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THE LESSER TRAIL
At Tachienlu I reached the western limit of my wanderings; not the western boundary of China, nor yet of my desire, but my time was nearly spent; in less than four months I had to be back in England; moreover, late summer was not a favourable season for descending the Yangtse. So with a longing glance up the great Lhasa trail I turned my face eastwards; but it is always wearisome to retrace one's steps, and a chance remark of Captain Bailey set me on the scent of an alternative route to Ya-chou. As far as Lu Ting Ch'iao there was no choice; all traffic across the Ta Tu must seek the great iron bridge both coming and going, but at that point there turned off to the north and east a shorter trail than the main packroad which we had struck near Ni T'ou. Although more direct, it was less travelled owing to the difficulties of the way, for there were two steep mountain-ranges to be crossed, and path and bridges were often insecure, calling for a sure foot and a steady head. It was not easy to get precise information as to the condition of the road. Captain Bailey knew little save the mere fact of its existence, and although Major Davies had taken this route, he notes in his book "Yünnan" nothing more than that it is much too steep for animals. Even the friendly postmaster failed us here; all he could tell was that an official who had attempted to take ponies through lost them all, swept away by the torrents. The interpreter wagged his head doubtfully when I suggested my plan, but his opinion did not matter, for, like all of his class in China, he was disinclined to active exertion. And when I called the fu t'ou into council I found he had once gone this way, and was not inclined to go again.
Ku Niang (my title): "I wish to go to Ya-chou by the Lesser Trail."
Fu t'ou: "It is impossible."
Ku Niang: "I intend to go all the same, and I expect you to go with me."
Fu t'ou: "Very well. I will guide the Ku Niang by the Lesser Trail, but the pony cannot go, nor the chairs, nor the men, for it is impassable for shoulder loads, and these are Ning-yüan men who know no other way of carrying."
Apparently the fu t'ou and the cook, Jack and I were the only ones equal to the trip, as I had already told the interpreter he might go by the main road. But persistence conquers most things in the East. The pony should be sent round by the longer way in charge of the ma-fu. As for the interpreter, when he found I was ready to get along without him, he decided to stay with me. I would not have the Ning-yüan men discharged if they wished to go on with me to Ya-chou and Chengtu, as first arranged but I was sure that by hiring two or three extra coolies, so as to lighten the loads, they could get along; nor did the chairs present any real difficulty. We would walk when the trail was bad, and surely they could be taken empty wherever pack-coolies went. So it proved, all was arranged as I planned, and in the end everything turned out satisfactorily.
Our departure from Tachienlu was attended with the usual noise and confusion; nothing is done quietly in China. Also there were the customary delays. As we had only a short stage before us, I sat serenely aloof on the steps of the mission house, enjoying for the last time the wonderful views over the town to the snow peaks above, while things gradually got themselves straight. After a long wait for the second soldier, who never turned up, we were at last off, and the descent of the valley was very enjoyable in the soft grey light of a misty day. As the river had risen appreciably during our stay in Tachienlu, it rushed along at a fine rate between the high, steep banks, and I held my breath as I watched people pulling themselves over by the perilous rope bridges. Halfway to Wa Ssu Kou we met a procession of six chairs, and from each looked out the fair, smiling face of a French sister bound to her mission station at Tachienlu. Already in thought the town seemed purer and better for the presence of these noble women, who had probably left their homes for good, to take up a work which they would lay down only with life.
We found room in Wa Ssu Kou in the same "comfy" inn as before, and the welcome we received gave me a truly homelike feeling. Soon after starting the next morning we passed the funeral cortège of a Chinese official of Tachienlu, making his last long journey to his distant home two hundred li beyond Chengtu. The ponderous coffin in its red case, upon which stood the usual white cock to avert disaster, was preceded by men carrying flags and cymbals which they clashed in accompaniment to the almost continuous chanting of the eight bearers. As they stopped for frequent halts we had soon left them far behind, but late at night they arrived at Lu Ting and were given quarters in the same temple where we were lodged, for I had refused to try the inns again.
