Heinrich Handel-Mazzetti: [A Botanical Pioneer In South West China] - chapter 1

[page 1:] PART I 1914

The Plateau and Mountain Ranges of Yunnan and Southwest Sichuan

Chapter 1. The Journey to Kunming and Our First Expeditions

In tropical Tonkin—the Yunnan railway—the provincial capital—Europeans—Government of the province — recruiting our caravan — wild and cultivated plants — how manure is collected

Departing from Trieste on 21st December 1913, Camillo Schneider and I sailed via Alexandria, Port Said, Singapore and Saigon to Haiphong where we landed on 28th January 1914. After a railway journey broken at Hanoi, the capital of Tonkin, we reached the frontier of what was to be our area of operations, the Chinese province of Yunnan, on 1st February 1914. The twin towns of Laokay and Hekou lay on the Red River separated by its tributary the Nanxi and as they were only 90m above sea level the surrounding landscape was wholly tropical. To learn something of its flora we spent a day in Laokay, then under French control. We enjoyed the hospitality of government officials, and the next day the forest officer took us to Ngoi-ko-den, a little valley near Phomoi where the vegetation was still completely intact The side channels running into the broad river valley were largely filled with wild bananas which extended some way up the slopes; then came a jungle of huge light green bamboos, while the ridge tops were covered with broad-leaved tropical forest made up of trees of varying height including palms (Caryota mitis) interspersed with bamboos. A narrow footpath climbed up our little valley, here and there blocked by fallen bamboos or swamped by the stream. To go more than a few steps from the path was impossible, so thick was the vegetation. Bananas and other broad-leaved trees were sparser here, but there were many large ferns and interesting shrubs. Two herbaceous plants were new to science: the narrow-leaved Elatostema longistipulum (UrticaceaeX rooting among the pebbles and growing in large clumps which shaded the brook, and the stemless Begonia handelii, the largest of all Asiatic species, with pink flowers up to 11cm in diameter looking as if they had been moulded in wax. Considering that the French had recorded the area as already explored, this was a very good start to my collecting activities, though at the time I was of course unaware that the species were new.

Up to now we had formed favourable impressions from our brief stays in the clean and prosperous British and French settlements, but in Hekou our illusions were shattered. The place was nothing more than a dirty street lined by dilapidated bamboo huts, and the Customs Director, a Frenchman, had a miserable room as his office. Next morning the train carried us swiftly away from the Red River through a short tunnel to the Nanxi, which the railway, completed in 1910, follows almost to its source. It penetrates 465km into China to the provincial capital Kunming (formerly Yunnanfu) and. is a major engineering feat Driven through very difficult terrain, it cost a thousand human lives and 160 million French francs. Though Laokay is only 90m above sea level the terminus is at 1900m and the highest level is at 2025m. At another point, 650m above the West Canton River, the railway reaches 1709m. Trains ran on the narrow gauge (1m) line in daylight only, and the journey from Laokay to Kunming took two days. The Nanxi valley runs for some distance parallel to the Red River, gradually narrowing though the gradient is still slight It is bordered by steep bare slopes with a few patches of tropical forest or bush. The Chinese are the forest's worst enemy; they burn everything, even the steppe grass which replaces the trees. We saw fires everywhere on the mountainsides; the reason for them was not clear, for there was no attempt to cultivate the areas cleared by fire and they were seldom if ever used for pasture. Mucuna bracteata (Leguminosae) with racemes of almost black flowers twined up the bushes and tall grasses and filled the air with its heavy, nauseating scent. The bare landscape with its uniform steep hillsides was quite monotonous; not until we reached Wantang, where the line starts to ascend, did it become more varied.

