Tsari, Botanical Pilgrimage to Southeast Tibet
Tsari is a region always described in rapturous terms in handbooks for Tibetan travelers as well as by plant hunters. Located in southeastern Tibet on the border with northeastern India, this area has been a religious sanctuary and a site for pilgrimage since the 1100s. A major pilgrimage occurs every twelve years with circumambulation of the Takpa Shelri mountain range which lies on the southern aspect of the Tsari river valley. There is also a minor pilgrimage of much less distance performed annually. In keeping with the sanctuary nature of the valley, hunting and cultivation have been severely restricted. Frank Kingdon Ward, Frank Ludlow and George Sherriff were the principal plant hunters there in the 1930s. Their discoveries have been recorded 1, 2 . Simon Boves Lyon was there in 1974.
About twenty years ago with a rising interest in rhododendrons, I was referred to Stephen Fletcher's A Quest of Flowers . It was there that I first read of the Tsari valley and its eponymous rhododendron Rhododendron tsariense . The opportunity to visit the legendary site occurred with the news that Kenneth Cox was leading an expedition there in June 1999. An attempt to travel to this area the year before had been partly thwarted by the nuclear saber-rattlings of India and Pakistan. Peter Cox has written a superb article in this journal of that plant-hunting expedition 3 . They were able to explore the mountains to the north of the valley. Many of the rhododendrons were the same as what we saw. Reference to this article is strongly suggested since it is a considerable complement to this one. Peter has provided substantial historical, geographical and climatological background of this valley. Photographs of the same species have not been repeated.
I was extremely pleased to be accepted as a member of this trip while recognizing a real possibility of its being aborted due to any number of reasons. The May 1999 border conflict between India and Pakistan in the Kashmir district could well have affected the permits issued by the Chinese. And so it was to be a pilgrimage to "the paradise of flowers."
The majority of us departed from London on June 6 and flew to Nepal via Doha, Qatar, on the Arabian peninsula. The rest of the group were met in Katmandu. A day was required to secure and pay for visas to China. This allowed some level of recovery from the long flight as well as local sightseeing. We visited the world heritage site of Bakhtipur, some thirty minutes from Katmandu. The film "Little Buddha" was shot here. Founded in the 12th century, Bakhtipur's wooden buildings are medieval with second and third story apartments decorated with intricate carvings overhanging the street. The public squares with exotic wooden temples and markets were fascinating if not in danger of burning down from a careless match.
The view of the Himalayas was classic as we flew beside Mount Everest, stunningly presented with the azure sky and powerful accompaniment of clouds. We landed at Conggar airport about two hours south of Lhasa, Tibet. There were sixteen members of the party 4 along with David Burlinson, leader from Exodus Expeditions, and Kenneth Cox, leader of the plant hunting expedition. Many were known to each other from previous trips to the Himalayas. Three of us had a particular rhododendron bent, Kenneth, Philip Evans and myself. For this reason, although a large number of flowering plants were seen, the emphasis here will be given only to rhododendrons. The enthusiasm of the alpine flower party was nevertheless contagious. We were welcomed to Tibet by our Tibetan-Chinese leader He Hai (sounds like "her high") who presented us with the traditional white scarves of Tibetan Buddhism. Toyota Landcruisers were to be our transportation, comfortable and reliable with sensible Tibetan drivers. A large truck was driven from Nepal with the camp and food supplies and the Sherpa personnel. After lunch in the town by the airport we headed east along the Lhasa-Chengdu highway.
