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 aboriginals.
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.