Here the valley merged into an almost inaccessible gorge, its depths filled with virgin tropical savannah forest The line climbed over bridges and through tunnels up on to a hillside consisting of sedimentary slate capped with limestone, and through a landscape which, in its winter garb at least, reminded us of the terrain above the treeline on the Brenner pass. A detour into the side valley of the Bai He gained some 300m in height The Bai He itself was crossed by a 90m high iron bridge between two curving tunnels. With its tunnels, galleries and viaducts the line was reminiscent of the Semmering, but despite its far larger scale the barren landscape was not nearly comparable in beauty. The builders realised too late that they had chosen the wrong side of the valley, where the line cuts the steeply inclined strata which [p.2:] form the actual slope, and therefore had to contend with continual landslips, which cover the track with rubble for several months in the rainy season. Malicious tongues assert that they alternate — this year in the stretch constructed by one contractor, next year in that built by the other. After a short gorge, in which the line ran close to the stream in a cutting blasted out of the rock, the train steamed out on to the karst landscape of the Yunnan plateau, the lower slopes covered with terraced paddy fields and the heights crowned by steep jagged crests. Below Luoshuitang the line made a loop to ascend another valley, down which a waterfall tumbled, and then ran through a tunnel into the Mengzi basin.

Rice fields shimmered in the valley, and in the distance the lake came into view. The town of Mengzi, over 6km from the railway, lay in a depression of red earth divided into fields. The horizon was marked by the mountain range of Dahei Shan, none of its numerous peaks rising much above the rest Hewn out of the rock, the line ran across fissured limestone pavement, passing small hollows (polje) planted with vegetables, beans, bananas and castor oil. Elsewhere the ground was covered by tall sedges, mainly acid-loving. Ami-zhou (now Kaiyuan), on a branch of the Baida He (now Nanpan Jiang) which drains into the West Canton River, was the station where travellers spent the night From there the track went a little further down to the river itself and then straight northwards, rising gently along the well filled river. For long stretches it ran through deep gorges, their steeply sloping sides covered with a dense growth of mainly evergreen shrubs and low trees, except where the dark limestone outcropped in vertical faces. Between the gorges the valley broadened into sparsely cultivated areas with pinewoods and Yi villages, the houses built of unbaked mudbricks with minute windows and tall thatched roofs. This marked a second mistake in the planning of the railway, namely that the engineers chose this unpopulated terrain, probably because of die easier gradients, instead of the more westerly route, where prosperous towns lie in the fertile basins round the lakes. The only town which we touched was Yiliang (1690m). At the north west border of its intensively cultivated basin the railway turned sharply to the west, leaving the Baida He, and climbed steeply through a gorge with low vertical rocky walls, passing through numerous tunnels and over viaducts. We passed Lake Yangzhong Hai and, high above its west bank, reached the summit level on the Qigongpo ridge with splendid views over the azure lake, which was surrounded partly by terraced cultivation and partly by bare soil, deep red in colour, while the foreground became more and more karst-like. From there on the line ran gentry downhill. The soil turned into a yellowish brown marl. The edge of the plain was largely covered by graves and burial mounds, but elsewhere it was green with bean fields, kitchen gardens and cypress alleys, which occupied the ground between the grey-brown villages and made it difficult to get a general view of the terrain. We had only an occasional glimpse of the lake, but our gaze was riveted by the vertical precipice on its far side. Then the line curved to the right and that evening (4 February) the train steamed into the capital city of Kunming.

In the southern suburbs outside the city walls there were several hotels near the station, run by Frenchmen, Greeks, or Italians. Like all the hotels on the railway line, they were far from luxurious. We stayed at first in the Hotel Haeffner, but soon we rented a house in the city from the French Mission where we could unpack our heavy baggage and get ready our caravan. Kunming had about 100,000 inhabitants, but spread over a far larger area than such a population needs, as the rectangular plan of the city walls enclosed large areas of unbuilt on land. Broad towers rose above the narrow city gates, and over them grew the American prickly pear (Opuntia monacantha ?), naturalized everywhere in low lying spots and even on arid rocks. Where the traffic converged on the narrow gates, noise and filth reached their worst, and hundreds of water-carriers on their way from the river with open buckets over their shoulders and horses carrying pails with illfitting lids spilled so much water that pedestrians often had to wade. The air in the narrow illpaved streets was polluted by evil-smelling open drains, refuse from cookshops, dyers' vats and fishmongers' stalls, and worst of all, the contents of the residents' cesspits, carried totally unconcealed in gigantic open buckets out to the kitchen gardens. Along the streets were low wooden houses with their shutters open all day long. Glass windows were quite exceptional. There were very few houses built of stone, and most of them were shut off from the street by high windowless walls. In striking contrast were the electric light standards, which overtopped them by more than twice their height In the business quarter conditions were somewhat better, but trade was very slack, because Yunnan, in terms of agricultural produce, was the poorest province of China and its mineral resources were almost wholly unexploited. The business quarter dominated the southern part of the city and boasted a long wide street which was being levelled by a steamroller, and a park with a memorial to Sun Yatsen, the spiritual founder of the Chinese republic, wearing tail coat and top hat.

