One cold and rainy evening I found myself browsing the travel section in the old Takapuna public library, which at that time was located next to the beach in this middle class north shore suburb of Auckland. In the musty upstairs reference section of the library there was a sweeping view from the window of the Hauraki Gulf, with boats bobbing about on the windswept grey sea. It all felt very far away from the hills and backroads of Yunnan.
The brief backpacking trip I’d just made to Kunming and Dali had piqued my interest in south-west China. So when I came across some faded old copies of the National Geographic magazine on the shelves in a back room of Takapuna library, I was curious to see what the armchair travellers of the 1920s would have read about China.
Opening the pages of these old magazines took me back to another world, the interwar years of America, where the advertisements were for Chrysler Imperial Eight automobiles, Palmolive Shaving Talc (“7 free shaves”), Furness Prince Lines (“12 days to Rio”) and ‘Hires Root Beer for Growing Children’.
The old magazines also showed me how differently we viewed the world back then. Articles telling me about “Syrians - the shrewdest traders in the Orient”... and “Seattle – A Remarkable City”. But it was the China articles that I was really interested in. Or more precisely, it was the articles about remote areas of south-west China and Tibet that intrigued me, with titles such as “Seeking the Mountains of Mystery - an expedition to the unexplored Amnyi Machen” in which the author, ‘Dr Joseph F. Rock’ declared himself to be ‘the first white man’ to approach this area, where no Chinese dares venture ...’.
The photographs accompanying the articles were of spectacular mountain country, of Tibetan warriors wearing leopard skin capes and posing with matchlock rifles, and of primitive ‘Lolo’ tribesmen preparing to cross raging rivers using inflated pigs’ bladders for buoyancy.
In one article, “Konka Risumgongba - Holy Mountains of the Outlaws”, the author declared that there were still areas of China that were most difficult of access and “whose inhabitants had defied western exploration”. I wanted to know more. I wanted to see which areas of China the author was writing about, and so I took Joseph Rock’s hand-drawn maps and tried to compare them side-by-side with a map from a recent Lonely Planet China guide. On the modern map, the areas that Joseph Rock had travelled in were just blank spaces - there was simply nothing there.
As my finger traced along the page to the area north east of Lijiang, there was just an empty white area between two rivers. The same blank spaces were evident on the maps I looked up in other Chinese guidebooks and atlases. Weird. This traveller and explorer from the 1920s, Joseph Rock, seemed to have visited and described wild places that were no longer on the map. I was hooked. I wanted to find out more about these wild areas of China that had now apparently receded back into obscurity.
Were those Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and those wild tribes shown in the photographs still there? Or had they been eliminated in the Cultural Revolution? And if they were still around, how much had they changed? Had anyone been back there? I wanted to know. I wanted to go and see for myself.
But first, I should explain how I came to be in New Zealand in 1990 and why I came to share an interest in south-west China with a dead explorer.
In my late 20s, I was living a peripatetic existence in London as a journalist, drifting from one casual reporting job to another, not really sure what I wanted to do or where I wanted to be in life. All I knew was that I craved travel, adventure and exploration like my literary heroes such as Patrick Leigh-Fermor, Eric Shipton and Graham Greene. I wanted to be a modern-day Eric Newby, the eccentric amateur who walked nonchalantly into the Hindu Kush to climb a few peaks after a bit of practice in Wales.
The only problem with this dream was that I had no money, and Britain no longer had an Empire. Had I set foot in the Hindu Kush in the early 1990s, I would likely have found myself on the unfriendly end of an AK47 wielded by the Mujahedeen. China, on the other hand, seemed to be a more promising place to go for a bit of adventure. It was still theoretically Communist, it was cheap and there were large areas of the country that until recently had been off limits to westerners, but which were now just opening up.
In the summer of 1990 I was working in south London as a reporter on a weekly newspaper for doctors. Gazing out of the office window from our Woolwich high rise, I would daydream that the sludge-like Thames was the Mekong river, and that I was embarking on a journey up into its higher reaches, in Tibet. And why not? I had little incentive to stay in the capital. I led a tenuous existence as a ‘casual’, employed on a week-by-week basis, dependent on the whim of the editor for employment.
