谌谟美 — Mo-Mei Chen

Stories of Mo-Mei Chen's Scientific Expeditions in Tibet in the 1970s
By Wendy Helms and Mo-Mei Chen

In 1966 my husband and I were living in Ho He Hao Te, the capital city of Inner Mongolia.  We were both employed in teaching and research in the Department of Forestry at the University of Inner Mongolia.  In the spring of 1966 the University sent me, with a group of other teachers, to Chifeng in Liao Ning Province, to work on producing a teaching textbook on management of forest nurseries.  At that time we began to hear more about the Cultural Revolution that was sweeping China, just like a proverb “The whole town is swept by wind and rain”.  It seemed to be some sort of power struggle that was happening far away and we did not think that it would have much effect on our lives.  However, in May, our team had a telegram from the University Chancellor ordering any faculty members and students who were out in the field to return, as soon as possible, to campus to join the revolutionary movement. We returned immediately to Ho He Hao Te, full of fear and trepidation.  We did not know what was going to happen and we felt like “birds startled by the mere twang of a bow string”.

We were required to attend endless political meetings and meaningless debates, and much valuable time was wasted in group studies of Mao's Little Red Book.  Open criticism was not permitted so it was necessary to find covert ways of resisting the suppression of intellectual activity.  For example, I owned two copies of the Little Red Book, both of them being identical in appearance to the official Chinese edition; however, one was an English translation and the other was a Russian edition so that, in those tedious study groups, I was at least able to work on improving my language skills.  I did not like politics.  I was criticized for avoiding politics and blamed for my "bad" family background.  The fact that my father was a professor and was in Taiwan was held against me as was the lack of workers, farmers and soldiers in my family, with the exception of one of my great-grandfathers who had been a carpenter.  How ironic it was that my family's intellectual achievements, which had been such a source of pride, were now regarded as shameful! It seemed to me so unfair and irrational to blame people for their family history.  I hated being criticized and I resented the invasion of my privacy, attracting further criticism for my "resistance" and "bad attitude. 

There are many sad memories of that time. For two years our lives were turned upside down, though on the whole we suffered less and for a shorter time than many people in other parts of China.  My husband and I had three strategies for survival during that chaotic time: we tried to keep quiet and avoid politics as much as possible, we immersed ourselves in study, research and writing and we sought to strengthen our own family support system.  By 1969 the worst was over for us, we were allowed to resume our teaching duties and life became relatively “normal” again.

Since then I, my husband professor Ang-He Zhang, my six-year-old daughter Lily, with my pregnant May, we suffer so many Red Guards’ humiliations, many devoid of gratitude stories, fortunately, in 1968 summer I get permitted to join return classroom group of teachers and students, it's proverb: "Said of people who fall into the same group because they are of a mind (as educator).  Since then my best wishes for myself are "as a escape from politics movement!"

It was in 1972, while I was visiting my father in Beijing Normal University that I heard a radio program describing one of the Chinese Academy of Sciences' research expeditions to the upper reaches of the Yangtze River, which had its source in the high plateau of Tibet.  I had previously imagined Tibet to be nothing but a remote, unpopulated, undeveloped area, cold, wild, and empty, and so I was amazed to hear of its great scenic beauty and rich diversity of plant and animal life.  That radio program stimulated my imagination so much that I felt a great desire to see Tibet for myself, although I could not imagine how I might find a way to travel there.  However, when I spoke to my father about the radio program and my desire to see Tibet, he was surprisingly encouraging.  "If you want to go so much, then dream yourself there," he said, and it was not long before my dream came true.

In 1972/73, the Natural Resource Commission of the Chinese Academy ofSciences proposed an ambitious scientific survey of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau.  Ten small research teams had done some preliminary studies in Tibet the 1950s and 1960s, but this new survey was designed to involve 400 scientists, representing 30 different disciplines, in an intensive, systematic investigation of the physical geography and ecology of that unique area.  Plate tectonic theory, first proposed in the 1920s and proven in the 1960s, had given a new understanding of the way in which the subduction of the Indian-Australian Plate under the Eurasian Plate had caused the gradual up-thrusting of the Himalayan mountains over a period of 60 million years, creating the Tibetan Plateau.  During World War II, Premier Zhou En Lai had first proposed an expedition to the area to study the ecological effects of the raising of the Himalayas and the ways in which human life in the region had adapted.  By the 1970s, China had additional strong incentives for arranging a geo-physical survey to assess the natural resources of Tibet, especially with regard to minerals and energy in the form of oil or hydro-electric potential which was badly needed to reduce China's dependency on coal and natural gas.  Plans for the survey of the Tibetan Plateau were spearheaded by Mr. Sun Hong Lie, Director of the Natural Resource Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.  Mr. Sun came from an adventurous family.  His father was a geologist who had made an expedition, on camel-back, to the deserts of Western China to look for oil in the 1920s, a successful venture commemorated by a statue of him in Yumeng Park, Gansu Province.

