A Brief Account of a Journey to the Nu/Dulong divide, N.W. Yunnan

This trip took place between 30 July and 12 August, 2001 and the team were:

Michael Wickenden; Translator; Nu guide; Six Nu porters

The objectives of the trip were: (1) To return at flowering time to the alpine meadows around Mt. Kawa Karpu that I visited in May, 2000. (2) To visit and photograph the large lake and its flora N.E. of this mountain.

We were much luckier with the weather this year enjoying 13 almost dry days out of 14 and the timing was perfect for seeing a wealth of alpine flowers at 12,000'-15,000'. The result is over a thousand photographs of plants in flower and of the remarkable alpine landscape around the lake. Again, the Nu porters' physical strength and good humour ensured success.

Xiao Tsu, head porter, with a


(Camp 1) 30/7 Left Bingzongluo by the same route as last year up a wooded valley west of the Nu (Salween) river towards Mt. Kawa Karpu. The later perennials are still in flower including several Begonias and a fine Anemone resembling A. vitifolia but 7' tall. The cupped flowers are white within and pink on the outside. A cream Hydrangea is common.

The 7 ft Anemone

(2) 31/7 We continue west up the tributary of the Nu river stopping for lunch under the same cliff we visited 8 weeks earlier last year. The wet rock face is now covered with large kidney-shaped Begonia leaves growing in moss and the undergrowth is 3' deeper. I notice a yellow Impatiens, a white Persicaria and numerous clumps of a pale orange Hedychium. Some of the tree trunks are covered with a climbing aroid bearing large white flowers. We camp by the river where the extra light encourages Leycesteria and cream roses to flower.

Cimicifuga mairei and an Aster

(3) 1/8 Woke to heavy rain but the sun was shining by the time we were ready to move at 9.00 am. Wet nights and sunny days were the rule on this trip. We find a Magnolia with large blunt-tipped leaves very blue-grey beneath but no flowers - probably M. rostrata. Last year's snow-fields have been replaced with dense vegetation, mostly Artemesia with Rodgersia, Clematis and the lovely mauve flowered Thalictrum delavayi. We pass a rock shelter where, the porters say, a hunter from The Dulong froze to death 7 years ago and a bear ate most of the body. Higher up the herbs include blue and white Adenophora growing together, Polygonatum, Smilacina, Aconitum, Cimicifuga and various umbels. Our old campsite is unrecognisable submerged in a sea of perennials which have made 8' of growth in 8 weeks.

Alpine meadow with Levisticum, Leontopodium and Pedicularis

(4) 2/8 A marvellous day of good weather during which we reach the alpine meadows at around 13,000'. As we gain altitude and reach levels where the snow has melted more recently the effect is of moving backwards in time through summer to spring. The alpine meadows are at their pristine best with sheets of golden Trollius, pink Nomocharis, Geranium, Persicaria, Cremanthodium in yellow and brownish orange, Pedicularis and occasional maroon Lilium soulei. The beautiful umbel Levisticum involucratum holds its intricate pink and white flower heads above the rest, along with the purple-netted yellow bells of Megacodon styylophorus. The very short growing season at this altitude forces everything into flower together. In one 6m x 4m area I count 20 species of flowering plants of which at least half were garden worthy. The porters enter into the spirit of things by bringing armfuls of flowers back to camp.

Lilium soulei

(5) 3/8 Today we cross the Rujaru pass, (13,300'), to the area known as Nida Tsu on the Dulong side of the main divide. I gather Rujaru is a Chinese name meaning Confucius' pass, Nida Tsu is more local and translates as, 'Go round again', referring to somebody getting lost here. This is a special place for The Nu who believe their primeval ancestors emerged from a cave on the slopes of Mt. Kawa Karpu which rises above us, the top hidden by clouds. We meet Lisu herb collectors gathering what looks like a Veratrilla species. On the way down the other side there are sheets of a fine dark red Persicaria and, further down, the leading porters hear a bear crashing away through the undergrowth. They are forced to suppress their instinct to pursue as hunting has recently become illegal in this area and their crossbows, so much in evidence last year, have been left at home.

Collecting medicinal herbs

(6) 4/8 Leaving two of the younger porters behind, we go north down the valley on the Dulong side of Mt. Kawa Karpu. Leontopodium, Salvia and Allium grow attractively together on the river bank. We are looking for a side valley on the right to take us over the shoulder of the mountain to the large lake on the other side. The guide chooses a steep gully down which a stream flows in a series of waterfalls. Almost at once we need the rope to haul the loads up a steep section and this sets the pattern for the next 6 hours. Each time we reach a more level area another difficult climb presents itself until we arrive, totally exhausted, near the top of the gully where ledges have to be cut to accommodate the tents. One of the porters has a nose bleed due to the sheer effort of climbing with his heavy load. Although an old notched branch ladder indicates hunters have been this way before, it is clear to me that this dangerous route was taken in error. I did photograph a lovely Deutzia and a pink Pleione which we saw nowhere else.