While it was still dark the next morning we were aroused by the sound of chanting and clashing cymbals in the court outside. The bearers of the dead were starting on another stage of their long journey, and at quarter-past six we too were off, after a last parting injunction to the ma-fu to take good care of the pony. Already the town was astir, the marketplace, as we passed through, crowded with traders and their produce, chiefly good-looking vegetables and fruit. For a few miles we kept up the left bank of the Ta Tu, and then turned abruptly up the mountain-side. Here my chair-men halted for breakfast and I did not see them again until we reached our night's stopping-place. Alone with Jack I kept on along the steep trail, revelling in my freedom. At first we met few people, although later in the day the number increased, but wherever the way seemed doubtful there was always some one to put me straight by signs. After a little we dropped by a sharp descent into the valley of a small wild river flowing into the Ta Tu from the east. We kept up this, crossing the stream from side to side on planks and stepping-stones. After passing through two tiny hamlets embowered in walnut trees, we reached the head of the valley and faced a long, steep zigzag. The climb was hard, hot work, but I found some diversion in a friendly race with a good-looking woman going the same way; her unbound feet kept up with mine while our dogs romped along gaily. Women with unbound feet were far more common here than elsewhere in my travels, and they seemed exceptionally alert and intelligent, but the population of the region is scanty, many of the people being newcomers of Hakka stock. Arrived at the top of the cliff we found ourselves on a narrow ridge, and for the rest of the short stage our way led along the face of the mountain, from time to time topping a wooded spur. Everywhere azaleas made the air sweet and the steep slopes wonderful with colour. At length we dropped without warning into a little village at the head of a precipitous narrow ravine, where we spent the night in an unusually interesting inn. Save for two or three private rooms, the best of which was given to me, all life centred in a great hall open to the roof and with merely a suggestion of partition in a few rough railings. Through the open doors men, children, pigs and fowls, cats and dogs, strolled in from the rain. Up in the roof our chairs were slung out of the way. Each coolie, having secured a strip of matting, had found his place. Some were cleaning off the sweat and dirt of the day's work with hot water: not until they have done that can they obtain the quilts that are rented for twenty cash each; others had already curled up for the afternoon pipe of opium, while still others were busy preparing the evening meal over the big semicircular range. In one pot bean-cake was being made, a long, complicated process; in another, cakes were frying in oil; in another, rice was boiling. One of my chair coolies seemed to be the chef par excellence; brandishing a big iron ladle, he went from pot to pot, stirring, tasting, seasoning, and generally lording it over two others working under his orders. In full control of the whole was a good-looking woman with bound feet, apparently the proprietor of the inn; at least I saw no man to fill the post. Every one was good-tempered and friendly, and I was glad to exchange the tiresome seclusion of the town inns for the bustling scene in which I was willingly included, tasting each dish, watching the men at their games, making friends with the children.
The pouring rain of the night gave way to a soft drizzle at dawn, and we were off before seven. As we ascended the valley we faced a solid green wall flushed with masses of pink azaleas and cherry-red rhododendrons, and broken by half a dozen streams which flung themselves over the lip of the cliff to dash in feathery cascades from rock to rock below. Our way led back and forth over rushing mountain streams. Riding was of course out of the question, and I had long since left my chair-coolies behind; but one of the Tachienlu men, a strong, active fellow with bits of coral adorning his black queue, was very alert in looking out for me, always waiting at a difficult place with a helping hand. We crossed the Ma-An Shan Pass, about ten thousand feet high, by the middle of the forenoon, having climbed more than five thousand feet since leaving Lu Ting Ch'iao. Just before reaching the top we descended into a cup-like hollow, a huge dimple lined with the rich greens and gay reds of the rhododendron, and merry with the babble of many tiny waterfalls. I exclaimed with delight at the vision of beauty, and even the coolies grinned appreciatively. It would have been a place to dream away a day had it not been as wet as a shower bath. Nearing the pass, we heard weird sounds above us, not unlike the cries of rejoicing uttered by the Ladakhis of Western Tibet when they have successfully surmounted a difficult height, and I wondered if I was to find the same custom here. But it turned out to be the lullaby with which two men were tooling ten black pigs over the pass. Again, a little way down on the other side, my path was suddenly barred by a man frantically gesticulating. I thought at first that he was mad, but it was merely that he feared Jack would attach a flock of geese that he was driving in the wake of the pigs, and when I picked the dog up, the man prostrated himself at my feet in gratitude.