There were only a few Germans in Kunming. Living next door with his family was Herr Stiebritz, who gave us unstinted help. Not far away lived Herr Maiwald, an installation inspector with an electricity company; he rendered valuable service by recording aneroid readings as a baseline for altitude calculations during my travels. Although the salaries paid to Europeans in China may seem magnificent by comparison with incomes at home, they are soon depleted by the need to keep up appearances and to [p.3:] entertain guests, to say nothing of gambling, wine and women, and there is seldom much surplus. The French Catholic missionaries were unable to tell us much about the interior of the country, and Pere Ducloux, whose botanical activities were directed more towards plants of economic interest, was the coolest of all in his attitude towards us. The French army medical officer Dr Legendre [Note #1: From 1907 to 1912 Dr A.F. Legendre led a series of expeditions covering the country north of Kunming as far as Tatsienlou (now Kangding), their main purpose being to find mineral resources. In 1911 he and his party were attacked and robbed of all their possessions at Huangshuitang on the Jianchang river. Mission A.F. Legendre (1907-1912) Massif Sino-Thibetain....Yunnan— etudegeologique. Paris, 1916, 249 pages, 5 maps.] gave us good advice based on experience gained during his two-year expedition and most generously presented me with a proof, just received from the printers, of the map of the country which he had surveyed. Edward Amundsen [Note #2: see biographical note, page 178. ], an Evangelical missionary who had made a name for himself among geographers by his journey from Kangding to Mull, gave us much useful information and remained on friendly terms until he was recalled by the London Bible Society in the second year of the war.

Our introduction to the French general consulate brought us a friendly reception from the administrator, Monsieur Crepin. He soon referred us to the British general consul, Mr Goffe [Note #3: Herbert Goffe (1868-1937) joined the China Consular Service in 1888. While serving in Kunming (then Yunnanfu) in 1915 he referred to a missionary as "an impertinent hound— an expression quite inadequate to describe him or my feelings." [page 405]. "Inside the service, in which he was remembered for bullying subordinates, Goffe was so little liked that when he died in retirement not one of its members attended the funeral." Coates, P.O. The China Consuls— British Consular Officers 1843-1943. Oxford University Press, Hongkong 1988.], who then represented Germany and Austria as well. He was alleged to have come here because of an excessive fondness for alcohol, but his compatriots would not say much about that He did not know the interior of Yunnan, and all he could say was that travel was very difficult and that reliable servants were quite impossible to find. How were we going to convey our baggage? We were taking a caravan, we replied, and we were already looking for horses.

"I think you'd better take mules," was the only advice he could give us. However, he introduced us to the dujun (military governor), the 28 year old General Tang Rirao, and also to the civil governor of the province. The yamen (government building) was situated on the most elevated point in the city, designed in the European style and looking like an elongated warehouse with large windows. Troops were quartered there, and it also housed the political prisons of the "free republic" behind a high wall, vigilantly guarded from the other side. False notes from the buglers resounded over the city all day long. We arrived in sedan chairs; at each gate the sentry presented arms, and we were led through passages and courtyards to the reception chamber. Champagne and cakes were served, and our passports from Beijing were inspected with approval, although the special recommendation which we had been promised had not yet arrived from there. However, what they said to us was no more encouraging than the consul's words: "The men whom you engage will all run away at the end of a week."

