Ernst Sondheimer

In The Himalayan Journal Vol. 53 (1997) I reported on a botanical trek to the Namcha Barwa region of SE Tibet. The article concluded with the words: 'This remote corner of the Himalaya left deep and enduring impressions. Will I have to wait for my next incarnation before I return?'

We had, in fact, at that time talked of another highly desirable objective, the Tsari valley, lying further south, close to the Indian border, but — this being a politically sensitive area — it was not thought likely that permission for a visit could be obtained. Nevertheless, it did happen, and here is my story.

The Tsari river flows eastwards, then turns south at the Indian border to join the Subansiri, itself a tributary of the Brahmaputra (Tsangpo in Tibet). The Tsari region is spectacularly beautiful, and has for long been recognised as a pilgrimage route and sanctuary. It is holy ground where no life may be taken. One of its sacred places is the Takpa Siri massif, lying to the south of the Tsari valley. Its circumambulation attracts pilgrims from every part of Tibet. The long pilgrimage, the Ringkor, occupies a month and takes place very twelfth year; the short pilgrimage, the Kingkor, occurs annually and is completed in a week or ten days.

The Tsari valley has a wet climate and the area is extremely rich botanically. Earlier explorers and plant-hunters that visited the region include F. M. Bailey, who completed the short pilgrimage in 1913, followed by Frank Kingdon Ward in 1935 and George Sherriff in 1936. They all found the area spectacular and rich in rare plants.

Since those days few, if any, Western parties had been to this region, but in 1998 a UK party, similar in composition to our Namcha Barwa group of 1996, managed to obtain permission from the Chinese authorities. The aim was to explore the Tsari valley and, from there, to visit valleys going south towards the Takpa Siri mountains, to explore the Sur la to the north, and finally to cross another pass, the Bimbi la, northwards back to the Tsangpo valley. Unfortunately, just as the party was about to set out, India conducted a nuclear test; in response, the Chinese placed the China/ India border region under martial law and the permits for the Tsari valley were declared invalid. But all was not lost: approaches from the north were still allowed, and the party did reach; after long and arduous trekking, both the Sur la and the Bimbi la, and were delighted with the superb flora.

I had hoped to participate in this adventure and was disappointed to find myself too late with my booking. So the news that a similar trip was planned for 1999 made me feel happy, and I booked in at the earliest opportunity. And this year all went well.

After two nights in Kathmandu we again embarked on the one-hour flight to Gonggar, Lhasa's airport, in the Yarlung Tsangpo valley, having enjoyed from the plane, superb views of Everest on one side and Kangchejunga on the other. On arrival in Tibet, at 3500 m above sea level, the crystal-clear air at once induced the familiar feeling of intoxication, as only the best champagne can produce. Off we went in our Land Cruisers, eastwards at first, but we soon reached Tsedang where we turned south, heading towards Tsari. At 12 km from Tsedang we passed the Yumbu Lakhang monastery, dramatically situated on a steep ridge. The building, the oldest in Tibet, was originally the home of the Yarlong kings; it later became a monastery and was destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. On our return, local people were excavating rock for the rebuilding of a retaining wall.

In contrast to the bleak surrounding hillsides, the valley floor here was a rich green because of irrigation. Clumps of lovely Iris lactea were growing along the irrigation ditches. We camped twice on the way to Tsari, crossing a succession of high passes of 5000 m or more. On the short turf and stony screes of these heights many alpine plants were seen. Around our first camp, the grass was dotted with the small pink flowers of Primula tibetica, and on the way to our first pass, the Yarto Tra la, beautiful Androsace ciliifolia could be admired. Two more passes were crossed on this day, and the plants seen included once again the wonderful cushions of Chioncharis hookeri with their intensely blue flowers. Before reaching our second camp we travelled endlessly along the sides of a deep gorge. Next day brought us Cassiope fastigiata with its delightful little white bells, and the yellow bells of Fritillaria cirrhosa. We also encountered a black nomad tent, where we were invited inside and treated hospitably with the obligatory butter tea. We passed the Sanga Choling monastery, which we were to visit on our return, then crossed the Cha la (5060 m), our final pass, near which we observed an attractive plant, a crucifer, which proved very difficult to identify. (After consulting various authorities on our return, it was finally declared to be Christolea rosulans Kuan.) From here we descended into the wet wilderness of the Senguti plain and carried on into the Tsari valley — the promised land, with its streams, flowers, forests, and framed by mountains — a beautiful place indeed. Plants seen on the way included superb examples of Rhododendron wardii, and the curiously striped Arisaema elephas. Now there was a problem: our permits were valid only for the north side of the Tsari river, but here there was nowhere to camp: a good campsite beckoned across the river at Yarap, near the village of Chikchar, and there, will-nilly, we pitched our tents and stayed for four nights, exploring the valleys to the south by day. Fortunately our peace was not disturbed — our encounters with the Chinese army at various checkpoints were invariably friendly; evidently plant-hunting was, on this occasion anyway, accepted as a legitimate activity.

