Asia Diary - Part 4
Fourth and final part of your Editor's
secret diaries, faithfully kept through flood, fire, feast and famine.
This time India and Pakistan. Plus the first published photograph
of a new species of Trachycarpus which is set to take the palm world
Martin Gibbons, c/o The Palm Centre
Chamaerops No. 20, published online 23-07-2002
on this article:
Click here to read them or to add your own.
Left: First published photograph of the new Trachycarpus,
T. sikkimensis in cultivation in Kalimpong, West Bengal.
T. fortunei it aint!
Right top: Nannorrhops ritchiana, one of the worlds hardiest
palms, in habitat in Pakistan
Right bottom: Camel laden with thousands of cut Nannorrhops leaves.
Enough to give anyone the hump.
After a disappointing trip to Burma (Myanmar)
and an exhausting trek in Nepal where we only just about caught
sight of the Trachycarpus martianus that we had endured so much
to see, we flew out of Kathmandu to continue with the next leg of
The domestic airport at Kathmandu is a zoo! Hundreds
of people pushing and shoving, no flight indicators, only blackboards
that contained information that may or not be current. However,
one way or another, we find ourselves on our plane, heading south-west
for the town of Biratnagar. It has nothing to offer the tourist,
it is simply the nearest airport to that part of India we plan to
visit, so a good jumping off point. At airports in countries such
as India, we are usually surrounded by taxi drivers and their mates,
all begging us to take their cab. This time it was different, with
only one or two mini-van taxi's, whose drivers didn't seem to be
bothered one way or the other. However, we eventually hammered out
a price for the quite long distance to Darjeeling - £40 for
the 5-hour trip, and set off east. The countryside was rather dull,
very flat, mainly paddies and just a few, rather tropical palms.
After dark we crossed the border from Nepal into India and went
through the formalities, including having all our details recorded
in a vast, dusty book, that nobody probably ever looks at. In fact
the entire 'Foreign Registration' office seemed to be filled from
floor to ceiling with similar books, and great piles of old papers,
which presumably meant something to someone at some time, but now
simply served to gather dust. After the town of Siliguri, we began
to climb, and knew that we were on the last part of the journey
to Darjeeling, which is at 2400m. The road was accompanied by the
railway line of 'The Toy Train', a real but miniature locomotive
that hauls both people and goods up to the town. We could see little
from the mini-van, just hand painted signs that loomed out of the
darkness, 'Drive with Co-operation, not Competition', 'Better Late
in this World than Early in the Next', and similar exhortations
to road safety. Also, one hand-painted, black and white striped
bollard every 5m from the bottom of the hill to the top, a million
of them. They probably never finish painting them. Eventually arrived
at the famous Windamere Hotel - a real relic of Empire, enough nostalgia
to satisfy even me.
We had come here to check out two Trachycarpus
palms that we knew were growing in the hotel garden. Our friend
Henry Nolte from the Edinburgh Botanic Garden had photographed them
the previous year but had been unable to put a name to them. A real
challenge, and an easy and enticing side trip to add to our journey.
Though it was 10pm, and pitch dark, and though we
had no booking, the Windamere Hotel lived up to its reputation and
provided a warm welcome. Outside, it was freezing cold, and with
a mist worthy of the lake from which the hotel takes its name. A
room was found for us, an electric heater, and as though that weren't
enough, a hot-water-bottle apiece. As soon as we were able, and
despite the lateness of the hour, we hurried out into the garden
to check out the two trees, but if we had any idea that we would
be able to recognise them instantly, we were much mistaken. They
were certainly Trachycarpus, but which? Big, bare trunked, and with
leathery leaves that were quite different from all other Trachy's
we knew. We were sure only of what they weren't. To bed, under 47
blankets each, even more mystified than when we had arrived.
Up after a good night's sleep, to discover a fabulous
view, unsuspected in last night's darkness. Had what the guidebook
described as 'the best porridge in India', which preceded a traditional
English breakfast, complete with toast and marmalade. Spent the
day in and around the town, including a visit to the Lloyd Botanic
Garden, rather disappointing, many Trachy's but all T. fortunei.
One exciting find there was a huge Caryota (Fish Tail palm), species
uncertain, but it must be really hardy, since it snows here every
year and it is, after all, 2400m. No more Trachy's like the two
at the hotel, which are still nagging us. Arranged a car for tomorrow,
to take us to Gangtok in Sikkim.
