The road to Likiang begins at Kunming, the busy capital of the Yunnan Province. From Kunming to Hsiakwan, a distance of some 250 miles, runs the famous Burma Road. From Hsiakwan to Likiang it is at least another 160 miles by caravan trail.

The prospect of travelling on the Burma Road used to fill me with dread. This great highway, although marvellously constructed, well kept and extremely picturesque, has been a notorious killer. It climbs several mountain ranges of about 10,000 feet by a series of hairpin bends and runs along the edge of giddy precipices. I traversed it for the first time shortly after it had been completed, and I can never forget the sight of countless heavy trucks lying at the bottom of deep ravines, smashed beyond salvage. This was during the war, when the road was the life-line for the supply of war materials and goods to China. Most of the drivers were Chinese and the majority of them from the coastal areas of China where the land is flat. The demand for drivers was urgent and insatiable. Licence or no licence, everybody was snapped up, either by the military or the commercial concerns, if he could demonstrate his ability to drive. Salaries were high and thousands of dollars could be made on the side. Unaccustomed to driving in these tremendous mountains, with their tricky weather conditions, steep gradients and breath-taking hairpin bends, hundreds of such drivers went to their death on their first attempt. Before my very eyes some of them went over the edge, a sickening crash echoing from below. Many, disregarding the warning of seasoned drivers, insisted on going on through certain dangerous defiles in heavy rain and were crushed by landslides. Almost all trucks were overloaded, many of them unchecked, with defective brakes which on steep climbs failed, letting the trucks roll backwards to their doom. Countless were the hazards that this road held for the traveller, quite apart from the ever-present menace of bandits.

I learnt the wisdom of making my round of old commercial firms in Kunming, before paying my fare, asking about the trucks to Hsiakwan with the most reliable drivers. To escape Japanese bombing raids, the start was usually made before dawn from some inconspicuous place in the countryside. On top of the merchandise, baggage was piled, and high on top of that we took our seats, usually twenty to thirty passengers — men, women and children. Whenever we came to a very steep climb and the truck could not take it, we jumped down and helped to push it up bit by bit, its radiator issuing a jet of steam like a locomotive. On the way down the hairpin bends we could only pray as the truck coasted, the driver saving petrol. This trip of 160 miles normally took from three to four days, and the nights were spent in roadside inns.

Hsiakwan was an unattractive, draughty place dominated by bare, forbidding mountains. Like Kunming, it was a beehive of activity, with the military — Chinese, American and British — dashing here and there in trucks and jeeps; merchants busily loading and unloading their cargoes from trucks and boats, and hordes of coolies, drivers and plain loafers idly sauntering about. Hsiakwan was notorious for its bedbugs — a specially hardy and big variety.

From Hsiakwan one could go to Likiang either by caravan or on foot. I have done both on several occasions, but I remember especially a return journey that I made by caravan after I had been in Likiang for some time. It was spring, the dry season, and before the excessive heat of summer.

Arriving in Hsaikwan, I had my baggage carried to a friend’s house. Caravan men were called, who counted the pieces and decided how many loads they would make. Then the haggling started and continued for about two hours; the crafty men, apparently refusing my offer, would depart only to return at regular intervals, reducing each time their charge by fifty cents or a dollar a load. Finally we settled, gave them a deposit of one dollar and relaxed. Shortly afterwards, sturdy Minkia women appeared and carried the cases and trunks to the boats. In the evening, after a good meal, we went to check the baggage which was neatly stacked in a big boat, and when the moon appeared a huge sail was hoisted. Men and women produced native mandolins and guitars, a platter of cheese and a big pot of wine. While they played and sang, we had a drink. Then the ropes were cast off and we watched the boat glide off into the silvery vastness of the beautiful Tali Lake, accompanied by other cargo boats, leaving the passengers to proceed by bus.