We ought to have had a fine view from the pass over the trackless mountain tangle to the north, some of the peaks towering almost eighteen thousand feet into the sky, but again the clouds and mist veiled everything from sight. All the rest of the day we were making our way down the steep east side, picking our steps laboriously along the wet rocky trail. Our path led through a precipitous narrow gorge, its walls draped with wonderful vegetation, and as we descended it, it grew wetter and greener, and the thousand little brooks leaping down the sides of the ravine rapidly swelled the main stream to an impassable torrent. Now we crouched under overhanging ledges, now we slipped and sprawled down a rough rock staircase, constantly crossing the stream from side to side on planks placed from boulder to boulder, or on slippery logs with insecure handrails or none at all. I found the descent far more tiring than the climb on the other side. The soldier and the gallant coolie fortunately kept always with me, one in front and one behind, and I was often glad of a helping hand. At one time the path led straight into the torrent, but while I was wondering as to the depth of the water and the strength of the current, the coolie, hastily depositing his load, motioned to me to get on his back, and the sturdy fellow carried me safely around the projecting cliff. Still another time we were forced to take to the river, and as I could get no wetter than I was, I proposed to wade in, but again the man was at hand, insisting that I should ride, and the strength and agility with which he made his way over the slippery rocks, the swirling water rising above his knees, were really wonderful; but then my weight was less than one hundred and thirty pounds, while the ordinary load of the tea-carrier is two hundred. At our heels came the soldier carrying Jack, whose short legs could hardly have made headway against the strong current forcing him out into midstream.
About the middle of the afternoon we forerunners of the caravan reached Chang-ho-pa, the night's stop. The whole village turned out to greet us, and their interest was not to be wondered at, as few Europeans and perhaps no European woman had ever before come this way. The interpreter did not arrive until two hours later, and what stories my two companions made up about me to satisfy the curiosity of the villagers, I can only imagine. As a rule, one stands to lose nothing in the mouths of one's followers in the East Whatever reflected glory they may earn by exalting their masters is generally theirs. Years afterward I learned that on a journey I once made in Kashmir and Baltistan I travelled in the guise of King Edward's sister. How much I profited by the dignity thus thrust upon me I do not know, but I have often thought that my servants must have been hard put to it sometimes to account for the simplicity of my outfit.
The rest of the caravan straggled in toward the end of the afternoon, wet and tired, but all in good spirits over the successful day, no loads drenched, no one hurt. The great room of the rough little inn was noisy and gay with the men drying their clothes and cooking their dinner, the centre of an interested throng of village folk. I sat among them on a low bench by the fire, watching the fun. Every one was heedful of my comfort, poking the fire, bringing a fan to screen my face from the heat, drying my shoes, rubbing Jack. The thoughtfulness and good will of my men during all the journey were unfailing, and I never found that friendliness on my part diminished in any way my authority over them.
