Trekking on the Trachycarpus Trail
The most confusing member of the genus, but in
fact well defined and easily differentiated. From a tiny area in
northern India, now all but exterminated in the wild.
Martin Gibbons - email@example.com
Chamaerops No.35/36, Summer-Autumn Special 1999
Left: Trachycarpus takil, Pithoragar, India
Right: Trachycarpus takil, characteristic twisted hastula
Wilko Karmelk of Holland and I had, independently,
become interested in the Trachycarpus genus over a number of years.
Finding we had this strong interest in common, we resolved to attempt
to solve part of the puzzle, and to go in search of T. takil, and
try and shine some light into this dark corner of the genus.
Late in 1990 I received through the post a number
of photocopies, made by Wilko in the Amsterdam library. They were
from a selection of old botanical publications: The Gardeners
Chronicle of 1886; Kew Bulletin 1912; Indian
Trees by Brandis 1906; Flora of British India
by J.D.Hooker 1894, and others. They all mentioned Trachycarpus
palms, calling them variously Chamaerops excelsa, C. martianus,
C.griffithii, C.fortunei, Trachycarpus martianus, T.takil, etc.
and they all alluded to an isolated population that grew in Northern
In our subsequent researches we never discovered who
wrote the original description of the precise locality, but all
the old books we read tended to quote the same words, "grows
in great numbers, forming clumps and rows, on the Thakil Mountain
in Eastern Kumaon, in the fork between the Sarju and Kali rivers,
between 6,500 ft and 7,800 ft, where snow generally covers the ground
from November to March....in damp shady glens.. .chiefly on the
On a trekking map we located the two rivers, in Kumaon
Province, Uttar Pradesh, about 300 miles north-east of New Delhi,
near a village called Pithoragarh. There, in the fork between them,
was an unnamed mountain, with a height of 8166 feet above sea level.
As there were no others in the vicinity this had to be Mount Thakil.
It was around this time that we learned that "thakil"
is a Hindi word meaning "palm." The chance therefore of
seeing "Palm Mountain" presented a very exciting prospect
We left Londons Heathrow airport on October
14th for the flight to India, stopping en route at Prague, Czechoslovakia,
and Kabul, Afghanistan. Due to fog and problems with the plane,
we were delayed at the former for some 24 hours, but at least we
had an opportunity to look round this recently emancipated city,
which was very beautiful. Our original intention had been to spend
a day sightseeing in New Delhi, but because of the lost time we
were eager to be on our way. We arrived at 10pm at night, and at
6.30 the following morning we were on a slow moving, east-bound
Indian trains leave much to be desired and they are
certainly not for the squeamish. Even in first-class, the seats
are hard and uncomfortable; the compartments, which are open, get
grossly overcrowded; and people in rags sleep anywhere on the floor,
amongst the food refuse that the other passengers continually drop.
At each station, beggars and food vendors get on board doing what
beggars and food vendors do, leaving the train at the next station,
and presumably getting the next train back.
The stops were frequent and interminable, the countryside
flat, brown and drab. Phoenix sylvestris was frequently seen from
the window, but even that lost its appeal after the first few hundred
had been sighted. After 8 hours we arrived at Bareilly and had had
enough. We left the train hoping we didn't look too much like rich
Americans abroad, and attempted to find a taxi to take us the rest
of the way. In this we succeeded and found a mini-bus whose driver
agreed to take us to Pithoragarh, some 9 hours drive away, for a
mere 1000 rupees (£25/$50). In London this would just about
get you to Heathrow airport.
We left Bareilly at about 3pm. The landscape was continually
flat and uninteresting until we reached a town called Tanakpur when
it changed dramatically, and we began to climb. We had left the
interminable Indian plains and were at last in the hills. As the
landscape changed, so did the vegetation. Endless fields gave way
to forests, and farms to wooded hillsides. We began to see the Deodar
(Cedrus deodara) and the beautiful Pinus longifolia, and the air
smelt cooler and fresher after the stifling heat of the plains.