I got up early in the morning and breakfasted on native ham and cream cheese with baba (flat round bread enriched with butter and ham shavings), washed down with Tibetan butter tea. My Nakhi servant Hozuchi appeared, and we took our hand baggage and pukai (bedding) and boarded a creaky, overloaded bus which brought us to Tali in an hour. Although considered by some to be one of the most beautiful places in the world, I have never liked Tali. Destroyed by an earthquake, it has never recovered and there was an air of desolation and death. Quickly we entered the south gate and passed through to the north gate. An array of ‘chariots’, with one or with two horses, was waiting. We agreed on the price, piled our baggage the best we could, and squeezed in among other passengers. I call them ‘chariots’ because I doubt that such vehicles could be found elsewhere in the world. Mounted on two wheels with old rubber tyres, they were oblong wooden boxes with the front open and two rows of planks to sit on, and shaded by a kind of blue tent. They were so primitive that I always thought of them as something that Pharaoh must have sent to fetch old Jacob to Egypt. The road was not a road at all but a trail of boulders, crossed by unbridged mountain streams, and along this the conveyance, creaking and swaying violently from side to side, was pulled by two sturdy horses at full speed. I prudently sat in front. Sometimes the bumps were so hard that passengers were thrown up against the ceiling and one man had his head nearly split open. Badly shaken and bruised, we reached our destination, Tamakai, at the other end of the Tali Lake, late in the afternoon. The only pleasure I had was to watch the marvellous lake, like a great emerald set in blue mountains.

As soon as we reached Tamakai we were met by the caravan man and conducted to his house. Other passengers were already there. We were made comfortable and informed that the cargo and our baggage were due presently as the boats had already been sighted in the distance. The house was new and beautiful. Doors, posts and furniture were of wood, exquisitely carved in filigree. Soon a splendid feast was served and many pots of excellent wine were produced. Our beds were covered with gem-like Tibetan rugs on which we spread our own bedding.

We were roused at four o’clock in the morning. There was a quick breakfast, followed by much shouting and sounding of the gong. The loads, securely tied to wooden frames, were spread in the courtyard. Struggling mules and horses were presently led in with many unprintable curses. Each load was lifted by two men, speedily clamped on the wooden saddle and the horse was permitted to trot out into the street. My hand baggage was quickly tied to a similar frame, the bedding spread in the form of a cushion, and the whole contraption hoisted on to a horse. I was then lifted bodily on to the top and the animal was shooed outside, the man shouting to me to mind my head when passing through the gate. Outside, other contingents of the caravan were also pouring out of neighbouring houses. To the sounding of the gong, the leading horse, gaily bedecked in red ribbons, pompons and small mirrors on its forehead, was led out. The caravan’s leading horse moved forward and, having looked back to see that everything was ready, started walking down the road at a brisk pace. At once he was followed by the assistant leader, less gaudily decorated, but also full of authority. Immediately the whole caravan sprang after them, forming a file as they went along. The caravan men, in vivid blue jackets and broad pants, rushed after the horses. They wore picturesque broad-brimmed hats of translucent rain-proof silk with a bunch of multi-coloured ribbons.

It was a source of endless wonder to me to watch the speed with which the caravan proceeded. On the level ground or downhill it was very considerable, and the men saw to it that it was not slackened without reason. All the time the animals were exhorted onwards with the most obscene curses imaginable and encouraged by small stones and cakes of dry mud which were thrown at them. After three hours of such intensive march we came to a placid stream and a gentle meadow. The caravan was stopped, loads lifted and set in a row, great copper cauldrons were set up and the men started cooking luncheon. The animals were relieved of their saddles and given fodder and water. Neighing and screaming, they all started rolling on their backs. As the caravan fare included board and lodging, we all were given bowls and chopsticks and asked to join the men in the meal. We sat in a long row facing each other, taking food and rice out of large dishes placed between. Nobody was permitted to sit at either end of the row, for caravan men are extremely superstitious, and they say that anyone sitting at the end stops the way and a disaster may follow later.

In the late afternoon we arrived at Niukai and the caravan was split into three sections, each going into a separate caravanserai. We were lodged upstairs and a meal was served again. Afterwards we wanted to take a bath at the big hot spring for which the village was renowned, but the pool was filled with lepers. I tried to sleep, but could not. The grinding noise of feeding animals below was like the sound of a large flour mill, big rats ran over my face and the chattering of the caravan men round the fire continued unceasingly until it was time to get up.