After dinner the chair-bearers gathered round and with the aid of the interpreter I took down as best I could some of their calls and responses, a sort of antiphonal chorus handed down from generation to generation of coolies. Thus the men in front cry, "Lao di!" — "Something in the road!" — and those behind call back, "Ti chi!" — "Lift higher!" or maybe it is "Chiao kao!" — "Something overhead!" — and then the answer comes, "Keo yao!" — "Stoop lower!" When the way is very uneven, you hear "Leo puh ping!" — "The road is not level!" — to which is replied, "Mon tien hsin!" — "There are stones like stars!" — followed by "Tien shan hsin To!" — "Many stars in the sky!" — with the response, "Ti hsia ken to!" — "Many holes in the ground." Or perhaps at a bridge, "Hsio mo lan chao!" — "Bridge bad, building for a thousand years!" — to which comes the proverbial answer, "Chien mien wan lao!" — "Must last for ten thousand." When there is a steep bit, one calls out, "Deo shan deo!" — "Steeper and steeper!" and the others retort, "Kuan shan kuan!" — literally, "Official upon official," but the meaning is plain, "As steep as the ladder of promotion." In the villages one hears constantly, "Yu ti kou yao!" — "There is a dog on the road," — with the response, "Han lao-pan lai chi tao!" — "Call the owner to chain it"; or else, "Tso shou wahwah keo!" — "A child on the left hand," — and then comes the answer, "Han ta ma lah pao!" — "Call his mother to tend him."
Every hundred yards or so on the road comes the cry, "Fan keo!" — "Change shoulders!" — followed by a momentary stop to shift the pole. And you always cross a town to the tune of "Pei-a, pei-a, pei-a!" — "Mind your back, mind your back, mind your back!" And if a man does not mind, he is likely to get a poke in the back from the chair pole.
The next day's journey was much the same thing as the preceding. We started in the grey morning, and I and my two companions of the day before had soon distanced the others. At first the trail was rough and slippery, and all ups and downs. The vegetation was of almost tropical density, and the moisture underfoot and overhead was so great that it seemed to me I had never been wetter except in a bathtub. As we descended to lower levels the valley broadened out, and the going improved so that we were able to make very good time. At one point, after passing through a little hamlet, — we came out on a high bluff overlooking a good-sized stream flowing in from the south. Fifty feet below roared the river, spanned at this place by a suspension bridge a hundred and fifty feet long, constructed of three iron cables held together by cross-chains at regular intervals. The footway was merely a single row of boards not more than twelve inches wide, and there was no handrail at all. The soldier at my side waved his hand significantly up and down. I understood quite too well, and was shaking in my shoes at the thought of walking that narrow, unsteady plank, when I espied my knightly coolie, who, having deposited his load on the opposite bank, was hurrying back to my assistance. Gripping Jack, who was as frightened as I, under one arm, I seized the man's hand, and slowly we inched across to safety. There we joined the people of a near-by hamlet, who apparently found their pastime in watching the traffic across the bridge, perhaps waiting for a chance to earn a few cash by carrying the loads of the less sure-footed coolies. My chair-men came over triumphantly, and Mercury almost ran with his baskets, but the interpreter was glad of the fu t'ou's aid, and two of the coolies balked, but were helped out by some of the others.
Later in the day we left the river, and crossing a head ridge or pass affording beautiful views to the south, came out after a time in the same valley, but now wider and more open. Though the mountains still towered to left and right, we were getting down to lower levels, and the change was marked in the palms, bamboos, and peach trees that began to appear. But the villages were nothing more than hamlets, and the outlook for dinner at the first stopping-place was so poor that I, now riding in my chair, decided to go on to the next settlement; but here conditions were even worse, the only inn being dismantled and abandoned. Although it was getting late and the others were far behind, there was nothing left but to travel on. Our last hope for the night proved to be a group of four houses only with few supplies, but the people bade us welcome and did their best to make us comfortable. Fires were lighted and clothes were soon drying and rice a-boiling. After the arrival of the interpreter I learned that we had been taken for missionaries, and that it was expected we would hold a service.
