Frank Kingdon-Ward Biography

Bees seeds and blue poppies

Part 3 1911 – 1913
"Never again did the sense of paralyzing isolation come so vividly upon me as on that first night, when all the trials that awaited me seemed to take shape and rise in arms to mock my ignorance and feebleness.."
Frank Kingdon-Ward, writing in The Land Of The Blue Poppies, 1913.

After the first expedition Frank settled down to the humdrum life of a schoolteacher with little expectation of further adventure. However he soon received a possible offer from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, although nothing came of this. His next offer came from an English seed company in search of new introductions to add to their seed catalogue.

Arthur Kilpin Bulley (1861-1942) founder of Bees Seeds, and Ness botanic gardens, near Liverpool. Now a part of Liverpool University.
Arthur Kilpin Bulley (1861-1942)
You can read more about him in A Pioneering Plantsman: A.K.Bulley and the Great Plant Hunters

Arthur Kilpin Bulley was a rich and successful cotton merchant from Cheshire who had begun a garden in 1889 at Ness, on the Wirral. He had also founded the seed firm Bees Seeds, and had employed George Forrest in 1904/5 and then in 1910; both expeditions in Yunnan, Western China and the Tibetan border. Forrest had now found a new backer and Bulley consulted Isaac Bayley Balfour, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh who had first suggested Forrest. Balfour had been a close associate, and friend of Frank's father and remembered that he was already in Shanghai, well positioned to make a trip into Western China.

Frank received a letter from Bulley and had already decided to accept the offer of finances for an expedition before he had finished reading it. This time he had to resign his job as a teacher and he left Shanghai on January 31st 1911, sailing on the Delhi via a change to the British India boat in Penang, Malaysia, then on to Rangoon (Yangon) in Burma.
A week of planning an organising was followed by a three day train and boat journey to Bhamo, about 700 miles to the north, where he waited a further five days for luggage items to catch up with him and engaging porters to take him as far as Teng-yueh (tengchong) in Yunnan. So it was on February 26th that the mule train began the journey heading first eastwards into China.

At this point in The Land Of The Blue Poppy*5 Frank reveals a bout of depression. A side of him that crops up from time to time although seemingly never enough to thwart his efforts completely.

The Initial stage out of Bhamo is only nine miles and it was undoubtedly this fact alone which caused me to feel extraordinarily lonely on the first evening of my journey. Arriving very early in the afternoon there was of course nothing to do but to take out a gun and look round for game, but, do what I would, there was no getting away from the sense of utter desolation which seemed to crush me. Even the mild excitement of putting up a barking deer amongst the reeds of the river failed to alleviate the depression and after dinner I was only too glad to crawl into bed and, weary in spirit, court oblivion in sleep. Never again did the sense of paralyzing isolation come so vividly upon me as on that first night, when all the trials that awaited me seemed to take shape and rise in arms to mock my ignorance and feebleness.

Reaching Teng-yueh (Tengchong) eight mule stages out of Bhamo, Frank arrived at the British consulate in a disheveled state to meet most of the European population of six. The British consul, Archbald Rose, a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, suggested he should concentrate his collecting around Atuntsi.*6 He spent twelve days in Teng yueh as the guest of the Consul and then of the Commissioner of Customs Mr Howell.

Lost again

From Teng-yueh the route headed eastwards to Tali-fu (Dali) and then north past the Erhai lake via Cheng-chan (Jianchuan), and then heading back east to Wei-shi (Weixi) on this stage Frank once again got separated from the rest of his expedition, as he had done twice in 1910. Perhaps his interest in his surroundings and in particular fascination with plants may have contributed to his tendency to end up completely alone in the wilderness, but as well I believe he had a solitary nature, not wanting to rely on others or be a burden to them either.
It is worth noting that he, unlike many of his contemporaries e.g. George Forrest, did not employ native collectors, preferring to see the plants for himself in their natural habitats and to collect the seed personally as well.
This is how he tells it in The Land Of The Blue Poppy

On the second day a stiff climb in heavy snow storm brought us out of the forest on to the Li-ti-p'ing, as the summit of the watershed is called...
It looked an ideal spot for pheasants, and leaving the caravan to continue across open country, Kin and I climbed the slopes to the edge of a forest patch. Shortly afterwards Kin complained of feeling unwell, so taking my gun I told him to rejoin the caravan while I scrambled about by myself, and presently they were all hidden from view.

