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ON THE MANDARIN ROAD
For once the sun was shining gloriously as we descended the one long street of Ta-Shu-p'u, lined with food-shops, to the ferry across the Ta Tu Ho, here about six hundred feet wide. Unlike the crossing of the Yangtse at Lung-kai, where we were the only ones to be ferried over, we found ourselves here in a crowd of coolies and ponies impatiently waiting their turn, for we were now on a main travelled road. The two great flat-bottomed boats were loaded to the brim, and the crossing was safely accomplished to the tune of much shouting and kicking (by the ponies). Sitting at ease in my chair I enjoyed the grand views up and down the river, which here swings out from the cliffs in a splendid curve. Above and below the ferry the Ta Tu runs through a wild, little-known region. Few trails cross the precipitous mountains that hem in its turbulent waters, which are navigable for short distances only by timber rafts, and even on these the dangers of the journey are so great that the owners of the timber are expected to bind themselves to provide coffins in case of a fatal accident.
On the farther side we landed on a stretch of shingle, across which we picked our way for a mile to the prosperous trading centre of Fulin, lying on the right bank of the Liu Sha, or "River of Flowing Sand," a small stream flowing into the Ta Tu from the north. Our path led outside the town on the top of a narrow earth embankment, which bordered an irrigating ditch carried along the side of the hill. I should gladly have got off, but there was no chance to dismount save into the water on the one hand or into the valley thirty feet down on the other. But I think you can trust the Yunnan pony anywhere he is willing to go, and mine did not hesitate. In fact, he never balked at anything asked of him save once at a shaky "parao," or footway, constructed along the face of the cliff on timbers thrust into holes bored in the solid rock, and another time when he refused a jump from a boggy rice-field to the top of a crumbling wall hardly a foot wide with another bog on the other side.
Fulin was crowded with coming and going coolies and I could hardly force my way through, but one gets used to staring crowds, and I had long since abandoned the practice of taking refuge in my chair on entering a town, save at the largest ones. Then it was certainly pleasanter and perhaps safer to make my way through the throng enthroned high on the shoulders of my coolies, but in the villages I walked or rode my pony as chance served. Even in the smallest places our entrance was the signal for an uproar. The scores of dogs — big, gaunt pariahs — that infested every village, greeted us as we passed through the gate with a chorus of barks, sending the word down the line. To his credit be it said, Jack paid little attention to them, tittupping along, head up, tail up, only when they came too close turning on them with a flash of white teeth that sent the cowardly brutes flying and brought cries of delight from the village folk who crowded nearer to inspect the strange dog, so small, so brave, and so friendly.
Seen from within, Fulin was not attractive and I escaped outside leaving my men to get their breakfast, which they generally had at about nine o'clock, for the Szechuan order of day is not like that of Yunnan. We were on the road often before six o'clock, and my cook always succeeded in getting me some tea before starting, but the coolies fasted until eight or after, when they stopped for a hearty breakfast. At noon there was usually a second long halt, this time for me and the pony, but the coolies took nothing more save the hourly cups of tea until we reached our night's stopping-place about the middle of the afternoon. The start at dawn was delightful; less so getting into the town with half an afternoon before me, and I made it the rule to stop a mile or so outside the town for a nap in peace and quiet, but the quiet was hard to find. Generally there was a retired nook not too far from the trail, most times a graveyard, but then came the difficulty of getting there unobserved, for if seen we were sure to be tracked. Oh, the races I have run, playing hide-and-seek with the crowd, stealing under a village wall like a thief, hiding behind a little shrine, and the end was always the same, — to be wakened from my first nap by Jack barking at a large blue spot a little distance off, which slowly resolved itself into a stolid line of villagers.
For a few miles we followed up the left bank of the Liu Sha, whose waters were turbid with the red soil of Szechuan. The fertile bottom lands were carefully cultivated with rice, and on the higher ground maize and sugar-cane were growing. Dotted about the fields were clumps of mulberry and orange trees, and the flanks of the enclosing mountains were covered with a sparse growth of oak and pine.