The scenery grew even more beautiful as we descended the valley the next day. Our trail led through fine groves high on the hillside, while below us the river, now big enough to have a name, the Ya, turned and twisted in splendid green swirls. Seen from a distance the villages were very attractive, built usually of wood, their thatched roofs just putting forth green shoots. A new feature in the landscape were tall spruce trees, reminding me in their outlines of the rock pines of Italy. As the road was now good, it was possible for me to ride in my chair once more, for which I was glad, as the hard climbs and still more wearying descents of the last three days had made me rather stale. The people along the way were much interested in me and still more in Jack, but it was the naïve curiosity of a simple folk, and I did not find it irksome like the hard stare of the townspeople. At one place where we halted for tiffin, a lame man with an interesting face attached himself to us, and presently I found myself and my belongings the subject of an explanatory talk he was giving the bystanders. He told them how I kept my eyeglasses on, expatiated on the advantages of my shoes, indicated the good points of my chair, the like of which had never been seen before in these parts, and finally expounded at length the character of my dog. If I wished him to be bad he would bite, but since I was kind I would desire him to be good, and he would be good. To illustrate, he patted Jack's head rather gingerly. Fortunately the dog appreciated pats from any quarter, so our characters did not suffer.
A ROADSIDE TEA-HOUSE
Toward the end of the day we were nearing Tien-chüan-chou, the one largeish town on this road. The approach was one of the finest things I have ever seen. We were now well down, having descended seven thousand feet since crossing Ma-an-Shan. Everywhere there was careful cultivation, the nearer hills being terraced to the top, and the well-paved trail traversed long stretches of rice-fields just beginning to show green above the mud. Here and there a group of farm buildings stood on little knolls above the surrounding marsh, each in a charming setting of trees. Do trees anywhere group themselves as picturesquely as in China? Unsympathetic people tell me that no Chinese ever plant trees save for severely utilitarian purposes. I am in no position to contradict the verdict of these overpowering persons, the old residents (fortunately they sometimes contradict each other); and yet why is it that most temples are set in fine groves, put to no purpose that I can see save to satisfy a sense of the beautiful, or why are so many Chinese towns, looked at from a height, bowers of green beauty, the trees serving neither for fuel nor for food? The truth is, it seems to me, that the needs of life press so hard on the Chinese that they are forced to look at things from a utilitarian point of view, but given the least chance and their appreciation of the beautiful shows itself.
Near the town we struck down to a good iron suspension bridge over the Ya, which here runs with a tremendous current, broken by curious reefs thrusting out into the stream some twenty or thirty feet and at right angles to the bank. Beyond the bridge we came in sight of the town, its staring red walls draped with green creepers. Entering through a fine stone gateway, we found ourselves in the single street, broad, well paved, and wonderfully clean. The inhabitants were apparently well used to foreigners, which is natural, as Ya-chou with its Roman Catholic and Protestant missions is only twenty miles away.
The country through which we passed the next day was very varied, and always beautiful. On leaving the town the path led along a low ridge given over to graves. Living and dead dwell side by side in China, and often it seems as though the rights of the one were sacrificed to the claims of the other. The Chinese saying, "For every man that Heaven creates, Earth provides a grave," takes on a new significance as one looks over the land, the dead are so many, the living so hard put to live. This was not an unattractive place, for the mounds of earth and stone were overgrown with grass and ferns, while many were decorated with a tuft of bamboo or a bush of wild roses. The free use of stone in this district was very striking; pavements, often in good condition, were general, the irrigating ditches were bridged by a single slab of the red sandstone of Szechuan, perhaps ten feet in length, while at every turn there were charming little stone shrines in place of the shabby wooden ones found farther south.
After a bit we turned away from the plain and river and entered a more broken country, hills and valleys, ridges and dells, rushing brooks between banks of ferns, little tumbling cascades over mossy stones, groups and avenues of fine trees, picturesque stone bridges, everywhere painstaking tillage and ingenious irrigation. It was all charming, with the artificial beauty of a carefully ordered park. Resting in my chair in front of a tea-house where the coolies were refreshing themselves, I noticed my knight of the bridges suddenly throw himself on the ground before the interpreter, crying out something in beseeching tones, while the other coolies standing about laughed unsympathetically. The poor man was urging the interpreter to ask that I give him back his soul, of which apparently I had deprived him when I took his picture an hour back. Without his soul he would die, and then what would his mother, a widow, do? After some talk he was consoled, the other men assuring him that they had been photographed over and over again without suffering harm. If only I had known at the time, I could have consoled him with the information that there was no picture. Photographing in cloudy Szechuan has many drawbacks, and I was ready to bark with the proverbial dog of the province when I saw the sun. The feeling of the Chinese toward the camera seems to vary. Children were sometimes afraid. One boy old enough to carry a heavy load, having been induced by the promise of a reward to stand still, burst into tears just as I was about to snap him, and I had to send him off triumphant over his bits of cash, while I was left pictureless. Some, too, of the older people made objection, while on the other hand I was occasionally asked to take a picture.
