Heinrich Handel-Mazzetti: [A Botanical Pioneer In South West China] - chapter 27

[p.121:] Chapter 27. Exploration on the Nu Jiang; Back to Cigu

The plant collectors depart for the Gomba-la — die Gongshan — wild rumours — the collectors return Jiang — extortion

Although the Qunatong district might have been expected to offer a foretaste of the arid Tsarong and to be much drier than Gongshan and its surroundings, that was not my experience, even though it was true of the talus bank beside the stream, on which Lycoris autea was flourishing, its large yellow flowers appearing before the leaves. Pere Genestier found lodgings for me in a Nu house and we exchanged gifts as guest and host customarily do in China; he gave me fresh meat and I gave him earned foods. He was a man of wide experience, free from prejudice of any kind, and a good naturalist I spent many a pleasant hour in his company, enjoying a never-failing supply of sweet Spanish altar wine. But the best thing he offered me was a set of herbarium sheets of spring-flowering plants, eleven in number, which I chose from his collection, most of which had been sadly damaged by insects. I used his help as interpreter when I wanted to give Lao Li and He instructions for collecting material from the giant conifer, which still puzzled me, and the late summer flora of the Nu Jiang - Irrawaddy divide round the lake and on the slopes of the Gomba-la above it. I could not blame the men for being reluctant to go back there; the reasons which deterred me from another high alpine expedition to that district applied with equal force to them. We had all had enough of those scrambles. He, who was already somewhat disgruntled, declared that he was going straight back to Lijiang. Lao Li burst into tears and said that he would do the journey with me, but was not willing to travel into the mountains without He, accompanied only by Tibetans and Nu tribesmen as porters; the sum of money which I offered left them both unmoved.

"In that case you won't get the big gratuity; that was promised only if you carry out my plans exactly as I wish," said I.

"We would rather go back home as beggars than go up there yet again," was He's rejoinder, delivered with the assurance of a man who was the owner of several houses.

It seemed that I had no option but to execute my plan myself, the main consideration which held me back being the lamentable state of my boots. I ordered the cook to get everything ready for the trip, and the faithful Lao Li declared that he would not desert me. But now the cook in his turn was greatly upset, for he too shared the emotions which we all felt The cook then managed to persuade He to carry out the original project in conjunction with Lao Li, as he wanted to avoid the journey and to save himself the trouble of doing the cooking — not an easy task on the Nu Jiang. Next day, however, they actually set off. I had promised them a few dollars extra for flowers or cones from the mysterious conifer.

INear Qunatong there were rocks of crystalline limestone jutting out of the forest on this side of the river is well as the other, and according to Kingdon Ward there are large stretches of limestone further great gorge of the Nu Jiang — renewing a rope-bridge — — over the Xi-la — a robbery — famine on the Lancang north in the Doker-la [note # 134: F. Kingdon Ward travelled up the Salween in June 1911 and refers to "a wonderful limestone gorge" above Aben on the ascent to the Doker-la. (The Land of the Blue Poppy, Cambridge, 1913, p. 101). He revisited Qunatong (Kienuatong) in November 1913 (Mystery Rivers of Tibet, London, 1923, p. 186)] valley in Tsarong. I staked out a baseline on the horizontal ridge between the two streams and on 12th August, in order to obtain a third azimuth, I visited the corner at the exit from the great gorge through which the Nu Jiang flows down from Tibet From these I was able to take cross-bearings on points which I had surveyed from the baseline at Bahan the year before, and hence establish the position of the new baseline in relation to the old. Opening upstream before me was one of the most impressive vistas I have ever beheld, not a far-ranging and diversified prospect, but an almost too narrow and confined spectacle of sombre magnificence, a picture of nature herself totally unspoiled by the hand of man, for the river gorge was without a path of any kind; only when the water level was exceptionally low was it possible to walk along the sand of the river bed itself, and the track from Qunatong ran high up over the mountains [note # 135: There was in fact a path through the granite gorge upstream from Qunatong (Tjionatong). Kingdon Ward travelled it in January 1914 and describes a perilous journey: "For a couple of miles the path, through scrub forest, soon two or three hundred feet above the river, was easy enough, but presently we came to a series of terrific granite precipices ... Smooth waffs of rock 20 and 30 feet high faced us, and to negotiate them long thin tree trunks, with notches for steps, led from ledge to ledge..... No wonder the natives prefer crossing the mountain to going through the granite gorge" (Mystery Rivers of Tibet, London, 1923, p. 258-9).] . On that day the brown waters of the Nu Jiang came roaring, foaming and swirling down the gorge, crammed , between vertical cliffs of brown rock. Continuing immediately above them, the sides of the valley sloped upwards at an angle of 60, on the right for over 2000 m and on the left, though out of sight, to an even greater height. The slopes were covered by dark forest, broken only by rock outcrops. The view extended north-westwards up the gorge to a point 8 km distant where it was blocked by the huge rock massif which guards the Tibetan frontier. Its jagged summit, 4500 m above sea level, rose 2700 m above the river. Opening at its foot, in a re-entrant behind the Gomba-la, at a point concealed by projecting cliffs, was the lateral valley the headwaters of which I had seen on my return journey from the Irrawaddy. The crate which I had ordered to be sent from Bahan now arrived after two days' delay, as the porter had been afraid to use the ropebridge and had taken a roundabout route along this side of the Nu Jiang. On 14th August I left Qunatong with Lii as my plant collector instead of the other men whom I had sent off to the Gomba-la. Acting on Genestier's advice, I had sent a message to the new official at Gongshan asking him to have the ropebridge renewed as the old one was too dangerous; here on the [p.122:] Nu Jiang they did not last long, and on one occasion two out of a party of four travellers had been drowned. He replied that the bridge would be open on 13th August. On reaching the bridge located between Qunatong and Wuli we found that its ropes, though not new, did not look unduly old, and we began cautiously to cross, though it creaked most alarmingly. When nearly all of us had crossed, a large party of Nu tribesmen arrived bringing the new ropes, which appeared to have been insufficiently twisted and badly knotted. They offered a good opportunity for group photographs, but otherwise were of no use to me. They set to work at once. Most of them crossed over, wound one end of the new rope round the old for some distance and lashed them together at several points. The old rope was then cut free, and a large gang, hauling with all their might, pulled the heavy load out of the water, which seemed reluctant to let it go, wound the rope round the post on the far side and tied it securely in place. To tighten a rope which has slackened needs six men, and is no light task. Down by the river the air was humid and sultry, and the plant life was of a kind to be expected under such conditions. Woodland of maquis type as in the Lancang valley is found in only a few places on the Nu Jiang; for the most part it was subtropical rainforest, with a profusion of orchids (Cymbidium giganteum) on the treetrunks, though their flowers were alas over, and I found a new Gesnerad with purple flowers (Lysionotus sessilifolius) creeping over the rocks. I stopped for the night in Sitjijong [note # 136: Ssu-chi t'ung on Rock's map.]so as to be able to collect plants at leisure, but made no new discoveries of any great interest

