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Three Years in Western China by Alexander Hosie-CHAPTER III

White wax insects—Terrible hailstorm and its effects—Miao-tzŭ houses and women—An-shun Fu—Limestone cave—Pai-shui waterfall—Reception at Lang-t’ai T’ing—Lang-wang Mountain and the “Cave of the Spirits”—Caught in a thunderstorm—The pebbly strand of the Mao-k’ou River—Pack-animals and their treatment—The Yün-nan frontier—A cart at last—Exploring a cave—Underground rivers—Exceptional courtesy—Goître—Breeding ground of the Yün-nan pony—Trade route to Tonquin—Marching knee-deep in mud and water—Poverty of inhabitants—Queen’s birthday dinner in
a back-yard—Chinese inquisitiveness—The Sung-ming Lake—A local escort—A glorious view—Yün-nan Fu.
On the morning of the 7th of May, we turned our faces westwards towards the province of Yün-nan, the capital of which I hoped to reach before the end of the month. Soon after leaving the west gate of Kuei-yang, we met a number of carriers with long round baskets slung at the ends of poles in the usual Chinese manner. The exceptional speed at which they were going tempted me to examine their loads, and most unwillingly did they submit, for they were bearing eastward to Hunan burdens of living insects of great industrial value. They were white wax insects in their scales, which had been collected in the An-shun prefecture further west, packed in layers of trays to ensure a free current of air and thus prevent their escape during their long journey. The lamps which the owners, who accompanied the porters on foot, carried, told me that the tiny insects were being hurried night and day to their destination. The whole subject of white wax insects and their valuable product will be found detailed in Chapter XI.
Ten miles west of Kuei-yang is the main coal-field for supplying the provincial capital with fuel. The road winds among and over low hills untouched by the hoe of the peasant; rank grass and brushwood tell the tale of a meagre population content to exist on the produce of the narrow valleys—patches of barley or wheat, and poppy and rice in their season. Beyond the hills, a valley leads to the district city of Ch’ing-chên, and here a surprising sight met the eye. Up to the very walls of the city stretched an immense poppy-field, the stems fresh and erect, but hardly a capsule remaining. Here at last, thought I, have the authorities in a fit of virtuous indignation advanced beyond issuing proclamations laden with threats of punishment; here surely must be a Magistrate who has a will of his own and the courage to carry it into effect. Alas! I wronged him. ’Twas another celestial authority that did the deed. On the night of the 2nd of May, a terrible hailstorm burst over the district, destroying not only the growing crops but even playing havoc within the walls. The streets were full of broken tiles, many of the roofs having succumbed to the hailstones, which were described to me as weighing as much as seven and even eight ounces. The capsules, which were scattered on the ground, had all been collected for the sake of the sweet cooking-oil which is obtained from the seed, and of the cakes which are manufactured from the seed itself. Six miles by six represented the area over which the hail had descended. The stems and branches of the roadside trees, which were all but denuded of leaves, looked as if they had been hacked with a blunt axe. Rapeseed, beans, wheat, and barley, which were growing in scant patches to the west of the city, were flattened with the ground.
In this part of the country, cultivation is confined to the neighbourhood of towns and villages. The distance between Ch’ing-chên and An-p’ing, the next district city, is twenty miles; and, if we except the poppy which was growing abundantly near the latter, there was no cultivation worthy of the name.
Grass-covered plains, once smiling fields, intercepted by curious conical hills partly clad with brushwood and bracken, are happy hunting grounds for herds of tame buffaloes. Truly, the land of the Miao-tzŭ was devastated, and its inhabitants butchered and scattered. Poverty reigns along the highroad. Three miles west of Ch’ing-chên, we stopped for breakfast at a hamlet overlooking a tributary of the Wu Chiang. Neither chair nor table was procurable; but they were hardly necessary, for it did not take long to put away the remains of my dinner of the previous evening. Here I found that the knowledge possessed by the local escorts is not above suspicion. Sitting on the stone bridge which spans the stream just mentioned, I asked them the name and destination of the latter; but I failed to receive a satisfactory answer. One of the soldiers, however, who volunteered the statement that the bridge on which I was sitting had nine arches, was somewhat non-plussed to find, on being sent to count, that it was two short of the number he gave.