Every Friday, the rather formal and stuffy editor of the paper would summon me into his airless office, and as I stood there in silence he would tot up the number of hours I’d worked for the week and write me out a payslip, always seeming to find some reason to deduct a few quid. “Thank you. We won’t need any help next week, but stay in touch ...” he would invariably say.
And so I would return to my gloomy bedsit in Eltham to listen to my Prefab Sprout records, and watch Ben Elton on Friday Night Live, trying not to worry about whether the measly pay cheque would last me through the rest of the next week.
I had few friends in the capital and I missed the friendliness and directness of Yorkshire, where I grew up. I felt oppressed by London’s vast urban sprawl and I missed the north’s wild open spaces. In the flat, grey concrete maze of Woolwich council estates I yearned for the fresh air and the landscapes of the moors and the dales. I read Wainwright’s fellwalking guides and almost cried with homesickness at his description of walking the fells and dales. “The hills are my friends ...,” he wrote. I felt that way too.
And so, stuck in London, I sought solace in travel books. I would daydream about going away on some offbeat foreign adventure, walking into the deserts of central Asia or travelling through the rainforests of Sumatra. I don’t know where the notion of going to China first came to me, but it appealed for some reasons.
Following the fall of the Berlin Wall in the previous year, 1989, China was one of the last surviving Communist states in the world. I had developed a somewhat morbid fascination with Iron Curtain countries after visiting East Berlin and Prague in the late 1980s - a time when there was still no inkling that these odd, austere and rigidly controlled societies would soon be swept away almost overnight. I’d experienced a strange frisson of fascination and revulsion while travelling in these totalitarian socialist states, feeling like a voyeur from the ‘Free West’. I was curious to see what ‘communist’ China would be like, given the recent bloody crackdown of June 1989. However, I was probably more interested in seeing the ‘real’ rural China of peasants and paddy fields, rather than visiting museums, monuments or trudging round China’s drab grey industrial cities.
In the Woolwich Public Library one evening, I found a dog -eared guidebook called South- West China Off the Beaten Track. It described a China that sounded quite both exotic and grim. The entries for remote towns in Yunnan and Sichuan were illustrated with pencil-drawn maps that typically showed a single hotel open to foreigners, one or two shops, a noodle restaurant, and - if you were lucky - a bank where you might be able to exchange the Foreign Exchange Certificate (FEC) ‘funny money’ that foreigners then had to use instead of the ‘People’s Money’, renminbi.
Despite a decade of Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms, this sounded like a poor country that was only just emerging from 40 years of being a closed society. The oppressive framework of the communist state was loosening and it looked like for the first time in forty years there were now opportunities for foreigners to get back into some of the previously out of-bounds areas and to literally go off the beaten track.
Some of the descriptions in the guidebook gave tantalising glimpses of how remote parts of the country had appeared to the first westerners to see them a hundred years ago. One passage in particular, described an impressive and previously unrecorded 18,000 foot peak on the upper reaches of the Yangtze river near a place called Leibo. “As far as we know, nobody has ever DONE this region since ...” the authors wrote of their own failed attempt to reach it in the early 1980s, when they were turned back by police from a ‘closed’ area of western Sichuan.
I was committed. I wanted to go to south-west China. I quit latest casual jobs and to raise the money, I spent a week as a medical guinea pig in a pharmaceutical drug testing clinic back in Leeds. I earned almost a thousand pounds at the Hazleton Clinical Trials Unit for letting them inject me with an experimental drug for hypertension. It was quite a cushy number, just sitting around on a bed all day, with a nurse taking my blood pressure every so often. The free food and accommodation also helped me save. Most of the other volunteers were long term unemployed lads, some of whom took part in this lucrative sideline on a regular basis. All without the knowledge of the DHSS, of course. They had very limited horizons. When I told them I was going to China, I might as well have said I was going to the moon.