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Mostly unedited entries from a journal I kept during the Hukaung Valley Rattan Survey (see Hukaung Valley Rattan Survey and HKV Rattan Survey.pdf). [NOTE: To read chronologically, start at the bottom with the January 04, 2005 post.]


January 19, 2005

Namyun Town Hall, 4:20 PM (N26˚59', E96˚10')

Something amazing happened today.  While we were in Tanai, the kitchen crew got plastic cups for everyone. They were all different.  Mine was white with flowers and a tight fitting lid for keeping your tea hot.  I wrote my name, the date, and the location on the bottom of the cup. In transit to Namyun we stopped at the camp at mile 18 for lunch.  After lunch we made tea, started talking to the locals about rattan, and then went outside to look at some plants.  On arrival to Namyun I looked in my pack and couldn't find my cup.  I had left it in the lady's house at mile 18. One of the crew graciously gave me their cup - hot pink with no lid. I was appreciative, but I missed my cup (I get attached to things...).

This morning, one of the cooks came up with a big smile on his face and gave me a blue plastic bag.  Inside was my cup.  The lady had noticed that the American had left his cup and she knew that we were headed to Namyun, so she gave it to the first motorcyclist that stopped on the way to Namyun with instructions to give it to the group with the Americans. I'll say it again. You gotta love these people...

We left walking up the road to Pansaung this morning with the idea to do some collecting and maybe do a transect if we found a nice piece of forest. The sky was very overcast, and the mountains were covered in clouds.  We had decided not to go all the way to Pansaung the night before because of the rain.  We knew that a truck ouldn't make it now, and we didn't feel that the flora wold be different enough to merit walking the 30 miles.  After walking for about 15 minutes, it started raining, and it rained on and off all day.  We ended up walking about 3 miles up the road, climbing 250 meters in elevation and collecting three palms, but the constant rain made everything a little tedious. We went back to Namyun about 3:30 PM, pressed the days collections, and hung up our wet stuff to dry. No bath today.

I think the plan for tomorrow is to pack up our stuff, load up the elephants, and head south to mile 21 to make a base camp. If the weather clears - and it looks like it will - we should be able to make some nice collections and do some transects because the forest is fantastic along this part of the road. I am very much looking forward to finally doing some camping.  Andrew just gave me the collecting total so far.  We've collected 15 rattans, 14 of them Calamus. This is about twice what we expected to find. There's probably still a couple of rare ones out there waiting to be collected. 


January 18, 2005

Namyun Town Hall, 9:50 PM (N26˚59', E96˚10')

Now we are really getting out there. A white, 4-wheel drive Toyota truck arrived to the Shimbweyeng Guest House promptly at 8:30 this morning to take our crew the 30 miles up the road to Namyun in Sagaing Division. The truck was a simple pick-up with side bars and had none of the seats in back like our previous rides. The crew loaded all of our stuff into a single layer in the back of the pick-up bed and put our personal bags on top of the cab. They then laid a thick piece of plastic over all of the bags, roped everything down good and tight, and we all piled in. Andrew up front in the passenger's seat by the driver and everybody else in back. It was pretty soft and cozy, at least for the first hour or so.

This part of the Ledo Road is esentially a two-track trail which is only passable because it hasn't rained for several weeks. There are inclines in places in excess of 45˚, narrow shoulders with steep cliffs, WWII vintage wooden bridges (see A Bridge Too Far), several river crossings, and lots of muds and bumps. Both sides of the road, for most of the six hour trip, are covered with beautiful, closed forest full of rattan. For six hours, we drove through the forest listening to the whoops of gibbons; we didn't pass one settlement. Two military camps, one at Mile 7 and the other at Mile 18, but essentially just endless stretches of forest.

A few culinary notes. This morning for breakfast the kitchen crew made a mustard leaf soup. Very tasty, but so spicy that I couldn't eat it. Hard to believe that they served it as a soup. It was so hot, it would seem more appropriate to put it in a small bottle to sprinkle sparingly on eggs or casseroles like Tabasco sauce.  We stopped for lunch at the military camp at Mile 18, and had a delicious pickled tea leaf and crunchy peanut dish in one of the four compartments of our Tupperware container.

We are currently stationed in a large wooden building with a corrugated roof and concrete floor that serves as the town hall. Everyone is sleeping on the floor. We got a brief rain shower after arriving to Namyun, but it seems to have stopped.  Andrew and I are going to walk down to the river to inspect the bathing facilities.

6:08 PM

The river looks extremely cold.  Namyun seems to be a very pleasant mountain village. There are several stores and a couple of coffee shops, and the houses are all built of wood and up on stilts. The dominant feature of the village, however, is the cloud covered, forest-laden mountain that looms in the background.



