Heinrich Handel-Mazzetti: [A Botanical Pioneer In South West China] - chapter 35


Chapter 35. To Liping Via Rongjiang

On the Du Jiang river — tropical plants — river bank shrubs — an eventful boat trip — Rongjiang and Mount Baotie Shan — Central Chinese architecture — bandits — the Shui — buffalo breeding — Liping and Mount Nanjing Shan

"T* hough not of any great size, Sandu was quite an important reshipment town for trade with Gua-ngxi. On the road leading to it we met several pack-animal caravans, but the traffic at that season did not seem to be very heavy. At Sandu all merchandise was loaded on to boats on the Du Jiang [note # : The lower reaches of the Du Jiang are called the Liu Jiang; the whole river is often known as the Du Liu Jiang (SGH).] , and as [p.151:] the road along the river was barely passable even for unloaded horses, I had to hire two boats at 6 dollars each to convey my baggage to Rongjiang. This transaction, together with certain other tasks — sorting out my dried plants and having my campbed repaired — took all afternoon. Early next morning I mounted my mule intending to ride with the unloaded caravan, for I certainly did not wish to sit in a boat and sail past all sorts of glorious plants without being able to collect them. It was 90 li to Dujiang. The boat got there easily by midday, but the journey by road left little time to spare for botanical work if I was to reach the town by nightfall. We had to cross the river four times and although, after the first of the horses had been loaded into the ferrytoat, the rest of them swam across without urging, the delays were always ample for my purpose. I paid each of the ferrymen the same amount — a handful of copper cents — and it was amusing to set; how some of them accepted it with folded hands iind deep obeisances as if they could not thank me sufficiently, while others glanced contemptuously at the money and muttered: "That's nothing like enough!"

The track was certainly very bad and narrow, and in parts there were flights of steps built from round boulders flung down at random. However, my mule was an agile beast and bounded up them four or five steps at a time; all I had to do was to keep my seat in the saddle. The head mafu, an idle fellow, had slipped away when my back was turned and had found a place on one of the boats. He had given me only two of his men — not enough to keep the animals on the steep track and prevent them from straying to right or left. That evening we came to a place where a landslide had blocked the track and we had to find a way round it. Then there was a bridge consisting of only one beam. Because of these delays it was dusk when I arrived at Shuixing, the boatmen's village on the river below Dujiang. My two collectors and I had been fully occupied all day, for the plant life, rich and luxuriant, was different from anything I had seen before; hi its powers of regeneration, obviously encouraged by the sultry humid air of that shut-in valley, it resembled the vegetation of the tropics and seemed to bid defiance to man's efforts to destroy it. Croton tiglium, a little tree with light green leaves, was frequent and evidently wild. It is poisonous, and one of its small seeds is enough to produce a violent purgative effect. Ficus hirta, a fig with large leaves and golden bristles, was not uncommon. Meliosma fordii, a tree thickly covered with tiny reddish flowers, gave off a sweet scent of honey; Erdysanthera rosea, a climber with large panicles of quite showy pink flowers, was scrambling over the shrubs, but Mussaenda wilsonii and M. puberula, each of their deep yellow flowers flanked by a single enlarged calyx lobe, were l;ss conspicuous. On the other bank of the river, unfortunately out of reach, I saw several examples of a small dark green palm, undoubtedly distinct from Trachycarpus excelsa. Saccharum arundinaceum, growing in separate clumps, covered extensive tracts of wind-blown sand beside the river.

Its leaves alone were tall enough to overtop a rider, and its silvery flowering panicles rose up higher still. Growing in large numbers beneath it was a fern (Nephwdium prolifemni). The tips of its fronds curved down until they rooted in the ground and then, creeping further along, sent up more and more new fronds. The enormous Crinum latifolium, a new species with snow-white flowers and huge leaves 10 cm broad, was much less common.

