to dwell on the beauties of nature and gain refreshment; you meet the local people, and enjoy their cheerful friendliness and admire their toughness and strength; you breath good clean air again..."

Tibet is a unique, spiritual country with an almost mystical aura, composed of enormous mountains, highly varied plant material and a conglomerate of friendly natives, ethnic minorities and colorful nomadic people.

Most of you are aware that since 1951 Tibet is politically a province of China. However, this remote twelve century old society with such a turbulent, exotic history is so different from China that it's like a completely separate country.

The 12,000' Tibetan plateau is the highest in the world, shadowed by the world's highest mountains, many over 20,000' and literally hundreds over the 14,000' elevation of Mt. Rainier.

It has been my pleasure to have searched for rhododendrons in several countries, but I think this trip topped them all. Approximately thirty-six different species were found, twice the number located on any of my other explorations.

It took two years to plan and obtain permits for this expedition. It was designed strictly as a plant hunting trip. We were gone the entire month of May 1986. The weather was good the whole time except for one day of snow.

It took us six days just to get to Lhasa, even with modern transportation. It seemed as if too much time was wasted getting from one place to another. No wonder the early explorers were gone so long!

Lhasa, meaning "the divine land," is the capital of Tibet. It is also the religious and cultural center as well as the seat of government. The elevation is 12,000'. It is encircled by treeless mountains up to 18,000'. The only paved road out of the city leads to the airport, which is next to the Tsangpo river. This large river valley provides the necessary room for aircraft to get in and out. The elevation here is about 10,500', so the runways are about twice as long as they would be at sea level. The river flows from west to east and is on the very north edge of the Himalayas.

There are many interesting things to tell of the Lhasa area, but that could be another story, so I will confine the rest of this report to the reason for going there in the first place...RHODODENDRONS.

After two days of sight-seeing and getting used to the high altitude, we started east by four wheel drive vehicle on a long, rough and dusty road. We were headed for the Namcha Barwa area about 260 miles east of Lhasa. This would normally take three days, but with long, hard and some times too fast driving, we did it in two days.

Our first camp was set just above the village of Tse, located on the northern slopes of the Himalayas at an elevation of 10,000'. We were then on the south side of the Tsangpo river which had only dropped around 800' in the 200+ miles from the Lhasa airport. Perhaps I should explain that this mighty river originates at an elevation above 17,000', however as it flows through central and southeast Tibet, it drops very gradually until entering the gorge area, which circumvents Mt. Namcha Barwa. This, by the way, is the highest unclimbed peak in the world (25,455').

R. vellereum
R. vellereum near Doshong La camp, 10,800'.
Photo by Warren Berg

We spent two days exploring the mountains above the camp. There were three principal rhododendron species found; uvariifolium , vellereum ( principis ), and triflorum var. mahogani . All three were in full bloom (May 9, 1986), growing in thickets along the creek banks and among the bamboo and smaller conifers. As it turned out, these same three species were the ones most commonly found throughout our exploration.

R. triflorum var. mahogani
R. triflorum var. mahogani
Photo by Warren Berg

There was also supposed to be a very fine, deep yellow form of wardii , according to Sir George Taylor who had explored this area in 1936 on his way to meet Ludlow and Sherriff. This was the main reason for camping here. Unfortunately, we were unable to locate any wardii . Therefore, with disappointment we broke camp and headed down the Tsangpo about 40 miles to the village of Pe. Pe is at the foot of the Doshong La. This pass (13,500') is the lowest crossing within the Himalayan range, and is therefore the first to be useable in the spring. In 1924-25, Kingdon Ward explored the Doshong La and in his writings described it as "an area of untold floral richness". Then in 1938, Ludlow confirmed these findings. We concurred. This area was certainly the "Shangri La" of rhododendrons.

R. vellereum and R. uvariifolium
R. vellereum and R. uvariifolium grow in a forest.
Photo by Warren Berg

With a little local help, we found a steep jeep road above the village leading towards the pass. It was mostly used for logging and extended up to about 12,000 feet, which was also the snow line this time of year. There was a picturesque meadow near the road at 10,400', so we picked this open spot for camp 2. We used two person tents plus one large cook tent. With the favorable weather, this worked out quite well. The meadow was completely surrounded with rhododendrons. Uvariifolium and vellereum were in full bloom, while wardii was just starting to show color. More about these later.

