CHAPTER VII (Three Years in Western China)

Three Years in Western China




Earthquakes—The reception of foreigners at Ning-yuan—The fertility of the Ning-yuan plain—Goître and the salt supply—Historical hailstorm—A Tibetan caravan—Crossing the Ya-lung River—A riot at Hang-chou—Reception at Yen-yuan and increased protection—Brine wells of Pai-yen-ching—Driven back by mountain barriers—The Yün-nan frontier—A sight of the Yang-tsze—Results of the Mohammedan Rebellion—The Lake of the Black Mist—On the banks of the Golden River—A deserted town—The plague—First glimpse of the snow-capped Tsang-shan—A magnificent view—On the shores of the Erh Hai—Ta-li Fu at last.

History records that a terrible earthquake visited the plain of Chien-ch'ang in the early years of the Ming Dynasty, and that the old city of Ning-yuan sank bodily into the ground, and gave place to the large lake which lies to the south-east of the present city. In 1850, again, according to the information supplied to Mr. Baber, Ning-yuan was reduced to ruins by a similar catastrophe. If the former tradition be true, the lake had no existence when Marco Polo passed through Caindu, and yet we find him mentioning a lake in the country in which pearls were found. Curiously enough, although I had not then read the Venetian's narrative, one of the many things told me regarding the lake was that pearls are found in it, and specimens were brought to me for inspection.


Previous to my arrival only two foreigners had visited Ning-yuan, and that, too, both in 1877. The first, a Roman Catholic French Father, was stoned and driven from the city. Two months later came Mr. Baber, who, fortified with instructions issued by a new Viceroy, commanded the respect of the very official who had incited the attack on the unfortunate missionary. When I appeared upon the scene, I had the greatest difficulty in securing quarters, and, while search was being made, spent an hour the target for thousands of black eyes. But fortune did not forsake me. As soon as I reached the inn, which was at last found, a thunderstorm burst over the town, and brought nourishment to the plain which had been athirst for a month. The arrival of a foreigner and a copious rainfall were two events which, to their superstitious minds, could only be cause and effect, and I was soon waited upon by a deputation of townspeople, who came to thank me for my timely visit. From an intruder, I was suddenly raised to the rank of a benefactor.

I took advantage of the presence of the deputation to gather information regarding the products of the plain and the mineral resources of the prefecture. Rice, poppy, cotton, safflower, a variety of fruits, medicines and dyes, cassia, beans, wheat and maize are grown in their respective seasons, while copper, zinc, and iron are found in the neighbouring hills. Mulberry trees abound, and silk is produced and exported to Yün-nan. But the chief product of the plain is white-wax insects, to which allusion has already been made and which will be found treated at length in Chapter XI. Pine boards are also a special export from this region. Immense trees are found deeply embedded in the soil on the hills, their positions being discovered from lines of pine sprouts. They are dug up, sawn, and sent north in large quantities.

When I made it known that, instead of proceeding south through Hui-li Chou to Yün-nan Fu, I was about to attempt the road through Yen-yuan Hsien to north-western Yün-nan and Ta-li Fu, hundreds of objections were at once forthcoming. The road was a mere bridle-path impassable for chairs, there were no inns, no rice, nothing but wilderness. A very little experience in an Eastern land teaches the traveller to discount native statements, and I told my men that one of the objects of my journey was to establish facts, and that I considered it my duty to go and test the validity of the objections raised.

Leaving Ning-yuan on the 21st of March, we skirted the western edge of the lake, which is some eight miles long and two to three broad, and made for the low hills which bound the plain to the south-west. Eight miles from the city we struck the left bank of the An-ning River, and having effected a passage at the ferry, we proceeded south over a sandy waste, whereon close reed fences were erected to keep the sand from being blown over the cultivated ground. Farther south, the plain was dotted with mud houses and villages, and the plots of arable land by which they were surrounded were thickly edged with mulberry trees.


