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

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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.

21st October

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.

22nd October

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. Bed. Tired!

23rd October

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.

24th October

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.

25th October

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!

26th October

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.

27th October

Driving all day, arrived Dali early evening. Quite civilised. Took 'the guys' out for a Western meal which they enjoyed. But not very much.

28th October

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.

29th October

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!

30th October

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.

31st October

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.

1st November

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.

Readers Comments:

On 30-7-2002 Rob wrote:
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.

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