An-p’ing has not yet recovered from the ravages of the civil war; the walls are in a state of decay, and many of the houses which they encircle are represented by heaps of ruins. The surrounding country is almost entirely inhabited by Miao-tzŭ, whose hamlets are perched on inaccessible hill-tops—stone refuges occupying the commanding heights. When hard pressed, they drove their cattle into the latter for safety and, sheltering themselves behind the walls, bade defiance to their assailants.
The villages, through which the road passes between An-p’ing and An-shun, are of a non-Chinese type. The walls of the houses are built of loose stones and are very thick, the roofs being composed of broad stone slabs. The inmates appeared to be of a degraded race, and have, in all probability, a strain of Miao-tzŭ blood. The men were dressed in sombre Chinese clothes, while the women were inclined to gaudy colours.
At one of these villages it was market day; herds of oxen, horses, and pigs were on the ground, and the women, arrayed in all the colours of the rainbow and ornamented with silver earrings, bangles and rings, were hurrying in with baskets of eggs and vegetables. In the market were four slender, sinewy Miao-tzŭ men, somewhat curiously dressed. Black cloth bands encircled their foreheads, loose gowns of similar material, fastened with girdles, covered them from neck to ankle, huge silver earrings swung from their left ears and their feet were encased in straw sandals. Bowls of opium were being hawked about the village, and I was told that the Miao-tzŭ, although extensive cultivators of the poppy, do not themselves smoke the drug.
An-shun is approached through a long valley, which contracts as the city is neared. At the eastern end, the road, which is lined with memorial stone archways, ascends a gentle slope—the graveyard of the town—to the walls. From the gate we looked down into a broad street, crowded with people engaged in business. On stalls at either side, goods of all kinds were plentifully displayed, and the shops behind them were large and apparently prosperous. Ponies laden with salt jostled us in the gateway, and I found, on enquiry, that An-shun is supplied with this necessity of life by way of the Yung-ning River, which enters the Yang-tsze at the district city of Na-chi, and is the most important trade highway to Western Kuei-chow. This route, which I followed in 1883, will be found described in asubsequent chapter.
The main roads of China are each divided into stages, only one of which can, with convenience and comfort to the traveller, be accomplished in a day. The plan which I followed was invariably as follows. Rising at daybreak, I had a cup of coffee or tea, pushed on to the first hamlet or village, where we all breakfasted, travelled till noon when we lunched at the most convenient spot, and arrived at the end of the stage about four or five o’clock in the afternoon. Inns were not always available during the day, and at our first halting place after leaving An-shun, we took possession of a house which we shared with a couple of carriers, who seemed to prefer a whiff of the opium pipe to eating. On one occasion only, as far as I can recollect, was I refused temporary lodgment, the inmates, as a rule, being only too willing to shelter us for a few cash. As a matter of fact, they had little to fear, for they had nothing to steal.
Chên-ning Chou, which was the end of the stage on the 10th of May, is a poor city, built on a hill slope, and consists of one decent street and a number of dilapidated thoroughfares. It lies at the western end of a valley, which was filled with yellow wheat and barley, submerged paddy-land, and poppy-fields. Our landlord told me that, previous to the rebellion, the walls sheltered from seven to eight thousand families, now, however, reduced to a thousand. A mile to the west of Chên-ning we came upon a cave close to the highroad. It was formed of a single limestone dome, which has been converted into a temple.
To us it presented the appearance of a poorhouse, for our entrance aroused a crowd of squalid beggars, who had taken up their quarters in its cool shade. They did not look as if they had a very close acquaintance with the clear, limpid stream which flows through it and enters a limestone hill fifty yards beyond. We were no longer the only travellers going west; a number of men were carrying silver to Yün-nan to purchase opium. The value of the drug, its small bulk and superiority, enable it to be carried across the province of Kuei-chow to Hunan and other provinces at a profit.
The Pai-shui, or “White Water” river, spanned by a stone bridge of five arches at the eastern end of the village of Huang-kuo-shu, goes south to join the northern section of the Canton or West River. It is a shallow stream thirty yards in breadth and forms a beautiful waterfall in the rear of the village, creeping leisurely over the brown rocks and falling about a hundred feet. In the temple of the “Dragon Prince” we spread our mid-day meal, having had to fast since daybreak, the hamlets on the road west of Chên-ning being unable to supply us even with a single egg. A series of weary ascents and descents ultimately landed us in the small village of P’o-kung, which had recently been the scene of a conflagration.
