Heinrich Handel-Mazzetti: [A Botanical Pioneer In South West China] - chapter 20


Chapter 20. On Foot to the Nu Jiang

The Chinese road over the Shenzu-la—frost—epiphytic shrubs on the Doyon-lumba—bracken — a view across the Nu Jiang — triangulation at Bahan — the missionaries — back to the Lancang Jiang over Nisselaka and the Xi-la — a wild valley — giant firs

As the routes to the Nu Jiang (Salween) were unrideable and Lao Li's fondness for opium had made lim unfit for long journeys on foot, I had give my hied pony a rest and fall back on the scraps of Chinese which I had picked up on my travels. Zhafa was upable of doing the cooking by himself. The porter who had been so troublesome up on the mountain said he was sick and I therefore handed over tie plants from the Doker-la to him and another and seit them back to Cizhong together with Lao Li. I engaged another man in Londjre, a sturdy Tibetan in high boots of multicoloured felt He was a cheerful energetic fellow with unkempt locks hanging over Ms face. He had recently become a Christian and later, to my great delight, sold me his prayer-wheel. His better half did not want to let him go, but with i few words he wrested himself from her; curiously enough, Davies had a similar experience here[note # 104: Davies tried to cross the pass to the Nu Jiang (Salween) in April 1900, but was forced to turn back by soft snow three feet deep (Davies, H.R., Yunnan, Cambridge,1909, p.261).]:

On 21st September I buckled on my rucksack and my camera — I never entrusted it to anyone else — picked up my iceaxe and set off once more into the mountains, this time up the south branch of the valley, along its left side, which was at first barren and arid. At 2750m we entered woodland consisting of pines and prickly-leaved oaks, soon augmented by other conifers and deciduous trees including hazels. The track then went steeply downhill for a short distance to the stream, which was bordered by luxuriant mixed woodland. Clinging closely to the trunks of the giant firs and spruces and dangling down from their tops were huge climbers such as the vine Tetrastigma obtectum, Euonymus aculeatus and ivy. dose to our overnight camp in the densest woodland I found the violet-flowered twining Crawfijrdia trinervis, a gentian relative with red fruits like paprikas. The valley bottom became flatter and moister, and the vegetation correspondingly more lush. Large-leaved knotgrasses were abundant and the dried up seed-bearing spikes of Lilium giganteum rose up above the Strobilanthes canopy. The soft woolly heads of Grsium bolocephalum var. ramosum were not much lower, but nearly all of them had been nibbled off by deer or yak, and it was not easy to find good specimens. At a spot where the valley forked ..and broadened the track crossed the stream by a bridge. Indeed, although it had originally been well constructed, large parts of the track consisted of suspension bridges made of round logs as thick as a man's arm, with gaps of the same width between them. They ran along rock faces and between boulders, and I could hardly believe that it was possible to bring such heavy animals as yaks over them. All the rocks were thickly coated with mosses and filmy ferns (Hymenophyllum corrugation and H. paniculiflorum). Before long we encountered Rhododendron semnum growing in profusion especially along the stream; it is probably one of the largest of the genus and has thick leathery leaves 40cm long, their undersides at first copper-coloured and later shimmering and silvery. The average gradient along the valley was quite gentle, but higher up the track left the valley floor and climbed in steep muddy slippery zigzags for over 300m. At the tree line and even more abundantly in the shallow cirque above it there were two species of small Gaultheria creeping between the bushes, one (G. suborbicularis) with red fruits and the other (G. trichophylla) with skyblue fruits like bilberries or cranberries, but differing in that they are made up of five fleshy lobules separated at their tips and exposing the small dry brown capsule in the middle. Sharp edged crests loomed through the mists on our left, and as we advanced the pinnacles which came into view seemed to rise higher and higher. The rain made them all look dark although they were of limestone, a thick bed of which outcropped here, folded between mica schist; just below the top of the Shenzu la [note #105 : Kingdon Ward calls this pass the Chun-tsung-la (The Land of the Blue Poppy, Cambridge, 1913, p.80).] it contained some coal. The dark violet Swertia atroviolacea (a new species) was flowering there, and growing on the boulders were little ferns (Polystichum dutiiiet) and Androsace graceae with thick circular leaves. The yaks had already departed from the pastures on the pass at 4000m. I pitched my tent in light rain, while the porters tried to make the hut waterproof — half its roof was missing — with their goat-hair blankets.

