Monday, February 19, 2024

Modern day Joseph Rock deported after years collecting plants and seeds in South West China

 Came across this vague article in the SCMP. Remarkable similarity to what Joseph Rock was doing a century ago. The last sentence may be bad news for people like me who like to visit nature reserves in China:

China has deported a foreigner for gathering protected plants, warning that external forces had infringed the country’s ecological security.

In a post on its WeChat account on Saturday, the Ministry of State Security said the foreigner “illegally excavated and collected” China’s key protected plant species.

“The foreigner was instructed by an overseas organisation to illegally dig up and collect specimens and seed samples of thousands of wild plant species, and transported them abroad through illegal channels nearly 2,000 times,” the ministry said.

“The state security agency has expelled him/her in accordance with the law, successfully cutting off the ‘black hand’ of foreign forces that infringed on China’s ecological securi

The ministry did not say the name or nationality of the defendant or identify the plants taken.

But it said the offender travelled to “dozens of reserves and scenic areas” in Sichuan and Yunnan provinces from 2011 in an operation that lasted nine years.

It also did not specify which law the foreigner broke but cited the country’s counter-espionage law, saying that “stealing, spying on, purchasing, and illegally providing” the “foregoing documents, data, materials, or items”, were all acts of espionage.

The provision is one of the expanded parts of the amended law that came into effect in July.

Before the amendment, espionage was defined as stealing, spying, buying, or illegally providing “state secrets or intelligence”.

But it has since been widened to say that all documents, data, materials, and items related to national security and interests have the same protection as state secrets and intelligence.

The ministry also cited the country’s regulations on the import and export of endangered wild fauna and flora, as well as regulations on nature reserves.

Citing the nature reserve regulations, the ministry said “foreigners entering a nature reserve shall be approved in advance by the nature reserve management organ” and must not “engage in [unapproved] activities such as collecting specimens in nature reserves”.

Tuesday, February 06, 2024

Blog reprieve and a visit to the Dulong river valley

 Well this blog still seems to be running despite several warning emails from Google that the blog hosting is to be cancelled unless I sign up to a hefty monthly subscription fee with Google Business. In the meantime, I should report that I have just come back from a great trip to the Dulong river valley in Yunnan. This is not directly Joseph Rock related, because he only mentions the 'Tarong' river briefly in his National Geographic article about when he was visiting the Salween. In the article 'Through the Great River Trenches of Asia' (1926) he briefly refers to the "Kjutzu ... a simple primitive tribe who live across the divide who, the Chinese say, live in trees like monkeys". Other explorers talked about rumours of a tribe of pygmies who lived in the remote valley of the Tarong river that flows in to Burma.

Even in the 1980s, Chinese photographer Shen Che described the 'Drung' people as a 'primitive tribe' of about 4000 people who lived a subsistence farming life in the Dulong valley. The valley was only accessible by horse caravan trail from the Nujiang, which was closed by snow and ice in the winter months.

Of course since then the Dulong has opened up to the outside world. First a rough road was built in the 1990s, and this was gradually upgraded to a paved highway in the 21st century, and more recently(2015) a tunnel has been bored through the highest mountain section at around 3-4000 m altitude to make this an all-year passable highway.

The main settlement of the Dulong valley, Kongdang, is now a small centre for hotels and restaurants, and even has an EV charging station. The Dulong people are now assimilated into mainstream China's development - they no longer wear the traditional stripy carpet clothes or sport crossbows. Most families have SUV cars and take advantage of the 4G mobile network. You might still find an elderly lady with the unique Dulong facial tattoos, but they are wheeled out for the tourists and charge a fee for posing.

I got there in one of vans that run from the centre of Gongshan to Dulong town (100 RMB), leaving at 11am daily and taking about three hours (the road is currently only open from 11.30 for a few hours daily to enable further upgrading work to be done). I stayed at a decent hotel (Hapang Pubu) in Dulong township for about 200 yuan a night. The friendly manageress arranged for a driver to take me on a day tour up and down the valley for  700 RMB for a day. 

I had a great guide who took me on the epic trip down the canyon to the Burma border, where there is a scenic waterfall and some guesthouses (but no Burmese people, the border is totally sealed off, like a modern day Iron Curtain). He told me that the local people had benefited from the visit of Xi Jinping a few years ago. As part of the subsequent poverty alleviation programme, the local people got a free house to replace their rickety old wooden shacks ( a few still survive) and they also receive 2-3000 RMB a month as a living allowance in return for developing and preserving the local green environment.

With my guide I also visited the north of the valley, which is much colder and sparsely forested, more similar to a Tibetan landscape, as the road eventually continues into Tibet. I went as far north as Xiongdang, and beyond to the new 'tourist theme village' Kelaluo where there are new guesthouses and a water feature - not too remote any more. 

The trip was part of a recce to see how easily it now is to travel in remote parts of China. The answer is - easier than ever. The Dulong is now readily accessible from Kunming via Baoshan (3 hour high speed train) then a 4 hour bus to Gongshan. No special permits needed and no police hassles except for a universal document inspection when entering the Nujiang at Liuku. 

It helps enormously to have AliPay and WeiXin/WeChat functions set up for payments and hotel bookings, train and bus tickets etc, but people still accept cash.

As part of my trip I also revisited Gongshan and Bingzhongluo in the Nujiang. I stayed in a swish Lavande hotel in Gongshan for a mere 200RMB ($28), which is cheaper than a bunkbed in a Sydney backpacker dorm. I also found that Bingzhongluo has had a makeover, with the main street's former dirt road now a smart thoroughfare lined with posh shops and hotel similar to somewhere like Dali.

Overall, this trip made me realise that in my 30 years of sporadic travel in Rock's foosteps there have been as many or even more dramatic changes in the places of interest as in the previous decades since Rock's time! I will write more about my latest trip and the interesting folk I met in further posts ...

Tuesday, October 03, 2023

The end of this blog ...

 I've just received a notification from Google that I will now have to pay something like $15 a month to keep this website running. It used to be about $40 a year. So sod that, I might try migrate it to a generic blogspot site if I can be arsed ... but that would mean reloading years of content and photos. 

Perhaps it's Google's way of saying that the era of personal blogs about specific nerdy subjects is over. Does anyone still have any interest in the remote China borderland travels of a cranky Austrian-American botanist a century ago? 

Besides, I've retrodden in most of Rock's footsteps, at least the travels he reported on in National Geographic: Muli, Minya Konka, Muti Konka, Choni, Kawakarpo, Konkaling, Ragya  - done 'em all. Perhaps the only bits I would still like to get to are the crags of  Zhagana in Gansu and some of the Yellow River canyons near Amnye Machen.