Ten days before our arrival it was all but consumed, and the inhabitants were huddled together amidst its charred remains, still wanting in courage or in funds to re-erect their homes.
Is there no level ground anywhere in the province of Kuei-chow? This was the question that suggested itself to me as I gained the ridge that rises to the west of P’o-kung. The answer lay ahead. Waves of conical hills and mountain ranges beyond seemed to block the passage to Yün-nan. Down and up, and down again, brought us to a valley, extending for miles, at the far end of which rests the prosperous city of Lang-t’ai T’ing, famous for the superiority of its opium. Some miles from its walls we were met by two escorts, one sent by the Sub-prefect, the other by the Colonel. As we approached, they dropped on their knees and bade me welcome. The military escort, which was composed of five soldiers armed with matchlocks and four with banners, had evidently taken advantage of their excursion to do a little shooting. One man had bagged half a dozen pigeons, and a bird of about the same size with a perfect yellow plumage, which I failed to recognize. As every one is aware, the Chinese do many things in a way the exact reverse of what we consider right and proper. How should a soldier carry his musket? Is it easier to carry the stock or the barrel over the shoulder? My escort preferred to handle the barrel.
On arrival at Lang-t’ai, the Colonel, to whom I sent a message of thanks for his foresight and precaution, pressed me to stay and witness a review that was to be held in a couple of days; but the comparatively cool weather, and the fact that I had already seen enough of his soldiers and their little ways, decided me to decline the kind invitation.
Lang-t’ai lies low, and by the eastern approach nothing is visible but a part of the wall, the town itself being obscured by dense foliage. A thick mist concealed everything from view as we left the following morning. After struggling for two hours among the hills that overlook the city on the north-west, we cleared the mist and entered a coal district where the miners were hard at work. A splendid view was obtained from the Wang-shan temple on the ridge where we breakfasted; the Lang-wang Shan, the highest mountain in the province, towered on our right. Under the summit, which is of bare rock, there is a cave—the “Cave of the Spirits”—which has a very wide reputation, and, as a consequence, is much visited by devotees.
As we passed, pilgrims were burning joss-paper far below it. Half-way down on the western side we were overtaken by a terrific thunderstorm, which continued far into the night. When we reached the grass-covered plain that lies below, I took refuge in my chair; but the violent gusts of wind, which accompanied the sheets of descending water, soon wrenched off the rain covers and exposed us to the full blast of the storm.
Wet to the skin we entered the village of Mao-k’ou, which consists of one street, with numerous gardens surrounded by hedges of cactus, on the left bank of a stream fifty yards in breadth, which issues from a gorge a few hundred yards above the village. Here there was no resisting the appeal for a day’s rest which was at once made to me. A carrier’s luggage is of the lightest possible description; the single suit of clothes in which he stands is, as a rule, all that he possesses, and when that is reduced to a pulp, it has to be washed and dried before he can again venture out.
I spent the morning of our day of rest on the pebbly strand of the Mao-k’ou river, which goes south to swell the upper waters of the north branch of the West River, in the province of Kwang-si. Numerous fossils are to be found here, and I purchased three different specimens from the landlord of our inn. The current of the river is very rapid.
On leaving Mao-k’ou on the following morning, we ascended its left bank five hundred yards before attempting the crossing; our boats did not reach the right bank until we were opposite the village. An undulating upland stretches westward, covered with rank wild grass, affording excellent cover for game, which was plentiful. Pheasants crowed all round us, and took wing when we approached too close. In the middle of this grassy waste we were caught up by a caravan of twenty ponies, laden with bamboo hats, on their way from Kuei-yang to Yün-nan Fu. They were strong, hardy little animals, game to the very last. Each had a load of three hundred and sixty hats; and I found, when I afterwards saw them turned loose to graze, that not one had a whole back. One poor beast was a pitiful sight; it had a sore at least a foot long, and down almost to its ribs.