Our first day's exploration from the campsite took us into the Chickchar valley, following the start of the Ringkor pilgrimage. Many beautiful plants seen included the blue poppy, Meconopsis simplicifolia. The only building in the valley was the Chikchar monastery, where the abbot greeted us. Rain in the evening was followed by sunshine the next morning; the walk up the next valley to the west, up to a tarn below a steep cliff, brought us a lovely lily. Lilium nanum, and more Fritillaria cirrhosa, together with fine mountain views. By now I felt that I had deserved a rest day, so, on our final day in the camp, I rested happily, whilst the young and energetic went off to explore yet another valley lying further west.

And now it was time to leave for our supreme objective, the Bimbi la. We started with a drive east, to Pozo Sumdo, not far from the border town Migyitun, where ponies awaited us to carry tents, food and luggage. The walk northwards was fairly level at first, following the Bimbi chu, along a beautiful damp wooded valley, with waterfalls cascading down the sides, to our first camp, in a meadow bright with masses of yellow Primula sikkimensis. Next day we started to climb uphill, to emerge from the forest to an amazingly beautiful region of pasture, covered as far as the eye could see with more yellow primulas and, above them, the massed pinks of Rhododendron aganniphum in full flower. That evening's camp was on a damp and swampy ground in murky weather, but the sky cleared for the final push next day to the fabled Bimbi la where, although the mountain scenery is not so spectacular, the botanical offerings did not disappoint. Highlights among the wonderful plants were, in a cliff below the pass, pink Primula caveana and curious Saussurea tridactyla; then, on the pass itself, large sheets of purple Primula tanneri ssp. tsariensis (first detected by George Sherriff in 1936) and rose-crimson Primula dryadifolia (found by George Forrest in 1911).

The Takpa Siri massif from north.

18. The Takpa Siri massif from north.

Chickchar monastery.

19. Chickchar monastery.

Start of walk to the Bimbi la.

20. Start of walk to the Bimbi la.

The Chikchar valley.

21. The Chikchar valley.

Cassiopé fastigiata.

22. Cassiopé fastigiata.

Chionocharis hookeri.

23. Chionocharis hookeri.

Saussurea tridactyla.

24. Saussurea tridactyla.

Christolea rosulans Kuan.

25. Christolea rosulans Kuan.

Iris lactea.

26. Iris lactea.

Primula dryadifolia.

27. Primula dryadifolia.

Primula meadow below Bimbi la.

28. Primula meadow below Bimbi la.

Primula caveana.

29. Primula caveana.

Tsari and Takpa Siri.

Tsari and Takpa Siri.

From the campsite that evening we had good glimpses of the holy mountain. Next day the descent took us through hillsides again ablaze with yellow and pink rhododendrons, followed by the walk along the Bimbi chu where we were rewarded with another exciting plant discovery: in the cliffs close to the track we found clumps of beautiful blue Paraqilegia grandiflora, a noble member of the buttercup family.

Our return to Lhasa was noteworthy for a visit to the Sanga Choling monastery. This monastery, ransacked during the Cultural Revolution, has been rebuilt since 1986, and monastic life appeared to be in full swing. Ludlow and Sheriff had used it as a base, and Bailey had been there earlier in 1913; the Dalai Lama had stopped off there on his flight to India in 1959. On arrival I was firmly taken charge by a group of small Tibetans who insisted on acting as my guides for a tour of the monastery; later I was greeted warmly by the abbot, who was delighted to find that we were both of the same age. It was a heart-warming finale to our trip. Later there was still a landslip to negotiate; more fine plants to admire, including dark blue Meconopsis horridula, another camp, with the usual audience of small Tibetans, and - our return to our Lhasa hotel - we were pleased to be greeted by a welcoming inscription over the entrance, written in the best Tibetan English.

There are names like Shangrila and El Dorado, which give you a thrill when you hear them - for me, Tsari now belongs to that class. Indeed, our visit did not disappoint - and we were so lucky: friendly weather, excellent organisation and a harmonious group, cheerful and enterprising, no more than the normal amount of sickness - we simply had a jolly good time. Praise is due, not least, to our support staff, with special mention of the cooking - excellent cakes were produced at the drop of a hat - and to the drivers, whose skill on Tibetan roads - a mere landslip or two is no problem at all - makes our task of driving in the London traffic chaos seem the merest child's play.

And what about Tsari itself - its incredible beauty, its gentle, friendly people, the religion which shows no signs of being exterminated and - of course - what we had really come for, the wonderful plants, alpines, rhododendrons and the rest? Those primula meadows below the Bimbi la - can there be anything more beautiful on our planet? Let us hope that this lonely region will be allowed to remain at peace and free from the ravages of the modern world.


A visit to the rarely visited Tsari valley, southeast Tibet.


Footnote : I am very grateful to Anne Chambers, one of the most experienced members of our party, for her help with this article.


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