Next day we crossed high forested mountains, the pass infested with robbers. This was the first robber ring before Likiang. In the evening we reached Tienwei and next morning we passed Chienchwang. All this land between Tali and Chienchwang was the site of ancient Minkia kingdoms, whose glory culminated in the establishment of the great Nanchiao Kingdom which was conquered and destroyed by Kublai Khan. Nobody really knows where the Minkia came from originally. The only work of note on the Minkia, Fitzgerald’s Tower of Five Glories, gives some account of their customs and beliefs but does not reveal the secret of their origin. Perhaps, as some of them claim, they are indeed the refugees from Angkor Thorn, but much research is needed to substantiate this claim.

Chienchwang was a small walled town, its streets drab and colourless. There was nothing to eat in its two restaurants except on market-day. The meanness of the Chienchwang Minkia was proverbial. Men and women dressed in black and they lacked the usual Minkia gaiety and insouciance.

The route followed the course of a river and, from one point on the road, it was already possible to see, through the gap in the mountains, the Likiang Snow Range, still fifty miles away, its peaks and glaciers glittering in the sun. The broad valley, planted with winter wheat, was narrowing. Soon we climbed a small hill, crowned with a white pagoda, and then descended to a picturesque gate. This was the frontier between the ancient Minkia kingdoms and the Nakhi Kingdom of Mu or Likiang.

Very soon we arrived at the village of Chiuho, where a market was in progress. The street was crowded with the Minkia from Chienchwang and from the Upper Valley, and with Nakhi and other tribal people. We met many friends who had come to the market, among them lamas, Nakhi students and several women from Likiang who had come to trade their wares. While lunching on fried eggs and some dried beef, washed down by Chienchwang mint wine, we saw Akounya’s father with one of his sons. He was an old friend and his family treated me almost as one of themselves. They were the first of the Minkia I had befriended after my arrival in Likiang. I had gone one day to a furniture shop to order some benches and there I met a young Minkia carpenter, named Tzekuan, and his sister Akounya, who had brought some goods to Likiang for sale. Tzekuan and Akounya began to visit my house and I used to stay with them whenever I passed that way to or from Tali. Akounya was an energetic and bossy girl and I always thought of her as the head of the house in contrast to her mild, unassuming father and her quiet, self-effacing mother.

Akounya’s father, who was awaiting our arrival, told us to go straight to his house at the top of the valley, where my horse was already waiting for me, saying that he would come back later in the evening. Again our caravan was swaying through the green fields towards the high forested mountains. The road became narrow and crowded. We were climbing imperceptibly but steadily, the air getting cooler and sweeter. The caravan leader began to beat his gong and deep sounds echoed throughout the valley.

The caravan gong was indispensable on the narrow, twisting mountain trail. It warned the approaching peasants with their heavy baskets and prevented collisions with other caravans. Because of the speed with which caravans moved it could be disastrous for two caravans to meet without warning. The crash that followed was worse than a collision between two trains. The proud and jealous leading horses, unwilling to give way an inch, would head straight for each other and try to push each other into the deep irrigation canal by the roadside or against the rocks of a defile. Nor would the rest of the caravan stop. The animals would charge each other, screaming, pushing, throwing their loads off, and spilling the passengers in the melee. By the time they were disentangled by cursing caravan men, the scene looked like a battlefield. Bales were scattered about; fragile goods, like pottery, were shattered to pieces and dazed passengers hobbled into clearmgs to examine their wounds. For ordinary travellers on foot the only salvation, when they heard the ominous gong, was to dart to safety in some clearing by the roadside lest they be violently thrown into a ditch or have their legs crushed.

