For most of us Tibet summons images of mystery, lofty mountains, monasteries on high perches and, of course, yaks. Tibet has been called the Rooftop of the World, just as Colorado could claim to be the “rooftop” of the Continental United States, although Tibet’s 4,500-meter mean elevation is more than double Colorado’s mere 2,000! For the last 10 years, touristic travel to Tibet has been restricted and at times brought to a standstill. I had little hope to ever have a chance to go there until Harry Jans (a passionate world traveler from the Netherlands with great savvy) invited me to join a group of 20 keen alpine gardeners on a botanical trek from Lijiang (in northernmost Yunnan) where we boarded a small bus that will bring us ultimately to Lhasa.
Although I’m in the last leg of the journey, I feel it safe to say that few of the trips I’ve been blessed to take have reached so many heights, both literally and figuratively. Most every day for more than two weeks now we have driven well above 4,000 meters (higher than the highest peaks in Colorado) and from the tops of many passes (some above 5,000 meters) we have climbed to 17,000 feet on occasion. It is astonishing that not one of a bus full of travelers seems to have experienced altitude sickness or other mishaps; but Harry has selected carefully, perhaps, picking seasoned travelers.
I have read many books by the early great explorers of this region, including Frank Kingdon Ward and Frank Smythe. They invariably describe a region of virtually non-existent roads, the most primitive accommodations and almost stone-age living conditions of peasantry. I can only imagine what they would think. The highways that we’ve sped along are smooth and beautifully maintained. The hotels we’ve stayed at, even in the most modest towns, are of a level of luxury that one rarely finds outside large cities in America – immense chandeliers, marble floors, walls, often beautifully and decoratively patterned. Spacious, comfortable rooms and bathrooms with gleaming fixtures you’d not likely find in many towns in America — or Europe for that matter.
The homes of the farmers in the countryside are likewise sturdy, often large and attractive with beautiful patterning of bricks and trim fields everywhere, typically within stone walls crowned with thick bundles of rose canes to discourage trespassing.
There is a fly in the ointment, perhaps. Or better put, a yak in the pasture. More accurately, thousands, likely millions of yaks that have mown the landscape down to the nubbins in many areas, leaving only the most toxic and unpalatable herbs to proliferate. Fortunately, these are some of the showiest wildflowers: primulas in many species forming vast throngs of yellow or red; giant rhubarbs of several kinds; the daphne cousin Stellera chamaejasme, forming domes of vivid yellow (in Yunnan) or pink and white (elsewhere). But once you venture far enough or high enough you find areas that are too far for yaks to venture from their nighttime corrals, and here a flora of breathtaking variety and beauty prevails.
Just as each “summit” across the Great Basin seems to have its own Penstemon, Phlox, Eriogonum or Astragalus, every “La” (Pass) in Tibet unfurls a tremendous variety of new Meconopsis (poppies), Primula or Androsace. I have already accumulated more than 3,000 images in my database, and we still have a pass or two before arriving in Lhasa!
The owner of the tour company who designed and managed this tour, Carolyn Gao, is designing a tour to Szechuan, China for Denver Botanic Gardens that is scheduled for June 2020. Look for an announcement of this tour in the Gardens’ member magazine, Inside the Gardens, and on our website in the coming months.