Heinrich Handel-Mazzetti: [A Botanical Pioneer In South West China] - chapter 39


Chapter 39. To Xikuang Shan

Surreptitious departure — troublesome soldiery — a madman — plant cover — tea processing — the Qilijiang cave — Daleping and Loudi — a large antimony mine

A the end of April 1918 the Beijing government once again decided to intern all enemy aliens, and this time matters looked really serious. According to private reports from Shanghai, contracts for the construction of barracks on the island of Tiantai-shan had been awarded many months previously, and applications for permits to visit holiday resorts were now being flatly rejected by the authorities in Beijing, even in the most pressing cases of grave ill health. If I were to continue my botanical explorations in the coming season, I therefore had to vanish as swiftly as possible into the territory occupied by the southern forces. After the latter had occupied Changsha the German missionaries enquired whether they might now be allowed to travel. The southern authorities replied that permits granted by Beijing were no longer valid, but privately told them that although passes could not be issued they should simply travel as usual, but should make themselves inconspicuous and should try to avoid being seen by Allied nationals. The rest of us naturally assumed that this advice applied to ourselves as well as the missionaries, and in the event no one attempted to prevent businessmen from travelling to Xikuangshan. Since Fu Liangzuo's departure the supervisory commission for enemy aliens had ceased to exist and even the postal censorship had been suspended by the postal commissioner himself. The police, who were personally acquainted with most of us, had not yet been reinstated after the occupation of Changsha by the northern forces, and at the end of April 1918 the authorities had more urgent matters on their minds than the possibility that one of us might decide to transgress their uncouthly worded directives; their troops had been overwhelmingly defeated near Liling and the southerners had pushed forwards to within fifty kilometres of Changsha. As the private advice given by the southern authorities had not been rescinded, I saw that, although it was certainly not intended to cover journeys of several months' duration, it gave me a means of talking myself out of trouble if necessary, and even if this were unsuccessful, such a journey would be a fait accompli, and I was prepared to put up with the risk of subsequent unpleasantness for the sake of the results which it would assuredly bring.

This time I did not wish to travel far, but simply to stay in a few favourable localities where I could collect plenty of plant material and prepare satisfactory herbarium specimens, as I wanted a surplus of plants to sell and to cover the expected wastage. For the same reason I aimed to keep my travelling expenses as low as possible. To avoid having to take a cook I decided mat I would rely on my fellow countrymen to provide my meals. I could carry provisions with me for a few days on the road, and my coolie had already learnt the basics of elementary cookery by watching the cook at work in the kitchen. Baggage transport was expensive; in Hunan a porter cost far more than a pack animal in Yunnan, but I succeeded in cutting down my party to five porters. A few days before my departure came the

welcome news that the Academy of Sciences had granted me a fresh subsidy [note # 184: 6000 crowns on 31st January 1918.]. The money arrived at the Dutch legation, at a somewhat better rate of exchange than before. Messrs Schnabel, Gaumer & Co, transmitted it to me at Changsha without charge and were kind enough to make me an advance before the formalities had been completed. As traffic through the city gates was now watched with greater vigilance than ever, I split up my baggage into several lots and had them taken on different days and through different gates to Linguandu outside the city, accompanying each lot personally.

On the morning of 2nd May I swung myself into the saddle and rode out through the Liuyang Men gate as I had done so often before, but this time I skirted round behind the city wall, crossed the river and disappeared from public view. My porters belonged to a guild of coolies who conveyed business correspondence, money and baggage for the above-named firm to their antimony smelter at Xikuangshan. They were therefore well acquainted With the roads and the people, and knew how to slip through along minor routes. This was useful, for I had to avoid the main roads; they were guarded by sentries posted by the northern forces, who would certainly have been troublesome and might even have put a premature end to my whole undertaking. Some soldiers, notably those of the notorious Seventh Division under the command of the dujun Chang Qinyao himself, had already robbed and wounded Europeans.