At last we arrived at the head of the valley, hemmed in by precipitous mountains. Again the caravan split into several sections and went into the appointed caravanserais. We bade the leader good-bye, giving him instructions for the delivery of our baggage in Likiang. The caravan fare was never paid in advance: that would have been a great insult. Only a small deposit, a dollar or so, was given and the balance was paid the day after arrival. The goods and baggage were not delivered to any central station or depot, but were distributed to patrons’ houses or stores by the caravan men, who also guaranteed the integrity of the cargo, subject only to force majeure and the bandits’ whim. This last lap before Likiang was the most dreaded, because the wild mountains ahead concealed the most powerful of the bandit rings.

Akounya’s house was situated on the mountainside, overlooking the caravan road. She was there waiting for us, a husky girl, about twenty-two years of age, with a round face and rosy cheeks. Like all Minkia women in this part of the valley, she was dressed in a blue tunic down to her ankles, with a sash, and blue trousers. On her head she wore cunningly tied kerchiefs — blue, red and white. The ends were tied near the temples to form perfect cat’s ears. This feline appearance of Minkia girls never failed to delight me and I used to tell them that they looked like cats dressed in the Dutch national colours. Akounya disappeared into the kitchen, where her mother was already busy.

Her father and brother Ahtseng returned from the market late. The old man apologized, saying that he called on the home guard trying to arrange for an escort of ten for me on the following morning.

‘There is a large band of robbers now and only last week a caravan was plundered,’ he told me.

‘Well, if it is a large band, ten boys are useless,’ I said. ‘It would be less conspicuous, surely, if I go just with Hozuchi and, perhaps, Ahtseng, who could come too.’

We talked and talked and finally agreed on taking five home guards just for the sake of ‘face’.

Dinner was served by the light of mingtze — pine splinters — burning on special clay stands. A number of Minkia friends drifted in. A large jar of wine was produced for the crowd and a smaller one for me.

‘This is your favourite yintsieu — the honey wine,’ the father said. ‘I bought it in Likiang last week specially for you.’

Typical Minkia dishes were put on the table, all in small saucers, according to local custom. There was home-cured ham, fried chicken, fried water plant, small fish, roasted eels, fried potatoes and salted pork. There was much joking and laughter and some mandolins were produced. How I enjoyed their sweet, slightly monotonous music and plaintive singing! It was very romantic — all about love, beautiful women and brave men. Every time a new dish was placed on the table by Akounya, one of the young men blushed.

‘I think he must be Akounya’s future husband.’ I nudged Ahtseng. There was a roar of laughter, the young man turned crimson and others nodded knowingly.

The early morning was very cold and hoar frost covered the grass. We breakfasted heavily. I mounted my wild Tibetan horse; Hozuchi strapped on a basket with food and hand baggage, and we started. Almost at once we came to the sheer face of the mountain. There was a cobbled road, extremely steep, zigzagging upwards through the scrub. I dismounted and, parting from Hozuchi, I took a small path which was a short cut. It was a very long climb through rhododendrons and pines. Brightly plumed pheasants crossed the path now and then and hid in nearby bushes: distant trumpeting of deer and calls of mountain birds were the only sounds. The higher I went the colder it became and the more difficult to breathe. Whistles and catcalls came from above. Somebody was there. The view was magnificent: high mountains and dark green forests surrounded me, and on both sides of the path there were deep, rocky ravines. Far below there was an emerald lake and the yellow thread of the caravan trail to Taku. At last, panting, I reached the top of the pass where a dark, sinister gap led to the plateau beyond. Five shivering youths with old-fashioned guns were waiting for me. ‘Are you the escort?’ I inquired, and they nodded. We sat for a while waiting for the horse and Hozuchi.

Then we started to walk along a narrow trail clinging precariously to the side of a breath-taking ravine. Soon we emerged on vast highlands pitted here and there with the devil’s sinkholes. These were typical of the countryside around Likiang and were huge funnels with clusters of trees which camouflaged bottomless holes into the bowels of the earth. There was not a soul to be seen, nothing but a sea of pine forests and mountains around us. It was agreed that the escort would return home when we had passed the notorious ‘Robbers’ Temple’, where the trail begins to slope gently towards Likiang. It marked the highest point on this plateau of 11,000 feet. Plodding hour after hour in the oppressive silence and utter loneliness, we stopped talking.

