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A Wayfarer In China
A WAYFARER IN CHINA
For the wander-thirst is on me
And my soul is in Cathay.
Click on Map for full size version
A WAYFARER IN CHINA
Three years ago West China seemed at the back of beyond. To make your way in you had either to traverse the length of Upper Burma and then cross the great rivers and ranges of western Yunnan, a weary month-long journey, or else spend tedious weeks ascending the Yangtse, the monotony of the trip tempered by occasional shipwreck. To-day, thanks to French enterprise, you can slip in between mountain and river and find yourself at Yunnan-fu, the provincial capital, after a railway journey of only three days and a half from Haiphong, the port of Tonking.
When first planning a visit to West China, I set my heart on going in from the west, for I had long wished to see the wild, picturesque country that lies between the Burmese frontier and the Yangtse. Years before, I had looked across the border and promised myself that some day I would find out what lay on the other side. But when the time came the difficulty of securing a Chinese interpreter in Burma forced me to go to Hong Kong, and once there, lack of time made it necessary that I should choose the shortest route into West China, and that was by way of Haiphong and the Red River railway. After all, there were compensations. Even a fleeting vision from the windows of a railway carriage gives some idea of what the French are doing in their great Eastern colony. Moreover, there could be no better starting-point for such a trip as I had before me than the free port of Hong Kong, and the comfort of arranging an outfit in a place where East and West meet untrammelled by custom-houses is not to be despised. As a rule it is a mistake to bring an elaborate outfit from home. Generally each place has worked out just the devices that best serve its particular needs, and much of Western travelling equipment does not fit in with the conditions of Eastern life. Shoes and saddles the traveller from the West wisely brings with him, and of course all scientific apparatus is best provided in Europe. But in the main I found all that I needed, whether of Eastern or Western manufacture, in Hong Kong, and at surprisingly low prices. Interpreter and cook I had secured from Shanghai. The former, a Kiangsi man, was the product of mission schools and a year in an American Western college. He spoke English fairly well, and was sufficiently at home in the various forms of Mandarin to get on in Yunnan and Szechuan. The cook had come down the "Great River" from Chung-king with an English family returning home, and was glad to work his way back, even though by a roundabout route. Although he spoke no English, he understood European ways and was quick to comprehend my wishes. And he proved a faithful, hard-working fellow, and a very passable cook.
By the end of March my preparations were complete. The boat for Haiphong was to leave at nine o'clock on the morning of the 29th, and the evening before two sampans took me and my kit, together with the interpreter and the cook, out to where she lay at her moorings. My belongings looked rather formidable as they lay heaped up on the deck of the Sikiang, of the Est Asiatique Français line, but, after all, there was only a moderate supply of stores, such as tea, jam, biscuit, sugar, cereals, tinned meats and tinned milk, together with a few enamelled iron dishes and the cook's stew-pans, all packed in wooden boxes. The bedding-roll and clothing were put in camp-bags of waterproof canvas, while the necessary maps and cameras and films were carried in suit-cases for safe-keeping. An English cross saddle brought from Shanghai proved more satisfactory for the small Yunnan ponies than would have been the Mexican saddle which I had tried in vain to secure. Acting on a timely word of warning I bought in Hong Kong a most comfortable sedan-chair, a well-made bamboo affair fitted with a top and adjustable screens and curtains to keep out either rain or sun. I had been told that I should have no use for a tent, but that a camp-bed was a necessity, and so it proved. The bed I took with me was of American manufacture; compact and light, and fitted with a mosquito frame, it served me throughout all my journeyings and was finally left in Urga in North Mongolia, on the chance that it might serve another traveller a good turn. An important part of my outfit, a small Irish terrier, arrived from Japan the next morning, when I had about given him up. He was dropped into my waiting sampan as his ship, homeward bound to Calcutta from Kobe, came into her moorings, and we climbed up the side of the Sikiang not fifteen minutes before she was off. All's well that ends well. We were safe on board, and I had secured a gay little comrade in my solitary journeying, while before Jack lay a glorious run of two thousand odd miles.