The water was not high, but on the banks it had left clear marks of the level to which it rose and obviously remained for some long time every year. In narrow stretches of the valley this was as much as 7 m above the present low water level. Where the banks were lower this strip spread out over considerable distances, but it was far from barren. Growing on it was a wide variety of shrubs from different families, all of them having pliable branches which bent before the torrent and survived undamaged. In some places they formed thickets as tall as a man, with grass and leaves carried by the flood waters hanging from their upper branches. Willows, figs (Ficus pirtfotmis), oleasters (Elaeagnus lanceolata), representatives of the myrtle and laurel families .(Syzygium odoratum, Machilus salicina with juicy blue-black fruits), Distylium chinense, Comus paucinervis, and the pretty Adina globiflora with dainty globular heads of pink and white flowers flourished here, and on the bare rock was a low growing box, Buxus harlandii The only other plants in this zone were grasses, notably the new Arundine-lla fluviatilis which grew abundantly in sand-filled rock fissures, and lichens, including the black Heppia applianata and another species, white in colour, which in my haste I was unable to knock down from the rocks where it was growing. The task of putting all these treasures in the plant press kept me busy until late that night, more especially as I was delayed by a visit from an official who arrived with two policemen to shut down the gambling dens on the boats which were anchored there in large numbers, and then wanted me to visit him in the little town above the river.

I decided to spend the next day there so as to explore certain promising spots on the river and at the mouths of its lateral gorges. For this purpose I used the boats, and as river pirates were active, I was given an escort of four policemen. I took one with me on my boat and left three on the other. The boat slipped past the mouths of several steep-sided ravines filled with sombre woodland, but alas we found nowhere to land. On the previous day, as luck would have it, all the gorges had been on the opposite side of the valley, and the wild bananas — undoubtedly an interesting species, one of several which are known to occur in South China — the gigantic leaves of Alocasia, and heaven knows what other hidden treasures remained for ever beyond my grasp. The local banyan, Ficus parvifolia, grew in the depths of the gorges, its plant-like buttress roots exposed, but it was also planted in the villages for the sake of the shade cast by its huge dark crowns, and I had already obtained flowering branches. The water level was just right for our trip. In some places, where the river surged down over the pebbly [p.152:] bottom, the boat pitched and rolled and leapt, spray spattering across the deck. At other spots the stream was broad and level, but between the rock walls ahead there was a narrow opening towards which the boatmen had to steer. There the boat rode up over the torrent with its prow in the air, plunged down in an arc and dipped deep into the water again before levelling out. It was a delightful trip, and perfectly safe, for the Miao boatmen, whose speech with its numerous terminal A-sounds reminded me of the Bai language [note # 175: The languages are not generally thought to be related, but the affinities of the Bai language are disputed (SGH).], were fully equal to their task. They knew every little cranny in the rock where they could insert their long poles, and they used them to control the boat at sharp corners where it threatened to hurtle down against an overhang with sinister whirlpools eddying beneath it Then they shoved will all their might until the danger of shipwreck was past and they could resume their cheerful singing. At last we came to a little cove at the opening of one of the side valleys on the right where I was able to land. The steep hillside was shaded by huge trees, among them Liquidambar formosana, Castanopsis fissa, Myrica esculenta and Schima crenata. Beneath them was a dense understorey of large ferns (Gleichenia glauca). I worked my way upwards, clinging to their tough stalks, and collected the mosses growing on the ground, notably the tropical Bazzania tridens. Along the lateral stream I found a few other items of interest, including Ficus sordida (a new species of fig), Embelia parviflora and Polypodium coronans. All told, however, the day's booty was not very large, and I searched in vain for another good place to land. From there onwards until we arrived at Tiantang the only sights which attracted my attention were the Miao villages, some of them on the green valley sides, steep but not very high, and others by the water's edge.

At Tiantang the valley was not so narrow and much sand had been deposited. Indeed, it was evidently so deep that the ordinary shrubs of the riverbank were unable to find a foothold in it, though Pterocarya stenoptera was established within the flood zone, where its straight robust trunks were a match for the water. The scenery was unattractive, though there was some diversity in geological structure: the almost horizontal greywacke which had accompanied us all the way from Sandu reappeared near Rongjiang dipping vertically at right angles to the river and was then overlaid by conglomerate with an eastwards dip — which formed bulging convex rock faces — with a layer of marl superimposed. A number of floating mills in the mouth of a tributary on the left heralded our approach to the town of Rongjiang, which our boats reached a few minutes later. Though my boat (rip ended there at midday on 19th July I had to wait another day for the caravan, for the men had decided to take their time over the journey from Tiantang and enjoy the comforts of the boat trip. I was glad of the delay, for on a low hill just opposite the town was the grove of the Yanggu Miao temple; it consisted chiefly of Quercus variabilis but also yielded Photinia subumb-ellata and P. davidsoniae, Pyracantha discolor and Porana sinensis, a climber with splendid blue flowers. To the southwest, on the steep hillside of the Baotie Shan, was a larger wood which I visited that afternoon (20th July). Climbing up through shrub meadowland, I found an orchid with yellow flowers (Habenaria linguella) together with Striga lutea and Wikstroemia indica, a relative of the daphnes. Lycopodium cemuum was creeping on the ground beneath the grass. In the wood itself was Clerodendr-on mandarinonim, a huge tree studded with large fragrant white flowers, together with Firmiana simplex, Costarica henryi, Eriobotrya japonica, Liquidambar formosana, Myrica tvbra, Aleurites fordii, birches, poplars and other trees.

