When Joseph Rock arrived in Yunnan on a plant-hunting trip from Siam (Thailand) in 1922, the province was in a sorry state of anarchy. Like other southern provinces of China, it had slipped out of the control of Peking and was ruled by a succession of corrupt local Chinese warlords. These figures, who styled themselves as scholars and nobles, were little more than leaders of an armies of gangsters, with opium as their main source of revenue.
Their rule was centred on self-enrichment from the province, rather than government of it. Tang Chiyao, for example, was nominally governor of Yunnan in 1922. He had disposed of his predecessor – a relatively decent man - by execution and he allowed his soldiers to roam the province like official highwaymen, ransacking the mule caravans and extorting taxes from wherever they could. He presided over a province whose main agricultural crop was the opium poppy, the revenue from which Tang derived most of his wealth and power.
Tang’s reign would last until 1927, when he was overthrown and killed by a more politically astute rival, Long Yun. As the new nominal head of Yunnan province, Long Yun paid lip service to the rule of the Kuomintang (KMT) and its leader Generalissimo Chiang Kai Shek in the distant capital of Nanjing. Long Yun even made some moves to contain the worst of the rampant banditry and anarchy. In this way, Long Yun managed to retain a grip on power in Yunnan into the Second World War.
At a more local level, Joseph Rock in his day-to-day life would have encountered the minor officials and magistrates of rural Yunnan, who owed their positions to the tributes they paid in opium and silver to the provincial governor and his cronies. Lower down the scale were the merchants and tradesmen, with peasant farmers and coolies at the very bottom of the social ladder. As a westerner, Rock would have enjoyed the privilege of “extra-territoriality” – the imperial imposition that made foreigners effectively exempt the laws of China. In the 1920s, there were few westerners in Yunnan, and those that did find themselves in trouble would expect their consulates in Kunming to have leverage over the Chinese authorities. Most of the westerners in that part of China were missionaries who had set up churches, schools and clinics in far flung communities of the province.
At that time, Han Chinese rule and influence did not extend as widely as it does see today. Yunnan province was home to many non-Chinese ethnic groups such as the Lolo (Yi), the Naxi of Lijiang and the Bai or Minchia of Dali, all of whom existed in varying degrees of independence and ethnic separation from the Han Chinese.
Yunnan also had a significant Muslim population, which had risen up against the Qing Manchu rulers in the late 19th century and conquered towns such as Dali. When French explorers from Indo-China were trying to find the source of the Mekong in the 1860s, they passed through ‘Tali’. There, they found the town was the centre of an independent Islamic mini-state, presided over by a Sultan. This Muslim uprising was later put down with great ruthlessness by Qing troops, who razed whole districts to the ground without mercy.
Almost the entire Muslim population of Dali was slaughtered in 1873 after the town was besieged by Qing troops at the behest of the governor Cen Yuying. He promised to treat the inhabitants leniently if they surrendered to his troops, but when the Muslim leader gave himself up, the warlord went back on his word, and killed them all. No Muslim was spared, and the nearby Erhai Lake was reputed to have been full of corpses of women and children who tried to flee.
The capital of Yunnan, Kunming, was then known as Yunnan-fu. It was a backward provincial town, with few amenities, and yet it had a significant foreign presence in the form of French, British and American consulates, due to its proximity to Indo-China and British Burma. Eighty years ago, Kunming had better transport connections to Hanoi and Mandalay than it did to Peking or to cities of southern China.
Rock used Kunming as his base, and would often journey to the city from his remote locations in the Yunnan hinterland. It was also one of the last places that he stayed ever in China, before he was deported in 1949.
My first visit to Yunnan, 1990
I arrived in the modern city of Kunming in early November 1990, after a 30-hour ‘hard sleeper’ train ride from Guilin. It really had been a ‘hard’ journey, and I’d become so sick of the staring, the spitting and the chain smoking of my fellow passengers that I’d spent much of the train trip sequestered up in the heavens, on the highest of the three bunks, trying to keep out of their way.
