In 2010, Scott and Ozzie had parted my company in SaPa to travel to Ha Giang Province (where we are now) and had reached the edge of an undisturbed forest much too late in the day to adequately explore the environs before having to turn back due to lack of light. Although yesterday, 10/9/13, had satisfied many of our questions as to what might have been found had time allowed, it was decided to return to the same mountain on the Chinese/Vietnam frontier, less than 10 miles from the Yunnan border, to the precise location they had visited. A considerable drive from Ban Quan, it was mid-morning and uncomfortably warm by the time we reached the trailhead. As are much of the ‘trails’ in the mountains here, ours was not meant for climbing up as much as for sliding logs down to the valley below. Scott, apprehensive of again reaching the forests with insufficient time to explore, shot out of the gates at a breakneck pace and I felt compelled to keep up with the front runner. It was encouraging to feel the confidence return to my knees after our trek on Five Fingers, which will be welcomed during our trek in northern Myanmar next week.
Andrew, Uoc, Ming and I reached the saddle in less than two hours, and at this point decided to cover more territory by splintering our group. Ming, our porter, accompanied Scott to the same ridge he had reached three years prior. (unbeknownst to he and Uoc on that day in 2010, the unnervingly steep flume they had climbed to the top was in active use; a log was jettisoned from the top only minutes after they had reached the ridge). Today, Uoc, Andrew and I climbed a steep, unstable flume on the opposite side of the saddle though with undisturbed vegetation gratefully suggesting it was not in current use.
Within only minutes of the climb to the ridge above, the brilliant cherry red arils of Amentotaxus on numerous female specimens made themselves apparent, especially when backlit by the rising sun. It was an exciting find. Uoc, having never before having seen the fruit of this species, remained convinced we were pulling his leg until I showed him a fruit still attached to the limbs of this moderately sized tree.
Indeed, it was the Amentotaxus found here that had played a significant role in bringing us back to the area, along with the hope of identifying new areas where the aforementioned Xanthocyparis vietnamensis might be found. Amentotaxus, a conifer related to the yew, possesses startlingly long and narrow needles to 8″, each backed by broad white stomatal bands. It is mostly absent in cultivation except at a handful of botanical gardens and would make a splendid addition to gardens in climates that could accommodate it.
In this most unlikely habitat of dry, porous limestone grew at least four maples, including a deciduous species related to Acer davidii, and an enormous foliaged species with three lobes possessing a leathery texture. Solomon’s Seals ( genus Polygonatum ) and Begonias grew between and atop the rocks while a pair of Rhododendron species were prevalent. The conifers we had seen silhouetted along the ridge line from the saddle proved to be a Keeteleria instead of Xanthocyparis, although the short needles of this taxon, appearing almost Hemlock-like in appearance, was perplexing to us all. In China, I have been served the fresh tips of steamed Keeteleria although I found it to be an acquired taste.
Our pre-arranged time to reconoiter below with our comrades came and went, hoping that they too had been slowed by the amazing yet quickly vanishing diversity that was growing here. Guilt finally got the better of Andrew and I, and we worked our way down slope, a process that required more deliberation and forethought than ascending. Scott and Ming’s belated return jived perfectly with our own, and our reunion ignited an excited chatter of Latin and shared experiences.
Our transport could be seen far below in the valley where five sets of weary legs would safely deliver us in just over an hour. During our drive to Ha Giang for the evening, several hours ahead, we marveled in the day’s experiences and the muted silky colors of the evening October landscape in northern Vietnam. We arrived in town with enough time before dinner to organize a birthday cake for Uoc’s 38th birthday, while dining on a large platter of the region’s autumnal specialty of fried wasp larvae.