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 -
Chamaerops No.35/36, Summer-Autumn Special 1999

picture picture

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 India.

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 damp shady glens.. .chiefly on the north-west side.“

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 indeed.

We left London‘s 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 train.

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 per night.

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 out.

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 be imagined.

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 wrong!

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 petioles.

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 Daddy.'

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 for ropes.

'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 full shade.

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.


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