Asia diary - Part 3
No, not the journal, surprisingly, but
the wonderful, variable, adaptable palm.
Martin Gibbons, c/o The Palm Centre, 563 Upper Richmond Road
West London SW14 7ED, U.K.
Chamaerops No. 19, published online 23-07-2002
on this article:
Click here to read them or to add your own.
Trachycarpus martianus in Nepal
In China, we had experienced both Heaven and
Hell. Heaven in the beautiful Stone Gate Gorge on the Salween River
where we found a brand new species of Trachycarpus, and Hell in
the polluted coal-mining city of Panzihua, home of Cycas panzihuaensis.
We couldn't wait to leave. On 2nd November we boarded a plane bound
for Rangoon in Burma, only recently opened to the tourist. One of
the old books we had studied for information on Trachycarpus mentioned
a sighting by a botanist called Kurz, of what he called Trachycarpus
martianus, in 'the pine forests of Martaban, Burma'. As usual, the
only way to check this out was to visit the site in person.
2nd November 1994
Two hour flight to Yangon (Rangoon), where we were
adopted by two 'guides' who attached themselves to us and offered
to drive us around and generally look after us. Accepted cautiously.
Made to change foreign currency at the airport, the country is desperate
for hard foreign currency. Ne Win, who runs the country with an
iron hand, has a 'thing' about the number 9, and suddenly decided
that all banknotes should be in multiples thereof. Thus instead
of 50 and 100 notes, you have 45's and 90's! It's quite ludicrous,
and extremely difficult to calculate the number of notes to pass
over, especially on larger transactions. Many people living in remote
country districts lost their life savings as they did not know of
Yangon is clean, very hot and tropical. The guides
drove us to a few rather poor hotels including one called the Holiday
Inn - not like the real thing at all! Ended up at a family run place
on the edge of town. Clean and nice, not too cheap at $24 per night.
Saw a few palms, nothing very exciting, and had a beer overlooking
the huge lake.
Up late, breakfast on the lawn behind the hotel,
very nice, and out. Met the guides who took us to apply for the
'special permit' to visit Martaban (a restricted area, naturally).
While waiting, visited the famous Shwe Dagon pagoda with Borassus
flabellifer palms against the blue sky. Here people buy sparrows
from cages, releasing them to gain points in heaven. Once released
I'm sure they 'home' for another spell in captivity. Ate at the
Strand Hotel, one of the new generation of tourist-oriented Colonial
refurbs, with Western menus, and prices (in US$) to match.
Spent the entire day waiting for 'the permission'
but it didn't come until it was too late to leave. It is, after
all, quite a long drive. Decided on an early start in the morning.
Up at 4.30am, and left after breakfast at 5.15,
with one of the guides and a driver. The road deteriorated suddenly
and badly the moment we left town. It appears not to have been repaired
since the war. Driver seems to be short sighted, and doesn't notice
oncoming traffic etc. until the last moment. Fortunately, the bad
road keeps his speed down. At one time we were stopped and asked
for our papers. Fortunately they are in order. They don't take prisoners
here. Countryside is very flat and green, many rice paddies and
many palms but only a few species: Borassus, Areca and Coconut palms,
but as we neared Martaban saw many Livistonas cultivated for thatch,
and indeed, great lorries loaded up with the stuff. Drove for 9
hours, eventually reaching Martaban at 4pm. What a dump! A small
coastal village, its only importance seems to be as ferry terminal
for the boat to Moulmein, across the river. Also, disappointingly,
the whole area was rather flat, the few hills that we had seen are
devoid of anything other than scrub, so no possibility of finding
the Trachycarpus that we had endured so much to see. In any event
it seemed much too tropical for this cool-loving palm. What was
Mr. Kurz up to? Unsure what to do next so decided to take the ferry
across the river (the same Salween River that we had followed a
thousand miles north, in China) to Moulmein, 'cross the bay, and
as we did so, we watched the sun a-settin' over Rangoon. Quite a
nice town, but colonial-wise, a shadow of its former self, though
many lovely old buildings are still intact. Took a horse and cart
to the Government Guest House, the only place tourists are allowed
to stay, and payable in US$ only.
Persuaded to play tourist and take a speedboat around
the bay. Saw stands of Nypa fruticans, the Nipah palm, and stopped
at a small island, actually a coconut plantation. Hundreds of palms,
lots of Arecas too. The presence of these three species more or
less rules out any possibility of finding Trachycarpus as they simply
don't grow together in the same climatic zone. Back to the mainland,
back to the ferry and back to Martaban and the road north, back
to Rangoon. On the way we stopped and had some 'toddy' made from
the Borassus palm, but either it was past its sell-by date, or it's
supposed to taste a bit fizzy! Interesting anyway. Stopped that
night at a small family-run hotel at Kyatiko. One of the children
put a HUGE cockroach into our room as a bit of fun.