We saw rushing rivers and deep, deep gorges, and drove carefully
round one hairpin bend after another, on a good, modern road.
It had been our plan to drive non-stop until we reached
our destination, but at10pm we came across a military night-time
road block, and as there was no possibility of a hotel, we had no
option but to sleep in the minibus with the driver and his mate.
That night was not the most comfortable I have ever spent. In the
small hours I woke to the sound of scavenging foxes and local stray
dogs having a moonlit gangfight worthy of West Side Story.
Finally it was 6am. Ruefully missing our morning shower
and hot breakfast, we set off through the now open road block, and
arrived at Pithoragarh at about 9am. It is set in a wide, low valley,
surrounded by mountain ranges and is a very attractive village.
We located a small local hotel, which appeared to be staffed and
run by two 9 year old boys, but none the less efficient for that.
Soon we were ensconced in our rooms, simple but clean, with a glass
of the local "chai" (a kind of hot, sweet, milky tea -
delicious - and always served in a glass), and a bucket of hot water
apiece ready for us to take a welcome and much needed shower. A
glance through the thick and ancient hotel register revealed not
a single European name. The rate, incidentally, was £1.50/$3
We knew from our trekking map that the mountain that
we were looking for lay due south of the town, and from the flat
roof of the hotel we had a good view of the range of which it formed
a part, some 15 km distant. One peak, somewhat higher than the others,
was obviously our goal, and although the locals knew it as "Thalkedar"
rather than "Thakil," there could be no doubt as to its
identity, or its allure, as we saw it there for the first time,
dark and mysterious. The map indicated that there was a temple at
its summit, and looking through binoculars, we could just make it
At this point of the trip we were lucky enough to
make the acquaintance of a young lady, Miss Poonam Chaudhary, without
whose help we would have had a much tougher time of things, and
who rendered us great assistance. She was in Pithoragarh to investigate
the possibilities of tourism in this remote and beautiful area,
and with her contacts we were able to hire transport, guides, and
porters to aid us in our quest. It must be said however that Poonam,
along with everybody else with whom we spoke, was quite negative
about our chances of finding palms on the mountain. Yes, everybody
knew palms, and Phoenix sylvestris was not uncommon close to the
town. But enquiries about fan palms, even when backed up with photographs
of Trachycarpus, were always met with a polite but definite, 'they
do not grow here.'
We spent the rest of that day, and the next, in and
around the town. We were impatient to be on our way of course, but
there were arrangements to be made and formalities to be attended
to. We did make one excursion with some newly made friends to look
at some Phoenix palms a few miles distant. One was a most attractive
glaucous blue colour, but mainly they were just regular green (by
now common-or-garden) P. sylvestris, mostly trunkless, but nice
to see all the same.
The next morning found us up and ready to leave by
7:30, when the jeep we had arranged to borrow arrived at the hotel,
driven by Alook, Poonam' s brother. We left the village behind us
and drove due south along quite a reasonable tarred road, across
the floor of the valley, towards our destination, which we now knew
as Mount Thalkedar, the name 'Thakil' not having been used in living
memory. After some miles, we began climbing. Up and up we went,
with the view improving by the minute. We soon saw the snow covered
peaks of the Himalayas, miles away on the far side of the town we
had left. The highest, called Nanda Devi, was the first to appear,
and others came into view as we ascended.
The road deteriorated and tar became dirt. It became
ever narrower, with hairpin bends and a drop of perhaps 150 metres,
centimeters away from the wheels of the jeep. We stopped once or
twice for photos and to admire the now stunning view. The entire
visible horizon from east to west was snow-covered peaks.
At length, and with considerable relief, we reached
a small village called Burapi on the 'other side' of the mountain
range. Here we gratefully got out of the jeep and stretched our
legs. The inevitable cluster of locals gathered to see what was
going on and we showed round photos of Trachycarpus, to see if anyone
recognized them. Depressingly no one did. We were disappointed and
confused. All the old accounts we had read said these palms were
here, on this mountain, in great numbers, but nobody appeared to
have seen them. Were they extinct? Had there simply been a mistake
made and two accounts been transposed a hundred years ago? Had all
the trees perished in some severe winter beyond living memory?
