Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Southwest China - the world of Joseph Rock [洛克]

It all started more than 12 years ago, after my first trip to China. Enthused by the mountain scenery I had encountered on a hiking trip near Dali in Yunnan, on my return I browsed through some ancient copies of National Geographic magazine in the local library, looking for other interesting places to visit in China. Among the articles on the Great Wall and Suzhou’s canal’s, I came across one by an eccentric Austrian-American botanist called Joseph Rock, describing a trip he had made through the Sichuan-Tibetan borderlands of Sichuan from Muli [木里] to Kangding [康定] in 1929.

His goal had been to reach the then unknown mountain of Minya Konka [Gongga Shan or 贡嘎山], which he believed might be higher than Mt Everest. But first he had to cross an enormous 9,000-foot deep canyon of the Yalong river [雅砻江], a journey that took him "five terrible days". After descending and then climbing out of this enormous gorge, he eventually reached a mountain pass on the eastern bank called Wadzanran, where the mountain scenery inspired him to write:

"The scenery hereabouts is overwhelming grand. Probably its like cannot be found elsewhere in the world. Where Muti Konka rears its eternally snow-capped crown 19,000 feet into the sky, the Yalung flows 12,000 feet below..."
he wrote.

The pictures accompanying the article seemed to back up his claims, showing a narrow ribbon of river enclosed deep within a wooded canyon, and a maze of mountain ridges receding to the horizon.

"A scenic wonder of the world, this region is 45 days from the nearest railhead. For centuries it may remain a closed land, save to such privileged few as care to crawl like ants through its canyons of tropical heat and up its glaciers and
passes in blinding snowstorms, carrying their food with them..."

I was intrigued by these claims and tried to find out more about the canyon and its grand scenery. However, after consulting maps and guidebooks, and in subsequent years trawling the internet, I could find no mention of “Muti Konka” or the canyon. Joseph Rock seemed to have been right. It was still a closed land. And it became a challenge I could not resist.

One of the main reasons why the canyon remained unvisited was that since the Communist revolution in 1949 the surrounding areas of Jiulong [九龙] and Muli had been off limits to foreigners. Until the 1990s, they had been “closed areas” that required a special permit usually only granted to official groups on visits escorted by a Chinese government minder.

So, while I remained curious about Muti Konka, it remained in the back of my mind as I explored other little known areas of south west China that I had learnt about from other articles written by Joseph Rock. I made a hiking trip from Lugu Lake [泸沽湖] to the former semi-independent kingdom of Muli that Rock described in “Land of the Yellow Lama” [National Geographic April 1925]. Again, this was “off the map” and officially a closed area, but I discovered that Rock’s sketch maps were still reliable and that the local authorities in these out of the way areas did not seem concerned by the arrival on foot of a permit-less foreigner. Instead of being ejected, I was welcomed and treated as a curiousity.

The trip involved a hike over a high mountain pass into a great river valley, where a magnificent walled monastery complex had once stood on a hillside high overlooking the Litang river

There I discovered that the town of Muli, once the home of more than 700 monks, had been almost completely obliterated during the 1950s after the Chinese takeover. Its impressive buildings had not been smashed, but systematically taken apart brick by brick to be used in the constriction of a nearby village of Wachang [瓦厂]. The autocratic and idiosyncratic rule of the Buddhist monks – described in colourful detail by Rock - had been replaced with a functional settlement of breeze block buildings. And yet a few fragments of the monastery remained and were being restored when I visited, once again home to about 70 young monks. And across the mountains from Muli lay the Yalong canyon, so near, but still beyond my reach. The scale of the landscape was way beyond anything suggested by the empty spaces on the maps.

Emboldened by my initial success, I made other journeys throughout the nineties in the footsteps of Joseph Rock. From the Sichuan town of Kangding I rode on horseback into the isolated valleys surrounding the 7550 metre high peak of Gonga Shan [“Glories of the Minya Konka, NG October 1930]. Returning to the Muli area, the next year, I trekked the Buddhist pilgrim’s “kora” around the three sacred peaks of Yading 亚丁[Konka Risumgompa: Holy Mountain of the Outlaws; NG July 1931].

And in Yunnan I travelled from Lijiang to re-visit the great parallel river canyons of the Yangtze, Mekong and Salween in the north west of the province. There, I found that within the space of a 100km there was an amazing transition from the leech infested jungles of Burma, through temperate Yunnan forests up to the wild snowbound borders of Tibet [The Great River Trenches of Asia; August 1926].

On this blog you will find some of Rock's pictures and my modern day equivalents.


Anonymous said...

Great Post. Though I´m unlikely to get close to there any time soon, the parallel pictures between 1929 and now are a great dream incitement. By the way, with all that rocket fuel against the local diet, did the horse carry less weight on the way back ? ;-)

Anonymous said...

Yeah the horse had it easier on the way back. They still flog them really hard though.