First, let me try to give you a rough picture of the local area, which is rather typical of the entire eastern end of the range. Starting at the mile wide Tsangpo river (9,600'), the terrain is moderately steep to the village of Tse (9,900'). This lower area is covered with holly-oak, scrub brush and grass. Just above the village, the mountainside becomes steeper and is covered with a pine forest. Around 10,000' the rhododendrons begin to appear and continue up to 17,000'. The pine forest blends into a belt of spruce, poplar, larch and birch. There are also some scattered meadows mixed with bog lands. These extend up to the alpine zone consisting of fir and various conifers. The timber line varies from 12 to 13,000'. Now add the many snow covered mountain peaks, rivers, creeks, and a profusion of color from the blooming rhododendrons and you have a partial picture of the Doshong La.

Because of the many species of rhododendrons to be found in the Doshong La, we stayed here the longest. Each day we would go in small groups of two or more and head in different directions from camp. On one of these days, my wife Pat and I went up a logging road for about two miles, then headed back down a small creek through a solid thicket of wardii . We were headed for a large meadow about a half mile below, but the 15 to 25' wardii plants were such a solid mass, that it took over three hours to reach the meadow. Interestingly though, we located a small population of cerasinum along the creek and upon finally reaching the clearing, found several plants of campylogynum , one in bloom - a very choice red-purple.

Tsangpo river
Tsangpo river rapids near
village of Tripe.
Photo by Warren Berg

On the fourth day, we all climbed into the back of the supply truck and drove down the mountain to the village of Pe, continuing down the south side of the Tsangpo river as far as the deteriorating road would go, which was to the village of Kyikar. Continuing on by foot we reached another small isolated village called Tripe. This village lies at the foot of a picturesque valley dominated by the ice-bound peak of Mt. Namcha Barwa. It is mostly cloud covered but is an awesome sight when the weather is clear. Luckily, three of us who were ahead of the rest managed to get some good pictures before the clouds moved in.

The trail beyond Tripe runs along a steep terrace, about 800' above the river. This is where the Tsangpo enters the gorge. There weren't any rhododendrons to be found in the lower elevation (9,000') and open exposure, but Reuben Hatch and I wanted to see some of the spectacular gorge, so we went on a few more miles. The breathtaking view of the now narrowing river, along with the roar of the many rapids, was most awe inspiring and well worth the long, hot hike and dusty truck ride back to camp.

One of the most spectacular rhododendrons of the Doshong La was a dark pink form of hookeri , found by Dave Goheen about half a mile above camp 2. Later, we found several areas of hookeri mostly around 11,000'. They were all of good color with a full truss, however only about a third had the isolated hair-tufts studded on the lower lateral veins.

R. hookeri, dark pink form
R. hookeri , dark pink form found above
Doshong La camp, 11,000'.
Photo by Warren Berg

Another beauty was a full trussed yellow with some red spotting and crimson blotch at the base. Pat found this plant on our first day in camp. It was almost past its peak in bloom, while wardii was just starting to show color. This, along with the more campanulate flower, led us to believe it was possibly a hybrid of uvariifolium x wardii . There were other plants that we felt must be natural hybrids. Unless they are in bloom it is difficult to be sure.

R. wardii, clear yellow form
R. wardii , clear yellow form
found near camp at 10,700'.
Photo by Warren Berg

On another side trip that proved quite fruitful, we crossed a couple of ridges and headed up a small stream with blooming rhododendrons in every direction. Not only were there large populations of vellereum and uvariifolium along the creek, but as we neared the snow line (11,600'), we found a thicket of hirtipes . They were very large plants, over 20' tall, with large, spotted, rose-pink flowers, up to five in the truss. The vellereums were from 12 to 20', depending mostly on elevation. The leaf indumentum varied from almost white to cinnamon. Flower color ranged from white to some extremely good pinks. Much the same could be said for uvariifolium , except for the indumentum, of course. It seems that the higher the elevation, the smaller and more hardy a species will be and the lighter the flower color becomes.

I had reserved the last day on the Doshong La to climb as close to the top of the pass as possible, my hope being there would be less snow and therefore more exposed plants. Three of us left early in the morning, reaching the snow line in a couple hours. The weather was not the best; it was windy, cloudy and cold, with a light rain. It became very steep as we neared the pass. The snow was still quite deep, except for some wind blown patches on the ridges, so the climbing became very difficult. I went on ahead, using wardii and trichocladum bushes to keep from falling, however it was just too dangerous. Therefore at 13,000', I turned around and headed back down.