Having arrived in Gongshan [note # 137: Ch'ang-p'u-t'ung on Rock's map. Tra-mu-tang in Kingdon Ward's books — also T'sam-p'u-t'ong (The Land of the Blue Poppy, Cambridge, 1913, p.84).] I paid my visit to the official and spent the night in his office. Formerly there was a large lamasery [note # 138: The lamasery, built in 1765, was burnt down in 1905 by Chinese soldiers sent to avenge the murder of the Catholic priest and the destruction of the mission at Bahang. (Rock, page 336 and Plate 193).] in Gongshan, but the monks had dispersed and become peasants and the flow of novices had dried up. The temple walls and the statues of the gods were now crumbling beneath the collapsing roofs. At one time the Chinese had established a military post there, but a few years ago, alarmed by rumours that the Tibetans were approaching from Tsarong, the soldiers hastily fled, and Gongshan had lost any importance it may once have had [note # 139: lt is now the administrative centre of the Gongshan Drung and Nu Autonomous County, established in 1956 (SGH).]. The official was of junior rank and had only two soldiers under him. That autumn, however, I heard stories that a town was to be built there as base for trade with Tsarong. As I had now completed what I had set out to do, I could afford to disregard the expressions of dismay and concern which crossed the face of the official as he listened to my servant's hurried account of my journey to the Drung Jiang, and his description of the savages who did not wear any clothes; it was now too late for him to interfere. The flat alluvial fan of Gongshan was covered by moist meadows in which Hypericum hookerianum and Pieris ovalifolia were numerous. Because of some legal objection raised by the Chinese the people were not allowed to grow rice there, although the terrain would have been ideal with it. There were two deep, steep-walled trench-like valleys — one carrying the tributary from the Gumbalo valley and the other, much shorter, lying immediately to the north. Near the foot of the mountain they approached closely to one another, cutting channels through the alluvial fan, and from some viewpoints creating an impressive effect by their sheer simplicity of form. In the afternoon I walked downstream along the bank of the Nu Jiang, where I collected a creeping and climbing Gesnerad with scarlet flowers (Aeschynanthus cAorasepa/us) and some lichens and mosses living on leaves. After crossing the Nu Jiang I slept at Tjionra and on the evening of 18th August arrived once more in Bahan, riding on my horse which had been fetched for me by a porter sent on in advance.

