Destination India part 2

The second and concluding part of the diary of the European Palm Society trip to north-east India in April. This time, Shillong and Trachycarpus martianus, finishing at the Taj Mahal.
Various Authors
Chamaerops No.27 Summer 1997

Left. Plectocomia himalayana, near Kalimpong
Right: Trachycarpus Martianus, Nokhalikai Falls

Second and concluding part of the diarised story of the European Palm Society April palm trip to north-east India, told by those who went.

24th April, Thursday
by Elmar Grimsehl.

An easy day in Shillong. After the long and strenuous trip the day before, we all voted for a late breakfast at 9am after which we went on foot through Shillong to see Lakeside Garden, an old public garden with a big lake in the middle, founded in colonial times. A lovely place to stroll around and have a close look at some of the palms there. We saw a Livistona that we couldn't identify for sure. To make the confusion complete we found different types of seeds under the tree. We decided it must be Livistona jenkinsiana though it was in fact more a decision than an identification. After a beautiful Livistona chinensis along the way we saw a group of Trachycarpus martianus, just starting to flower. We discussed similarities and relationships to other Trachys and collected some (old) seeds.

We walked past a big old Cycas pectinata to the 'Botanical Garden' of Shillong. It was in fact more a neglected public garden but with quite few palms in there. But when we left the 'Botanical Garden' on the far side, we stood in front of a private garden that showed Caryota sp., Butia capitata var. strictior and what seemed to be a Syagrus romanzoffiana hybrid. We all wanted to get in there of course, but Martin told us that they had tried to get in there before on previous trips and had failed.

Every 5 minutes Martin counted his sheep and wondered who was lost.

Then we went a bit up the hill to the Pinewood Hotel where we had lunch. It was a convenient hotel although the waiters closed all the windows that had let in fresh cool air and switched on several electric heaters. Our famous minibus took us back to our hotel, we had a short break. Enough time for some of us especially Martin - to go to the market and buy some palm seeds that are sold as fruit there. The species was not very clear, it must be one of the 375 Calamus species we thought, but Martin decided it must be Plectocomia khasiana. Then we drove to see 'Shillong Peak' a viewpoint, not that spectacular. But there was another stall selling the same palm seeds and Martin took the chance and bought them all. We drove on to the 'Elephant Falls' which were nice, quite small and had nothing to do with elephants. On the way back to our hotel we stopped to see another Trachycarpus martianus in front of an amazing Art Deco Catholic church. We were early back in the hotel and had some time to relax before dinner. It had been an easy day, and we were happy. Now we were anxiously waiting for T. martianus at the Nokhalikai Falls next day...

25th April, Friday
by Reinhold Worch

Getting up at 6:30 is no problem for me. Barking dogs substitute for an alarm clock. To start the day, I am watching a sitar concert on TV. Breakfast arrives in small portions today. Toast, butter, jam, coffee etc. is being served item by item, and only after insistence. Nevertheless, everybody is ready and on time for our departure.

The salesmen in their wooden shops are just opening up. Vegetables, car tyres, snacks, clothes and meats are hung up along the foggy road blackened by diesel fumes. Charmingly French, Dominique comments on every butcher's shop along the road, "Ohlala, la viande". A slaughtered pig peeks out from the boot of a taxi, ohlala.

We are leaving the town. Soon, large round granite boulders dominate the landscape. Quarries are digging deep holes. The broad-leaf and Rhododendron forest only remains in patches. Soon slate and sandstone take each other's place. At altitudes between 1500 and 2500m, the farmers have created a grass prairie with their goats and cattle. Deep eroded trenches drastically show the consequences. Quarries and charcoal production support the poor peasants' existence.

Soon the road leads us downwards. At about 1500m altitude, we stop at Cherrapunjee, a Rama-Krishna mission station. With amazement we are looking at a steep gorge, its slopes and valley bottom covered in dense subtropical vegetation. Far down on the steep slope, we can spot some treefern-like palms. Through binoculars, these are easily identified as Caryota obtusa. Pandanus sp. (probably P. foetidus) is numerous. We continue in the direction of Bangladesh.

Luckily we are not experiencing the superlative of Cherrapunjee, which, according to our guidebook, is blessed with the worlds highest rainfall, 11500mm per year (only in recent years, a place has been found with even higher rainfall, Mt. Waialeale on Hawaii). A few km farther on, the bus stops amidst the grassy plain. After 200m by foot, we are standing on the very edge of a magnificent gorge covered in rainforest. Only just not close enough to reach grows Trachycarpus martianus with its round, finely split fan leaves. Rooting in cracks in the nearly vertical cliffs, it is just starting to flower. We search the slopes with binoculars. Next to the Nokhalikai falls, a narrow but very high waterfall (the world's 7th highest), we can spot Wallichia disticha Small groups of Caryota obtusa, scattered throughout the forest, are easy to spot by their gigantic, fern-like leaves, as are Plectocomia khasyana by their yellowish-green pinnate fronds, climbing up between the trees but not very numerous. At the end of the valley starts a gigantic floodplain, forming the country of Bangladesh.

