Heinrich Handel-Mazzetti: [A Botanical Pioneer In South West China] - chapter 24


Chapter 24. Over the Xi-la to Bahan on the Nu Jiang

Floral splendours in the forests and tanglewood — a frosty camp — over the Xi-la in snow — midge bites in the Saoa-lumba — over the Nisselaka — warm temperate rain forest — the Nu

After three days spent in preparations I set out on 15th June with my men and twenty five porters, though four pairs of the latter had been transformed into pack animals and one was represented by a woman. The track was so steep that the beasts were unable to carry more than the smallest crates, and at the price demanded — double a porter's wage (two rupees daily) — they did not give good value. Most of the porters were Chinese-Tibetan halfbreeds, several of whom had come on the Doker-la trip in 1915, but others, including the woman, were Nu who happened to be returning home, and one was a Lisu. They carried loads of up to 50 kg, either in a basket as used in the Alps, partly supported on the

head, or with the assistance of a band or strap across the forehead. My ponies came too, for I thought they might be of use during the ascent or later on the Nu Jiang, when I wanted to return to my base after a trip to the floor of the valley. In this district the people took great pains to prevent the horses from eating a jjrass that grew in stiff tufts along the path (probably Calamagrostis arundinacea), as it was allegedly poisonous. My pony, now restored to health by application of aluminium acetate, carried my heavy frame (83 kg) up the steep path to the col at Chranalaka with enviable agility, though dripping with sweat and panting — an ascent of 1300m, broken by a lunch halt at Niapaton. In the valley we [p.107:] had just left mist had enveloped us almost before we had vanished into the primaeval forest, and from then on the rain ceased only briefly.

The profuse herbaceous understorey of the moisture-loving mixed forests, of which I had seen no more than remnants in September 1915, was now at the peak of its development, and amazed even my Naxi plant collectors by its luxuriance. Flowers of all kinds were massed together above and among the lush green foliage, some owing their splendour simply to their colour, height and bulk, while others were of fantastic shapes and melancholy hues. Conspicuous among the latter were three species of Arisaema, a genus related to our lords-and-ladies, which grew one above the other or even side-by-side: A. biauriculatum, a tall plant with neatly curved outlines pencilled on its leaves and deep violet spots on its stems and spathes, A elephas, distinguished by the dark purple interior of its spathe, and a third, probably A. wilsonii Besides these there was Diphylleia cymosa with its remarkable umbrella-like leaves, Cardamine griffithii with deep pink flowers, the dainty Senecio euosmus, Smiladna wardii with white bell-flowers, and the tallest and perhaps the finest of all lilies, growing by preference in small clearings, Cardiocrinum (Lilium) giganteum (Fig.37). Its robust stem, as thick as a man's wrist at ground level, rises to a height of over 2.5 m and bears large light green heart-shaped leaves. At its top is a spike of several waxy snow-white flowers, each 12 cm long, their interiors striped with purple, emitting a delightful though perhaps somewhat cloying perfume, detectable at some distance. Its bulbs are eaten and its hollow stalks used for making musical instruments. A Chinese pedlar, the first to have attempted the crossing to the Nu Jiang that year, had already arrived with his goods — chiefly kitchen utensils — at Doshiracho, the lowest of the huts on the mountain pastures. I took shelter there, though its roof gave little protection from the rain, while waiting for my tent, part of which, as luck would have it, was in the last load to arrive. The elderly Lu was troubled by pain in the thighs and doubted whether he would be able to continue, but soon cheered up.

During the gradual ascent next day we encountered more and more species of rhododendron in flower, though the large tree rhododendrons along the stream had already gone over. Through the work of the missionaries Soulie and Monbeig alone, twenty three different species are known to occur in that valley. When we came to cross the stream I felt somewhat apprehensive, because it was such a raging torrent that we had to use the melting remnants of an avalanche as a bridge. It formed a huge arch, but the layer of snow on top was not very thick and I was seriously alarmed that the horses might break through; in the event, however, it was still strong enough. Primula yargongensis, P. muscarioid-es and P. sHaensis were in flower, diffusing wonder-fiilly sweet perfumes. Beneath the tanglewood of rhododendrons and willows was Bemeuxia tibetica, a member of the Diapensiaceae (Fig.36). It resembles our soldanellas, though it is not the fringed petals that give it this resemblance, but the white stamens alternating with the narrow pointed petal tips of its pendent flowers, grouped together in small inflorescences. Steeply tilted strata of clay-slate, their strike parallel with the line of the mountain chain, formed thin sheets lying at right angles to the path, which led up in steep steps to the uppermost basin below the Xi-la. It was still full of snow, and I pitched the tent not far from its edge, at 3900 m. The porters went back to find a warmer spot to spend the night and better grazing for the horses. Up where I was the mist drifted to and fro, while the wind whistled through the last straggling stunted firs and drove the rain against the canvas. Water from the melting snow trickled and splashed down from the surrounding conies. The solitude of that frosty camp might have seemed eerie and forbidding to someone who had not grown up with such a love of mountains as I had.