The plain from Lu-ku southwards is noted throughout Western China for its fertility; but from that point until south of Ning-yuan, the river flows along the base of the lofty hills bounding the western edge of the plain, which slopes gently from east to west, and its waters are little available for purposes of irrigation. The plain, therefore, depends for the most part upon the rainfall for its water supply, and, owing as we have seen to the fact that rain had not fallen for a month previous to our arrival, the cracked and arid ground, with its stunted crops of poppy, wheat, and beans, presented a striking contrast to the glowing description we had received of this happy Eldorado. South of Ning-yuan, however, the plain is perfectly level and the river winding about in it is extensively utilised for irrigating the fields.

Although fortune usually smiles upon the valley of Chien-ch'ang, the inhabitants of its many villages are not to outward appearances a happy race. What strikes the traveller most with regard to them is the prevalence of the unsightly goître, from which neither sex nor age is exempt. The natives attribute it to the impure salt from the brine wells of Pai-yen-ching, within the jurisdiction of Yen-yuan Hsien, and their belief is, that north of Ning-yuan Fu the salt supply comes from the northern salt springs, and that where this salt is consumed, goître is exceedingly rare, while south of Ning-yuan only local salt is used and goître is excessively common. This can hardly be reconciled with the statements made to me by the inhabitants of the mountainous regions of the province of Kuei-chow, where goître is likewise remarkably prevalent. They were unanimously of opinion that the disease is due to the salt from the northern springs of Ssŭ-ch'uan, which supply the entire province of Kuei-chow. But the true origin of the disease is doubtless to be ascribed to calcareous and other substances held in solution in the water supply of the districts.

The small town of Ho-hsi, "West of the River," the first stage from Ning-yuan, lies in a bend at the foot of a mountain range, which forms the divide of the An-ning and Ya-lung rivers. It, too, has its story of war with nature. A small stream from the western mountains flows through the town on its way to join the river in the plain. In 1881, a terrific hailstorm swept over mountain and plain; the stream became a roaring torrent and annihilated nearly the whole town—the number of killed and drowned being estimated at a thousand souls.

Following up the stream towards its source, we attained, after a few hours' climb, the ridge of the mountain, where the roads are worn out of the solid limestone to a depth of twelve feet by the constant traffic between the salt springs to the south-west and Ning-yuan Fu. The steep eastern slope of the mountain was covered with rank coarse grass, nor did cultivation appear until the ridge was crossed. Even then there were only a few clearings here and there, and these were occupied by the large-leaved privet, the pear and other fruit trees, while the uncultivated ground was clad with stunted pine. Beyond the ridge, the road, a mere bridle-path, runs west by south along the mountain side, whence we could make out to the south the green waters of the Ya-lung River flowing north-east and suddenly bending southwards, its progress in the former direction being obstructed by a mountain barrier. As might be expected in such a country, the population is very scant, and only an occasional hut for the refreshment of the traveller was to be seen during a day's journey.


While resting at a solitary tea-house on the mountain side, and speculating on the advisability and wisdom of attempting this route in chairs, I perceived in the far south-west a long line of moving objects coming towards us. Red flags and gaily-caparisoned mules and ponies warned me that something more than ordinary was approaching. The red-clad muleteers, armed with swords and spears, and the large powerful dogs trotting at the heads of the pack-animals, told us that we were face to face with a Tibetan caravan. It consisted of some fifty animals laden with medicines, musk, and sundries. Our spirits rose as we heard that the road was open for pack-animals.

Our resting-place during the night of our second stage from Ning-yuan was the village of Tei-li-pao, overlooking the Ya-lung River, which we reached by a steep descent on the following morning. Ascending its left bank for four miles through dense hedges of prickly pear, growing with a profusion I have not seen elsewhere in Western China, we crossed it at the ferry of Ho-pien Hsün, a customs station on its right bank. The river itself, which is about two hundred yards in breadth, is deep, and flows with an even current until it reaches the sharp bend which I have already mentioned, when it lashes itself into foamy billows against submerged rocks. The Ya-lung is unnavigable, and the only craft on its green waters were three ferry boats, each about thirty feet long. From the bed of shingle which lies below the customs station, we followed for a short distance the right bank, which is here lined with huge boulders, and then turned south-west up a gully, down which flows a streamlet to the main river. The country gradually opens out, and cultivation, which had practically ceased since we left the Ning-yuan plain, began to reappear on the gentler slopes of the mountain sides to the south-east.