The mail boat to Haiphong, due to make the trip in fifty-three hours, had once been a royal Portuguese yacht, but the only remaining traces of her former glory were the royal monogram, "M.R.P.," conspicuous in glass and woodwork, and her long, graceful lines, charming to look at, but not well fitted to contend with the cross-currents of the China Sea. As the only lady passenger I had very comfortable quarters, and the kindest attention from French officers and Annamese stewards. The second afternoon there came a welcome diversion when the boat put into Kwang-chou-wan, two hundred miles southwest of Hong Kong, to visit the new free port of Fort Bayard, the commercial and military station which the French are creating in the cession they secured from China in 1898, and which, if all goes well, is some day to rival Hong Kong. The Bay of Kwang-chou is very fine, affording a safe harbour to the two or three ships that were riding at anchor, or to two or three navies if need came, but Fort Bayard displays as yet few signs of the prophesied greatness. To while away the hours of waiting I went on shore and wandered about the empty, grass-grown roads of the tiny settlement. To the right as one walked up from the beach stretched a long line of substantial-looking barracks, and many of the houses were of European appearance, attractively set in large gardens. Above the whole towered a rather pretentious two-spired church. The one native and business street running parallel with the beach showed little life; people did not wake up even at the coming of the fortnightly mail from Hong Kong, and the native population seemed no more than sufficient to serve the needs of the foreign element.
We were joined here by two or three French officials attended by an escort of Annamese policemen. These latter had a decidedly ladylike, genteel air with their hair smoothly brushed and twisted in a low knot at the back of the neck, the whole bound round with a black kerchief laid in neat folds. Their uniform was of dark blue woollen set off by putties of a lighter blue, and their appearance was decidedly shipshape. I talked with one of the Frenchmen returning from an official visit to Fort Bayard. He seemed to have little faith in the new settlement, declaring the Government had poured in money like water, and with no adequate return.
It is more than a century since France began to interest herself in this part of the world, dreaming dreams of an Eastern empire to offset the one she had just lost in America. Then came the French Revolution, and the dream went the way of many more substantial things, and it was not until the days of the Second Empire that Napoleon III, looking east and west, again took up the question. Little by little the French strengthened their hold upon the Indo-China peninsula, and the final contest came in the eighties, a part of the universal game of grab then going on in Africa and Asia. Although China gave up her claim to the territory a quarter of a century ago, it took many years longer to pacify the country, and there is still something to be done. The cost in men and money has been very great, and at one time the whole policy of colonial expansion became so unpopular that it spelled political ruin to the man most identified with it, Jules Ferry, "l'homme de Tonking."
The real history of Tonking dates from the administration of M. Doumer, Governor-General of Indo-China from 1897 to 1902. During these five years the Parisian printer, turned Radical politician and administrator, showed what one able and determined man could do. When he arrived in the East, piracy and brigandage were rife, there was an annual deficit of some three million francs, and the feeble administration had done nothing to develop the possibilities of the country. When he left, the colony was upon its feet, lawlessness had been suppressed, the administration reformed, and the deficit turned into a substantial surplus. He had built towns and telegraphs, encouraged the native industries of rice planting and silk culture, and by offering special inducements to French enterprise had developed tea, coffee, and rubber growing.
Nor did the energetic imperialist stop here. Believing that "a nation to be great should be always striving to be greater," he began to develop a vigorous forward policy which seemed to have as its goal nothing less than the control of Yunnan and Southeast China. Colonial expansion was necessary to the continued existence of France, he declared. In his last report, looking back to the achievements of a past generation, he concluded, "We are the same men, but we no longer believe in ourselves. We act as if we were a vanquished people, and in any case we appear so to the world. This is the result of our policy of effacement for which must be substituted at all costs a policy of action which will permit us to hold our rank."
It is true the forward policy did not originate with M. Doumer, for the value of Tonking as the key to China had been recognized by French statesmen before ever he put foot in the colony, but it was his task to make that policy something more than a pious aspiration. Not only did he set about making the French possessions the needed commercial and industrial base for such an undertaking, but he also initiated the next move in the game, the development of railway systems which would bring French traders, and if need be French soldiers, into the heart of the coveted territory. He worked out all the plans, urged them upon the Government, and did more than any other man to secure the necessary support of the French financiers; to-day railways linked up with Hanoi and Haiphong have crossed the Chinese frontier at two points, Dong Dang and Ho-k'ou.
The colony, to call it by its correct name, of Kwang-chou held an important place in M. Doumer's scheme, and he predicted for it a "brilliant future as a port of commerce." Like the rest of his party he regretted the mistaken moderation of the Government in not acquiring at the same time a lease of the island of Hainan. Something is being done now to repair this unfortunate error by industriously developing French hold upon that territory, and the big consulate and the French post-office and hospital at Hoi-hou, the chief port, are significant of future hopes, even if not justified by present conditions.
