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Trekking on the Trachycarpus Trail

Martin Gibbons searches for the Chusan Palm's long lost brother.
Martin Gibbons
Chamaerops No. 1, published online 23-11-2002

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Trachycarpus country? Mount Thakil and Pinus longifolia.

The genus Trachycarpus needs much work to determine the precise number of species it contains. Everyone knows T. fortunei - the Chusan Palm - its popularity largely due to its legendary cold hardiness. Less well known is T. wagnerianus, now regarded as a variant of T. fortunei despite its distinctive appearance. The beautiful T. martianus though extremely rare in cultivation is at least grown in some botanic gardens in America and Europe and is there for all to see. But what of T. nanus, the dwarf, stem-less species from southwest China, of which no photograph has ever been published? And Trachycarpus takil, a name often misused, but in reality referring to a palm not seen in the wild for 100 years and represented in cultivation by but a single plant, itself probably only a hybrid, in the Beccari garden in Florence? Indeed, is a distinct species at all, or just another variant of T. fortunei, as the experts are inclined to believe?

With these questions in mind, Wilko Karmelk, of Holland, and I had, independently, become interested in the Trachycarpus genus over a number of years. Finding we had this strong interest in common, we resolved to attempt to solve part of the puzzle, and to go in search of T. takil, and try and shine some light into this dark corner of the genus.

Late in 1990 I received through the post a number of photocopies, made by Wilko in the Amsterdam library. They were from a selection of old botanical publications: The Gardeners Chronicle of 1886; Kew Bulletin 1912; Indian Trees by Brandis 1906; Flora of British India by J. D. Hooker 1894 and others. They all mentioned Trachycarpus palms calling them variously Chamaerops excelsa, C. martianus, C. griffithii, C. fortunei, Trachycarpus martianus, T. takil, etc. and they all alluded to an isolated population that grew in Northern India.

In our subsequent researches we never did discover who wrote the original description of the precise locality, but all the old books we read tended to quote the same words, "grows in great numbers, forming clumps and rows, on the Thakil Mountain in Eastern Kumaon, in the fork between the Sarju and Kali rivers, between 6,500 ft and 7,800 ft, where snow generally covers the ground from November to March.... in damp shady glens... chiefly on the north-west side".

On a trekking map we located the two rivers, in Kumaon Province, Uttar Pradesh, about 300 miles north-east of New Delhi, near a village called Pithoragarh. There, in the fork between them was a mountain, not named, but with a height of 8166 feet above sea level. As there were no others in the vicinity this had to be Mount Thakil. It was around this time that we learned that "thakil" is a Hindi word meaning "palm". The chance therefore of seeing "Palm Mountain" presented a very exciting prospect indeed.

We left London, Heathrow, airport on October 14th for the flight to India, stopping en route at Prague, Czechoslovakia, and Kabul, Afghanistan. Due to fog and problems with the plane, we were delayed at the former for some 24 hours, but at least we had an opportunity to look round this recently emancipated city, and very beautiful it was too.

Our original intention had been to spend a day sightseeing in New Delhi, but because of the lost time we were eager to be on our way. We arrived at 10pm at night, and at 6.30 the following morning we were on a slow moving eastbound train.

Indian trains leave much to be desired and they are certainly not for the squeamish. Even in first-class, the seats are hard and uncomfortable, the compartments, which are open, get grossly overcrowded, and people in rags sleep anywhere on the floor, amongst the food refuse that the other passengers continually drop. At each station, beggars and food vendors get on board doing what beggars and food vendors do, leaving the train at the next station, presumably getting the next train back.

The stops were frequent and interminable, the countryside flat, brown and drab. Phoenix sylvestris was frequently seen from the window, but even that lost its appeal after the first few hundred had been sighted. After 8 hours we arrived at Bareilly and had had enough. We left the train there and hoping we didn't look too much like rich Americans abroad attempted to find a taxi to take us the rest of the way. In this we succeeded and found a mini-bus whose driver agreed to take us to Pithoragarh, some 9 hours drive away, for a mere 1000 rupees (£25/$5O). In London this would just about get you to Heathrow airport.