Our first attempts to recruit servants, made while we were still in the hotel, were not very promising. One fellow, glistening with grease from top to toe and reeking of garlic even at a range of several yards, turned his back on us and spoke over his shoulder. He valued his services at no less than 30 dollars [Note #4: Mexican dollar, not the official tael (=$1.40), was the currency in general use. Before the 1914 war its value was one tenth of a pound sterling (two shillings), half a US dollar or roughly two German marks.] a month. Soon afterwards we received a visit from a man called Li, of lean physique and short stature, whom we engaged. He was intelligent and self-confident, and spoke enough French for us to communicate with him. Servants working for Europeans in Yunnan speak a deformed and distorted language which may be termed pidgin French, by analogy with the pidgin English used in eastern China, the first language which every English resident has to learn. "Moi pacler lui, M pas complend," is a small sample. As my own servant, I engaged on probation another man called Luo, but he soon began to ape the manners of a gentleman, came to work in a sedan chair, showed himself incapable of asking the name of a village, and even attempted to hatch clumsy plots against Li. However, Herr Maiwald supplied us with eight reliable coolies.

Our house and garden were now hives of activity. Waterproof material was stitched into sacks for packing plants and paper, while walls of the same fabric were sewn on to the flysheet of the tent to provide sleeping quarters for the coolies. We bought giant bales of Chinese paper, which is well suited for pressing plants, and employed a horde of women to fold it into convenient sizes. Horses were tried, rejected or finally purchased, but always at a substantial premium, for in the first year the greenhorn has to pay dearly for his experience. One example will suffice to illustrate the crooked tricks practised on travellers not yet conversant with the language. Schneider once sent a man from Lijiang to Heqing, a day's journey away, to buy eight dollars' worth of paper. As he happened to be visiting the local official he asked for a soldier to accompany the [p.4:] man. The official assented, but Li mistranslated his reply and told Schneider that the official regarded the purchase of paper as being no concern of his. Schneider was affronted, threatened to report the matter to Beijing and withdrew. The official, astonished at the effect of his words, must have realised that Li had not interpreted his reply correctly, and related the incident to the missionary, explaining that even if the foreigner required four soldiers he would be obliged to provide them. Meanwhile the man went by himself, came back with a minute parcel of paper and asserted that the rest had been confiscated by the lijin (inland customs). In reality he had split six dollars with Li.

It is a well known fact that, with few exceptions — and China is not among them — railway construction costs the same in all parts of the world, for wherever materials are dear labour is cheap. The railway from Changsha to Zhuzhou in Hunan, however, although built under the easiest possible conditions, was the most expensive in the world, for it was constructed by the Chinese themselves and they stole much of the materials. Yet when a German firm built an electricity station and kept matters in their own hands, even paying the coolies directly, they were astonished to find how little it cost.

A German working for the Chinese Post Office kindly agreed to recruit a caravan for us and despatched two of his Chinese officials to look for men and horses. At last the contract was presented to us: a large sheet of paper with the seals of several merchants acting as guarantors. Fifty cents per horse per day was the going price, but they had failed to set a lower charge for rest days as was customary. An advance payment of eight hundred dollars of the expected total of twelve hundred dollars would, they said, save us the trouble of carrying large sums with us, but it was a nasty pitfall for us — beginners as we were in Chinese business dealings. Our boy Li examined the contract — only because he saw no chance of making anything for himself out of it — and soon discovered that some of the seals lacked the signatures which should have accompanied them. Enquiries revealed that the merchants in question did not wish to repudiate their guarantees entirely, as the request had originated from the Post Office, but that they knew nothing of the mafu (the owner of the pack animals). Out of the advance payment two hundred dollars had allegedly disappeared into the pockets of the Chinese post officials, though it was generally believed that they had really been appropriated by our worthy fellow-countryman. For some time afterwards he told everyone whom he invited to dinner how much it had cost him, and on a later occasion, when reproached with dishonesty in organising the caravan, he replied: "I simply procured the caravan for the gentlemen; if they entered into the agreement, that's no fault of mine." The twenty five animals proved far too few for our enormous pile of baggage, and Li engaged another caravan of ten animals for the same price as far as Ningyuan.