I was excited when I first heard about the Tibetan Plateau project in 1974.  I was in Peking at the time, spending a sorrowful Chinese New Year with my family following the recent death of my mother.  We happened to hear an evening radio program about "The Yangtze River of Southern Tibet," reporting on a research expedition to that area which had involved 200 scientists.  I was immediately captivated by the story and decided to apply for a position on a research team, though I feared that both my sex and my age (I was then 43) would count against me.  Indeed, Mr. Sun was at first unwilling to recruit women scientists for the Tibetan project in the belief that primitive field conditions at high elevations would be too harsh for "delicate females;" however, after talking with one of my microbiology classmates and learning of my extensive experience doing field work in remote areas, my good spirit, and capacity for hard work under difficult conditions, Mr. Wu finally offered me a position as both a researcher and a collector.  I was proud to be one of only four women among 400 scientists, and I had full confidence in my own abilities, remembering my past success as a researcher and expedition team leader in virgin forests of the Great Xiang An Mountains and the Heng Duan Mountains.

In addition to my desire to see Tibet, further my professional career, and escape the Cultural Revolution, I had another reason for wanting to get away to the wilderness.  My mother's death in January 1974 was not unexpected after her two-year battle with cancer of the stomach and uterus; however, I was deeply upset by her loss, which caused me to contemplate the sadness of her life.  My mother had been an old-style woman, her life constricted in the way suggested by the ancient Chinese ideogram symbolizing "female" (nu) with a slanting line meaning "leaning" or "dependent" above two crossed lines suggesting "bound up."  By contrast, the Chinese character for "male" (nan) uses a rectangle divided into four, to symbolize "field," above strong, upright lines denoting "energy."  These ideograms, which originated in feudalistic times, have perpetuated in Chinese society over the centuries a deep-seated assumption that females are inferior to males and necessarily dependent on them, though during my mother's lifetime, considerable progress had been made, at least on paper, towards equality.  Article 53 of China's constitution stated that "Women enjoy equal rights with men in all spheres of political, economic, cultural, social, and family life, Men and women enjoy equal pay for equal work.."

My mother shared little in common with my father who had, in any case, spent much of their married life living and working in cities far removed from the family.  Like countless millions of women in China, my mother had devoted her life to ensuring the survival of her children through years of poverty, starvation, sickness, and danger, especially during the Japanese invasion.  Yet, despite all the distress and upheaval in her life, she had managed to pass on to me, her daughter, a sense of hope and confidence, which I felt that I must work hard to justify.  The expedition to Tibet became an opportunity for me to affirm my mother's hopes for improvement in the status of women in China.  Years later, when I received from the Chinese Academy of Sciences a special award in honor of my distinguished participation in the Tibetan project, I felt like dedicating that award to my mother.


Preparation for the Expedition to Tibet

Early in 1975, after a preparatory meeting in Peking, I went to Changdu to attend a two-week training session for scientists participating in the Tibetan expedition.  Then we were sent for further orientation to the city of Xi Ming, at an altitude of 2,500 meters, both in order to get accustomed to high elevation and to learn about the geology, geography, flora, and fauna of the areas we were to survey.  The information we received excited my imagination and made me eager to see for myself the natural wonders Tibet of the Quinghai

Because photographs of Tibet often focus on dramatic mountain panoramas of areas above 12,000 feet where climatic conditions are harsh, Tibet is often thought to be an arid land where agriculture is limited and vegetation sparse.  In fact, the pleasant North Temperate zonal climate below 12,000 feet, combined with a high level of ultraviolet radiation, has provided ideal conditions for plant growth and high seed production, contributing, over the ages, to the evolution of an unusual abundance and diversity of plant life.  To date, botanists have identified, in Tibet, 5,766 species of plants representing 2,008 families and 1,258 genera.  Of the 5,766 species, 43% are specific to Tibet and occur naturally nowhere else in the world, a result of the unique and relatively recent geological history of the Tibetan Plateau.  Another 37% of plant species found in Tibet are also common in East Asia, but some, like the 245 species of Tibetan rhododendron, can be identified as migrants from the ancient Mediterranean where they first evolved.  The Ericaceae family, to which the rhododendron belong, is one of the five dominant families of Tibetan flora, the others families being Leguminosae, Rosaceae, Gaminaceae, and the highly evolved Compositae.

Over 1,300 of the plant species found in Tibet are tall shrubs and trees among which are many rapid-growing conifers of great economic value.  Some of the conifers such as Yunnan pine, alpine pine, armand pine, west Sichuan spruce and yellow-cone Likiang spruce( Picea linzhiensis ( Cheng et L. K. ) Cheng et. K. Fu.) are also found in other provinces of China, but there are 15 species of conifer which are found only in Tibet.  The most common of these native conifers are the Himalayan pine, long-leaf pine, long-leaf spruce, Himalayan fir, Himalayan larch and Himalayan cypress.  Most of these species are found in the Tibet Forest Zone where magnificent virgin forests occur in southeastern Tibet, in the mountains of the southern Hengduan Range and the warm, wet, lower valleys of the Yarlung Zangbo River.  In the lowest elevations of the Plateau such as the area around Yadong, subtropical evergreen forests are found with many species of valuable broadleaf hardwood trees and a richly varied understory that includes a great variety of fungi.

