This is an incomplete, work-in-progress description of my travels from 1990-2009 in the China-Tibet borderlands, following in the footsteps of botanist Joseph Rock. Will be adding chapters and pics when they are ready - expected completion date November 2009. Contact me on mutikonka [AT] gmail,com

Monday, April 13, 2009

Chapter 5: Kunming and Dali

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 grip of control of Peking and was ruled by a succession of corrupt warlords. These figures, who styled themselves as scholars and nobles, were little more than the leaders of local army of looters and gangsters.

Their rule was centred on self enrichment from the province, not self government of the province. Tang Chiyao, who was nominally governor of Yunnan in 1922, for example, had disposed of his decent predecessor by execution and 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 crop was opium, from which he derived most of his money and power.

His reign would last until 1927, when he was overthrown and killed by a more politically astute rival, Long Yun, who made some attempts to contain the banditry, paid lip service to the rule of Generalissimo Chiang Kai Shek in distant Nanjing and managed to retain a grip on power into the Second World War.

At a more local level, Joseph Rock would have encountered minor officials and magistrates, who owed their positions to the tributes in opium and silver they paid to the provincial governor and his cronies.
Lower down the scale would be merchants and tradesmen, with the peasant farmers or coolies at he very bottom of the scale.

As Rock and other western visitors to Yunnan at that time would observe, the 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.

Old Dali pagodas

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. The Muslim uprising had been put down with great ruthlessness by the Qing troops, leaving whole districts slaughtered without mercy. The entire Muslim population of Dali, for example, were slaughtered when the town was besieged. The nearby lake Erhai 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 had foreign presence in the form of French, British and American consulates, due to its proximity to Indo-China, British Burma.

Dali, Yunnan, China, 1990

I arrived in the ‘modern’ Kunming in early November of 1990, after a 30-hour hard sleeper train journey from Guilin. It had been a hard journey, during which I had become so sick of the smoking, spitting and staring that I spent much of it sequestered on my top bunk, trying to avoid contact with fellow passengers.

Arriving at 5am, we were turfed off the train into the bitterly cold pre-dawn darkness. I sheltered in a café by the station forecourt for an hour, before attempting to take a minibus into the city centre as it got light. With virtually no Chinese language ability, I found it confusing and frustrating – especially when the bus I chose circled round for about half an hour trying to attract enough passengers to fill all the seats.

After we set off, I gradually realised that we were heading out of town, not towards the city centre. But all my gesturing and speaking attempts to have the driver stop and let me off were ignored. The female conductress just nodded. It was only when I got up, started shouting and trying to wrestle the doors open to try to jump off the moving vehicle that he pulled up. The other passengers were all snickering and talking about the crazy foreigner, as I dragged my bag off the bus, cursing the driver and cursing China. I later guessed it had been a tourist minibus going to the Stone Forest at nearby Shilin.

Why had they nodded in agreement when I kept repeating “Kunming” and pointing to the city centre on my Chinese map?
I eventually managed to flag down a taxi, and the driver was able to compregend enough to take me to the Cammellia Hotel, one of he few that was officially open at that time to accept foreign tourists.

It was a shabby, Soviet-style institution, with dim cold corridors guarded by a female ‘key keeper’ on each floor. On my floor, the young women concierge sat rugged up behind a shonky desk, tapping out a tune with one finger on an electric organ. She rose only reluctantly and sullenly to open the door to my dorm.

Kunming, 1990

When I had dumped my gear and went for a walk about the city I wondered why it had been so highly praised in my guidebook. After the exotic peaks and tropical foliage of Guilin, Kunming seemed to be the grey, soul-less city I had always expected to encounter in Communist China. There was little colour: the people of Kunming wore Mao suits of blue or green, or shabby black and grey suits with white shirts. The shops seemed drab and even the Vietnamese coffee shop mentioned in my guidebook seemed to be little different to all the other basic hole-in the wall noodle shops. It sold bitter coffee form a jug and rock hard bread rolls. I ended up instead eating a lunch of dumplings at the Soldier-Worker-Peasant canteen.

I inquired at the teeming, chaotic bus station about travel to Dali and discovered that this would involve an overnight trip on a ‘sleeper bus’. So be it. Anything to get away from Kunming.

Kunming 1990

Back in Rock's time, Dali had been ruled by a Chinese local warlord called Chang Chieh-pa or Chang the Stammerer. A local Minchi man and former muleteer who turned to banditry, he baosted of having murdered 300 people and eating human hearts. He led a band of up to 5000 plunderers and thieves 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. He in turn was tamed by the provincial governer, who brought him on side by apppointing him a 'general' and sub-governor of Dali district. he still continued his plundering of all traffic travelling in the area, three days from Yunna-fu.