[p.92:] A cold wind blew that night. Next morning there was frost on the ground and a thin layer of snow covered the tops, reaching down almost to the camp. It had also sprinkled the Maya-tra [note # 106 : The Tibetan word tra means precipice or rock face (Handel-Mazzetti's note).], the mountain which soared up boldly to the south and to which belonged the peaks indistinctly seen on the day before. This is the mountain which the Prince d'Orleans quite superfluously christened "Pic Franco-is Gamier". The distant views were equally splendid: to the north the range on which we were standing sloped up to the Doker-la; on the opposite side was another mountain, of about the same altitude as our viewpoint though decreasing considerably towards the left, and separating the Doyon-lumba [note # 107: The Tibetan word lumba means valley (Handel-Mazzetti's note).], the valley where my destination Bahan was situated, from the Nu Jiang (Salween); and in the distance beyond it were some of the peaks of the Ju Jiang — Irrawaddy divide. Below me stretched the primeval forests of the Ludse Jiang, immense and unspoilt. This name is applied to the whole of the upper Chinese territory along the Nu Jiang as far as the river. It soon became clear that I had entered a floristic region totally different from any other part of Yunnan.

The track curved to the right and then ran steeply downhill, entering stands of bamboo where' every plant had died. From a distance they looked as if they had been burnt, but on coming closer I saw that there was no trace of fire, and indeed the ground beneath the dried up culms — they were about 3m in height and some had already fallen — was thickly covered with bright green seedlings about 20cm high. It was a new species — Arundinaria melanosta-chys. As I later heard, 1914 had been an exceptionally dry year [note # 108: According to Forrest, 1914 was an exceptionally wej year in Western China. J. Macqueen Cowan "George Forrest; Journeys and Plant Introductions" London, 1952, p.30.] in those parts, and it was this that had induced mass flowering among the bamboos, not only in more easterly districts, where we had indeed seen it, but also and more particularly here; and after flowering the bamboos die. A golden green moss (Campylopus gracilis) was growing in great abundance near the edges of the bamboo thickets; perhaps the sudden ingress of light had stimulated its growth.

Before long we plunged into the woods. Everything was soft and yielding. The track was a bottomless morass consisting of holes in the leaf mould between the roots of giant rhododendrons, the trunks of which were fully equal in size to those of the largest maples. Another substantial tree, one of the largest members of its family (Araliaceae), was Acanthopanax evodiaefolia. Spreading in the soft mossy soil were some tiny species of Rubus, notably R. potentilloides, but most interesting of all were the many epiphytic shrubs high up on the tree trunks: Ribes acuminatum, Sorbus hanowianus with leaves like a rowan and grey-white roots entirely covering one side of the trunk which supported it, Rhododendron tapeinum and Vaccinium dendtocharis. Some of them, in particular the last-named, which is not unlike our cowberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea), enveloped whole tree trunks in a dense mantle spreading up the very top. Growing on it were numerous ferns and a few herbaceous plants, though the latter had probably found their way there more or less by chance. Further down I found Pentapanax truncicolus growing as an epiphytic shrub. At 3150m the path, much of which had fallen away, crossed the little stream which ran straight down from the pass. A broad zone beside the stream had been kept clear of trees by repeated avalanches, and was occupied by willow scrub and tall herbaceous plants such as Artemisia, Rodgersia and balsams. Only at such opportunities as the midday halt does the traveller have time turn his attention to such things as a tiny Myxomycetes, attached to rotting leaves by a foot looking like a piece of coral and developing its spores in a narrow net a few centimetres in length. From here the track led gradually downhill along the side of the Doyon-lumba valley. The further we descended into this dank humid gorge, the more luxuriant was the vegetation. Broad-leaved trees predominated, evergreen and deciduous in roughly equal proportions: hollies (Ilex dipyrena), cherries, birches, tree-hazels, oaks and their relatives, maples, the fragrant Ehkianthus deflexus, Rhododendron sinogrande, TetracenOvn sinense, Pterocarya forrestii and the new Corylopsis glaucescens. The shrubs had much the same pattern: spindletrees, shrub hazels, redcurrants, Sarcococca and the yellow panicles of Senecio densiflora. Most striking of all, though not common, was Gilibertia myriantha (a new species of Araliaceae). It was in fruit, and its dainty umbels, grouped into clusters, covered the entire bush as if with a veil. The path wound its way through a dense understorey of lush Strobilanthes with lilies, knotgrasses, nettles and balsams.