As a plant pathologist specializing in pathogens which affect the health of forest trees, and as a mycologist with a passion for mushrooms of every sort, it was very exciting for me to know that I was about to have the opportunity to enter areas that had never before been surveyed by modern scientists.  I was especially thrilled by the very real possibility that I might discover a new species that would be named in my honor.  This was a long-standing dream of mine, to discover a new species and join the ranks of those pioneer scientists and teachers who had been my professional mentors, those who had inspired me and passed on the knowledge and expertise that would enable me to follow in their footsteps. 

It was in the mid-18th century that China was first introduced to international systems of organizing biological data.  A French scientist, P.M. Cibot, traveled to China in 1759, later publishing papers on new species that he had found there and encouraging Chinese students to study overseas.

It is no small thing to identify a new species.  The process is not one of creation or invention.  The investigator needs to have a deep base of knowledge and experience and sufficient familiarity with a certain genus and the numbers of species in that genus to be able to recognize when key characteristics of a particular specimen do not fit within the recorded parameters of the genus.  After nearly 20 years of fieldwork — in the course of which I had collected and identified large numbers of fungus specimens — I felt that I was ready to meet this challenge and I could hardly wait to set out on my first expedition to the Tibetan Plateau.


Expedition to the Tibetan Plateau (1975)

At last, in May 1975, when we were considered to be adequately prepared, we returned to Changdu and boarded a plane for Lhasa.  Everybody was nervous as we approached Lhasa airport because there were steep mountain ranges on either side and we could see no place to land.  We all breathed a sigh of relief when our plane was safely on the ground, but there was more discomfort ahead.  The airport was 90 km from the city, a bumpy three-hour journey by truck, and by the time we arrived in Lhasa many of our group were already experiencing headaches and nausea in reaction to the 3,380 meter elevation.  I was less affected than most because of my extensive experience working in mountain areas and I was one of the few who had an appetite for the good dinner, which has been prepared for us.  We were lodged in a military hostel, which also housed mountaineers on their way to attempt the ascent of Qomolangma (Mt.  Everest) since there were, at that time, no other accommodations in the city. 

It happened that among our fellow residents were members of a Chinese climbing expedition returning from Everest, including a Tibetan woman, Pan Do, who had recently become the first Asian woman to reach the top of the highest mountain on Earth.  Our group had followed the exploits of this team through tuning in to daily radio reports and we were full of admiration for their success and thrilled to meet them in person.  Pan Do was a great inspiration to me.  At 37, she was a good deal older than the other members of the team and yet she had succeeded where younger men had failed because both her body and her mind were strong.  During one of our many talks, I told Pan Do, "I am proud of you and your accomplishment.  I am only on your foothill."  And she surprised me by saying "And I am also proud of you for being among the first scientists to come and study my homeland of Tibet."  After hearing about the courageous way in which she successfully overcame many difficulties and tolerated the effects of elevations more than twice that of Lhasa, I felt challenged to live up to her high standard and determined to make the most of less the opportunities ahead.
Walking around Lhasa, I found the ancient streets to be bare, drab, windy and full of bad smells although these were easily forgotten with the magnificent sight of the Potala, the greatest of all the Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, dominating the landscape.  I liked the city very much, especially at night when the combination of high elevation and clear atmosphere made the moon and stars seem very close and bright against an unusually black background.  The high, clear air exposes the Tibetan Plateau to intense levels of ultra-violet radiation and causes a high incidence of skin cancer in the local population but is also responsible for Lhasa being called "Sunshine City." Vegetation around the city was rather limited and apart from patches of willow and poplar trees just coming into spring leaf, there were only a few stunted cypress trees to be seen.  During our orientation meetings in Chengdu we had been told that there existed, in Lhasa, a 500-year-old cypress tree which had been planted by Wen Chang, a Chinese Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) princess from Xian who had been married to the King of Tibet.  We were told that this marriage forged the original union between China and Tibet, which was considered partial justification for China's action in forcibly reestablishing that union in 1951.  Our instructors had impressed upon us the importance of respecting local customs.

