Easy in theory, but when I’m back down there paddling China Travel Story it I forget the order of what I’d planned to do, and there’s so little time China Travel Story to think. I made one portage around a rapid which would have been a suicide-run, carrying the canoe under one arm and my baggage under the other. Where the current swung beside a cliff-edged bend the canoe was suddenly swept into the cliffs. The nose hit first and I backpaddled for all I was worth, but was pushed sideways into an ugly maelstrom of currents. For an instant I remembered how this same thing had happened on the Wahgi expedition. We’d gone up against a wall and flipped upside down, which had given me my first swim through rapids. I was determined that the same wouldn’t happen this time, and it lent strength to my efforts. Spray engulfed me as waves broke around rocks, and deep troughs yawned to both sides, but emerging from it we floated out on to calm water. Perhaps I’d been lucky this time and I wondered if the river spirits were looking kindly on me. The small airleaks that my canoe had developed were not actually pinpricks, they were leaky valves, my fault because the valves had got sand stuck in them.
So I accepted it as normal that one stops fairly often to pump up the canoe, as well as to scout rapids. That night I camped, feeling too tired to care about making myself very comfortable, and falling asleep long before the sky was dark. In the night I awoke and wondered where on earth I was, until, on remembering, my sleepy senses relayed an abstract feeling which at first I couldn’t identify, then I recognised it, it was happiness, the purely spontaneous joy of merely being part of the night. The following morning began misty and I progressed downriver munching some breakfast. As the canoe rounded a bend I caught sight of the confluence of my river with another even larger river. A short time later we were projected out into the confluence which looked more like a sea, with water stretching in several directions to distant mist-blurred banks. I pondered which way led downstream; I couldn’t remember and it was impossible to tell from the circling currents. The canoe was swept right out into the middle and we were caught in such a current that I had no control, but didn’t know where I wanted to go anyway. The thunder of the water around was overpowered by the much greater thunder of water slightly distant. On the far horizon I noticed a long road bridge, but it came no closer, my canoe was going in a parallel direction; I wished we were nearer to the shore. I began paddling forward hurriedly, since going back was clearly impossible and I felt anxious to be out of the middle. But for an agonising amount of time the far bank stayed barely visible through the mist, while the thunder of falling water grew louder beyond the road bridge. Slowly I realised that a large river bay had been created by the convergence of the two rivers, and that my canoe was being swept into it. After a hasty look at my map I knew that we had now joined the Upper Yangtse. My canoe went with the eddying flow into the vast bay, and when we reached the back of it I pulled in to the shore and prepared to take a look downriver on foot. From the basin the river plunges into a narrowing gorge where the water is stupefying in its power. It gave me the horrors so I packed up the canoe – only roughly since I hoped to use it again a few miles downriver -and I waited by the roadbridge for a truck or bus to come along.
A truck came and gave me a lift along the road towards Lijiang, which has a reputation of being a fascinating place, though no one that I met had managed to get there. From the front seat of the truck I had a good view as the road snaked up into a mountain range, and down again to the next massive bend in the river. The truck-driver wasn’t talkative, the road demanded all his attention as it twisted and turned above cliff-hanging heights. Where the road came back near the river it was a less turbulent stretch and I decided to try canoeing again. The truck-driver couldn’t understand why I wanted to get out in the middle of nowhere, so I explained that I was a botanist making a study of local plants. Back on the river my canoe bounced around like a cork. I paddled close to the shore, for although there are more rocks there, the current is fractionally slower and I wanted the reassurance of land nearby. It was encouraging to see from the seasonal watermarks high up the banks that the river was not yet in its most violent season. The first major rapid had a complex layout of rocks; I had to paddle hard left to get through a smooth chute then quickly right to avoid a nasty-looking stopper hole that seemed to cover half the river. Beyond it were various groups of rocks. I scouted it on foot before attempting it by canoe. The mist had not cleared and was developing into fairly thick fog. The canoe made it through the first part and around the hole; I was paddling hard and stayed well in control. But one of the blades on my paddle came loose (maybe its connector was still greasy with yak-butter, or perhaps I’d been cautious about making it too tight). The blade slid helplessly in the current and I was afraid it would be tom off the handle. Rocks passed on both sides with others up ahead. I paddled one-sided, trying to grab at the loose blade in each open stretch, and when the canoe hit a rock I thought we were done for. The rebound sent us into a small stopper wave but the next instant I was on top of the wave, riding it, and paddling like a one-armed windmill at full speed until the canoe slid forward off the wave and I managed to pull in to the shore and re-tighten the blade. * *- The fog had thickened patchily. We passed under a footbridge and made several portages around impassable rapids. On one occasion I tried lining the canoe through, which means tying nylon ropes to it and letting the current carry it through as you walk along the bank. The problem of the rope trick was that as the current took the canoe downriver I couldn’t hold on to it. The nylon rope started to bum through my fingers. I yelled, Stop, stop, ‘ but couldn’t stop.
