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1895: Through Yunnan to India – finding the source of the Irrawaddy River

By in Travel on

One of the consequences of the European conquest of most of southern Asia was an insatiable interest in the region's geography. European-made maps at the time were full of blank spots or, at best, rough guesses of the exact location and height of certain mountains and the sources and accurate courses of major rivers. Ambitious individuals in the academic world sought to make their reputations by answering important geographical questions.

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.

The Red River
The Red River

Looking for a river route to China, the expedition found that way blocked by the impassable Mekong Falls in southern Laos. The group continued anyway on foot and eventually entered Yunnan through Xishuangbanna. From Jinghong they carried on to Kunming and wanted to turn towards Dali and reach the Mekong River again west of Dali. But Yunnan was engulfed by a brutal civil war and the explorers could not get permission to go west, which terminated their tour of the province.

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 Lancang River 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.

Dayangjie rice terraces
Dayangjie rice terraces

Joining the Prince were Émile Roux, a navy acquaintance, and Pierre Briffaut, a French colonist from Hanoi. The trio and their entourage sailed up the Red River from Hanoi to Lào Cai, crossed Yunnan in early February and sailed for three days to Manhao, which was as far as boats could go. They then headed for Mengzi, site of a French Consulate, where they organized their supplies and needs for the next part of the journey.

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.

Dima Hani women
Dima Hani women

Both the Prince and Roux took copious notes everywhere. Briffaud did not. He was basically along for the adventure. But he was assuredly a welcome companion around the campfires, especially when the going got rougher later on. A devoted geographical statistician, Roux took down all the numbers for the latitudes, longitudes and altitudes, made short descriptions in a journal and later wrote up a fuller account in France. This included other observations, like his description of how the Hani bowed deeply to them when encountered on the trail and carried on their backs loaded baskets using head-straps. He described the entry gate to a Hani village, with its carved figures designed to keep out evil spirits, a custom still in practice in many Hani villages.

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.

From the southwest corner of Honghe County the expedition turned west for Simao (now called Pu'er), the first town of any size since Mengzi, for a brief rest, more supplies and more information on what lay ahead. Heading west towards the Lancang River, they enjoyed the scenery, especially when passing the white boulders jutting out of land and water at Cuiyun. When they reached the river they turned north to follow its course however far they could.

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 Lancang River again and struck for Dali.

Dali
Dali

In Dali they stayed with a French mission, where the explorers could speak French again for the first time since Mengzi. They arrived the last week of May and made this a major stopover, staying over two weeks, especially enjoying the scenery of the lake, eating beef for the first time in many weeks, sampling the Lijiang wine known as yinjiu, and organizing the next phase of the trip. Dali was still affected by the Muslim Revolt and supplies, including thirty mules, had to be procured in Xiaguan. They also recruited nine Chinese, including one called Joseph, a Christian who had learned Latin. The Prince had also studied Latin as a schoolboy and could remember enough to converse, more with use, and so Joseph wound up becoming their interpreter, remaining with the explorers the entire journey.

Finally on the move again, the group trekked past Erhai Lake to Dengchuan and then turned west towards the Lancang River, via Yunlong. When they reached the river they only followed it north a short distance before being seized with a new goal—to cross the Biluo Mountains to Liuku for a look at the Nu River. This was the name of the Salween River in China and virtually nothing was known about it. Local people advised against it claiming the valley was full of dangerous vapors and the mountains inhabited by warlike Lisu.

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 Lancang River at Biaocun. From here they could hike right along the river all the way to Deqin.

traditional zipline (rope bridge) in Nujiang
traditional zipline (rope bridge) in Nujiang

Heading north again, they soon came to their first rope-bridge. They'd never seen this unique way to cross the river, but the guides instructed them how to use it. Not only the travelers, the mules and all the baggage had to be moved to the other side the same way, which took the entire day. They would use more of these in months to come and the only mishap occurred below Deqin, when Roux' pet dog, seeing its master swinging over the river, tried to follow him by swimming across, but the rapids swept it away.

Falling mules
Falling mules

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.

Three days later they reached Cikou, also a Lazarist mission with two old very welcoming priests. Less harassed by Chinese officials, this was a more successful mission than Xiaoweixi, with a large number of Tibetan converts. Upon arrival, though, the Prince fell ill with bronchitis and fever, requiring rest and medication for a few days. Roux took the opportunity to satisfy his geographical curiosity with a trip to Deqin, taking along Joseph and one other. He became familiar with Tibetan chortens made of slabs of rocks inscribed with prayer, barley flour (tsampa), bettered tea and the highest mountains in the province, but found the town itself unfriendly and without interest.

Meili Snow Mountain in Diqing Prefecture
Meili Snow Mountain in Diqing Prefecture

The Prince had recuperated upon Roux' return and by now, with the Tibetans having made it clear the group could not enter Tibet, the explorers conceived an alternate ambition. They would try to locate the sources of the Irrawaddy River (officially Ayeyarwady River), which would be a new contribution to geographical knowledge of Southeast Asia. Britain had seized northern Burma a decade earlier, but their maps had designated most of the extreme north as 'unexplored territory'.

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.

Pula River
Pula River

To get to the 'unexplored territory' they had to go west from Gongshan over what decades later became the caravan route to the Dulong Valley. It was not much used back then and sometimes they had to reconstruct part of the trail or make dangerous detours along very narrow mountain paths, propped up by logs and boulders along steep cliffs. For the first part of the journey they stayed in Nu villages, finding the people very polite, almost subservient in their desire to please, very poor materially, but healthy and strong, with several octogenarians each village, something rarely found elsewhere back then.

More discoveries ensued when they climbed over the Gaoligong Mountains 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 the Dulong Valley, so was not a tributary of the Nu, but could be one of the sources of the Irrawaddy. By following it through northern Burma they would find out.

A village in the Dulong valley, northwest of Nujiang
A village in the Dulong valley, northwest of Nujiang

The Dulong people were even poorer than the Nu, but also very hardy and strong. They were shorter than Nu or Lisu and were apparently related to the Nu, for their language was similar and unlike Lisu. Many, though not all, of the women had tattooed faces, a custom allegedly adopted to discourage marauding outsiders from kidnapping their women. They lived in hamlets of less than ten thatched roof houses.

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.

A Dulong woman with face tattoo
A Dulong woman with face tattoo

The trail was the worst yet taken, full of various obstacles, with signs of human habitation rare. After crossing the Telo River, a major tributary of the Dulong River, they marched six days without meeting anyone. Finally they arrived at Putao, run by a Khamti chieftain, whom they had to persuade/bribe that they were not British spies. At least they could eat decent meals again but had to surrender almost all personal belongings, except their boots and rifles, to pay for supplies.

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 Irrawaddy River.

The Dulong River
The Dulong River

Editor's note: This article by author Jim Goodman was originally published on his website Black Eagle Flights. There you can find accounts and photos of Goodman's 40 years in China and Southeast Asia. Collections of his works — many of them about Yunnan — can be purchased on Amazon and Lulu. Goodman has also founded Delta Tours, where he guides cultural and historical journeys through Vietnam and western Yunnan. Recently Goodman has also started a Facebook group called Yunnan Discovery where he frequently posts pictures of Yunnan.

Images: Jim Goodman

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Great read, super interesting! Thanks to Jim for sharing his writing with GoKunming!

An amazing story.

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