Mt. Yalongshan, Northern Yunnan and the Nashi Kingdom
In the north of Yunnan Province, a 100-mile-long loop of the Yangtze River encloses a slender peninsula of mountainous land steeped in history, yet little known to the Western world.
Here for the last 2,000 years have lived the Nashi people. Unlike all the tribes around them who were either Buddhist or Tibetan (Lamaistic) Buddhist, the Nashi were animistic and shamanistic, ruled by a king whose temple was at the town of Lijiang. The last king, King Mu, was conquered by the Manchu Dynasty in 1792.
Introduction of the opium poppy brought these fertile valleys to great strategic prominence during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Yet the fair climate, mild winters and rich grasslands had been popular winter encampments of the Mongol rulers during the Tang Dynasty. The region is still famous for the fine Mongol pony breeding stock, traditionally raised by the women of the community until the Communist Revolution.
In 1924, over one thousand Tibetan zealot warriors swept over the region, killing anyone not accepting their beliefs; this was the beginning of the end for Nashi shamanism. Tibetan monasteries were established throughout the peninsula and at one time there numbered more than 70 lamas around Lijiang. Of these there remain now only five, all old men.
Western Plant Exploration
Western exploration began in 1910 when Scottish botanist George Forrest began 20 years of cataloging in the area, interested mostly in the rich abundance of Rhododendron which grew here in vast forests of trees reaching heights over 100 feet. Of the thousand species of rhododendrons known in the world, more than 450 species originate in Yunnan.
Several small Christian missions were established around 1920 at Lijiang, one German, another English. During the Tibetan invasion of 1924, several missionaries in the outlying areas were killed. George Forrest, who had been exploring in northwest Yunnan near the Tibetan border, had all 40 of his Chinese crew murdered. He only narrowly escaped with his life, to be cared for by the English missionaries at Lijiang.
The same year, only days after the invasion, Joseph Rock appeared on the scene. Rock was already famous for his botanical studies in Indo-Chinese territory, as well as his accurate linguistic research. He wrote the first dictionary of Tibeto-Burmese language. Joseph Rock also recorded cultural and anthropological data in use to this day. His maps of the region are legendary. Rock represented the National Geographic Society, the Smithsonian Institute, the Museum of Natural History and the University of Hawaii over a period of 30 years, making expeditions into Burma, Tibet, Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan and Yunnan. He traveled for years at a time, along with a private armed guard through bandit infested country. He cataloged over one thousand species and subspecies of rhododendrons in Yunnan. It is from Joseph Rock's journals that we have learned most of what we know of northern Yunnan, and it is he who lured us there.
The 1985 Expedition
I was the leader of an American expedition to Yunnan in April 1985. We explored the vicinity of Yi Feng Su, the Tibetan temple on the southeast flank of Yalongshan, the great gorge beneath the south face and hanging glaciers of Yalongshan, the peak's eastern approaches to 13,000 feet, the sources of Bai Shui He, and the eastern flank of Ngaloku, by road to Da Qe and by foot south to Tiger's Leap Gorge, without crossing the Yangtze, and finally by road from Lijiang, visiting Shiku and walking to the river.
I drafted topographical maps, one at three miles to the inch, and a detail map of one mile to the inch, from data I gathered in the field, placing contours at 2,000-foot intervals and correlating with existing O.N.C. charts. I made these maps available to an American mountaineering expedition which attempted to climb Yalongshan in October, 1985.
As a result of our expedition's explorations, fifteen species of rhododendron were cataloged by Warren Berg of the American Rhododendron Society. (Read article) I collected seeds from Solms-Laubachia pulcherrima, an apparently little-known rock flower of the mustard family. It has four-petaled aquamarine flowers of a 1¼ inch diameter and a fragrance like a very pungent lilac. The plants were seen at 11,700 feet in the great gorge beneath the south face of Yalongshan.
There was a communal cow camp near our base camp occupied by several families, but far more interesting was the Lolo or Nesu hill tribe settlement one kilometer north of Bai Shuitte bridge on the road to Da Qe. The Lolo tribe are known to have had a pictographic written language predating the Chinese. They practice polyandry (women marry several husbands, often brothers) and they worship the moon.
At Yi Feng Su, two Tibetan lamas maintain a temple, partially destroyed by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution in the mid-1960's. There are several rare rhododendron trees here and a giant camellia with a trunk two feet in diameter.
Some Tibetan temples still exist at Hei Lung Pool ("Black Pool") beneath Elephant Peak, a high lookout point in the town of Lijiang. The Tibetan temples are now used as common art galleries and classrooms.
The old portion of Lijiang town, rapidly being demolished in favor of concrete high rise block houses, is perhaps the most well preserved example of stereotypical "old China" that I have seen. Narrow cobblestone streets flanked by two-story wood frame houses with small hidden courtyards shelter a busy daily farmers' market and craftmens' shops. Lijiang is certainly the last outpost of civilization for several hundred miles in all directions.
Da Qe is a small village with no real stores and a bridge over the Yangtze for logging trucks headed northwest towards Tibet. Over this bridge ride trucks loaded with spruce and rhododendron logs up to three feet in diameter. It is evident that within the last six years, the entire forested area of Dali and Da Qe was totally clear-cut and replanted with a spindly plantation pine, with subsequent great destruction in some areas resulting from erosion. This replanted appearance tends to create a vista barren and devastated. It is a sad sight to Sinophiles who had hoped the great forests of giant rhododendron described by Joseph Rock as "resembling the pillars of Karnak" would be preserved as a national treasure.
Jerry Coe, mountain climber and leader of the 1985 expedition to Yunnan, expects to return to the area in April 1986.