My hands felt burned raw. In a last-ditch effort to avert disaster I pulled the rope around a rock and wrapped it round again to take the strain. The current fought the canoe, and I stood helplessly for a moment watching as it flipped over upsidedown. Leaping down on to a rock, I hauled the canoe sideways toward the bank before the rope could break. To my immense relief it came out of the current and drifted to shore downstream of the rock. Everything seemed still in place but my camping gear was soaked. Without sunshine it wasn’t worth stopping to dry out my things, and since the river had become steadier, I continued paddling downstream. Thinking about all the accidents I’d had over these past three days made me wonder if I was being accident-prone. But I told myself stoutly this was the Yangtse and it was no baby. Shortly afterwards, while surveying a rapid far larger than the one I’d just avoided, I decided to try paddling it. The size and power of its numerous chutes was slightly terrifying but the layout wasn’t difficult. An exciting run, at the first ledge the river dropped me into a mill-race of currents, then through a neck and into the mainstream. Going at speed, I steered the canoe into the next chute, dead centre, and went into the V-waves that followed it. Five sets of V-waves towered above me. The canoe rode them almost sideways and my paddle was stroking air not water. The largest chute was still ahead, far larger than anything this canoe had tried before. Too late to back out, I stopped paddling and clung on to the canoe. It raced down the chute and plunged into the chaos below. Water came pouring in from both sides, but I told myself that inflatable boats cannot sink. More water poured in as we shot the last part of the rapid. The canoe was virtually under the surface. But I was still sitting there, thrilled to have made it through in one piece, though wishing that I’d brought a bailing can. Paddling a waterlogged canoe is heavy work and I aimed for the nearest shore. In the shallows I slid out of the canoe and upturned it to drain out the water; much easier than bailing cans. Occasionally as I continued downriver I noticed a bus or truck crawling along the mountain road. They were going to Lijiang; the road would soon veer away to the west. If I wanted to visit Lijiang it was almost time to make the decision. Ahead the river grew yet steeper, but I didn’t want to stop. Common sense tried to assert itself. And I reminded myself that I wasn’t trying to prove or achieve anything. The afternoon sky had turned stormy, my sleeping gear was already soaked, and my head ached every time I moved it too quickly. And perhaps I was frightened of what lay ahead. So I packed up and walked out quickly before I could change my mind. It took me two very exhausting hours to walk up the side of the gorge, but soon after reaching the road I got a lift to Yongshan which is on the way to Lijiang. The driver wore a fur hat with earflaps and the other passengers were country girls with baskets full of freshly-picked fungi. Yongshan is in the borderland between the Bai and the Norsu people, who used to have a bad reputation for their ferocity and wild ways. They were a pocket of the past, isolated by a loop in the Upper Yangtse, high on the edge of the world’s roof. The only contact they had with the outside, until they were communised, waswhen they swooped down to the plains and attacked villages for loot and slaves. The slave raids went on into the 1940s. You can tell some of the former landowners from the ex-slaves by their black turbans -slaves wore white ones.