Left Darjeeling late morning, it would take a few
hours to reach our destination. On the way we saw first of all,
one isolated Phoenix rupicola, a young plant, then a big Caryota
like the one yesterday in Lloyd's, then Wallichia disticha - a wonderful
two-dimensional palm - which we were delighted about, then finally
a big grove of tall Phoenix rupicola, cultivated and beautiful,
and bearing little resemblance to Phoenix canariensis and P. dactylifera,
which seem coarse and vulgar in comparison. Carried on driving,
crossing the famous Teesta river. On the other side along which
we now drove, we saw wild Phoenix rupicola, but as the slope was
north-facing they were impossible to photograph. Another interesting
find was Calamus erectus, lots of them, growing along the roadside,
spiny and gorgeous, and a first for us. The whole area was rather
moist and jungly and we were surprised not to see more palms, it
seemed perfect for them. There were, however, lots of palm-like
Pandanus trees, with 10 or 20 feet of trunk, often growing in deep
Reached Gangtok eventually, and checked in at the
Tibet Hotel, run by the Dalai Llama trust. Took a walk around the
town but no palms and not much else to see, a bit dull, so returned
to the hotel for a rather mediocre meal, then watched a bit of TV
Cold and greasy breakfast of fried eggs, tasting
of fish. Packed, checked out and tried to get a taxi or other car
to take us the 4-hour journey to Kalimpong, our next port of call,
but as it is election day it is all but impossible. Eventually,
the man from the hotel took us to the bus stand where we were able
to get on a bus that was to leave for K'pong in half an hour. Quite
comfortable and very cheap. Arrived at 4pm after a palmless journey,
and walked to the Everest Hotel, an enormous improvement on last
night, and very much in the Windamere tradition.
In the evening made contact with friends of friends back in Europe,
and spent a nice couple of ours at their house, talking palms. He
has mature Wallichia densiflora in the garden, as well as one of
those Caryota palms.
Planned to leave K'pong by midday and as we had
a little time to spare, decided to wander around the hotel garden.
What should we find there but one of the same Trachycarpus we had
seen in Darjeeling - identical! It is so distinctive there seems
no explanation other than it is a new species, it is certainly no
Trachy that we know. It has big, leathery leaves, a naturally bare
trunk, and seeds/fruits that are oval and grooved, quite different
from T. fortunei's kidney shaped seed. Ooooh! A new Trachycarpus!
How exciting! The hotel owner, grandson of the original owners,
offered to take us to Bagdogra in his mini-van, and off we set.
A great journey with many palms, but as usual we had left too little
time so could only stop a few times, and for a few minutes. However,
we were able to 'clock' among others Wallichia disticha (lots of
them, not the rarity we had expected) and many Phoenix rupicola.
Resolved to return next year. Reached Bagdogra with minutes to spare
and caught the plane for Delhi, this part of the trip over.
Our next destination was to be rather different,
well away from the green moist Indian hills, we were headed for
the deserts of Pakistan, not on most peoples' list of favourite
holiday destinations. However, we were not there to holiday. We
were looking for Nannorrhops ritchiana, the Mazari Palm, and Pakistan
is one of the few countries where it grows, and when a palm calls,
we must answer.
After spending some time in Delhi, we took a taxi
to the airport and caught our plane for Lahore, Pakistan, where
we arrived at 7pm. Changed planes here, and caught another, for
Peshawar, arriving, exhausted, at 10pm. Took a taxi to town and
checked in at the Galaxie Hotel, not too bad, but rather noisy.
However, slept well enough.
Left the hotel and took a taxi to the foreign registration
office. This is the place to get a permit to visit the famed Khyber
Pass, where Nannorrhops was reported as growing 100 years ago. Obtained
the necessary paperwork, but with it came a guard with a Kalashnikov
rifle who would accompany us in the taxi, a reminder that we are
in a wild country. Drove for an hour or so, through rather flat,
rather dull desert landscape until we reached the Pass. Though we
strained our eyes there was not a single 'Nanny' to be seen. The
view was quite spectacular, we could see almost into Afghanistan,
but disappointing to see no Nanny's.
Back, then, to the hotel, dropping the guard off
en route, relieved that he hadn't needed to use his rifle. In the
evening went to the cinema! A rather ancient place - goodness knows
what European Health & Safety inspectors would make of it. Saw
probably the very worst film I have ever seen (half of), and delighted
to leave midway. Dinner at a local 'restaurant' then back to the
Left sharp at 8am in a rented car-and-driver for
our 3 day trip to what we hope will be Nanny-land. Left Peshawar
in the direction of Attock, passed through Nowshera to the Indus
river, from there to Pindigheb where we had a poor lunch, then via
Talagan to Mianwali where we are staying at the Faizal Hotel, not
too bad and quite cheap at 150 rupees/night.
