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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

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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 the change.

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.

3rd November

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.

4th November

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.

5th November

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.

6th November

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.

7th November

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 before then.

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.

8th November

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.

9th November

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.

10th November

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 Trail.

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, hard, slog.

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.

12th November

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 oblivion.

13th November

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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