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The Southern Silk Road: Over the Gaoligong Mountains, November 2012

A small mule team crossing the historic Shuanghong Bridge over the Nu (Salween) River.

A small mule team crossing the historic Shuanghong Bridge over the Nu (Salween) River.

From the 17 – 21 November 2012 I traveled – with Dr Ed Jocelyn – to Baoshan (宝山) and Tengchong (腾冲) in western Yunnan Province (云南省) to explore a remnant section of the ancient Southern Silk Road over the Gaoligong Mountains (高黎贡山). We also spent some time in the historic merchant town of Heshun (和顺). I made some useful conctacts and conducted a number of interviews. What follows is a brief account of the trip with my preliminary thoughts and observations (discussion of Tengchong and Heshun will be reserved for a future blogpost). For a map of the Baoshan region visit Google Maps here. You can view a selection of images from this trip on my Flickr site here.

A Chinese map of the Southern Silk Road which here is known as the Shu Yuan Du Dao (蜀身毒道).

A Chinese map of the Southern Silk Road which here is known as the Shu Yuandu Dao (蜀身毒道). ‘Yuandu’ is an ancient Chinese name for India.

Most readers will be familiar with the ‘Silk Road’ (丝绸之路) – the series of ancient trading routes through Central Asia that linked Europe and China for much of recorded history. Less well known are the other two trading routes known as the ‘Southern Silk Road’ (南方丝绸之路) and ‘Maritime Silk Road’ (海上丝绸之路). The latter, as the name implies, links the ports of southern China through the South China Sea, India and beyond. The former refers to ancient trading and migration routes from central China (Gansu, Sichuan, etc) going south down through what we today refer to as Dali, Baoshan, Tengchong and Ruili. From Ruili – you can read a previous blogpost about Ruili here – the main route enters present day Burma and makes its way through to the towns and ports of Southeast Asia where it connected with the Maritime Silk Road, or alternatively across Assam and Bangladesh to India. In Chinese the Southern Silk Road was historically known as the ‘Shu Yuandu Dao’ (蜀身毒道).

A Chinese map of the remnant section of the ancient road that runs through the Gaoligong Mountain Nature Reserve between Baihualing and Jiangju.

A Chinese map of the remnant section of the ancient road that runs through the Gaoligong Mountain Nature Reserve between Baihualing and Linjiapu (Jiangju).

Of course my primary research interest is with the ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road’ (or what I refer to as the ‘New Ancient Tea Horse Road’, a concept I will introduce in more detail in another blogpost). Generally speaking the tea road refers to the route that connects present day Puer and Xishuangbanna with Tibet. We do know that the tea caravans also made their way via Baoshan and Ruili to Southeast Asia and India. So technically we could also label this route as the tea road. However, the notion of the Southern Silk Road has been in existence for longer than the tea road and it is the former that has been taken up by scholars in the Baoshan region (there are other reasons but I won’t go into the details here). There is some rivalry and competition between scholars in this field about what to name the various trading routes. Some tea road scholars are quite proud of the fact that the ‘tea road’ is a concept created by Chinese scholars whereas the ‘silk road’ (or ‘silk roads’) was named by the German explorer and geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen. There is thus a good dose of national and cultural identity caught up in such designations, and my research is also interested in the uses of such ‘labels’ in the cause of regional identity. In any case, as I will discuss in a future blogpost on Heshun, although the official designation seems to have fallen in favour of ‘Southern Silk Road’, the iconography of the tea road as a modern display of cultural identity and cultural tourism is quite visible.

At about the time of the Warring States Period (476 - 221 BC), the Baoshan region was home to the Ailao Kingdom (哀牢古国). Not much is know about the Ailao (although the rulers of the Nanzhao Kingdom claimed to be descendents, perhaps as a means to legitimate their rule). The image here depicts the mythic origins of the founder of the Ailao, the offspring of a local woman and a water dragon. According to the museum display the Ailao recognised dynastic Han (Eastern Han) authority in 69 AD. In reality the peoples of Ailao, and those that followed, remained largely free of direct Han Chinese rule until the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

At about the time of the Warring States (476 – 221 BC), the Baoshan region was home to the Ailao Kingdom (哀牢古国). Not much is know about the Ailao (although the rulers of the Nanzhao Kingdom (737 – 902 AD) claimed to be descendents, perhaps as a means to legitimate their rule). The image here depicts the mythic origins of the founder of the Ailao, the offspring of a local woman and a water dragon. According to the museum display the Ailao recognised dynastic Han (Eastern Han) authority in 69 AD. In reality the peoples of Ailao, and those that followed, remained largely free of direct Han Chinese rule until the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

Our starting point for this fieldwork trip was the city of Baoshan (宝山). Baoshan is a prefectural city, relatively small by Chinese standards with a population of about one million. It is situated on a small basin east of the Nu River (怒江) (which becomes the Salween River when it enters Burma) and west of the Mekong (澜沧江). With an elevation of about 1,600 metres Baoshan has a very pleasant climate and productive agricultural sector (there is virtually no modern industry which means that the area is also relatively unpolluted). Through Ed’s connections we arranged a meeting with the Deputy Director of the Baoshan Museum (保山市博物馆), one of the largest museums in Yunnan Province. The Deputy Director reinforced the notion that Baoshan sits on the ‘Southern Silk Road’ and provided a lot of detail concerning the cultural history of the region and the development of the museum itself. The museum in its present form was built in 2003. China is undergoing a massive construction of museums across the country as part of the ongoing governmental efforts as ‘cultural construction’ (文化建设). There are also many grass-roots or community museums being built, sometimes offering interesting counter-narratives and sometimes reinforcing the mainstream view of national history. Museums also play an important role in constructing the narratives of modern nation-states and the museum of Baoshan is no exception. That’s what makes the study of museums so interesting and important.