The flies, attracted by the smell in a temperature of 90° F., rendered its life miserable, and I offered to buy it at a reasonable price and put it out of agony, but the owner was devoid of the least spark of humanity and would not listen to my entreaties. He even grumbled loudly when I made him take off half the load and distribute it amongst the others. The greed of the ordinary Chinese leaves little room for kindness to man’s humbler assistants. An instance occurs to me at the moment. I once visited the Great Wall, and, as visitors do, hired a donkey to carry me up the rough Nan-k’ou Pass. I had not proceeded far when a horrid stench assailed my nostrils; its continuance baffled me until a sudden lurch of the saddle revealed a sickening sight. Needless to say, I walked the rest of the way.
Towards the western end of the grassy upland, the fir and the oak are dotted about and relieve the monotony of the barren undulations, which are succeeded by a coal-producing valley and two mountain ranges following closely on each other, being separated by only a few rice fields. The village of Kuan-tzŭ-yao, which lies behind the ranges, marks the boundary of the bare, uncultivated hills. A reddish tilled soil now covers immense carboniferous deposits. If my reader is as tired of hearing of these uninteresting mountain ranges as I was in crossing them, he will be relieved to know that the plateau of Yün-nan will soon be reached.
A journey of three days and a half from Kuan-tzŭ-yao along cultivated valleys, and including two more ascents and descents, brought us early in the afternoon of the 20th of May to the Yün-nan frontier. During this time two new crops put in an appearance—buckwheat and oats. I saw, too, a new method of manuring the fields. For some days I had been puzzled to account for the peculiar growth of certain trees whose branches were very short, and for which I could obtain no satisfactory explanation; but all at once I came upon a peasant hacking off the branches, and another ploughing them into the rice fields.
A barren waste leads up to the frontier town of Shên-ching-kuan, where we were received with the usual Chinese salute of three guns. Stopping for a rest, I discovered that the little town possesses, besides its two memorial archways, four stone lions, two facing Kuei-chow, with imitation scales to represent the rainy character of that province, and two facing west, with imitation scales and dust, indicating the rainy as well as the windy reputation of Yün-nan.
My Ssŭ-ch’uan followers entertained a wholesome dread of the latter province. For some days they had been talking of the miseries that they would have to endure in the matter of food and lodging, and they had come to the conclusion that the only possible reason that could have tempted me to travel in that remote region was to chih Yün-nan k’u, or partake of the bitterness of Yün-nan. Often did they discuss, in my hearing, the motive which led me to question everybody and everything, and transfer the answers to my note-book; but all they seemed able to arrive at was that I was not doing it for nothing.
The excitement of entering a new province raised the spirits of my bearers, who hurried me along the red sandy road, which slopes past several nullahs to a plain only partly cultivated, because liable to inundation. Could it be possible? It seemed almost too good to be true. Lumbering towards us came a couple of bullocks, dragging an apology for a cart behind them.
The faces of my men were a study; with one or two exceptions, they had never seen this method of transport, and they stood and gazed at this thing on wheels, which, proud as they were of their province, was not in use among their Ssŭ-ch’uan hills. Rude though the vehicle was, it was a welcome innovation, for it presaged better roads and a level country. Two low, thick wooden wheels, joined together by a ponderous beam, supported a small platform of planks encircled by a framework about two feet in height, while a single short shaft projected from the platform in front.
P’ing-i Hsien, the first district city across the Yün-nan frontier, is built on the south face of a low hill overlooking an extensive
well-watered plain, which was covered with wheat, nigh unto harvest, and poppies. It is a great wheat country, and the district is one of the chief feeders of the provincial capital. Oats, too, were growing on the hills which bound the plain on the eastern side; but there was a decided want of straw, for the stalks had only shot a couple of inches above ground.