Up at 6am, and continued the drive back to Yangon,
arriving at lunchtime. Not much to say about the journey except
that it was hot, tiring and dusty. Did a little shopping and thence
to airport where we paid off our guides who had been very useful
and helpful to us, and waited for our flight out. Burma (or should
we really call it Myanmar now) is in many ways a wonderful country
and we were in some respects sorry to leave. But the way the country
is run leaves much to be desired and the way the tourist has to
pay, pay, pay, usually in US$, is very bad. Maybe when this awful
regime topples it will be different. We will certainly not return
Our flight left mid-afternoon, first to Dacca (Bangla
Desh) then to Bangkok, then to our next destination, Delhi, where
we arrived at midnight, taking a taxi to a rather poor hotel. No
windows in our room.
Learned that the flight to our main destination
- Kathmandu, Nepal - was delayed, so had a few hours to pass in
Delhi. Found a good taxi-driver who knew his city and was very informative.
He took us to various places we needed to visit, airline offices,
breakfast, photocopy shop etc. and finally back to the airport for
1pm where we had a free lunch as compensation for the delay. Quite
nice curry tiffin. Plane was half-empty. Slept for a while. Arrived
Kathmandu at dusk. Changed some money, completed the formalities,
and took a taxi to a hotel, the Maha Luxme. In the darkness on the
way we spotted palms. Could they possibly be Trachycarpus martianus?
Certainly they looked like it, but hard to be sure. Exciting anyway!
Hotel nice and clean, and friendly. Cheap, too, at $10. Checked
in and immediately went back to check out the Trachy's by torchlight.
Yes, they certainly were T. martianus, lots of them, many in fruit.
Gosh! Had a wonderful dinner, our disappointing trip to Burma well
behind us now.
Up early and had breakfast on a terrace on the roof
of the hotel. Cool to begin with but soon warmed up as the sun rose.
Wonderful view of rooftops all around. Left hotel and walked to
the Trachy's for a closer inspection. On the way we saw hundreds
of huge fruit bats roosting in the tree tops. The Trachy's were
fabulous, tall and thin-trunked, presenting a very different appearance
from T. fortunei, and unmistakable. A well-aimed stone brought down
a few seeds though we hardy needed confirmation. They were shaped
like flat date stones or coffee beans, quite different from T. fortunei's
kidney shaped seeds. Collecting any more would be impossible since
they were all about 30 feet tall.
The classical locality of Trachycarpus is a town
called Bunipa, to the east of Kathmandu. It is here that all the
old records that we refer to before our trips state that the species
occurred in great numbers. Beccari, in the 1930's, quoting Wallich,
states that it is 'very abundant' here, so a definite place to visit.
Returned to the hotel to arrange a taxi to take
us to Bunipa but once again we were to be disappointed. After a
bumpy ride of over an hour we found ourselves in the town but there
were no Trachy's to be seen, and all the surrounding hills had long
since been shorn of vegetation. Perhaps in Wallich's day there had
been thousands of them but now, as so often, there is none. We had
the driver take us around the town but to no avail. Then, as we
were leaving, we did spot one old and very tall tree in a garden,
perhaps the only survivor of the mass destruction of these beautiful
palms. Mr. Spanner very happy in the evening as we went to a German
restaurant, with many national dishes on the menu.
We had read in an account of a trek along the Marsyandi
Valley that Trachycarpus martianus was to found growing naturally
beyond a town called Syange, to the west of Kathmandu. There was
no road there, just a trail, which began in the town of Besisahar.
With breathtaking optimism (not to mention stupidity) we calculated
that, once at the town, we could get to the Trachy's, and back,
in a single day.
Up early, breakfast, and onto the bus for Gomre,
which left at 7am sharp. Bought some oranges for the trip and settled
down to a few hours' discomfort in the old bus. Took an hour to
get out of Kathmandu, so much traffic, so many other buses and worst
of all, so much pollution. Finally we were out of the town, (having
seen a few more TM's on the way), on to the open road, and 6 hours
later we were there. On arrival we were besieged by people who wanted
to sell us fruit but who also wanted us to use their bus for the
next town to which we were heading, Besisahar, the jump-off point
for our Trachy-trek. Many regular trekkers in the same boat (or
bus). Soon found ourselves aboard (or rather, on top of) an ancient
old bus and we, together with about 14 other 'trekkies' (more Gore-tex
than you could poke a stick at) sat on the roof and made ourselves
as comfortable as we could by sitting on our rucksacks. It was rather
a bad, rather a long, 4-hour journey. The road was terrible, causing
the bus to lurch from side to side, very dusty and smoky. The scenery
was not very interesting and we saw no palm trees at all. Finally
arrived at Besisahar at about 5pm and booked into a small hotel.