My route from Changsha led westwards away from the river Xiang Jiang, along a small tributary via Daoling towards the tract of hills between Ningxiang and Xiangxiang. These hills were covered only by shrubs and, like all the uplands in that district, appeared to consist solely of sandstone. We skirted round their northern edge, through a pleasant landscape where the road crossed several brooks which fed a little stream flowing northwards. A new species of alder (Alnus trabeculosa) was growing beside them. My route ran along the southern edge of a chain of hills strewn with gigantic boulders, presumably of granite; it then came to a small river (the Shiluosan He) and turned due south. While I was snipping off some flowering twigs from a guelder rose I suddenly saw a small green tree-snake (Lachesis gramineus) lying half a metre away. Its bite is venomous, but luckily this one was sluggish, having recently fed. A blow from my cane stunned it, and in a few moments it was in my formalin jar. Riding was not a usual means of travel in those country districts and in the circumstances existing at that time my appearance on horseback roused suspicion. Most of the country people at first sight took me for a military officer and ran off or barred themselves noisily inside their houses. On one occasion a madman tried to attack me. He came towards me along a narrow track flanked by rice-fields, hopping on each leg alternately, seized my [p.165:] horse by the bridle, knelt down and pointed with a vacant look to the sky, chattering nonsense at me. I grasped my cane and he turned away hurriedly. Some peasants dragged him away, but soon afterwards, as my men came past with the mule, which I had sold to a man in Xikuangshan and was now delivering to him, he was there again. This time he had a lump of earth as big as a man's head tied up in a cloth, and he swung it repeatedly in the air, striking the mule on the rump. In their alarm my men ran forwards with the mule, but some of my kit which had been packed at the sides of the saddle came adrift and was left dangling below the mule's belly. My camera had a narrow escape from falling into the water.

Daleping, where we stopped for the third night, lies at 190 m on the watershed between the Shiluo-san He and the Lian Shui, to the west of the 600 m mountain range just referred to. The people who lived there were thoroughly offensive and insolent; their attitude was totally different from that reported by the missionaries who had recently travelled in the country, namely that the people were now extremely friendly towards foreigners in general and Germans in particular. Soon after starting next morning we surmounted the first westwards dipping limestone beds. Continuing south-westwards, we reached the Lian Shui river not far from Loudi, and crossed it. There and onwards all the mountains were of limestone.

Loudi was one of the few towns of any size in that district The rest of the countryside was dotted with peasants' farmhouses and rich men's country residences, some of them quite imposing. Sangua-qiao, where we spent the next night, was situated on a lateral stream, reached after crossing a small saddle. The route continued across two more such saddles along the northern edge of a range of deeply dissected hills on which were numerous little woods of Cunninghamia and bamboo and here and there a grove of oaks. We reached the river at Lianyuan, a large town which was the only transhipment centre for Xikuangshan. After crossing the river we continued northwards to our fifth night stop, Tangtiaoqiao, 150 m above sea level. A short distance further on was the confluence of the three streams which formed the Lian Shui: one from the southwest, another from the Anjiapu district to the northeast and the third from the hills around Xikuangshan. A fourth stream flowed past Tangtiaoqiao to join the river just below Lianyuan. Our route climbed along the middle stream, in places quite steeply, into a range of hills stretching from southwest to northeast. Since the previous day I had been riding on paved roads, in contrast to the gravel tracks, so much more pleasant for horse and rider, on which I had travelled for the first few days after leaving Changsha. We crossed two passes, the first and higher of which reached an altitude of 715 m. Beyond the second pass the track led along the side of a U-shaped valley, both sides of which were clothed with forest and bamboo extending into the distance. Then, sticking up in the middle of a deeply dissected tract of hills, we saw the first chimney-stacks of the mining town of Xikuangshan. As it rained all day I was unable to collect much material, but I saw enough to convince me that, despite the conflicting advice given to me in Changsha, the district offered worthwhile prospects for my work.

