by Jim Goodman
By the late 1880s Great Britain had
already taken over northern Burma and France had seized northern Vietnam and
Laos. That put both countries’
possessions on the border of Yunnan, at a time when Chinese central authority
was in the throes of collapse. Both
wanted to open Yunnan up to trade, so information on the province was at a
premium. The only serious Western
attempt so far to explore Yunnan was the French Mekong Expedition in 1868.
A generation later, at the beginning of
1895, another French expedition set out to explore Yunnan, planning to enter
from Vietnam, head west for the Mekong River (called Lancangjiang in China) and
follow it north to Tibet. The organizer
of this journey was Prince Henri d’Orléans, a veteran traveler already familiar
with Madagascar, parts of western China and Cambodia. He originally intended to explore Vietnam’s
Central Highlands, but discovered others already had. He preferred somewhere that was as yet unknown. In Yunnan he would deliberately take a
different route than his countrymen followed in 1868.
From Mengzi they returned to the Red
River, marched as far as Honghe and then turned south into the hills. A landscape they had never seen before
awaited them, of irrigated rice terraces up and down the slopes of the
hills. As this was late winter, the
terraces were at their most picturesque, filled with water that reflected the
sky. The inhabitants were Hani, an
ethnic group unfamiliar to the party, who believed them to be the area’s
The Prince specialized in natural
studies and so recorded all the species of birds, insects, mammals and flowers
he discovered on the way. Linguistics
was another major interest and he collected rudimentary vocabulary lists for
over thirty languages and dialects. Long
before Joseph Rock, he discovered the Naxi dongba pictograph books and
collected several of them, along with samples of the Yi language script.
Actually, they rarely marched alongside
the river and mostly kept a little to the west of it. The group stopped for a break in Lincang, a
small town of 5000 inhabitants, half the size of Simao, then continued to
Yunxian and Fengqing. Just past this
town they crossed the Lancangjiang again and struck for Dali.
The explorers didn’t believe any of
that. Throughout the journey people had
frequently told them to beware of the next destination, which always turned how
to be a great exaggeration. The crossing
wasn’t easy and they had to spend a night in the forest, but descending to
Liuku they did find the weather sultry and hotter, though they did not suffer
any new health problems. They turned
north up the Nu River halfway to Chenggan, then crossed over the mountains to
return to the valley of the Lancangjiang at Biaocun. From here they could hike right along the
river all the way to Deqing.
Sheer riverside cliffs popped up all along the trail, necessitating another rope-bridge crossing or a march up and over the blocking mountain. Often these mountain paths were quite narrow and slippery and once two of the mules tumbled down the slope. They recovered them fortunately. Local inhabitants were mainly Lisu, a branch without the querulous reputation of Nujiang’s Lisu and were more than hospitable. They assumed the explorers were government agents and unloaded their complaints to them. They also wined and dined their guests, introduced them to the ‘one-heart drink,’ with a man and woman quaffing the rice-beer together sharing a single large bamboo cup, and treated them to dance shows. While the route got more rugged the scenery grew ever more impressive, with views of distant, snow-capped mountains in view. They stopped briefly at the French Lazarist mission in Xiaoweixi, again meeting old priests who hadn’t had a chance to speak French for ages. They continued to the Naxi settlement of Yezhi and then on to the Tibetan lamasery at Kanpu. By chance, they arrived in time for Huobajie, the summer Fire Festival celebrated by most ethnic minorities in the northwest.
The expedition marched up to Yanjing and
then crossed the Biluo Mountains to their west, reaching the Nu River via
Dimaluo, crossing by dugout canoes at a rare calm stretch of the river and
stopping for a few days at Gongshan for rest and resupply. At this stop they sent their mules back to
Cikou with a few of the crew, for animals were becoming an impediment to
progress the rougher the trail became.
They hired 24 Tibetans as porters, as well as a Dulong guide who also
spoke the Nu and Lisu languages.
More discoveries ensued when they
climbed over the Gaoligongshan range and descended to the Dulong River
Valley. Many of the plant and tree
species were different from those in Nujiang.
The river was blue-green and cold.
They learned that it began at the north end of Dulongjiang district, so
was not a tributary of the Nu, but could be one of the sources of the Ayeyarwady. By following it through northern Burma they
would find out.
Several Dulong men joined the
expedition, replacing Tibetan porters who did not want to travel to Burma. Some were familiar with part of what lay
ahead and either knew which routes were the less strenuous or how to quickly
clear a new trail to replace one washed out by a flood or blocked by a
landslide or construct a new bamboo bridge.
When food supplies ran perilously low a few Dulong took their crossbows
to the jungle and returned with a few big birds.
They left Putao for India, but Roux
suddenly got very sick and had to stay in a village while the Prince continued
to India and arranged relief. Roux
recovered and the group carried on to Assam, India, reached Sadiya and from
there could go by boat all the way to Calcutta.
Back in France, the Prince d’Orléans and Roux both wrote up their
adventures and became academic celebrities for having proven that Yunnan’s
Dulong River was indeed a major source of the Ayeyarwadi River.