On departing next morning I passed through Rongjiang itself and was amazed to find a town quite different from any I had previously seen in China. Riding along the main street between houses several storeys high; richly carved, painted in gold and other colours and adorned with stone sculptures, one might have fancied that one was now among a new and different people, so striking was the impression of splendour which the buildings created, in a land where the traveller does not expect anything of the kind. Yet the town cannot have enjoyed any extraordinary prosperity; Rongjiang was certainly a trading centre, but it was located in territory occupied by native tribes known as "turen" or "bendi" and the architectural style can hardly have been of earlier date than that of the buildings erected by Chinese settlers over the border in Yunnan. Or could there be some indirect connection with the hot climate prevailing at that low altitude — only 300 m above sea level? Could that be the reason why the same architectural style predominated in the towns which I encountered as I travelled eastwards?

Against my wishes the authorities had given me an escort of sixteen soldiers and six policemen, since the country between Rongjiang and the boundary of the province was extremely unsafe. The road ran north-eastwards across the wide valley of the lateral stream. Cotton was grown there and also vines — the first I had seen in China — trained on espaliers or over pools, and apparently used only as fruit. We climbed through a small valley on to a sandstone ridge superimposed on the last of the marl. In two places the track was blocked by landslides and the men had to find a way round or carry the loads on their shoulders. Before long we heard that two hours earlier, on the saddle ahead of us, a caravan of Chinese traders some twenty strong had been ambushed and plundered by a robber band of roughly the same number. Several men had been wounded, and the robbers had swiftly vanished taking with them the most valuable goods, said to be worth $3000. At the midday halt numerous other travellers attached themselves to my party, anxious to share the protection of my escort. Before long we encountered two wounded men who were being brought down in makeshift carrying chairs, though their rescuers had not even bothered to wipe off the blood which they had lost In a little eating house on the col was a third casualty with a stab wound through the lung, his mouth ftill of blood. There was not much I could do for him and in any case, even if I had started treatment with European remedies, the [p.153:] Chinese doctor who took over would not have been able to continue the treatment. A few hundred yards further on blood stains and scraps of paper marked the site of the ambush. The bandits had hidden in tall grass beside a sunken road. They were said to be men from Hunan who had crossed the border into Guizhou. The authorities' response was to say: "They are not from our area, and we can't pursue them across the border", while the authorities in Hunan declared: "They haven't committed any robberies here, and what they may have done in Guizhou is not our concern". Some of my soldiers climbed up the hillside but of course they did not find anyone. In Chaimou, the village where I spent the night, I saw two more Chinese who came to have their wounds dressed, one with a deep stab in the thigh and the other with a gash in the scalp. He said it had been caused by a stone but it looked more like a gunshot wound.

In general the terrain can be described as a tableland 950 m above sea level, though it is made up of innumerable ridges and valleys. For the most part its drainage runs to the south, but near Liping it drains to the northeast It was agreeably green and well wooded, though large areas of the woods had been felled and the timber exported. Timber chutes made of hollowed out tree namks had been erected in many of the valleys, some of them on tall supports like those in the Alps. The logs were carried down by this means until they reached a spot where the river was large enough to allow them to be floated down as rafts — apparently as far as Guangzhou.