We spent 10 days in Lhasa organizing the supplies and transportation necessary for 40 teams of investigators to spend the next four months in the field.  The Chinese military had provided us with cooking equipment and military food rations, salt, oil, rice, flour, noodles, dried seaweed, candy, chocolate and a variety of canned goods.  Our camping gear consisted of heavy canvas army tents and U.S.-made down sleeping bags which the Natural Resource Commission had somehow obtainedas surplus equipment after the Korean War.  Instead of a mattress or cot, each person was provided with a deerskin to use as a sleeping pad, an ancient practice that gave excellent protection against dampness.  Personal equipment had to be chosen carefully, keeping in mind the fact that vehicles were restricted to the limited, primitive road system, and we would have to carry on our backs whatever was needed in field camps.  For me, in addition to personal clothing, essentials included my precious microscope with slide preparation materials, key reference books and a hand lens so that I could identify specimens in the field, a plant press and a metal vasculum, a special container in which to preserve collected specimens.
I had been assigned to a forestry group as one of five scientists with six assistants (young Tibetans, recruited locally, to provide labor and act as interpreters) and two drivers for the truck and jeep which provided our transportation.  When everything was finally packed and it was time to leave Lhasa, I climbed into the front of the truck together with a young woman scientist from Sichuan Forest College, while our team leader, Mr. Li Wen Hua and Mr. Han Yu-Fang, both foresters, and mycologist Mr. Zong Yu-Cheng rode in the back of the truck, perched uncomfortably on supply boxes.  The rest of the party traveled in the jeep.  Unfortunately, our truck driver was not pleasant or cooperative.  Mr. Gehad retired from the People's Liberation Army and, true to the teachings of the Cultural Revolution, he regarded intellectuals as parasites, vastly inferior to soldiers and workers.  He was unable to understand the reason for our need to travel around on the Tibetan Plateau and, because he resented having to drive for us, he treated us with angry contempt, which somewhat dampened the spirits of our group until we learned to ignore his ill humor.
That first day we took the main road south from Lhasa, crossing the Yarlung Zangbo, the highest river in the world, to camp at Yamzho Yumco Lake at an elevation of 4,200 meters.  I was very impressed by this many-armed body of water, covering over 600 square kilometers, which was a beautiful, deep turquoise blue, serenely reflecting the sky.  The lake edge near our rather barren campsite was so crowded with a type of small catfish that it was possible to scoop out five or six at a time with a bowl.  Those fish would probably have made a delicious dinner but we threw them all back into the lake for we were afraid to eat them.  We knew of the ancient Tibetan custom of "sky burial," which involved leaving dead bodies at exposed sites to be eaten by vultures.  Those birds, flying over the lake, may have dropped carrion into the water.  How were we to know that the fish had not fed on human flesh?  We were not willing to take the chance, so we made do with a meal of half-cooked rice.
That first evening in camp we discovered that our normal method of cooking was going to be a problem.  At that high elevation, the low boiling temperature of water meant that, even with the aid of a pressure cooker, rice took a very long time to cook.  Our Tibetan assistants suggested that it would be better for us to eat the traditional local staple food, which they called tsampa (zhang ba, in Chinese).  This was a mixture of roasted barley flour and bean flour which would be placed in a small pottery bowl then moistened with tea and kneaded into a dough which was more tasty and nutritious than rice and easier to prepare.  We soon decided that we needed to carry the supplies for making tsampa, and we also learned the interesting traditional Tibetan method of making tea, which we called shu yu cha.  While water was heated in a big pot over a fire fueled with yak dung, a portion of tea (broken from a compressed "brick" which was the usual way of packaging dried tea leaves), salt, and yak butter were placed in a long tube made of larch wood.  Hot water was poured into the tube, and it was closed by a plug through which a wooden plunger was used to agitate the mixture.  The liquid was poured back into the kettle to re-heat then returned to the wooden tube to be stirred again, and when it was ready, the first of the tea was used to moisten the waiting zhang ba flour before the rest was served to be sipped out of small bowls.  We also learned that travelling Tibetans often carried potatoes in their clothing.  They would throw these into a camp fire to roast, often accompanied by hot green peppers, and with zhang ba and shu yu cha, this made an easy, economical and nutritious meal.  However, zhang ba is an acquired taste and most of us in the forestry group preferred to eat our familiar Chinese rations even though they were more time-consuming to prepare.
We continued southwards on the second day of our expedition following a road that climbed even higher into the mountains and traversed two 5,000-meter passes.  I will never forget a most unusual plant we found growing at that great elevation.  It was the snow lotus (Saussurea), one of many alpine plants which have evolved effective protection against extreme cold and strong solar radiation.  The stems and leaves are covered with soft, fine hairy fibers which mat together to form insulating chambers preventing rapid evaporation and enabling the plant to produce a huge, creamy lotus-like flower which is amazing to see in such an environment.  Our appreciation of the magnificent scenery was somewhat spoilt by concerns about altitude sickness, intense cold, and the glare of reflected sunlight.  Many members of our group were suffering from severe headaches, and so it was a relief when the road descended again onto a grassland plateau as we headed towards Pali (Phari, in Tibetan) where we planned to camp for two days.
