Heinrich Handel-Mazzetti: [A Botanical Pioneer In South West China] - chapter 18


Chapter 18. The Lancang Jiang (Mekong) Valley

Secret plans — maquis and garigue — native tribes — rapids and water-gap gorges — new caravans -arbor vitae woods — rope bridges — the mission at Qzhong — Fbrrest's work — an accident — porters

From now on I had to proceed with caution if I was to avoid the unhappy fate of Gebauer, who had been prevented from travelling to the Nu Jiang (Saween) after the authorities had got wind of his plans for entering Tibet I therefore had to keep my intentions secret even from Lao Li. I decided not to go to Weixi myself, but travelled downstream instead, reaching the Lancang Jiang that very day at a pint below Beiqicun, the last village built in Chhese style. From here I continued up the some-whit monotonous, cultivated valley of the Lancang Jiaig and arrived at Xiao Weixi in the early after-nocn. I spent four days there, living in a cramped, smoke-filled loft The temperatures (36°C in the living room) were the highest I experienced in all my travels in Yunnan. I enjoyed friendly relations win the missionary Lesgourgues, ate several meals wito him and used his library. The poor fellow was utterly weary of missionary activities; thieves had broken in and stolen most of the property belonging to Slonbeig, whose deputy he was, and the mission building was sadly dilapidated and dusty.

Lao Li, not suspecting what was in store for bin, had done everything I had asked, and as the smdl detachment of soldiers in Xiao Weixi did not bother their heads about me, I resumed my journey up the Lancang Jiang on 6th September. The mis-sioiary having assured me that no one would at-tenpt to detain me on a journey along this bank, I gave up any idea of slipping unnoticed across the river at that point It was well that I did so, for, as later emerged, I would probably have met insuperable obstacles on the route along the right (i.e., west) bank [note #97 : Rock's map shows a rope bridge just below Xiao Weixi, but no path on the west side of the Lancang Jiang.]. The valley became more attractive, the hill-sices were quite steep in some stretches, and minor bends in the river brought some diversity into the landscape. On the outer side of each bend there were steep cliffs of friable phyllite rock, while rice was cultivated on the flat ground within the inner side; in some places there was a gently sloping terrace with a steep bank at the river's edge. Elsewhere the river swept round a cone of rock debris at the mouth of a lafcral valley, and the current had gnawed its way through the obstruction and then cut deep into the sold rock beneath. In other spots the river crashed held on against a cliff and was forced to turn back through ninety degrees or more until it found a way round.

The sandy lower slopes were covered with maquis consisting mainly of shrubs with small leathery leaves, notably Pistacia weinmannifolia in profusion, together with box, Cinnamomum delavayi, Ligustrum lucidum, Viburnum cylindricum and Ciionanthus retusus. With its delicate fragrant white flowers, the last of these must have been a joy in early summer, and it now bore small fruits resem-blng plums. Among them grew a small hornbeam, Cupinus monbeigiana (a new species), and Cornus capitata in great abundance, its ripening fruits emitting a scent somewhat reminiscent of raspberries. Perhaps even more extensive were the areas of garigue where most of the shrubs or undershrubs had white leaves (Buddleia incompta, though it had a somewhat rusty tinge) or felted silvery leaves (Lesp-edeza fforibunda) or looked like besoms (Excoecaria acerifolia); conspicuous among them were Ceratosti-gma minus with spikes of azure blue flowers and calyces resembling those of Statice, and Plectranthr-us rugosiformis. Scattered between them were several yellowish or brown wormwoods (Artemisia sieversiana, A. annua, A. vestita) with tufts of stiff stalks, and various steppe grasses. The trees, for the most part somewhat higher up, were Pinus yunnanensis and Keteleeria davidiana, as in similar situations on the Yunnan tableland.