There have been three previous trips to Tibet reported in this journal in the '90s 3, 5, 6 . Each describes the fine scenery as one travels along the Yarlung Tsangpo (Great River). The road is paved and in excellent condition although heavily traveled by trucks and buses. Vehicular breakdowns are not infrequent and result in traffic jams. The Tsangpo valley here is very flat and tranquil, the river is placid, crops are grown along its edge, and few villages are seen. The daytime temperature is around 70°F; the sky is an intense blue with many brilliant white cumulus clouds. Because of the previous year's encounters with the local police in smaller cities, camping was to be the mainstay for accommodation. My past experience in hotels in this part of the world left much to be desired so I know I wasn't missing anything. With the expertise in camping and cooking by the Nepalese, this turned out to be a very good choice. We refueled at Zedang and headed south, climbing up the Yarlung valley through barley fields and fields brilliant with the canary yellow of rape seed flowers. Our first night in Tibet was on a broad, flat pasture. Tibetans came for miles around to look at us. The altitude was 14,000 feet (4200 m). The next morning saw a number of the group ill with high altitude sickness. Katmandu is 4,500 feet (1350 m); the elevation of Gonggar airport is over 10,000 feet (3000 m). We had slept at 14,000 feet. This rapid change in elevation wreaks havoc in most people's bodies and can cause symptoms such as loss of appetite, insomnia, headache, confusion, nausea and vomiting. The effects may begin six to forty-eight hours after ascent. Some people are particularly susceptible to it and excellent physical conditioning doesn't seem to matter. It is recommended to take 250 mg acetazolamide (Diamox®) the night before and the morning of departure for elevations 10,000 feet and higher. Often I take one the first night at high elevation as well. Light tingling of the extremities and lips along with occasional increase in urination have been the only side effects. Some people have a reluctance to take this prophylaxis; it has been unfailing with me. Unfortunately, a number of the party suffered significantly for days - one had been ill-advised to take it after development of symptoms.
Tibetan children, two of whom are Chicago Bulls fans.
Photo by Garratt Richardson
Somewhere the next day we lost the pavement. However, because we were headed to a military post, the road was well maintained. At the army check point, we relinquished our passports, waited for an hour and then turned off the main road to head east. The first of the day's three major passes was YarToTrakLa (sounds like YarToeTraLa) whose elevation was 5010 meters (16,130 ft). The terrain was tree-less, dwarf shrubs and alpine plants huddled between rock and boulders. The most notable plant was a yellow Ligularia . To the west was the snow peak of Shambo Yarha 6636 meters (21,235 ft). Shobo Trak La, elevation 5001 meters, was the second pass with similar seemingly barren terrain. However, the alpinists could always find something new, different, exciting and photographable. The Baré La at 4630 meters (15,000 ft) again had the same dry rocky landscape. As we descended the eastern side of this pass, very high green mountains were seen in the distance, a promise of a wetter climate. Nearing the mountains, we saw conifers growing halfway up, above which were wide swaths of pink Rhododendron aganniphum in full bloom, miles of them. Our road took us along the Char River to Sango Choling Dzong, the most significant monastery in the entire region, perched on a ledge above the confluence of the Char and Kyu rivers. Dating back to the 1500s, it was sacked during the Chinese Cultural Revolution; reconstruction was begun in 1986. A photograph of the monastery taken in 1934 hangs in the hallway; this would have been just two years before Ludlow and Sherriff had visited. Turning northeast up into the Kyu river gorge a short distance, we made our second camp at 11,600 feet (3480 m). Here Iris , Lonicera , Rosa , Berberis , Anemone and Primula sikkimensis were seen.
The next morning's destination was the Cha La (5060 m) and the entrance to the Tsari valley. Before reaching this pass at 4000 meters, the first rhododendron seen was the tiny-leafed purpled-flowered Rhododendron nivale . A short distance away, R. aganniphum , principis , wardii and primuliflorum were in abundance. Only the R. primuliflorum was unattractive with its muddy pale pink truss. Very good bright pink forms were seen in many other places. Near the pass alpine flowers were becoming more evident including Primula calderiana and Pedicularis atrodentata . We stopped to visit some yak herders who offered us tea. Vicious dogs were tied on a lead, barking fiercely. John Vaughan underestimated the length of the rope to which a dog was tied and sustained a puncture wound in his calf from the dog's bite. Proper treatment for rabies was many hundreds of miles away and needs to be done prior to any symptoms. We were lucky there were no complications.
Below us, east of the Cha La, was the lushness of the Tsari valley. We could see the beginnings of the Tsari river, an upper tributary to the Shipasha river. This latter river changes its name to the Subansiri when it enters India to flow into the Brahmaputra. Across the headwaters of the Tsari river above the tree line on the north-facing slopes of the valley were masses of Rhododendron aganniphum , so far away that it appeared as a band of pink. Even higher on the mountains was another broad band that had the appearance of shiny-leafed shrubs glistening in the sunlight. In fact it was the yellow R. phaeochrysum in full bloom, so far away that the yellow appeared as shimmering gold, reflections of the sun. It was a spectacular introduction to this celebrated valley.