One thing's for sure - the places I visited in the 1990s and the 2000s have again changed beyond all recognition from the places I saw. Time moves on and in China there is a kind of relentless unsentimental progress that turns quaint remote villages into modern but boring towns of high rise apartments. Look at Dimaluo on Google Earth these days and the log cabins have given way to townhouses.

 So it was nice while it lasted, but all good things come to an end. I'll try keep this blog up and running as long as possible, but otherwise, auf wiedersehn meine Damen und Herren.

Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Quick recommend: Dengtuzi Outdoors Club

 In contrast to my last post about the hordes of 'influencers' now on Tibetan highways, I would like to recommend a bunch of guys who are doing the real 'hard yards' in the mountains of south-west China: the Dengtuzi hiking club. Don't know much about them but I came across a bunch of their hiking diary videos on ixigua when looking for recent clips about the Kawka Karpo Kora. These guys have really gone off piste! Their site shows some great hikes in the off the beaten track areas around Meili Xueshan in NW Yunnan - not just the usual Outer Kora. (Runner up prize if you want to see a recent video of some Chinese hikers doing the regular kora - here).

These hikers are going into situations that i would be out of my depth in - hiking up snow and ice slopes at 4500 m to get across ridges - and camping out in emergency shelters on slopes where there is no level ground. They also highlight the pitfalls of trying to retreat from a mountain by following streams/creaks through the thick undergrowth of gullies. 

They appear to be based in Yunnan (but registered in Xiamen) and you can also find them on channels such as Weibo and Sohu. Oh, and all their videos are in Chinese only so you might need to get your Pleco translator out for the subtitles! 

 Enjoy ...

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

The new Tibet travellers: 'influencer' vloggers raising revenue from livestreaming channels: Are they for real?

 During the last three year pandemic 'exile' from hiking in China I've been doing some armchair travel via video channels, trying to see what the locals are doing in the corners of Yunnan and Sichuan that I used to visit. And what I discovered [as I've already posted about] is a whole new trend for young Chinese travellers to post regular daily video diaries of their Tibet/Qinghai/Yunnan/Sichuan/Gansu/trips on channels such as bilibili and ixigua. But these are not videos of hikers yomping and camping across the forests and mountain passes of South West China, rather they are a rather unique form of road-trip-with-Chinese characteristics. 

Firstly, most of the 'hikers' are literally road bound - they stick to the highways. Secondly, while some post images of bike, car or motorbike trips, many of these video diaries are from people - usually females - who for some reason have decided to pull a trailer or handcart with them to carry their supplies,  and even as a cramped sleeping quarters.

As this blog post [in Chinese] explains, this handcart hiker phenomenon has taken off in China because of the unique arrangement of China's fenced-off internet. Rising prosperity and personal freedom among young people has encouraged travel within China. This has combined with the rise of the 'self media' [Zì méitǐ '自媒体'] business model in which Chinese have aimed to make a fortune by creating their own content on video channels and social media sites. In China, many social media and video sites are structured to incentivise building followers and views - and they have inbuilt payment/funding/sponsorship systems. This has led to a wave of China-based travel livestreamers trying to become influencers or wanghong (网红). Since their content is all in Chinese and almost wholly on Chinese sites such as ixigua/weibo rather than Youtube/Tiktok etc, they are not on the international radar.


Let me give you an example. 'Wandering Wan Wennuan' is a young woman from a small town in Sichuan who has 1.3 million followers on ixigua alone. Her channel has hundreds of daily and weekly updates of her various trips into Tibet and other parts of by road/bike/hitchhiking. The video clips get between 50,000 and 500,000 views each. How much revenue she derives from all this content and views is not clear.

Her most recent mode of transport was a hand pulled cart along the 'Qinghai-Tibet' line. Prior to that she has posted videos of her trip in RVs and a motorcyle and sidecar rig to places such as Hainan. 

She has been posting videos for several years and they appear genuine, depicting the many encounters she has had with other travellers and locals along the way. She talks to restaurant and hotel owners, local cops, truck drivers who give her lifts, local families, Tibetans working in the fields, shopkeepers and a range of other people travelling by motorbike, 4WD etc. Sometimes she hooks up with others and travels with them for a while. At one point she adopt a stray puppy and takes it with her.

Bizarrely, she claims that her hiking is motivated by a desire/compulsion to lose weight, even though she appears throughout to be of normal weight and quite healthy. 

It seems to be for real. It would be hard to fake all the ups and downs of being on the road: tyre punctures, cooking plain meals in the rain, flooded and muddy campsites, not getting to your destination by nightfall - and the worries of being a solo camper when things go 'bump in the night'. It also seems to be posted in real time rather than prerecorded. But you can never tell if there is any outside support or creative editing. Or outside sponsorship and perhaps co-operation from business and local governments, not to mention [self] censorship. Some of the video make reference to [or feature] her 'fans' who greet her or who turn up to assist through contributions. Some just want selfies.

Wen's videos also cover her between-trip interludes in her hometown, where she provides regular updates on her 'real job' as a sausage-making entrepreneur (this stuff is not for the vegans). Wan also occasionally posts videos that give clues to her 'travel influencer' activities and revenue - she has bought four wheel drive 'tanks', motorbikes and a nice apartment.

Wan is just one of hundreds of Chinese travellers who are now posting videos online. Some of these other video travel bloggers are seen in her videos on the road, and the comments suggest that at least some of the are not genuine travellers but people doing it in pursuit of social media/livestreaming fame and fortune. One young woman she meets, for example, claims to have hiked 50km along a Tibet highway in one day - which is further than I do on some of my cycling days. The commenters also point out that she has a soft and fair facial complexion, at odds with the brutal wind and UV burned faces of real travellers.

And this is where 'Wandering Wen' lets the mask slip in one video. In response to similar accusations that she is a fake vlogger with a film support crew and backup truck, she posts footage of what she looks like with the beauty filter turned off - a more realistic vision of reddened, sunburnt and freckled skin and mouth sores!

Well, real or not, it certainly makes for interesting armchair travel viewing and an insight to the unique young Chinese influencer style of travel in the 21st century. 

But there are downsides, without even going into the whole Tibetan politics question. The Chinese blog decrying the rise of the travel vloggers on Tibetan roads points to a more tragic aspect. One such young female called Meimei from Henan was killed in May 2021 when she lost control of her handcart and was crushed.