At the evening market in the village square there was a motley mixture of peoples including some women in very distinctive black headdresses: starched cloth squares stuck out like mortarboards with the front either jutting straight out or, for younger women, it was bent down over their forehead. On the way back to the inn where I was staying I met a woman who wanted to show me something. She pulled me by the hand to her house and called a girl to come out. The girl had hair as blonde as mine. She was only eight years old, and she looked at me with the kind of amazement that the ugly duckling must have shown on its first encounter with swans like itself. Supper was good. I shared a table with three men, two Bai and a Naxi, and after eating, they accompanied me to the candlelit night market. That night as I retired to bed there was a knock on the door, my new friends had arrived with a party of their friends. Men, women and children, more kept arriving and although I shut the door a few times, people continued to come in until the room was packed. Some late arrivals were old women who said they hadn’t had the chance to look at me earlier and that they hoped I wouldn’t be upset by their curiosity. We communicated in a melange of Bai, Han, English and sign language; my photographs were shown around the room and a good time was had by all. When I finally settled down to sleep I gave thanks for not being in a wet sleeping bag; the bed’s mattress was hard but dry, and the bedbugs were not as bad as they’d been in other places. Next morning I caught the 7 a.m. bus to Lijiang. It was a three-hour ride up over a series of ridges, empty and magnificent; the only signs of humans were the paths on mountainsides, red lines across green grassiness. A chain of lakes edged by weeping willow trees stretched up through the valleys. We emerged on to a plateau then continued rising. Finally the road began to descend and the bus coasted at great speed down to Lijiang, situated on a plain at the foot of Yunnan’s biggest mountain, Mount Yulung, 18,000 feet. The tpwn itself was not the quaint place I had imagined. It was a mass of ugly modem concrete buildings, and busy with more construction works in progress. So I hitch-hiked out of town, heading north on a dirt road. I wasn’t planning to go far, just to visit some Naxi villages and a wall of ancient paintings that I’d seen marked on an old map. Honeysuckle climbed in the hedgerows, and in the villages there were sunflowers and Michaelmas daisies. The day was warm and summery and, apart from having leaden legs, I felt light-hearted. The people I met were friendly but no one had heard of the wall paintings. Unfortunately my knowledge of Naxi language is limited to hello (n-ergo-le), drink (ter-chua) and thank you (yerbe), which I’d learned on the bus. But I happened to be carrying a small paintbrush in my handbag.
At first my mime was greeted with puzzled expressions, then an elderly man guessed what it was about, and he instructed some boys to take me to a temple. But it was locked. The search for its key took me to the house of a barefoot doctor’ who told me that the temple’s guardian had gone to Lijiang for the afternoon. He invited me to stop and drink tea, and as my original purpose seemed thwarted, I relaxed and made friends with him. The term barefoot doctor’ does not refer to his feet, it means rather that he is barely qualified as a doctor. His training of three to six months qualifies him to deal with the basic essentials; first aid, minor ailments, hygiene and health care. He also knows a little about acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine. The barefoot doctor’ system is excellent in a land where doctors are in short supply. The instruments I could see on this doctor’s shelves included a large old-fashioned syringe, many pill bottles, some forceps, and various bits of plastic tubing. While we sat chatting and drinking tea in the courtyard, a sick man lying in a handcart was wheeled into the yard. The doctor examined him, wrote a prescription and gave him an injection, using the half-pint syringe. I turned away because I can’t bear to watch injections, and rested my eyes on some flowering hollyhocks and chrysanthemums beside the whitewashed yard walls. Bees hummed, it was a moment of suspended time. The local medicine here in the pre-communist era had been based more on magic than science. Healing the sick often involved animal sacrifices, invocation of spirits, and divination using chicken bones. Shamans could be male or female. Their work was to drive out the demons that caused diseases and bad luck, yet prevent man’s soul from leaving his body prematurely. In this region, dead people were represented by ancestor baskets that contained a small bamboo tube, in which the dead man’s soul was believed to dwell. Of Marco Polo’s legendary elixir of life, for immortality or longevity, I could find no trace. A pleasant young man helped me find a hotel not too far from the bus station, as I intended to be off to Dali first thing in the morning to collect the rest of my luggage.