According to Tibetan mythology, Buddhist priests came to the Tsari valley over 1,000 years ago. They designated four sacred gateways, representing the four bhodhisattvas or "enlightened ones who have stayed behind." We would climb towards the western gate the next day. The Buddhist overtones of the valley added a mystical flavor to a clearly beautiful and unmolested region. The Senguti plain, a kilometer wide and extending for 10 kilometers, lies at the western end of the valley; the Tsari river runs through this quasi-marshy area. We drove through this plain bordered with silver fir. Clumps of primulas, R. nivale , primuliflorum and fragariflorum sat on little mounds, presumably to escape any flooding.
Looking down the Tsari River valley and Senguti Plain.
Photo by Garratt Richardson
Our vehicle carried on down the road, losing track of the others. It was a beautiful warm afternoon so we investigated plants near the Tsari River. Light burgundy bell-shaped flowers with an almost glaucous new foliage was Rhododendron cinnabarinum ssp. xanthocodon Purpurellum Group. Closer to the river was a stand of 12 to 15-foot high (3.6 to 4.5 m) heavily indumented rhododendrons. Philip and I pondered over this narrowly elliptic leaf with the remarkable burnt yellow thick indumentum. The occasional spent flower was a muddy pale cream. Kenneth Cox later identified it as R. luciferum . It was an epiphany for me to see R. luciferum first hand; I had always been intrigued by its name, Latin for "light-bearing." Native tribes made the thick wool-like undersurface into a wick used in oil-lamps. The indumentum was an unusual burnt yellow but not as thick as I had imagined. It had been found by Steve Hootman and Kenneth Cox the year before as they had scampered down the Bimbi La from the north (see photo, footnote 3). The color of the underleaf was uniform throughout the several populations seen. Mature specimens were about 15 feet (4.5 m). All previous descriptions of this species in the Section Lanata describe thick dark or rusty brown indumentum. As taxonomists study this plant it may be classified separately.
Our first camp in Tsari was at Yarap (elevation 3880 m, 12,400 ft), on grazing land south of the river. The village gets its name from Tibetan meaning "one yak crossing." Before dinner, Kenneth, Philip and I headed out to the nearby hills south of the camp to examine the mature stands of Rhododendron luciferum and R. pudorosum . Rhododendron pudorosum is rare in cultivation and is distinctive for its persistent "perulae" or bud-scales. It is in the Subsection Grandia, tree-like, 20-25 feet (6-7.5 m) high. The pale purplish-pink flowers were pretty much finished. This species would be one of several re-introductions of species not collected since 1936.
The next morning just as we were preparing to head out on our first botanizing trip, a young mother presented her year-old son with a draining middle ear infection. The young fellow calmly suckled while I cleaned out his ear canal with cotton swabs. Nature was taking its course by having already punctured the drum to relieve the pressure and pain. It was a matter of keeping the ear clean and dry. In two days the drainage had stopped completely. How fast kids can heal!
and its "strawberry" calyx, Chikchar valley.
Photo by Garratt Richardson
Climbing over a small ridge we descended into the Chikchar (sounds like CHEE'char) valley with a beautiful and serene river plain. A handful of horses grazed, and many divisions of the Drolma river meandered through fields of clumped dwarf rhododendrons identical to those of the Senguti plain. On the edges were Rhododendron wardii and R. aganniphum in full bloom. One form of R. fragariflorum had a particularly bright red calyx with white spots typifying the "strawberry" origin of its name. We made our way up to the Dorje Phakmo (sounds like DoJeePemOh) Buddhist temple and monastery, founded in 1560 and said to be dedicated to Buddha's mother. There our Tibetan leader He Hai changed into saffron and maroon robes - what a transformation. He had been told he is the reincarnation of a lama and is in the process of deciding if this life is for him. An overnight stay with the monks may help. The Chikchar valley is the beginning of the pilgrimage around Takpa Shelri, the 5735 meter (18,640 ft.) mountain and its neighboring peaks. An annual pilgrimage follows the Drolma river south up to its origin at the pass by the same name. Drolma is the manifestation of the Tibetan Buddhist goddess Tara, who is believed to protect human beings while they are crossing the ocean of existence 7 . Mythologically this pass is the western gate of the Tsari sanctuary. Our goal was to follow the rugged path as far as time would allow. Meconopsis simplicifolia was seen near the temple in colors from muddy to clear mauve forms.
in the Tsari River valley.