Is the travel vlogger/livestreamer/influencer phenomenon here to stay? Who knows. I guess my point is that this is the new wave of 'self media' travellers you will encounter on the road in South West China.

Thursday, May 12, 2022

China is closed so I went to Nepal in the footseps of Bill Tillman

 More than two years since the pandemic started and like everyone else I haven't been doing any international travel. I'd become so used to flying cheaply to Kunming and Chengdu from Sydney that I began to take it for granted. With travel restrictions starting to be lifted after Christmas 2021 I was itching to get back into the mountains. Unfortunately China is still closed, so I plumped to go to Nepal instead. Reasons: mountains and trekking, obviously, but also few restrictions such as permits, isolation/quarantine and entry requirements.

I decided on trying the Langtang valley trek, as this seemed the nearest and most convenient for Kathmandu and a simple hike to acclimatise/acquaint myself with Nepal and its trekking scene.

I flew to KMD from Sydney with Malaysian, via KL. Wouldn't really recommend Malaysian - they were a bit sloppy and indifferent, kind of like a slightly better version of Garuda. After a few hassles with online covid forms and apps I arrived at the  very basic Kathmandu airport and paid my $30 airport tax and was granted a visa on arrival for $50.

I took the bus to Syabru Besi, which was a hopeless joke. I'd always assumed Nepal was a functioning country, given its popularity with western trekkers and mountaineers, but the bus service to Langtang was a chaotic, decrepit mess. The whole experience reminded me of travel in China in the 1990s - a boneshaker bus hustling for passengers at the side of a dirty road, no proper bus station. And a terrible stop-start journey over dirt track potholed roads that took eight hours to cover 80km. Just horrible.

I did the seven day Langtang trek, which was three days up the riverside track to Kyangjin Gompa and two days down, with two days at the scenic alpine area. Did a few side hikes, and it was nice, but the whole area is simply devoted to trekking and you kind of feel like you're just another a customer in a conga line of trekkers. There were a surprisingly large number of trekkers from the US, Europe (including Eastern EU) and the UK. Despite criss-crossing paths and leapfrogging each other between tea houses, the foreigners were not particularly friendly. A lot of them were just wankers with their trekking poles and flash gear, bashing along to a strict itinerary. There were also quite a few divvies who had fallen for the Namaste hippy culture, as if it were still 1974. You know who you are, you with your Kathmandu loon pants, Jesus beard and red 'tilak' dye smeared on your forehead. Don't greet me with 'Namaste', I'm not Nepali, dickheads.

The teahouse system meant I didn't have to take a tent or sleeping bag [good], but it also means you are locked in to the boring set menus of dal bhat [lentil curry] and dull variations on chow mein, fried rice and fried eggs/omelettes/momos. I don't want to eat another egg for a while.

I shouldn't be such a grump. The Nepali people were nice, especially the Tamang (descendants of Tibetans) living in the Lantang area. Not so keen though on the constant hassling and hustling [You have guide? Where you stay?] and the bullshitting when things don't work ['bus needs mechanic, maybe leave tomorrow'].

The highlight of the trip was a variation I did on the Tamang Heritage Trail. At Tatopani ['hot springs' that lost their thermal power after the 2015 earthquake] I hired a local guide to motorbike me up along the Sanjen Khola river to the border with Tibet. It was an 8km ride along an ugly construction road, now dominated by a Chinese hydro dam project that seemed to be making no progress - maybe because the border has been closed during the covid pandemic?

At the top of the valley we parked the bike at a messy worker's camp and legged it up an old track into what looked like the upper reaches of a glaciated valley that eventually reaches the moraine coming down from a mountain called Ganesh. Weirdly half the valley is Chinese (Tibetan) territory, while the lower reaches are in Nepal. At the point where we reached the Chinese border, Nepal territory was on the left hand side of the Sanjen Kharka river while China was on the right bank. The track crossed it via a very flimsy bridge made of planks and sticks. Given that this is a closed valley that can only be entered from Nepal, I doubt there are any Tibetans in residence.

I'd surveyed the route by Google Earth, on which it looked straightforward and relatively, but in reality it was a tough scramble up a boulder-strewn trail. The track was not always very obvious, and in early may there were still sections that crossed snow slopes, which had to be traversed very carefully, as they descended steeply into the boiling torrent below.

We walked for a few hundred metres into Tibetan/China territory just to say we'd been there, but the trail was very precarious and the weather foggy and damp, with little visibility, so we didn't proceed further up the valley.

The only Chinese people we encountered were the foreman and supervisors at the hydro site on the Nepal side. They were surprised and delighted to find that I could converse in Mandarin with them.

The scenery was nice but my overall impression of Nepal was not great. I have been spoiled by travel in remote parts of China where the roads are now uniformly good, the buses modern and well equipped, and the local villages all have reliable and high standard electricity, sanitation and mobile phone systems. And even the most remote yak herders hut has decent food! Nepal is unfortunately still a Third World country by comparison. In China it's possible for me to converse with and engage with local people on an equal footing. In Nepal, with its decades long reliance on trekking as an industry, I felt like I was just another tourist - and not a very capable trekker, come to think of it.

So I'm looking forward to returning to south west China whenever the country opens up again. Unfortunately Xi Jinping's cult of personality and increasing micro-management and mismanagement of the pandemic means that might be some time off.

In the meantime, here's a link to the 1949 book written by the weirdo British explorer Bill Tillman and his travels in the Lantang area.

Tuesday, February 08, 2022

Armchair travel #2: Nujiang and Myanmar

 Here's a bilibili video playlist for a guy called Weimeng (Raymond?) from Jilin. Most of his videos relate to his cross border trips from Ruili into the Wa and Kachin areas of northern Burma - very interesting - I don't know how he managed it. He even shoots video while bribing the various militia guys at checkpoints. There's even a hilarious bit where he films some illict black market trading taking place in Ruili through gaps cut in the border fence. Also of interest for previous readers of this blog are his trips up the Nujinag from Bingzhongluo. The No Foreigners Allowed sign at the Yunnan-Tibet border now has a bell to ring!