The following noon, after we left Kwang-chou, we were approaching Haiphong through muddy red channels between the low-lying meadow lands which here border the river Cua-Cam, on the right bank of which lies the chief commercial centre of Tonking. But its days as a shipping port are said to be numbered, because of the difficult approach. Much money has been spent in efforts to improve the waterway, but with no satisfactory results, and now it is proposed to create a new port in the beautiful Baie d'Along, a little farther east. There was some doubt in my mind as to the reception awaiting us. We had been told that the customs inspection was severe, and we had many packages; no Chinese would be admitted without passports, and I had neglected to provide any for my men; there was a strict muzzling law on, and Jack had not even a collar. But the graceful courtesy of the French officials smoothed away every difficulty. We were bowed out of the custom-house with our packages unopened. At the police headquarters, where I at once reported myself with my Chinese men, we were met by one of my fellow passengers from Kwang-chou who had hurried ahead to explain the situation, and thanks to his efforts the lack of passports was kindly overlooked. As for Jack, he was quickly furnished with all the equipment of the civilized dog — muzzle, collar, chain — at one of the large outfitting-shops, of which there seemed quite enough for the needs of the place.
Haiphong is an attractive town of some twenty thousand inhabitants, of whom perhaps one thousand are Europeans. It is planned with an eye to the future, like all French colonial centres, with broad streets and imposing public buildings. But a deep calm brooded over everything; there was no bustle in the thoroughfares, and the shops seemed unvisited, nor did their proprietors show interest in attracting custom. In one of the largest I offered a piastre, fifty cents gold, in payment for a few picture post-cards, but they could not change the coin, and seemed disinclined to make the effort to do it, so I went without my cards. The Annamese, who form the bulk of the population, are attractive in appearance, finer in feature and gentler in manner than the Chinese. Save for a serious cast of face, they are much like the Burmese. Their dress is quieter in tone than that of either their Burmese cousins or their Chinese neighbours, and is severely utilitarian in cut, differing little for men or women. The working dress of Haiphong was full, long, square-cut trousers over which fell a sort of prolonged shirt slashed to the waist. When at work the front panel was tucked up out of the way. All alike wore huge straw hats tied under the chin.
But I saw little of Haiphong, as I left the same evening, and even less of Hanoi, the capital, where we arrived at half-past ten, starting off again before eight o'clock the next morning. I was sorry not to see more of the latter place, for it is one of the finest cities in the Far East. But I carried away a vision of a good hotel, an imposing capitol, and a pretentious station, all set on wide streets lined with European-looking houses surrounded by real green grass lawns. A twenty-minute run in a rickshaw soon after dawn showed fine chaussées leading out into the country and filled, even at this early hour, with crowds of country-folk bringing their produce to market. I believe there are over one hundred miles of metalled roads in the capital and the suburbs, all due to untiring M. Doumer. But his most enduring monument in Hanoi is the fine exposition buildings. When he went home to raise a second loan of two hundred million francs for the development of the colony, the men to whom he appealed naturally asked what were the resources of the country. His convincing reply was the famous exposition of 1902.
There is one through train daily each way between Haiphong and Yunnan-fu. The distance is about six hundred miles, and it took three days and an evening to make the trip. There is no traffic by night, and this seems to be the rule on these adventurous railways, for I met the same thing on the Anatolian and Bagdad lines between Constantinople and Eregli. The corridor trains are equipped with four classes. The first was inferior to the same class on Continental lines, but that seemed to matter little, for it was usually empty. As a gay young Englishman in Yunnan-fu remarked, no one went first-class unless he was travelling at some one's else expense. The second and third class were very good of their kind, and the fourth was far and away the most comfortable arrangement of the sort I had ever seen, with benches along the sides and large unglazed window openings. Most of the passengers and all the jollity went in this class. Everywhere there were other than human travellers; birds, dogs, goats, and pigs were given room, always on condition of having a ticket. I paid four dollars gold for my dog's ticket from Haiphong to Yunnan-fu, but having paid, Jack's right in the carriage was as unquestioned as mine, and I found this true in all my railway travel in China.
The Tonking-Yunnan railway is a remarkable undertaking, and shows the seriousness with which the French are attacking the problems of Far Eastern colonization. The lower half of the line, which here follows up the Red River valley, presented few serious engineering difficulties, although calling for at least one hundred and seventy-five bridges on the section south of Lao-kai, but it was almost impossible to secure labourers for the construction work. Annamese refused to lend a hand, and the Chinese died like flies from the malarial conditions. For a time work was at a standstill, and in the end it had to be suspended during the summer months. The upper part, on the other hand, especially that section which runs through the Namti valley, tested to the utmost the skill of the French engineers. And the cost was correspondingly great. Even as it is, much of the embanking seems to be of a rather slight character, and quite unfit to stand the tremendous tropical downpours of the early summer months. After leaving China I learned that I had passed over the line just in time, for the rains set in very early in the summer of 1911, and for weeks traffic was fearfully interrupted by landslips and broken bridges.
