Asia Diary - Part 2
The second part of a 7 week, 6 country, 17 air
flight, palm hunting trip to the Himalaya and beyond. This time,
China, and a second new species of Trachycarpus.
Martin Gibbons, c/o The Palm Centre
Chamaerops No. 18, published online 23-07-2002
on this article:
Click here to read them or to add your own.
After some months of negotiation Toby Spanner
and I finally received permission to visit a remote part of China
where we believed we might find a new species of Trachycarpus. The
entire area is 'closed' to foreigners and special permission is
required to visit. We had read about this palm in an old book and
as usual, the only way to confirm our suspicions was to visit the
site. Last October, after a week in Thailand (see last issue), we
flew to China to begin the search. We had arranged to meet a Professor
Chen Sanyang, from the Kunming Institute of Botany, at the hotel.
He would accompany us to where this palm was recorded 80 years ago...
20th October 1994
The flight to Kunming was 1hr 20m. Arrived to a
typical Kunming day, grey, wet, miserable. Took taxi to hotel where
we met the Professor and a young Chinese interpreter called David.
Chatted to them for half an hour about the project, then went out
to eat, excited about our trip.
The jeep that the Professor had arranged arrived
at the hotel to collect us at 7.30 am. On board were he, David,
the driver (who we named Popeye), Toby & I. It was not a large
jeep and thus rather crowded. After an hour of formalities, calling
at various offices around the town for last-minute authorisations
and permits, we were off, heading due west towards the Burmese border.
Good road to begin with, later deteriorated. Fast driver. Stopped
for lunch at a road-side cafe: chicken, ginger, noodles, rice, Chinese
beer, not too bad. Arrived 6.30 pm at Xiaguan where stopped for
the night at Dali Hotel. No hot water.
Out and on our way by 8am, lunch (same as yesterday)
at Wayao, drove all day, still heading west. At Liuku we crossed
over the Salween River Bridge and headed north, parallel with the
Burmese border and the river itself. The Salween (now: Nu Jiang
or 'angry river') rises in the Himalayan mountains a thousand miles
to the north. It heads south, eventually discharging itself into
the Gulf of Martaban in Burma. The road was always close to the
river, sometimes high above, or right next to, but never very far
away. Finally arrived at Fugong as it was getting dark. Hotel. Dinner.
Up and out by 7 but with no breakfast. Continued
driving north up the same (only) road. Arrived at Gongshan where
we reported to the mayor as we were now in a 'forbidden' area of
China. Had many curious looks from the Chinese who have probably
never seen foreigners before. Had lunch and set off finally arriving
at a village called Bingzhongluo at about 3pm. Fabulous scenery
on the way, the rushing river our constant companion. Met the village
head and explained our mission via David, then went with him on
a short walk to a vantage point from where we could see the gorge
where the Trachy was reported as growing. The local name for the
gorge is the Stone Gate. It is like a huge crack in a mountain range,
with the Salween River flowing through it. The opposing faces must
be 1,000 feet high. Through binoculars we saw many palms growing
on the sheer faces of the gorge, but too far away to identify. Very
excited! Returned to the village where billeted in a small hotel,
made from hand-hewn planks, and celebrated with the local brew.
Up very early, before daybreak, the first in the
village. Breakfast long and drawn out while we were impatient to
be off. Eventually we left the village, walking along the same path
as yesterday, then broke off, following another track, between farms,
which led down to river level. The water is jade in colour, rather
fast flowing, and apparently rather deep. Followed the path along
the river bank and soon saw the first of many hundreds of Trachycarpus
palms growing on the steep faces of the two opposing cliffs. Examined
them through binoculars but, tantalisingly, unable to draw any conclusions
as to their identity. They certainly are beautiful perfect undamaged
leaves, often bare trunks, some up to about 30 feet tall, gorgeous!
Came across a medium sized specimen that had recently fallen across
the path so had the opportunity to examine it closely. It has stunning
waxy-white backs to the leaves, not like any Trachy we know. Also
a curious arrangement of leaf fibres below the crown. Intriguing!
No flowers, fruit or seeds. Most of the trees were growing on the
other side of the river so we sought some way to cross. As luck
would have it, we soon came across a dug-out canoe moored at the
bank of the river. The guide offered to walk to the nearby village
to see if anyone could be found who would row us across. Cooked
soup on the pebbly beach while we waited. What a wonderful picnic
spot! After an hour 4 Lissu tribesmen arrived who said they would
take us across. First Toby, then me, then the others. A bit hairy,
the river seemed wider when half-way across and only then do you
appreciate the speed and power of its flow. Arrived safe and sound,
though, on the far bank and set off to examine the living palms
which grew in some numbers. Most were growing on the sheer cliff
face and quite inaccessible, no bad thing we thought. However there
were a good number growing on a wooded scree-slope and we scrambled
through the light forest cover to get close to them. Spent a very
happy hour going from tree to tree, doing what we do best, and concluding
that we were indeed looking at a species of Trachycarpus new to
science. No trees in fruit of flower. Desperate to find at least
some seeds for identification, as much as for propagation. Finally,
one of the Lissu found some at the base of one tree. They were kidney
shaped, like T. fortunei, though a bit smaller and more rounded.
Collected some samples of leaves, old inflorescences, fibres, etc.
as herbarium samples to confirm our diagnosis. Main differences
between this Trachycarpus and others are the pure white waxy backs
to the leaves, unique arrange meat of leaf sheath fibres, seed different
shape and distinctive silhouette, quite unlike any other, Back to
the canoe then and across the river, one at a time, as before, with
two paddlers. Safely assembled on the other side, we then had a
slow and easy walk back to the village feeling rather wonderful.