The Baoshan Museum is shaped in the form of a large bronze drum. Bronze drums are one of the significant cultural artefacts found in the region (which culturally extends north into Sichuan and south into Southeast Asia). The museum consists of several exhibition halls including prehistory, ancient history, ethnic cultures, famous personages, the Anti-Japanese War (World War Two), and the flora and fauna of the region.

The Baoshan Museum is shaped in the form of a large bronze drum. Bronze drums are one of the significant cultural artifacts found in the region (which culturally extends north into Sichuan and south into Southeast Asia). The museum consists of several exhibition halls including prehistory, ancient history, ethnic cultures, famous personages, the Anti-Japanese War (World War Two), and the flora and fauna of the region. The significance of Baoshan as a major trading and migration route is well reinforced through the museum exhibitions.

The following day we hired a car and driver to take us to the starting point of our trek on the remnant section of the ancient road, a drive of about one and a half hours. We deviated somewhat to take a closer look at one of the few remaining ancient bridges in China, in this case the Shuanghong Bridge over the Nu River. From the bridge we made are way with our driver up a nearby valley on the eastern side of the river. Our destination was the village and historic staging post of Baihualing (百花岭) (119 km from Baoshan).

Shuanghong Bridge (双虹桥) over the Nu River (怒江). It was first constructed in 1789 during the reign of Qianlong during the Qing Dynasty (reconstructed in 1923). It is a cable suspension bridge in two parts. One of two major bridges on the Nu River that are part of the Southern Silk Road.

Shuanghong Bridge (双虹桥) over the Nu River (怒江). It was first constructed in 1789 during the reign of Qianlong during the Qing Dynasty (reconstructed in 1923). It is a cable suspension bridge in two parts. One of two major bridges on the Nu River that are part of the Southern Silk Road. It is still used by the locals to cross the river.

Baihualing is located in a very picturesque valley with a number of villages with traditional style houses, coffee fields, tropical fruit and so on, with the Gaoligong range looming in the background. Baihualing is the headquarters for the eastern side of the Gaoligong Nature Reserve and Ecological Tourism Zone. Due to time constraints we didn’t actually stop in the village (you always need to leave a ‘regret’ for another trip as the Chinese saying goes – 留一个遗憾). We continued driving up towards the mountains and eventually found our way onto the original logging road built in 1976 (a total logging ban was enforced in Yunnan in 1997 after devastating floods on the Mekong and Yangtse). We finally had to disembark from the vehicle and send the driver on her way back to Baoshan as the road became impassable. From there we began the journey on foot for several kilometres up to a point where the logging road meets the ancient road (at an elevation of 1,900 metres).

With nature reserve workers after process or permit. The workers have a hard time policing the nature reserve from local poachers and some of the destructive habits of hikers. This could possibly be an ideal site for future research on China's emerging hiking/donkey friend culture.

With nature reserve workers after processing our permit (which I am proudly displaying). The workers have a hard time policing the nature reserve from local poachers and some of the destructive habits of hikers. This could possibly be an ideal site for future research on China’s emerging hiking/donkey friend culture.

As we were making our way up to the ancient road we had a visit from three local gents on motorbikes who were looking for ‘two foreigners heading up the mountain’. It turns out we needed a permit to travel through the nature reserve. Unfortunately we didn’t have one, but after a few phone calls it was all settled and one of the nature reserve officers went back down to Baihualing to bring up the paperwork. It was actually quite a productive meeting as we were able to engage them in a lengthy discussion about the challenges facing the nature reserve in dealing with the habits of the local population and the incoming groups of Chinese hikers. The nature reserve office is very understaffed and stretched to the max in attempting to deal with all of its responsibilities. We made a small donation – for which I have a receipt! – and continued on our way. The entire area of the nature reserve has been put aside for the development of ecotourism, although not much seems to have been done thus far on developing the necessary infrastructure. The nature reserve is indeed abundant in wildlife, including bears, red pandas, wild cattle, and so on. The only wildlife you are likely to see, however, are the birds and monkeys. We saw two monkeys, one on the west side and the other on the eastern side.

This stone arch bridge over the Huangzhu River was built in 1895. It is known as the 'Yongding Bridge' (永定桥). It is located deep within the nature reserve along the Southern Silk Road over the Gaoligong Mountains between Baoshan and Tengchong. Possibly at 2,400 metres (although getting a reading proved rather difficult at that stage).