Monday, February 07, 2022

More armchair travel in the Nujiang region

 There are some great amateur travel videos on the Chinese video site bilibili, aka 'B Zhan'. This guy 'Brother Lee' seems to be from Sichuan and has some crazy videos of his trip to Lhasa and beyond. He has little money or kit, rides a cheap bike, survives on instant noodles and biscuits, pitches his tent in public toilets (not as bad as it sounds, there are actually some quite posh ones have been installed on the highways) and bathes in the rivers. Well worth a look, although it is only in Chinese. Worth translating. He starts off his trip looking like a pale, quietly spoken pudgy guy and ends up looking like a beggar, cursing and lamenting his lot as his bike crashes and he is forced to work in recycling factory for months to make some more cash to travel - an epic. I tuned in for the Deqin-Gongshan highway but this is the least interesting of his many destinations. It looks like a muddy eyesore. Enjoy!

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Imaginary Peaks: The Riesenstein Hoax and Other Mountain Dreams - by Katie Ives


This book looks like an interesting read - it includes the story of how Joseph Rock was hopelessly wrong about the height of Minya Konka, suggesting that it was 30,000 feet! Likewise Amnye Machen was suggested by some to be higher than Everest. There's an excerpt of it here

 Meanwhile, not much happening on the travelling front - looks like it'll be another year before there's any chance of walking in Yunnan and Sichuan again.

Sunday, August 08, 2021

Return trip to Muli - an armchair traveller visit via bilibili videos


As described on this blog, almost 30 years ago I did one of my first trips in Rock's footsteps to Muli monastery. Back in the 1990s there was no proper road from Lugu Lake to Muli - hell there wasn't even a map! I took a chance an followed Rock's map and found the trail was still as he described it. Much of it was dirt track and sometimes just a faint trail through the fields. I tramped over the mountains and through the forests via Yongning, Hot Springs (Wenquan), Wujiao and then up over the mountain pass and down into the Muli vally. It took me three days. Saw very few people en route, just a few wild Tibetan and Naxi locals.

Well now you can do the same trip in a few hours on a good road - as this guy shows in his video of a motorbike trip from Lugu Lake to Muli monastery. The route is much the same but now there are multiple police/militia checkpoints [to check for cigarettes or any fire-related materials - they had catastrophic forest fires in Muli]. There's also a few tourist scenic viewing points installed at places such as the Gibboh Mountain pass - in contrast to the bleak place we paused at. The biggest change of course is Muli monastery. Now a very opulent and grandiose series of buildings, not the dilapidated single building we found (it's still there but now massively overshadowed by the big monastery buildings). 

So I don't think I'll be returning to Muli. But I would still like to visit the other more remote monasteries that Rock described in the area - Kangpu and Waerdje - at some point. 

Monday, March 22, 2021

Next destination on the list ... Jiaying (甲应村)

Having viewed the magnificant Kawakarpo (Mt Meili) from the east like most people, I've always been curious to see what it's western face would be like. A look on Google Maps suggested it would be possible to get views of the west face and its glaciers from a tiny hamlet called Jiaying (type in 甲应村 to search), accessible by a rough track from Chawalong. It was next on my list of place to explore, but it looks like the village has  now had an upgraded road put in and is receiving a increasing stream of visitors arriving by 4WD and motrobike. 

With just a handful of Tibetan houses, I bet the locals are now a bit jaded by the attention they are getting from outsiders. But I suppose tourism and homestays are being promoted by the Nujiang government as part of poverty alleviation, so good luck to them.  Wish I'd got to see it before the pandemic ...

Here's one of the many videos now popping up on Bilibili.

Here's another. Some very slick outdoors lifestyle productions going on here. 

And this one gives you a full view of the epic exposed road track along and over the ridge to get to Jiaying from near the Tangdu La north of Chawalong:

And finally Esther, here's a map view, looking over the Nujiang from west to east, showing [in green, lower section] where the trail goes from Chawalong. You can see my previous travels along the Kawakarpo Kora marked in red. Of course this is all just across the border from Yunnan in Tibet so out of bounds to big noses. In the good old days of few visitors you could sneak through at night on a hired motorbike, but now they've put a big police checkpoint at Quju and you have very little chance of getting past that.

A few years ago I had the idea of trekking through to Jiaying round an old herder's track just above the treeline from the Sho La (also marked in green, top) - I found a few Chinese hiker accounts of it and it sounded very hairy, remote and exposed. Would take about three days. Epic.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

A great website about travel in SW China


If you enjoy reading  articles about the explorers and adventurers in South West China of the 1920s, you will appreciate this excellent website by John Hague. It describes the travels of his grandfather  Dr Hubert Gordon Thompson and Brig. Gen. George Pereira around Yunnan, Sichuan, Gansu and beyond to Peking in 1923. If the name Pereira rings a bell it's because Joseph Rock mentions him in his articles. The articles are a great read and also have wonderful photographs. They include diaries, maps and also photographs of artefacts from the travel.



Monday, September 21, 2020

Excluded from Yunnan. Feels like Likiang 1949 ...

What with the pandemic and the looming conflict between the western powers and China, it feels like I won't be seeing Yunnan or Sichuan for a while. Hope it's not like Joseph Rock's situation in 1949 when he was forced to fly out of Lijiang - and leave China - at short notice forever because of the Communist takeover, and spent the rest of his life in the US, pining for the mountains of Yunnan ... OK I'm not THAT obsessed with the place, but it did make for a cheap and interesting place to visit with plenty of adventure and nice food ... and not too many other foreign tourists.

Watch this space.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Another photo from the lockdown archive ...

Chonggu Si (monastery), Yading. This is the new building, still being built at the time [2013] I took this photo with my Rolleiflex and medium format film ... a bit busier nowadays!

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Random photos: Bingzhongluo street market

From almost a decade ago, taken with my beloved Leica Minilux - now gone to the cemera graveyard.

Monday, May 04, 2020

Lockdown dreaming

Stuck in the house, in this city in this country for an indefinite period I'm glad that at least I'm alive and healthy and perhaps one day I will get out again to visit places such as the Nujiang. Looking though my old photos made me realise there are so many that I haven't posted on this blog - such as this one of Laomudeng (老姆登) between Liuku and Fugong.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Xikang: the Vanishing Province - Chinese photographer Sun Mingjing's Remarkable Record of 1939 and 1944

Another great book discovery on my latest trip to Yunnan. Just done an excellent two week bike tour from Kunming to Hekou (Vietnam border). No Joseph Rock connection (although he did stay at the hill station of Dalat when passing through what was then Indo China on his way to a ship connection in Haiphong). But the trip did give me the opportunity to pop into Mandarin books in Kunming, where they have lots of great books on the region - unfortunately most of them I can't afford. But I couldn't resist this collection of photographs from the former province of Xikang ( the Tibetan bits of Sichuan). The photos are by Sun Mingjing (孙明经) and include some great images of places like Kangding and Ganze. I can't find much info about Sun online. The son of Nanjing Christian intellectuals, he was interested in photos and movies from the age of five. In 1939 after graduating in film studies from Jinling University, he travelled to Xikang and took many documentary style photos. He went on to become a pioneering socially aware documentary film maker and spent a year in the US. However after the Communist takeover he opted to stay in China rather than move to Taiwan. In the 1950s he was condemned as a rightist, never made any more films again and had many of his photos and films confiscated and destroyed by Mao Zedong's Red Guards. He died in obscurity in 1991. His photos of Xikang are wonderful.