Xikuangshan was the largest antimony mine in Hunan, and as Hunan produced more than half the world output of the metal, it was probably the largest in the world. However, it was only after the outbreak of war that it reached such prominence; before 1914 there had been only two chimney-stacks, but now there were forty. As there were seams of coal nearby the ore was smelted in Xikuangshan itself, then carried by porters, some to Lianyuan and some to Lengshuijiang, and conveyed by boats on the Zi Jiang and Lian Shui to Changsha. The metal was produced in two grades: crude (60 to 70%) and regulus (96%). The ore was found between limestone strata dipping not very steeply east-northeastwards, the best deposits being associated with dolomite. It outcropped on a ridge between two branches of a valley, the entire length of the ridge being occupied by opencast and drift workings. The town filled the whole of the higher, eastern branch of the valley, covering a stretch ranging from roughly 530 to 650 m in altitude, and also the lower half of the other branch. At the height of the boom it was said to have had 50,000 inhabitants. Apart from the works buildings and a small number of superior dwellings, it consisted solely of wretched huts. The European mines and a few of the Chinese had modern equipment, but other Chinese owners ran their mines "tsa budo" ("anyhow") [note # 185: Literally 'more or less' (SGH).] their ventilating machinery, instead of being powered by a steam engine, was driven by four coolies operating treadles. It was of no consequence that this failed to produce a proper draught and that much of the ore was blown away and wasted; the business was cheap to run and yielded a profit I was accommodated in the residence provided for employees of the Kaili Gongsi, Schnabel, Gaumer & Co., and am most grateful to the company and to Herr A. Brauer in particular. The sulphur fumes emitted from the smelting works were carried by the prevailing north wind straight into the houses occupied by the Germans, where they spoilt the lacquer on the tables and made my stay less agreeable than it might otherwise have been.

The immediate neighbourhood of Xikuangshan was completely deforested but a three day trip which I made in the company of my friend Herr Wolf on his way back to Changsha took me through the best parts of the district, notably to Anjiapu, where Pseudolarix kaempferi was a major element of the forests, consisting otherwise of pines, Cunninghamia, Liquidambar, Aleurites and other trees. I had seen one specimen of Pseudolarix in Changsha, growing as a bonsai in a pot but I did not believe the owner's claim that it grew wild in the mountains to the west, since it had never previously been reported further west than Guling in Jiangxi [note # 186: In the Lu Shan mountains.]. Near Anjiapu, however, this tree, closely similar in colour and habit to our larch, was one of the glories of the forests. [p.166:] Sassafras tzumu, an equally symmetrical and slender tree with trilobed leaves, also grew in these woods; it has a relative in North America. There was an interesting understorey of numerous shrubs, the dominant species being the tall Diervalia japonica and the small Mains sieboldii with aromatic leaves. There were some large coalmines in Anjiapu. The coal was coked on the spot; for this purpose it was simply piled inside a brick chamber, covered with earth and ignited, the flames emerging through chimneys constructed from a few tiles.

On the second day we went on to Lianyuan. Except in one gorge filled with oak forest the terrain was treeless, but tea was widely planted and the product was now being packed. This was black tea, the sort made by pressing the leaves and drying them over a fire, whereas simple drying in the sun yields green tea, the sort drunk by the Chinese. The pressing was performed with bare feet, the leaves being spread on the paved highway, and the process was not exactly appetising. This tea was taken to Hunan for sale and was reputed to be one of the best of the products exported from there. Wolf departed from Lianyuan in one of the antimony boats. These boats had been waiting for weeks, fully laden, as their captains were unwilling to face the cordon set up by the northerners' army; indeed their soldiers' main activity was to obstruct all the traffic of the province. Brauer and I returned to Xikuangshan next day along the main road.

There were a few spots elsewhere which yielded rich pickings, among them a small wood on the steep side of the sandstone crest above the village of Tongjiapai, where I clambered down from top to bottom, continually halting to cut my way through the brambles; also a remnant of tall-trunked forest in the stream gorge below, and, some way further on, shrub vegetation on moist ground near coal-seams on the road to Xinhua. The whole district was adorned by wild roses of three different species (Rosa micrv-carpa, R.cathayensis and R-laevigata), their brilliant flowers of white and pink perfumed the air. Another trip took me to a cave near Qilijiang, the southern extension of the antimony deposits, which totalled four kilometres in length. It formed a huge dome with an opening in the roof which let in a little light; there was a manmade shaft which gave access down slippery steps and a ladder. The rock clefts were studded with geodes lined with delicate translucent needles of crystalline calcite, mingled with white granular pillars, resembling stalactites.

Several well organised bands of robbers, operating over wide areas, had their hideouts in the neighbouring mountains. One day four of the bandits, one of them on horseback, were captured in Xikuangshan with stolen property in their possession. The town councillors had already signed their death warrants when the wisest amongst them had second thoughts.

"If we execute them," he said, "the rest of the bandits will come down upon us, and in any case their thefts were not committed here. We had better send them to Xinhua." And that is what was done.

[chapter 40:]