Numerous small villages were scattered along the valley floor wherever level patches allowed cultivation, the first few being peopled by Bai, here known as Lama Ren, though further upstream their inhabitants were Naxi. There were also some larger villages, such as Louchang and Gangpu. The tall Naxi women wore heavy jewellery of silver and precious stones on the earlobes and the head. Dressed in long pleated skirts, singing and joking, they were at work everywhere in the fields. Even on the steepest slopes little patches of land had been planted with maize and buckwheat Chinese settlers from the lowlands had left only the valley sides for the native Lisu tribespeople. Their villages were situated a few hundred metres above the valley floor, each consisting of two lines of log houses shaded by huge broad-leaved trees, chiefly walnuts. However, there were still a few Lisu families living by the right bank of the river above Gangpu, at a cramped site where access was difficult (Lopulo, Mahalo). Beginning just above the line of Lisu villages was a zone of sombre montane forest, covering the narrow spurs which jutted out between numerous lateral valleys. Only occasionally did we see the dark igneous rock of one of the higher peaks on the main crest or an unusually tall lateral ridge. Below the Gangpu monastery the track climbed up the hillside, and where it descended again to the valley bottom, opposite Maliping, the mouth of a lateral valley debouched through a limestone cliff. This valley, running westwards and splitting into several branches, was said to be the site of some large Lisu villages (Sololo). In this stretch the Lancang Jiang ran from the northeast and had not yet succeeded in smoothing out some steeply tilted beds of hard clay-slate. Hastened by the steeper gradient its waters dashed against the rocks and recoiled from both banks to meet again hi the middle, where they reared up, hurling spray into the air. Though not far above the river, the path was hidden in dense shrub cover and afforded only occasional glimpses of the rapids, but their thunderous roar tempted me to climb down to a spot from which I could see everything, and I took some successful photographs. A few kilometres further on the river reverted to its original direction from the northwest At this sharp bend it widened [p.86:] considerably and there was an island of stones and gravel colonised by willows and tamarisks. They were old trees and some of them, long dead, stretched their branches into the air like gigantic brooms. The island extended almost to the corner of the rock face which forced the stream to the right The path, hewn out of this rock and suspended above the water, now entered the Yezhi basin. On the east bank, which was not so steep, there was a series of alluvial fans, terraced to make rice fields. Above them we saw the rock crest of the Lancang Jiang — Yangzi divide, this being almost the first glimpse of either of the main ranges which we had so far enjoyed. To the left of the path, not far above the river, was the walled town of Yezhi, the seat of a tusi whose authority ran as far as the Drung Jiang (Jiu Jiang) [note # 98: The eastern branch of the Nmai-hka — the upper reaches of the Irrawaddy — where it flows through extreme NW Yunnan (SGH).]. High up on the right, crags and towers marked the line of the crest, which came closer to the valley as it ran northwards. Before we had gone much further some huge black pinnacles came into view on the right, high above the dark forests of the Lancang Jiang — Nu Jiang divide. Down in the valley, however, the terrain remained much the same in appearance as far as Luoda, a long day's march from Yezhi.

Luoda and Dashou were two hamlets of wooden houses on terraces just above the river, which had laid down sandbanks at this point Here, where it flowed out from the bowels of the mountains, it began to deposit the products of its erosive action. Emerging between vertical precipices on either side of a ravine, the river now entered the open part of its valley system. Two pale grey limestone crags, one on each side of the gorge, made a background for the village, while further upstream the steep sides of the valley soared up to snow-flecked summits 2500m above the water. This was the end of the good road, and I therefore had to say goodbye to my honest caravanmen from Lijiang, with whom I had never had a moment's difficulty. Hewn out of the living rock, often barely half a metre wide, the main caravan route to Atendse led along the steep cliffs above the river. The loads were lashed to the pack-saddle itself, as high up as possible, with bulky objects on the air side so as not to catch on the rock face where it encroached on the path. If this happened the animal would not stand still, but would press forwards, pushing itself out from the track, and at one of the many exposed spots it might fall straight down into the river. Along the narrowest part of the defile, where it broke through vertically tilted limestone strata running north and south, there was a wooden bridge or gallery along the rock face; it even had a parapet but in both the years that I passed that way half the parapet was missing. On the opposite side, where the river dashed against the rocks, large kettle holes like smooth black cauldrons were visible when the water level was low (Fig.31). As the river rose it resumed its erosive work within them. On my side I saw the vestiges of similar kettle holes above the path, dating from an era when the gorge was not so deep. In the rock face beside the gallery there were some small openings; when one shouted into them the sound echoed through long branching passages.