Update: April 2020 ...
I wish I could post more of these wonderful photos

Monday, December 16, 2019

De-Gong Highway update

I wrote before about the newly opened road that connects the Mekong (Lancang) valley and the Nujiang (Salween) from Deqin to Dimaluo/Gongshan. Well here's the first English account of a westerner crossing it by bike - the heroic Vlad, who seem to have been a teacher in Korea before his epic bike trip through China. As you can see, the road was blocked by a scary landslide ...

Monday, October 21, 2019

Genyen trek 格聂峰

Nothing new to report on the Joseph Rock front, but I've just completed a mini-trek from Litang to Batang via Mt Genyen (格聂峰, Chinese: Ge Nie Feng). A very nice and remote undeveloped part of Tibetan western Sichuan, with very few western tourists. And these days it makes a nice change from 'Rock' territory such as Yading, which has now become saturated with tourism development.

I got the inspiration for doing the route from Tom Nakamura's book about the mountains of western China. He shows an interesting track from Genyen's Rengo Gompa (Lenggu Si monastery 冷古寺 to Batang via a place called Bomi. In reality I found the track is now already a dirt road and is being upgraded to a scenic highway! Quite a few Chinese trekkers do the so-called C-Line half kora around the Genyen range, starting at Lamaya and ending at a place caled Anju, from where hire vans connect with the main Litang-Batang highway. Example blog (in Chinese)

And as usual the local Tibetans are offering transport on their motorbikes. I'd originally planned to hike from Lamaya (600 yuan van tide from Litang) to the monastery, but my driver showed me that there is now a good road all the way to the monastery, where he dropped me off. Free camping, but not much else by way of facilities there - a small restaurant and shop, but no mains electricity or phone coverage.

You can see more of my photos on Insta:


For anyone interested in trekking to Genyen and Rengo monastery, here are some practical points:
Daily bus from Chengdu to Litang, costs about 220 yuan, leaves at 6.30am, arrived in Litang (via Ya'an, Kangding and Yajiang) at about 4-5pm.
Litang: stay at the Summer Hostel (Xiatian Hostel, about 40-50/night for dorm), where the staff can introduce you to guides/drivers for Genyen. I used a guy who hangs round the hostel called Jiang Yang (13684494474), who was OK, speaks a little English - charges 600 yuan to hire his van for the trip to Genyen.
At Genyen you can stay at the monastery, where there is a simple guesthouse (?150-200Y a room a night?), or camp. You can hire local Tibetan guides/porters at the monastery from the going rate of 350/day for guide and transport - ie motorbike.

Sunday, May 05, 2019

Just discovered a marvellous source of 1940s images of Yunnan

If you want to see what Yunnan looked like when Joseph Rock was there in the 1940s, check out this  archive of the photos of US Army Air Force combat photographer Eugene Wozniak

Eugene took many amazing photos of everyday life in Yunnan combined with some exciting ones of US air force raids on places like Hong Kong.

and ..

 or ..

Monday, September 17, 2018


I have been using this blog as a trekking diary for my treks in the footsteps of Joseph Rock in Yunnan and Sichuan over the last decade or so. I had been meaning to compile them all and publish them as an e-book - but ... well that didn't work out. So instead here are the original posts arranged in some kind of chronological order, with a few photos. Bear in mind that these are the draft posts as written at the time, and I was using a film camera most of the time (remember Kodak film?).

How to use it:

There are 14 chapters. Scroll down for the next chapter, and click Older Post at the bottom of the page to find the next ones. Or use the Chapter index on the right hand side of the page.

Originally it had a bit of a then-and-now theme between the 1920s and the 1990s.  But of course I've been doing this caper so long now that the blog has ironically become a record of how China was before the era of mass tourism - and kind of then vs now for the 1990s vs the 2010s. Just look at Lijiang and Tiger Leaping Gorge back then before the roads and the crowds!

One of the problems with the book was that even when I'd covered most of the Rock trips and started  writing them up it took so long that I'd did MORE trips to add in to the original. So the timeline jumps around a bit.

And since finishing the diaries I've been back to do cycling trips and other stuff, like making a TV documentary.

If you want to know more about the treks, search the site for maps etc. There are many  posts detailing the practical aspects of the trips.

Any questions, beijingweek AT

Sunday, September 16, 2018


                                                          [Click here to go to Chapter 2]

I first came across Joseph Rock's National Geographic articles about western China in the back room of a library in Auckland, in
1991. I'd just arrived in New Zealand from the UK, and was feeling a sense of anticlimax after having had spent an interesting few weeks travelling around south west China. On arrival in New Zealand, where I had intended to find work, I was soon feeling bored and restless. I found myself passing a rainy evening browsing the travel book section in the old Takapuna public library, which was then 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 out of 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 had just made to Kunming and Dali had piqued my interest in south-west China. So when I came across some faded old copies of 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 we differently 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 interested in. Or more precisely, it was the articles that I found 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 his articles were of spectacular mountain country, Tibetan warriors wearing leopard skin capes and posing with matchlock rifles, or primitive 'Lolo' tribesmen preparing to cross raging rivers using inflated pigs bladders for buoyancy.