Photo by Garratt Richardson
As we climb, the river roars beside us and provides almost a musical backdrop to the mossy trail with little under-story. Tiers of rhododendron species arise from the river's edge. Rhododendron pudorosum is on one bank, R. aganniphum is in bloom on the other. Higher on the slope is a broad band of flowering R. wardii and sometimes intermediate forms between R. wardii and R. aganniphum are seen. Rhododendron luciferum grows higher on the slope above R. wardii . Kenneth yells out, "Did you the R. dignabile ?" When you are only an enthusiast like I am and not an expert it's often difficult to recognize new and different rhododendrons in the field; they just don't have labels on them as in our gardens. Philip and I had walked right by it. Rhododendron dignabile , sometimes described as R. beesianum without indumentum, was interspersed with the R. luciferum . The pink fading to white flowers were definitely spent beneath the overstory of Abies densa . Near the trail was a sheer rock cliff with a few crevices; water oozed down the face. Nestled in the cracks were clumps of a rare and choice Paraquilegia grandiflora with small blue green leaves resembling those of a columbine and large mauve poppy-like flowers. They obviously need perfect drainage and lots of moisture. The black mandrake Mandragora cauiescens , nestled in tall grass, was pointed out to me. A small lake was reached; its backdrop was a treeless mountain range with waterfalls and mists. Beyond it was a cirque whose sides were lined with bright clear yellow Rhododendron phaeochrysum with purple-speckled throats and below which were R. aganniphum . Standard texts describe R. phaeochrysum as white to pink. Phaeochrysum means "gold light" implying that the original plants collected must have been yellow. In Ludiow and Sherriff's 1936 field notes of the Bimbi La, R. agglutinatum (Nos. 1761 and 1770) is described as being "lemon yellow, magenta basal patch and spots, above conifer zone. Only H. H. Davidian 8 describes R. phaeochrysum as "rarely yellow." David Chamberlain 9 divides the species R. phaeochrysum into three varieties: phaeochrysum , agglutinatum and levistratum . Peter Cox has reported this same plant on the north side of the Bimbi La as " R. phaeochrysum , yellow and "yellow R. phaeochrysum aff" (aff.= affinity or close relationship). The taxonomists can have another field day with the classification of this form!
The 14,000-foot (4200 m) ridge dipped down to a meadow and yak-herders' huts. Masses of the low growing Rhododendron laudandum var. temoense with its characteristic chocolate-brown underside with white to pinkish flowers lined the treeless path. The pass was nowhere to be seen, and there wasn't enough time to go further. When we returned, a heavy mist came into the valley. Although it was only late afternoon the light had faded and became diffused. The fir canopy and dark-leafed rhododendrons created a gloomy and mysterious atmosphere. And then a most striking thing happened - the numerous flowers of the many R. wardii along the trail took up this limited light. With a gray foggy backdrop the hundreds of trusses were like luminescent globes showing the way down the valley - an unforgettable and magical experience.
Arriving back at the monastery, we were invited into a dark and smoky living room. Hot tea was a welcome treat; it had been a long strenuous day. I was asked to see an old monk with extremely poor eyesight. It was obvious that he was suffering from cataracts. He Hai had learned there was a team of Swiss doctors who performed cataract surgery in Lhasa at no charge. Still the old man who may never have been out of the valley was reluctant to undertake such a long trip even if his vision could be restored.
, pink flowers without calyx.
