A mid morning departure from SaPa on 10/8/13 allowed for our boots and associated gear to be dried at a local laundry, but would put us to our destination much later than we had hoped. The 8 hour drive to the northeast, through idyllic minority villages in a celebratory mood at the height of the rice harvest, would take us to the frontier town of Ban Quan. It is a modest and remote town built amidst a fanciful and highly weathered geology of karst limestone. Arising even amongst the town itself are symmetrical cones several hundred feet high, suggesting more ancient ruins of a former civilization than a natural geological process.
I was last here in 2006 to look for a newly described conifer whose official taxonomic nomenclature continues to transmute between the genera of Xanthocyparis, Callitropsis, Cupressus and Chamaecyparis. Though the few remaining specimens in the wild are native to relatively low elevations of about 4000′, I have been encouraged by its hardiness and handsome growth habit in my garden from my collections on that year. Severe reduction of its numbers left in the wild continues due to deforestation for building and firewood. Subsequent visits by Ozzie Johnson and Scott McMahan during our 2008 trip here revealed other fascinating conifers, piquing our interest to return again for a more detailed survey of this area.
To the north of Ban Quan exists a series of peaks running east/west called collectively Bat Dai San (9 Peak Mountain) in the altitudinal range of five to seven thousand feet. Our attempts to reach altitude during previous trips here were from the river valley on the northern flank; though the pitch was much steeper, the total mileage to the altitude we sought was considerably less. Today, however, we would begin our trek on the Ban Quan plateau, and hike across the width of the range and down to the river on the northern flank; a gentler incline up and over but a considerably longer distance.
A single inquiry at a local farmhouse, with the aid of a photo on my phone, and of course the interpretive skills of our guide Uoc, commenced a discussion of the trees that the farmer had cut from the hills in the distance. He scraped away the outer tissue of an old beam supporting the roof of his pig sty to reveal the aroma (indeed along with associated after notes of its current use) of a highly resinous conifer. Within minutes, he had packed his basket; we swung our packs on our backs and began to follow him with our own porters leading the charge.
Though weathered karst provides good footholds for climbing, the associated sinkholes and ledges camouflaged by vegetation does not allow one to look at plants and safely walk at the same time. Our pace was slow, but even at 3000′, the rock formations here-refugia from grazing livestock- offered a fascinating and unexpected inventory of plants to keep us entertained;. Begonias, Asarums, Polygonatums, ferns and a plenitude of orchids.
We met numerous local people, nearly always women, carrying large loads of firewood on their backs, confirming the existence of forests ahead as well as the continued human pressure on the last intact remnants of anything that had once existed here.
Within three hours of hiking we had gained 1000′ in elevation and entered the welcomed shade of trees and taller shrubs. Sadly the largest trees here had recently been felled, no longer by the axe but by chainsaws, portending the accelerated pace of future deforestation in the years ahead. Still, calls of Latin commenced from ours party as each of us recognized those things our individual eyes were most conditioned to see: Andrew; Magnolia, Ozzie; Aucuba chinensis var chinensis, Scott;Amentotaxus, myself;Acer.
At 1:30, our breakfast of noodle soup had worn thin and we stopped for lunch at a saddle of 4000′. As leeches were prevalent along the trail, I suggested we climb to the top of the knoll to take advantage of the distant views and much desired breeze. It was a fortuitous decision, as we settled ourselves into a paradise of botany, enjoying the satisfying shade of one of the rarest conifers on earth. Around a wizened and partially cut specimen of Xanthocyparis, where we contentedly dined on sticky rice, grew no less than five additional conifers, including Cephalotaxus, Keeteleria and Podocarpus. Here too grew a splendidly foliaged Mahonia in late flower, while both Disporum and a dwarf evergreen Polygonatum conjoined a thick carpet of orchids that cloaked every available surface of rock or bark. With hours of walking ahead, however, we were forced to leave this splendid territory all too soon.
Our altitude remained steady for another three hours, stopping briefly in an isolated Dao homestead where we were invited inside for a glass of hot water and a small cup of rice spirits. Across the door of one of the two rammed-earth homes here had been hung a freshly cut stem of tobacco, a sign forbidding entrance due to a recent birth.
Dusk enveloped the slopes and valleys as we began our steep descent to the river below, but not before we gathered foliage for later identification of two additional Magnolias. Excitedly, three sausage shaped fruit of a Holboellia were found on stems clambering through the shrubs and trees growing trail side. My associates at Monrovia Growers know too well my annoying commitment to this genus of mostly underappreciated evergreen vines that blossom in late winter. This collection possessed the most leathery 5-parted leaves of the many species I have collected and introduced over the years.
Frank Kingdon-Ward, a plant collector during the early years of the 20th century said it best. Plant hunting is a process consisting of days of mind numbing boredom interspersed with seconds of undiluted joy. We climbed into our transport at dark , again a crescent moon stained to apricot by the smoke of burning rice rose in the eastern sky, and we were satiated in a way that only those who look for plants can fully understand.