Arriving at the ungodly hour of 5am, we were unceremoniously turfed off the train into the bitterly cold pre-dawn darkness. Unsure of where to go, I sheltered for an hour in a bleak café that was open on the station forecourt, until daybreak. I then made an abortive attempt to take a minibus into the city centre, but due to my non-existent Chinese skills ended up boarding a tourist coach to the Stone Forest by mistake. When it became apparent that the bus was not going to the city centre but heading out of town, I tried to get off. But all my gesturing and attempts at speaking Chinese to get the driver to stop were ignored. It was only when I started shouting and pulling the doors of the moving bus open that the driver pulled over. The other passengers were snickering and muttering, no doubt about the ‘crazy foreigner’ as I dragged my bag off the bus somewhere in the suburbs of Kunming, and I loudly cursed the driver, China and my stupid decision to come here.
I eventually managed to flag down a taxi, and the driver was able to comprehend me enough to take me to the Camellia Hotel, one of the few places in Kunming then officially open to foreign tourists. The Camellia was a shabby, Soviet-style institution, with dim cold corridors guarded by a female concierge ‘key keeper’ who sat at a desk by the stairs on each floor. On my floor, the young woman concierge sat rugged up behind a shonky podium, tapping out a tune on an electric organ with one finger. She rose reluctantly and sullenly to open the door to my dorm room.
After I dumped my gear and went for a walk about the city I had to wonder why Kunming had received such a good write up in my guidebook.
After the exotic peaks and sub-tropical foliage of Guilin, the allegedly beautiful ‘Spring City’ Kunming seemed to be a grey, soul-less town of the kind that I had always expected to find in Communist China. There was little colour: the people of Kunming wore Mao suits of dark blue or green, or shabby western-style black suits with white shirts. The architecture was mostly grim concrete blockhouse style, although there was an ‘old town’ consisting of poorly maintained rickety three-storey terraces.
The shops were pokey and drab, and even the Vietnamese coffee shop mentioned as a highlight in my guidebook seemed to be no different to all the other grubby hole-in the wall noodle shops. It sold bitter-tasting coffee poured from a dented metal jug and bread rolls that were hard enough to break your teeth on. I ended up having lunch at a ‘Soldier-Worker-Peasant’ canteen that sold cheap dumplings.
In the afternoon I tracked down the long-distance bus station and pushed my way through the chaotic hordes gathered around the ticket window to ask about travel to Dali. The only option available was an overnight ‘sleeper bus’. So be it. Anything to get away from Kunming.
In Rock’s time, Dali was ruled by a thuggish psychopath called Chang Chieh-pa or ‘Chang the Stammerer’. Chang was one of the local ‘Minchia’ (Dai) people, a former muleteer who had turned to banditry. He boasted of having murdered 300 people and of his practice of eating human hearts. Chang led a band of around 5000 thieves and thugs in the Dali area, keeping them in line by forbidding opium and imposing harsh punishments such as cutting off the lips of liars. Rather than confront this local strong man, the Yunnan provincial governor bought him off by appointing him as a ‘general’ and as a sub-governor of Dali district. And yet, despite his official appointment, Chang continued his habitual plundering of trade caravans and travellers passing though the Dali area, which was three days from Yunnan-fu.
It’s hard to believe now, in the days of China’s motorways and luxury coaches that whisk you from Kunming to Dali in just a few hours, that as late as the 1990s getting to Dali involved two days of horrible road travel. In 1990, the ‘highway’ to Dali was a potholed country road and on this route I took the overnight ‘sleeper’ bus to what I was led to believe would be China’s answer to the Swiss Alps.
Even with a ‘bed’ seat, earplugs and an eye mask I got no sleep whatsoever as the bus jolted over a road that seemed to be 95% roadworks, while the driver kept us awake with his constant blaring on the horn. Just when I thought that I might actually nod off, at 1.30am the bus lurched to a halt at a roadside noodle stall and we were turfed off the bus for a compulsory rest stop. So it was not surprising that my first impressions of Dali were tempered by my crankiness and lack of sleep. Dali is situated at a bracing altitude of 2500 metres, and at 7.30am of a November morning in November, the town was freezing and still in darkness. I was not a happy traveller.