Photo by Garratt Richardson
The following day took us to the valley to the west of Yarap. It was called Yarap Char Na meaning "five rock valley at Yarap." Again the moss covered floor of a forest of R. wardii , pudorosum , dignabile with the fir overstory made it feel like a park. Lonicera cyanocarpa var. porphyrantha and Fritillaria cirrhosa were identified by the alpinists. Periodically we would get a view of the Takpa Shelri range, masses of R. aganniphum with bright red-pink trusses and R. phaeochrysum provided an impressive foreground to the snowy peaks. At lunch Franz produced a truss of a watermelon red rhododendron. What a great surprise - it was R. thomsonii ssp. lopsangianum . This plant had been named for the 13th Dalai Lama, Nga-Wang Lopsang, and had last been seen by plant hunters in 1936. At 14,000 feet (4200 m) a very slow scramble up the breathtakingly steep slope provided closer inspection of these rhododendrons leaning downhill on their thin trunks presumably unable to withstand the winter snow. Several drifts were seen; their color varied from pinkish-red to a full red. Somewhat higher R. pumilum grew as a carpet admixed with Primula odontica . This primrose with its small fragrant red bells hadn't been seen since the days of Ludlow and Sherriff. This was truly an flowering paradise: my alpinist colleagues assured me that I was looking at such wonders as Pegaeophyton scapiflorum , Lloydia flavonotans , yellow Ranunculus and Caltha sp.
m, not in cultivation, is past bloom but shows leaf detail.
Photo by Garratt Richardson
The third valley from this same campsite, a twenty minute drive back toward the Senguti plain, was explored the next day. Rhododendron aganniphum and R. phaeochrysum were plentiful but no different plant life was discovered; indeed it was much less diverse. We broke camp the following morning, driving slowly and sometimes walking east down the Tsari river valley road which descended into a narrow gorge. A new rhododendron was seen (again, no name tags) initially thought to be R. neriiflorum-like but later identified as R. miniatum . Only a couple of spent light red small flowers remained in the large but localized population. The damp rotting logs under the plants provided quite the nursery bed for many seedlings. Specimens were 6-8 feet (2-2.5 m) tall. The elliptic leaves had a dark green surface; young leaves presented a light reddish dusting on the top while the undersurface had a dirty white but spongy indumentum. Rhododendron miniatum is thought to be closely related to R. sherriffii in Subsection Fulgensia and has never been in cultivation. Further study will be required to confirm this designation. Flowers that provided keen interest were also seen along the road: Clematis , Gentiana stylophora , (yellow giant gentian), Meconopsis argemonantha and the famous Himalayan blue poppy Meconopsis betonicifolia .
South slope of Bimbi La leading to Tsari River with
Photo by Garratt Richardson
Our vehicles stopped at Pozo Sumdo - situated at the entrance of the river flowing from the Bimbi La into the Tsari river. There was no evidence of human habitation. A logging road led part of the way to the Bimbi La. The hairy branchlets and mahogany new growth identified Rhododendron erosum . Rhododendron fulvum with its rich brown underleaf was new to us as well. Our now old friends R. pudorosum , luciferum and cinnabarinum var. xanthocodon Purpurellum Group were growing in abundance. Our first campsite on the way to the Bimbi La was at 4000 meters (13,000 ft.) having passed another group of Paraquilegia . The next morning, we continued the climb, exploring a vast, steep primula meadow. Primula sikkimensis and P. alpicola predominated by the hundreds. Cypripedium tibeticum was spied hiding in the grass. We retraced our steps part way and then headed towards the pass itself. Our second camp in this valley was at 14,800 feet (4440 m) and set in a yak-grazing field dotted with large clumps of bright red-pink R. aganniphum . The next morning there was a heavy mist; we arrived at the 15,700-foot (4710 m) pass in about two hours. The predominant rhododendrons at this altitude were R. laudandum var. temoense and primuliflorum . Seemingly dozens of alpine plant varieties were recorded including Lilium nanum , Primula dryadifolia , Diapensia , Primula tsariensis , Saussurea , Rheum nobile , Primula atrodentata , Rhodeola . At noon we were able to have lunch on the other side of the pass, looking north into the valley where the river flows into the Tsangpo and where last year's expedition had come up to the Bimbi La.
with branches of
R. laudandum var. temoense , Bimbi La.
Photo by Garratt Richardson
Two potentially serious falls at the Bimbi La resulted in a severe wrist sprain by Valmai, and a sharp piece of slate had created a deep and dirty gash in the palm of Anne's hand. Jane Milson's surgical skills came in very handy for Anne, and a strong wrist supporter from John Cowan was put to good use for Valmai.