Persicaria and stunted forest under Mt Kawa Karpu

(7) 5/8 Today we continue to circle the sacred mountain, climbing a series of ridges and valley heads until we clear the final ridge and are rewarded with a spectacular view of the lake below. A large area of leaden water is surrounded by grey walls of stone on three sides with white ribbons of water cascading down from the snow above. Deep in these icy waters lie the remains of one of the many American aircraft, ('Flying Tigers'), lost crossing these mountains during the '39-'45 war. The main lake drains into a smaller one by a 100'+ waterfall and the rocks between the two have been worn smooth by a glacier. There are fewer flowers here than at Nida Tsu, (there is less soil), but I do see a lovely Corydalis in several shades of blue.

The lake below the sacred mountain

(8) 6/8 I spend the day photographing this remarkable landscape of glaciated rock, crystal pools and distant mountains rising out of clouds. In the early morning there is a fine view into Tibet to the N. E. with Mt. Meilixue, (22,112'), visible above many other lesser peaks. Two of the porters manage to reach the smaller lower lake by skirting the northern side of the valley and report lots of bear tracks but few flowers.

The smaller lower lake

(9) 7/8 Today the clouds have descended and the lake soon disappears in swirling mist as we return over the pass. There are many plants of a Rhodiola or Sedum sp. with red flowers amongst the rocks, and one specimen of a Polygonatum with pink flowers and elongated curled tips to the leaves. We descend through a carpet of Rhododendrons kept low by the deep snow which covers them for 8 months of the year. Soon we are cutting through fully developed Rhododendron forest followed by a long descent down an unstable landslide. This would be a hard climb in the opposite direction but easier and safer than the route we took on the 5th, especially in wet conditions.

A Rhodiola or Sedum sp.

(10) 8/8 As we are leaving our camp by the river I notice the porters putting all the unburnt firewood onto the fire rather than leaving dry wood for the next occupant. It turns out they believe that if they leave camp with a good fire burning it will not rain during the day's march or, perhaps, for as long as the fire burns. We follow the river uphill through damp mossy forest where I find a strange colourless fungus like an eyeball on a stalk, perhaps a species of Geastrum.

A strange colourless fungus.

A parasitic plant which seems to grow on dead bamboo shoots

(11) 9/8 At the head of the valley we are back into springtime with flowering Primulas, Notholirion and uncurling ferns. New shoots are still appearing as the remaining snow retreats; some of these plants must grow, flower and seed in less than three months. I notice a blue leaved Berberis which could be B. temolaica. When we reach Nida Tsu we find four other camps of local herb collectors within a mile, attracted by the rich flora and the proximity of the sacred mountain. In the evening the clouds lift and we see the top of Kawa Karpu for the first time. Instead of the expected conical peak it has a flat top now powdered with snow. In the forest below the camp I find another, different, Corydalis and a fine pink Disporum.

Primulas, Bergenia and uncurling ferns on recently thawed ground

(12) 10/8 The porters have told me of a tree with leaves so large that a man can shelter from the rain under one. I sketch a large leaved Rhododendron and a Magnolia but it is neither of these - what else has really large leaves at anything like this altitude? They say it is 3 hours away so we set off to the S. W., the unladen porters covering the ground at speed. After a couple of hours we have reached the head of the large valley by which we reached The Dulong with such difficulty in 2000. On the way we find one plant of a form of Meconopsis horridula bearing several large pale blue flowers on a plant only 6'' tall. The valley is full of billowing cloud and the men seem reluctant to continue. My translator is in camp so I can not find out what is going on. Xiao Tsu and another man disappear leaving us to wander back to camp through the rich herb fields. A couple of hours after we get back the two porters arrive carrying the 6' flowering stems of a particularly fine red flowered form of Rheum palmatum, the 'tree' with big leaves. Realising that I would have trouble covering the required distance fast enough at this altitude these men hiked several miles at 12,000'-14,000' to secure a specimen.

Meconopsis horridula

(13) 11/8 Having crossed back over the Rujaru pass we bear south along a knife edge ridge with incredible views on both sides. It forms the head of the valley we came up and will take us to the next valley south, which leads to Bingzongluo. Apart from a wide variety of dwarf Rhododendrons, including a lovely late species still covered with pale yellow cupped flowers, I find an interesting small Trollius with yellow flowers. We drop down into the valley where civilisation, in the shape of cows pastured here for the summer, comes as quite a shock after 12 days of pristine nature. There are no buildings but many trees have been cut down and the cattle have eaten all the herbs except the poisonous ones, Arisaema, Cimicifuga and Aconitum. We seem to have moved from the world of the hunter gatherer to the ravages of early agriculture.

A very late flowering Rhododendron

(14) 12/8 The last day is the only really wet one of the trip. We descend steeply through fine forest past many waterfalls where Cardiocrinum is in fruit. Pink Begonias appear and the scarlet leaves of a Parthenocissus growing over golden moss glow in the rain. The town is reached after a very long day. In the evening we eat with the elated porters and everybody has plenty to drink. Again they have demonstrated their total mastery of their mountains and redefined, for me, what the human body is capable of.

Breaking camp


Michael Wickenden,

December 2001.


Home | The Nursery | Catalogue | The Garden | Plant List | Garden History | Expeditions | Opening Times | Contact

Illustrations by Clare Melinsky. Photographs by Michael Wickenden

Site design by Ken Smyth