He goes on to say,

After skirting several forested hilltops I returned to the open valley some distance below the pass, picked up a trail, and wandered rather aimlessly along by the growing stream of peaty water. The trail itself was good although I was rather surprised to see no mule tracks, and to find no trace of either animals or escort after an hour's walking, but it scarecely occured to me yet that I was on the wrong road.

However a little while later it began to dawn on him that he has taken the wrong road and so he decided to try a new course which he describes as a fatal plan of action.

I have already stated that we crossed a pass, and I had good reason to believe that streams flowing down this side reached Wei-hsi; therefore, I argued, by following one of the streams I should eventually arrive at the city, though it was only to be expected that it would take considerably longer. Why did I not retrace my steps up the valley to the point where I had parted from the caravan, and carefully follow the mule tracks?

Finding a large stream he followed it but instead of the easy going he had anticipated the stream flowed through ever more dense thickets of bamboo.

For two hours I blindly fought my way through this jungle, the bamboos reaching a height of fifteen to twenty feet and growing so thickly that I had to force the stems apart, clambering over an occasional tree trunk and plunging into knee deep icy torrents, while the sweat rolled off me. Sometimes I emerged momentarily from the brake, hot and angry, and finding a trail, recklessly followed it until it disappeared, but always I came again to this appalling fence of jungle, which was slowly crushing the strength out of me.

Towards the end of the day with damp clouds and rain closing in Frank climbed a hill hoping to get a clearer view of his position in the morning. He huddled under his mackintosh which had been ripped to shreds while struggling through the jungle cradling his gun which had only one remaining cartridge in case a wolf came. he had no matches to make a fire, and no food, but he did have hopes that in the morning he would be able to see into the next valley and confirm he was on the right road. However after getting going the next day he discovered that the stream which he hoped was flowing West was in fact flowing East and he had been going the wrong way after all. He decided that he would have to retrace his steps of the previous day and so he started heading back.

There were a few anemones in flower on the grassy slopes, looking very miserable in the driving snow, besides numerous Rhododendrons on the edges of the forest; and I remembered with glee that at the base of each Rhododendron corolla there was a big drop of honey. However, after sucking a score of flowers without obtaining much nourishment, I started eating the whole thing which, though glutinous and insipid, was not altogether nasty.

Later he ate sorrel and other leaves, and drank from a stream, although he had stomach cramps from the Rhododendron corollas. Still further on he flushed a pheasant out of the undergrowth which reminded him that he had still a single shot in his gun. He shot a finch at close range. ... the No. 6 shot had not only killed him but very nearly plucked him as well, and with the exception of the feathers, entrails, and beak, I ate him entire.

Eventually he found his own footsteps along with those of two others which he assumed to be soldiers sent to track him. His trials were far from over, but filled with renewed optimism he continued on, finding mule tracks and ploughing through mud and half melted snow, but at least the rain had stopped and his clothes were drying out. With the city in view although still far away, it began to get dark again, and now, presumably because of total exhaustion, Frank began to hallucinate.

... extraordinary hallucinations grew upon me, and i found myself continually halting to step carefully over large boulders which did not exist except in my imagination, while in doing so I blundered clumsily into every obstacle which the path presented, slipped over the bank on one side and walked into bushes on the other. Helpless birds fluttered along the ground in front of me, so that I stooped down on more than one occasion to pick one up; strange animals moved in the thickets; every light visible in the city was dancing up and down like a will-o'-the-wisp, and some poplar trees along the skyline to the right seemed to be swaying violently too and fro as though bending before a gale, yet the night was perfectly still

Eventually he reached the house of a Lissu family, who took him in, made a fire, gave him food, and sent word to the rest of his expedition in the city. The next day Kin and Sung were there to attend to him but all he could do was sleep.