It was of course much too early for any rhododendron bloom at this altitude. We did find the creeping form of forrestii among the patches of snow. The other rhododendrons found were wardii , cerasinum , doshongense ( aganniphum ), chamaethomsonii , anthopogon , pumilum , and primuliflorum . By afternoon, the weather cleared enough to get some camera shots of the nearby peaks. The highest one was 16,700 feet. At this particular moment, I felt very privileged to be one of the first Americans to share the view of this wild and remote land.

We all hated to break camp and leave this beautiful spot, but we wanted to check another area - the Sang La, some 40 air miles north of here. We returned by the same rough (and only) road, re-crossing the Tsangpo, then north, up one of the many tributaries, to a small agricultural college where we had stayed on the way in. After a much appreciated shower and good night's sleep, we left early for the Tern La. This 16,000' pass was only a couple hours drive from the college. The road was pretty good with only a little snow as we climbed. There is a lot less precipitation on this side of the divide. Just like the Rockies, the moisture laden clouds dump most of the rain and snow on the up wind side thereby accounting for the dryness of most of the Tibetan plateau.

Having only one day to explore the Sang La was not sufficient, however we did manage to find plenty of rhododendrons. Right at the pass, among the blooming primula, were anthopogon , nivale , and one or more of the lapponicums . A little lower in almost every direction were huge thickets of aganniphum , mostly on the treeless hill sides, but some were even growing in a large boggy meadow. In another month this entire high country would be a blaze of color. Upon descending to the tree line, below 14,000 feet, we found plants of laudandum , chloranthum ( trichocladum ), pumilum and the old standbys, vellereum , uvariifolium and triflorum var. mahogani .

The following morning we headed back towards Lhasa, leaving the rhododendron country and getting back into the drier and treeless area of south central Tibet. We set up one more camp about 60 miles out of Lhasa. There was very little water in the area, so when we finally found a small spring, we figured that would make a good camp site. The only problem was that it was right in the daily migratory path of all the yaks, goats, sheep and horses the villagers took out to graze each day. Also the local people thought it great fun to sit in front of our tents most of the day and on into the night just to stare at the crazy Americans.

Tibetan farmer plowing
Farmer and his colorful yaks.
Photo by Warren Berg
Tibetan children Tibetan pilgrim
Two cheerful kids in the back country.
Photos by Warren Berg
A pilgrim with prayer
wheel and beads.
Tibetan mother and daughter
Happy mother and daughter.
Photo by Warren Berg
Local guide and his dog.
Local guide and his dog.
Photo by Warren Berg

There were many more interesting experiences with the natives, most of whom had never seen foreigners before. This report is getting too long, so let me jump ahead a bit.

After a days rest in Lhasa, we flew back to Chengdu, in western Sichuan. Then the next morning headed west by jeep, into the mountains for two days of exploring above the Wolong panda reserve. I had seen rhododendrons here on my 1983 trip to Sigunian, but didn't have time to stop. The panda reserve starts at about 7,000 feet and the country above is full of narrow, steep gorges and fast moving rivers. There is heavy vegetation and plenty of rhododendrons all the way up to 18,000 feet. Of course, the most magnificent always seemed to be growing on steep, inaccessible cliffs. Thus Dave's rule: "The availability is always inversely proportional to the desirability".

R. balangense
R. balangense , new species, not
yet introduced, from NW Sichuan.
Photo by Warren Berg

We started at 10,000', where we found oreodoxa and galactinum , then just a little lower, a small population of maculiferum . At 9,200', I spotted a white rhododendron that looked a bit different. It was up a very steep incline. The climb up was well worth the effort, as it was a new species in the Taliensia subsection, balangense . It has been described by the Chinese, but has never been introduced to the rest of the world. About 10 feet away was another interesting find, a single plant of longesquamatum . It wasn't in bloom. Fortunately I did get a good picture of the balangense in flower. Strangely, I never saw any more of either one of these two species. As we continued on down to the reserve headquarters, some very excellent forms of concinnum var. pseudoyanthinum were found. The colors varied from light pink to an exceptionally fine, dark ruby-red, which was found by Dave Goheen and Forrest Bump. As we descended below the concinnum we found a large population of augustinii . Here again, there were many different color forms. Except for lutescens , heliolepis , and a couple maddenii , found near 7,000', that just about covers the rhododendrons found for this report.

I know there are many more undiscovered rhododendrons to find. Maybe some day I will again have the opportunity to look for them.

Warren Berg is an active member of the Rhododendron Species Foundation, Federal Way, Washington and the Tacoma Chapter, ARS. Previous contributions to the Journal include "The 1985 American Expedition to Western Yunnan", Vol. 40:2 (Spring 1986)