Here and further upstream and in a few places lower down the arbor vitae tree (Thuja orientalis) covered wide stretches of the dry rocky slopes. Its roots found anchorage even on vertical rock faces, and its longitudinally fissured grey bark almost matched the colour of the rock; its branchlets, arborizing freely in one plane only and clad with dusty-looking grey-green scale leaves arranged vertically, presented their narrow sides to the sun. This tree, widely planted in Europe, is believed to have come originally from north east China and Manchuria, but this conjecture has never been substantiated. Many travellers and even a few botanists must have seen it growing here, but not one of them had noticed it and I was privileged to be the first to find it in the wild [note # 99: Handel-Mazzetti did not know that Forrest had found it here before him, though all the material which Forrest collected in 1905 was lost when he was pursued by Tibetans.]. It also occurs under similar conditions in the territory of the Yangzi Jiang, in the valley below Shuba, north east of Yezhi. Among other plants growing on the arid rocks, receiving a little shade from the sclerophyllous shrubs above them, were numerous orchids, now out of flower, and Hoya carnosa, a creeper with thick fleshy leaves; Sedum diymarioides, a little stonecrop with numerous glands, and the large S. indicum, Polypodium nipponicum, a fern with bluish creeping rootstocks, and a few mosses.

At river level there was no level ground at all and the sides of the gorge rose steeply to the peaks, yet there were numerous tiny hamlets clinging to the slopes. They were Tibetan settlements, most of the houses having a flat-roofed penthouse in front; some of them were topped by an upper storey in the form of a gable roofed with wooden shingles. They were ruinous and soot-blackened, and sticking up above them were clusters of bamboo canes draped with prayer flags. All of them had incense stoves, usually three side by side, looking like small kitchen ovens, in which pine needles, arbor vitae twigs and aromatic Pistacia leaves were burnt The mouths of the valleys on the west side were almost completely barred by cliffs of dark slate. High up on the western side was the village of Patong, two lines of houses crammed closely together wherever space could be found. A white building turned out to be the church: we had arrived at one of the oldest missions in Tibet Behind Patong there was a valley coming down from the mountains, but it was barred by a ridge running parallel to the river, and we had to go 3 km further up the main valley before we reached the mouth of the stream. The vertical strata running parallel to the river caused several side valleys to make a sharp bend upstream just before entering the main channel. The path was very bad here, no more than a narrow track across scree slopes, often completely covered by the downwards trickle of gravel, [p.87:] which had to be cleared away before proceeding; but such stretches would be followed by others where the path, trodden out by passing hoofs, ran over gently sloping rock ledges. The valley side sloped straight down to the eddying waters, ready to swallow up anything which rolled into them.

Beyond the mouth of the valley just mentioned were the scattered houses of Cigu. A ruined wall of white stone, the graves of the missionaries murdered by the lamas, and some Chinese burial mounds with names inscribed above them were all that remained of the mission burnt down in 1905. In that year George Forrest had spent several months botanizing on the Doker-la and above Cigu and was staying there as the missionaries' guest On receiving warning of the lamas' approach he fled with the two missionaries, but they were overtaken by their pursuers; one was killed by their arrows and the other was tortured for three days before he died. Though cut off, Forrest was able to conceal himself and survived for nine days with very little to eat In one encounter two poisoned arrows went through his hat. After sinking his boots in a stream to avoid leaving tracks, he escaped and found his way to some friendly Lisu tribesmen who hid him for four days and then guided him for nearly six days' journey southwards along the dividing range in rain and cold. During the descent he trod on a sharpened bamboo stake which went right through his foot At Yezhi the tusi fed him and gave him clothes to replace his own tattered garments and finally, still disguised as a Tibetan, he reached safety at Xiao Weixi [note # 100: Gardeners' Chronicle (1910) 3rd series, 47, 325 and 344 (Handel-Mazzetti 's note).]. Only those who have themselves seen these immense and trackless ranges can fully appreciate what a feat of endurance that was.

Between the Cigu valley and the next major lateral valley a steep ridge formed a precipice above the Lancang Jiang. On it was a small green saddle, making hardly a break in the rock face as it soared up to the peaks. From below it seemed impossible that it could really be 1300m above the river, so difficult is it to estimate heights on such steep slopes. The route to the Nu Jiang led up and over the saddle. Some 4 km upstream of Cigu there was a narrow shelf, used for cultivating rice, above the right bank of the river. Upon it, in the village of Cizhong [note #101 : Chinese — Tz'u-chung. "A scattered Tibetan village of about 30 houses, with a few Na-khi families who have settled there...and a few leper huts. The most imposing building is the Catholic church...built here after the destruction of the mission at Tz'u-ku in 1905, by Pere Ouvrard, who also built the church at Ta-chien-lu" (Rock, p. 315).], a spot less exposed to surprise attack, the mission had been rebuilt.