We left Bareilly at about 3pm. The landscape continued flat and uninteresting until we reached a town called Tanakpur when it changed dramatically, and we began to climb. We had left the interminable Indian plains and were at last in the hills. As the landscape changed, so did the vegetation. Endless fields gave way to forests, farms to wooded hillsides. We began to see the Deodar (Cedrus deodara) and the beautiful Pinus longifolia, and the air smelt cooler and fresher after the stifling heat of the plains. We saw rushing rivers and deep, deep gorges and drove carefully round one hairpin bend after another, on a good, modern road.

It had been our plan to drive non-stop until we reached our destination, but at 10pm we came across a military nighttime roadblock and as there was no possibility of a hotel, we had no option but to sleep in the minibus with the driver and his mate, as best we could. That night was not the most comfortable I have ever spent. In the small hours I woke to the sound of scavenging foxes and local stray dogs having a moonlit gang fight worthy of West Side Story.

Finally it was 6am and ruefully missing our morning shower and hot breakfast, we set off through the now open roadblock, and arrived at Pithoragarh at about 9am. It is set in a wide, low valley, surrounded by mountain ranges and is a very attractive village. We located a small local hotel, which appeared to be staffed and run by two 9-year-old boys. None the less efficient for that, and soon we were ensconced in our rooms, simple but clean, with a glass of the local "chai" (a kind of hot, sweet, milky tea - delicious - and always served in a glass), and a bucket of hot water apiece ready for us to take a welcome and much needed shower. A glance through the thick and ancient hotel register revealed not a single European name. The rate, incidentally, was £1.50/$3 per night.

We knew from our trekking map that the mountain that we were looking for lay due south of the town, and from the flat roof of the hotel we had a good view of the range of which it formed a part, some 15 km distant. One peak, somewhat higher than the others, was obviously our goal, and although the locals knew it as "Thalkedar" rather than "Thakil" there could be no doubt as to its identity. Or indeed its allure, as we saw it there for the first time, dark and mysterious. The map indicated that there was a temple at its summit, and looking through binoculars, we could just make it out.

At this point of the trip we were lucky enough to make the acquaintance of a young lady, Miss Poonam Chaudhary, without whose help we would have had a much tougher time of things, and who rendered us great assistance. She was in Pithoragarh to investigate the possibilities of tourism in this remote and beautiful area, and with her contacts we were able to hire transport, guides and porters to aid us in our quest. It must be said however that Poonam, along with everybody else that we spoke to, was quite negative about our chances of finding palms on the mountain. Yes, everybody knew palms, and Phoenix sylvestris was not uncommon close to the town. But enquiries about fan palms, even when backed up with photographs of Trachycarpus, were always met with a polite but definite, 'they do not grow here.

We spent the rest of that day, and the next, in and around the town. We were impatient to be on our way of course, but there were arrangements to be made and formalities to be attended to. We did make one excursion with some newly made friends out to look at some Phoenix palms a few miles distant. One was a most attractive glaucous blue colour, but mainly they were just regular green (by now common-or-garden) P. sylvestris, mostly trunkless. But nice to see all the same.

The next morning found us up and ready to leave by 7.30, when the jeep we had arranged to borrow arrived at the hotel, driven by Alook, Poonam's brother. We left the village behind us and drove due south along quite a reasonable tarred road, across the floor of the valley, towards our destination, which we now knew as Mount Thalkedar, the name 'Thakil' not having been used in living memory. After some miles, we began climbing. Up and up we went, with the view improving by the minute. We soon saw the snow covered peaks of the Himalayas, miles away on the far side of the town we had left. The highest, called Nanda Devi was the first to appear, and others came into view as we ascended.

The road deteriorated and tar became dirt. It became ever narrower, with hairpin bends and a drop of perhaps 150 metres, centimetres away from the wheels of the jeep. We stopped once or twice for photos and to admire the now stunning view. The entire visible horizon from east to west was snow-covered peaks.

At length, and with considerable relief, we reached a small village called Burapi on the 'other side' of the mountain range. Here we gratefully got out of the jeep and stretched our legs. The inevitable cluster of locals gathered to see what was going on and we showed round photos of Trachycarpus, to see if anyone recognized them. Depressingly no one did. We were disappointed and confused. All the old accounts we had read said these palms were here, on this mountain, in great numbers, but nobody appeared to have seen them. Were they extinct? Had there simply been a mistake made and two accounts been transposed a hundred years ago? Had all the trees perished in some severe winter beyond living memory?

To find out, don't miss next issue's exciting episode: The Ascent of Palm Mountain.

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