We showed round the photos of Trachycarpus to the
villagers, but again, no one recognized them. Frustrating indeed,
but even this did not dim our determination to visit the actual
valley mentioned in the old reports to see for ourselves. It was
on the far side of the peak with the temple, just a few kilometres
away, but involving some serious climbing, up hill and down dale.
A young man called Hareesh then appeared on the scene
who said he would act as our guide and take us up there. We showed
him the photo expecting the familiar response, but to our surprise
and disbelief he said he knew of such a tree some 10 or 15 minutes
away, in the direction we wanted to go. Our excitement can only
He donned our rucksack and we set off at a brisk pace,
some of the villagers following, with Wilko and I hardly daring
to hope. We climbed up through a steep and pretty forest, and on
emerging from its far side I heard Wilko's exclamation, and looking
up I saw one of the most wonderful and welcome sights I have ever
seen. A tall, beautiful Trachycarpus palm, about 8 metres high,
growing on a steep slope, about 30 metres away from us! We rushed
towards it, hugging it and each other and everybody else. They must
have thought we were quite mad, but our excitement was infectious
because soon everybody was laughing and shaking hands and slapping
backs, though most of them had no idea why!
We were ecstatically happy. Everybody had told us
it was mission impossible. Even the forest rangers had told us that
there were no fan palms to be found. But we had proved them all
We took lots of photos, and we had Hareesh climb up
to cut a leaf. Before we could stop him he had hacked off four.
We screamed at him to stop. Nearby was a house and people were coming
from it to join in the fun. Our guide told us that the old man there
had planted the tree 50 years ago. We talked to him although he
didn't understand a word we were saying, and we shook his hand many
times. Through Hareesh's efforts we learned that he had found it
as a seedling a mile or two away and had transplanted it. He was
75 years old. Soon some 25 people had gathered and we assembled
for a group photo: old men and women, young girls and boys, and
babes in arms.
After about half an hour we--Hareesh and a second
guide whose name was Karen, and Wilko and I--were on our way again,
with many backward glances at our tree. Our initial destination
was the temple at the summit, a good way off and much higher than
where we were. At first we passed through open forest and cultivated
land noting occasional Quercus incana (Grey Oak) and other trees.
As we ascended the forest closed in, with just occasional clear
areas. We saw a Rhododendron bush-- the first of many--and lots
of other English garden plants: Berberis, Cotoneaster, Roses, Ferns
and anemones. As we climbed ever upwards the Rhododendrons increased
in number and size, eventually becoming giant trees with trunks
so thick that two men could not encircle them. The quercus oaks
became more numerous, as did Cedrus deodara; and the Deodar, Pinus
longifolia, with its beautiful, long, softly-drooping needles, which
was so common on the lower slopes, began to peter out.
The view from our occasional resting places was incredible:
snow capped mountains seen beyond mile after mile of tree tops.
The higher the altitude, the thinner the atmosphere, and Wilko and
I were both gasping. Our two guides, however, seemed to take it
all in their stride, and I think were faintly amused at these two
weak westerners, panting for breath. The sun was hot, but the air
was cool and provided a welcome chilly breeze. Every so often we
caught a glimpse of the summit and its temple through the thickening
forest. Nearer and nearer and then suddenly there we were, at the
top. More handshakes with each other and the guides.
The temple itself was an open stone cabin, and inside
was a small statue of the goddess Shiva to whom it was dedicated.
There were flowers, candles and incense, and, hanging from the roof
beams, hundreds of brass bells, some just a couple of centimeters
or so in diameter, some half a metre or more across. Our guides
rang them loudly and their clear notes rang out across the surrounding
valleys and echoed back from the distant hillsides, giving a scare
to a troop of large silver-backed monkeys which went crashing off
through the treetops. Here we really felt as though we were on the
roof of the world, and close to heaven, both literally and metaphorically.
