From the Yangtze river we headed west towards the Mekong (in China it's called the Lancang). This was our first glimpse of the Mekong since travellng through its delta in southern Vietnam, a mere 1,300 miles away. We spent most of the day travelling up the east bank of the river, it was only about 160km but it took us close to five hours. The road was spectacular! The Mekong flows through a deep v-shaped valley, surrounded on either side by towering forested mountains with occasional glimpses of the snow-capped peaks beyond. In the last year a new road has been built by cutting into the steep east bank of the river and occasionally tunnelling through the mountains. They don't seem to have factored in landslides though, or perhaps they did but just built the road anyway. It seemed like every couple of kilometres there was some sort of recent mini (or not so mini) avalanche, sometimes with huge piles of scree we had to drive round or over or just massive boulders in the road. It was a bit scary in parts, at one landslip the rock was still moving so vehicles had to go through singly with a pause of a few minutes in between to check if more rock was coming down.
Cizhong is a tiny Tibetan village on the west bank of the Mekong, we crossed a rickety old bridge to get there. It's idyllic, with little windy cobbled streets, paddy fields of young green rice and cows, chickens and pigs meandering through the streets. It's also the location of a very beautiful old French Catholic Church, all warm yellow stone and a red tiled roof, the only hint of its Tibetan heritage in the little roof with upturned eaves atop the bell tower.
French missionaries have preached in this area for over 150 years and it was with these missionaries, in the nearby settlement of Zigu (or Tsekou as George called it) that George was staying when he had his most exciting but traumatic adventure. It was summer 1905, just a year after the British had temporarily but brutally invaded Tibet and anti-foreigner feelings were running high. The catholic settlement at Zigu (where the priests had succeeded in converting a large number of local people to christianity) was targeted by some Tibetan llamas, fierce warrior monks. George had been living there for several weeks with the priests, Pere Dubernard and Pere Boutdonnee collecting seeds and specimens in the biologically rich surrounding hills and meadows. On the 19 July 1905 the village was attacked, the priests, dozens of Christian villagers and George fled, but they hadn't gotten very far when try were overtaken and ambushed by the warrior monks. George, frustrated by the slow progress of the rest, had gone on in front and climbed a hill to survey the land ahead. He saw the ambush and called out a warning to the priests, but it was too late and he could only watch in anguish while the whole village was slaughtered and his friend, Pere Dubernard brutally tortured and then murdered, the other Pere was captured and murdered the following day. For eight days and nights George was then 'hunted like a mad dog by bands of llamas and their adherents' and 'several times I was surrounded but always managed to escape'. He had no supplies and writes that, 'during that period of eight days all the food I had consisted of about 20 ears of wheat'. He was afraid to speak to anyone for fear they might turn him over to the llamas, but eventually starving and badly injured (he'd impaled his foot on a sharpened piece of bamboo) he limped into a Lisu village and begged for help. The Lisu people fed and cared for him and hid him from his enemies. He eventually made his way back to Dali, his death had already been reported in the papers and to his family. He was a changed man, stick thin and possessionless, he'd lost everything, even his clothes. A picture he sent back to his family shows him in traditional Chinese dress, the only new garments he could get at short notice in Dali. He was most devastated though about the loss of all the seeds and specimens he had collected. He mourned this bitterly in his letters home. Nevertheless, this horrific incident didn't put George off, he returned to China six more times and many times to the Lancang Valley to continue his work and adventures.
The mission at Zigu was destroyed in the 1905 attack and the old church was burnt down. Shortly afterwards the mission was compensated for the loss and suffering and this included monies to build a new church. The mission chose nearby Cizhong as the site of the new church and in 1911 the current beautiful church was built there. The resident priest, Father Yao, delightedly showed us round the church, including old photographs from the mission's archives, there was one of the old church at Zigu.
The next morning after a traditional Tibetan breakfast of Yak Butter Tea (salty and buttery but not in a good way) and steamed rice bread with chilli tofu to spread on top we set off again. George had taken photos of a sort of rope zip wire that locals used to transport goods, people and even animals across the Mekong. We'd heard that the last couple of these rope 'bridges' could be found on the next stretch of the river as we headed north to Dequin. We found one, the twisted bamboo skin ropes have been replaced with a thick steel wire and these days they have more sophisticated harnesses (in George's day a halved hollowed out branch was used as the runner), but the concept is still the same. Two ropes (or wires) are stretched across the river one going from high to low and the other from
low to high, to get across the river you go to the higher rope and slide across using the power of gravity and some kind of runner. George writes amusedly about animals going across 'they generally don't know what is going to happen until they are shoved off the landing stage backwards and they kick like blazes all the way across.' He goes on to describe using on the rope 'bridges' saying that he went across first as his companion, Litton, was nervous and that it took over two hours to get everything across. There was no one using the 'bridge' when we were there but it was obviously still in use, as the paths down were maintained. However, with development along the Lancang valley continuing apace (new bridges and roads) I'm not sure how much longer this picturesque but time consuming old way of crossing the river will survive.