1993 Botanical Exploration in Southeastern Qinghai Province, People's Republic of China (funded by National Geographic Society grant 5043-93)

By: Bruce Bartholomew and Michael G. Gilbert

Qinghai is the fourth largest province in China with an area of about 720,000 sq. km which is slightly larger than the State of Texas. The larger Chinese provinces are Xinjiang with 1,600,000 sq. km, Xizang (Tibet) with 1,200,000 sq. km, and Nei Mongol (Inner Mongolia) with 1,100,000 sq. km. Qinghai is situated on the northeast side of the Qinghai-Xizang Plateau which is the most extensive high altitude region in the world, and much of the province is geographically, botanically, and culturally Tibetan. Qinghai borders Gansu and Xinjiang on the north, Sichuan and Xizang on the south, Gansu on the east, and Xinjiang and Xizang on the west.

It is estimated that Qinghai has about 3,000 species of vascular plants or approximately 10% of the species occurring in China within an area of about 7.5% of the land area of China. Except for the herbarium of the Northwest Plateau Institute of Biology in Xining, Qinghai is one of the least well represented parts of China in both Chinese and western herbaria.

It is with this paucity of collections in mind that in 1993 we undertook a Botanical Exploration in Southeastern Qinghai Province. Our project was to collect in the Anyêmaqên region and included three prefectures (Huangnan, Hainan, and Golog Zang autonomous prefecture). These Zang (Tibetan) prefectures are largely above 4000 m, and most of our collections were in alpine areas well above timberline.

The expedition started in Xining from the Northwest Institute of Biology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The two non-Chinese members of the expedition were Michael G. Gilbert, from the British Museum and Bruce Bartholomew from the California Academy of Sciences. The principal Chinese member of the expedition was Professor Ho Ting-nong a specialist in Gentianaceae and Professor of Botany in the Northwest Institute of Biology. Two additional professional botanists accompanied the expedition from the Institute including Professor Liu Shang-wu, Chairman of the Botany Department, and Peng Min, Research Associate at the Institute. They were of invaluable assistance with their detailed knowledge of the flora and geography of the area. Other members of the expedition included Lu Xue-feng (research associate), Liu Jian-quan (graduate student), Deng De-shan (research assistant), Li Wei-peng (driver), Ma Hong (driver), Song Lu-bang (driver), and Chen Xiao-cheng (cook). With a total party of twelve people we had two Toyota Land Cruisers to transport members of the expedition and some of the equipment plus a large 3-axled army type truck for equipment and provisions.

On July 19 we left Xining and took two days to drive south to Gyumgo which was our first base of operations. Although we were not set-up for collecting and drying specimens during these two days, we still stopped to collect when we saw anything interesting. Our first stop was at Laji Shan about 52 km from Xinan on the road to Guide. At 3940 m this was our first introduction to the alpine plants that we would be seeing and collecting for the next month. From here we dropped down to Garang which is in a rain shadow with bare eroded slopes that have a very desert like aspect. From here we continued to Guide on the S side of the Huang He (Yellow River) at an elevation of about 2500 m. This was our first encounter on the trip with the Huang He which we were to see later at 3100 m and again at 4000 m as the river descends from the Qinghai-Xizang Plateau in a series of enormous loops. From Guide we continued south and up onto the Qinghai-Xizang Plateau where we experienced our first extensive areas of alpine steppe in full bloom with Astragalus, Leontopodium, and Ligularia forming a carpet of pink, white, and yellow flowers. We then continued on to Guinan where we spent the night in a reception hotel maintained by the county government. The next morning, July 20, we left Guinan and continued to Gyumgo which was to be our first collecting base.

Gyumgo is a small town of perhaps a few hundred people situated along the Huang He near the Ra'gyanoinba monastery and at an elevation of about 3100 m. Here the Huang He makes an enormous gorge with about a thousand meters below the surrounding plateau. Like most small towns in rural China, Gyumgo has a reception hotel which in this case was a string of about ten cinder block rooms with no plumbing and intermittent electricity when the town's generator is running.

From Gyumgo we took day trips both north and south of Huang He to collecting plants, returning each night to get our plants on the drier and write up our collection notes. We collected plants for three days in the this region which was the lowest area of our collections (3100 to 3650 m) and was the only area with even sparse forests (Picea crassifolia). At higher elevations there were junipers and willows but these were more shrubs than trees. While staying at Gyumgo we collected more than 250 numbers. On our second day we made our first collection of Circeaster agrestis, a primitive plant either included in the Ranunculaceae or, along with Kingdonia, in the family Circeasteraceae. This family is of particular interest to plant systematics because of its primitive characters and is in the China Plant Red Data Book. Within our area C. agrestis proved to be fairly common once we focused in on the microhabitat where it occurs.

We next moved our base to the town of Maqên situated at about 4000 m at the edge of on a large plain of alpine meadows near the massive Anyêmaqên Mountain Range. From Maqên we were able to access alpine areas between about 3500 and 5000 m, and this was our base for ten days of collecting during which time we collected more than 550 numbers.

The Anyêmaqên Mountain Range forms a massive ridge the runs from Gansu Province NW into Qinghai Province and causes the Huang He to make a loop from Qinghai down to form that border of Sichuan Province and then through a corner of Gansu Province before the river reenters Qinghai Province. The range is sacred to Tibetan Buddhism and is truly one of the great mountain ranges in the world with Maqên Gangri reaching an elevation of 6282 m.

From Maqên we drove through Gadê to the town of Darlag where we set up our third base camp. We collected for here for seven days collecting over 400 numbers. This was again on the Huang He but now at slightly over 4000 m where the river no longer flows through a ravine but through a broad valley with flood plains.

From Darlag we started our trek back towards Xining looping to the west of the Anyêmaqên Range at Huashixia and northeast to Gonghe, stopping on the way for two days at Wenquan to collect. From Gonghe most of the party returned directly to Xining, but Michael Gilbert, Ho Ting-nong, and Bruce Bartholomew took a side excursion to collect along the south shore of Qinghai Hu (Koko Nor) which is an enormous saline lake west of Xining.

Between July 19, when we left Xining, and August 21, when we returned, we collected 1,554 numbers totaling about 11,800 specimens. These specimens will add to our understand of the flora of Qinghai Province and are available for botanists to study as work is undertaken on various treatments for the Flora of China.