After a time we climbed by a long, steep rock staircase to another valley some fifteen hundred feet above the level of Fulin and into cooler weather and clearer air. Just before entering Han Yüan Kai, where we spent the night, we passed under a very beautiful "pailou," or memorial arch, built of stone and elaborately carved with spirited figures representing historic scenes. The workmanship and variety of these arches are very remarkable. They abound all over Szechuan, especially in the Chengtu plain, and usually commemorate the good deeds of an official (his best act, perhaps, was setting up this memorial to himself), or the virtues of some woman whose merit lay almost invariably in many years, or many children, or above all in remaining a widow. I have heard of a pailou in Kwangtung province in honour of a woman marked out among women for her years, her goodness, and above all for her many descendants, who numbered six sons, forty grandsons, one hundred and twenty-one great-grandsons and two great-great-grandsons.
Han Yüan Kai is on the mandarin road that connects Chengtu and Ya-chou with the frontier. Here we entered a new magistracy, and it was necessary to send to Ch'ing Ch'i, the district headquarters, for a fresh relay of soldiers. One of those who had come with me from Ta-shu-p'u started at once on our arrival at Han Yüan Kai about the middle of the afternoon, and made the journey, twenty-five li each way, to Ch'ing Ch'i-hsien and back before night, bringing with him the two men who were to go on with me. Truly the West China man is no weakling.
During the next day we were following the great
tea-road, the road by which most of the twelve million pounds of brick tea
consumed by the guzzling Tibetans is carried to the frontier market at
Tachienlu. At all hours of the day straggling lines of men or ponies or mules
were in sight, toiling along under their precious burdens. Between Ya-chou, the
starting-point of this traffic, and Tachienlu there
are two high passes to cross, seven thousand feet above the level where the
journey begins, and the whole length of the road is a wearisome succession of
ups and downs. And the loads carried are extraordinary. Baron von Richthofen
says, "There is probably no road in the world where such heavy loads are
carried by man across high mountains." The oblong package, called
"pao," in which the tea is made up, weighs perhaps eighteen pounds,
and, according to the German traveller, ten or eleven form an average load. But
Baber declares that he had often seen a coolie carrying eighteen pao, and on
one occasion a man with a load of twenty-two, certainly equivalent to four
hundred pounds. I saw nothing like that, but I passed many a poor wretch
sweating under a burden of two hundred and twenty-five or two hundred and fifty
pounds. Day after day they creep along, rarely covering more than six or seven
miles a day. Every four hundred yards they rest, but the loads are taken off
only at noon and night. At other times they relieve themselves for a moment
from the intolerable strain by placing an iron-shod crutch under the load. On
the march they carry this in the hand, tapping the ground as they go, and all
along the road the granite pavement is worn into holes from the taps of
centuries. The load, which is fastened to a framework attached to the carrier's
back, towers high over his head, and is usually surmounted by his wide-brimmed
hat fastened at such an angle as to give him protection against rain and sun.
Even Chinese ingenuity has failed to devise a way by which he can wear it properly
on his head. Some of them fanned themselves vigorously as they walked, with
respectable black, old-lady fans, and the contrast with their hard, begrimed
faces and sturdy frames was very comical. The men looked worn and exhausted,
and their work is killing, although I believe they outlast the chair-bearers;
but they were patient and cheerful like the rest, ready to laugh and share
their cold lunch of corn-cake with the little foreign dog who begged so
I wondered how many of them were opium smokers. To the untrained eye the signs were not very plain. Among my coolies was one whom I dubbed "Mercury," so untiring and fleet of foot was he, carrying his load of eighty pounds or so with apparent ease, and showing much pride in keeping near my chair, while usually the carrier coolies lagged far behind. I was told he was the worst smoker of the whole lot. In my caravan of seventeen men, seven, including the fu t'ou, used opium. As a rule they limited themselves to one pipe at night, while five years ago travellers complained that a long halt at noon was demanded by the smokers. The fu t'ou was making a valiant effort, with the aid of anti-opium pills, to break off the habit; it was getting too expensive, he said, especially for a married man. In a number of towns places were pointed out where these pills were sold by the Government. Those who know, say they are often as pernicious as the drug itself.