We stayed here for an hour, prepared and ate a meal, and took long
drinks of water from our canteens. After all of our hard work, the
water was like nectar to us, even though the purification tablets
made it taste of swimming pools. As we were leaving I was distressed
to see Hareesh take all my carefully collected litter, and before
I could stop him, hurl it into the forest below. Oh well, food for
the monkeys I suppose.
We set off down by the same path but soon broke off
onto a side track, and began descending the north side of the mountain.
It was noticeably cooler, and damper, as the sun doesn't shine much
on this face. The vegetation also was different. It grew in thick,
rich, moist humus, and generally looked more green and lush. We
came across a pretty species of bamboo with many tiny leaflets giving
it a fox-tail appearance.
We had been descending for only a few minutes when
Hareesh spotted a tiny palm seedling growing by the side of the
track. Definitely Trachycarpus. Then we saw another and another,
and we left the path, more or less following their direction. They
became more numerous and larger: up to about a metre and a half
tall. Our excitement knew no bounds as we slipped and slithered
down from one plant to another, which were getting bigger by the
minute. It became apparent that they were growing in just this one
narrow and steep valley, as when we strayed too far from its floor,
the plants diminished both in size and number.
We just had to find the adult trees that produced
the seeds from which the young plants we were looking at had grown.
We could see down into the valley to an extent but much of the view
was obscured by vegetation. We saw a fairly large plant on the other
side of the valley, about 20 metres away, and resolved to reach
it. Leaving the rucksack with Karen, we scrambled across the steep
slope, hanging on to other plants, and occasionally, it must be
admitted, the palms themselves, to prevent ourselves from slipping.
It was quite dangerous in places; logs which seemed solidly moored
slid away at a touch and went crashing down the steep face. Eventually
we reached the tree, and with difficulty (simply because of the
angle of the ground) posed with it for photos. The crown was covered
in chestnut coloured tomentum, as mentioned in Beccari's description,
written 100 years ago.
We made our way back to where Karen was anxiously
waiting, and by this time I was really beginning to feel the effects
of the altitude and my exhaustion, and I felt nauseous. It was bearable
but I needed to rest every few minutes. By this time it was 4pm
and as we had arranged to meet Amok and the jeep down at the bottom
at 6pm, we had to get a move on. We saw many more small plants of
Trachycarpus, but as we neared the track they became fewer and fewer,
and soon we saw no more.
The descent was of course considerably easier than
the ascent and in places the track was just a gentle slope. Even
so it took 2 hours of quite fast work to get back to the village
where Alook said he would wait. Our guides took it all in their
stride; they were chatting away as though out for a Sunday stroll,
leaving Wilko and I running to catch up with them from time to time.
At 6pm we reached the village and had some welcome
chai and a good rest. Alook duly arrived with the jeep, and we set
off back to Pithoraghar. Soon it was quite dark, and we saw fireflies.
We had had a wonderful day and were quite elated by
our findings; however,we were disappointed not to have found any
mature trees in the valley. We were convinced that these were lower
down; the plants had definitely seemed to get larger as we descended,
but then lack of time had forced an early end to the search. We
decided to rest for the entire next day, but spend the night at
Burapi, from where would set off early the following morning, taking
supplies and equipment for a two day stay on the mountain. This,
we felt, would give us plenty of time for a full and thorough examination
of the valley, where we would certainly find the larger specimens.
We had a lazy morning in Pithoragarh, doing some shopping
for food, and generally relaxing. We had arranged for a jeep to
take us to Burapi, which arrived at 2pm. This time the drive up
the mountain side was even more dangerous than the first time. The
jeep had no first gear, so it was necessary for him to take the
hairpin bends 'at a run' for fear of stalling the engine. Not only
that but he insisted on driving on the 'drop side' of the road.
I was sitting in the back with the mountain on my right and a sheer
drop of 1000ff on my left. As we raced round the bends, I could
look down out of the window into the void. Several times we shouted
at the driver to slow down, but he seemed to take little notice.
Sometimes I literally closed my eyes.