After occupying this territory the Chinese had laid out a broad and well made track, but it had of course been allowed to fall into disrepair and in many places was now no more than a stairway or even a ladder made up of small holes serving as footholds up and down the steep gradients. Fortunately, bamboo culms grew nearly everywhere for the traveller to grasp. The lowest storey, perhaps more lush and sappy than any of the others, consisted of various species of Elatostema, Pilea and Lecanthus, all members of the nettle family; some had small fleshy inflorescences on stalks or sessile in the leaf axils while others had loose panicles of small green flowers. Also growing there was Sarco-pyramis nepalensis (Melastomataceae) with juicy stems and calyces and four diamond-shaped pink petals drawn out to a slender tip at one corner. Ferns grew in large masses, one resembling our hard fern and the other (Plagiogyra glauca) having fronds of a beautiful bluish white colour on their lower surfaces. After going down the valley for some distance we reached a place where a mountain torrent had hurled down boulders as big as houses and piled up a bank of talus. A bridge built of two slender beams crossed the water and late that evening I pitched my tent on [p.93:] the bank. Although autumn was far advanced, the day's spoils had been so rich that I sat up long past midnight sorting out the plants.

Bahan was located high above the left bank of the stream, but first of all we had to ascend steeply for 600m along the right bank and then gradually climbed out of the valley on to the ridge which ran to the east of the Nu Jiang. During the ascent we passed a grove of wild walnut trees in the forest The men were familiar with them, but their thick shells were difficult to break and the kernels were very small. Beneath the trees I found a large fern with long-stalked pedately divided fronds and narrow leaflets; it was the new Pteris tomentella. There was a tall magnolia tree (M. rostrata) with large, almost circular leaves 40cm long. High up and out of reach, I could see its bright red fruits. I tried to shoot one down with the Browning, but the attempt was even less successful than my previous endeavours higher up the mountain, when I managed to procure a bunch of leaves from Sorbus harrowianus, and I had to be content with some old dried up fruits. The Tibetan youth whom I had engaged as a plant collector in place of Lao Li caused some annoyance during this trip; he was seldom at hand when I needed him, and spent too much time fussing about the transport of his provisions. A few enormous trees of Toneya fargesii together with some spruce of a species I had not previously encountered (Picea ascendens) were standing on the Alulaka ridge, at an altitude of only 2900m. Also growing there was the Indian Pimis insularis with the usual Quercus dentate, and, as most of the forest had been felled, bracken was spreading in a most unwelcome manner. Its fronds formed a dense tangle, not easily penetrated, about a metre above the ground, though flourishing among it was hemp agrimony (Eupatorium wallichii) and, in more open spots, Osmunda japonica, a Silene, a pink-flowered orchid (Bletilla yunnanensis), Leontopodium sinense and Carex cruciata with golden brown panicles. Tangled amongst the last was Apios delavayi, a climber with upright racemes of conspicuous pale violet flowers and soft twining stems, and in the shade beneath grew Houttuynia cotdata, the upright Hydrocotyle javanica, small green orchids, the prostrate Pedicularis mactosiphon with long tubular flowers and, in considerable numbers, a fern closely resembling if not the same as our own Nephrodium thelypteris.

