CHAPTER XIX. THE MEKONG AND SALWEEN RIVERS. - HOW TO TRAVEL IN CHINA
Today, May 7th, we crossed the River Mekong, even at this distance from Siam a broad and swift stream. The river flows into the light from a dark and gloomy gorge, takes a sharp bend, and rolls on between the mountains. Where it issues from the gorge a suspension bridge has been stretched across the stream. A wonderful pathway zigzags down the face of the mountain to the river, in an almost vertical incline of 2000ft. At the riverside an embankment of dressed stone, built up from the rock, leads for some hundreds of feet along the bank, where there would otherwise have been no foothold, to the clearing by the bridge. The likin-barrier is here, and a tea house or two, and the guardian temple. The bridge itself is graceful and strong, swinging easily 30ft. above the current; it is built of powerful chains, carried from bank to bank and held by masses of solid masonry set in the bed-rock. It is 60 yards long and toft, wide, is floored with wood, and has a picket parapet supported by lateral chains. From the river a path led us up to a small village, where my men rested to gather strength. For facing us were the mountain heights, which had to be escaladed before we could leave the river gulch. Then with immense toil we climbed up the mountain path by a rocky staircase of thousands of steps, till, worn out and with "Bones" nearly dead, we at length reached the narrow defile near the summit, whence an easy road brought us in the early evening to Shuichai (6700ft.).
In the course of one afternoon we had descended 2000ft. to the river (4250ft. above the sea), and had then climbed 2450ft. to Shuichai. And the ascent from the river was steeper than the descent into it; yet the railway which is to be built over this trade-route between Burma and Yunnan will have other engineering difficulties to contend with even greater than this.
My soldier to-day was a boy of fifteen or sixteen. He was armed with a revolver, and bore himself valiantly. But his revolver was more dangerous in appearance than in effect, for the cylinder would not revolve, the hammer was broken short off, and there were no cartridges. Everywhere the weapon was examined with curiosity blended with awe, and I imagine that the Chinese were told strange tales of its deadliness.
Next morning we continued by easy gradients to Talichao (7700ft.), rising 1000ft. in rather less than seven miles. It was bitterly cold in the mists of the early morning. But twenty miles further the road dipped again to the sunshine and warmth of the valley of Yungchang, where, in the city made famous by Marco Polo, we found comfortable quarters in an excellent inn.
Yungchang is a large town, strongly walled. It is, however, only a remnant of the old city, acres of houses having been destroyed during the insurrection, when for three years, it is said, Imperialists and Mohammedans were contending for its possession. There is a telegraph station in the town. The streets are broad and well-paved, the inns large, and the temples flourishing. One fortunate circumstance the traveller will notice in Yungchang - there is a marked diminution in the number of cases of goitre. And the diminution is not confined to the town, but is apparent from this point right on to Burma.
Long after our arrival in Yungchang my opium-eating coolie "Bones" had not come, and we had to wait for him in anger and annoyance. He had my hamper of eatables and my bundle of bedding. Tired of waiting for him, I went for a walk to the telegraph office and was turning to come back, when I met the faithful skeleton, a mile from the inn, walking along as if to a funeral, his neck elongating from side to side like a camel's, a lean and hungry look in his staring eyes, his bones crackling inside his skin. Continuing in the direction that he was going when I found him, he might have reached Thibet in time, but never Burma. I led him back to the hotel, where he ruefully showed me his empty string of cash, as if that had been the cause of his delay; he had only 6 cash left, and he wanted an advance.
This was the worst coolie I had in my employ during my journey. But he was a good-natured fellow and honest. He was better educated, too, than most of the other coolies, and could both read and write. His dress on march was characteristic of the man. He was nearly naked; his clothes hardly hung together; he wore no sandals on his feet; but round his neck he carried a small earthenware phial of opium ash. In the early stages he delayed us all an hour or two every day, but he improved as we went further. And then he was so long and thin, so grotesque in his gait, and afforded me such frequent amusement, that I would not willingly have exchanged him for the most active coolie in China.