Dusk was falling as I, unable to find any place large enough for the tent unrolled my campbed at the rope bridge, put up the mosquito net above it and spread my sleeping bag over that to keep off the occasional showers. Lao Li sat on the path with a sour expression on his face at the prospect of what lay before him, and declared that there was no wood for the cooking fire, but his cookboy Zhafa soon found some. In the morning the locals arrived, prostrated themselves on the ground, crossed themselves and then — after we had agreed on a price very much in their favour — transported my baggage across the river. Lao Li said, "Moi pas connais passer la corde" and pretended to walk away, but I shouted fiercely at him and his fears vanished. I waited until his baggage had reached the other side and then crossed over with the intention of calling on the missionary, to whom I had already sent the bishop's recommendation card. The bamboo rope was a thick as a man's fist and on it was placed a wooden slider ("wata") with straps fastened to it Two of them went under the thighs and another under the back of the neck; then they were tied tight Holding on with both hands to the slider above, or with one on the knotted straps below, the passenger sails over the gurgling river, about 200m broad, in 15 seconds, the wind whistling in his ears. The crossing is perfectly safe unless the rope breaks, a mishap which does sometimes occur if the bridge has been neglected. If the rope is dry the first man to cross pours on oil or water, or squirts it from his mouth, for the friction is enormous. Clouds of smoke ' rising from the wata are clearly visible in a photograph of a horse crossing the bridge (Fig.30). Heavy passengers, such as I, are checked by a cord fixed at right angles to the rope so as to catch the wata, but lightweights have to haul themselves up the last stretch hand over hand, though it is of course forbidden to touch it during the transit For the first time it is somewhat hair-raising, but later it becomes quite enjoyable. As it was raining and the rope was wet the horses would have slid across too fast, arriving at the far side with a bump, and we therefore had to wait there for them. Moreover the next day was a Sunday and porters would be more easily found. This meant a further day's delay and, as funds were running low, I had to curtail my plans.

Cizhong was almost entirely pagan; the spacious mission building and the large basilica with its squat tower looked strangely out of place among the Om-mani-padme prayer flags of the Tibetans, the outward manifestations of two religions so different in essence and yet so alike in externals. Monastic life, bells, music and chanting, incense, rosaries, blessings and consecrations and the exorcising of evil spirits are common to both. Crucifixes, statues and inscriptions have their counterparts in idols, mani stones and prayer flags. Be one a believer or not one has to admit that the missionaries are utterly wholehearted in their endeavours to persuade the people to throw off the yoke of the lamas and turn to Christianity. In so doing they inevitably tend to diminish the lamas' influence in this world too, and though under the protection of the State they all too often forfeit their lives. Yet there are always successors ready to step joyfully into their shoes. They humble themselves to the level of their flock, living in the same conditions of dirt and discomfort instead of trying to teach them the fundamental rules of human dignity. Not many pure-blooded Tibetans lived in Cizhong and Cigu; most of the people were Chinese-Tibetan or Naxi-Tibetan crossbreeds, and there were also a few Sichuan Chinese, descendants of soldiers' [p.88:] families who had settled there long ago. The usual language, however, was Tibetan. Although the people were said to be a thievish lot, none of my property went astray during my several visits. The climate is unhealthy, malaria is not uncommon and there are numerous lepers. However, provided the traveller does not make any purchases from their houses and does not let them enter his own, he has nothing to fear. Naxi people were said to live in their own villages close to those of the Tibetans up the Lancang Jiang as far as Yerkalo, but Patong on the valleyside downstream from Cigu was a purely Tibetan village.