The majority of my men, eleven to be precise, were married, and eight had children. I was interested to note the discreet and indirect way in which this information was procured for me by the interpreter. Such matters are not mentioned in public in China, any more than in India.
My own chair-men, so it happened, were all gay young bachelors, ready to squander their earnings on anything that took their fancy, — beads or tobacco, hats or cakes, especially cakes. There was a particular sort, very sweet with pink frosting, that was a great delicacy, costing two cents Mexican apiece. I had to speak pretty emphatically to one of the men who was trying to win Jack's favour by feeding him with the costly cookies. "But the little dog likes them," he said.
The Chinese generally, unlike the Hindu, is very ready to spend on his food if he has the money. He will live on less than nothing if put to it, but given the chance he does not stint himself. At short intervals on the road were tea-houses and restaurants of the simpler sort especially planned to cater to the coolie class, but they were often not unattractive. Sometimes they were substantial buildings open to the street, and set out with tables on which were ranged dishes of vegetables and curries and cakes, while in the background was a big cauldron of rice cooking over the fire. Occasionally the tea-house was nothing more than a section of the highway roofed over with mats or leafy boughs. On a handy bench was placed a basin of steaming water for the visitor to bathe hands and face before drawing up to the table. It gave me a pleasant surprise to see the Chinese making of the daily repast a jolly social function, instead of each squatting on the ground in a corner, devouring his solitary bowl of rice as is the fashion of most Eastern peoples.
I found much interest in noting the food of my men, the variety and cost of it, and I whiled away many an hour of waiting, in questioning innkeepers and provision dealers. A good bowl of rice, called "cat's head" and costing twenty cash, or one cent gold, was usually the pièce de résistance. This in hand, a man fished out with his chopsticks tidbits from various dishes set out on the table, — beans, cabbage, lettuce, peppers, etc., all cooked. Good hot boiled potatoes in their jackets were sometimes to be had at four cash each, or a bowl of stewed turnips at the same price. Beans in some shape were an important part of every menu. You could get a basin of fresh beans for ten cash, dried bean-cake for five, beans cooked and strained to a stiff batter for making soup for seven cash the ounce, while a large square of white bean-cake was sold for one copper cent. A saucer of spun rice or millet, looking much like vermicelli, with a seasoning of vinegar, cost five cash. Bowls of powdered grain mixed with sugar were much in demand. So, too, for those who could afford them, large round cakes at thirty cash for two. Ground pepper (the Chinese are very fond of pepper in any form) was sold at one cash the tiny package, and sugar for three cash the square inch. Almost every coolie had tucked in about his load a large flat cake of coarse corn-meal or maize mixed with water, which he munched as he went along. In Tachienlu, my supply of biscuits having given out, I had my cook buy some of these; split open and toasted, they were not at all bad. Tea, of course, was to be had everywhere; a pinch of tea-leaves in a covered cup and unstinted boiling water cost from five to twenty cash a cup, and most refreshing I found it. On the whole, the food looked attractive, and the fact that whether liquid or solid it was almost invariably boiled must have much to do with saving the people from the legitimate consequences of their sins against sanitary laws. The Chinese have no principles against eating between meals if they can find anything to eat, and there was temptation all along the road. Beside a wayside well, under a spreading tree, would be placed a small table tended perhaps only by a tiny maiden, and set out with pieces of sugar-cane or twigs of loquats or carefully counted clusters of peanuts or seeds, five pieces for a cash.
Our second night from the ferry was spent at Ni T'ou, a rather important frontier village, and attractive with picturesque red temples and pailous. A good sleep in an unusually comfortable inn prepared us for the stiff climb to come. The morning broke grey and the clouds rested low on the mountains, but at least we were spared a start in the rain. The road was so steep and rough that I preferred to walk, and soon getting ahead of my men I did not see them again until midday, and I had a good morning all to myself among the hills. Occasionally I passed through a little hamlet, people and dogs all turning out to greet my dog and me. Once a whole village emptied itself into the fields to show me the way up the hillside. My cold lunch I ate at the head of a wild gorge by a solitary shrine half buried in clumps of bushes, and beautiful with masses of iris. The last part of the climb to Fei Yüeh Ling, or "Fly Beyond Pass," led through an uninhabited glen down which rushed a fine stream turning the horizontally placed wheels of a ruined mill. Hurrying up the rocky zigzag I stood alone at the top of the pass, nine thousand feet above the sea. Before me I knew towered range upon range, peak above peak, one of the finest views the earth affords, but alas, everything was blotted out by thick white clouds, and I could scarcely see ten feet away.