The vegetation of the alpine plateau was severely limited by harsh climate and poor soils, but the grassland provided food for wild yak, which could be seen grazing among patches of snow.  We were able to smell the wild, pungent odor of the yak as we drove past them.  There were a few herbaceous plants — such as sagebrush and wild chrysanthemum — but there were no trees other than occasional stunted alpine birch and some small, contorted sabina cypress.  The absence of trees and shrubs posed a problem for the women when we needed to take a bathroom break on the roadside.  The young Tibetan girl assistants were especially modest and shy, so I improvised a screen for them by using a large umbrella to protect their privacy.
Because the high plateau region was sparsely populated and we seldom saw signs of habitation, we were very interested to come upon a woman walking down the road with three children.  When we stopped and spoke with her through an interpreter, she told us that she was 29 years old and lived close by with her husband who raised yaks and sheep.  Her husband was not at home, she said, because he was making a two-day trip, on horseback, to Pali to see a movie!  The woman invited us to visit her nearby house.  It was built of wood but had no windows and so it was dark inside and smelled very strongly of yak, which was not surprising when we noticed that there were two yak calves sharing the living quarters.  A large bed was spread with a huge fur rug on which nestled twin baby girls.  I was amazed that the young woman was able to raise five children in such primitive conditions, but she looked healthy and happy, her skin was smooth and shiny and she wore silver jewelry with her bulky traditional clothing.  She wanted to make tea for us but unfortunately we did not have time to stay longer.  We gave the older children candy when we left.  They had never seen candy before.
The village of Pali at an elevation of 4,360 meters is one of the highest communities in the world and its Tibetan name, Phari, means "Pig Hill", referring to a nearby mountain resembling a pig.  The village lies on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau on a road which, only 14 km further on, plunges abruptly into the gorge-like Chumbi valley and descends 1,600 meters down to the town of Yadong overlooking the border between Tibet and India.  We stayed only two days in Pali because we were anxious to proceed down to the lower elevations in order to survey the rich sub-tropical forests of the Chumbi valley.  However, it was in the area around Pali that I was delighted to be able to collect a rare and unusual fungus called Cordyceps sinensis.  As the common name "winter worm, summer fungus" suggests, the fungal spore becomes attached to a caterpillar host in winter and feeds on it as a parasite until the caterpillar dies and becomes filled with fungal tissue until it is essentially transformed into a fungus by summer.  "Winter worm, summer fungus" had long been valued in China as a folk medicine known to be particularly effective in relieving symptoms of menopause.  In 1975, dried cordyceps could be purchased in the local Pali markets for the equivalent of one cent a piece, but now, 20 years later, the price has suddenly escalated to $600 per pound, largely on account of publicity given to the fact that a Chinese woman athlete who won a gold medal at the 1996 Olympic Games was said to have used Cordyceps sinensis as part of her training diet.  Unfortunately, intense interest in this rare species, which grows only in a small region of Tibet, has threatened its existence and unless it can be grown artificially, Cordyceps sinensis may become extinct.  However, there are about 100 other similar species of Cordyceps in other parts of the world which may also prove to have medicinal value.
During the next few weeks, we worked in areas that were especially rich in fungus species, which afforded me a number of interesting experiences.  On the way from Pali to Yadong, we came across a group of students from the Tibetan/Chinese Traditional Medical College in Lhasa.  They were on a field trip to collect medicinal herbs and when they learned that I was a mycologist, they told me about a great crop of ling zhi mushrooms they had discovered the previous day, growing on some dead plum trees near a distant village.  Ling zhi have long been highly prized for their medicinal qualities and the group wanted me to go and inspect the site so that I could identify the species for their professor, for there are numerous species in the Ganoderma genus to which ling zhi belongs.  In fact, a learned Chinese monograph was written more than a thousand years ago describing the many different-colored varieties of ling zhi and the particular ecological location of each variety.  When I decided that I wanted to see the site for myself, the students provided me with a detailed map and the following day the jeep driver took me and an assistant 250 km to the place that had been described.  I was very excited to see such a treasure trove of Ganoderma.  I collected more than 250 specimens and eagerly looked forward to making a microscopic examination in order to discriminate between closely related species.  There were no storage boxes, so when we returned to the camp I carefully wrapped my precious specimens in my bed clothes and left them in my tent.  It happened that a group of 20 paleontologists had arrived at our camp that day and I remember that they had shot some wild pigeons to eat for dinner and we all enjoyed a social evening.  Unfortunately, my assistant told many people about our collecting expedition and the next day, when I was out in the field, somebody searched my tent and took every single one of the Ganoderma samples.  I don't often cry, but I cried when I found that my ling zhi were gone.  I felt very sad and angry to have lost so many important research specimens for I knew that there would be no chance to go back and collect more.