At one time we met a herd of cows on the road, but
instead of slowing down to let them pass, he drove hard and fast
straight at them, forcing them off the road and onto a tiny narrow
verge. It was a miracle that none of them fell off the edge. It
was therefore something of a relief when we arrived at Burapi at
about 4 p.m. Wilko and I stayed the night here, ready for an early
start the following morning.
We set off as the sun was just peeping over the distant
horizon, at 6.20am. There were four of us: Hareesh, another porter,
Wilko and I. We were taken along a different track this time, and
the going was somewhat easier than before...or perhaps we were simply
getting used to the altitude and the exercise. After an hour or
so we came across a small house, and we stopped for a rest and some
chai. We were, as always, made very welcome and treated like honoured
guests. Also, as usual, we were surrounded by curious onlookers.
We began asking them about palm trees and showing them the now well-thumbed
photos of Trachycarpus and some of the leaf bases we had collected
from the big tree. One of the men explained in half mime, half-Hindi
that ropes were made from them. To our surprise Hareesh took some
fibres from the bases of the leaves, and, rolling them between the
palms of his hands, soon produced a foot or two of good strong rope,
somewhat thicker than a pencil. The significance of this demonstration
would only become apparent later on.
One of the men then said he knew of some mature palm
trees and agreed to take us to them. In fact, three or four of them
accompanied us and we set off up the same track. After a stiff climb
of half an hour or so, we came upon 5 big trees of Trachycarpus,
which had been left standing when the surrounding land had been
cleared for cultivation. They were on an exposed hill top and looked
quite stunning with the snow covered Himalayas as a backdrop. The
light here was quite intense, causing the leaves to have very short
The man who farmed here chatted to us as we took photos.
His house was on one of the three summits of the Thalkedar mountain,
the temple was on another and the third was the highest at 8200ft
above sea level.
Since it was our intention to sleep at the temple
that night, he said he would shine a torch from his summit to ours
at precisely 7.3Opm as a greeting. We spent some time at his house,
the garden of which looked almost English, with marigolds, African
marigolds, dahlias, a peach and an apple tree, and a patio of rough-hewn
stone slabs, where we sat drinking tea.
At length we took our departure and headed off down
the hill in the direction of the valley we wanted to explore. We
had some adventures descending its steep, sometimes precipitous
sides, in search of the larger palm trees which we felt must be
here somewhere. Small plants up to 4 or 5ft tall we saw by the hundred,
but no large ones. Hareesh kept on saying 'No big, no big.
With sketches and mimes we tried to explain that these small plants
came from larger trees, mummies and daddies in fact, and we asked
him, 'where Mummy? Where Daddy?' but he insisted, 'No Mummy, no
During a rest stop he got around to explaining why
there were no mature plants or big trees, and it was with sinking
hearts that we realized the awful truth: the young plants are cut
off at the base when they have 18" of trunk, to provide fibres
'All cut?' we asked, incredulous. 'All cut' confirmed
Hareesh. The stupidity of it is that no seeds are produced by the
palms before they are cut, and despite what the natives believed,
new plants did NOT spring up from the stump of the old one. One
of the 100 year old accounts we had read in the library at Kew spoke
of 'hundreds of palm trees' in this very valley. Presumably they
have been cutting them smaller and smaller ever since, and now there
are none, rather like smaller and smaller elephants being shot for
their ivory, even before they have had a chance to breed.
A further irony is that it is perfectly possible to
remove all the fibres from a mature tree without harming it at all.
We have done it a few times at the nursery: Start from the bottom
of the trunk and with a sharp knife cut through the old petiole
and then right round the trunk, just cutting through the fibre.
A sheet of fibre about 40cm square will come away, with the old
petiole in the middle. Continue onto the next one up and repeat
the process. It's time consuming but not difficult. On a tree with
a couple of metres of trunk you can get up to 30 or 40 such squares.
And of course the tree will continue to thrive and produce more
fibres for you.
We tried to explain all this to Hareesh but it was
an impossible task. Our guess is that once every year or two a gang
of villagers make an assault on the valley and cut down every palm
that has half a metre of trunk. They would all then be gathered
together and stripped back at the village. What a waste!