Our struggles through the day on the precipitous banks of the Ya-lung had, we imagined, earned a good night's repose at the little town of Hang-chou, which lies on the left bank of the streamlet. In this, however, we were sadly disappointed. Surmounting a low eminence we beheld, to our surprise, little but its charred remains, the town having been destroyed by fire only a few days before. On entering, we found, as might have been expected, wretched accommodation. The homeless inhabitants were huddled together in the few houses that had escaped the ravages of the fire. The mass of idlers seemed to require some outlet for the superfluous energy which had not yet been expended in the rebuilding of their homes. Our arrival was their opportunity. No sooner had we settled down in the apartment which we had the greatest difficulty in procuring, than we were surrounded by a gaping and insolent crowd. So insolent and threatening indeed did they become, that we had to solicit the intervention of the local authority in suppressing what, to every appearance, was fast becoming a riot. He came, but his presence was powerless and his commands were unheeded. He left, and matters assumed a still more serious aspect. A free fight thereupon resulted between the rioters and my followers. At this point my intervention became necessary, and, for the first and only time during my wanderings in China, I was compelled to show my revolver. Happily for all, the sight of the weapon was sufficient, and, under its awe-inspiring muzzle, four of the ringleaders, who had threatened me with death, were arrested. This quelled the riot for the night, but threats were thrown out of vengeance on the morrow. The local authority was duly warned, and he was good enough to promise us all available protection, and to accompany us on the next stage. When day dawned he was duly present, and we were glad to shake the dust of inhospitable Hang-chou and its riotous inhabitants from our feet.

The valley in which Hang-chou lies contracts towards the south-west. Recrossing the stream, the road runs along the mountain side for some distance; but the mountains soon recede, leaving an undulating stretch of country rising as we advanced. This we ascended amid low pines and dense underwood, past numerous unworked copper-mines, until at its highest point the road is at an elevation little below the mountain peaks on both sides, now white with snow. Here a thunderstorm delayed our progress; the brilliancy of the lightning, and the roar of the thunder echoed and re-echoed from the surrounding mountains, reflecting credit on the forgers of Zeus. But the chilly hail and the rude mud hut in which we were compelled to seek shelter for the night, speedily turned our thoughts from the dreams of classical romance to the stern actualities of a wanderer's life. The local authority of Hang-chou, however, pressed on with his prisoners to the city of Yen-yuan Hsien, where our non-arrival excited no little consternation among the authorities, who, anxious as to our safety, sent messengers and soldiers to ascertain the cause.

With the exception of a short distance where the road zigzags, the descent to Yen-yuan is easy. We followed a small mountain stream down a valley for some time, leaving it by a fine level road to the west, and soon entered the city, which lies on the north-east side of a plain, backed by a range of high hills running east and west. Here due satisfaction was given to us for the outrage at Hang-chou, whose inhabitants, through their unwilling representatives, were taught a practical, if a painful, lesson as to the treatment of strangers from the West. The officials were profuse in their apologies and in their attention to our wants, promising absolute protection as far as the first city across the Yün-nan frontier—a promise which was faithfully carried out.

The city of Yen-yuan, though small, is the capital of the district which borders on the province of Yün-nan, a district rich in copper and salt, and one of the chief habitats of that industrious and interesting creature, the white wax insect, which is propagated on the branches of the Ligustrum lucidum, or large-leaved privet. The brine wells from which the salt is derived lie at Pai-yen-ching, fourteen miles to the south-west of the city, which we reached by a good road across the plain, down which one or two rivulets flow north-westwards. The way in which the farmers manipulate these rivulets for purposes of irrigation is truly wonderful—here the water ripples in one direction, there in exactly the opposite. This plain is one of the very few places in the province of Ssŭ-ch'uan where carts can be utilised for transport.