The inhabitants were Dong and Shui tribesmen, though there was evidently little difference between the two. They were related to the Shan people of Burma and their costume was in sharp contrast to that of the Chinese. They dressed entirely in black, and the women wore pleated skirts down to the knees. The men had their black hair plaited into a small "bun" just behind the forehead. They were of low stature and comparatively clean, but allegedly a thievish lot. Their villages would have resembled those of the Miao people but for the numerous temples which gave them a totally different aspect and showed that their ancestors had come from India. Built of wood like the houses, these temples were tall structures with numerous narrow roofs one above the other; like some Indian pagodas, they seemed to consist almost entirely of roofs. Their storehouses and even their dwellings were built on piles above the water, perhaps to protect them from rats and other vermin. In the lowermost rooms, which were open to the weather, coffins were stacked everywhere, evidently waiting, as is the Chinese custom, for the arrival of a propitious date for the burial. Chinese traders lived in all these villages, their plain and unattractive houses being adorned, as everywhere in China, with wooden shutters and strips of red paper carrying painted or printed inscriptions. The district was a centre for the rearing of buffalos, and gigantic examples of that species were to be seen there. The stud bulls, which were not used for any other labour, were distinguished by metal caps on their horns. Horses, however, were totally unfamiliar; my caravan, its arrival announced by the bell carried on the leading animal, brought the entire population running from the villages along the road and from farther afield. Sometimes people came with their children and pointed: "Look, that's a horse". However, this meant that there were no stables or courtyards; we always had to leave the animals in the village street, and had nothing to feed them on except rice and fresh grass. During the nights they sometimes knocked down the planks and beams which had been stacked up to confine them and wandered into the rice fields, an event always followed by strife, shouting and broken sleep.

Halfway to Liping was a military post where my escort was replaced by a troop of no fewer than 23 soldiers commanded by an officer attended by a man walking behind him to carry his sabre. This idle crew, whose looks filled me with repugnance, could not have been of use .in any circumstances. They had already shown themselves incapable of tracking down any of the bandits responsible for the numerous robberies which had recently taken place — indeed we had just passed the grave of a trader murdered only three weeks earlier. The plant life offered plenty of novelties, and my collecting duties kept me busy en route, during the lunch halts and in camp until late at night Among the plants I collected were Antidesma japonicum, Randia yunnane-nsis, Quetvus picta (a new species), Blastus spathuli-calyx and Oldenlandia speciosa. Ash trees grew along the streams, but perhaps the strangest plant of all was one which I encountered towards the end of the journey. A green island in the middle of a little brook proved to consist of Pentasacme stauntonii, a species belonging to the Asclepiadaceae, a family which does not contain any water plants except in this genus. It grew there with its lower third or half permanently submerged. Below the water line its stems were devoid of leaves, but above the surface it looked like a willow gentian, though smaller.

Despite the rain and the oppressive heat the journey from Rongjiang to Liping was one of the most memorable parts of my travels in China. At Matang, where we halted for the second night, there was an amusing incident I had lodgings in a loft room open at the sides. Next door was the framework of a house under construction. Some of the villagers, full of curiosity and anxious to get a good view of me, climbed up on to the beams and sat there like sparrows on telegraph wires. Before long there was a creaking and a cracking like the noise of Chinese firecrackers; just as I looked up the framework collapsed and the spectators fell into the muddy water beneath. Those who clung on to the part which remained standing had some trouble in getting down, but they all burst out laughing except one lad who howled for a time, having landed heavily on his posterior.

After crossing the last low crest we entered the green vale of Liping, a broad channel stretching away to the southwest. The slopes had been clear felled and were furrowed by countless gullies. In some stretches there were patches of bracken which lent the shrub meadows a bluish lustre.

[p.154:] I stayed at Liping from 24th to 28th July, since I had a severe tropical cold with fever and nasal congestion. It was not much of a town, yet it had a few glass windows and better stocks of foreign merchandise on sale than I had seen in some far larger towns in Yunnan, for example condensed milk from Hong Kong at a low price — only 30 cents a can. I was very glad to buy it, and used it to mask the muddy flavour of the water with which Li made my tea. The recently appointed official was extremely sensible and friendly. However, on 25th July when I visited the woods around the temple on Nanjing Shan half an hour from the town, he wanted to send four of his servants to accompany me and was offended when I insisted that two of them should stay at home. There were always several of these garlic eaters standing round me which 1 worked, but it would never have occurred to any of them to bend down and pick up my pencil when I (dropped it A Chinese servant never considers it necessary to do anything which he has not been instructed to do. The temple woodland consisted of gigantic trees of great age which had been allowed to develop unchecked, but its understorey was disappointingly poor except at the margins, where Symplocos confusa had opened its fragrant blossoms; within the wood itself the dense canopy had presumably shaded it out Among the herbs round a spring was the tall Hydrocotyle nepalensis.

[chapter 36:]