Less than a mile beyond the city we came upon the cave mentioned by Margary in his journal. Lighting our lamps, we explored it for a few hundred yards in a straight line, from its mouth to the point where it branches off to the right. In the far interior, huge stalactites hung from the roof. The utter silence of the cavern, broken only by our stumbling over the rough floor, and the weird appearance of the contorted limestone lighted up by our dim lamps, did not tempt us to tarry in the dank and cheerless atmosphere. It had thundered and rained heavily over-night; and, about a mile and a half to the west of the cave, the high-road was blocked by a deep, raging torrent, twenty yards in breadth. My followers, always intent upon a rest, advocated a return to P’ing-i, until the violence of the torrent had abated; but to this I would not listen. Fortunately, a native of the place soon came upon the scene, and mildly suggested that there was a path across some hills farther east. Scouting the statement, they clamoured all the more for a return to dry quarters. Seeing, however, that he was in earnest, I resolved to try the hills, and told my men to follow me or remain where they were till able to ford the torrent. As the rain increased in violence and the atmosphere became sensibly colder, they agreed to accompany me, stating, at the same time, their firm conviction that we were going on a fool’s errand. The native proved to be right, however, for we found an excellent pathway, and from the ridge overlooking the other side of the plain I tried to make out the raging stream that had just baffled us. It was nowhere to be seen, and I soon learned that we had already crossed it by a natural bridge, for it entered a cavern only a few hundred yards from the high-road, the entrance being concealed by a bend in the hills. This adventure cost us our breakfast, as it was noon ere we reached the first hamlet. These underground rivers are very numerous in Kuei-chow and Yün-nan; the composition of the rocks, which are of lime and sandstone, facilitates the drainage of the valleys and plains, which would otherwise be converted into lakes.
In the hills to the west of the plain, coal is found in abundance, the interstices in the walls of the houses being frequently filled with black lumps instead of stone. The villagers told us that snow falls in winter, and that the climate is exceedingly cold. On the bare treeless highlands beyond, potatoes, buckwheat, oats, and a little poppy, were being cultivated.
As a rule, a Chinese has little to gain by showing civility to a foreigner, be he official, merchant, or missionary; and courtesy, even of the barest description, is thoroughly appreciated in a land where stone-throwing, mobbing, and threatening are too often indulged in with impunity. The marked attention paid to us at Pai-shui, the end of the first stage from P’ing-i Hsien, was a very pleasant surprise. The small local officials, with an escort, met me some miles from their village, and hurried on to receive me at the gate. A Taotai, who had been travelling in my company on his way to Western Yün-nan, and with whom I had afterwards a pleasant chat about those terrible Kuei-chow roads and our struggles to get the best inns, had just preceded me, and taken up his quarters in the official rest-house; but a comfortable room was quickly procured for me, the authorities, much against my will, having gone the length of ejecting a number of occupiers. As we left early next morning, the authorities awaited us at the opposite gate of their once-walled village, to speed us on our way. It would greatly lessen the misery of travelling in China if such courtesy were more frequently forthcoming.
The people in the neighbourhood of Pai-shui are very much afflicted with goître, especially the women, and the idea is prevalent among them that the impurities contained in the salt which they consume is the cause of the malady. Here we came across a consignment of red copper for the metropolis, transported on the backs of nearly four hundred mules and ponies from the mines of Tung-ch’uan Fu to Pe-sê T’ing, the head of navigation of the West River, in the province of Kwang-si. It seemed a roundabout way of sending copper north, but I was informed that on one occasion, when shipments used to be despatched by way of the Yang-tsze, a great storm arose and overwhelmed more than a hundred junks and their cargoes. I heard afterwards that peculation had probably more to do with the loss than a storm.
The city of Chan-i Chou, fifteen miles to the west of Pai-shui, lies in the north of an immense plain, famous throughoutWestern China as the breeding ground of the sturdy Yün-nan pony. Brood mares and their foals were grazing on the large grass fields, which occupied no mean part of the plain. A stream, spanned by a good three-arched stone bridge, flows south past the east gate of the city on its way to join the northern branch of the West River. It was at one time a section of the route by which lead was carried from the north of Yün-nan to Tonquin. Consignments were conveyed by boat from Chan-i Chou to Ma-kai, a place fifty miles to the south, and thence overland to Mêng-tzŭ Hsien, on the head waters of the Song-koi, now the residence of a French Consul.
Rain descended in torrents during the night of our stay in Chan-i, and the dawn of the 23rd of May was not accompanied by the usual movements and noises that betokened an early start. On the contrary, I was soon waited upon by a deputation, which begged me, on account of the rains, to defer my departure for a day; but the fact that I was almost in the presence of my goal compelled me to resist their demand. After two hours spent in arguing, we trooped sullenly out of the city. The plain, which on the previous afternoon was bright with its golden crops of wheat and barley, was now cold and cheerless; the road was one mass of mud in which we sank to the knees; a great part of the surrounding country was under water; and the rain fell in sheets. The hamlets in the neighbourhood were poor in the extreme.