The weather was splendid, and the whole of the Nu Jiang — Drung Jian (Salween — Irrawaddy) divide was visible. The tree cover permitted only occasional glimpses of the Nu Jiang winding 1200m below, but upstream I saw the level patch where Gongshan (Tschamutong) was situated on an old flat alluvial fan, deeply dissected by two streams. Behind it two pillars of crystalline limestone hemmed in die river. Towering up above this serene landscape was the Gomba-la [note # 109: According to Rock (footnote, page 337) this is not the name of the peak but of a pass to the south of it.], the snow peak of Gongshan, a pyramid with three broad glaciers side by side, their brilliant

white gleaming against the deep blue sky. Another summit peeping out behind it, a coronet of jagged spikes above a cirque, lay beyond the border in Tibet. Opposite us to the west, were dark serrated mountain peaks of granite and slate, intersected by numerous valleys. Dark green coniferous forest climbed high up the slopes, wherever the trees could find a foothold, but all the lower slopes were clothed with luxuriant broad-leaved woodland. The rounded treetops, in varied nuances of colour, formed a continuous canopy which hugged the folds of the terrain, though broken here and there by strips of bright green meadow and on dry crests giving way to sparse pine wood. This was the green land of the peaceful Nu (Ludse), and their villages were scattered along the less steep parts of the valleyside. Its superb clarity made it one of the most entrancing mountain vistas I. have ever seen, and I sacrificed a plate to record it;-it was my last but one, since the supply which I had ordered by telegram from Zhong-dian had not yet arrived. The zone of pine and oak forest seemed to extend down as far as the river, and, feeling that I had already got to know it well enough, I thought it unnecessary to climb down to it, , especially as the next descent into the Bhan valley 'was nearly as great I spent the night at Meradon [note #110 : Mu-la-t'ong (Kingdon Ward).], the first village of the "small" Nu, lying half under the shelter of a maize drying rack and forgetting that the night sky was exceptionally cloudless. Next morning half my bed was wet with dew. Most of the wooden houses had one side raised on piles, as level ground is a rarity in their territory.

At midday on 25th September I reached the mission at Bahan (Beixia Luo in Chinese) after a steep ascent. It was 450m above Meradon and its white perimeter wall was visible from afar. The missionary was absent in Cizhong, so here too there was no choice but to speak Chinese. The mission house and its outbuildings were laid out round a courtyard, and on the side facing the mountain was a spacious church built of wood in the Chinese style and painted in bright colours. The caretaker offered me a room, having first enquired whether I was by any chance German, for he was forbidden to admit nationals of that country; however, he had never heard of Austria. He set milk and honey before me, but it would be wrong to suppose that this was a land flowing with milk and honey; indeed the Nu subsisted almost exclusively on maize and in 1914 there had been famine, caused — in the opinion of Pere Genestier, a man well versed in natural history — by "mountain rats", which, feeding on the abounding crops of bamboo seed produced in 1914, had multiplied inordinately and had then consumed most of the maize before it had ripened. I had planned to take a rest day in Bahan and spent it in measuring a baseline and triangulating the valley system. In order to find a more or less level stretch of ground, 300m long and free from forest, and take bearings on the church, about one and a half kilometres distant, I [p.94:] had to crawl for an hour through a deep ravine. I came back the same way and in the afternoon I extended the triangulation above the mission so as to include the Gomba-la. The labour was certainly worthwhile, since the depiction of the Nu Jiang on the existing maps was extremely sketchy and incorrect Huge trees of Manglietia insignia, a genus not greatly dissimilar from Magnolia, were frequent here. I employed two men to climb them and bring down their fruit Rubus lineatus, an exceptionally large bramble with long silky glistening silvery leaflets, was another prize collected on that unrestful "rest day".

On 27th September I left Bahan for the last high alpine trip of die season, the crossing of the Xi-la (Si-la) pass [note # 111: A photograph of the Si-la taken by Joseph Rock is reproduced in the book by Peter A. Cox, The Larger Species of Rhododendron, London, 1979, p.96.] back to the Lancang Jiang (Mekong). Offering splendid vistas, the path climbed steeply up a long meadow, the lower part of which was overgrown with willows with long silver grey leaves (Salix salwinensis, a new species). A few of the porters took advantage of the ponies grazing on the meadow. Seizing their tails, they made the ponies tow them up the steep path, quite oblivious of the fact that they were driving them beyond the boundary of the enclosed meadow. These were Tibetan ponies, extremely stocky long-haired beasts with pendulous bellies. Though they have often been described, this was the only time I saw them, or at least the only occasion on which their features were sufficiently distinctive to enable me to recognise them for what they were. The large handsome ponies which I saw in Zhongdian and Yongning did not belong to the same stock.

