JARS 43n2 - More On The 1988 Bhutan Exploration

More On The 1988 Bhutan Exploration
Warren Berg
Port Ludlow, Washington

Peter Cox has written a very descriptive and interesting article covering our recent rhododendron exploration in Bhutan. [Peter Cox article is not available on-line.] The purpose of this paper is to supplement Peter's article with some of the more humorous events that occurred during our travels, my observations of the country itself, the people and how they live, as well as the rhododendrons that I found particularly interesting.
There is no way to know ahead of time how successful a trip of this kind will be. But we were lucky for this one turned out to be very rewarding. It was exhausting from the standpoint of miles covered (in the air, on bad roads and by foot). We must have hiked 125 miles, mostly between 10,000 and 13,000 feet. Furthermore, the food was not particularly good, however better than when I traveled to Tibet in 1986. The weather was pretty fair. There were no major storms and the rain was mostly at night.
We did have some problems with leeches, particularly at our Chendebje camp where we stayed two nights. Even after a hard day of climbing, it is difficult going to sleep thinking about a leech in one's sleeping bag. We also encountered a few ticks and although there were reported to be poisonous snakes, we didn't see any.
What made it all worthwhile was finding over 40 species of rhododendron including three that have not been introduced to this country and one new species that Peter found which he described in his article. I think this will turn out to be a real dandy.
I am sure that Garret Richardson, my fellow American, would agree that we were very fortunate in joining such a knowledgeable and congenial group. Our British friends used words with a different meaning, such as "braces" in place of "suspenders". Since I was the only one who didn't want his pants dragging in the dirt, I took some kidding over my red "braces". That would have been OK, if it weren't for their dry sense of humor and sometimes difficult to understand British accent. I wasn't always sure when I was getting the worst of it.
We had a lot of fun with nicknames. Peter was sort of the leader so he was called The Fuehrer. Sir Peter Hutchison was known as Hasselblad because of an old Hasselblad camera he persisted in using. It probably was worth quite a lot as an antique. I acquired the title of Mr. Redundancy. Having been in the Boy Scouts, I believed in the motto, "Be Prepared." After many years with the airline, I learned it is always a good idea to have a backup when something goes haywire. This accounted for my having to lend such items as my extra flashlight, watch, padlock, even bedbug powder when Donald was attacked in a flop house where we stayed. No matter what someone needed, I had an extra one.
The big laugh came when we got a flat tire miles from nowhere. I got out my tire patching kit, because there wasn't any in the van, only to find that there wasn't an air pump either. That was the one thing I didn't have. Seriously, they were a great bunch and I hope we can go looking for rhododendrons again sometime.

Bhutanese girl with sheep.
Sheep girl along road.
Photo by Warren Berg

As for the people of Bhutan, they are very friendly, attractive and clean for the most part. Their dress is a bit different. The men wear sort of a tunic with a knee length skirt and long colorful Scottish plaid socks. The women's dress is similar, but being very modest, they wear theirs ankle length. Most of the people are poor, but very proud and hard working. I would guess that over 90% are farmers and at the higher altitudes, above 9,000 feet, are limited to raising barley and buckwheat.
The national sport of Bhutan is archery. Many of them use modern compound bows and aluminum arrows. Their targets normally are located 100 yards distance and are quite small, as a result there are mostly misses. When one member of a team does hit the target, they all jump up and down and yell like they had just won the national lottery.

Bhutan archers at Thimphu.
Bhutan archers at Thimphu.
Photo by Warren Berg

There are quite a few Indian and Nepalese immigrants in the country. They are felt to be an inferior people by the Bhutanese so they get stuck with the road building and repair and other menial jobs. As for the roads, they are not very good and usually are one car wide except on blind curves where they do their passing. Fortunately there are not too many cars, but unfortunately, they are equipped with discarded tires (tyres) from the U.S. and Great Britain with treads below legal limit. The tires on our mini-van were not only bald, but two of them had worn through three layers of fabric. All of the trucks have a big sign on the tailgate which reads in English: "PLEASE BLOW HORN". This is to let them know you would like to pass, as they don't have rear view mirrors. Seat belts are nonexistent, but since the roads are all built on the side of cliffs, it probably doesn't make any difference.
I must report on my experience with a Bhutan horse - or pony - as they are rather small. I had an opportunity to have an extra pony for riding, so thinking it would save a lot of energy climbing, I decided to try it. First of all, the ponies don't come with riding saddles, only pack saddles which don't fit worth a darn and provide nothing to hold on to. Secondly, the pony was smarter than I gave him credit for. He decided that since he wasn't much bigger than I am, he would try to get rid of his cumbersome load at the first opportunity. He did this, by sneaking under a big limb that he would clear but that I wouldn't, knowing that I was busy holding on, and couldn't watch where we were going. So I ended up with a cracked nose, two huge black eyes, a wrenched back and a terrible headache. Needless to say, I walked the rest of the way.
The Rudong La was the highest, (13,600 feet), and most easterly pass that we climbed. It was here that we found R. bhutanense , a large population of R. flinckii , and the deviate form of R. wightii . The R. flinckii is not the same as the one named by Mr. Davidian and is quite different from R. lanatum that comes from Sikkim. It has a thinner, orange indumentum and all the flower buds that I cut were pink, not yellow. It was a very handsome plant and should be hardy, coming from such a high altitude. The same goes for R. bhutanense , the Taliense, which is also new to us.
My one regret of the entire trip, was not going down the back side of the Rudong La with Peter. Garret and I were the first to the top of the pass and I decided to start down the back side by myself. I went about three fourths of a mile and found the entire area covered with R. flinckii and R. aeruginosum . Thinking that was all there was to be found, I turned around and climbed back to the pass where Peter and the Millaises were just starting down. They continued further down, to about 12,500 feet where they found the new species of rhododendron.
As Peter said, it would be fun to return to Bhutan in the spring to see all those beautiful rhododendrons in bloom, but I have too many other places to go first. I am taking a group, mostly from the Northwest, to western Yunnan in May of '89. If we find as many species as on this trip, I will be more than happy.

Warren Berg's travels have taken him to Asia many times. Mr. Berg is also a hybridizer and active member of the Rhododendron Species Foundation at Federal Way, Washington.