Whether the line will prove a financial success depends on some things not wholly under control. The present customs regulations certainly tend to check the development of trade in Tonking, and the transportation rates are perhaps more than traffic can bear. The French, however, can change their policy in these respects if they think best. But the proposed construction by the Chinese Government of a railway connecting Yunnan-fu and the West River valley would cut the ground out from under their feet. For the moment, the Revolution has stopped the enterprise, but it is certain to be taken up again, as there are no insuperable engineering obstacles in the way, and every economic and political reason for giving Yunnan an outlet to the sea through Chinese territory.
On leaving Hanoi in the early morning light we struck across a wide fertile plain, beautifully cultivated; fields of rice alternating with maize stretched away to a wall of feathery bamboo broken by stately palms and glossy mangoes. After a little the country became more broken, rolling near by, mountainous in the distance. The vegetation, dense and tropical, hemmed in the line on both sides, but here and there charming trails led away through the jungle to villages on higher land; a delightful region to pass through, perhaps to live in if one were a duck, but for human beings the steamy heat must be very depressing. At Yun Bay the valley narrowed, and we drew nearer the mountains, but there was no change in the atmosphere, and had not the sky been cloudy, we should have suffered greatly from the heat.
My fellow travellers were chiefly officials of the civil administration or connected with the railway, who chatted or slept or quietly drank away the weary hours; for them there was no novelty in the trip to dull the feeling of discomfort. At one small station a man who might have been a planter got in, followed by an attractive-looking Annamese woman carrying a little child. She cried bitterly as she waved good-bye to a group of natives on the station platform. The man seemed well known on the line, and was soon the centre of a group of his fellows who paid no attention to the woman. After a while the trio went to sleep, the man on the carriage bench, the woman and child on the floor. She was what is euphemistically called a "cook" in Tonking; just another name for an arrangement so often resulting from the lonely life of Europeans among a slack-fibred dependent alien population. It is the same thing that confronts the stray visitor to the isolated tea plantations of the Assam hills, where young English lads are set down by themselves, perhaps a day's journey from the next European. What wonder that they find it difficult to hold fast to the standards and principles of the home that seems so far away, or that if they once ignore their inherited traditions, no matter in how slight a thing, there seems to be no natural stopping-place short of the abyss. As once said to me an aged American missionary, who perhaps had never worn an evening coat a dozen times in his life, "A nice young fellow, clean in body and soul, comes out from England, and finds himself shut up for the year on one of these plantations, no one of his kind within reach. He means well, but the test is too great. First he stops dressing for dinner. What's the use? Then he gets careless about his manners. And the end of it all is black-and-tan babies in the compound." Here in Tonking the woman is perhaps as well off as in her native hut until the planter goes home or brings out a European wife, but in some way or another there is usually an untoward ending. As for the children, they go to swell the class that is neither here nor there, and their lot is probably happier than that of the unfortunate Eurasians of India, since race prejudice is far less strong among the French than with the Anglo-Saxon.
At Lao-kai on the Tonking frontier I stopped over for a day's rest, having learned that it boasted a comfortable European inn. The little town is built on the opposite high banks of the Red River near its junction with the Namti. Just across the latter stream lie China and the Chinese town of Ho-k'ou. There is a distinct European aspect to Lao-kai, and as a frontier post it has a good-sized garrison of the Annamese Tirailleurs and the French Foreign Legion. The latter did not look as black as they are painted, and it was hard to realize that behind their friendly, courteous bearing were ruined careers; but the contrast of their sturdy forms and weather-beaten faces with the slender figures and delicate features of the Tirailleurs was very striking. I did not wonder that the French soldiers have dubbed their Annamese companions-in-arms the "Young Ladies." The inn, which was most efficiently managed by two Frenchwomen, served as a sort of club for the Europeans of both Lao-kai and Ho-k'ou, and incidentally also for innumerable dogs and cats. At dinner each person was the centre of an expectant group of the four-footed habitués of the inn, and no one seemed to object. Just another instance of the liking of the most civilized peoples of the West and the East, English, French, and Chinese, for pet animals.