January 17, 2005

Shimbweyeng Guest House, 9:16 AM

Took a walk early this morning to the end of town to get some pictures of Shimbweyeng emerging from the morning fog.  All the village cows sleep in the middle of the street. I love the sights and sounds of a rural village waking up. The first morning fires, the sound of water splashing on faces, the slap of flip-flops on concrete floors, the lone putt-putt of a motor scooter. I got some nice photos.

During breakfast we talked with the Education officer from Namyun township about local rattans. Learned several interesting things. First, that we have arrived right in the middle of the rattan collecting season, and that we would pass several rattan collector camps on the road to Namyun.  Second, we were told that there were probably more species of rattans in the mountains than in Shimbweyeng, meaning that we still have a lot of new things to inventory and collect.  Finally, we learned that most of the merchantable rattans in the forests along the Ledo Road have already been harvested and that the populations are now regenerating. [NOTE: This is exactly what what our first transect seemed to indicate].

5:24 PM

We've had a marvelous afternoon. After breakfast, we learned that the 4-wheel drive truck had just left Tanai and that the elephants had not yet arrived, but would later in the day. We decided to spend another night in Shimbweyeng and get an early start to Namyun tomorrow. We had already done transects in this forest type, so we decided to walk further north on the road and see if we could do some collecting. The cooks prepared a lunch for us and we set out walking north about 10:30 AM.

We walked for about three miles  and then came upon a magnificent specimen of Plectocomia, a large cane rattan known as elephant cane or "sin kyein". It was growing on a very steep slope, but our assistants said "no problem" and they set out scrambling up the slope to fell the rattan and drag it back to the road. They cut the stem and pulled and pulled, but the enormous, spiny whips (cirri) were firmly attached to the neighboring trees. The cut several of the surrounding stems, but the rattan refused to budge. At this moment, what should we see lumbering down the road but Luemai and Aumbu, our two elephants (see A Bridge to Far and Bathing the Elephant), and their handlers. They quickly sized up the situation, hooked Aumbu up to the rattan, and he easily pulled the whole 20 m cane out of the forest and into the road where we could work on it. This may be the first rattan specimen ever collected by an elephant (see Hukaung Valley Rattan Survey for video documentation). The whole thing was additionally exciting  because Andrew said that he had seen this rattan in norther India, but couldn't collect it, and that it was an undescribed species. Aumbu may have collected a type specimen.

We then took a break for lunch and walked down to a beautiful river with sandy beaches and fern-covered banks. A family had made a temporary house near the river while the father was collecting Livingstonia leaves to sell for thatch.  It was a beautiful sunny day and the forest along the river was filled with huge trees. The river, the forest, the lunch, and the elephants made the whole interlude very, very special.

After lunch we were able to make two other collections, both of them new records for Myanmar. About 3:00 PM we loaded up our collecting sacks and started the long walk back to Shimbweyeng.

We seem to have fallen into a pattern after several days here.  We come back from the field, we take a freeezing splash bath, we press the day's collections while sipping a cup of tea or coffee, and then, with a hot plate of roasted peanuts from the kitchen crew, I start to work writing in this journal while Andrew review's the day's photographs. At about 7:00 PM we have dinner, and very shortly thereafter, head to bed.

The plan for tomorrow is to proceed to Namyun in the truck.  We have sent the elephants on ahead and we will use them on the way back from Namyun. The idea is to make two or three base camps between Namyun and Shimbweyeng, and to spend several days  at each site collecting and running transects.  I also pulled a leech off my  ankle today. I only noticed it after pouring a bucket of water on my leg during my bath and noticing the blood.


January 16, 2005

Shimbweyeng Guest House, 4:44 PM

Breakfast at 7:00 AM was white rice splashed with peanut oil and sprinkled with salt and that spicy hot tofu. We walked about 3 km north of Shimbweyeng past the mile 164 signpost and then cut into the forest. The slope was very steep, and some of our plots were on more than a 100% slope (i.e. 45°). Slow going, but the forest was beautiful. It had never been cut because of the slope, and there were many big trees and beautiful vistas.  There was a greater diversity of palms in the montane forest than in the lowlands, but only three species of rattan.  We managed to find a flat spot where we all sat down and had a picnic lunch (see Picnic at Transect 3). We finished 10 plots, or 2000 sq. meters, which I think we will start using as a standard sample size in all of the rest of the sites. The crew is getting much faster, and even with the steep slope we managed to do the ten plots in about 1.5 hours.

