Heinrich Handel-Mazzetti: [A Botanical Pioneer In South West China] - chapter 19


Chapter 19. The Doker-La

The Londjre valley — the pilgrims' route — mountain rain-forest — troublesome porters — on the pass at 4600m — late summer flowers

This little nook gave some inkling of the untamed splendours of nature to be found fiirther on — splendours to which the Doker-La owes its reputation as a holy place. It was located at the mouth of the Londjre valley, through which ran the pilgrims' route to Tibet and, branching off to the left, the main road to the Ju Jiang, laid out by the Chinese. The track was hewn out of the rock high up on the opposite side. A wooden bridge of the Tibetan kind I had encountered at Muli led over the stream; it was rotten and alarmingly unsteady. As it descended, the track passed across a sloping rock slab where it had been built up by human hands. The valley then broadened and die path crossed the stream several times, passing through luxuriant woodland of sclerophyllous trees and shrubs: Pistacia weinmannifolia, Quercus parvifolia and Viburnum schnelderianum — both the latter were new species — the conifers already mentioned, and an understorey of box. After travelling for some two hours we emerged into a small basin at Londjre, where the valley forked. Its flat-roofed houses, about twenty in number and similar in appearance to those already described, were scattered here and there under the shelter of old walnut trees. The people were pure-blooded Tibetans. Woods of arbor vitae, unmixed with any other tree, covered the arid slopes in the vicinity up to an altitude of 3000m. Old trees of the same species, with thick trunks and spheroidal crowns, grew in the rock debris of the stream.

The pilgrimage route came from Yangdsa below Deqen (Adunzi), climbed up the side of the Lancang Jiang valley and curved round high up over a corner of the mountain to enter our valley. From Londjre there was a steep zigzag track leading up to it across granite soil. A narrow rickety bridge crossed the stream, but it was fit only for men on foot, and we had to bring the horses across by fastening their bridles to a long rope, so as to hold them if they slipped, and leading them through the fast-flowing water. The pilgrims' way, very narrow but well maintained, continued along the steep valleyside. Had we been in Europe there would have been a notice reading "Unsuitable for persons subject to giddiness", but in China the sensation of giddiness seems to be entirely unknown to even the most fainthearted Chinese, of whom Lao Li was an example. Fortunately, I am tolerably immune from such terrors, though I cannot claim to be absolutely proof against giddiness. In any case one is more likely to suffer from giddiness on horseback, when riding with one leg hanging over the abyss and unable to see any solid ground beneath, since the horses, especially those used as pack animals, have a habit of walking on the outermost edge, even when the track is quite broad. The edge, often consisting of little more than tufts of grass, is soon worn away by their hoofs and on one occasion I very nearly fell into the river at Weixi, horse and all. Most of the riding horses which I had in China were impeccably safe, but the packhorses were much less satisfactory in this respect; mules were far more trustworthy.

Certain years are especially propitious for the pilgrimage over the Doker-la, a circuit round the snow-capped Kakerbo range [note # : Also written Ka-gwr-pu. The Chinese name for the main peak is Meili Xue Shan (6740m) (SGH).]. 1915 was such a year and during the five days which I spent on the pilgrims' way I met three or four parties of pilgrims, most of them on foot, but one consisting of lamas and laymen with a mule, two cows and a sheep. They camped under trees, beneath overhanging rocks or on the scanty level spots on the hillsides. We found such a spot, just large enough for the tent, beside a rushing brook. The valley grew narrower and narrower; the track descended some 200m and turned into a side branch with a tributary which we soon reached. The main branch of the valley to the south was totally pathless: not even the faintest track led up through its dark woods to the gloomy granite peaks which towered up, flecked here and there with snow, into the clouds. A conifer growing by the wayside caught my eye. Its trunk — not very stout — and its slender branches, arising in regular whorls, were covered with bark which was almost black in .colour. Its needles, projecting in two lines from its twigs, made sparse overhead cover, and among them I could see its upright cones, like larch cones but much bigger and stouter. It proved to be Pseudotsuga wilsoniana, an Asiatic representative of an American genus (Fig.32). In some stretches it formed unmixed woodland, and everywhere else its rounded crowns stood out among the firs, spruces, maples, cherries, birches, oaks (Quercus oxyodon) and other trees. Low cloud hid the mountains and rain fell unceasingly; anything which was not drenched by the rain was soaked by contact with the shrubs and herbaceous plants which jutted across the path. Wherever a torrent, a landslide or a gale had torn a gap in the primeval forest, it was promptly filled by masses of perennial herbs, almost twice the height of a man and already flowering though only in their second year. Among them were aromatic wormwoods (Artemisia), balsams (Impatiens), Cimicifuga foetida, and, covering large patches, a knotweed with bulky panicles of relatively large white flowers (Polygon-urn polystachyuni). Half buried in the soil beneath the clumps I found its young sprouts with thick succulent folded reddish-pink leaves. Somewhat higher up there was open woodland of cherries and maples with an understorey of semiligneous Strobila-nthes, which formed an almost unbroken canopy about 2m above the ground. A familiar lichen from the European Alps, Trentepohlia iolithus, was present here, in blood-red patches on granite boulders.