That evening it poured with rain again, and the task of pitching the tent at the top of the meadow took a long time, as my Tibetan youth had disappeared and despite all my shouting was nowhere to be found. There was frost that night and on awakening next morning I found the men tightly curled up in the nooks they had chosen to sleep in; it was so cold that even the Tibetans began to cough. The track went on through a strip of fir trees. The porters panted as they struggled over the slippery ground, led by their headman Li Tere, who marked each upwards heave by a mumbled complaint which was mockingly imitated by Wu Suolong. Zhafa carried my raincoat or rather hung it over his shoulders, and managed to lose a canvas hat cover which was in the pocket This had been part of my kit in Mesopotamia, and at lower altitudes I used to wear it in place of a topee. On reaching the first pass, Nisselaka at 4200m, I took the opportunity of completing my triangulation. Before us lay the main divide between the Lancang Jiang (Mekong) and the Nu Jiang (Salween), a narrow crest covered with snow, separated from us by the Saoa-lumba valley which here ran parallel with the Doyon-lumba and debouched into the latter below Bahan. We paused to eat a little further down, beside a bog pool where I collected a fine haul of mosses and a cherry with deeply cut leaves growing in tangled thickets. Though they looked most tempting, its fruits made us screw up our mouths. It was Cerasus crataegifolia, a new species.

Before long we met the two missionaries on their return journey from the Lancang Jiang (Mekong) to the Nu Jiang (Ludsedjiang). Pere Genestier from Qunatong, a diminutive figure with a large grey beard, was famed as the best walker in the district though in his late fifties. Pere Ouvrard from Bahan was a younger man, who had been my perhaps somewhat reluctant host during my stay there. They brought me some mail, including a letter from home and a few dozen photographic plates which had arrived in my absence. We sat down and chatted for a while until it was time for us all to move on. Of all Europeans living in the wilds, these two were perhaps the most isolated. For many months every winter the passes to the Lancang Jiang were blocked by huge masses of snow, so that visits to their parishioners entailed all the problems of mountain travel. They were completely cut off from the world. To the north of them were the fanatical Tibetans of Tsarong, who had swiftly expelled them from their first settlement at Bonga, while any ' attempt to travel downstream would have brought them up against the independent Lisu. A journey to the west would have been impracticable, as they had no idea where it would take them. Genestier's faithful Nu tribesmen recognized him as their true chieftain and on two occasions he had taken up arms and led them to drive out the Tibetans. In one incident the mission at Bahan had been burnt down and he had lost his collection of one thousand two hundred plants from the neighbourhood, though some specimens, evidently still unidentified, are believed to have found their way to Paris. Ouvrard was still unable to speak a word of the Nu language and could not bear the taste of maize, the only available food, even though he must have encountered it often enough in his native country. He and his confreres on the Lancang Jiang were diligent collectors of butterflies. It was most pleasing to find that many of the Catholic missionaries busied themselves in collecting material for the advancement of science. In so doing they were certainly not motivated by any desire to supplement their meagre stipends, but by genuine enthusiasm for then- subjects, of which they often had considerable knowledge. They differed from their Protestant competitors, hardly any of whom were collectors, in not being completely wrapped up in their somewhat fruitless missionary activities.

We had another steep descent through bamboo thickets to the stream in the Saoa-lumba valley, where the fathers had built a hut at 3450m, though travelling tribesmen had soon used its roof for their campfires. When I came to put the new plates in the cassettes I found to my dismay that they were not of the size which had been stated in the telegram from the suppliers and for which I had already made inserts so that they would fit into my 9 x 12cm cassettes. Fortunately they were too large rather than too small, and I spent some time on that cold moonlit night cutting and filing the inserts to the right [p.95:] sizes; next day I was able to set out with my cassettes loaded and ready to take farewell photographs of the beauties of the Nu Jiang.

