Monday, May 21, 2012

"Seeking the Mountains of Mystery" - Part 1

Of all the places that Joseph Rock visited, I was least enthusiastic about going to Choni monastery and following in his footsteps across Gansu and Qinghai to see the mountain of Amnye Machen. Why? On the face of it, his description of his two year sojourn in the area from 1925-26 sounds fantastical and is almost unbelievably eventful. The National Geographic article reads like something from a Boys Own adventure. He befriends a local prince and takes up residence in his little principality of Choni. A local war rages in the district between Tibetans and Muslims, with bodies disembowelled and decapitated heads displayed on the town walls. He visits nearby monasteries to see the "Devil Dancers" and falls under the spell of sorcerers to experience a weird and disturbing trance.

And ultimately he embarks an epic six month journey on horseback across unexplored grasslands and lives among the primitive but noble Tibetan nomads clans who have never before seen a white man. He plays them Caruso and La Boheme on the gramophone and shares their wormy food. They warn him about their murderous neighbours, the Ngoloks, who do not permit outsiders to stray into their territory, and yet he presses on regardless and eventually gets a glimpse of the mighty peak, which he believes to be as high as Everest. And on his travels he is the first to see the epic canyons of the upper reaches of the Yellow River, and he stays in remote monasteries where life has barely changed since the time of Marco Polo - the lamas keep scores of clocks ticking away in one room and believe that men in foreign countries have the heads of dogs.

So why was I not so keen on exploring this area? Well partly due to the landscape. Unlike his travels in Yunnan and Sichuan, most of the areas he traversed were scenically and botanically dull. Joseph Rock himself was frank about the dreariness of the grasslands and their lack of flora and fauna. Unlike the valleys and forests of Yunnan and Sichuan, the Qinghai plateau was relatively barren - there were few settlements and the only people he encountered were yak herding nomads and traders plying caravans across the high plateau. And even Choni, the place he chose as a base for his two years spent botanising in Gansu and Qinghai, seemed very ordinary. A small town characterised only by its monastery and a few rice terraces. If it was a dull backwater in 1925, what would it be like in the 21st century with the advent of cars and concrete? I imagined it to be just another dismal Chinese small town. But for the sake of completeness, I felt obliged to check out what Choni was now like.

In 1925 it had been a thriving monastic community, with hundreds of monks in residence, and a cultural and religious centre for the Tibetans of Gansu province. Rock described the Choni ceremonies and festivals in great detail - and I was curious to see what had become of this once great monastery. But I was really more interested in getting to the smaller and more scenic monastery town of Radja in Qinghai, which he used as a jumping off point for his incursions into Ngolok territory around Amnye Machen. The monastery seemed to be situated in a grand setting, at the base of some high cliffs on the banks of the upper reaches of the Yellow River.

And so it was that I flew into Lanzhou in early May of 2012, exactly 86 years after Rock made his visit, and a year later than I had originally planned. I had been all set to go in mid 2011, but just a few days before departure I had a collision with a car while riding my pushbike home from work. I sustained complicated fractures of my leg and ankle that left me on crutches for three months, and after much physiotherapy only still slowly recovering eight months later. I was left with a limp and metal screws in my knee and ankle that set off the metal detectors when passing through the airport security check - I had to roll up the leg of my pants and show the scar to the girl with the metal detector wand. My gammy knee meant I was not fit to do any serious trekking, but I envisaged that most of the trip would involve travel on buses, with perhaps some day walks and overnight stays in remote areas.

I flew into Lanzhou via Guangzhou and was unpleasantly surprised by the level of culture shock I experienced. After my many visits to China I had presumed that it would almost be a second home for me by now, and was rather overconfident when I hopped on the airport shuttle bus to travel the 70km into what some have described as one of the most polluted cities in China. Deposited in the crowded and noisy downtown area at dusk, I struggled to get my bearings and to find a taxi to take me to the Friendship Hotel. This was the recommended cheapo hotel in the travel guides, but despite all my homework researching where to stay, I found that it had shut down several months previously. I only discovered this after I had abandoned my fruitless quest for a taxi (I hadn't realised there was a taxi strike on) and taken a long ride stood up on a crowded bus across town to the western outskirts. Lanzhou was not a tourist city and I felt intimidated and lonely as I stood on the dark street where my hotel should have been. I tried a few other hotels nearby but got the standard response of "bu she wai" - we're not allowed to accept foreigners. After trudging round five hotels and guesthouses, I eventually got lucky when the old geezer manning the desk of the rather shoddy and empty Electric Company Hotel took pity on me and allowed me stay unofficially, without registering. Cash in hand and be gone in the morning.