Mirrored in the bog pools was the strangest of all primulas, now split off into a genus of its own under the name Omphalogramma souliei, with solitary hairy pendent flowers 6 cm long in various shades from violet to purple, most of them with six petals, the lowermost projecting obliquely (Fig.42, 43). The air was perfumed by the flowering of the willows. Rhododendron saluenense had opened its large flat purple flowers; R. sanguineum was covered with thick-petalled bells in shades ranging from dark purple to orange-yellow or orange-red, and R. repens, a small-leaved creeping shrub with large solitary bright red flowers, scrambled over the boulders. Between the stones were dense cushions of Diapensia purpurea, now sprinkled with purple flowers, and the new D. acutifolia with white flowers. The small white bells of Cassiope had opened in enormous numbers; besides the two more widely distributed species, C pectinata and C selaginoides and a hybrid between them, there was a third species, C palpebrata, small and dainty. Pinguicula alpina and the tiny Ranunculus hyperboreus were growing beneath the rhododendrons.

Next morning the porters were in no hurry to leave their camp lower down, and I climbed onwards in the rain to the Xi-la, 500 m higher up. Its eastern side was still an almost unbroken snowfield, and at its lower edge only the little Primula bella was in flower. I do not know how the laden pack animals and my horses managed to surmount the steep snow slopes, the rock ledges and the unstable screes without mishap. I could certainly have been of no help to them, and I therefore left it to the Tibetans; they were quite capable of coping with the situation. At the steepest pitches the men had to carry the loads on their shoulders. Little rivulets trickled everywhere and most of the stones were more or less submerged, with the result that the lichens growing on them were washed so clean that their vivid hues were conspicuous from some distance. Nearly all of them were new: Verrucaria cupreocervina, lonaspis alpina, I. handelii, Staurothele sinensis, Lecanora cinereopolita, Lecidea caloplacodes, L chondrospora and L macrocarpa. I pitched our third camp lower down, in the Saoa-lumba, near a bridge made from a single beam. The subalpine meadow plants were now so tall that they hid not only the ponies but even men standing upright. Eutrema lancifolium, Draba surculosa and Cardamine polyphylla represented the Cruciatae, among others were Ranunculus stevenii, Meconopsis pseudointegrifolia and Heracleum sp. However, among them lurked millions of biting flies, tiny creatures less than a millimetre long, probably species of Simulium One was black all over and the other had transverse black and [p.108:] white stripes on the wings. Their bites were more painful than those of ordinary midges, and raised equally large papules. Despite every effort to seal the tent they found their way inside, and the flysheet was black with them. During the next day's march I passed through large areas of cherry tanglewood, especially on the Nisselaka pass. It had masses of dainty white bell-shaped flowers, each with a red calyx, usually arranged in rows along its horizontal or gently sloping twigs. Their bark was brown and their leaves, still small, were bright green and deeply serrated [note # 119: A new species later named Prunus crataegifolia.]. Flowering beneath the tanglewood, the small white Primula vemicosa, the large P. calliantha (Fig.40) and numerous other plants tempted me to take photographs, which came out well despite the rain. Arriving in Bahan that afternoon (June 18th), I had a cordial welcome from Pater Ouvrard and the elderly Pater Genestier, who had just come over from Qunatong on a visit. They were just as friendly as they had been in 1915, and it was good to know that there were still some people to whom humanity and science meant more than the rivalries between nations which still plague us today.