The brine wells of Pai-yen-ching, mentioned above, are only two in number, and comparatively shallow, being only fifty feet in depth. Bamboo tubes, ropes and buffaloes are here dispensed with, and small wooden tubs, with bamboos fixed to their sides as handles for raising, are considered sufficient. At one of the wells a staging was erected half way down, and from it the tubs of brine were passed up to the workmen above. Passing from the wells to the evaporating sheds, we found a series of mud furnaces with round holes at the top, into which cone-shaped pans, manufactured from iron obtained in the neighbourhood, and varying in height from one to two and a half feet, were loosely fitted. When a pan has been sufficiently heated, a ladleful of the brine is poured into it, and, bubbling up to the surface, it sinks, leaving a saline deposit on the inside of the pan. This process is repeated until a layer, some four inches thick and corresponding to the shape of the pan, is formed, when the salt is removed as a hollow cone ready for market. Care must be taken to keep the bottom of the pan moist; otherwise the salt cone would crack, and be rendered unfit for the rough carriage which it experiences on the backs of pack animals. A soft coal, which is found just under the surface of the yellow-soiled hills seven miles to the west of Pai-yen-ching, is the fuel used in the furnaces. The total daily output of salt at these wells does not exceed two tons a day, and the cost at the wells, including the Government tax, amounts to about three-halfpence a pound. The area of supply, owing to the country being sparsely populated, is greater than the output would lead one to expect.

At the time when Marco Polo passed through Caindu, this country was in the possession of the Sifans, and there can be little doubt that the salt cakes, which then constituted the currency, were evaporated at these very wells. Nor are the Sifans wanting at the present day; they occupy the country to the west, and are known under the generic name of Man-tzŭ.

Our progress—I hardly like to use the word—during the five days from the brine wells of Pai-yen-ching to the frontier of the province of Yün-nan, a distance of less than forty miles as the crow flies, is one long story of mountain travelling. Several times did we approach the frontier, but as often were we driven back, south and south-east, by impenetrable mountain barriers covered with pine forests. To the south, the ranges run east and west, and a day's work, sometimes lasting as long as thirteen hours, consisted in climbing and descending steep mountain sides, and in endeavouring, with but poor success, to circumvent the huge boulders which lay in the beds of streams in the bottom lands between the mountain ranges, where the road should have been. Cultivation, as can readily be imagined, was not conspicuous in such a country; but here we found in abundance the animal best suited to rugged mountains, the goat. Its flesh, too, was greatly appreciated where rice could not be procured, and where our supplies had long since run short. To the west of our route, we found many places inhabited by Man-tzŭ tribes, whose districts, however, lie principally beyond the frontier.


At Shao-shang, on the last ridge which has to be crossed before reaching Yün-nan, six Lolos, deputed by their chief, who had been apprised of our approach by the Chinese authorities, awaited us to pay their respects, and as we stood looking at the mountain ranges within the southern province, one of them, tall and powerful, every inch a king, stepped forth and did us homage. Here, then, on the very borders of Ssŭ-ch'uan and Yün-nan, we find the Lolo from the east, the Man-tzŭ from the west, and the Chinese holding the narrow strip of land which separates these alien races. Alien races, and what a contrast! On the east the Lolo, still retaining his distinctive costume, one of a nation hemmed in, but not absorbed, by the Chinese—on the contrary, able to raid and carry off into slavery the people of the country bordering on his territories; on the west the Man-tzŭ, clad in a garb differing little from that of his conquerors, timid, and ready to flee at the approach of a stranger. The Man-tzŭ women, however, like the women of all these different tribes scattered through Western China, retain the costume of their race, and, though on a less elaborate scale, dress very much like their European sisters. But the latter have not yet donned the turban, nor do they care to walk about with unshod feet. The turbans, which were mostly of brown cloth, were in many cases adorned with circlets of hogs' tusks. As among the Lolo women, strings of beads were the favourite ear-rings.