At last we came to a turn, after which the dreaded temple should have been visible. A band of ten men, poorly clad but each carrying an old gun, appeared as if from nowhere. We did not stop and they fell in with us. At last one of them spoke.

Zeh gkv bbeu? (Where are you going?)’ he asked me in Nakhi.

Ggubbv bleu (Going to Likiang),’ I answered brightly. He pondered.

Nakhi kou chi kv (You understand Nakhi),’ he smiled.

A flood of conversation followed with my boy, the guards keeping discreetly silent. Hozuchi explained who I was, where I lived and where we were travelling from. I guessed at once who the strangers were, but kept my own counsel. I was not afraid of being killed, but I hated the idea of appearing in Likiang in only my underwear. We came to a pretty little clearing among the pines, where I dismounted and asked everybody to sit down. From Hozuchi’s basket I extracted a jar and a bowl, filled it to the brim and said, ‘Zhi teh (Drink wine).’ Round and round went the bowl and everyone became warm and mellow. The interest in my baggage and inquiries of how much money I had with me gradually abated. I prudently slipped in a word that I had no money with me at all as my funds had gone ahead with the caravan.

‘We are poor people,’ said one of the strangers, ‘and have to live by our wits.’ He took another draught of wine. ‘However, you are a good man. We know much about your work. I have not met you before. But once you saved my life and that of my friend. Do you remember an old woman who came to you last year to ask for medicine for the men who had been burned by gunpowder explosion?” Saying this, he let his trousers fall down, exposing his scarred legs and abdomen. I remembered at once.

‘So that was you!’ I cried.

‘Yes,’ he said, slowly tying up his trousers.

The whole picture came back to me clearly. Once I came home late in the evening and found an old woman from a mountain village in my courtyard, crying bitterly. Between sobs she explained that her son and two friends had been making gunpowder, for hunting purposes, in a large cauldron that very afternoon. A man, absent-mindedly, had thrown a lighted cigarette into the cauldron….

They are still breathing,’ she informed me, ‘but all the skin on the thighs and abdomen is burnt off.’

As Likiang had no hospital, she could only think of me and walked forty li (thirteen miles) to get medicine. This was an extremely grave case, I thought, and the men must surely die with so much skin destroyed. What could I do? If I gave them medicine and the men died, I would be considered a murderer and my life would not be worth a penny at the hands of an enraged family and clansmen. Such was the custom here. And yet, I must do my best. I made the old woman swear, before my servants and neighbours, that the family should not hold me responsible for the death of these men and, I told her frankly, die they must if the injuries were so great. She understood and swore by the great god Saddok of the Snow Mountain, all other gods, and the spirits of the mighty Nagarajas dwell in the mountains, lakes and trees. I gave her a generous supply of powdered sulphanilamide and cottonwool, and told her to powder the men gently every day.

‘But’, I insisted, ‘you must see that they drink water by the bucket all the time.’

She grabbed the drug and left. A week afterwards she appeared with a few eggs.

‘They are still breathing and drinking the water,’ she said.

I marvelled. Another week passed and she came again with a few eggs.

‘Now they can eat a little,’ she informed me.

A fortnight later she brought a small pot of honey and more eggs —

‘Now they can walk a little. Thank you! Oh, thank you!’ Weeks later she came yet once more, carrying a chicken. She beamed.

‘Now they can sleep with their wives,’ she said exultantly.

So these were the men. They helped me gently to mount, wished us all a pleasant journey, and disappeared among the pines.

At the Robbers’ Temple near by — a small half-burned shrine — we said good-bye to our escort, thanked them and gave them a small tip as is the custom. Meaning glances were exchanged, but nobody spoke about the encounter.

Again we travelled in utter solitude through a rolling country with nothing but forests and great mountains in the distance. Soon, however, the majestic Mount Satseto moved into view, with its glittering glaciers reflected in the beautiful blue lake of Lashiba. The village of Lashiba with its white, orange and red houses could be seen in the distance. When we reached it we stopped for a quick meal, and then followed up the shallow valley that holds the lake hemmed in by green mountains. Slowly we climbed up to the gap that led to Likiang.

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