A small church on the right bank of the river showed white among the bamboos, and in the early evening the bells rang with a homelike sound. Crossing by the ferry I found the place empty save for two Annamese soldiers kneeling quietly and reverently. In going back and forth on the ferry-boat as I did several times, I had a chance to observe the people. As in the case of the Burmans the difference between men and women is not marked; indeed, among the younger ones it is often difficult to tell them apart. The great palm-leaf hat generally worn took me back to hot Sunday afternoons in an old church in the Berkshire hills of Massachusetts, when my restless little mind busied itself with wondering what palm leaves looked like when they were not fans. I now had a chance to see, for I was in the land of palms, and the church-going fans of my childhood seemed to have transformed themselves into a universal headgear. In shape the Annamese hat resembles a tea-tray with edges three inches deep, and of the size of a bicycle wheel. In addition to the band passing under the chin a small crown fits the head snugly, and helps to keep the huge thing in place. Primarily it is a head-covering, a protection against sun or rain, but incidentally it serves as a windbreak, a basket-cover, a tray, or a cradle. Often French soldiers crossed with me, and I noticed that they usually spoke Annamese fluently, unlike Tommy Atkins in India, who rarely knows a word of the vernacular; also they seemed to be on a friendly, not to say familiar footing with the natives.
After a comfortable week-end's rest, I left Lao-kai in the early morning, helped on my journey by those courtesies that so often in strange lands convince one that "less than kin more than kind" quite understates the truth. An Italian on his way down the river wired the landlord of the best inn in Yunnan-fu of my coming, that I might be properly met. That I had already done so myself did not at all take from his kind thoughtfulness. Still another Italian of the Chinese customs service joined me as we left Lao-kai, having come over from Ho-k'ou to escort me across the frontier, that I might have no bother with my luggage. Yet another of these kind strangers wired ahead to warn the solitary American on the line of my coming, thus giving the two compatriots a chance to exchange a few words at the station as the train went through.
On leaving Lao-kai our way led up the valley of the Namti, a small mountain river coming in from the east. The scenery was now much wilder, and as we rose to higher levels the vegetation changed, the pathless jungle which comes up to the very doors of Lao-kai gave way to sparsely covered grass slopes, and they in turn to barren, rocky walls. It was here that the French engineers encountered their most difficult problems. We wound up the narrow valley in splendid loops and curves, turning upon our tracks, running through numerous tunnels, and at one time crossing a chasm so narrow and with sides so steep and precipitous that it was found necessary to build the bridge in two parts, each against the face of the cliff, and then gradually lower them until they met above the river, three hundred and fifty feet below. Finally by an almost intolerable gradient we topped the divide and found ourselves overlooking a wonderful, well-watered plain five thousand feet above the sea, and cultivated as far as the vision could carry with the care and precision of a market-garden.
That night I spent at A-Mi-chou in a semi-Chinese inn. The cooking was good, and, thanks to the thoughtfulness of a railway official who wired ahead, I had one of the two good rooms of the house, the others being given over to rats. This was truly China, and the European railway with its Frenchified trains and stations seemed indeed an invasion, a world apart. The French officials apparently shared this feeling, and had a nice way of regarding themselves as your hosts and protectors.
All the next day we were crossing the great plateau of Yunnan, now climbing a pass in the mountain-ranges that tower above the level, now making our way up a narrow rocky valley, the gray limestone cliffs gay with bright blue flowers and pink blossoming shrubs. Just what they were I could not tell as the train rolled by. Mostly the road led through long stretches of tiny garden-like fields, broken here and there by prosperous looking villages half concealed in bamboo groves. The scenery was very fine and varied; above, the rocky hills, below, the green valleys. The mingling, too, of tropical and temperate vegetation was striking. We were in latitude 24° and 25°, about the same as Calcutta, but at an elevation of nearly seven thousand feet, and the combination seemed to work confusion among the growing things, for rice and wheat were found not far apart, and here at last Heine's palm and pine had come together.
Late on the second afternoon after leaving Lao-kai we were approaching Yunnan-fu. Seen across the plain, the capital of the province looked very imposing as it lay stretched along a low ridge running east and west. Rice-fields interspersed with ruins, sad reminders of the terrible Mohammedan rebellion of a generation ago, crowd up to the very walls on the near side of the town. Outside the South Gate is the station, and not far distant the Chinese house which an enterprising French couple had turned into a very comfortable inn, where I stayed the three days needed for arranging my caravan and seeing the sights of the place.