img649aIn one notable article, "Konka Risumgompa - 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, so I took Joseph Rock's hand-drawn maps and tried to compare them side-by-side with a map from a modern Lonely Planet China guide. On the modern maps, 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 north east of Lijiang, there was just an empty white area between two rivers. The same blank spaces were evident in the maps in all the other Chinese guidebooks and atlases that I consulted. 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, and 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? If they were still there - 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 shared an interest in south-west China with a deadexplorer. In my late 20s, I was living a peripatetic existence in London as a journalist, drifting from one casual 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 Mujahadeen. 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 had until recently been off limits to westerners, but which were now gradually 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 window from our Woolwich high rise office, 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. 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 office, and as I stood there in silence he would tot up the number of hours I had worked for the week and write me out a payslip, always seeming to find some reason to deduct a few pounds.
"Thank you. We won't need any help next week, but stay in touch ..." he would invariably say.
mims haymarketAnd so I would return to my gloomy bedsit in Eltham to listen to my Prefab Sprout records, or 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 criedwith homesickness at times. "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 various reasons. Following the fall of the
Berlin Wall in the previous year, 1989, China was one of the few surviving Communist states in the world. I had developed a somewhat morbid fascination with communist states 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 had
experienced a strange frisson of fascination and revulsion while travelling in an Iron Curtain socialist state, feeling like a voyeur from the 'free west'. I was particularly curious to see what 'communist' China would be like, given the recent bloody crackdown of June 1989. However, I was probably most interested in seeing what the 'real' rural China of peasants and paddy fields was like, rather than having much interest in visiting museums or 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 remote towns in Yunnan and Sichuan that it listed were illustrated with pencil-drawn maps that typically showed one 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 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 only just emerging from 40 years of being a closed society. The rigid framework of the communist state was loosening and it looked like there were now opportunities to travel 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 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, after they were turned back by police from a 'closed' area of western Sichuan.

I was committed. I wanted to go to south west China. To raise the money, I spent a week as a medical guinea pig in a drug testing clinic back in Leeds. I earned almost a thousand pounds at Hazleton’s Clinical Trails 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 did the testing on a regular basis. All without the knowledge of the DHSS, of course. When I told them I was going to China, I might as well have said I was going to the moon.

Saturday, September 15, 2018


                                  [Click here to go back to Chapter 1]
                            [Click here to go forward to Chapter 3]

Joseph Rock first came to China in 1913, on a brief visit when he was almost thirty years old. He was on a world tour after taking extended leave from his position as a botanical researcher at the newly-established University of Hawaii. At a relatively young age, he had already achieved a great deal – in fact his accomplishments at 30 would have been regarded by many other men as sufficient reward for a lifetime’s work.

From humble beginnings as the son of a Viennese servant he had settled in the US and become a respected university academic and the author of several scientific publications that had garnered international acclaim. One of these, The Indigenous Trees of Hawaii is still a classic reference text on the subject.
How had he done it?

Josef Franz Karl Rock was born in 1884 in Vienna, at that time one of Europe’s great cities, the sophisticated capital of the powerful Austro-Hungarian Empire. His mother died when he was only six, and he was raised by his father and sister. It was not a happy childhood - his father worked as a servant for a Polish aristocrat, and he was a devout Roman Catholic who hoped that his son Josef would enter the priesthood.

But young Josef had other ideas. From an early age he developed an interest in foreign lands and their languages. At the age of 10 he visited Egypt with his father and picked up some Arabic, which he continued to learn until by the age of 16 he was able to become a part time teacher of Arabic. He had a keen intellect and yet was also stubborn and egotistical. His inquiring mind was stultified by the rigid Austrian school system and he took to teaching himself languages and studying books alone to satisfy his need for scholarship. He often skipped classes to wander the streets and parks of the wonderful city of Wien and dream of great adventures. He mixed with the Arab and Turkish traders at the Prater Park and taught himself to read and write Chinese characters, imagining that he would one day travel to Peking.

Living in the household of a Count, he developed an appreciation of grand clothes, high culture, music and civilised manners, even if he didn't have the means to enjoy such fine things or mix in such company. Josef Rock was a pauper and could barely afford a decent suit, let alone to go to university.

Rebelling against his father’s insistence that he enter a seminary, he instead took to drifting round Europe, picking up odd jobs here and there and living off remittances from his older sister back in Vienna.

Like many impoverished people of that era, he developed tuberculosis, a disease that was to shape his destiny in many ways. A spell in the warm Mediterranean climate of Malta seemed to help his lungs, but the jobless Rock was eventually forced by penury to work his passage back to wintery Hamburg, where his consumptive, blood-stained cough returned. When his father died, the young Rock inherited a pitiful few artefacts such as a gold watch, that he was able to sell and scrape together the cost of a passage by ship to New York.

At the turn of the century in United States, he continued his drifting lifestyle, working as a dishwasher, interspersed with periods of studying English at college and stays in hospital for treatment of his tuberculosis. Wandering alone, living on his wits but making no friends, he moved from New York to Waco, Texas, passed a few months in Mexico and eventually ended up in the earthquake-shattered city of San Francisco in 1906.

Still plagued by tuberculosis, he decided that the climate of Hawaii was his only chance of better health, and he took a ship to Honolulu. It had only been 25 years since American Marines had landed in the subtropical kingdom of Hawaii and usurped power from Queen Liliuokalani in favour of US sugar plantation owners. The islands were still an undeveloped and relatively unexplored backwater, with a scattered population of little more than 150,000 people.

As a seemingly educated European, Rock was able to talk himself into a job at a local school, teaching Latin and natural history. Despite having no formal training in science, he excelled at the latter subject, in part due to his enthusiasm for teaching himself through field trips. He enjoyed being out of doors, and found that it was good for his lungs. After a year, with his tuberculosis still flaring up during his classroom spells indoors, he left the school took up an outdoor job with the forestry department, hoping it would help his lungs.

The legend here has it that Rock barged his way into the Hawaiian department of forestry and told them that they must have a herbarium - and that he was the man who going to create it for them. Whatever the truth, he was engaged by the department as a botanical collector, and tasked with collecting seeds and specimens of rare Hawaiian trees an shrubs.

The now anglicised Joseph Rock applied himself with diligence, enterprise and scholarly enthusiasm to his new role. He was fortunate in arriving at a time when little was known about the flora of the Hawaiian Islands, and the other two foresters working for the department seemed to have neither the ability nor inclination to get out and collect, classify and study the native plants, trees, flowers and seeds.

Joseph Rock had found his vocation. Over the next three years he threw himself into wide-ranging plant-hunting trips around the islands of Hawaii, on which he pursued botanical investigations for the forestry department with zeal and scholarly thoroughness.

He believed in being out in the field rather than cooped up in an office as an “armchair botanist”. In remote corners of the islands he would seek help from ranchers and plantation owners, charming their wives and children with his European manners and regaling them with exciting stories of his travels and adventures. He also studied the botanical textbooks and taught himself from the scientific literature.

Within a couple of years he had published his first botanical paper and mounted an award-winning exhibit of local flora. After another year, he believed he had accrued enough experience in botany to try a move into academia.