Things picked up a little when I had negotiated myself a room at the only hotel in town that was open to foreigners - the Dali Number Two Hotel. The best thing about this undistinguished concrete pile was its ridiculously cheap room rate of seven yuan (one pound) for a dorm bed.
Once installed, I found a cosy café nearby that was obviously targeted at westerners: Jim’s Peace Café. Jim was a laid back Chinese guy who spoke a kind of California hippy English that he’d presumably picked up from the many travellers passing through Dali on the Asian overland backpacking trail. Maybe he’d been partaking of the marijuana that grows freely around Dali, but Jim certainly had acquired the vague and hurried mannerisms of a pothead. I wasn’t complaining. He ran a nice café - pretty much the only café in town that catered to our squeamish western tastes. I didn’t want to slurp rice gruel or beef noodle soup for breakfast, and so it was nice that “Jim’s” offered toast, muesli, banana pancakes and even coffee made from locally-grown Yunnan beans.
As I began to feel more like a human again I walked the streets of Dali, and began to appreciate the town’s rustic charms. It was still essentially a small walled town, and I could understand how its traditional buildings, the lake and the beautiful mountain surroundings could lure travellers for extended stays. By mid-morning, the sun had ascended over the ridge of the surrounding hills and its golden glow bathed the long ridgeline of the Cangshan mountains to the west. There appeared to be a dusting of snow along the higher peaks. The fabric of the ancient Bai town was still intact - the wooden framed stone buildings were evidence of Dali’s reputation as a centre for builders and masons. The narrow cobbled streets echoed to the sound of hawkers and traders, and the brown-skinned Bai themselves seemed a tough but friendly people.
Most of the men wore the same utilitarian blue or green Mao suits that were still standard work wear in China, but many of the Bai women dressed in their traditional blue capes and had colourful turbans fashioned out of what looked like tea towels.
Although he wrote extensively about the Naxi people and their culture, Rock said almost nothing about their close neighbours, the Bai. For that, we have to turn to Rock’s contemporary and fellow Lijiang resident Peter Goullart, French-Russian émigré who was working in Yunnan to set up small scale industrial co-operatives. In his book ‘The Forgotten Kingdom’, Goullart admits that he had little liking for Dali or its inhabitants. He felt the town still had a gloomy atmosphere of death about it, and he found the Bai (or Minkia as he called them) to be rather stingy and calculating compared to Goullart’s Naxi and Tibetan acquaintances in Lijiang.
The Bai women, Goullart thought, were money grabbing, and would hire themselves out as porters to carry ridiculously heavy loads simply because they were paid by weight. The Bai people’s gifts always came with strings attached, said Goullart, and they never returned the compliment of an invitation to lunch or dinner. Nevertheless, he could not help but admire their ‘uncanny’ skill in carpentry and masonry.
“Even the meanest house must have its door and windows beautifully carved and its patio adorned with exquisite stone figures and vases arranged with striking effect,” he wrote.
The Bai people were the craftsman of Yunnan – they built the grand houses of rich merchants and were commissioned by every minor chief and potentate to do the masonry and woodwork of their palaces, houses and temples.
At the western end of town, I walked up to view Dali’s famous landmark – a trio of 9th century pagodas - I passed modern Bai craftsmen cutting slabs of marble with primitive power driven saws driven by a belt from the two stroke engine of the ubiquitous tuolaji tractor. Bai women were hauling cabbages from the fields into wicker baskets on their backs, which they ferried to a waiting truck already piled high with the winter staple.
My gaze kept being drawn back to the mountains, and as a compulsive hillwalker I found myself searching out a possible walking route to the highest summit, on top of which I could just make out a small building with an antenna. I decided to try tackle it the following day, and retired back to Jim’s café for a beefsteak and chips, a ‘cold remedy tea’ and an early night.
Climbing the Cangshan Mountains
I was woken early the next morning by two contradictory sounds: one was the scratchy Chinese erhu music being played through public loudspeakers and accompanied by a solicitous female Chinese voice that sounded to my uncomprehending ears like she was encouraging the whole town to wake up and face the day with a good socialist spirit.