The little border town of Hui-lung-ch'ang, or Mien-hua-ti as it is locally called, lies at the base of a high mountain range running east and west. From the summit of the range, which was attained after a five hours' climb, we could make out to the south-west seven other ranges with similar directions, and in the far south a clear glittering ribbon marked the position of the Chin Chiang, the head-waters of the mighty Yang-tsze. The tops of these sandstone ranges were clad with dark pines, while the slopes were covered with rank grass and shrubbery, among which herds of ponies and water buffaloes and flocks of sheep and goats were feeding. From Chiu-ya-p'ing, a mud-walled town of some five thousand inhabitants, surrounded by the two Man-tzŭ tribes—the Li-su and the Pai-yi—two stages to the south of the Ssŭ-ch'uan-Yün-nan frontier, where I was most hospitably entertained by a French missionary on the 3rd of April, two roads lead to Yung-pei T'ing, the first departmental city within the latter province. Although we selected what was described to us as the easier road, we were obliged to make a long detour, and, instead of entering the city from the north, we actually approached it from the south. It lies in the centre of a plain some five miles long and two broad, bounded on the north by a semi-circle of mountains, on the east by a lofty range running north and south, on the west by gentle hills, and on the south by low sandstone ridges, fast disintegrating and drifting into the plain. To the south and east of these ridges were numerous pools of water and a rivulet, whose edges and banks were covered with thin coatings of soda. The sturdy little Yün-nan pony which I rode, champed at the bitterness of the water. Yung-pei itself is a city of very little importance. The plain on which it stands has a stiff clayey soil, and the beans and poppy were decidedly below the average of Ssŭ-ch'uan crops. It is, however, the point where the Burmese trade with Yün-nan by way of Ta-li Fu stops, and as such deserves mention.

From Yung-pei the road runs south-west to the edge of the plain, and then over hills clad with pine and oak, until a large expanse of water lying in a plain running north and south comes into view. On the hill-side east of the plain we saw the first traces of the great highway which, prior to the Mohammedan rebellion, is said to have connected Ta-li with Ssŭ-ch'uan; but wild grass and brushwood have all but obliterated the remains of the broad paved roadway. The lake, a fine sheet of clear water, is ten miles long, and at its broadest part about five miles across, and the road, here also paved, skirts its eastern shore. On Chinese maps the lake is called the Ch'êng Hai; but the only name known to the villagers living on its shores is the Hei-wu Hai-tzŭ, the "Lake of the Black Mist." Numerous mud villages and houses dot the plain, but they are all in an advanced stage of decay, and their inhabitants are evidently well acquainted with poverty, and are miserably clad even for a hot climate.

We crossed and re-crossed the plain to the south of the lake in search of the river, which is represented on all maps of China that I have seen as connecting the lake with the Chin Chiang, the Brius of Marco Polo. We searched in vain; we crossed one or two deep nullahs containing a little water, trickling not from, but to the lake. Further south, however, a brooklet rising in the east of the plain, and strengthened by another from the west, flows down to the Chin Chiang. As the river is approached, the plain, a great part of which was lying waste, while the remainder was growing crops of sugar-cane, cotton, poppy, and beans, contracts, and is blocked to the south by low hills, on reaching which the road turns west and south-west to the market-town of Chin-chiang-kai, on the left bank of the Golden River.

At this point the river presents a striking contrast to its appearance as it flows through the central and eastern provinces of China. About three hundred yards in breadth, its clear waters flow gently east over a bed of shingle, soon, however, to be cooped up in wild mountain gorges, and ultimately to issue as a turbid, muddy river, to become more turbid and muddy as it nears the sea. The river was still low; the melted snows from the Tibetan Mountains had not yet descended to stir the quietude of its crystal waters; but the granite foundations on which the houses of Chin-chiang-kai are built, strongly shored as they are with wooden planks at a height of fifty feet above the shingle-bed, indicate the addition which the present waters may annually expect.


Mr. Baber has already disposed of the question of the navigability of the river at a point very much farther east, and I need only remark that the queries put by me to the ferrymen on this subject were met with the answer "impossible." A few hundred yards to the west of the town of Chin-chiang-kai, where we had been warmly received by the local authorities on the previous evening (April 10th), and where we enjoyed a good night's repose undisturbed by the low murmurings of the waters on the pebbly strand, we crossed the river at a point where, flowing northwards, it bends sharply to the east. The road runs south along the soft shingle forming the right bank of the river, which is frequently concealed in its deep sandy bed as it skirts the western edge of the plain. Anon it touches the eastern edge, and at this point we looked up a long reach of the river as it flows from the west eastward, till, blocked by bold rocky heights which have repulsed its attacks, it has been compelled to seek a northern course. The roadway crosses these rocky heights and descends to the right bank of a stream, which is lost in the mighty river at the bend.