Père Valentin most obligingly found me the twelve porters required for the journey to the Doker-la and the Nu Jiang. My primary aim was to repeat the work done by Forrest on the sacred mountain — a place of pilgrimage — since his collections, which he described in glowing terms, had been lost when he had to flee from the lamas in 1905. All unnecessary equipment such as the camp table, chair and paraffin lamp was left behind. Lao Li had stepped on a Prinsepia thorn which had gone through his straw sandal into his heel. He had stopped the bleeding with salt, but told me nothing about it until it had become seriously infected. The whole foot was inflamed and foul-smelling black fluid was exuding from the wound. There was no question of his taking part in the next stage of the journey. I took a boy in his place and hired a pony so as to give my own a badly needed rest, but it proved to be one of those which would not go forwards without a man leading it by the nose. Before setting out on 13th September I had to deal with a quarrel among the men; the porters who arrived first had picked up the smallest possible loads and started off at once, leaving large amounts of baggage behind. This meant that I had to send after them and divide the loads fairly. Not far above Cizhong the Lancang Jiang makes a sharp double bend, less than 1 km in length. Having crossed the river at Cizhong, I continued upstream along the west bank. The path crossed two lateral streams and then ascended steadily to cut off a large loop caused by a ridge which projected at right angles to the valley. The higher we climbed, the more splendid was the scenery. The sides of the valley swept up steeply without any break. At the bottom there was cultivation, with picturesque clusters of dilapidated houses. Then came a zone of luxuriant mixed forest; above it were dark fir woods, and finally the rocky towers of the crest itself. Across the valley was a superb array of spires, yellow grey in the evening light Far below the river slid past in its narrow bed, its waters reddish brown in the rainy season, swinging round in sharp curves for no visible reason. The village of Tola was particularly charming, its houses in two groups on terraces across the valley, looking as if they had been glued to the steep slope. The track climbed steeply to Sera, a village more than 400m above the valley floor; it was one of the biggest in the district, consisting of three large groups of mainly stone-built houses. I slept there on a flat roof. Wu Suolong was looking closely at a box as a possible place to sleep.

"Look, there are fleas here, in broad daylight!", he exclaimed.

"Fleas? Yes, masses of them!", replied the householder soothingly.

The track went on, gradually climbing above a ravine which the river had excavated in a limestone wall projecting from the east, and then downhill again. From the top of the rise we looked upstream into a landscape of simple outlines and almost melancholy splendour. The arid sides of the river gorge, over 2000m in height, sloped down at a constant angle, uniformly furrowed and a monotonous brown in colour. Down at the bottom, near the river, their profile became slightly convex and then fell even more steeply, leaving not even the minutest level spot near the. water. From Guta, a village down a the valley bottom, we had a view downstream into the limestone ravine we had just passed. Topped by rounded shoulders, the bare vertical cliffs, curling inwards slightly as they neared the water, dropped down to the river, running quietly in its bed some 150m across. The spine-chilling illustration in 'Cooper's book [note # 102: Setting out in January 1868, Cooper travelled up the Yangtse to Chungking and overland via Tatsienlu (Kangding) and Bathang (Paan) to Atenze. He continued down the valley of the Mekong, passing through the gorge on 14 June. He named it after his friend James Hogg of Hogg Bros., Shanghai. His frontispiece shows a ravine apparently 7-15m wide and 70-100m deep with a wooden gallery along its left side, and he says this was the worst part of the gorge. After crossing the river to Tz-coo (Tzeku) he reached Weisee-foo (Weihsi), but there he was arrested and forced to retrace his route. Cooper, Thomas Thorneville, Travels of a pioneer of commerce in pigtail and petticoats; or, an overland journey from China towards India. London, 1871.] is probably based on his recollections of this gorge, which he named Hogg's Gorge. From Guta the track continued along the river. It was bordered by huge cypresses (Cupressus ducloux-iana), gigantic sombre pyramids towering into the air, as regular and uniform as an avenue of poplars. Throughout the rainy season, when the river is in flood, their tall trunks are partially immersed, and the water eats away the soil at their roots and even damages their bark. This tree was common here, growing on the steep rocky slopes together with Thuja orientalis, yet it generally prefers dry conditions, and I never again saw it in such a place, though its occurrence on the banks of the canals in the Kunming plain is in some degree comparable. A small patch of turf invited us to pitch the tent Running across it was a briskly flowing clear blue stream, tumbling down from a wild rocky gorge, and on both sides cliffs of red clay-slate soared up towards the sky, their covering of scrub vegetation untouched by man.

[chapter 19:]