The other sound was a Chinese male resident of the Number Two Hotel noisily hoiking up some phlegm and spitting it out in the very echo-ey concrete communal bathroom. This seemed to sum up the constant dichotomy of China: a land of ancient culture, ritual manners and dainty music, which simultaneously offered up revolting habits such as spitting, shoving and pissing in the street. Was it just a communist thing?
After breakfast I bought a few snacks and hiked across the main road and out of the old town. I passed the three pagodas again and followed a cobbled road past some vegetable fields, twisting through another small village, until the road petered out into a dirt track that ran up into the pine woods. Then the serious uphill hike started.
It was a relatively peaceful walk up through the trees, but I could still hear the sounds of truck horns, quarry blasting and some sort of factory machinery in the distance.
After about half an hour of climbing, I arrived, knackered, at the Zhonghesi temple. It was a beautiful and serene spot with great views over the town and the Lake Erhai beyond. From this high up, the square shape of old Dali town and its grid like street pattern was now evident.
At the temple, a friendly group of walnut-brown men were sitting about in the courtyard, attired in a mixture of army and civilian clothing. Using hand gestures, they invited me to sit with them, and bade me drink some of their bitter-tasting green tea from a cracked flowery enamel mug. I couldn’t work out how to drink it without also swallowing the big green tea leaves and stalks that floated on top of the liquid. Then I discovered the joys of slurping. Using my phrasebook, the group of men explained that they were local police - gonganju - and that they were up here to look for two porters presumed lost in a snowstorm, who had failed to return from a portering trip up to the TV station two days ago.
The cops then rose to leave, taking a basket full of pine cones and a primitive-looking single bore rifle with them. I set off to carry on up the track through more forest, but not before a woman attendant at the temple tried to warn me against going up there.
The track was well worn and soon became quite steep, emerging into a clearing and then winding up around the edges of rocky outcrops, with the occasional grand lookout. I plodded on upwards, and the trail just seemed to go on forever. I started to feel the effects of altitude - it must have been between 8,000 and 10,000 feet up and I was taking longer to recover on my regular pauses to get my breath back. It became chillier and damp, and the going became harder as the grass covering parts of the track was slippy.
I didn’t feel too isolated, though, because below me I could still see the town and also hear local people working nearby in the hills, whistling and calling to each other.
I continued plodding on upwards relentlessly, for an hour and another hour, occasionally getting a good vantage point, but never seeming to be getting any nearer to the elusive TV station at the summit. The tiny concrete box still looked as distant as ever. By mid-afternoon, I had climbed well above the tree-line and was starting to get worried about the time. The sun was moving behind the mountain ridge and soon I would be in shadow and deprived of its feeble warm rays.
I set myself a ‘turnaround’ time of 3pm and plodded on. The scenery was superb. The grey rock outcrops had that strange jagged appearance that I had seen in Chinese ornamental gardens - but here writ in large scale. There were occasional fir or spruce trees breaking the skyline and what appeared to be rhododendron bushes. The sky was clear and the air was sharp - and I was losing my stamina. Just after 3pm I stopped when I encountered a handful of Bai people cutting wood and bamboo alongside the track. This made me lose heart.
After all my hard work I still hadn’t even ascended to a height beyond where the local people spent their ordinary working day. I sat down to have a drink and eat some of the greasy pancake-ish thing that I’d bought for my lunch. Then, with a heavy heart, I turned around and started on the great knee-jarring return trip back down into Dali. It was dispiriting because the age it took me to get down to the Zhonghesi temple made me realise how much upward effort I had put in for nothing.
When I finally arrived back at the temple it was deserted, except for an old lady and a cockerel that attacked me from behind. So it was nice to eventually get back into Jim’s Café, for a well-earned beer.
When I told Jim where I’d been, he smiled his hippy smile and said that I should have told him what I was doing. Jim could have fixed it. He said he could arrange a van to take me half way up the mountain, because there was a service road for the TV station that went about as high as the point I had hiked up to that day.