It was maddening to think of the wonders that lay behind that impenetrable wall, but there was nothing to do but to descend by a trail as steep and slippery as the one by which I had just climbed, for the cold, drenching mist showed no signs of lifting. It was on this slope that Rockhill, the American explorer, met a pilgrim on his way to Lhasa. Starting in the Chusan archipelago near Ning-po, he had already spent seven years on the way, and it would be two more before he could attain his goal, which was not to be wondered at, as with every two steps he prostrated himself full length on the ground before the little altar he carried with him. With this primitive mountain world his act was in weird harmony, but there was an incongruity almost stunning in the sight of a Hindu carrying out a similar vow in one of the crowded business streets of Europeanized Calcutta. I nearly stepped on him as I came out one day from the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank.
Just before reaching Hua-lin-ping, or "Phœnix" Flat, where we were to spend the night, I espied across the narrow valley to our right a picturesque temple perched at the top of a high wooded cliff. As it was still early in the afternoon, I turned off from the trail, and, accompanied by the interpreter, scrambled down the slope, gay with pink azaleas, to a charming wooden bridge spanning the torrent. After a sharp pull through a fine forest, we came out in front of the temple, which was dedicated to Kuan Yin: by the way, it is rather significant that China's favourite deity is the Goddess of Mercy. The place seemed deserted, and we wandered about at will. Apparently extensive repairs were going on, and roofs and gods alike were being refurbished. After a time an old priest turned up, who took us through the timber-built monastery behind the temple. Here, he told us, well-to-do people of the neighbourhood often spent a few weeks in summer, to escape the damp heat of the valley. The practical Chinese do not hesitate to put their sacred places to use, and they serve in turn for schools, political gatherings, summer resorts.
I was half a mind to cry a halt, the place looked so attractive, and all the more when on stepping out of a door there opened before me a wonderful vision of heaven-kissing mountains. While we were inside the clouds had lifted, revealing the whole line of the great peaks that stand as sentinels at the eastern end of the vast Tibetan plateau. Westward from that snow-topped line there is no low land until you reach the plains of India. For a few minutes we stood spellbound, and then the clouds shut down again, leaving only a glorious memory to cheer the descent through a grey, dripping world.
A generation ago Hua-lin-ping was an important frontier post, but to-day its broad, barrack-lined street is deserted and grass-grown, for the vanguard of effective Chinese occupation is steadily pushing westward into the tribes country. We started the next morning under clouds of more than one sort; rain was falling, the ma-fu, whom I had been dosing for a day or two, had given out, and had to be left behind as well as one of the coolies, and the fu t'ou was cross at having to shoulder the latter's load. Early on this day we again came to the Ta Tu, having descended five thousand feet from the top of the pass; and for the rest of this stage and all the next one we followed up the wild valley of this beautiful river, which may be said to form the real geographical and ethnographical boundary between China and Tibet. Wherever the valley opened out a little, there was the invariable garden-like cultivation of the Chinese; fruit and nut trees abounded, mulberry, peach, apricot, and walnut, and the fields showed good crops of maize, beans, and sugar-cane. But up from the narrow fertile strip of river bank towered on either hand barren mountains, their precipitous granite sides gashed here and there by deep gorges in and out of which the trail wound with sharp turns and steep descents. The grey, forbidding mountains, showing hardly a foothold for man or beast, tree or house, matched the grey, swirling river, here unnavigable even for rafts. Thrust back by the land, offered only a watery grave by the river, it seemed no country for man to seek a home, and yet the scattered Chinese hamlets were gay and full of life, and the tea-houses at every turn were doing a good business.