The track crossed the stream several times, and at a minor bend in the valley the bamboo thickets had been cleared to make a yak pasture. Waterfalls tumbled down from glacial cirques above, and in the background, peeping out over the screes, was the snout of a glacier. No wonder the Tibetans have [p.90:] peopled this land, so lonely and melancholy, with their spirits. Yonder, on the colossal mountain which hears his name, lives Kakerbo, the good spirit to whom the pilgrimage is dedicated. Unfortunately I could not see anything of the mountains, and it was not until 1916 that I ascertained that the main summit, some 6000m in height, does not slope down directly to the Londjre valley, but is located at the head of the next lateral valley up the Lancang Jiang, on the ridge between it and a valley still further on. Only the lesser summit is situated in the range bounding the Doker-la valley, some distance below its head. The porters wanted to pitch camp early, and to escape their importunities I rode on to a suitable camp site in the depths of the forest The men followed, grumbling. A short distance further on the pilgrimage route quitted the main valley, which became somewhat flatter here, and climbed up to the left into a cirque. A cattle shed gave the pilgrims some shelter from the rain. Early next morning my porters threatened to strike: it was so cold up here, they said; further on was Tibet, and they were uneasy at the prospect of going there, although they had previously declared that we could complete the round trip via Aben and Bonga to Qunatong on the Nu Jiang long before the Tibetan border guards would hear any report of our movements, and although the journey over the Doker-la as far as the camping ground at Tsesuton was part of their agreement with me. I picked out the man who opened his mouth widest and who had the most crosses hung round his neck, and after I had conducted him to his load, somewhat ungently, the rest of them set off once more. At midday I pitched the tent in the cirque, just below the tree line, in a spot sheltered from the cold wind by huge boulders. I let the porters spend the night lower down, as it was really cold there.

A prattling brook ran down from a snowfield below a pointed summit, and further to the left there was a small green col on the ridge, which curved round to the south, rising up towards a cluster of peaks about 5200m high. When the mist cleared I had a good view of the col, and could see the bamboos waving in the wind. It was the Doker-la, and beyond lay Tibet, the forbidden land. The rain ceased for a while. "Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today", I thought Shouldering my rucksack and camera I set off by myself — the men were busily occupied and it was so late in the day as to rule out any risk of an encounter with ill-disposed lamas — to climb the last 400m to the pass. In the cirque the stream branched. Along its banks was Aconitum pulchellum, its dark flowers in ones and twos, and our own Lomatogonium carinthiacum A large broad-leaved edelweiss (Leontopodium strach-eyi) spread in mats among the rocks, and although most of the other plants had finished flowering I found some treasures growing in fine scree on a little crest up which the path wound in zigzags. Among them were Moehringia rosetflora with large red pendent bell-shaped flowers; Tanacetum mutellina, resembling our alpine wormwood; Delphinium beesianum, a low-growing species with large deep-blue flowers; Corydalis adrierti with stout underground winter buds, and C trachycarpz, Creepis hookeriana and the new Cfemanthodium crassum Up on the pass itself at 4600m I collected the pink-flowered Cremanthodium rhodocephalum, AJlium forrestii with large dark flowers and the tiny Gentiana cyananthiflora. On the Tibetan side, growing in fine consolidated granite scree, I found a new species of Delphinium (D. tsarongense), a low-growing, mat-forming plant with solitary flowers, the largest in the genus. They were a watery bluish-violet and looked as if they had been cut out of paper and blown up. A biting northwesterly wind tugged at the prayer flags dangling from the clusters of bamboo, the rain began again and the mist came down, blotting out everything except a few glimpses of the steep slopes on the opposite side. I wanted to photograph the delphinium, and I set the shutter to instantaneous and the diaphragm wide open, but the wind caught the lens cap as it dangled on its cord and the latter fouled the shutter release just as I was operating it The result was a spoilt plate — one of the few that I had left The path led down in steep zigzags to the uppermost bowl of a valley which debouched into the Nu Jiang at Lakonra below Mengong. I had neither time nor inclination to descend into it, especially as there would soon have been a renewed ascent, and contented myself with collecting a small specimen of Tibetan soil. Because the porters had travelled so slowly there was now no time to shift my camp up to the pass, as I had planned, and to go down into the forests of which Bacot speaks so highly. In any case I wanted to return to Londjre and visit the Nu Jiang from there, and I felt sure that the forests in that district must be the same as these. So I returned speedily to my tent and sat up late into the cold night putting plants into the press.

Next morning I collected the lichens and mosses which covered every boulder and filled every rivulet It was nearly noon before the porters finally crawled up to my tent and during the descent I had to check them from dashing on past the yak hut without me, for on the next day, if the weather was passable, I hoped to go back to the glacier at the head of the valley. In the event, however, it was far too inclement for a trip across such trackless terrain. The yakherd at the hut a young Tibetan from Londjre, was surly and ill tempered, and demanded crazy prices for milk and butter, though in the end I bought some to provide a change of diet When I scraped off the dirty rancid rind which covered the butter he picked it up and immediately smeared it over his hair, as is the custom in Tibet He would not permit my men to dry out the plant paper over the fire in his hut though it must be said that the hut was extremely small. As we went down I felt impelled to take another photograph of the Pseudo-tsuga. Carrying a good crop of cones, the trees stood high up on the hillside and certainly made a fine subject but the only way to reach them was up a watercourse which came splashing down over the rocks. I was already too wet to get any wetter, so I climbed up undismayed, though with great caution as the boulders were slippery with algae, and took a successful picture. We men descended speedily to Londjre. For the ascent on the other side I would gladly have mounted my horse, but the young man who was leading it was disinclined to wait for me.

[p.91:] I shouted after him until I was hoarse, but all he wanted was to get out of the rain and down into the valley as fast as he could, as did we all.

I spent a day in Londjre drying out my kit The people were most hospitable, and I found accommodation in a large partly open room, though I had some trouble with an old man whose snoring and

groaning would have been annoying. In the end I persuaded him to clamber down from his chest and find somewhere else for the next two nights. Each evening the people invited me to take my place on the carpet by the fire and offered me tea, while two lamas made their prayer wheels whirr incessantly.

[chapter 20:]