For the most part February was cool and dry, the temperature fluctuating between 4° and 20° C and the lowest humidity being 34%. We of course were keen to spend every available day in exploring the district and its flora. Despite the dry winters the grasslands which covered the mountainsides offered a few flowers, among them the little Viola philippics, the nodding white blooms of Gerbera henryi, the pinkish mauve Edgeron praecox, closely resembling our native E alpinus, the small yellow Crepis acaulis, a low growing yellow green spurge (Euphorbia prolifera), a pink gentian (Gentiana duclouxti) and a bellflower with small blossoms on slender stalks (Wahlenbergia gracilis). Towards the end of February the dwarf shrubs of the grassland were already in full bloom. A small rhododendron with bristly hairs (R. spiciferum, now R. scabrifolium var. spiciferuni) grew everywhere, as did the hairy Vaccinium fragile with reddish leaves, the white Spiraea scbochiana with miniature umbels in rows along its twigs, a stiff thorny Herberts with tiny seagreen leaves (B. wilsonae) and various species of Papilionaceae including the delicate Campylotropis polyantha and the prostrate Desmodium microphyllum. A characteristic plant of the steppe grassland was the fern Gleichenia linearis. Our fellow countrymen usually chose the neighbouring temples as destinations for their outings, the main theme of which was plenty to eat and drink. We visited them in the hope of botanical novelties, for in their vicinity the woods were protected and hence well preserved. The nearest was the copper temple, Jindian Si, which lay to the north east only a little above the plain, here covered with numerous villages. Their houses were built of unbaked mudbricks and their high roofs were of a kind which I never saw again. Besides curving outwards at the bottom in the well known Chinese style, they swelled out into a rounded shape at the top near the ridge, so that viewed from the gable end they looked like a longitudinal section through a bell. The sparse woods consisted chiefly of three species, a pine, a fir and an oak. Pinus yunnanensis with its slender pale green needles up to 20 cm long and its long thick male catkins, now shedding their pollen, made a much more pleasing impression than our pines. Keteleeria davidiana, a stately tree with dry grey-green needles, resembles the firs, though spreading out more widely as it grows, and is actually related to them, as shown by the structure of its long cones. Quercus variabilis was in flower and was putting out narrow leaves with long slender teeth, while last year's withered leaves still hung on the branches. The undergrowth consisted of scrub together with the herbaceous plants and grasses of the steppe, while ferns, clubmosses and mosses flourished along the sides of the channels. Behind [p.5:] the temple were some springs, and the boggy ground around them looked as if it were covered by snow, so dense were the masses of small flower heads of Eriocaulon schochianum (a new species). Here and there was a primula (P. pseudodenticulata).

Before long we made a profitable three day trip to the electricity works at Shi Longba, setting out along the main road to Dali and Burma. This was one of the better maintained caravan routes, although the horses were continually slipping on the irregular stones, many of which were set at an angle, worn down or hollowed out On the western mountain ridge we left the road and turned south west, marching over broad gently sloping hills through almost unpopulated country. Yet not much of the forest remained. After being chopped down and burnt, the pines yielded nothing more than a low tangle of scrub, while wide stretches were covered by sparse thorny bushes. As yet there was little in flower, through some of the evergreen shrubs such as Thea speciosa (Camellia saluenensis) and the magnolia-like Michelia yunnanensis bore large and magnificent blossoms. Pieris japonica [Note #5: Correctly Pieris formosa (P. japonica is not recorded from China). Symbolae Sinicae, VII, 790.] would be inconspicuous but for the clustering of its countless white bells into semi-erect panicles. Everywhere the red earth — either terra rossa from the weathering of the limestone or soil derived from the sandstone — imparted its colour to the landscape. We often encountered steep-sided channels with marshy bottoms, bordered by small bamboos and a jasmine with large yellow flowers (J. mesnyi). The outflow from the lake, the Pudu He, provided power for the hydroelectric station 30km from Kunming. A day's stay gave us an opportunity of making close investigations, but we did not find much new and on 21st February we returned.