In Bahan I received letters from home — the first to have reached the Nu Jiang — and reports of unrest on the Tibetan border to the north; there were fears for the safety of the mission at Yerkalo (Dsakalo) [note # 140: Yanjing (Tsha-kha-lo) on the Lancang Jiang.]. The Chinese also asserted that serious disturbances were imminent in Dali and perhaps throughout Yunnan. Lii, the headman and landowner of Ngulu-ke, was said to be extremely anxious. The men who brought these reports had come there to purchase native herbal medicines and were obviously trying to depress prices — an instance of market-rigging on the borders of Tibet! I climbed up once again into the forest behind the mission to look for an unusual tree which Genestier had described to me. It proved to be Magnolia rostrata. As my guide I had taken with me my host in Bahan, who was also the local headman and landowner. With his hatchet he chopped out notches in two tree-trunks, put them together and climbed up barefoot to procure some of the old infrutescences, as I had not previously been able to reach any.

On 22nd August my collectors returned with a splendid haul amounting to seventy-five botanical specimens. They also brought plenty of ripe cones from the conifers which had aroused my interest The branches were closely covered with small scale-like leaves and divided into numerous twigs, the cones being located at their tips. They had had to fell one of the trees and charged me an extra 20 cents for the hire of a small hatchet borrowed from a Tibetan. Considering the long hours of work which this must have cost diem, I paid it gladly. I immediately sent a specimen to Camillo Schneider at the Arnold Arboretum, and in the following winter received his identification: it was Taiwania cryptom-erioides, a genus discovered on Formosa in 1905 and first described in 1906. Some of the porters failed to arrive in Bahan until late that evening and one tent [p.123:] load was missing. At noon next day a man from Meradon brought it up and said that the porter responsible for it had absconded. I withheld payment, and was then confronted by about a dozen men. mostly Chinese, who wanted me to pay the debts owed to them by the porter who had run off. One of them had lent him $1, another $3; their claims totalled about $20, all at good rates of interest, while my liability to the missing porter amounted to only $5. I gave them that sum to share out, laughed scornfully at them for having lent money so indiscreetly, and threw them out If they caught him they would certainly give him a sound thrashing and that, according to the ideas of justice in that remote spot, would wipe out the debts as effectively as if they had been repaid. In addition the silly ass would be forced, amid general merriment, to distribute his wages to all and sundry and would have been beaten for good measure.

I let the men rest for two days and then set off once more along the track to Cizhong, taking with me as porters some of the numerous people who had come from there to Bahan as soon as they heard of my impending departure. Pere Ouvrard once more took charge of my barometer so that I could ascertain the altitude difference between Cizhong and Bahan from a short series of observations. The gallant fellow, to whom I am deeply indebted, stood there waving long after I had departed. I crossed the Xi-la, halting at the same places as in 1915 though I lost my bearings because of poor visibility, and reached the crest at a point somewhat to the south. I sent ahead all the things I had finished with and took shelter in a hut not far from my highest campsite on the outward journey (Dotitong) in the hope, weather permitting, of climbing the highest peak in the vicinity. As I had just confirmed, this was located near the origin of the first lateral valley to the west and was accessible through it. However, mist and drizzle persisted until midday, and I finally struck camp, reaching Cizhong in the evening of 29th August

Here I was presented with a collection of some two thousand butterflies which the people had assembled at my request Unfortunately —despite the good training which the missionaries had given the collectors — barely one quarter of them were in usable condition. On 31st August I sent a messenger to Bahan to fetch my barometer on the following day. However, on the same afternoon he came back, greatly excited, with the news that there were "two hundred" Lisu tribesmen in the Saoa-lumba; they were robbing all the buyers of medicinal herbs and assaulting anyone who opposed them. These reports were confirmed by several other people coming from the mountain. Yet a second messenger, sent off soon afterwards, got through without any trouble and found no remaining traces of the Lisus' presence. Probably their raid was, as usual, aimed at the flocks guarded by the shepherds on the mountain pastures, but conceivably they were looking for me; whatever the truth of the matter, it was indeed fortunate that my journey along that route had been completed some days earlier, at a time when there was not the slightest hint of any trouble. I now spent some time in purchasing objects of ethnographic interest Here again I was lucky: on the Lancang Jiang the weather had been exceptionally dry; the maize bore small deformed cobs or none at all, and in the buckwheat fields there was no more than a little red patch in the middle. Famine compelled the people to sell everything they possessed and buy rice in Weixi. Some families had already emigrated and banditry began to flare1 up again in the Lancang Jiang valley, where it had long been almost unknown. I was accordingly able to purchase religious objects which their owners would normally have been reluctant to part with. In these negotiations Li Tere and a man from Sichuan acted as middlemen; chaffering beneath my window, the latter shamelessly extorted his own rake-off from each of the vendors and would not let them come up and see me until I intervened to enforce fair play; even then, however, he found other excuses — the owner of the object was on the other side of the river, and so on. Li Tere swindled a poor old lama out of two thirds of the price of his prayer wheel. When his misdeeds came to light he broke down in tears, but both of them had lost face with the villagers. On 6th September I went up the Lancang Jiang valley to Sere, where I photographed a few important subjects omitted in 1915 because of lack of plates, and then said farewell to that land for ever.

[chapter 28:]