The track at first ran for some distance along the valky bottom, which was filled with willow thickets, and then climbed steeply eastwards up the hillside into a little cirque. To one side, beyond the streaTi, we saw a tiny circular lake in the valley, between the canebrake and the last of the trees. Autumn was spreading over the landscape, but still in flower under the bushes was Jurinea picridifolia, a new species, and higher up I found Aconitum pulcaellum, the yellow Gentiana otophora and a few other latecomers. The narrow path climbed steeply once more, past the last stunted windswept bushes of scaly-leaved juniper (Juniperus wallichiana) to the sharp crest of the Xi-la at 4400m which marks the watershed. The name simply means "bare mountain". The nearby peaks did not exceed 5000m, and as the more distant ranges were shrouded in mist and time was pressing, I remained no longer than was necessary to complete the triangulation and then began to descend the rocky mountainside, after the high range to the north of the Doker-la had revealed some of its snow covered flanks, as if in farewell.

Up there in the snow patches in the folds of the mica-schist which ran parallel with the crest there were still a few solitary blue gentians in flower (Gentiana decorate, G. phyllocalyx and the new G. ORodoxa), together with Saussurea obvallate, a plant with a stout stalk and numerous flower-heads in a nest of papery leaves, and Polygonum fortestii, which had kidney-shaped leaves and sizeable white flowers in pseudoumbels. In the chilly streamlets Ptgaephyton sinense spread its greasy-looking leaves and lax stalks with their broad flat seedpods. In the scree lower down I collected Aconitum eutyanthe, a new species with large deep blue flowers later becoming even darker violet The path ran down into the tottom of a high walled rock bowl, then through thickets of rhododendron along a stream, which was so much enlarged by the influx of another from a small ravine to the southwest that the next time we crossed it we had a foot bath. All distant views were hidden, and the valley, here a U-shaped glacial trough, continued eastwards with only minor deviations. On the crest to the left we saw a few conical or diamond-shaped spikes.

All the ground was covered with forest or canebrake, but on every side there were scenes of savage devastation caused by the natural forces of water and snow: there were avalanche corridors with snapped off tree-trunks, bushes half buried in rubble, masses of earth carried down from above, landslides and piles of debris. Where the valley broadened the stream had spread out leaving behind a chaos of gravel and boulders mingled with roots and splintered trees. The porters hurried on towards the warmth of the campfire and I loitered behind, still collecting plants and taking photographs. It was quite dark before I finally reached our dry and tolerably warm campsite below a pasture called Riishatong. Once they had settled in the men became more cheerful. Wu Suolong tried to memorise a few words of Tibetan starting with the numerals, but like all Chinese he was unable to pronounce the glottal R. Up on the mountain I had told him to ask a porter the name of the pass. "Silarungu" was the reply ("rungu" is roughly equivalent to "pass"), but he reported it to me as "lungu", and Lao Li subsequently distorted the name "Ururu", also given to him in response to an enquiry, into "Ululu". Map-makers cannot be too careful in seeking to avoid such errors [note # 112: Handel-Mazzetti clearly did make many errors, however, neither his Tibetan nor his Chinese evidently being very fluent (SGH).].

Next morning my porters took with them a bull which the yakherds -had overlooked when departing from the pasture on the day before. The track went more steeply down through the valley for a considerable distance. Down here Abies chensiensis predominated, in contrast to A. forrestii higher up, and some were of gigantic size. One had a trunk no less than 6.5m in circumference. Its height was difficult to judge, but 60m would certainly not be an overestimate, and in many instances the lowest branches hung down in S-shaped curves spreading out for a distance of 10m from the trunk from the clearings one saw their remarkably narrow tops soaring up above the rest of the forest to heights at least twice as great as the other trees. The valley curved to the left, but the track climbed up its right side for 250m to reach a col named Chranalake at an altitude of 3300m on the sharp crest which ran parallel to the valley, and then plunged in steep zigzags down the arid hillside, which was covered mainly with pines, though there were also some solitary Pseudotsuga trees. After passing Niapaton — no more than a few houses — we came to Cigu, where the mission had previously been stationed. An hour's journey up the river brought me once more to my lodgings at Cizhong, where I arrived on 30th September with a splendid haul of plants, a slight cold, grazed hands, three pairs of worn out boots, a tattered coat, tent-poles with all their points broken off and much of my kit soaking wet; I was short of cash but in the best of spirits, insofar as the unforeseeable news of the war permitted any such state of mind. I soon set to work on my boots with thread and penknife, and I also bought a pair of beautiful Tibetan boots, admittedly more as a souvenir than for use.

[chapter 21:]