A few weeks later, when we were working out of Yadong, I was able to collect specimens of other fungi with important medicinal qualities, which somewhat compensated for my disappointment over the loss of the Ganoderma.  One day I found some honey mushrooms (Armillaria mellea) growing on a decayed hardwood log.  I knew, from my studies, that there was a kind of tuber (Gastrodia elata ), called tian ma, which was symbiotic with the honey mushroom and was highly valued for its medicinal effectiveness in treating epileptic seizures.  I had never seen Gastrodia before but finding the honey mushrooms (which made a delicious addition to our diet) led me to discover quantities of the precious tuber growing on the Armillaria mycelium hidden deep within the rotting wood.  On my day off, I showed my friends where to find the Gastrodia, and they each enthusiastically gathered as much as five pounds of tubers, which were worth a lot of money, to be dried and carried home as gifts.  The tubers were treasured in Tibet where epilepsy was a common medical problem along with other disorders associated with genetic deterioration caused by intermarriage.  Traveling through the countryside we frequently saw local people who appeared to be mentally disabled, which made me very sad.
Another example of a fungus with significant medicinal value was the cloud mushroom (Polystictus versicolor), often used for the treatment of stomach cancer.  Numerous samples of this very beautiful, many-colored, saprophytic mushroom were found in the Yadong area growing on oak trees, which were decaying because of infestation with this fungus.  I gathered large quantities of cloud mushrooms for two reasons.  By removing the fruiting bodies and preventing distribution of spores, I hoped to control the spread of oak rot; and, in addition, I planned to send many samples to Peking Chinese Medical Hospital for further research into their unique chemistry.
The town of Yadong (elevation 2,865m) lies at the junction of three rivers — the Tangka, flowing from the northwest, the Khangphu from the north, and the Amo from the northeast.  It is the main center of commerce for the rich, sub-tropical Chumbi valley where barley, buckwheat, wheat and potatoes are grown.  We stayed in Yadong for three weeks, lodging in the town where we could use local facilities and create a base from which to make trips into the field.  There was a large military presence in Yadong since the border between China and India lay nearby.  We provided something of a diversion for the isolated soldiers who were curious about our work and anxious to socialize.  The local Tibetan people were also friendly and eager to be of assistance.  In fact, we appreciated their agility and ingenuity in helping us to collect specimens from steep and difficult terrain.  They told us "if you want the moon, we can get it for you" and we jokingly suggested that they must have learned their nimbleness from the monkeys which were very common in that area.  Although monkeys were abundant, they were not eaten by locals, since the meat was considered unclean.  However, one day, some local farmers sent us a gift of fresh meat which they said was "lamb." It happened that we had heard gun shots in the forest the previous evening and that same afternoon, Au te gen and I had noticed, on a local dock, a number of monkey paws laid out in the sun to dry.  We all knew that the nearest sheep were far away, and so it was not hard to guess what kind of meat the "lamb" was and many of our group declared themselves too tired to eat that night.
In the month of June, the weather in Yadong was warm and very wet with rain falling two or three times a day.  Out in the forest, we were never dry and we were plagued by leeches which were impossible to keep off our bodies.  Even though we bound our legs tightly with puttees made from strips of cotton, by the end of the day the fabric would be soaked with blood.  However, the constant warm moisture made the vegetation brilliantly green and created ideal conditions for the growth of mushrooms which I was delighted to find in great variety and profusion.  With my assistant I could fill a large bamboo basket in one hour, some of the fungi being carefully wrapped as scientific specimens, others being collected for food, for there were many varieties that I recognized as being edible. 
I frequently gathered Boletus adulis, the delicious white beef liver mushroom, also called porcini, the pineapple mushroom (Boletus ananas), the monkeyhead (Hydnum erinacaus) and the tiger bark mushroom (Boletus spp.) all of which I knew to be perfectly safe to eat.  I was very surprised when local people expressed concern about our consumption of mushrooms and warned us that they may be dangerous.  They seldom ate mushrooms, we were told, and one old man I talked to explained that, in the Yadong area, certain parts of even the well-known, delicious varieties may be toxic, for example the cap may be safe to eat but not the stem, or the mushroom may be poisonous when eaten in combination with other foods.  This information was new to me and I found it hard to believe, especially since we had already eaten many mushrooms without adverse effect.  However, one morning when 12 soldiers had joined our forestry group for breakfast, we ate a soup made with tiger bark mushrooms and a kind of lettuce which had a milky sap in the leaf stems, a combination which turned out to be disastrous.  Within four hours, 18 of the 26 people, including myself, had to be taken to the local military hospital emergency room, vomiting blood and suffering from severe diarrhea.  Interestingly enough, a few of the Tibetan people in our group were not ill, even though they had eaten the soup.  We were treated with an emetic of powdered charcoal and most of us took a whole week to recover our strength, so that our stay in Yadong turned out to be longer than planned.