We made it back to the guest house about 3:30 PM, and Andrew and I both ran to bathe before the sun went any lower and it got any colder.  We then pressed the three collections we had made and made bundles of the other specimens that were in the press and doused them with 70% alcohol and wrapped them up in a thick garbage bag.  With this treatment, they should keep fine until we get back to Yangon.  We have already colected five duplicates of 15 different rattans, and it is clear that we will have to build a plant drier first thing on arrival to Yangon if we want to get everything dry in time to take back to the US.

The elphants have yet to arrive to carry our stuff on the next leg of the trip toward Namyun. Myint Maung says that maybe they will arrive today. No one is very worried.  The weather has been so dry that we could probably get pretty far up the road with the 4-wheel drive trucks.

Shimbweyeng Coffee Shop,7:00 PM

Spent a nice evening watching the first half of the Tiger Cup soccer final between Singapore and Indonesia. I thing most of the village was crowded into the coffee shop, all sitting hunkered over in their woolen hats and puffy coats.  Lots of kids, too, crowding around on the floor in front of the TV. Singapore is ahead 2-0 at the half. I'm pulling for Indonesia.

Myint Maung has gone to see about the elephants.  He was going to call Tanai, where the elephants were coming from, and then talk to the truck drivers to see if they had seen any elephants on the road heading this way.  If they did, he said, they would be ours. Not too many elephants on the road, I guess. [NOTE: Indonesia lost 2-1 and the elphants left Tanai the day after we did.]


January 15, 2005

Shimbweyeng Guest House, 4:48 PM

Today was a bit different. After a breakfast of white rice, dried fish and onion salad, and roasted peanuts, the film crew from Myanmar Channel 3 did an interview with Andrew and I. They filmed us ouside with the mountains in the background, and asked questions like "What is the objective of your research in the Hukaung Valley?", "Are there many endemic rattan species here?", and "What condition are the wild rattan populations in?". Surprisingly intelligent questions for a TV interview. After the interview, we spotted a tall C. palustris with fruits which we proceeded to yank down out of the tree and hack up into specimens - with the cameras rolling all the while. They were pleased to get the footage.

The real reason why the film crew was in Shimbweyeng was to film the Naga festival (see Naga Festival) this morning. We postponed going to the filed to do transects until the afternoon so we could watch the spectacle. The Nagas came marching down the main street of Shimbweyeng in their ceremonial dress. The men had tall hats festooned with boar's tusks and spears. The women had lovely woven garments, head scarves, and layers and layers of necklaces and bracelets. They were also waving bouguets of orange and red flowers and beating on circular brass gongs. The leader, an older man, was chanting and singing through a bullhorn to accompany the gong music. It was actually very tonal and beautiful. The music, the chanting, the jingling jewelry, the indigenous clothing, and those smiles made the whole event sensational. All played out with the foothills of the Himalayas in the background.

After lunch we packed up our fieldgear and returned to the transect to continue taking plots. Andrew first did a brief refresher couse on how to identify the local rattans, and then he went off with one of the field assistants to collect C. flagellum, a very spiny, large cane rattan that we had discovered with fruits. I stayed with the rest of the crew and continued working on the plots. Saw Lwin and the botanists from Mandalay and Yangon did the searching and calling out rattans, I tallied, and Myint Maung and Tun Shuang ran the line and laid out the plots. Myint Maung was great with the compass and the transect was as straight as an arrow. We called it a day after completing seven plots.

One the way back to Shimbweyeng, we encountered a group of young boys who were out hunting birds with their slingshots. With prodding, one of the boys opened his pack and pulled out three small, very brightly colored birds. They were emerald green and yellow with a tiny curved beak. [NOTE: Rob Tizard tells me there are two streaked spiderhunters and one orange-bellied leafbird (thx Rob)]. Amazing that you could even hit one of these with a slingshot. The boys were somewhat intrigued by Andrew and I and they tagged along behind us all the way back to town.

I took a freezing cold bath, shaved and washed my hair, and now I am taking advantage of the electricity from the generator to charge camera batteries. We have invited the reporters and field crew to dinner, so I have put on my clean flannel shirt for the occasion. Tomorrow we will hike northward on the road to Namyun to see if we can enter a new habitat at a higher elevation and do some more transects and collecting. Day after tomorrow we will probably head out to the camp at kilometer 8 on the way to Namyun. I'll get to try out my tent.

8:07 PM

The cooking staff prepared a wonderful, candlelight dinner on cloth-covered tables outside for our guests. Beef curry, cauliflower, and spicy hot tofu with white rice. A few of those huge tangerines that we got in Tanai for dessert. Nice conversations. Very pleasant.