Toward noon we found ourselves again in the valley of the Ya, sometimes following a well-paved trail above the river, the ups and downs carefully terraced in broad stone steps, occasionally threading our way among the huge rush mats with which the village streets were carpeted. The harvesting of the millet and barley crops was over, and the sheaves had been brought into the village to dry and were spread out in the only level space available, the highway. Men walked over the sheaves, children and dogs romped among them, and no one said them nay. Twice we were ferried across the river, and finally a short run over the low, wide reefs that here narrow the channel brought us to Ya-chou and to the end of the Lesser Trail. We had made the trip without any of the prophesied mishaps, and for me it was far more comfortable and more interesting than following the main track. To be sure, we took five days to it, but it would not have been difficult to have saved a day, only there was no object in doing it, for a wait at Ya-chou was inevitable that the ma-fu and pony might catch us up there.
My enforced stay of one day in Ya-chou gave me a chance to see something of the town. I had the good fortune to be entertained by members of the American Baptist Mission, Dr. and Mrs. Shields, and there as elsewhere I found the missionaries most helpful in giving the traveller an insight into local conditions. There is one limitation to this, however, in the gulf which seems fixed between Protestants and Roman Catholics in the East, cutting off the chance of learning what the latter are doing; and when one bears in mind that Rome has had her missionaries in China for three hundred years and numbers her converts by millions, one would like to know more of the work done.
But there is no doubt as to the reality of Protestant achievement. In Ya-chou the relations of missionaries and townspeople seemed very cordial and natural. Medical work is being carried on, and a hospital was shortly to be opened. But more valuable, perhaps, than any formal work may be the results from the mere presence in the town of Christian men and women living lives of high purpose and kindly spirit.
If you listen to the talk of the treaty ports you will hear much criticism of missionaries and their work, and since they are human it is reasonable to suspect that they sometimes make mistakes; but after all they are the only Europeans in China who are not there for their own personal interests, and the people are quite shrewd enough to see this. In spite of differences of views the Chinese who knows the missionary at all generally respects him. A Chinese gentleman in no way friendly to missions, speaking of the good relations that existed between Europeans and Chinese in Nanking, declared it was all because the missionaries came first. And Dr. Soothill tells the story of an Englishman who applauded the harsh criticism of mission work by a Chinese river captain, and met the retort, "That's all well enough, but if it were not for the missionaries we should not know there were any good men in your country."
The prefectural city of Ya-chou is the centre of a great tea-growing district, while in the town itself are large establishments where the article is made up for the Tibetan trade. The Szechuan tea for the most part does not rank very high, little being exported from the province save to Tibet, and for that market even the poorest is reckoned too good, as the so-called tea carried by the thousands of coolies whom we met bound for Tachienlu is everything save genuine tea leaves, being a mixture of which the leaves and twigs of scrub oak and other trees form the largest part. The Ya-chou tea, when gathered and dried, is bought up and brought into the towns to be made into the brick tea of Tibetan commerce. The preparation consists in chopping fine the tea and adulterating leaves and twigs. After adding a little rice-water the whole is packed in cylinders of bamboo matting, each package weighing from sixteen to eighteen catties. It is estimated that the cost to the manufacturers, exclusive of packing, is about thirty-two cash a catty, somewhat less than a cent and a half gold the pound. By the time the tea has reached Tachienlu it is sold at about five and a half cents a pound. At Batang the price is doubled, and at Lhasa quadrupled. Thus the stuff bought as tea by the Tibetans can scarcely be called cheap, and yet they consume great quantities of it. To them it is not a luxury, but a real necessity.