The following morning he was fit to continue, although they spent four days at Wei-hsi. Then the journey continued north towards Atuntsi. Frank describes crossing rivers via a variety of makeshift bridges, one which had a single row of six inch long planks as its walkway and no handrail, which wobbled distressingly with each step. He didn't need to cross it but seeing two local tribeswomen cross over carrying large bundles by means of a headstrap he decided it couldn't be so bad. Halfway across he wished he had not attempted it, but since he could not turn around he had to continue over and then make the return journey. Another common type of river crossing was the single rope bridge. Consisting of a twisted bamboo rope suspended over the raging torrent perhaps thirty to a hundred feet below and operating as an aerial runway witha bamboo runner and slings into which the person, animal, or baggage is tied before being launched across the river. Usually the sag in the rope means that the rider has to haul themselves the last few yards to the platform. Another rope is suspended nearby to allow crossings in the other direction. Winifred divulges in her biography that Frank was always terrified of heights. As with so many things he simply suspended his fear for the greater good of exploration. Among the things he encountered frequently on his travels that he couldn't stand were heights, extreme cold, and leeches. None of these could steer him from his chosen path as an explorer.

During the trip one of the porters revealed a bad cut on his foot. Frank had to cut through a quarter inch of hardened skin and dirt to clean the wound and dress it properly, then sending the man home to recover. The medicine chest proved a great fascination to the rest of the porters as it did on every expedition and Frank was forced to act as doctor to a variety of maladies, some no doubt imagined, amongst the party. Sadly his medical skills were wasted on one small baby, the son of one of his hosts in Tsu-kou. He was brought to Frank suffering from a bad chill and cough. He gave the baby some medicine, and the parents some sound advice. The next day he was told the child was much better, but then the parents took the child to be baptized and he died in the night. Frank wrote ...they were more anxious to save is soul than his body.

Gentiana atuntsiensis. Photograph courtesy of
Gentiana atuntsiensis (photograph courtesy of Jans Alpines. Full sized uncropped image can be seen here.)

The expedition was, on the face of it, quite successful with 200 specimens listed in the appendix of Land Of The Blue Poppy of which around twenty were new species, including Androsace wardii, Listera wardii, Cyprepedium wardii, Gentiana wardii, Meconopsis wardii,and Saxifraga wardii. This success somewhat dispelled his earlier doubts, although later he implies that much of what he collected failed to take in English gardens.

Meconopsis speciosa. The Cambridge blue poppy. Photograph courtesy of
The Cambridge blue poppy Meconopsis speciosa (photograph courtesy of Jans Alpines. Full sized uncropped image can be seen here.)
It is true that the plant he had the greatest hopes for was Meconopsis speciosa which he nicknamed the Cambridge blue poppy was not hardy and only ever flowered under glass at places like Kew. Frank described it as the most magnificent of flowers and he commissioned a painting of them by Lady Charlotte Wheeler Cuffe in 1917. It was a water-colour measuring 4 feet by 2 feet and has apparently been lost.

At the end of the 1911/12 expedition Frank returned home to England via Rangoon where he met up with his school friend Kenneth Ward who was now working there.

In England he lectured showing slides taken from the expedition. He also went on something of a bus-man's holiday, climbing with friends in the Swiss and Italian Alps. A postcard shown below shows two of the peaks he climbed on the last day.