This stone arch bridge over the Huangzhu River was built in 1895. It is known as the ‘Yongding Bridge’ (永定桥) and is located deep within the nature reserve along the Southern Silk Road over the Gaoligong Mountains between Baoshan and Tengchong. Possibly at 2,400 metres (although getting a reading proved rather difficult at that stage).

When we finally made it to the ancient road we were very impressed. The road is in very good condition all the way from our starting point to the nature reserve office on the other side of the range (approximately 20 kilometres). It consists mainly of stone pavement with steps and a number of small bridges and one very impressive stone arch bridge. Just next to the bridge – Yongding Bridge – is a small stone hut which is probably the site of an old caravan camp considering that the river is the last source of water until you reach the camp just below the pass. After crossing the bridge the road begins a steep and long climb to the 3,200 metre pass. We made the climb within several hours and I was for one very happy to see the Southern Zhai Gong House appear ahead amongst the trees just as the sunlight was beginning to deminish.

Morning breaks over the mountains as viewed from the pass at the Southern Zhai Gong House (南斋公房) (3,200 metres). Zhai Gong is a reference to pilgrims and the burning of incense (a common occurrence at significant territorial markers such as mountain passes, the crossing of rivers, and so on). The Southern Zhai Gong House is a small building, just below the pass on the Baoshan side, used by travelers along the ancient Southern Silk Road. There is a natural spring nearby and plenty of room for pack animals. Some sort of structure was on this site for many hundreds of years. The building was reconstructed in 2001.

Morning breaks over the mountains as viewed from the pass at the Southern Zhai Gong House (南斋公房) (3,200 metres). Zhai Gong is a varied reference to vegetarianism, pilgrims and the burning of incense (a common occurrence at significant territorial markers such as mountain passes, the crossing of rivers, and so on). The Southern Zhai Gong House is a small building, just below the pass on the Baoshan side, used by travelers along the ancient Southern Silk Road. There is a natural spring nearby and plenty of room for pack animals to rest and graze. Some sort of structure was on this site for many hundreds of years. The building was reconstructed in 2001 as part of efforts to develop ecotourism. Unfortunately the house is littered with hiker waste.

It’s quite inspiring to spend the night on the site of such an historic spot along the ancient road linking Southwest China with Southeast Asia and India. In the old days the site was probably quite busy with many caravans making their way over the range carrying loads of tea, silk and other precious commodities traveling from the Chinese side. Coming the other way jade would have been a very precious item, along with more modern commodities during recent times when the British occupied Burma (as was explained by our informants in the merchant village of Heshun, which will be discussed in a future blogpost). We were the only visitors that evening.

Ed on a section of ancient road as it descends on the western side of the range towards Tengchong.

Ed on a section of ancient road as it descends on the western side of the range towards Tengchong. Quite an amazing feat of engineering when you consider that this road went over many mountains and rivers. It also stresses how important communication systems were to the ancients just as they are to us moderns.

On the Tengchong side of the range after making our descent down the ancient road through a deep gorge (staggeringly beautiful, but a lot of steps, my god …) we came out at the Tengchong side of the nature reserve station (Linjiapu/林家铺). The nature reserve workers were very friendly, offered us a cup of tea (of course!) and a chin wag. We showed them our paperwork (all in good order thanks to the intervention the previous day). We were informed that they get approximately 1,000 hikers on the trail per year (we had to sign a register before we left), mostly from within China but also a handful from foreign countries. They told us it was still eight kilometres to the staging post village of Jiangju (江苴) (Jiangju or Jiangzuo? The locals prefer the latter although my dictionary only displays the former ) and, for a small fee, kindly agreed to take us there. They also gave us a personal guided tour of the old ‘main street’ of Jiangju and introduced us to some local officials, good for future reference and return visits.

The ancient road runs through the centre of the historic staging post of Jiangju. Glory days are long past but perhaps cultural tourism will lead to a revival?

The ancient road runs through the centre of the historic staging post of Jiangju. Glory days are long past but perhaps cultural tourism will lead to a revival?

In the days of the trading caravan when the ancient road witnessed a lot of traffic Jiangju was a prosperous and busy staging post. Given that it is now relatively isolated it has not undergone any major reconstruction. It was also the local command base for the Chinese army in its battle against the occupying Japanese Imperial Army (1942-1944). There is an impressive display of old shop fronts, stables (马健), houses/inns, but unfortunately much in poor condition. No doubt they will be looking for investment, possibly an external investor/partnership as is the case in Heshun (to be discussed in separate blogpost) and in many historic old towns across China that have become tourist attractions/theme parks.

To be continued …

A donkey friend club banner on display in a small inn in Jiangju, testimony to the increasing presence of hikers along the ancient road. This club, as the furry figure suggests, goes by the name of the 'Koala Hikers'.

A donkey friend club banner on display in a small inn in Jiangju, testimony to the increasing presence of hikers along the ancient road. This club, as the furry figure suggests, goes by the name of the ‘Koala Hikers’. You can visit the web address in this image and discover that the club is actually quite large and active. All in Chinese of course.