It’s hard to believe now, in the days of motorways and luxury coaches that whisk you from Kunming to Dali in time for lunch, that the trip used to be a real kind of purgatory. In 1990 the roads weren’t so good and I took the overnight sleeper bus to what I thought would be China’s Shangri-La. Even with a ‘bed’ seat, earplugs and a eye mask I got no sleep whatsoever that night 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, the bus lurched to a halt at 1.30am for a rest stop at a roadside noodle restaurant.
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, it 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 Number two Hotel, which was ridiculously cheap at seven yuan for a dorm bed. I then found a cosy café nearby that was obviously targeted at westerners: Jim’s Peace Café. Jim was a laid back Chinese guy who spoke good English, which he seemed to have learned at Woodstock. Maybe he had been partaking of the marijuana that grows freely around Dali, but he certainly had quite a few mannerisms of the stoner. It was such an odd thing to find, in a country where a billion people don’t appear to be able to speak even one word of English, that the first fluent speaker spoke like a dude, man. I wasn’t complaining. He ran a nice café – pretty much the only café in town – that catered to my squeamish western tastes. I didn’t want rice gruel or beef noodles for breakfast, and Jim was able to offer toast, muesli, banana pancakes and something that passed for coffee. That is cool, man.

As I began to feel like a human again and walked the streets of Dali, I began to appreciate its charms, and understand how the town and its beautiful surroundings could attract travellers for extended stays. The sun rose and bathed the long ridge line 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 blue or green Mao suits that I ahd seen in Kunming, but many of the Bai women still wore the traditional blue Bai capes and had colourful turbans fashioned out of what looked to my eyes like tea towels.

At the western end of town, as I walked up to view the famous trio of nine century pagodas, I passed Bai workmen cutting slabs of marble with primitive power driven saws driven bya 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.

Dali Yunnan 1991 pagoda

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 aerial. I decided to try tackle it the following day, and retired back to jim’s for a beefsteak and chips, a cold remedy tea and an early night.

I was woken early the next morning by two contradictory sounds: scratchy Chinese erhu music being played through public loudspeakers accompanied by a solicitous female Chinese voice which 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 man hoicking and spitting in the bathroom. It was 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 echoey concrete chamber.
This seemed to sum up the constant dichotomy of China: a land of ancient culture, ritual manners and dainty music, that simultaneously offers up revolting habits such as spitting, shoving and pissing in the street. Is it just a communist thing, I wondered?

After breakfast I bought a few snacks and hiked uphill, across the main road and out of the old town. I passed the pagodas again and followed a cobbled road past some vegetable fields until it twisted through another small village and transformed into a dirt track that ran up into the pine woods, and 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 machine press. 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 the old town and its grid like street pattern was now evident.

Dali Zhengfeng temple

I was invited by gestures to sit down with a friendly group of walnut-brown men who were dressed in a mixture of police or army uniforms and civilian black trousers and white shorts. They made me drink some bitter-tasting green tea from a cracked flowery enamel mug, and 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 had been looking for two porters who had not returned from a ferrying trip up to the TV station two days ago, presumed lost in a snowstorm. They then rose to leave, taking a basket full of pine cones and a primitive-looking single bore rifle with them.

Dali Cangshan temple

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 the open to wind around rocky outcrops and the occasional grand viewpoint. I plodded on upwards, and it just seemed to go on for ever. 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 was harder because the grass covering parts of the track was slippy. I didn’t feel too isolated though, because I could still see the town below me, and also hear local people working nearby in the hills whistling and calling to each other.

I continued on, for hour after hour, occasionally getting a good vantage point, but never seeming to be getting any nearer to the elusive TV station at the summit, which still looked as distant as ever.

Dali Yunnan, climbing the Cangshan peaks, 1991

I was now above most of the trees now and was beginning to get worried about the time. The sun was moving over to the far side of the mountain ridge and I would soon be in shadow and unable to benefits from 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 working in the long grass around the track, cutting wood and bamboo. This made me lose heart. After all my hard work I still hadn’t even attained a height beyond which these people spent their working day. After a pause to have a drink and eat some of the strange greasy pancake-her thing I had bought for my lunch, 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 temple made me realise how much upward effort I had out in for nothing. The temple was now all but 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 fried rice and a beer.

When I told Jim where I’d been he smiled and said I should have told him what I was doing. He could arrange transport to get me to the end of a service road which runs half way up the mountain, 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 the following day.

About Me

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Medical writer, user of Rolleiflex and Leica film cameras, China-phile and Brompton bike rider. Editor of  Originally from Yorkshire.