Image side of postcard sent to his mother, by Frank Kingdon Ward. Showing an alpine scene of snow capped mountains around four thousand feet. On this he has written notes stating that he ascended two of these that morning with a guide.
Postcard showing an alpine scene with handwritten notes showing which mountains Frank had climbed that day.
Reverse of Frank's postcard. Date stamped smudged. His mother's address is given as Picklecombe cotage, Babbacombe, Devon. He writes 'Our walking tour is just at an end. We descend to Sulden this afternoon. We finished up by ascending two peaks (seen in the card) of over four thousand foot. Will write from Sulden. F.K.W.'
Frank's card to his mother, Our walking tour is just at an end. We descend to Sulden this afternoon. We finished up by ascending two peaks (seen in the card) of over four thousand foot. Will write from Sulden. Interestingly he signs it, F.K.W.

Exploring the great gutters of Kam.

1913 saw the publication of his book "The Land of the Blue Poppy" and a return to Yunnan and Tibet for "Bees". 
This trip was racked with trouble before it's start. He had great difficulty getting permision to travel at all. Revolution in China had caused some upset to his previous efforts and was to prove more tiresome this time. However he left England in February 1913 bound once again for Rangoon. On the outward voyage a storm in the Mediterranean nearly destroyed the ship he was on. In those pre commercial flight days it was April before he reached Myitkina the northernmost railway station in Burma and headed into the hills of the border region of Tibet and China.

The events of the 1913 expedition are described in Frank's book "The Mystery Rivers OF Tibet" which was not published until 1923, two years after "In Farthest Burma" which chronicles the later expeditions. The reason for the delay in publication is apparently that the publishers did not like his original title for the book "The Great Gutters Of Kam." I think on reflection they were probably right.

As on the previous expedition he headed for A-tun-tzu*6 although whereas previously he had largely followed the Mekong valley, this time he planned to cross the Salween and head further into Tibet.

On June 12th the party set out due west from Atuntsi towards the Mekong. Crossing the river by means of a rope bridge took over an hour but Frank was always busy, either collecting plants, or observing and describing the scene. This passage from "The Mystery Rivers Of Tibet" shows his delightful and unique writing style.

While the loads and men were travelling across the rope, a business which took an hour or more, I collected plants and later seated myself on the rocks as close to the river as possible, for I never wearied of watching the rush of water. Here the surface heaves and great pustules swell up as though gas were being rapidly generated inside them, burst with a hiss, and pass on in swimming foam; there a ridge of water dances over a hidden rock and breaks suddenly, and a little frothing wave tries to crawl back by itself over the hurrying water, but is swept hastily away, to reform below; a stick comes frolicking down on the roaring tide, is buried for a moment, and reappears a dozen yards away; waves spring up suddenly and slap insolently against the smooth rock slabs, scored with grooves and potholes when the flood rose higher than it does now; and whirlpools dart gurgling from place to place like will-o'-the-whisp. It is a fascinating pastime to sit and watch all those ever changing tricks of the gambolling shouting Mekong waters, their voices rising through the summer, and dying away to a whisper in winter as the red mud sinks out of sight, and the water reflects the blue of heaven.

He writes descriptively about the landscape and gives quite a lot of attention to the glaciers, and of course the people. He also mentions, in the course of describing the scenery, over sixty plant species within the first four chapters. His collections on this expedition included many Rhododendrons which had not featured at all in his previous trips.

Invited to dinner with a group of Chinese merchants he describes a drinking game that he was forced by etiquette to participate in.

Presently the wine began to circulate.... I say wine, but that is a poetic licence. It is called shao-chi or burning spirit; it is the colour of gin and tastes like methylated spirit. ... you must drink; to refuse would be a serious breach of etiquette. Moreover it is necessary to play for drinks three rounds with each guest at your table: a strange game, showing fingers and shouting a number. Every time you shout the number corresponding to the total of fingers shown, you lose - and drink forfeit. A rapid calculation assured me that I was in imminent peril of twenty-seven drinks; but happily I won several times.

A river crossing via one of the many rope bridges gave a brief moment of drama. As a pony was sent across the friction generated by the bamboo slider on the rope created so much heat it began to smoke. It was only prevented from bursting into flame because the pony's weight dragged it into the waters of the river itself causing it to stop suddenly. Two men had to scramble along the rope and drag the pony the remaining ten yards to the shore.

