The zinc mine road – Monday 24 May


We return to the Tibetan café for breakfast and I sample the yak butter tea, but it’s very weak and I stick with our own ground coffee which we take everywhere – along with Earl Grey tea bags. No-one seems to mind that we provide most of our own drinks in their cafés.

Leaving Bingzhonglue

We head south, out of the Park entrance and through the village where Tsabho, Jason and I had stopped to take photos of the ‘rainbow waterfall’. Tsabho disappears off and returns triumphantly with the hat he lost a few days ago. Finding the wooden house by the bridge deserted, he opened the door. There, hanging on a peg just inside, was his hat: he carefully replaced it with the new one he’d bought in Bingzhonglue.

We stop at a bridge over the Nu Jiang which looks promising – our aim is to get as high up into the mountains as we can, where we’re likely to find Rhododendron species.

Jason and Tsabho disappear off for another kind of recky, and I accompany Ardong, John, Klaas and Hans, with the others travelling in Nombu’s 4-wheeler.

As we’re sorting out the vehicles, John approaches a pick-up waiting to cross the river and asks if there are any tracks leading up into the mountains. Apparently they’re heading way up high where they’re delivering equipment to a mine – and we’re welcome to follow them.

Crossing the Nu Jiang

This turns out to be amazingly fortuitous when, some miles up the road, we’re all stopped at a security barrier. The “miners” are waved through, and us along with them.

Tea break in rice paddy village

It’s muddy and rough – we soon pass through a small village and cause great excitement as we pile out to take photos of the people working the paddy fields. Some on are tea-break, leaving bunches of young rice plants strewn across the terraces waiting to be planted out.

We watch as one farmer walks along the bunds making a hole with a stick every few paces and carefully dropping in a seed. No growing space is wasted.

Inter-terrace planting

On the opposite side of the river the main road cuts a thin line across the mountainside.

We’ve entered a very different world.

Then it’s a hard slog up the track which becomes more and more challenging, the further we climb.

The pick-up bounces around in front of us belching out black smoke – but I’m reassured that if it can regularly get up this mountain, then so can we, in our rather more sophisticated vehicles.

The pick-up secures its cargo

Then the pick-up stops abruptly, its cargo having slipped. We take the opportunity to explore – and when I actually study how the road is built, I fleetingly reassess the wisdom of coming on this trip!

The pecipitous mountain track

Logs above us, logs below us

We stop innumerable times as we spot roadside delights, with botanists scampering in all directions to identify or photograph “new” species.

Snow clings on in some of the gulleys

But the ones that really excite us – and John in particular – are the pale cobalt primulas, with green-gold centres and serrated petals, cascading down a narrow gulley where the snow has melted away.

Primula sp 10516

These are the first primulas we’ve seen and we pass two or three such protected gulleys – but only see the one species.

Gentians in the alpine meadow

I wander off up the road and around the bend to find an alpine “meadow” which has been cleared – stumps of what were once mature trees remain twisted and gnarled, a poignant reminder of the fragility of the environment and the pervasive tradition of logging.

The ground flora is a mosaic of tiny gentians, wild strawberries and other alpine plants.

On the slope above the meadow are rhododendrons bushes and trees bursting with white and pink flowers. It’s really hard to photograph this sort of scene – nothing seems to do it justice. But I try, none-the-less, with a modicum of success.

From the meadow to snow-capped mountains

I’m relying exclusively on my Lumix now to capture my images, but have still to fully understand how depth of field works with this lens when it only ranges from f3.3 to f6.3. I’m used to f1.4 to f32 – and I know what that means in terms of what’s in focus for a SLR!

Rh species 10547

We’ve been driving above the snow-line for a while and it’s now nearly 3pm. We’re hungry. We finally come to a stop when it’s acknowledged that we’ve gained as much height as we can – 3.600m – and the altimeters have peaked: the track now starts its descent along the precipitous mountain side towards the mine, where the pick-up is fast disappearing.