Rather basic, no hot water, no bathroom, but very cheap at £1
per room per night.
11th November - the Longest Day
Woke with the alarm clock at 4 but found it was
still dark so back to sleep for an hour. Still dark even then but
up anyway as a long day ahead of us. Left the hotel and followed
the trekker's trail out of the town, using torches, in the direction
of Syange. Crossed the Marsyandi River more than once, by suspension
bridges, some a bit rickety. Walked and walked for hours. Stopped
at a wayside hostelry for some lunch and set off again along the
trail. Sometimes up, sometimes down, sometimes along the river,
sometimes far from it. Finally reached Syange at 1pm, but no sign
of any Trachy's.
Continued walking, crossing the river once again
on a long, high suspension bridge, rather tired as we have been
walking for 7 hours now. Had a long climb, high above the river
now, and stopped to rest at some kind of summit. Through binoculars
we were able to see a few Trachy's on a distant hillside. Ho ho!
Feeling very tired, and worried about the return walk, I opted to
stay at a small 'tea shop' while Toby carried on for a closer look.
After an hour and a half he was back, having seen lots of the T.
martianus, and having taken some photos. There were lots of them,
gorgeous, accessible and growing on a gentle hillside some distance
further on from where he, too, had stopped. A huge effort for such
a brief sighting, but some times the price is that high on the Trachy
After a bottle of Coke apiece (these are carried
in heavy boxes, on the backs of Sherpas, for huge distances to distant
'tea shops' for the convenience of travellers like us. When empty,
the bottles are carried back in the same crates. Nepal cannot afford
disposable containers, only wealthy countries can afford that luxury)
we set off back the way we had come, knowing we were in for a long,
After three hours it began to get dark as we carried
on walking. Using torches only when necessary to save on battery
power we carried on up hill and down dale, sometimes climbing, sometimes
descending. We stopped from time to time to take a drink from our
water bottle, filling it from streams (not forgetting to add water
purifying tablets). We were very tired but things were going reasonably
well until, around 11.30 we lost the path, or rather, took a side
track by mistake.
Not realizing our error in the dark, we crossed
what was a tributary of the river, and followed a farm track which
soon petered out. Attempting to find our way back to it, we stumbled
around in the dark and soon realized that we were completely lost.
The moon had set, and our torches had long since given up the ghost.
We found ourselves in rice fields, thankfully empty and dry, and
were just floundering around with no sense of direction. We saw
some lights in the distance and tried to get closer to them but
they turned out to be miles away and on the other side of the river.
We had been walking for 19 hours.
We were really at a very low ebb when, by a miracle,
we stumbled on a small track. We followed it to a larger one and
soon came across a small hut, scaring half to death an old man who
was asleep outside. 'Besisahar?' we asked, and he pointed back the
way we had come and it was then that we realized the mistake we
had made, as we were actually on the original track, and we soon
passed the point at which we had mistakenly turned off. Such joy!
We then knew exactly where we were and crossed the tributary again,
this time at the right place. We were in bed by 2.00am and asleep
by 2.01, having been walking for 21 hours.
No peace for the wicked as they say, and no time
to lick our wounds. Up at 7 to get the bus back to Kathmandu, and
our flight out of Nepal. We felt as though we had been beaten, and
even our blisters had blisters. The long bus journey back to civilization
was not fun. An atrocious journey, best forgotten. Once back in
Kathmandu had a hot shower apiece then out for a relaxing dinner,
naturally washed down with much well- deserved beer. Then bed and
Woke feeling much refreshed, vowing to return to
the same place next year, but with considerably more time allowed
for the trek. Taxi to the airport where chaos reigned, hundreds
of people, no flight indicators except blackboards-and-chalk, no
queues, no-one to ask, but, miraculously, an hour and a half later,
we find ourselves on a small, propeller driven plane bound for Biratnagar,
and out of this happy country where the Trachycarpus grows.
To be continued. Next time: Darjeeling and 'the
best porridge in India', Sikkim and another species of Trachycarpus
new to science.
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