Up at 7, breakfast at 8, left at 8.30. Back down
the same road but turned off in the direction of Chiddru, but unfortunately
the road ended there (our map left something to be desired) and
after consultation with some villagers, back-tracked, then on to
Qualdabad, thence towards Sakesur, our first goal. The road was
in a good state and after a few miles, it began to climb until we
were high above the flat plain below. We were in the Salt Range
of mountains and after climbing still higher, we came across our
first Nannorrhops ritchiana in the wild. There were a few plants,
growing at some distance from the road, the driver must have thought
we were quite insane as we raced off to examine them. About 6 feet
tall, with incredibly thick and leathery leaves, a pale blue/green
in colour, growing in extremely arid conditions. Beautiful, at least
to our eyes! After taking some photos we drove on, passing lots
more plants and after they began to peter out, drove back to the
best specimens where we stopped for an hour or so, taking photos
and measurements and generally enjoying ourselves. After this, we
attempted to continue on down the same road but we were stopped
at some kind of road block and were told by the soldier who was
manning it that we could not drive further, but would have to go
back the way we had come. We never found out the reason, but didn't
mind too much as it gave us the opportunity to go past the Nanny's
again. Drove all the way back to Quaidabad, thence to Khushab where
we decided to pass the night. Bad hotel, rather dirty, rather cheap.
Up at 7, quick wash and out of this disgusting place.
Skifezza! Headed towards Naushara on a good, double road. Hit the
Salt Range again, and climbed to 850m but no sign of more Nannorrhops,
despite a thorough search. The scenery was spectacular though with
red rocks against a cloudless blue sky.
Descending the far side of the range we came across
the main road to the capital city, Islamabad, and headed along it,
eventually reaching it at about 1pm. Islamabad is a new city having
been built from scratch some 30 years. It has great wide 'boulevards'
and is extensively planted with native trees and plants, and is
thus very different from all other Pakistani cities. Checked in
at a reasonable hotel, itself set among trees, then went out to
explore the city on foot, eventually ending up at an expensive and
not-too-good Western-style restaurant in a big international hotel.
Pakistan is 'dry' in more than one sense of the word, and it was
quite impossible to get even a glass of beer, much less anything
stronger. Added to that was the fact that, by bad luck or bad planning,
we had arrived on a 'meatless' day, so were reduced to vegeburgers
with no beer!
Up late and lazy breakfast. Slowly made our way
to the airport where we are to catch a plane to Quetta, our next
possible Nanny-location. Exciting views from the plane of amazing
mountain and rock formations. Arrived Quetta after a short (1hr)
flight, taxi into town where we are staying at the Qasr-e-gul. Not
too bad. At the hotel, asked if we could rent a jeep and driver
for a few days. After a while, a group of wild looking tribesmen
arrived with such a vehicle. Haggled, but they were better at it
than we and we settled on a high, though actually not-too-bad price,
arranging to leave in half an hour. Off we set as arranged, the
driver, his son, and we two. Drove to Urak, where we had high hopes
of finding the palms, but no joy, so back into Quetta and out again
by a different route, this time in the direction of Nakas, the railway
station at which we had seen in an old photograph, surrounded by
6 ft. high Nannorrhops, hundreds of them. If they were anywhere,
they would be here. We passed through some wonderful, wild scenery
then we began to see the palms, first a few, then more, finally,
thousands. They were considerably smaller than those we'd seen on
the mountain, and the reason soon became obvious - these had all
been pruned of leaves, probably regularly and often. We saw piles
of cut leaves by the roadside and stopped to take a photo of a camel
laden with bundles of them. The further we drove, the smaller the
plants became until we got to the town of Nakas where we saw the
smallest of all, just a few inches high, and still they were being
pruned! Even though the leaves were tiny. Such a terrible shame!
Pushed on to Hanai where we stopped for the night.
There was a general power cut on thus we were not able to take a
close look at the meal (of rather greasy mutton) that was served
to us in our room, except by candlelight. Probably just as well.
Set off through the Bolan Pass, quite biblical in
appearance what with sheep, goats and groups of camels. The railway
that accompanied the road was built by the Brits 100 years ago,
to the year. The tunnels all had English names: Windy Corner, Braemar,
Mary Jane. A bit odd to see those names here. Drove to Sibi on the
way passing a wonderful oasis, with hundreds of Date palms, and
what appeared to be permanent running water. A couple of hours further
on and we were to see the last of the Nannorrhops ritchiana, growing
by the side of the road in unbelievably dry and arid conditions.
How they survive is a mystery. Taking a last look at the palms we
headed back for Quetta, to get the plane to Delhi, and thence to
Our 7 week trip was over, we had had some wonderful
times and seen some wonderful palms. We had visited Thailand, China,
Burma, India, Nepal and Pakistan and added much to our store of
knowledge about hardy palms. Best of all, we had seen three new
species of Trachycarpus. Watch this space!
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07-08-22 - 18:50GMT
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