At Leng Chi, where we stopped for breakfast, I fled from the noisy restaurant to a small temple across the road, its outer court filled full of coffins, whether occupied or not, I could not say. A nice old priest promptly found me out, and taking me into an inner room made me comfortable with cups of tea. The buzz of voices told that a school was in session near by, and at the request of the teacher, a good-looking young man, I paid it a visit. Some twenty boys were hard at work on the classics and mathematics, undisturbed by the weird-looking gods around them. They seemed wide awake, and showed real disappointment that I could not stop to see a display of their skill in gymnastics. Every good-sized village seems to boast a school of sorts, and not a few do something for the girls.
The rain was falling as we approached Lu Ting Ch'iao, and that meant a long evening cooped up in a noisy, ill-smelling inn, so in desperation I took refuge under a large tree just outside the town where bushes screened me from the passers on the road. My men had long since made up their minds that I was rather mad, so they left me in peace, only posting one of the soldiers in a temple near by to keep watch and ward; but there was no need, for most of the people hereabouts are Tibetan, and they have little of the pertinacious curiosity of the Chinese, whether because of better manners or because less alert I do not know. And it was well I cut short my stay in the inn, for it was about the worst I had come across, as I took pains to inform the landlord the next morning. But there was no choice. Lu Ting Ch'iao, or the "Town of the Iron Bridge," derives its importance as well as its name from its location, and it was crowded to overflowing with east- and west-bound travellers, officials, merchants, soldiers, coolies, for all traffic must cross the Ta Tu here, the one point spanned by a bridge. Indeed, according to Mr. Archibald Little, this is the only bridge across any one of the many large rivers that unite to form the Great River. It is of the suspension sort, built in 1701, in the reign of that energetic ruler, Kang Hi, and is three hundred and eleven feet long. The nine cables of charcoal-smelted iron that compose it are anchored at the ends in the usual Chinese fashion. On these are laid loose planks to serve as a footway, while the only guard is a shaky chain on either hand. When the wind swoops down the gorge, as it does most afternoons, the whole structure swings uncomfortably, and I wondered at the nonchalance with which heavily laden coolies and ponies crossed. But such as it is, this is the one connecting link between China and Tibet, for ferrying across the upper reaches of the Ta Tu is impracticable most of the year.
After passing the bridge we kept up a narrow trail that clung to the face of the cliff, often cut out of the granite rock. There were no villages, but we passed through one or two hamlets set in a small alluvial fan such as is often seen in Western Tibet, only there the fan ended with a steep precipice two or three hundred feet above the river, while here it sloped gently down to the water's edge.
Occasionally we saw across the Ta Tu on the left bank a village unmistakably Tibetan: no trees; grey, flat-roofed, fortress-like houses, often reached only by a ladder; with few signs of life to be seen even with a glass, there was a forbidding aspect to these places in marked contrast to the bustle of a Chinese village.
We were now skirting the lower slopes of the Ta Shueh Shan, or "Great Snow Mountains," the outposts of the Tibetan plateau, but we were too hemmed in to catch a glimpse of the higher ranges, save once, when a break in the mountain wall afforded a brief, magnificent view of the snowy peaks towering more than fifteen thousand feet above our heads. Then another turn in the road shut us in again between grey cliff and grey river and grey sky. Toward the end of the day a sharp bend to the left took us away from the Ta Tu into the wild gorge through which flows the Tarchendo, and with a rough scramble we dropped down into the pretty little village of Wa Ssu Kou, the "Ravine of the Tile Roof Monastery." At the extreme western end of the one long street we found comfortable quarters in a new, clean inn. Like so many of these villages of wood with shingled roofs, Wa Ssu Kou seems to burn down once in so often, which has at least the advantage that there is less chance for dirt to accumulate.