Stopping for breakfast, we borrowed a room and despatched a youngster to forage for a table and eggs. The way in which these people live is astounding: they occupy rooms begrimed with smoke—chimneys are considered superfluous—willingly sharing them with dogs, pigs, fowls, and insect pests.
The unceasing downpour obliged us to abandon the idea of completing a day’s stage, which we broke at the market town of Mien-tien, having accomplished only twelve miles, or half the distance necessary to ensure decent accommodation. We were quartered in a loft over a stable, where a dozen ponies, unable like ourselves to proceed farther, were installed.
As the morrow was the anniversary of Her Majesty’s Birthday, I determined to secure a good dinner for the occasion; my tinned provisions had long since given out, and I was entirely dependent on local supplies. I succeeded in purchasing a fowl and a few potatoes, which we carried with us over the plain of yellow-ochre soil which lies between Chan-i and Ma-lung Chou.
At the latter city, I experienced very considerable civility at the hands of the chief civil official, who paid me a visit, and, being a native of Ch’ung-k’ing, plied me with many questions regarding his Ssŭ-ch’uan home. He also added considerably to our larder, which was now in a very prosperous condition indeed. He complained of the poverty of his jurisdiction, stating that the people over whom he ruled were nearly all poor immigrants from Ssŭ-ch’uan, who, owing to the barrenness of the soil, could hardly earn enough to keep clothes on their backs.
We halted for the night at a hamlet ten miles from Ma-lung, where we secured a single room for our whole party. After I had had a corner of it partitioned off by a mat, the cooking of the dinner commenced; but, there being no chimney, the interior soon became so thick as to necessitate a removal into the fresh air. A table was brought and placed outside a back door, and the meal spread under Heaven’s starry vault. Here my little dog and I thoroughly enjoyed ourselves; and even now, after the lapse of some years, I have very pleasant memories of that sumptuous dinner, probably because I took special care in the catering. If there is a bitterness in the memory, it is that the little, fearless, faithful, intelligent, amusing sharer of that repast, the companion of all my travels, is no more.
The inquisitiveness of the Chinese is hard to bear with equanimity. I sat down to breakfast the following morning in what I took to be an uninhabited house, for it consisted of two gables and a roof without a stick of furniture. The necessary chair and table we had, as usual, borrowed. No sooner was the cloth spread, than all the goîtred old women of the village trooped in, each carrying a tub of old garments steeped in water, and proceeded in the most matter of fact way to wash.
The splashing and watching were endurable; but when one of them proceeded to light a fire on the floor, I felt that we had reached the last straw, and bundled them out without ceremony, tubs and all. They looked upon the climax as a good joke.
Following the road over weary red highlands only partly cultivated, we sighted, on the afternoon of the 26th of May, a large sheet of water, which, as we approached, we found to be swarming with wild duck. At Yang-lin, which is built on the south-western margin of the Sung-ming Lake, we occupied a room in a new inn, and were regaled with excellent fish from
the clear water we had just passed. How easy it is for a Chinese official to show his contempt for a foreigner. On the way to Yang-lin, I was provided with an escort in the shape of a small boy of thirteen, wearing a sword nearly as long as himself, who turned out to be fonder of bird-nesting than of affording protection and assistance!
A broad stone road, in excellent repair, leads from Yang-lin to the rim of the plain in which lies the capital of Yün-nan.
Half-way we caught a glimpse of a lake to the south-west; but it was not till the rim was reached that the glorious expanse of water, backed by a mountain range, burst upon our view. The city itself was still concealed by the north-eastern continuation of the rim, which juts into the plain, dotted with houses and trees. Yün-nan Fu lies near the northern shore of the Lake; and, after descending the low rim, we followed the road westward for a short distance, then turned due north, and, after a couple of miles, struck the south-eastern corner of the wall. No escort met us; no attention was paid to us, beyond a demand for my card, as we entered the south gate.

CHAPTER IV to be continued

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