And so it was that, two days later, I succeeded on my second attempt to knock off the peaks of the Cangshan mountains, by cheating and getting a lift half way. I made sure I was better prepared this time, spending most of the intervening day lazing around outside Jim’s Peace Café, soaking up the sun and partaking of beer, chips and whatever other western indulgences I fancied. Hanging out at Jim’s, I managed to recruit some Brits, a Mexican guy, a Swede and two Germans, who also expressed an interest in a trip up to the top of the mountains.
Leaving Jim to make the arrangements, we hired bikes and freewheeled down the lanes out of Dali to see Erhai Lake. It was a lovely cool and clear day. Away from the town, the scenery around the lake was almost biblical - a couple of traditional sailing boats drifting around on the mirror-like surface of the lake, with the mountain backdrop. In the surrounding fields the Bai peasants laboured away at ploughing and planting crops by hand, while we decadent westerners sat around drinking Coke.
Early the next morning we all assembled in the cold street outside Jim’s café and he marshalled us past a young PLA soldier who was standing guard at the city gate, gripping an AK47 like he meant business. A tiny beat-up minivan took us up a rough switchback dirt track, never getting out of second gear for the whole hour it took us to get to the end of the road. I was terrified by the sheer drops and wild exposure on each of the hairpin bends, but managed to control my panic until we reached the drop-off point, more than half way up the mountainside. We seemed to be at about the same level as I’d reached after my tough all day uphill slog two days before. We had nice clear weather to begin with, but clouds soon built up around the peaks and threatened to envelope us.
Soon we were climbing up through a swirling cold mist, along a well-cut track through the long brown grass. Suddenly, we emerged from the mist and found ourselves actually looking down on a carpet of white cloud. The summit still looked a long way off and the altitude started to kick in again, rendering me breathless after only a short period of exertion.
My lungs felt as if they were going to burst and I thought my heart would rupture, and it took us more than two more hours of upward slog to get within striking distance of the summit. We reached a grassy plateau, where the birds sang and the sun shone, and it felt like I was ascending into heaven. The last thousand feet or so of ascent was relatively easy and before we knew it we had reached the “TV station” - a concrete blockhouse festooned with aerials and a large TV satellite dish.
The wind was blowing hard on the summit, so we plonked ourselves down on the leeward side of the building for shelter, to have lunch and a drink. A door opened and a Chinese workman in a blue Mao suit emerged, to gaze at us for a minute with a blank expression. It was as if it was nothing out of the ordinary for their remote station to have visitors, let alone foreign ones. Without saying a word the man emptied a bin of rubbish down the side of the mountain and went back inside, slamming the door behind him.
A few minutes later, another Chinese technician emerged bearing a thermos flask of hot water, which he proffered to us to fill up our mugs and bottles. I used one of the few teabags I’d brought along with me to make one of the most enjoyable cups of tea I’ve ever had – a brew wth a view. The vistas on all sides were absolutely breathtaking, looking down on the pine forests that covered the ridgelines until they disappeared into the clouds. Dark razorback ridges of rock snaked menacingly towards the other peaks in the Cangshan range, and in the distance to the north, the snow peaks of the Jade Dragon mountain range near Lijiang could be seen. And yet ironically, immediately below us, Dali was now obscured by cloud.
We posed for a few pictures, and then set off down. The Germans headed back the same way we had come up, but the rest of us were still feeling adventurous and decided to explore a little further along the ridge to the south, where there appeared to be a slightly higher peak about half a mile away. The ridge track petered out and we soon found ourselves scrambling up a steep hillside covered in knee high scrub until we came out on to a narrow platform of rock that formed the summit. We were rewarded with more spellbinding views down into a series of sheer gullies and gorges that dropped off to the west.
I felt giddy and lacked the courage to even stand up on such an exposed spot. Instead, I sat and rebuilt a small stone cairn that previous visitors had piled up. We reluctantly left the summit and headed down towards a small tarn on a plateau, where we rejoined a well-formed track.
From here it was another knee-jarring descent, back down into the cold clouds and towards the tree line, where we crossed paths with a party of local workmen who were busy hacking away at vegetation to widen the overgrown track. There had been no sign of the two missing porters, they told us. From here it was another long and leg-torturing descent, over now familiar territory back down to the Zhonghesi temple.
