Six months or so through the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Burma & China
George Forrest first arrived in Tengchong in August 1904 after a gruelling 23-day journey from Bhamo in Burma, just 150 miles away (you may remember he had got a steamboat up the Irrawady river from Mandalay to Bhamo when we last mentioned him). Despite being advised to wait the rainy season out in Burma, he pressed on and a journey that should have taken just nine days lasted twice that and more. In his diary of the journey he describes fording rivers, detouring around landslides and on one occasion being delayed for four days while locals built a new bridge of bamboo, the old one had been completely swept away. Eventually, travel stained and weary, he arrived in the relative civilisation of Teng Yueh (Tengchong). He described the town as 'fairly large with a population of 13,000, and much cleaner than any of the other places we have passed through, that is, only comparatively of course'. A British consulate had been established in Teng Yueh in 1899 (it was an important town on the trade route between China and British Burma and India) and as a result there were four other Europeans in town. This included the Consul, Mr Litton; George and Litton were to become fast friends.
We arrived in Tengchong in considerably more comfort, a six and a half hour bus journey from Dali. We'd broken the journey at Dali, having taken a seven hour bus from Kunming the previous day. We are now in the far West of the Yunnan province, very close to the border with Myanmar. The Tengchong we experienced is very different from what George would have seen. Firstly the population of the town has swelled to over 600,000 and due to heavy bombing by the Japanese during World War II, the old town was pretty much completely destroyed. The only similarity was the number of Europeans in town; we saw a couple of westerners in our hostel on the first day, but after that no one. We seemed to be the only foreigners in town! Nevertheless, we were eager to find any links to George.
First of all we set out to find the British Consulate, this was built between 1921-31, so would not have been he building that George stayed in when he first arrived in 1904, but it would have been the building he visited, or even stayed in on his last trip to the Yunnan in 1932. Unfortunately, we couldn't find any mention of the location of the earlier Consulate. Our Rough Guide confidently proclaimed the location on the town map, easy peasey we thought, and headed to the location marked. The building was a library now but we were unconvinced by the architecture, it looked like it was built in the 1960s at the earliest, we still snapped a few photos. Back at the hostel, through the power of Google, we managed to find out that the Library was not the old British Consulate, in fact it was located in the middle of the town's modern grain market and was currently being renovated. We walked up through a bustling food market and into the commercial grain market, much to the interest and speculation of the locals. And there it was, a very British building of grey volcanic stone with western-style chimneys plonked incongruously in the middle of tractors and trucks and piles of rubbish. It looked as though any renovation work had ground to a halt. Some of the reports we read online reported that it was to be reopened as a cultural centre for the town, but it seemed unlikely, the site was deserted and it is a very strange location for a cultural centre. However, it was great to know that George had been here and now we were there too!
George could never have known when he arrived in Teng Yueh in 1904, that it would also be his final resting place almost 30 years later in 1932. Between 1904 and 1932 George made seven separate trips to the Yunnan and the surrounding areas to collect seeds and specimens. He collected on behalf of businesses, individuals and organisations such at the Kew Gardens and the Edinburgh Royal Botanic Gardens. Usually a syndicate was formed and each individual or organisation financed a share in the expedition and received the equivalent percentage share in the seeds collected. On each trip George would be in China for at least two years, he left behind his fiancée Clementina Traill, later wife, and a young family. By the seventh trip George was in his late fifties, it was to be the last. Tragically, he was never to enjoy his retirement back in Scotland, while out hunting near Teng Yueh in January 1932 he suffered a heart attack and died.
George was buried in Teng Yueh, as seemed to be the custom at the time, I guess it would have been almost impossible to transport a body back to Scotland. It must have been devastating for his wife and children though, unable to properly say goodbye. The location of George's grave has since been lost, in a photo sent back to the family is shows the grave marked with a simple wooden cross that would not have withstood the ravages of time. However, the graveyard where he was buried is known and stands on a hill behind the town. It is Chinese custom for burial sites to be on high ground. We romantically thought we'd be able to go to the graveyard and maybe identify George's final resting place from the shape of the grave behind George's in the photo.
We trudged uphill to the site of the cemetery, but we weren't prepared for the vastness and the unforgiving terrain. The cemetery stretches for (literally) miles across the hillside, the graves interspersed among thick woodland. We tramped about looking for any sign of a European grave, we'd heard that George was buried near his good friend Mr Litton. All we saw were endless Chinese graves, until we saw a snake, and then we decided it might be best if we stayed on the path! We didn't find the grave, but it was still incredible to have visited the graveyard. It was very different to what we had imagined, we'd imagined something very foreign and oriental, but actually in the cool dampness of the late spring day with the fat rain drops splishing through the leaves, the thick green moss blanketing the grey stone of the graves and the squishy layer of leaves and pine needles underfoot, Scotland didn't seem so far away.
Tengchong has been an incredibly satisfying part of our trip. When we first arrived we were both a bit freaked out about the lack of English speakers and foreigner-friendly bars and restaurants (Jo especially!), we even joked (only half jokingly) about ending up in the local KFC-style fried chicken shop for dinner each night. It had fast food-style pictures on the wall that we thought we could point at. George was similarily overwhelmed in Teng Yueh, especially on market day when the crowds were at their biggest, he describes employing a soldier to clear the way for him: 'he goes in front a few feet and keeps continually shouting, and then if the people don't clear he simply knocks them out of the way.' Thankfully, we didn't have such an entourage but we've actually coped marvellously. We've found some great restaurants with pointing at food and at characters in our phrase book (our pronunciation is unbelievably bad) we've been very well fed. We've taken buses all over the place (a bargain at 10p a journey) and have managed to buy our long distance bus tickets for tomorrow in advance! People have been unfailingly friendly and helpful, stopping buses for us and smiling, even when we can't say a word back. Tengchong's a random but brilliant place to visit, and we're just glad we were here before the tourist hoards discover it!