The three-toed hipparion

More than half of the scientists involved in the Tibetan Plateau expedition were experts in geology and related disciplines.  Specialists in geophysics studied the physical properties of earth, seismologists measured earth movements, geochemists sampled earth's chemical makeup, mineralogists surveyed mineral resources, geomorphologists studied landforms, hydrologists looked at surface and sub-surface waters and paleontologists searched for fossilized plant and animal remains.  The latter were an especially important group including representatives of the Paleoanthropology Institute which formed a prestigious part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Peking.  The discovery of Peking Man (Sinanthropus pekinensis) at Choukoutien in 1927 had spurred interest in the study of the evolution of human beings and other vertebrates in Asia, and there was excitement at the prospect that the Tibetan Plateau might be rich in fossils of dinosours and ancestors of modern mammals.  Small expeditions had been made in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s headed by young paleantologists who later became leaders in their field.  It was unfortunate that, by 1975, these highly experienced, senior specialists were too old to join the grueling Tibetan Plateau expedition and so the paleontology teams were made up of newly graduated young people, full of enthusiasm but unskilled in field work techniques. 
At a research site on the northern part of the Tibetan plateau, it happened that our forestry group was camping with one of the geology teams close to a small village which supplied us with manual labor needed for such tasks as felling trees, digging soil pits and excavating fossils.  The village was at an elevation of 4,300 meters and after out two teams had breakfasted together on zhang ba and shu yu cha, the geologists would head uphill to their research site at 4,600 meters while our forestry group descended to 3,800 meters where spruce trees grew.  One day, the geologists invited us to go with them to see their current excavation of the fossilized skeleton of a three-toed hipparion, an extinct mammal common in the Miocene and Pliocene epochs, which was once thought to be a direct ancestor of the modern horse but is now considered only a related genus.  As I stood in that wild mountain site looking at the remains of an animal that had died more than 10 million years ago, I felt overwhelmed by the thought that it had lived in a period when the Himalayan mountains were young and the high plateau where I was standing had not yet been formed.  It was amazing to think that those fossilized remains had slowly risen thousands of meters as the rocks in which they were embedded were thrust upwards by the inexorable mountain-building forces of tectonic plate subduction. 
We watched the inexperienced junior paleontologists who were conducting the excavation with only the most primitive of tools.  They were using geologists' hammers to free the fossils from surrounding rock and, even as we watched, one young man made a careless blow with his hammer and broke a fossilized tooth.  Since teeth are considered to be of primary importance in identifying species, the young scientist was severely criticized.  Other members of the team berated him, and there was much angry shouting.  "Don't use your hammer on rocks," he was told, "use it on your own head."
A few days later, another tooth of the three-toed hipparion was the cause of more drama.  Local villagers had expressed much curiosity about the excavated fossils.  They were amazed to think that those ancient remains had been in the ground under their feet all the time without their knowing it.  So the geologists set up a small exhibition of fossils samples displayed on a table for inspection and the exhibit was visited, over a period of days, not only by villagers but by members of other research teams and by soldiers of the People's Liberation Army who were camped in the area, providing security for both scientists and villagers.  Unfortunately, the exhibit was unsupervised and there was great consternation when it was discovered that a precious fossilized tooth was gone.  Meetings were held, and everybody was questioned in an effort to find the missing treasure.  When villagers reported that they had watched a large, military truck bring a group soldiers to the exhibit, the local military leader took steps to find out who had been part of that group, and after intensive questioning, it was found that the culprit was the officer who had been in charge of the visiting soldiers.  Asked about his motivation for taking the tooth, which he produced from the pocket of his uniform, the officer described how he had heard about the importance of fossil teeth in identifying species and how he took the tooth because he wanted to learn more about fossils.  He had picked it up from the table and impulsively dropped it into the basket of a Tibetan woman who was standing nearby, but there was a hole in the bottom of the basket through which the tooth had fallen to the ground, so the officer picked it up a second time and missed his chance for redemption when, instead of replacing it on the table, he put it in his pocket.  He was punished with a long period of restricted activity and suffered severe criticism from his fellow soldiers, but his case turned out to be advantageous to the research teams for it demonstrated to everybody the vital importance of caring for scientific specimens collected in the field.
The quantity of specimens collected became something of a problem.  Paleontologists dug up four tons of fossils, which took up all the room in their truck, leaving no space for other stores and personal possessions.  However, the spirit of cooperation was essential for survival in those remote parts, so our forestry team helped out the other scientists by transferring some of their gear into our own truck, even though we had little room to spare and our unpleasant truck driver had yet another cause for complaint.

