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On the Search for the Elusive Perennial Tibetan Tree Chilli

China puts a wrench into easy arguments of how chilli is eaten in tropical heat to protect against microbes spoiling meat: The argument here is that mountain people need chilli.

A Golden Tibetan Tree Chilli, though?

Chilli in Chinese-Tibetan Mountains

Not that Tibetan foods were particularly spicy, but the chilli is usually not far from a Tibetan table.

Tsampa (barley flour with yak butter, rolled into balls) is eaten with a chilli sauce.
Momo (Tibetan dumplings) are served with chilli sauce.
Yak meat is fried in chilli; marinated beef comes with an aromatic chilli sauce as well.

In fact, the Blue Beryl medicinal thangka from around 1700 may include chilli in its traditional herbal medicines!

Never had I heard anything about a Tibetan chilli that grew as a perennial “tree,” not an annual crop, though.

My beloved chiltepin grow like that, but that’s in the Mexican Sierra, only rarely getting frost. And that’s a wild chilli growing under protective shade trees, not a cultivar.

Signs of a Strange Chilli: A Perennial Tibetan Tree Chilli

A colleague of mine at the World Chilli Alliance had told me something about a Sichuan county in the mountains.

They claimed to have the largest, and multi-year-old, chilli “tree.” But, well, not so surprising to get some chilli growing as a perennial if only the temperatures remain high enough.

I should have asked more in-depth about the place.

Later, in a documentary TV series (of all places), I heard about a yellow-colored “tree chilli” somewhere north of Xianggelila. Yeah, that would be Shangri-la in Chinese; the name was given to this town a few years back, in a marketing ploy to attract tourists.

Nearby Lijiang receives visitors galore; the Tibetan areas north of Lijiang in Yunnan, not so many. Most people only go as far as the Tiger Leaping Gorge for the viewpoint or the hike there.

Researching more about this “little tree chilli,” it promptly turned out to be the chilli of the county my colleague had mentioned.

It was just that, if one went far enough north from Xianggelila in Yunnan (without following the road to Lhasa), one ended up back in Sichuan.

“Don’t Come”

Just as I was planning to go to Yunnan and follow the trail of the Tea Horse Road – and continue into that county – representatives of the place told us not to come.

“We are so poor, we are too busy” was the only explanation passed down to us from the higher-ups of our contact.

Not an auspicious beginning, but then we’d just have to see if we got lucky.

People in Xianggelila were aware of some “little tree chilli”, but that was about it. “Is it yellow?” made it clear that we were on the right track, at least.

First Encounters of the Yellow Chilli-Kind

The farmer’s market in Xianggelila had only quite usual fresh chilli (but at least it had that), but didn’t look entirely promising. But that dried chilli? Including a yellow chilli?

Golden Chilli from Nixi, dried on Xianggelila market
Golden Chilli from Nixi, dried on Xianggelila market

The shop proprietor didn’t seem particularly talkative, but he did explain that the one red chilli came from Qiubei (a major chilli-producing area of Yunnan, southwest of Kunming, the capital). The more orange-colored red chilli was Yunnan xiaomila (“little rice chillli”).

And the yellow one? “Little tree chilli from Nixi.”

There it was, the Tibetan tree chilli!

And Nixi, a place famous for pottery (the tradition of which in the area, according to archaeological remains, goes back some 2000 years), is the area to which the place shown in the TV documentary belongs! Maybe we would get lucky!

On the Road to Lhasa

The road to Lhasa leads up north from Shangri-la.

It is quite the highway, but up on slopes in precarious positions. Long, long ascents mean that the ubiquitous trucks move at a snail’s pace – and are still hard to pass, as the road is narrow and curvy.

Long, long descents don’t exactly make things all that easier. Certainly, they don’t feel all that safer when there are still a few hundred meters of steep slope above, and many more hundreds of meters falling away on the side, down to rivers below.

The road to the village mentioned in the video suddenly struck off from the major road. And immediately became a road barely much wider than our car.

As it meandered on up the mountain, the question on our minds changed from “What if a car comes from ahead?” to “What if there is never a car here?”

This Is Not the Village You’re Looking For

The village was nearly deserted, except for very few people and signs of construction trucks around. The police station where people told us to ask was empty. Except for the TV running behind the second door to it, which was open, unlike the first one.

O-kay.

Looking around the village a bit – hey, since we are already there! – a young woman came out of a local eatery to ask about us.

Turned out, she was sure hers wasn’t a village where any Tibetan tree chilli was being grown.

Funnily, it sounded like there was basically nothing being grown there. But, construction trucks went to a place at the lower end of the village. Where there was some work being done – and where some kind of agricultural research station stood. Locked and shuttered like most else, though…

She knew of a place, if only we went back down to the main road and followed it longer, that may have the Tibetan tree chilli we were looking for, though.

On along the road to Lhasa.

More and more on the slope of the Jinsha river’s deep ravine. We just had to stop at the lookout point someone had built on the side of the road. And what a lookout it was!

There, There!

Suddenly, a sign flashed by that said something about Nixi and chilli. And our GPS navigation told us to turn off the highway onto… can one call that a road?

Snaking back under the highway and on along the slope was a path. It was set in concrete… and dropping off hundreds of meters to the bottom of the ravine, what felt like centimeters from the side of the car.

At one point, it widened enough to park the car – and turned into a dirt path.

On by foot. And immediately, at the foot of a wall made of concrete and rocks, looking up to a vegetable patch hanging over the wall, in front of a house up there: Chilli!

Greeted by Unexpected Chilli

The first one, not a yellow chilli, but the kind I know as Nepalese bell pepper. People gave it that name because it looks like a bell. That one is obvious. And because someone got it from Nepal. That, though, I was never entirely sure of.

Well, and there it was!

Next to it, the most beautifully deep scarlet red chilli.

And, a yellow chilli, indeed. I counted that as a blessing already.

There should be more Tibetan tree chilli, though, if this was really being grown as a crop. And a perennial one at that.

Terraced Fields

The fields around this place – of barely a few houses here and there on the slope, where we now stood – were easy enough to spot, all terraced into a shard of the ravine. How to get down to them was less easy to see.

Corn (maize) was easy enough to recognize. Some pumpkin with its usual large leaves and sprawling habit. And would the attractive light green down there perhaps turn out to be the chilli I thought it should be?

Getting closer was a scramble. Small paths, thorn bushes, opuntia cactus, sharp stones rolling on rather dusty soil… and all on the steep slope. And barbed wire around the fields, obviously to keep out cows or donkeys the dung of which could be seen on some of the paths.

… and Golden Tibetan Tree Chilli, Indeed!

I made it down and into those fields, though – and yes, it was chilli I had seen. The most beautiful golden-orange chilli!

Perennial Chilli – in a Himalayan Valley

A closer look confirmed the other part of the story: That chilli really was older than just from this year! It may have had to regrow from out of its rootstock, but at least that hadn’t been killed off by a frost.

The area is a bit lower in altitude than Xianggelila, but at around 2200 m, it still didn’t look like a particularly warm place. In Xishuangbanna, Yunnan’s tropical forest, I can easily imagine a chilli growing perennial, even wild. But this, here?

It’s a mystery.

But at least, a very nice one.

The Search on YouTube

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To Be Continued…

My research and insights have been continuing. In a less adventurous way, but one that is very much the micro-exploration I have been suggesting.

So, stay tuned, subscribe, learn more! And if you want to support such research or have stories of peculiar chilli to tell, get in touch with us at the World Chilli Alliance, become a member, learn and educate others!

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