The hill to the north, Changchong Shan, rises 500m above the city in irregular summit cliffs of serrated Devonian limestone strata and later became my favourite outing. A visit to the temple on the Xi Shan, the rock wall which rises from the western side of the lake, took a day. We went there on 1st March accompanied by a party of some size. From the west gate of the city we were towed in a houseboat along a narrow canal to the lake. Not until we entered the lagoon at the end of the lake was the sail hoisted. Chinese smells were everywhere as we squeezed between the closely packed boats, for some of them, filled to overflowing and totally uncovered, conveyed the contents of the city's latrines out to the fields, while others carried large piles of waterweeds. These stoneworts grew in great abundance in the lagoon and because of their richness in lime the Chinese valued them for use as manure. Mixed with mud, they were plastered into flat cakes and left to dry (Fig. 2). The manure-based economy is one feature of Chinese life which constantly obtrudes upon the foreigner's eyes and nose. As only a few oxen are needed for draught, all the cultivated land is pervaded by the stench of latrines. Yet the Chinese know how to exploit horse dung, which they collect by laying straw along the caravan trails, usually where they run between earth banks or between baulks of timber laid on either side. We met boats laden with fruit and vegetables or with limestone for the city, some carrying whole families and holiday parties and others steered by a solitary woman with her baby slung on her back. When the wind was contrary the crossing took several hours. The view was obscured by islets of reeds, on which masses of primulas (P. hypoleuca) were in flower, together with Eriocaulon sehochianum and later the tall blue Iris phragmitetorum, a new species. In the water there were various kinds of Potamageton together with Xystrolobos yunnanensis with yellow flowers in juicy floating sheaths with soft spines — a species discovered here — and other plants, not to mention the microscopic fauna and flora which were so abundant as to make the water quite turbid. We landed where a narrow spit projected from the left, demarcating the deeper part of the lake, and went up a steep path with stone steps, first through bushes intertwined with lianas, white grapevines and the yellow Senecio scandens and then through woodland. The temples were 360m above the lake and from the highest a passage hewn out of the rock led to the left through arched gates and a short tunnel on to the vertical rock face, from which we had a bird's-eye view of the lake and the plain. The main canals, bordered by avenues of sombre cypresses, ran from afar towards us across the wide expanses of land which their waters have irrigated for more than five centuries. Their construction was begun by the Mongolian emperor Kublai Khan and today they are still of great benefit to the Mohammedan people of Yunnan. Primula duclouxii grew in moist shady rock crevices. The tall Japanese Cryptomeria, evidently planted, grew round every temple, but Cupressus duclouxiana grew wild up to the crest.

On the plain the sweet scented beans (Vicia faba) had gone over, and with them the flowers of the common small Primula androsacea (P. forbesii var.androsacea), the clover-like Parochetus communis with solitary flowers of splendid skyblue and some other weeds familiar among our European flora. After the bean harvest, the peasants were beginning to flood the rice fields and to cultivate them with primitive light-weight ploughs drawn by water buffaloes. Each peasant sows his rice in a nursery plot. When the young plants are about one span (20 cm) tall he digs them up and plants them out in rows in the rest of his fields. The rice field landscape looked totally unnatural and with its patches of muddy water divided by narrow dykes and terraces was far from beautiful. It was, however, an eloquent token of human industry and yielded a [p.6:] bountiful harvest. The water was raised from the channels into the terraced fields by water wheels which in these parts were operated solely by manual power. Small wooden plates threaded on to cords fitted closely into a wooden gutter which might be as much as two metres long; this chain of paddles was kept in motion by turning one or sometimes two axles and propelled the water along the gutter.

By the end of the first month, before setting off into die interior, we already had several crates of specimens and photographs ready to send home. The pictures included some striking Autochromes of temple interiors, their vivid colours being more pleasing than the grotesque images housed within them (Fig. 1).

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