The last new rhododendron for us was Rhododendron calostrotum var. riparium and was seen near this upper campsite while taking last minute photographs of waterfalls, mountains and rising clouds prior to heading back down the valley. It was our last plant hunting day and we were very hopeful that R. tsariense would be found. We had no luck; attempts to get further east of Pozo Sumdo towards Migyitun were blocked by authority. Our final night in the Tsari valley was spent on the Senguti Plain, right near Chosam at the foot of the Sur La.
Several potential problems arose after leaving the Tsari valley. We were asked to stop at a military post which somehow had been ignored on the way in. Franz and I had left our passports with our camping gear in the transport truck far ahead of us. Adroit explanations by our leaders allowed us through. An active landslide was blocking the road forcing us to disembark. The 4 wheel-drive capabilities barely allowed us to make it over the mud. At the second army road-block, the same passport situation arose and we were again lucky enough to be permitted to pass. We camped that night on grazing land near Ton Say. The next day we made a short side trip to Yumba Lakang near Zedang in the Yarlong valley. This monastery is reputed to be the oldest dwelling in Tibet. Having been destroyed during the 1960s Chinese Cultural Revolution, it has been rebuilt. The lower part of the temple whose name refers to the female hind (deer) dates back to the 2nd century BC. The valley is believed to be the cradle of Tibetan civilization with agriculture appearing here 2,000 years ago. We drove to Lhasa where tourist activities were carried out awaiting our departure to Katmandu. The highlight was the invitation from He Hai to visit one of his sect's monasteries. There was to be a welcoming ceremony for a reincarnated lama. The TsuPhu monastery is located several hours drive northwest of Lhasa. It was a beautifully clear day as we drove along rivers and streams bordered by cultivated fields in these otherwise dry and treeless valleys. When we arrived at the monastery, the eerie and exotic sounds of drums and six-foot long horns along with the many dozens of monks droning their chants represented the very essence of Tibetan culture.
The expedition was highly successful and enjoyable. Excellent weather, accessibility to the valley, highly competent leaders, staff and cooks with unfailing equipment were major contributors. It is always a pleasure to spend time with sympathetic plants people. Friction seemed to be minimal; the compatibility for three weeks in close quarters among eighteen adults is always a challenge. The rediscovery of R. lopsangianum , miniatum and pudorosum , previously rare or unknown in cultivation, was the botanical highlight for me. To enter the little inhabited Tsari river valley and its beautiful pristine setting made the trip unique and exhilarating. The pilgrimage will have to be continued to find Tsari's namesake Rhododendron tsariense .
1 Fletcher, H.R. A Quest of Flowers , Edinburgh University Press, 1975.
2 Kingdon-Ward, Frank. Assam Adventure , Jonathan Cape, 1941
3 Cox, Peter A. Tibet 1998 - Plant Hunting Amid Political Unrest, J. Am. Rhod. Soc. 1999 Summer; 53(2) 135-138,141
4 Franz Besch, Anke De Beukelaer, Raymond Bomford, Brian Brown, Anne Chambers, John Cowan, Philip Evans, Peter and Bathsheba Hartrey, Valmai Lowe, Jane Milson, Graham Rugman, Ernst Sondheimer, Norman Tennant, John Vaughan.
5 Cox, Peter, Tibet 1996: The Long Awaited Expedition, J. Am. Rhod. Soc. 1998 Winter, 52(1) 2-8
6 Muller, C. and White, K. Over the Doshong LaExploring Kingdon-Ward's Rhododendron Fairyland in Southeastern Tibet, J. Am. Rhodo. Soc. 1996 Summer, 50(3) 146-153,160
7 Sakya, Jnan Bahadur. Short Description of Gods, Goddesses and Ritual Objects of Buddhism and Hinduism in Nepal , Handicraft Association of Nepal, Publishers, Katmandu, Nepal 1996.
8 Davidian, H. H. The Rhododendron Species, Volume II Elepidotes, Part 1 Arboreum-Lacteum , Timber Press 1989, p.289
9 Chamberlain, D. F. Notes from the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh Volume 39 No.2 1982 p.350
Dr. Richardson is a member of the Seattle Chapter and practices part-time as a radiation oncologist. This is his seventh rhododendron expedition to Southeast Asia.