Strolling out from the inn after a wash, I found myself in the fine gardens that border the river, separated from the water, here level with the bank, only by a narrow strip of shingle. Men and women were hard at work even after nightfall. Each plant is brought up by hand, as it were, and there is no waste of fertilizer; by spoonfuls the precious stuff is applied to each root instead of being scattered over the ground. Just across the river towered a precipitous cliff two thousand feet high, quite overshadowing the village, which looked very small and helpless by contrast. Up the face of the cliff zigzagged a steep trail, finally disappearing over the top, and I looked longingly after it, for on this side the river direct Chinese government ends. The other bank is the country of the tribesmen, people of Mantzu stock living under the rule of their tribal chiefs. Northwards from Wa Ssu Kou the Ta Tu changes its name to Chin Ch'uan, or "Golden Stream," and the whole region is known as the Chin Ch'uan country, and is famous in Chinese history as the scene of one of the most hardly fought campaigns against the tribes.
On my return to Wa Ssu Kou a week later a free half-day gave me a chance for a little run over the border. Guided by a respectable villager I crossed the rickety bridge over the Tarchendo and after a breathless climb came out on the top of the cliff, where I overlooked a wide rolling plateau sloping steeply to the Ta Tu on the east, and enclosed north and west by high mountains. The country seemed barren and almost uninhabited, as though removed by hundreds of miles from the hard-won prosperity and swarming life of the line of Chinese advance to Tachienlu. Only occasionally did we meet any one, Chinese or Mantzu, and there was no stir about the few dwellings that we passed, all high, fortress-like buildings of stone. This whole region is almost unknown to Europeans, and the few Chinese who go there are generally passing traders. According to Hosie, they are allowed to take temporary wives from the women of the country on payment of a sum of money to the tribal head, but they must leave them behind when they depart.
The next day we ascended the valley of the Tarchendo to Tachienlu, a distance of about twenty miles. There is a rise of thirty-five hundred feet on this stage, but so gradual is the ascent that one realizes it only in watching the stream, which is almost continuous rapid and cataract. For miles there was scarcely a square yard of smooth water. The only means of crossing from one bank to the other is by the rope bridges, of which I saw three. Several times I had a chance to watch some one making the trip. From a bamboo rope securely anchored on either bank with heavy rocks, a sling-seat is suspended by means of a section of bamboo which travels along the rope. Seated in the sling the weight of the voyager carries him more than halfway across, but after that he must haul himself up by sheer force. A slip would mean certain death, and it is said that often on reaching the middle of the stream the impulse to let go is uncontrollable. Hardy Western explorers have frequently confessed their dread of these bridges, which are found throughout the mountains of eastern Asia, but I saw men and women crossing as though it were all in the day's work. But then the Chinese have no nerves, you know.
Fortunately the need of crossing here did not seem very imperative, for there was little sign of life on the north bank of the Tarchendo. Indeed, on our side there were no villages for the whole distance, only a few hamlets and now and then a solitary rest-house. The river is so closely shut in by the mighty rock walls on either hand that there is scarcely room for more than the narrow trail. There were a good many walnut trees and willows, and I occasionally saw a meagre patch of barley or Indian corn, but even the Chinese would be hard put to wring a living here were it not for the coolie trade. In fact, every other house seemed to be a restaurant or tea-house. At one the soldier who had escorted me from Ni T'ou covered himself with disgrace by getting into a quarrel. Rain was falling, so I stayed in my chair while the coolies were drinking their everlasting cups of tea. Suddenly there was a great outcry, every one pitching in, and I saw the soldier seize the innkeeper by the queue, belabouring him vigorously with the flat of his short broad sword. I called to the interpreter to interfere, but either he did not hear me or would not obey; so I scrambled out of my chair as best I could (a woman, as an inferior being, must always step over the side pole; to touch the pole that rests on the coolie's shoulder would cause him to have sores), and, throwing myself into the fray, hauled the soldier off. I knew, for I had tested it, that the edge of his sword was sharp. When the excitement had died down, I learned that the whole trouble rose from the innkeeper's demanding payment for four cakes, while the soldier insisted that he had eaten only three. Who had the right of it I do not know, but I read the man a lesson at so misbehaving himself when escorting a lady, a truly Western point of view which was probably Greek to him, but anyway he seemed greatly downcast at my rebuke, and for the rest of the day hung about in an apologetic way, occasionally mutely laying a bunch of flowers on the arm of my chair as a peace offering.