HISTORIAN and aborist Thomas Pakenham recalls the search for a rare poppy during a plant hunters’ trip, in this extract from his new book
When an expert on Himalayan flora asked if I would like to join a small group collecting seeds in Tibet, I jumped at the idea. He had somehow wangled permission from the authorities to cross the Doshong La, the pass over the main chain of the Himalayas. This would mean we could at least get a glimpse of parts of southern Tibet that few explorers have ever been allowed to see: the lost valleys of Pemako only a few miles from the border with India.
Ever since the border war between China and India in 1962, this has been a military zone jealously guarded by the Chinese. The plant hunter Frank Kingdon-Ward described it in the 1920s as a ‘plantsman’s paradise’. For 45 years he ranged the Himalayas, exploring the remotest regions. He was the first to travel all the way down the great canyon of the River Tsangpo – the deepest in the world – and in Pemako discovered a botanical Shangri-La with vast numbers of plants of all kinds. Who knows, I thought, after reading his book, Riddle of the Tsangpo Gorges, we, too, might dazzle the world with our discoveries.
From Lhasa airport, we started on the 250-mile drive towards Kingdon-Ward’s Shangri-La. The River Tsangpo was our companion for most of the drive. It rises far to the southwest and runs eastwards, parallel to the main range of the Himalayas, for hundreds of miles – a docile giant, blue-grey from the glaciers, brown after recent rain, gliding between sandy, yellow banks. Below the pass of the Doshong La, the giant turns crazy. It hacks its way between two enormous snow mountains, Gyala Peri and Namche Barwa. Then it makes a dash for the plains of India, where it re-emerges as the Brahmaputra, the second largest river in the world.
In three days we reached Pe, a huddle of small tin-roofed huts, among meadows grazed by yaks, at the foot of the Doshong La. Close to the village we found the gigantic Tibetan cowslips first spotted by Kingdon-Ward in the 1920s, now common in the gardens of temperate Europe and North America. However, many have crossed with other species, losing both the brilliance of their sulphur-yellow flowers and their ambrosial fragrance. Our seeds would be the real McCoy.
After a blizzard forced us back from our ascent of the Doshong La, our plans changed. There was another valley – not so secret but almost as full of treasures – the Rongchu valley, only two days’ march to the west. At 15,000 feet, the Nyima La – the pass that led to the Rongchu – was 1,000 feet higher than the ill-omened Doshong La. But our guides had assured us there would be less snow so far west of the main chain of the mountains. The vehicles would take a 150-mile detour and cross the river by the main bridge. Meanwhile we could march straight there, crossing the Tsangpo by the ferry at Pe, with ponies to carry our tents and baggage.
I had already heard something of the Rongchu. It was lyrically described in Kingdon-Ward’s book, Land of the Blue Poppy. The poppy, made famous by Kingdon-Ward, had a blue which was purer and more intense than any other. But its purity, like the Tibetan cowslip, deteriorates when cultivated in Europe and North America. The poppies grown from my seeds, if I found any, would be as blue as a blue diamond.
The mud huts of Pe straddle the east bank of the Tsangpo, barely 10,000 feet above sea level. On the opposite bank the ground rises steeply and the rocky slopes are dotted with larch, yellow in autumn. The Tsangpo itself takes a breather here, placid enough to be crossed by ferry. Late next morning, with half a dozen ponies, we clattered down to the riverbank and embarked, somewhat gingerly, in a pair of dugouts lashed together. The ferryman looked as old as Charon and so did his oars. But a long steel cable, attached to the other bank, helped offset the force of the current. We landed safely and, after a delicious lunch of beer and chicken chapatis, belatedly began the 5,000-foot climb.
Five hours later darkness found us still struggling through the heart of a forest. The climb was stiffer than any of us had anticipated and the thin Tibetan air had begun to defeat me. I was also alarmed by the series of makeshift bridges, simply trees that had collapsed across over the river which crisscrossed our track.
As the light faded I was, for the first time, able to take in my astonishing surroundings. Here was a wild forest in the raw. The spruce and fir lay at all angles, stitched together like giant brambles. Half of them seemed to be dead or dying – having collapsed from old age or been smashed down by storms. The forest was a Gothic jungle, as if imagined by Edgar Allan Poe. After supper I lay in my tent listening to the music of the small bells attached to the ponies’ harness. A fire had been lit with the spruce branches in our clearing and the sparks rose in a resinous fountain. Perhaps we shared the forest with bears or snow leopards. I felt secure enough in my sleeping bag.
Next morning we crossed the pass of the Nyima La. The stony track soon emerged from the forest and I could see the rocks on the summit of the ridge. Over to the east, beyond the great blue abyss cut by the Tsangpo, were those two amazing snow mountains once more: Gyala Peri and Namche Barwa, almost benign in the midday sunshine. But what awaited us in the Rongchu valley to the west? The vehicles carrying our main supplies had made the long detour and were ready to greet us. A spiral of woodsmoke from the campfires rose in the thin, frosty air. By morning the tents would be blue with hoar frost. But not perhaps quite as blue as Mecanopsis baileyi, the poppy we had come so far to find.
The next few days were spent exploring the valley which proved full of treasures. But where were the blue poppies which Kingdon-Ward had found in this actual spot 70 years earlier?
On the second afternoon after our descent, I felt I had earned a respite. My more energetic companions had decided to pursue the search five miles upstream. I would stay in the camp to write up my diary. I wandered down to the stream, shaded by a grove of willows. The sun was hot and the water delightfully cool. I decided to wash my feet. But before I had removed my shoes and socks I sprang up in amazement. I had sat down on a clump of something familiar, yet different – something with the unmistakable coronet of the poppyhead, yet larger and more exotic than any I knew. Could it be... no, I could hardly hope... I had sat on the famous Mecanopsis baileyi, the blue poppy itself. The poppyheads were overflowing with black seeds and it was the work of a moment to fill my envelope.
An hour later my companions returned, not in the best of tempers. They had tramped ten miles up and down the Rongchu valley – and found nothing. I held out the plant I had sat on.
They were incredulous. Of course I didn’t deserve these seeds. I was the duffer of the team. But there were enough blue poppy seeds for everyone, and enough Chinese beer that evening to celebrate my moment of glory.
• The Company of Trees: A Year in a Lifetime’s Quest by Thomas Pakenham, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £30 (eBook, £15.99), is out now.