In later years he styled himself as “Dr” Rock, and some have portrayed him as a charlatan, claiming he faked his qualifications and conned his way into positions that he was not qualified for. Perhaps there is an element of truth in that, for the servant’s boy from status-conscious Vienna must surely have craved the prestige of being a Herr Doktor. Nevertheless, Rock’s scholarly achievements in botany alone, not to mention his later anthropological work, would surely merit a PhD, even if he was never formally awarded one.

He joined the College of Hawaii – forerunner to the university – in 1911 and was to spend a very productive decade of research and scholarship there, rising to become Professor of Systematic Botany. He continued to spend much of his time in the field, collecting specimens and getting to know every inch of the islands and their plants.

In the years before the Great War, Joseph Rock published prodigiously in scientific journals using English – his second language – and he wrote three major books on his subject. Rock also had a few students, but proved to be a hard taskmaster with a reputation for moodiness and an explosive temper.

After a couple of years at the college he felt sufficiently secure to take time out to make a round the world trip. Travelling via Guam and the Philippines, he arrived in Hong Kong in October 1913 for a brief stopover en route to Europe.

In Kowloon, the young visitor thrilled at being taken for a ride on a rickshaw pulled by a fellow human being, and like modern day visitors spent time shopping in the densely packed streets of the young British colony. Rock then visited Guangzhou to see the ‘real China’. He disembarked at the Anglo-French traders’ enclave of Shamian island on the Pearl River in the centre of the city, and was taken over the small bridge, past the Chinese sentries to enter the new Republic of China.

It had been only a year or so since the Manchu Qing dynasty had been overthrown and the Emperoro Pu Yi forced to abdicate by military forces following uprisings that started in Guangzhou.

As Rock toured the streets of Guangzhou, he was delighted to find that it matched all his childhood expectations. The warren of streets, the smells, the noise, the markets and craft shops … the bustling crowds ordered by his rickshaw collies to “make way for the foreign devil”… and Rock noted that his presence was resented by many, who cursed at him and kicked at his rickshaw chair.

It was the most interesting place I have seen or hope to see, he wrote in his diary. And he would be back within a few years, to lead a plant hunting expedition to Yunnan.

By 1920, it seems Joseph Rock was unhappy at the College of Hawaii. Perhaps he was getting itchy feet. There was a dispute about the housing of his now vast herbarium, over which he resigned and he travelled to mainland United States to look for work as a botanist. Despite his excellent academic work in Hawaii, his lack of formal qualifications - a PhD in particular - may have explained why he was rebuffed by Harvard, and also found no opportunities in New York. However, Rock was fortunate in his timing. The US Department of Agriculture was looking for a plant collector to bring back samples of the chaulmoogra tree from Asia, as this was considered a possible cure for leprosy. It was a position for which Rock was ideally suited, and he was quickly hired and sent on his way to Siam (Thailand), where he mounted an expedition that travelled up through the far north of the country, into Burma and ultimately into Bengal, India. It was on this first trip that Rock penned his first article for National Geographic. He was an industrious and productive collector, and the USDA were so satisfied with his results that they suggested that he mount a further plant collecting trip into western China, to seek out samples of blight-resistant chestnut trees to replace the chestnut trees that were dying out in America's forests.

But first, Rock made a return visit to Vienna, where he was able to parade his success to the remaining members of his family.
He then headed to Kunming in Yunnan. Over the next year, his plant collecting activities in remote areas of Yunnan drew the attention of the National Geographic Society's president, Gilbert Grosvenor, who was impressed enough to propose that the society take over sponsorship from the USDA, and to provide Rock with funds to allow him to travel further afield and for longer periods.

Joseph Rock was to spend the next 18 months on an epic and productive plant collecting expedition across many areas of Yunnan, ranging from the tropical borders of Burma and Siam to the barren mountains and highland plateaus of eastern Tibet. He collected thousands of samples of seeds for numerous plants and trees, as well as around 60,000 herbarium samples. Gilbert Grosvenor later described the collection of 493 different rhododendrons gathered by the National Geographic Expedition as "one of the most remarkable ever brought together."

Joseph Rock was making a name for himself. The society donated many of Rock’s samples to his former sponsor, the USDA. The secretary for the department, Henry Wallace, wrote to Grosvenor to express his admiration of "Professor Rock's" efforts.
"Members of this department have followed with interest his wanderings of the last 18 months, and have particularly marvelled at his success in packing and forwarding his collection of seeds to Washington," he said.

The seeds and plant specimens collected by Rock were distributed to botanical gardens in the US and in the UK, as well as to private nurseries and museums. Rock had also collected 1600 samples of birds and 60 of animals from Yunnan, all of which were meticulously prepared and documented. His collection was described as one of the most unusual and "the most important single contribution" to the Smithsonian National Museum natural history section at that time.

This was the trip on which Joseph Rock made his 'dash to Muli' that became the subject of an article in National Geographic magazine. Muli was where the Rock legend and myth building really began.

Friday, September 14, 2018


                                                                                                       [Click here to go back to Chapter 2] 
                                                                                                 [Click here to go forward to Chapter 4] 

 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, not actual government of the province. 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 power.

Tang’s reign would last until 1927, when he was overthrown and executed by a more politically astute rival, Long Yun. As 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 distant Nanjing. Long 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 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 the peasant farmers and coolies at the very bottom of the social ladder.

As a westerner, Rock would have enjoyed the privilege of extra-territoriality that made him effectively above the laws of China. In the 1920s, there were few foreigners in Yunnan, and those that did find themselves in trouble would expect their consulates in Kunming to have leverage over the Chinese authorities.

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, who existed in varying degrees of independence from or assimilation with the Han Chinese. There was also another recent migrant minority - the handful of western missionaries who had set up churches, schools and clinics in far flung communities.

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 trying to find the source of the Mekong passed through ‘Tali’ in the 1860s, 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. The entire Muslim population of Dali, for example, were 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, but when the Muslim leader gave himself up, the warlord went back on his word. 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.
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.

Dali pagodas photographed by Joseph Rock, 1920s.
Dali Pagodas in 1990

My first visit to Yunnan, 1990

I arrived in the modern city of Kunming in early November of 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 spent much of the train trip sequestered on my top bunk, trying to keep out of their way.

Arriving at 5am, we were turfed off the train into the bitterly cold pre-dawn darkness. I sheltered in a café on the station forecourt for an hour, until it got light. I then made an abortive attempt to take a minibus into the city centre, but ended up boarding a tourist coach by mistake. When it started heading out of town, all my gesturing and attempts at speaking Chinese to get the driver to stop were ignored. It was only when I got up and started shouting and trying to wrestle the doors open that he pulled up. The other passengers were all snickering and muttering about the ‘crazy foreigner’ as I dragged my bag off the bus, cursing the driver and cursing China.

