JARS v54n4 - Tsari, Botanical Pilgrimage to Southeast Tibet

Tsari, Botanical Pilgrimage to Southeast Tibet
Garratt Richardson
Seattle, Washington

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.