They arranged accommodation for me in the village headman's house, barely 20 metres below the mission building. After a rest day I set out to explore the gorge near the village by having myself lowered from a path in the upper part of the gorge leading to the village mills. Scrambling, crawling and sliding down, I suddenly found myself at the upper edge of a cliff overgrown by vegetation, and had to go back some distance to find a way down. Despite persistent drizzle I gathered a fine haul especially of shade-loving herbaceous plants — the same kinds as in the wet forests of the Doyon-lumba, but now in flower — together with several ferns and Eria graminifolia, an inconspicuous white-flowered epiphytic orchid of tropical type. My collectors climbed trees to gather flowers and fruit, notably from the new Corylopsis glaucescens, a very large, almost tree-like shrub growing at the edge of the forest, and numerous climbers, among them a small pepper vine (Piper aurantiacuni) which covered the treetrunks with a cushion-like mass of foliage. Finally I came to the brook and wading through it reached a little clearing in which I found the path which had led me back to my base the year before. Leaning at an oblique angle was an alder, apparently about to topple over. Its lower part had been denuded of branches, or perhaps had never had any. Instead, its trunk was enveloped up to the very top by the twining stems of a bramble. Round its lower part it formed a dense sack-like covering, but at the top I spotted some large round leaves belonging to a soft-stemmed epiphytic shrublet with large corymbs of white flowers, perhaps somewhat unattractive when viewed individually. It was Schizophragma crassum, a new species, and it and the bramble provided employment for one of the tree climbers. I got back at midday, wringing wet.

The people of Bahan were Nu, but there were also a few Tibetan families from the Lancang Jiang who had settled there. Besides cattle they had brought walnut trees with them, and I was interested to hear that the trees round their houses — already carrying a rich crop — were not derived from the wild walnuts of the Nu Jiang valley, but had been introduced from elsewhere. The Nu do not practice alpine cattle farming: hence the well preserved state of their forests and the tracklessness of their mountains. They are a Burmese people and according to their handed-down traditions they migrated from the Drong Jiang. Most of them are short and somewhat unprepossessing in appearance, but absolutely honest They are at a very low level of civilisation. They have no writing and their language is extremely poor in its vocabulary, being without any means of expressing abstract ideas; for example, they had no word for "colour". They do not lock up their houses when they go out, they leave their few cattle unattended on die pastures, they wash as seldom as the other peoples living in these parts, and they are very easily converted to Christianity. They are said to be immune to smallpox: when they contract the disease they walk around with only a few pustules and hardly any fever, whereas the Tibetans suffer from smallpox even more seriously than we do, and from dysentery also. A large breach in the wall of my room provided all the necessary ventilation, but moist air and gentle rain from the low clouds entered freely through it and the window, which though small could not be closed, and although the temperature was quite reasonable considering the altitude (2580 m), I was soon obliged to retire to bed with a feverish chill. From time to time a gust of wind drew aside the veils of mist and there, peeping over the forested Aliilaka ridge opposite, were a few tall pinnacles of dark rock belonging to the Nu Jiang-Irrawaddy divide, with patches of snow still gleaming on them. That was the range which I had dreamt of though I had hardly dared hope of reaching it, and yet Genestier had encouraged me to think of going even further by remarking that a journey to the upper reaches of the Irrawaddy itself would be entirely feasible. There must surely be rich spoils to be collected over there; the territory was entirely unexplored, and the plant cover was said to consist of jungle and palm forest —quite different from that of the Nu Jiang valley. Genestier himself, together with Grillieres, had at that time attempted the overland crossing to India by a route further to the south, but had been defeated by the climate and by food shortage and, gravely ill, had been forced to turn back after reaching the Drong Jiang, the eastern branch of the upper Irrawaddy. The only traveller who had succeeded in getting through to India was the Prince d'Orleans. He encountered serious difficulties and seems to have brought back hardly any botanical collections from this journey [note # 120: D'Orleans' book does in fact contain a five page list of plants collected during the expedition. Compiled by the botanist M.A.Franchet, it comprises over two hundred species, twenty two of them new. (d'Orleans, Prince Henri, Du Tonkin aux Indes, Janvier 1895 - Janvier 1896. Paris, C.Levy, 1898. English edition -From Tonkin to India, by the Sources of the Irawadi, translated by Hamilton Bent, London, Methuen, 1898).]. The call of the unknown — the country over the mountains was another blank on the map — was so strong that nothing would have deflected me from making the attempt. Happily I soon recovered from my fever, for there was no time to be lost: had the Chinese official in Gongshan got wind of my plans he would certainly have been able to bar my journey to this prohibited frontier territory; all he had to do was to command the ferrymen not to take me across the river.

[chapter 25:]