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 that was officially open to oreign tourists. The Camellia was a shabby, Soviet-style institution, with dim cold corridors guarded by a female 'key keeper' on each floor. On my floor, the young woman concierge sat rugged up behind a shonky podium, tapping out a tune with one finger on an electric organ. 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 as the beautiful ‘Spring City’ in my guidebook. After the exotic peaks and sub-tropical foliage of Guilin, Kunming seemed to be a grey, soul-less city of the kind that I had always expected to encounter 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’ cinsisting of poorly maintained rickety three-storey terraces. The shops were pokey and drab, and even the Vietnamese coffee shop that was 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 coffee poured from a metal jug and bread rolls that were hard enough to break your teeth. 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 bandits in the Dali area, keeping them in line by forbidding opium and punishing them with cruel practices such as cutting off the lips of liars. Rather than confront this local strong man, the provincial governor had bought him off by appointing him a 'general' and sub-governor of Dali district. Despite this 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 freeways and luxury coaches that can whisk you from Kunming to Dali in just a few hours, that the road journey to Dali used to involve two days of purgatory. 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 for a rest stop at a roadside noodle stall. So it was not surprising that my first impressions of Dali were coloured by my crankiness from lack of sleep. At 7.30am in the morning in November, Dali was freezing and still dark. I was not a happy traveller.

Things picked up once I had negotiated myself a room at the only hotel in town open to foreigners - the Dali Number Two Hotel. This undistinguished concrete pile was ridiculously cheap at seven yuan 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 laidback Chinese guy who spoke a kind of California hippy version of English. Maybe he’d been partaking of the marijuana that grows freely around Dali, but Jim certainly had the mannerisms of the stoner. I wasn't complaining. He ran a nice café, in fact pretty much the only café in town, that catered to my squeamish western tastes. I didn't want to eat rice gruel or beef noodle soup for breakfast, and 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 its 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. The sun rose and bathed the long ridgeline of the Cangshan mountains to the west in a golden glow. 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. In his book 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 his Naxi and Tibetan acquaintances in Lijiang. The Bai women, Goullart thought, were money grabbing, and would hire themselves out as porters to carry excessively heavy loads simply because they were paid by weight.
The Bai people’s gifts always had 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 Yunnan 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, as I walked up to view Dali’s famous landmark – a trio of nine 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 vegetable.

My gaze kept going back to the mountains, and as a compulsive hillwalker I searched out a likely walkable 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 ear like it was encouraging the whole town to wake up and face the day with a good socialist spirit. The other sound was that of a fellow resident at the Number Two Hotel who was making repeated and very audible attempts at clearing his throat and expelling the contents in a 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, I wondered?

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 hor of climbing, I arrived, knackered, at the Zhonghesi temple, which was a beautiful serene spot with great views over the town and the Lake Erhai beyond it. 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, and they were dressed in a mixture of army and civilian clothes. Using hand gestures, they invited me to sit down with them, and they made me drink some bitter-tasting green tea from a cracked flowery enamel mug. I couldn't work out how they were able to drink it without swallowing the big tea leaves and stalks that floated on top. Using my phrasebook they explained that they were local police - gonganju - and that they were up here looking for two porters who had failed to return from a ferrying trip up to the TV station two days ago, presumed lost in a snowstorm. 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 about something up there. The track was well worn and became quite steep, emerging into clearing and the winding up around the edges of rocky outcrops, with the occasional grand lookout. I plodded on upwards, and it 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.

Dali Yunnan, climbing the Cangshan peaks, 1991I 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. It still looked as distant as ever.

By mid-afternoon I had climbed well above the tree-line and started to get worried about the time. The sun was moving behind the mountain ridge and soon I would be in shadow and unable to feel its meagre warmth. 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 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 I should have told him what I was doing. Jim said he could have arranged a van to take me half way up the mountain, because there was a service road for the TV station that went almost as high as I had hiked that day. Despite my tiredness, I decided to take his advice and have another crack at the mountain after having a rest day.

And so, undaunted by the failure of my first attempt to knock off the peaks of the Cangshan mountains, I succeeded on my second attempt 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 a few other backpackers - some Brits, a Mexican guy, a Swede and two Germans - who also expressed interest in taking 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. The houses looked decrepit and the locals had spread rice and grain out on the road to dry it out.

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 ‘van’ 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 terminus, 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 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 with a large TV satellite dish.

The wind was blowing hard 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. A few minutes later, another technician emerged bearing a thermos flask of hot water, from which we gratefully filled our mugs and bottles, and I was able to make a cup of Earl Grey from one of the few teabags I’d brought along.

The views were absolutely breathtaking on all sides, 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 were visible. And yet ironically, immediately below us, Dali was obscured by cloud. We posed for a few pictures, and then set off to return.

The Germans headed back down the way we had come up, while the rest of us 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 path 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 by 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 there 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 to widen the overgrown track. No sign of the missing two porters, they told us.

From there it was a long and leg-torturing descent for more than an hour, 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 was a dull anticlimax.

The rest of my brief 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 just wanted to move on. And once I had mentally set my mind on being in the next place, my patience with the minor irritations of Chinese life quickly ran out. The things that had once seemed novel and funny in the first few days of travelling in China were now often just a reminder of what an alien environment I was in. I soon got tired of the what I came to call the “Six Annoying 'S's” of China: the spitting and staring, the shoving and shouting, the slurping of tea and the incessant smoking.

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 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. At other times the Chinese people I met were touchingly open and generous. Later, sat on 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 suits. Despite their rough appearance they prodded me into sharing their snacks of monkey nuts 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 November 1990. In this pre-internet era I had been cut off from the world while in rural China for three weeks. It was only when I arrived at the Tsim Sha Tsui ferry terminal in Hong Kong and bought a South China Morning Post that I learned that Margaret Thatcher was no longer the Prime Minister of Britain. I had missed the end of the Iron Lady while I was in the China news black hole.

Yunnan Postscript
From Hong Kong I flew to Perth in Australia and did the whole backpacker tour of the big continent. I travelled the long dusty red highway up through the Kimberley to Darwin and then down through the ‘red centre’ to see Alice Springs and Ayers Rock. But even though I saw some amazing sights, I felt unsettled and unsatisfied with Australia. I didn't realise it then, but I had caught the 'China bug'. Already I yearned 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 now the weedy pale European guy.

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 girl from China (that's another story) and started to study Chinese. 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.