What a great day! Had dinner (usual stuff) back at the hotel, celebrating
long into the night.
Up somewhat later than usual, and set off for the
long drive back to civilisation. Driving, driving, driving. Pulled
up for the usual lunch (somewhere) and in evening stopped at a curious
place, half hotel, half lunatic asylum, populated by ancient crones
and old men, some bent double, some of whom just sat giggling. 'Quite
clean rooms though and had a good night's sleep but shocked in the
morning to find huge creatures like a cross between a spider and
a centipede, with long bodies and even longer legs, crawling across
the floor and up the walls. Weird!
Fried eggs for breakfast, then hit the road again,
south, ever south. Arrived at Liuku in the evening and stayed at
'the best hotel in town'. Hahn. Had just 4 Thermos flasks hot water
apiece for a bath. Even so, it was wonderful.
Driving all day, arrived Dali early evening. Quite
civilised. Took 'the guys' out for a Western meal which they enjoyed.
But not very much.
Up late. Said goodbye to the Professor, David and
Popeye, as they were leaving us here. Had some welcome laundry done
at the hotel and after lunch just sat in the sun in the courtyard
till it was ready. Paid the hotel bill and left, on our own for
the first time. Walked to the edge of town and began hitching, direction
north, towards Lijiang. Had a series of lifts in truck, lorry and
bus. Nothing much to report. Arrived Lijiang where we stayed the
night after paying a car driver to take us the last couple of hours.
But worth it.
Set off, hitch hiking, in an easterly direction
in the morning. We wanted to return to where we had seen Trachycarpus
nanus in previous years. On the way we stopped at a farm where there
were huge numbers of Muse//a lasiocarpa growing. It really is a
curious plant. An attractive banana relative with a big yellow flower
on the top of a stout, strongly conical stem. Collected some rhizomes,
no seeds to be found. Also picked up some rhizomes from some true
banana plants which were producing fruit. Rather high up here, around
2800m, and rather cool, so they are probably very cold-hardy. Musa
'Yangtse Valley'. Rather difficult to get a lift out of this place
as not much traffic. But when we did, the scenery was magnificent.
Disappointed on arriving at the site of T. nanus as the goats had
invaded the one small area, which the previous year had been free
of them, and where we had collected several thousand seeds. Though
T. nanus covers a large area these semi-wild goats are everywhere,
and eat the inflorescence as soon as it appears. For this reason,
there are very few seeds produced. The species is effectively extinct
now in the wild. Fortunately, the seeds we collected previously
have been distributed around the world so at least it survives in
cultivation. Managed to collect the few seeds that the goats had
missed, though whole area alive with big spiders in webs slung between
the bushes. Ugh!
Another travelling day, east to Panzihua (Dukou),
home of Cycas panzihuaensis. Travelled by bus, but the pollution
worsened as we neared our destination, and it seems to be a huge
coal-mining and steel-smelting district. Passed through many towns,
each more polluted than the last. Chimneys, smoke, trucks and fumes,
dirty people, filthy streets, tractors pulling open topped tanks
full of sludge slopping out everywhere, polluted rivers every colour
of the rainbow from rust-red to bright grass-green, all ultimately
discharging into the 'mighty' Yangtsekiang River, air thick with
fumes and dust; a real picture of hell. Hour after hour of this
until we reached our destination - Dukou. Checked into a reasonable
(by Chinese standards) hotel and went out into the fug for dinner.
Then back to the hotel but difficult to sleep because of the pollution,
and the noise.
To the bank to change some money, then to the railway
station to get tickets for later on, to Kunming. Had great difficulty,
everyone very rude, counters closing in our faces and being gestured
away with a wave of the hand as though we were irritating flies.
We finally found the correct ticket window but it closed as it was
our turn and we had to wait 3 hours for it to reopen. Can you believe
it?! Had lunch. Finally bought two 'hard-seat' tickets to Kunming,
train departing at midnight. Back into town then, by bus, and visited
a park in the centre where we saw a good number of the Cycads we
were enduring so much to see, Cycas panzihuaensis. Quite nice and
big plants, from a distance superficially like C. revoluta but easily
distinguishable when closer. How they survive in such a polluted
place is a mystery, the fug was so thick you couldn't see a hundred
yards and both of us are suffering from inflamed nasal passages
and throats. Life expectancy here must be about 30! Finally back
out to the station by taxi. Waited a miserable hour for the train,
then a mad scramble to board, a zoo, despite reserved seats. Found
our places, then spent a wretched 9 hours trying hard to sleep but
it really was impossible what with the crowd and the hard seats,
to snatch more than a few minutes at a time. It really was the most
awful journey but at least it was away from that terrible town -
Panzihua. If I never go back there it will be too soon.
Pulled into Kunming at first light, still grey and
raining but a marked improvement on where we had been. Checked into
a hotel and had a decent breakfast, then a shower, then slept for
a few hours. Began to feel human again. Had a lazy day. Tomorrow
we depart by plane for the next leg of our trip: Burma.
To be continued. Next time: A wild goose chase
in Burma, a day in Delhi, and Trachycarpus martianus in Kathmandu.
On 30-7-2002 Rob
Asia Diary - Part 2
The "weird" insects are likely to
be a species of Scutigerid. Very fast runners, but completely harmless.
They are a group of insects that we do not encounter in the UK,
being native to warmer climates.
18-03-19 - 13:57GMT
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