As always Frank's dubious medical skills were called upon to minister to the sick and injured. However it seems impossible to imagine him doing a worse job than the well meaning natives. In the village of Londre*7 he was asked to help a boy who had been hit by falling rocks. What had at first looked like dirt on the boy's head turned out to be a thick layer of large flies feasting on his open wound. He only discovered this after the boy's mother fanned the flies away. It had been left like that for four days.

It wasn't necessary for Frank to climb the highest peaks since his objective was to collect plants that would be hardy in English gardens, and there would not be anything suitable at twenty thousand feet. However there was considerable climbing to be done and the party were often exposed to quite severe drops. Bearing in mind Frank's dislike of heights and extreme cold it is testament to his determination to explore that he faced these obstacles with dogged determination. He pondered the thought of those climbers who might follow his path before continuing on to the very peaks, but made no attempt to climb higher than was needed to reach his floral objectives.

As previously mentioned Frank considered THE blue poppy to be Meconopsis speciosa or the Cambridge blue poppy as he also frequently referred to it. Here is what he says about it chapter six of The Mystery Rivers Of Tibet

We were again in the land of the blue poppy. Of this magnificent plant (Meconopsis speciosa) I will give some details. One specimen I noted was 20 inches high, crowned with 29 flowers and 14 ripening capsules above, with 5 buds below - 48 flowers in all. Indeed the plant seems to go on throughout summer unfurling flower after flower out of nowhere - like a Japanese pith blossom thrown into water - for the stem is hollow and the root shallow. Another bore 8 fruits, 15 flowers, and 5 buds, and a third, only fifteen inches high, had 6 flowers, each 3½ inches across, besides 14 buds. But for a certain perkiness of the stiff prickly stem, which refuses any gracefulness of arrangement to the raceme, and the absence of foliage amongst the blooms, these great azure blue flowers, massed with gold in the centre, would be the most beautiful I have ever seen.

The process of plant collecting required several visits to the same places, first during the summer to collect herbarium specimens while the plants are in flower, and then later in autumn to collect seed from plants which he thought viable for growing in England. At his base he would dry out and press the specimens. Then later in the year, Frank would return to collect seeds which would also have to be kept dry and stored for transporting back to England.

By the end of October, his work for Bees Seeds now complete, he sent the collections with his Chinese servants back to Tali-fu (Dali) and made preparations to explore into Tibet crossing the Salween river. His Tibetan interpreter was to accompany him and they were travelling light. The plan was to travel east and cross the Salween river into Tibet to explore the kingdom of Pome. However it was not to be. Unrest in the border region between Tibet and China made it impossible for him to persuade any village headman to provide him with porters or pack animals, and at every place he was refused permission to travel even as far as Menkung (Mengong, on the Salween). Instead at each place he was forced by circumstances to continue southwards following the Salween valley. One headman actually begged him not to try and travel further west, offering him gifts and stating baldly that he (the headman) would lose his head if he acceded to Frank's request for passage.

Further down the Salween at a large village called Sukin, he made plans to travel west along a tributary and into Tibet. Now he was in country occupied by a tribe who spoke neither Chinese nor Tibetan and he had engaged the services of a Chinese merchant who spoke five languages, to act as interpreter, although he kept on his Tibetan servant who had served him well and loyally. This merchant, Atung engaged local Lisu porters who proved very lazy, stopping every twenty minutes or so for a fifteen minute smoking break. They were very unwilling to accompany Frank further than a camp about half way between the Salween and the Taron, refusing to attempt a crossing of the pass because of rain and snow, despite the fact that merchants arrived from the west having crossed the very same pass. On 5th December Atung admitted that two days previously a message had arrived from Tra-mu-tang, further up river, forbidding the Lisu to help them cross the pass.