As I was getting ready for bed there was an insistent knocking on my door. It was the pleasant young man and a young woman who said they were both from the police. She could speak some English, but apologised for her inadequate command of it. So I congratulated her good accent and launched into small talk. Like the man, the woman also had a lovely face and charming manners. We talked idly for ten minutes before she managed to ask where I’d come from. In reply, I gave her the bus ticket showing that I would be leaving Lijiang at 7 a.m. She told me that Lijiang is closed. Closed,’ I repeated the word several times to make sure we were talking about the same thing. You mean it’s not open?’ When she assured me that this was so, I apologised profusely for having made such a mistake. Also I said that Lijiang is beautiful and the people so good, and asked when it was likely to open to foreigners. Our conversation didn’t go along the lines she’d planned. It was frustrating for the policewoman when she couldn’t make me understand her questions, and it meant that she was losing face. Over the next hour she continued to lose face though I kept congratulating her on her accent and the meeting stayed sincerely amicable. I had confessed to my mistake, but the two police couldn’t decide what punishment to levy. They conferred quickly in Chinese. I suggested that my penalty should be to leave and not return until the year the town becomes open, leaving by the 7 a.m. bus. The policewoman was only too-glad to finish our meeting and escape further loss of face. On their way out they arranged for the hotel receptionist to give me a wake-up call at 6 a.m. My pillow was stuffed with grain, all the pillows were, but it wasn’t uncomfortable and I slept well. When I arrived at the bus station I’d just got time to buy some steamed buns before boarding the bus. It would be a six-hour journey, though luckily I had a window seat. We had now left the Naxi region and were back among the Bai who have lived in this area for over 3,000 years. The villagers were harvesting wheat, and had an ingenious method of threshing it. They spread the wheatsheaves thickly across the tarmac road so the traffic had to run over them.
At first I didn’t understand what was happening and why people kept dashing into the road to rake their wheat into our path. Then I saw others gathering up the crushed straw and collecting the ears of wheat into drying trays. The traffic was being used as a thresher. After five hours I noticed clouds of smoke coming from a hill, and some groups of women carrying gongs, drums and offerings. Stop, stop, I want to get out,’ I told the bus-driver, and he obligingly stopped, though he warned me that I might not find another bus to Dali that day. Making my way to the headland I found crowds of Bai people, many of them kneeling in semicircular groups. They were making a clackety rhythm with Bai-type percussion instruments and a woman in the centre of each group beat cymbals or big drums. More people were joining the groups and they began to form a procession, heading for the top of the hill. Their welcoming smiles encouraged me to join them. The path was stony and steep. I walked up beside an old lady and helped by carrying her tray of offerings. On it were balanced some tiny teacups of rice, cooking oil, tobacco and a colourless drink. The path zigzagged steeply and as the women climbed they sang and made music. Their shoes were embroidered slippers with upturned toes. Almost everyone wore their traditional blue costume and bonnet, with jewellery ofjade bracelets, earrings, and clusters of silver ornaments and lucky charms hanging down their backs. On reaching the crest we found dozens of small, improvised shrines surrounded by trays of offerings: pork, plums, apples, potatoes, and crunchy bread-puffs coloured bright red, green and yellow. Joss sticks and large coils of incense smouldered all over the ground, and decorated shapes of paper were continuously being added to fires to keep them alight. I watched a woman offering a chicken, lifting it up high over the shrine, facing outwards over the open green valley and the rushing river.
She offered the bird upward six times then took it away to prepare it for the cookpot. After finding some women who could speak Chinese I learned that the ceremony was to commemorate the death of an important man in their society. All the women relations of his extended family and his village had brought offerings. Many people invited me to sit and rest with their groups and among them I met an old lady who knew a smattering of English, and also knew how to waltz. Her English and my Chinese weren’t enough to discover where she’d learned to dance, but she showed me her steps, then clasping me around the waist with one arm and pushing my arm out ahead of us tango-style, she began to sing a rousing tra-la-la tune. She insisted we dance, to let the Bai people see a waltz. So we waltzed.