The plain or valley down which the stream flows has a most unenviable notoriety. Little can be seen in it but the ruins caused by the Mohammedan rebellion. Here a town enclosed by four walls, with open gates and streets covered with wild grass, deserted, desolate; there, the remains of houses and villages concealed under a luxuriant growth of shrubbery and cactus. Notice, too, the blackened walls which have been licked by the flames that accompanied the sword of the Mohammedans or their conquerors. Sad enough truly, but not all. A dreadful plague annually sweeps down the valley and mows down its inhabitants. Can it be wondered that few people care to risk their existence in the plague-stricken hollow, and that accommodation unworthy of the name is all that can be obtained? I managed to distribute my followers over the small village of Huang-chia-p'ing; but I was unfortunate enough to be laid up with an attack of fever, which compelled us to remain for a couple of days in a small mud stable without door or window.

But we were within three days' journey of Ta-li Fu, and the hope of reaching a state of comparative comfort spurred us on in spite of our enfeebled condition. From Huang-chia-p'ing the road at first runs west through uncultivated ground. Stone dykes peeping out here and there through rank grass and cactus, were the only traces of former cultivation; but as the road turns south-west, patches of poppy and wheat began to appear along the banks of the stream flowing north-east down the valley, and the farther we advanced the more numerous became the signs of tillage, while the slopes of the mountains flanking the valley were covered with tall grass and dwarf fir and oak. As we approached Ta-wang-miao, our eyes were gladdened, though the picture was blurred and imperfect, by the first glimpse, through the white-hot haze of the afternoon sun, of the summits of the Tsang-shan range capped with snow, at the base of which lies Ta-li Fu, the capital of Marco Polo's Western Carajan.


Dense hedgerows of sweetbriar and bramble in full bloom lined the pathway to the north and south of Ta-wang-miao and greatly impeded our advance. At a distance from the pathway, patches of ground were bright with the purple and white flowers of the poppy, while high up, white shining gravestones peeped out from the tall grass with which the hills on both sides of the valley were covered. A ridge still hid all but the summits of the Tsang-shan from our view; but when we had traversed the reddish flat which stretches north-west from the brow, a magnificent panorama of plain, mountain, and lake lay before us. We struck the eastern rim of the plain near the northern shore of the Erh Hai, in whose crystal waters, stretching southwards, the snow-capped summits of the range bounding the western edge of the plain were clearly reflected. We felt, as we gazed on the brilliant picture, that we were more than rewarded for our toilsome journey. Descending the eastern rim, we soon reached the northern margin of the lake, in skirting which we crossed a couple of streams which enter it from the north. A small temple, perched on a rocky height, stands clear out of the waters in the northern part of the lake. Than such a spot it would have been hard to find a better vantage ground from which to view the picture. The valleys to the north were full of poppies, and the white fields, which stretched along the western shore, confused the eye as they merged and were lost in the glitter of the lake.

The villages to the north of Shang-kuan—the "Upper Fortress"—are inhabited by a race called the Min-chia, no doubt Shans, who differ in manners, language, and, to a certain extent, in dress from the Chinese. Like the Man-tzŭ, they are timid in the extreme, and afraid that by fraternizing with a stranger they might compromise themselves with the Chinese. As we entered the gates of Shang-kuan on the 15th of April, I thought of the members of the French Commission, who, in 1868, narrowly escaped from it with their lives, and of the stout-hearted missionary who braved the anger of the Sultan on their behalf. Père Leguilcher still lives; he no longer hides in caves and woods, but spends a peaceful life within the very walls of Ta-li itself. At Shang-kuan we made the acquaintance of several Ku-tsung, a Tibetan tribe inhabiting the country to the north-west of Li-chiang Fu; but the term Ku-tsung is also applied by the people of Ta-li to Tibetans generally, and is synonymous with the Hsi-tsang of other parts of China. The road from Shang-kuan runs south along the plain, dividing the cultivated land, which stretches east to the edge of the lake, from the stony and rougher ground, which stretches west to the bases of the Tsang-shan, near which it is covered with mounds—the resting-places of the Mohammedan dead. Passing through the ruins which line the approach to the city, we entered the north gate of the capital of Western Carajan, and were welcomed by the Chinese authorities and no less heartily by the French and English missionaries within its walls.


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