CHAPTER XVII. THE CITY OF TALI - PRISONS - POISONING - PLAGUES AND MISSIONS.
Three hours later we were in Tali. A broad paved road, smooth from the passage of countless feet, leads to the city. Rocky creeks drain the mountain range into the lake; they are spanned by numerous bridges of dressed stone, many of the slabs of which are well cut granite blocks eighteen feet in length. At a stall by the roadside excellent ices were for sale, genuine ices, made of concave tablets of pressed snow sweetened with treacle, costing one cash each - equal to one penny for three dozen. We passed the Temple to the Goddess of Mercy, and entered Tali by the south gate. Then by the yamen of the Titai and the Great Five Glory Gate, the northern entrance of what was for seventeen years the palace of the Mohammedan king during the rebellion, we turned down the East street to the Yesu-tang, the Inland Mission, where Mr. and Mrs. John Smith gave me a cordial greeting.
Tali has always been an important city. It was the capital of an independent kingdom in the time of Kublai Khan and Marco Polo. It was the headquarters of the Mohammedan Sultan or Dictator, Tu Wen Hsiu, during the rebellion, and seemed at one time destined to become the capital of an independent Moslem Empire in Western China.
The city surrendered to the Mohammedans in 1857. It was recaptured by the Imperialists under General Yang Yu-ko on January 15th, 1873, the Chinese troops being aided by artillery cast by Frenchmen in the arsenal of Yunnan and manned by French gunners. At its recapture the carnage was appalling; the streets were ankle-deep in blood. Of 50,000 inhabitants 30,000 were butchered. After the massacre twenty-four panniers of human ears were sent to Yunnan city to convince the people of the capital that they had nothing more to fear from the rebellion.
In March, 1873, Yang was appointed Titai or Commander-in-chief of Yunnan Province, with his headquarters in Tali, not in the capital, and Tali has ever since been the seat of the most important military command in the province.
The subsequent history of Yang may be told in a few words. He assumed despotic power over the country he had conquered, and grew in power till his authority became a menace to the Imperial Government. They feared that he aspired to found a kingdom of his own in Western China, and recalled him to Peking - to do him honour. He was not to be permitted to return to Yunnan. At the time of his recall another rebellion had broken out against China - the rebellion of the French - and, like another Uriah, the powerful general was sent to the forefront in Formosa, where he was opportunely slain by a French bullet, or by a misdirected Chinese one.
After his death it was found that Yang had made a noble bequest to the City of Tali. During his residence he had built for himself a splendid yamen of granite and marble. This he had richly endowed and left as a free gift to the city as a college for students. It is one of the finest residences in China, and, though only seventy undergraduates were living there at the time of my visit, the rooms could accommodate in comfort many hundreds.
Tali is situated on the undulating ground that shelves gently from the base of snow-clad mountains down to the lake. The lower slopes of the mountain, above the town, are covered with myriads of grave-mounds, which in the distance are scarcely distinguishable from the granite blocks around them. Creeks and rills of running water spring from the melting of the snows far up the mountain, run among the grave-mounds, and are then trained into the town. The Chinese residents thus enjoy the privilege of drinking a diluted solution of their ancestors. Halfway to the lake, there is a huge tumulus of earth and stone over-grown with grass, in which are buried the bones of 10,000 Mohammedans who fell during the massacre. There is no more fertile valley in the world than the valley of Tali. It is studded with villages. Between the two passes, Hsia-kwan on the south, and Shang-kwan on the north, which are distant from each other a long day's walk, there are 360 villages, each in its own plantation of trees, with a pretty white temple in the centre with curved roof and upturned gables. The sunny reaches of the lake are busy with fleets of fishing boats. The poppy, grown in small pockets by the margin of the lake, is probably unequalled in the world; the flowers, as I walked through the fields, were on a level with my forehead.
Tali is not a large city; its wall is only three and a half miles in circumference. Before the rebellion populous suburbs extended half-way to Hsia-kwan, but they are now only heaps of rubble. In the town itself there are market gardens and large open spaces where formerly there were narrow streets of Chinese houses. The wall is in fairly good repair, but there are no guns in the town, except a few old-fashioned cannon lying half buried in the ground near the north gate.
One afternoon we climbed up the mountain intending to reach a famous cave, "The Phoenix-eyed Cave" (Fung-yen-tung) which overlooks a precipice, of some fame in years gone by as a favourite spot for suicides. We did not reach the cave. My energy gave out when we were only halfway, so we sat down in the grass and, to use a phrase that I fancy I have heard before, we feasted our eyes on the scene before us. And here we gathered many bunches of edelweiss.
As we were coming back down the hill, picking our way among the graves, a pensive Chinaman stopped us to ask our assistance in finding him a lucky spot in which to bury his father, who died a year ago but was still above ground. He was sorry to hear that we could not pretend to any knowledge of such things. He was of an inquiring mind, for he then asked us if we had seen any precious stones in the hillside - every Chinaman knows that the foreigner with his blue eyes can see four feet underground - but he was again disappointed with our reply, or did not believe us.