We are walking along the edge of the cliffs to a scenic spot, just a handrail between us and infinity. A betel-chewing woman is selling drinks there in a stall.

On the plateau itself, little manages to survive the livestock and fires. After taking a group photo in front of Trachycarpus martianus, the bus turns around. We are driving back, then turning off onto a road leading to Bangladesh. Martin, our guide, familiar with the area, stands in the open door like a captain and stops the bus after a few km. Again a gorge like before. Not far from the road on a steep slope we can see a large, yellowish-green climbing palm, Plectocomia khasyana, and some more Wallichia disticha with leaves arranged in two vertical rows, one of them with a 2m long, green infructescence.

Far down in the valley is a small village with smoking fires in the huts. We are sitting on the edge of the valley. Is it tiredness or meditation, everybody is unusually quiet and enjoys the relaxing scenery. Suddenly, a rustling noise below us on the slope. A tiger? No, Jacques and Charley followed a narrow path to get closer to the Caryota obtusa and Wallichia disticha. Smiling from ear to ear, Jacques returns with a few fern fronds. A bit further on, on the bank of a river, we pillage our packed lunches and wash them down with cans of the good Indian beer "super extra strong". I am sure the coat of that friendly street dog shone just a little more brightly after lunch.

Before our after-lunch tiredness gets uncontrollable, Martin reminds us about the objective of our tour and urges us to continue. The road winds downwards in hairpin bends, to our right, an unspoilt view over Bangladesh. We come across a gigantic Caryota obtusa, with fruits. In between thrive spiny Calamus sp., Pinanga gracilis and a Wallichia densiflora within the dense forest. Further down we stop at a garden in a village to admire a flowering Wallichia disticha. Women and children gather around us. Karen and Marika teach them a dance, "I love you baby" and they all swing their hips and sing along. Everyone is happy when Federico hands coloured packets of vegetable seeds out to the kids. In Ladsohbar, the next village, we are again welcomed by all the children. Everyone wants to know where we are from and where we are going. We admire the Caryota, Wallichia and the increasingly frequent Areca catechu A young man is persuaded by Martin to harvest a bunch of Calamus seeds. A large Caryota, possibly C. maxima, is seen in the gardens and around the villages.

The bus driver, the mechanic and the "local tour guide" are now on strike and anxious to return, reason unknown. We drive back. In the first village we are greeted again with dance, "I love you baby". In the evening we reach the streets of Shillong again. A wonderful and memorable day, filled with palms.

26th April, Saturday

A not unpleasant drive down to Gawahati, four hours past the Caryotas, the Arecas, the coconuts and other palms that we had seen on the way up. The road has been much improved over the last couple of years and we made better time than feared, allowing a few stops along the way, for tea, for palms, and - any more seeds to buy?

Arrived at Gawahati airport, also improved beyond recognition over the last couple of years, and checked in. Not much to do for an hour or so, though we did get a free lunch. We took our sad departure from Mahendra, who had accompanied us thus far, and who was taking a separate flight back to Bagdogra and Kalimpong. Mahendra really was the lynch-pin of the whole trip, his organizational abilities and quiet confidence ensuring a smooth pattern throughout all the time he was with us; we were indeed sorry to part. An uneventful flight down to Delhi where we were met by Nikhil, the brother of Mahendra's wife, Honey, who would be with us during our time in this city. An air-conditioned bus was waiting to take us to our hotel, something of a disappointment after the high standard of accommodation we had experienced up in the hills. But this was Delhi, most expensive city in India, and allowances have to be made by the budget traveller. Dinner was certainly pleasant enough, and we all went to bed with full tummies and happy memories of the preceding few days.

27th April, Sunday

An early start (aren't they all?). Today we take the Shatabdi Express down to Agra and the Taj Mahal. Not many palms it must be said, but plenty to occupy us, and a final bit of culture to round off our trip. The Taj Mahal can only be described as breathtaking, and 'dull would he be of soul' who did not appreciate its pure white marble grandeur, gleaming in the hot sun. Some other stops, lunch in a very up-market hotel, a deserted city or two, some shops where high-pressure salesmen tried unsuccessfully to get us to buy inlaid marble tables, or paintings; street vendors whose prices seemed to drop with every step closer to the bus that would take us away from them. Finally they are almost giving the goods away and some of us can resist no longer. Then back to the train for the return journey; Delhi and Agra are pleasant enough but we all left our hearts up in the green hills.

28th April, Monday...

and for a change, today is a very early start. Three am? Four am? Something like that. But we are all packed and ready, and can continue our sleep on the bus that will take us to the airport for our 0645 flight back to Europe, via Amman, Jordan. Sad goodbyes then as each of us collects his or her bags from the London, Heathrow airport, carousel and departs, with many vows to keep in touch. Certainly, a wonderful time has been had by all, unforgettable sights and sounds, friendly people and great food, and of course, above all, wonderful PALMS!


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