A Painful Ordeal

In June 1976,our team was working the in highlands of south-eastern Tibet looking for undisturbed, virgin stands of spruce trees (Abies georger var.  smithii).  Heavy rains, almost every day, had saturated our tents, bedding and clothing so that we thought we would never be dry again.  On rare occasions when the sun appeared, we would spread out our arms in an effort to dry the clothes on our bodies, but our Tibetan assistants warned us against this for they held a superstitious belief that water evaporating from clothes could seep into the limbs and damage one's bones.  Eventually, camping became so difficult that Mr. Li asked the local villagers if they had any spare room for us to sleep.  Au te gen and I were delighted to be able to move into a house, although this turned out to be a mixed blessing.  We did have a roof over our heads but we paid for protection from the elements by suffering other discomforts.  The building where we lodged was a two-story affair built of wood, the lower level being completely open, without walls, to serve as a shelter for yaks.  The upper story, which was supported on heavy wooden spruce log columns, had rough-hewn walls in which the only opening was one small aperture covered by a wooden shutter which let in no light.  The floor was made of wooden slats with wide spaces between them allowing free passage of cold draughts from below which were heavily laden with the strong smell of animals and dung.  We spread our sleeping bags on the floor next to piles of barley straw and in the darkness, all night long, we could feel mice running over our bodies.  But worse than the mice were the fleas that the mice brought with them.  If I turned on a flashlight I could see fleas jumping everywhere and we would both wake in the morning covered with bites.  Au te gen was terribly tormented by the little pests and she eventually told me, one bleak morning, that she didn't think she could accompany me on another field trip, much as she valued the learning experience.  The conditions were just too hard for her to stand, she said.  I had become so accustomed to discomfort during my many field trips in wilderness areas that I thought I could withstand any hardship, but my own tolerance was soon to be put to a severe test when I suffered a painful injury.
The Forestry team had rented horses in a local village so that we could travel a long distance to reach undisturbed virgin spruce stands, since all forests close to Tibetan villages were heavily cut for both building materials and fuel.  I had often ridden horses in Mongolia, but those had been quite small, stocky ponies suited to the open plains.  The Tibetan horses were a very different breed, tall and long-legged to nimbly negotiate rough mountain paths and narrow logs over streams.  I found them hard to mount and, from up in the saddle, it seemed to me a long way to the ground; however, my horse was quiet and the man in charge of the horses was full of good advice.  We had been travelling for about four hours and were passing through a forested area on the edge of a steep canyon with a river far below. 
I was leading the group when Mr. Li pointed ahead to a fine stand of spruce trees which was just what we had been looking for.  I made straight for the site, in my enthusiasm failing to notice that my horse was passing under an over-hanging spruce branch.  The next thing I knew, I was on the rocky ground, rolling fast towards the edge of the canyon.  At the last moment, I was able to hook my foot around a bush and stop my fall, coming to rest on my back with my head almost hanging over the precipice.  The heavy camera which I had been carrying over my shoulder was jammed under my back, its thick lenses smashed between my lower ribs and the sharp rocks beneath.  I felt as though I was being stabbed in the back and when my companions pulled me up to safety, the pain was so great that I thought I would die.  It was almost noon and we were four hours away from the village, with no medical supplies.  I was in agony but I did not want to spoil the team's opportunity to investigate the spruce forest we had come so far to find.  I knew that they had five hours work ahead of them so I told them to just let me lie on the ground until they had finished.
That afternoon was a nightmare in which the pain of every breath seemed more than I could bear, but there was worse to follow for I had to get back on my horse and endure four hours of torture on the trip back to the village.  Even in the village there was no comfort or relief.  I lay in the dark, smelly house on my mouse-and-flea-infested bed hearing the bones of my broken ribs scraping together and swallowing aspirin for the pain until our small supply of aspirin was all used up, which was just as well since my stomach could not have tolerated any more.  I was ashamed to let others see me cry but in that agonizing situation I could not prevent the tears from falling. 
Then I suffered the additional distress of hearing that my worried teammates wanted to send me back to Peking.  For me, this would have been the ultimate humiliation, a sign of failure and a confirmation of Mr. Sun's initial fears that women scientists were not sufficiently strong and resilient to be included in the Tibetan Plateau expedition.  I had worked so hard to prepare myself and to prove my worthiness.  There was so much work yet to be done, so many more specimens to be collected and identified.  It was unthinkable that I should have to give up!  I knew that my injury was not life-threatening and I was sure that I could recover quickly if I could just obtain some relief from the overwhelming pain, so I planned to hold out and to prove that I was not a liability but fully deserved my place on the team.  Our group had three days more work to do in the area after which they planned to make a one-day trek on horseback to the town of Chang du.  My colleagues feared that I would not be capable of making the trip and suggested that they might obtain, in the town, some medication which could be sent back to enable me to travel to Chang du from where, they said, I could be transported to Peking for proper treatment.  I finally managed to convince them that I was fit to travel with the team and I endured the painful journey in the hope that there would be a doctor in the town who could help me, for I was determined to stay with the expedition and finish my work. 
Fortunately, we were able to locate a doctor of Chinese medicine who treated my back with hot poultices of herbal extracts and stimulated blood circulation by massaging my skin with pre-heated hands.  He also used traditional small glass suction cups to draw excess blood and fluid from the bruised flesh.  In this treatment method, a vacuum is created inside a glass cup by briefly flaming the inside with a burning cotton wad.  The glass is applied to the skin, where it adheres firmly by suction until it is removed after about 20 minutes, leaving behind a bright red circle and significant relief of pain.  I did my part by taking vitamin C and eating a high protein diet of milk, butter, cheese and meat provided by sympathetic Tibetan friends, and in only two weeks time I was well enough to return to work.  I bear a permanent reminder of that ordeal in the form of a lump on my back where the broken ribs healed at a strange angle.  That place tends to become painful in wet weather and the pain brings back distressing memories, but it also makes me proud to recall that I was not defeated by that harsh experience but survived one of the most difficult tests of my life.