After dumping my bag and washing my face, I hurried out again to the western bus station to see if I could buy tickets for Labrang the following day. No luck. The bus station proved to be much further away than it appeared on my photocopied LP map, and by the time I arrived it was shuttered and dark, closed for the evening. I would just have to try first thing in the morning. I ambled back along the dark and dusty streets and felt like I had gone back in time to 1990s China. Everything was shoddy and crude, the locals were still in the habit of hoicking and spitting, and they stared. The Lanzhou air was thick with smog and dust, and the cars sounded their horns in an almost continuous cacophany of white noise. Just like the old China. The novel thing about Lanzhou was its highly visible Muslim population. These were ethnic Han "Hui" Muslims rather than the Uighurs or Xinjiang, but they were still distinctly different from Chinese I had seen elsewhere. The man had white skullcaps and the women covered their hair with a loose scarf. Not exactly Taliban country, but this quiet but firm assertion of separate identity was something I had not encountered in Han China before.

I went back to the hotel to spend the first of what was to be many lonely nights with only Chinese TV for company. I had forgotten how isolating and solitary feeling it can be in China when you are travelling alone in China. And I also quickly realised that my four paperback books were unlikely to last for the two weeks of travel I had planned. I was reluctant to start reading them - I would have to ration myself to two or three chapters a day! So instead I pulled out all the maps and documents I had assembled for this trip and started to read again about Joseph Rock's travels in 1925.

At that time, Rock had already had some success in plant collecting in China on behalf of the US Department of Agriculture. He had sent back tens of thousands of plant samples for the to the Smithsonian Museum from his travels around Yunnan and in particular from his forays to the kingdom of Muli and had thus made a name for himself as one of the leading international plant collectors of the day. He had obviously made a good impression on the elderly Charles S. Sargent, director of the Harvard's Arnold Aboretum, who commissioned him to mount a three year expedition to Qinghai on behalf of the Aboretum. The Boston-based botanical institute had plenty of plant samples from temperate Sichuan and Yunnan, and now they wanted more hardy cooler climate plant specimens from further north that might be more suited to the New England conditions.

Rock was given a budget of $14,000 for the first year. To put that in context, it was more than ten times the average US salary of $1200 a year, at a time when a new Ford would cost $300. In today's terms, he was being paid half a million dollars to explore remote areas of China, where the US dollar could buy an awful lot more than it could in Boston or Washington DC. No wonder he could afford to hire twenty soldiers at a time to act as bodyguards, not to mention his retinue of ten Naxi 'boy' assistants to do his cooking, domestic chores and to perform the menial tasks of plant collecting such as sorting, drying and packing specimens.

The China that Rock was travelling in was a strange, anarchic place in 1925. The Qing dynasty had been overthrown in 1911 and it was a time of warlords, such as Yuan Shikai who wielded power in Beijing. Chiang Kai Shek had yet to mount his 'northern expedition' to exert control of China on behalf of the Kuomintang, and in western China it was the Muslim Ma clan whose armies held sway over Xining and arts of Qinghai. They were in constant conflict with a deposed Beijing warlord, Feng Yuxiang, the so-called "Christian general" whose troops controlled Lanzhou and Gansu. At the same time, the local Tibetans were answerable to none of these warlords. In these borderlands they lived side by side with Hui Muslims and fought bloody battles with Muslim forces and bandits for control of monastery towns such Labrang.

As a foreigner, Rock would in theory still enjoy the benefit of "exta-territoriality" by which foreigners were to be protected and not subject to Chinese law. In practice, much of the territory outside the cities was lawless and subject to attacks by bandits, renegade soldiers and armed gangs of local tribesmen. Rock was justified in filling his travel articles with tales of woe about the dangers of roaming bandits. While he escaped unharmed from several encounters with bands of thieves, a one-time American travelling companion and translator was less fortunate. Rock could speak fluent Chinese but not Tibetan. He therefore took along an American missionary, William E. Simspon, who had been trying to spread the word among the Tibetans of Labrang, to act as translator for his Amnye Machen trip. The arrangement did not last long because Rock had little time for missionaries and quickly came to despise Simpson for being too soft and a do-gooder. Simpson returned to his proselytising, but was murdered several years later, in 1932, by renegade Muslim soldiers who hijacked a vehicle he was travelling in to Lanzhou.

W.E. Simpson (3rd from left), shortly before his murder in 1932

Nevertheless, Rock was able to mount a well-financed, well-equipped long-term expedition to lawless and virtually unexplored Qinghai in 1925. Eighty six years later, I was sat in a Lanzhou hotel room with 3000 RMB and a small backpack in which I carried little more than a change of clothes and lots of old camera gear. This looked like it was going to be my last trip with film cameras. While the rest of the world had moved on to digital, I was still attached to my film-using Leicas and Rolleiflex. For this trip I had brought along a sturdy Leica R3 SLR and a selection of 28mm, 50mm, 90mm and 135mm lenses. They weighed a ton. But pride of place went to my Rolleiflex 3.5F, the camera that produced gorgeous images with 120 slide film. I had brought along about 40 rolls each of 35mm and 120 Kodak Ektachrome colour slide film. A few days before my departure, Kodak announced that they were discontinuing all slide film. So this would be the end of an era. [To be continued] ...

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