Here, we paused for a very refreshing cup of strong and bitter green tea before continuing on down, almost limping into Dali and a peak-conquering victory drinking session at Jim’s Peace Café.
After the initial ‘mission accomplished’ euphoria, the rest of the evening in Jim’s cafe was something of a dull anticlimax. And in the same way, after Dali the rest of my China trip was also something of an anticlimax. This was partly because I was now back-tracking through the same places: Kunming, Guilin and Wuzhou, back towards Hong Kong, with the consequent feeling that my trip had past its ‘high tide’ mark and there were no more new places to discover.
On later trips I was to find this was a common feeling - once my goals had been achieved I soon lost interest and enthusiasm for China, and wanted to move on. And once I had set my mind on being in the next place, my patience with the minor irritations of Chinese life wore thin. Things that had seemed novel and absurd in the first few days of travelling in China now became a reminder of the alien environment I was in. I soon tired of the what I came to call the “Six ‘S’s” of China: Spitting, Staring, Shoving, Shouting, Slurping and the incessant Smoking.
En route form Dali, when my bus stopped on a stretch of rural road for a toilet break, the male Chinese male passengers would adopt a peasant squat by the roadside and eye me impassively as they puffed on their cigarettes. They dressed in cheap black and grey suits that still had a big label sewn onto the sleeve, as if fresh from a bespoke tailor. They would hoick up a throatful of phlegm and spit it out without taking their eyes off me - was this a calculated insult?
I couldn’t understand what they were saying to each other as they stared and snickered at me, except for the constantly recurring word ‘laowai’ – foreigner. Sometimes I felt like I was a character in Planet of the Apes - a weak human who had fallen into a strange post-apocalyptic world populated by beings who were both smarter than me and yet more callous and primitive.
And yet, at other times the Chinese people I met were touchingly open and generous. Sat in the back of a long distance bus in Guangxi, I found myself wedged between a bunch of teenage kids who were already hardened manual workers judging by the dirt on their ragged suits. Despite their rough appearance they prodded me into sharing their snacks of peanuts and mandarin oranges. They spoke no English and I spoke little Chinese, but I understood their gestures when they flicked through my paperback book and gawped at the English words and gave me the thumbs up sign. “Zhen hao!” (‘Very good!’).
I departed China via Hong Kong in late November 1990. This was the pre-internet era and I had been cut off from the world news throughout my three-week sojourn in rural China. It was only when I picked up a copy of the South China Morning Post at the ferry terminal in Tsim Sha Tsui that I learned that the reign of Margaret Thatcher was over. At first I was mystified to see so many references to John Major in every story, until it suddenly dawned on me that he had replaced Thatcher as Prime Minister. I had missed the end of the Iron Lady while I was in the China news black hole.
From Hong Kong I flew to Perth in Western Australia and did the whole backpacker tour of the big red continent. I travelled the long dusty highway up the west coast, through rough mining towns up to the Kimberley and on to Darwin. It was days of nothing – a martian landscape. I hooked up with some other backpackers with a Kombi van and continued down through the ‘red centre’ to see Alice Springs and Ayers Rock. I saw some amazing sights, but felt strangely unsettled and somehow unsatisfied with Australia. I didn’t realise it then, but I had caught the ‘China bug’. Already I was yearning to see more of China, this country that was just so ‘other’ compared to the west. I also missed the feeling of adventure that came with being on the road in China.
In Australia I was no longer the centre of attention, no longer the big tall guy in a crowd. In fact, compared to the big bronzed Aussie blokes I was just a pale and scrawny pommy bloke.
Soon afterwards I moved on to New Zealand, where I found a job as a journalist and settled down in Auckland for a while, indulging my love of the outdoors with a lot of tramping and mountaineering in the rugged New Zealand bush.
I was to spend the next four years in New Zealand, and during this time I married a Chinese girl from Guilin (but that’s another story) and began to study Chinese. And it was in Auckland, of course, that I also first stumbled across the articles by Joseph Rock about south-western China. I nurtured a growing curiosity about the places he described. It was not until 1994, however, that I returned to China to try see them for myself.