In addition Frank's malaria began to flare up into a fever forcing him to his bed with a heavy dose of Quinine and a temperature in excess of a hundred degrees. Four Chinese soldiers were keeping pace with the party on the opposite bank of the Salween as they continued down river. Atung insisted that he would not go to the Taron, which may have had something to do with confused rumours of British troops in the area beyond. Either way it now appeared that any further attempts to head west to the Taron river would be thwarted either by Chinese soldiers, illness, the laziness/unwillingness of the porters, or simply by snow which became increasingly likely as the winter drew on.

Although the soldiers were clearly charged with ensuring Frank did not reach the Taron, they were nevertheless civil and their commander visited Frank and spoke with him, explaining that it would be impossible to reach the Taron but that he could try again next year. He also explained that Atung had been in the army but had left and was only successful as a merchant because he could lie fluently in five languages. Later Atung started some trouble, attacking Frank's Tibetan servant, but Frank punched the Chinaman on the nose and a confused fracas ensued before the fuss died down somewhat. He was becoming more trouble than he was worth and it was agreed that he would accompany Frank as far as Latsa fort, but on 11th December he left with some money to procure porters and was never seen again.

Frank and his Tibetan servant now managed to procure some porters, despite not speaking any of the Lisu language, and they continued to Latsa. Even now Frank entertained thoughts of travelling back up the Salween and trying another route into Tibet but his misplaced enthusiasm was not enough to overcome the problems involved. It was however not simply a case of continuing down the Salween to civilisation. Kao, the Chinese soldier assured him that it was not navigable by boat and that he would have to dodge poisoned arrows from the tribesmen if he attempted to walk. He would have to go back up stream to Tra-mu-tang. Here he hoped still to obtain permission to travel to the Taron but all he received for his trouble was a polite refusal and in addition he was ordered to hand over his photographs as any photography or mapping of the border region had now been banned.

As if this were not bad enough it began to look as though he would be unable to return to the Mekong valley and was trapped here, a prisoner of circumstance. Then on the 25th December no less, he received news that porters would be able to take him back via his original route to A-tun-tsi, a most welcome Christmas present in the face of such a dismal situation.

Even so there are a further four chapters in Mystery Rivers Of Tibet during which Frank entertains thoughts of escaping the inevitable and travelling into Tibet. At one point he tries to wait it out with dwindling food supplies as a Chinese soldier with orders to keep watch over him refuses to leave, and Frank refuses to continue his journey until he does. The soldier's provisions are also running low and eventually he returns to his base to face a beating rather than stay and starve to death. Yet with more news of Chinese soldiers attacking the region and Tibetans being mobilised from every town and village the question of one explorer's wish to visit the affected region is not in the interests of either side. He is forced to return down the Mekong valley, finally departing from Myitkyina on 22nd March 1914.

It seems that some of his private despondency came across in letters to his sister although nothing is mentioned in the book about it. He had concerns that he had failed to return any worthwhile seeds from the expedition and in the light of his previous "failure" he would seem ...pretty cheap. In reality this second expedition for Bees Seeds produced a number of seeds which proved hardy in English gardens, several new species and of course substantial collections for the herbarium.

There is no specific appendix of plants collected on this trip at the back of my copy of Mystery Rivers. This may be because it is the 1986 reprint by Cadogan books which also lacks photographs. Alas the original was beyond my budget.

Notes for part 3
5.Cambridge University Press, 1913
6.A-tun-tzu, Atuntsi, (Frank's own spelling vary) is a small settlement nestled in a horseshoe of hills lying at around 3,400m with the hills rising a further 1,000m above it. By comparing Frank's maps, and descriptions with Google mapping, I believe this is near to present day Dechen (Deqen in Chinese) in North West Yunnan. Unfortunately there appear to be two places so named in the same province. This one is about fifty miles northwest of the other larger one. This should provide a link to the location on Google maps.
7. As best as I can establish Londre (or Londjre) is now called Yongzhi or if not is at least very close to this village, and lies on the pilgrim route to the sacred Dokerla and Kawa Karpo mountains, which fits in with Frank's descriptions.

Frank Kingdon-Ward Biography