As time was getting on we asked Hareesh to take us
to the temple. It wasn't too bad a climb and we reached it at about
4pm when, after a rest and some tea, Hareesh and his colleague left
us, to return to Burapi.
The solitude was wonderful then, on the roof of the
world, no one around for miles, the snow-capped Himalayan peaks
on the horizon, and only a few ravens for company. We lit a fire
and cooked a surprisingly good meal: potatoes, lentils and some
packets of soup, all mixed into a kind of stew. We watched the sun
sink lower and lower and finally dip below the horizon at precisely
5.4Opm. The Himalayan peaks were the last things to see the sun,
which shone on fewer and fewer until Nanda Devi was the last to
remain illuminated by its now pink rays.
The temperature drops quickly when the sun sets and
soon we donned jumpers and watched the new moon rise and the stars
begin to shine, until there were countless millions of pin points
of light in the sky. At 7.30 we saw the promised torch light from
the distant neighbouring summit and flashed ours back in return.
We could just hear his shouted greeting, and rang the bells and
whistled in reply. We finished our stew by torch light, then cleared
up and settled down in our sleeping bags for a good night's sleep.
I woke to the sound of the ravens. The sun was over
the horizon already, and it was time to be up. We made a cup of
tea and sorted ourselves out. On our max/min thermometer we saw
that the temperature had dropped to 8 C during the night. This was
October; it must get considerably colder in mid-winter. We left
the summit and the temple at 8.3Oam. We said goodbye to Shiva and
the ravens and decided the best way down to the valley. Then, taking
our last look at the fabulous view, descended into the forest.
We went down some way, and, as before, saw hundreds
of small Trachycarpus palms, but of course no large ones. It then
became too steep for us to continue without great danger, so we
went, crab-fashion, across to where the slope was more gentle. Even
so, it was quite steep and much of the descent I accomplished in
a sitting position, sliding down on may behind!
We soon came across the largest specimen we were to
see in the forest, under a huge and vertical cliff face, and looking
as though it, single-handedly, was supporting the whole thing. Small
wonder they had not cut this one down! It had about one and a half
metres (4'6") of trunk, thick at the bottom, but tapering towards
the top, and very long petioles, indicating a need for more light.
However, these plants do not grow on the sunny side of the valley,
presumably because it is too dry. As the old description had said,
we found them only in damp, narrow valleys, and almost always in
We continued the descent, in all some 1000 metres
(3000ft), by sliding, scrambling, slithering, climbing, and by lowering
ourselves using the plants for support. One way or another, down
we came. We stopped for lunch, cooking some very welcome soup. The
vegetation was spectacular: huge incana oaks, massive rhododendron
trees, ferns, bamboos, and of course, palms by the dozen. Fortunately
the temperature was quite cool, at around 1l.5 C, as otherwise it
would have been unbearable. The rucksacks were heavy and often became
entangled in the roses and briars which grew in profusion. Thorns
tore at our arms and faces. Sometimes it was so dense that we just
had to force our way through. It was incredible to look back up
and see where we had come down from, and at the sheer rock faces
we had circled round.
As we came down, the palms became smaller and less
frequent, their place seemingly taken by ferns. Horse chestnut trees
beginning to show their autumn colours made it look like an English
woodland. We saw our last palm as we reached the valley bottom.
We picked up a track, and followed it down a gentle slope for perhaps
a mile until we began to see signs of human habitation. Eventually
the path widened, and led us through a veritable forest of Pinus
longifolia. Soon we came to a small village where we had the inevitable
glass of chai, and from here made our way to the road, where we
waved down a truck to give us lift back to Pithoragarh.
So that, more or less, was that. We returned to New
Delhi, spending a day or two as tourists, but we had been spoiled
by the beauty and grandeur of the mountains, and nothing, not even
the beautiful Taj Mahal itself, could compare.
This article was first published in 1992 in Chamaerops
and has been edited for this edition.
13-07-20 - 13:46GMT
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