Lunch stop

There’s no other traffic along this route so we simply stop the engines near the only passing place we’ve found. The snow is not fresh-fallen: it’s dirty and debris-strewn, 2-3ft high on either side of the track, and has obviously been there for a while. Lunch is Tibetan flat bread, crisps and a bit of fruit – Tsabho drove off with the tea-making equipment…

Rh arizelum rubicosum

Just down the hillside, in slightly deeper snow, John and Klaas investigate a lovely flowering Rh arizelum rubicosum with a large number of beautiful pink blooms just coming into flower, elegantly offset by the near vertical dark green leaves.

Abies nukiangensis

There are some fine fir trees, and Hans identifies Abies nukiangensis (Abies delavayi var. nukiangensis) which grows at an altitude of 2500-3100m, and Pinus armandii, English name Chinese White Pine, with its bundles of 5 triangular needles, between 1000 and 3000m. Pinus yunnanensis typically has 3 needles and is pervasive, growing on mountains and in river basins, on dry and sunny slopes from 400-3100m. Its distribution covers Guangxi, Guizhou, SW Sichuan, SE Xizang and Yunnan province.

Every turn is a delight and a new discovery.

ID-ing plants along the way

Rh trichocladum

On the way back we stopped to investigate what we believe is a Rh fletcherianum, but further research reveals it to be Rh trichocladum, a deciduous rhododendron with small yellow flowers.

Rh sulfureum

It was summarily dismissed as Rh sulfureum which we saw earlier and which grows at a lower altitude.

Rh sanguineum ssp sanguineum

Hans is already clambering halfway up the cliff to get a good sighting, when Jan and I look down and see yellow flowers just 20 yards or so down the slope.

There is great excitement as it’s discovered that this species is flowering alongside a beautiful blood red, almost black one – later identified as Rh sanguineum ssp sanguineum.

It’s raining intermittently. We stop numerous times as one or other of us spots something interesting. In the distance, rhododendrons cascade down the steep hillside in great clumps of white and pink.

Rh oreotrephes with acer

Many sp. remain unidentified until the evening session, causing great excitement and fervent discussion: then the reference books come out and there is further jocular rivalry between John and Klaas over the issue of identifying species using leaf scales as a yard-stick.

Rh species 10540

And I have to admit that I am still struggling to understand unfamiliar Latin terms filtered through a strong Dutch accent.

So sadly, although I’m able to photograph many of the Rhododendron species, I am not able to fully identify them myself – despite John providing us with a list of sp. discovered on the day.

We leave the mountain to head back at around 5pm.

We’ve come further than we realise – 20k up a precipitous stony track and it’s a long, bumpy ride down.

I closed my eyes at times...

6.50pm and we become aware of a hot mechanical smell – Ardong radios through to Nombu, who’s taken the lead, to stop: his brakes are overheating. We wait a while. They pour water over them and steam rises, hissing. It’s still raining.

We head down to Gongshan where Jason has booked us into a reasonable hotel on the main street. The drivers have been amazing, and their skill in navigating some of the obstacles on the way is remarked on with great appreciation – our lives, literally in their hands, all the way. Exhausted, emotionally and physically, it’s an early night all round.

Rhododendron species discovered this day:

Rhododendron species discovered this day:

Rh decorum – white, pink in bud, scented, low altitude

Rh floccigerum – red

Rh stewartianum (thomsonii like) small leaf, flower pink

Rh sinogrande – largest leaf, pale yellow

Rh basilicum – large leaf, yellow/ pink. Leaf smaller than sinogrande

Rh sulfureum – yellow, low altitude

Rh trichocladum – yellow deciduous

Rh sanguineum ssp sanguineum dark red, seen with Rh trichocladum

Rh arizelum rubicosum group: in snow at lunchtime

Rh oreotrephes – purple, dark and light, large shrub


Someone remarks that we’ve been driving up the Lancang divide in the Hengduan mountain area: The Lancang River is also known as the Mekong and runs from Tibet to the delta in Vietnam. The main ethnic group are the Lisu, or Lìsù zú, with zú meaning nationality. This is a Tibeto-Burman ethnic group who inhabit the mountainous regions of Burma (Myanmar), Southwest China, Thailand, and the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh.