CHAPTER IV (Three Years in Western China)



The city of Yün-nan Fu—P'u-êrh tea—Opium-smoking chair-bearers and personal care—Exposure of robbers' heads—Chinese school—Rainbow superstition—Entertainment at Tung-ch'uan Fu—A successful ruse—Stopped by a mountain torrent—Lodged in a byre—On the banks of the Niu-lan River—The Chao-t'ung plain and its lakes—Stories of Lolo bloodshed—Down from the plain—Narrow escape of a porter—Back to Ssŭ-ch'uan—Descent of the Nan-kuang River—Down the Yang-tsze to Ch'ung-k'ing.

Yün-nan Fu is a walled city, over three miles in circuit, 6420 feet above the level of the sea and at a short distance from the north-eastern shore of the lake, with which it was formerly connected by a canal. The southern half of the square is thickly populated, while the northern half consists of swamp and vegetable gardens. The city was shorn of its ancient glory by the outbreak of the Mohammedan rebellion, which raged for years round it and in the northern part of the province. The old and extensive suburbs are gradually being rebuilt from their ruins. Outside the south gate (there are six gates) there is now a long street of depôts for the salt, which comes from the wells to the north-west. The city itself is kept decidedly clean; bullock carts daily go round and collect the garbage from the streets, which are fairly broad for a Chinese town. What strikes the traveller most, in passing through these streets thronged with well-dressed and evidently well-to-do foot-passengers, is the large admixture of non-Chinese features. Here Mohammedans, Chinese, Shans, and Lolos, and mixtures of these races, jostle each other in the market place and in the daily business of the world.


During my two days' stay in the city, I received every possible kindness at the hands of the members of the two missionary bodies at work there—Les Missions Etrangères de Paris and the China Inland Mission. At the handsome palace of the French Bishop, I met a Father from Ta-li Fu, who gave me such a glowing account of Western Yün-nan, that I at once made up my mind to visit that part of the province on a future occasion, a resolution which I was fortunately able to carry out.

The good Bishop handed me a letter which he had just received from Mr. Colquhoun, from P'u-êrh Fu, stating that his funds were all but exhausted, and requesting a loan to enable him to proceed from Ta-li, whither he was bound, to Bhamo. I at once arranged with the Bishop to despatch a messenger with sixty taels of silver; but Mr. Colquhoun succeeded in obtaining funds from the China Inland Mission at Ta-li, and, ere my messenger reached that city, he and his companion, Mr. Wahab, had left on their westward journey.

To speak of Yün-nan Fu without a reference to the famous tea, for which it is the entrepôt, would be a serious omission. P'u-êrh tea, so named from the department in which it is widely grown, is the leaf of the Camellia thea Link., and for purposes of transit is steamed and made up into cakes, which find their way to the remotest parts of the Empire. Much of the leaf, however, is brought to the city of P'u-êrh from the Shan States, beyond the southern frontier of Yün-nan. It varies in price, according to quality, from tenpence to one shilling and fivepence a pound; but the cost of overland transit is so great as to virtually exclude it from the foreign market.

The lake, known in books as the Tien Ch'ih, and colloquially as the K'un-ming—the name of the district in which the city of Yün-nan is situated—is a fine expanse of water, said to be seventy miles long, and in some places to attain a breadth of twenty miles. These figures are, however, very much exaggerated. The lake drains into the Yang-tsze, an artificial channel having been cut, to prevent flooding, from a point on its south-western shore to the river which flows past An-ning Chow, a city to the west of the provincial capital. Junks and passenger boats of fair size navigate the lake between the cities and villages that lie on and near its shores. In 1883 it was my own fate to be a passenger on its waters.

At Yün-nan Fu a number of trade routes converge and connect it with the Yang-tsze, Burmah, the Song-koi, and the West River; but I will not dwell upon them now. They will be found discussed at some length in Chapter XII., which is specially devoted to the trade of Western and South-Western China.

I had now reached the place which I had fixed upon as my farthest point, and, having attained the object of my journey, I resolved to strike the Yang-tsze at Hsü-chou Fu, following in the main the route traversed six years before by the Grosvenor Mission on its way to Yün-nan Fu to enquire into the death of Margary. With an au revoir to the city on the morning of the 31st of May, we began to retrace our steps to Yang-lin, where the Kuei-yang and Hsü-chou roads to Yün-nan Fu meet. For some days previous to our arrival in the provincial capital, rain had considerably interfered with our progress, nor, when we proceeded to return to Yang-lin, did the province belie its reputation.


It was during one of these downpours that an incident occurred which deserves a passing notice. Several of my followers were opium smokers, and one of my bearers had contracted a great craving for the drug. He was somewhat disreputable in appearance, but a willing worker. His baggage consisted of the clothes on his back and a small bundle, containing his opium pipe and the necessary paraphernalia for smoking. I observed when leaving Yün-nan Fu that the bundle had assumed larger dimensions; but certain speculations which I had made as to its contents were soon proved to be erroneous and altogether wide of the mark.

A few miles to the west of Yang-lin, a halt was called for a rest and the cakes on a roadside stall were quickly bought up and devoured. Sitting apart on the edge of the stone road the opium smoker thus addressed another of my bearers:—"How is it that you are all eating and drinking, and I haven't a single cash to follow your example?" The other put his thumb to his mouth and, pretending to inhale, pronounced the single word "Opium," at which the smoker smiled and was silent. Next day we were suddenly overtaken by a sharp rainstorm, and, when the other bearers were searching for shelter, the smoker solemnly produced his bundle and, gravely undoing the cover, unfolded and donned a first-class waterproof coat which he had wisely purchased in the capital. The astonishment visible on their faces, and the look of triumph in which the smoker indulged, were a study. The latter, notwithstanding his misfortune, had more respect for his back than his belly.

An immense plain, beautifully irrigated, stretches north from Yang-lin; and, as we passed through it northwards on the 2nd of June, it was teeming with life. The numerous villages, nestling among trees which dot the plain, had sent forth their able-bodied men and women to pluck up the paddy shoots from the nurseries, make them into bundles, and carry them to the submerged rice-fields, where they were being planted out in rows. Truly a happy, sunny picture. Not cloudless, however; for what are those high upright posts with balance beams near their tops, which occur at somewhat regular intervals along the plain? They are intended for suspending cages containing the heads of highwaymen, who waylay travellers and traders and rob and murder without mercy. Nor were the cages all empty. Two ghastly heads adorned the entrance to the village, which sheltered us at the end of the first stage from Yang-lin.

In the northern part of the plain, which is stony and unsuitable for rice and which ultimately merges in the red-soiled uplands already so familiar in the west of Kuei-chow and the east of Yün-nan, the potato was growing abundantly between rows of withered poppy stems. Yellow wheat and barley were being plucked up by the roots, for not even the sickle was here in use. Patches of buckwheat and oats completed the cultivation. Much of the land, however, was covered with wild grass, on which herds of swine, goats, sheep, ponies, and oxen were feeding. The whole country, from the immediate north of Yang-lin to the southern edge of the large plain, wherein lies the prefectural city of Tung-ch'uan Fu, may be described as a series of valleys barred by red uplands, mountain ranges stretching away to the west to the Yang-tsze and the home of the Lolo. The road is frequently the bed of a mountain torrent, which has to be crossed and re-crossed many times a day.


The people along the route seemed to entertain the greatest distrust of us; small wonder, when robberies are of such frequent occurrence. They even refused us house-room for our meals, which had often to be spread in the shade of a pine tree. At one village we borrowed the public school-room, an act which, I fear, gave a half-holiday to the scholars who, five in number, divided their attention for a time between writing their characters and watching the frolics of my dog. The master himself disappeared, and the scholars were not slow to follow his example, each, however, preparatory to leaving, carefully depositing his books, paper, pens, and ink in his own basket hanging from a bamboo partition in the room. A sixth basket was for the discarded written characters.

It was just before entering this village that I was witness of a curious superstition. We were caught in a drizzle, and, as the shower clouds with a vivid rainbow approached us, my followers covered their mouths with their hats, fearful of the poisonous vapour which, they said are given forth by rainbows. I laughed at their superstition, and, as luck would have it, was seized, a few hundred yards beyond, with a sudden fit of vomiting. I received no sympathy, and my sickness gave strength to their theory.

The city of Tung-ch'uan lies five miles from the edge of the plain, down the west of which, through one of the most fertile fields of Western China, flows the I-li River on its way to join the Yang-tsze. The plain was one mass of green tints, from the light green of the paddy in the nurseries to the dark green of the more matured shoots in the fields. The town, which is nearly eight hundred feet above the Yün-nan Fu plain, is not at all imposing, consisting, as it does, of one main street; but the hills to the west impart to it its reputation of being one of the wealthiest prefectures of the province. They contain the most celebrated copper mines in the Empire.

A French Father, who resided here, welcomed me as if I had been a compatriot, and insisted on my spending the whole of the 8th of June in his company. He had a regular battery of rifles and fowling pieces, and turned out to be a keen sportsman. He had a stable of two splendid ponies, on whose backs we spent nearly the whole day careering through the Tung-ch'uan plain. None but those who have spent years in solitude in a strange land can realize what it is to meet a fellow European. China was entirely forgotten in the discussions of French and British politics, and it was with the greatest difficulty that I could tear myself away from his kind hospitality on the following morning. All honour to men of surpassing ability who give up their lives for heart-breaking work in China!


On entering the hills which bound the Tung-ch'uan plain on the north, and which were almost devoid of human habitations, we were overtaken by a rainstorm, which continued throughout the day, and compelled us to abandon the hope of reaching the end of the stage that night. The road was soon reduced to a mass of pulp, bordering yawning chasms, whose circumvention by chairs was a source of difficulty and delay. The roof of the room in which we huddled together, in the wretched hamlet of Pan-pien-ch'ing, leaked at every tile, and necessitated the erection of a tent with our india-rubber sheeting. My troubles were only beginning, however, for, the rain still continuing on the following morning, my men refused to stir. My appeal that they were daily nearing Ssŭ-ch'uan, and that they had just rested a whole day in Tung-ch'uan, moved them not; and, seeing that the limit of concessions for their convenience had been reached, I took up the small iron box containing my supply of silver, and, calling my dog, set out alone. Plodding through a shallow mountain torrent, which now occupied the valley, I proceeded until I was out of sight of the hamlet, when I sat down upon a rock to wait the issue of events. The ruse was thoroughly successful; in half an hour the whole caravan turned up in the sullenest of tempers.

As luck would have it, our difficulties were just beginning. The torrent was soon blocked by hills, its waters obliterated the high-road, and we had to take to the hills on the left before it could be regained. We had not proceeded a mile, after a late breakfast, when we found the road effectually cut off by a raging torrent thirty yards in breadth and reaching above the waist. A whole hour was wasted in trying to find a shallow crossing, but in vain. The village of "Natural Bridge" (what a mockery!) lay on the left bank, and we called in eight of its most able-bodied to strip and assist in carrying our chairs across.

The sensation of fording was not a pleasant one. Twelve men with hands joined shouldered my chair, which rocked about like a boat in a stormy sea, now up, now down, as this or that man was washed off his feet. One of my servant's bearers was carried away for a distance of thirty yards, and was ultimately rescued more dead than alive by a cordon of men from the opposite bank. Several strings of cash which he had round his neck acted as an anchor to his head, and it was only when they disappeared in the current that he was able to regain his footing. Another who attempted to cross with the assistance of a pole had also to be dragged ashore.


On a ridge five miles beyond is the hamlet of Liang-shui-ching, which, as the name implies, is provided with a splendid well of cold, clear water. Here the inhabitants had turned the middle of the road into a kitchen, where sundry messes were being cooked for hungry wayfarers. Sitting round a stove, presided over by a buxom young lady, my followers regained their good humour in recounting the adventures of the day; and, when a complaint was raised because salt was not forthcoming, the beauty laughingly told them that travellers by this route did not care for salt!

It is a trite but true saying, that misfortunes never come singly. Owing to the numerous delays that had occurred during the day, it was late in the afternoon before we reached the hamlet of Shan-hu-shu, where, notwithstanding its uninviting appearance, we found it necessary to put up for the night. There was no inn, and every room was already occupied by its legitimate owners. The quest seemed hopeless when I stepped into a mud hut of two rooms, one tenanted by a crowd of natives, the other by a couple of cows and a pig. After a considerable expenditure of argument and less money, we induced the owners to remove and fraternize with their cattle for the night, and hand over the byre for our accommodation. The pig was the only one who offered any serious objection; his gruntings over-night and attacks on the intervening door somewhat disturbed our slumbers, while sundry squeals told me that my men found his familiarities too pronounced.

Trade had now begun to assume formidable dimensions; hundreds of ponies, mules, and donkeys, laden with native cottons from the central provinces and salt from Ssŭ-ch'uan, were daily hurrying southwards, while P'u-êrh tea and lead kept us company. It was no great surprise to us, when crossing the cultivated hills to the north of Shan-hu-shu, to come upon carcases of beasts of burden that had succumbed to the hardships of the route. Strong as these little ponies are, there comes a time when they are tried beyond their strength by their merciless drivers, and fall down never to rise again.


The delays that occurred during the first day north of Tung-ch'uan, threw our marches into utter confusion; instead of striking the Niu-lan River on the 11th June and resting for the night on its left bank, we were compelled by darkness to stop at the hamlet of Tu-kê-t'ang, where I occupied an underground mud chamber, certainly not an improvement on the byre of the previous night. This was our consolation after a march of thirty miles, begun at four o'clock in the morning and continued till dark. Part of the road was exceedingly precipitous, and had to be accomplished on all fours. Loud were the lamentations of my followers when we attained the ridge overlooking the Niu-lan River; the road zigzagged down a deep precipitous valley strewn with huge boulders, while opposite rose an equally steep range of mountains, which had to be overcome during the day. The Niu-lan rushed north-west, hurrying to the Yang-tsze between two steep mountain ranges, which are connected at the village of Chiang-ti, where we would fain have tarried for the day and gazed into the roaring torrent from the windows of a promising inn, by the chain bridge of "Eternal Peace." Ten rows of iron rods linked together are built into twenty yards of solid masonry at either end of the bridge and into stone piers, one distant twelve yards from the Chiang-ti, the other twenty yards from the opposite shore, leaving a central span of thirty-five yards. Planks placed on the chains formed a roadway four yards in breadth, and slight iron supports were suspended on either side from a row of thick linked rods stretched over stone supports erected on the piers. Thankful were we for the rest-houses that dotted the opposite bank, which proved the steepest and most difficult ascent we had yet encountered; and grateful we were for the beverage compounded of water and brown sugar exposed to allay the thirst of weary wanderers. Talk of railways by this route—as well talk of railways to the moon! Both are equally feasible.

To compensate man and beast for their struggles on the banks of the Niu-lan, a spring of deliciously cold water gushes from the highest ridge that separates the river from the Chao-t'ung plain. It rises out of an extensive coal-field. Beyond the spring a glimpse of the plain, with several sheets of water, is obtained, and eagerly did we commence the descent, which is comparatively easy. The city of Chao-t'ung Fu, which is 6580 feet above the level of the sea, lies nearly twenty miles from the southern edge of the plain, which ultimately stretches westward and is bounded eight miles to the north of the city by low hills. Flourishing villages dotted the plain, and the city itself showed signs of being a great trade centre. Traffic was no longer confined to man and beast, for the level ground had called the cart into requisition. To reach the city with greater despatch we engaged a number of small skiffs and crossed a large lake—shallow, and, to judge from dykes appearing here and there, occupying former paddy land. These lakes are numerous, and well stocked with fish.

The hills to the north of the plain are inhabited chiefly by Lolos, who have not a very honourable reputation. Stories of bloodshed and robbery committed by them poured from the lips of the villagers who dwelt by the roadside, and an idea that I entertained of spending a day with this degenerate branch of the tribe had to be abandoned. There would appear to be some foundation for these roadside statements; villages, and even single residences, were provided with watch-towers and refuges, and ammunition in the shape of stones was piled on the battlements to resist attacks.

The descent from the Chao-t'ung plain commences in earnest thirty miles to the north of the city. In company with a caravan, consisting of one hundred ponies laden with P'u-êrh tea and tin, we zigzagged in a dense fog down the northern face of the plateau, over a stone road, rendered all but impassable by over-night rain. In many places it skirts deep chasms, down which mountain torrents were leaping and roaring. On the edge of one of these a carrier narrowly escaped destruction; he lost his footing, and was just in the act of falling over with his load, when I succeeded in grasping the end of his carrying pole and dragging him back to the pathway.


On the afternoon of the 15th of June, we entered the sub-prefectural city of Ta-kuan T'ing, which is barely 3000 feet below the plateau. The tinkling of many bells, issuing from the inns which we passed on the way to our hostel, announced that several caravans had already taken up their quarters for the night. These bells are fixed in rows on broad leather straps, which run over the necks and down the breasts of the pack animals. In some caravans, only the leader is provided with such a circlet. The head waters of the Hêng River, which we had struck soon after our steep descent, flow northwards to the west of the city; but, the current being very rapid and the bed strewn with boulders, navigation is out of the question. Another descent of 2500 feet had to be made before boat traffic commenced, the river meantime being considerably augmented by an affluent from the west.

The road, which was execrable, follows the banks of the river to the market-town of Lao-ya-t'an, or Lao-wa-t'an, which lies on the right bank, and is the point of junction of the two trade routes from Hsü-chou Fu, in Ssŭ-ch'uan, to Yün-nan Fu, by way of the Hêng and Nan-kuang Rivers, which enter the Yang-tsze, the one to the west and the other to the east of the former city, respectively. Lao-wa-t'an is entered over a fine suspension bridge, the road following for about sixty miles the left bank of the river through scenery of considerable grandeur, resembling at some spots, though on a less magnificent scale, the gorges of the mighty river it helps to swell. Four, instead of two, suspension chains divide the bridge into a like number of alley-ways, each of sufficient breadth to admit of the passage of a single chair only. As the Grosvenor Mission had followed the land route, by the banks of the Hêng River from the Yang-tsze to Lao-wa-t'an, I resolved to strike east, cross the Yün-nan-Ssŭ-ch'uan frontier and descend the Nan-kuang River. Only one range now lay between us and Ssŭ-ch'uan, and from the summit we looked north-east on range after range of mountains, which, happily for us, we had not to cross.


My men, who for the last few days had been unable to procure rice, and had subsisted for the most part on bean-curd, rejoiced to find themselves in a valley of their own province where paddy, maize, tobacco, hemp, and beans were well advanced, where silk was being reeled and tea-plantations abounded. A streamlet flows north-east down the valley, and following its course for two days, we found ourselves on the 24th of June in the village of Huang-shui-k'ou, where we soon engaged a long empty cargo boat; and, shipping our whole caravan, sped down the Nan-kuang River. On its upper course it is confined by rocky hills, some eight hundred feet in height, and little wooded, while huge boulders coop up its waters and cause numerous rapids, down which our craft, guided by stern and bow sweeps, dashed four and five feet at a bound. In its lower course the country opens out, and the boulders and rapids disappear. A bed of rocks, over which the river falls, obstructs navigation within a few hundred yards of its mouth, and we landed on the 25th at the market town of Nan-kuang on its left bank, whence the river derives its name. Had my followers known how to cheer they would have made the welkin ring, when, just beyond Nan-kuang, the mighty Yang-tsze in full flood burst upon us. For the present their work was done; and, instead of carrying, they were now to be carried back to their homes in Ch'ung-k'ing. Crossing in boats to Hsü-chou Fu, which lies on the north bank at the junction of the Chin-sha Chiang—the upper waters of the Yang-tsze—and the Min river, we at once proceeded to hire a large travelling boat, and at 1 P.M. the following day we were gliding eastwards to Ch'ung-k'ing, which we reached on the evening of the 28th of June after an absence of sixty-eight days.

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