Gongshan Tuesday 25 May

The Davidia Grove

We met in the lobby at 8am and had a good breakfast of bread and eggs in the restaurant behind the hotel – with good views up the river. We bring our own Earl Grey tea and cafetière with us which seems totally acceptable, if a bit amusing for the staff.

Jason and Tsabho take a vehicle and drive south – we won’t see them again for a couple of days. Our vehicles head off towards the left fork in the road up towards Kongmu. Although we have heard that there is a landslide 17km north, there should be several small roads heading up into the hills. The elevation is the most important thing – the temperate zone only starts around 2,500m, and above this is where the rhododendrons and magnolias are most likely to occur. We are also very keen to see Davidia involucrate, the Handkerchief tree, in its most western range.

It has been raining heavily for several days and we have seen evidence of several landslides which have been cleared away. However, as we head up the Puila river, just three minutes out of town, the road is blocked by a very recent fall of rock – we are fortunate not to have left earlier, as we might well have been on the other side and unable to return.

Landslide blocks our route

We turn around and head south. There are two valleys mentioned in Cox’s report, and we are keen to explore them both. Cox is THE authority on Rhododendrons and undertook two trips in the area, one in 1997 and the other in 2000. He lives in Perth, Scotland and is the son of Euan Cox who collected plants in Yunnan with Sheriff in 1916.

The road peels off long the Dan Zhu valley and quickly becomes a dirt road with evidence of minor landslides – the piles of aggregate left for repairs will wait until the rainy season is over. Alongside, the river is a torrent of churning muddy water thrashing its way south.

We pass a walking bridge over the torrent, providing a vital link with a small village. On the other side wait four white taxis. After about 20 minutes we come to stop. The track leads up to the right, but there is a barrier across – and an official looking office. The Burmese border has slipped down the hillside… We hand over our passports and wait for half an hour as discussions ensue and the Big Boss is phoned – probably the same one that was called the other day when we tried to get up into the hills close to the Burmese border before. The answer is the same – permission denied.

12.15pm. Frustrated, we turn around and head back, only to be thwarted again. This time there is a large blue truck right across the road with its rear wheels resting over the edge of the road.

Truck slides off the road

We wait patiently while a huge yellow vehicle with a hoist gets it back on track, and we pile back into the cars – and spot another road on the opposite side of the river heading into the hills. This time away from the Burmese border.

This is the Yenyugo valley, and after quite a few kilometres we start to climb up, gaining elevation. The tarmaced road soon gives way to dirt and stone and we pass a small settlement advertising natural hot springs – John comments that the whole area is thermally active. The road deteriorates and becomes single track – and increasingly bad. The heavy rain has turned it into a stream for great lengths, but at least there is vegetation on both sides and it is nowhere near as precipitous as yesterday.

We bounce around the road quite violently at times – although our drivers are incredibly experienced and have full control of the vehicles even in these very difficult conditions. There have been numerous earth slides and rock falls which have been cleared away with just enough room for a vehicle to pass. We drive through waterfalls, and over great cascades of water plunging down the mountain. We splash through thick mud washed from the fields, and over great rocks.

The river road

We pass small settlements and areas of cultivation which are so steep they seem almost impossible to work, yet there are small maize plants poking happily through sheets of plastic in precise strips running vertically up the slope.

Much of the native vegetation has been cleared for cultivation, and we silently hope that this road will take us high enough to find some interesting flora. We are getting hungry, but John insists on heading as far up the track as possible. The road is in such poor condition, there are various stops to check it is safe before the Drivers are happy to continue. Then we come across a large gate across the road, and all hope of getting higher fades. But the gate isn’t locked.

We continue up the track but our need for sustenance prevail and we stop for lunch. I grab a piece of bread and make an egg and crisp sandwich and wander up the track and around the bend. I am initially puzzled to see a scattering what appears to be white leaves on the ground – and then with immense excitement remember someone saying that Davidia sheds its white bracts – and there in front of me is a grove of Davidia involucrata!

I found Davidia!

I pick up a white bract and race back to the car crying “Davidia! Davidia” and waving my “handkerchief” madly. There is an excited rush and everyone is scrambling to get the best position to take photographs – pulling branches down for close-ups, jostling cameras against umbrellas, under umbrellas, grumbling that someone is spoiling their shot – like children desperate to be first.

Davidia involucrata

When we were thwarted in driving up the logging road towards the Burmese border, we thought we had lost our chance of seeing Davidia – this is where Cox had mentioned seeing it, along with many other species – but here there were four or five trees together. A truly amazing sight.

And the flora around there revealed some other delights: a wonderful Arisaema nepenthoides tucked away from the road with its elegant hood and delicate spathe; an exquisite herb paris in flower;

Herb Paris

the epiphytic orchid Coelogyne corymbus which we had seen before with its waxy white flower and yellow throat;

Epiphytic Orchid

and various rhododendron and acer species. It was an absolute delight.

The vehicles drove up the track for a short while, but the torrents of water and loose rocks made it unsafe to continue further, and we went on on foot.

On the mountain road

Then the water really did prevent most of the group continuing – my feet were already sodden, so I trudged through and up to a small settlement where huge trees had been felled over the years and the land put over to bare cultivation.

There were active beehives made from hollowed logs resting on rocks or stumps of trees; chickens scurried around and large pigs wandered rooting for food.

Curious mountain child

A small child gazed at me with rather blank curiosity…

We wandered back to the vehicles for 5.30pm but everyone got distracted by further interesting finds on the way – or lively discussions over which exact species a particular plant was.

We drove back into the hotel some two hours later, sodden but greatly excited by another most extraordinary foray into the wilds of northern Yunnan.

Stormy mountains