“To travel across China is easy. To walk across China … is not easy”. Edwin Dingle (1909).
As a ‘China Expert’ I’m often approached by people from the media, business and the general public to help answer various questions relating to Chinese history, culture and society. I’m always very happy to help out if I can, and if not, usually I can direct them to someone who will.
Last year I received an email from Ms Iva Stejskal. Iva is a Perth local and an avid walker (something close to my own heart). Iva told me she was planning to walk from Chongqing to Tengchong, tracing the steps of a certain Mr Edwin Dingle (1881-1972). A journey of approximately 1,500 kilometres. That’s just what I like to hear!
Mr Dingle was an English journalist, geographer and adventurer. He was also very interested in Tibetan spiritualism and founded his own spiritual organisation known as ‘mentalphysics’ (the Institute of Mentalphysics still exists to this day). He spent decades in Asia, much of it in China, and observed first hand the tumultuous changes that took place in that region in the first half of the 20th Century. He published a book in 1911 describing some of his earlier adventures in China titled Across China on Foot. In it Dingle describes his on foot journey (1909) from Chongqing (on the Yangtse River) all the way to British Burma. In effect Dingle was walking along an ancient migration and trading route now commonly known as the ‘Southern Silk Road’ (an alternative to the more famous ‘Northern Silk Road’). He was also following in the footsteps of other Westerners, most notably the Australian George Morrison who undertook a similar journey in 1895 (and published in book form as An Australian in China). A copy of Across China on Foot can be found here (opens as a pdf).
It was Dingle’s book and spirit of adventure that caught Iva’s attention. I was more than happy to give Iva some tips and background information. I could see after our first meeting that she was very well organised and determined. I was confident that if she undertook this journey she would see it through to the end. I introduced Iva to some friends in Chongqing and to others residing in towns she would pass through along the way. Iva kept an account of her journey on WeChat, a Chinese social networking platform. The most significant thing for me as an observor was to see how warmly welcomed Iva was along the way. Truly the Chinese spirit of hospitality to strangers was in full effect. Iva’s journey and comments are also a fascinating account of how much China has changed since the time of Dingle.
Now that Iva has completed her journey I asked her a few questions and with her permission provide a copy of that conversation here. (GS = Gary Sigley; IS = Iva Stejskal).
GS: Please provide a bit of background as to how the journey started, what is has to do with Dingle, the process and experience in getting prepared, and initial reactions from family and friends.
IS: Hiking has always been a fun and important activity for me.
During a visit to a bookstore in Seattle, I happened to come across the book Across China on Foot by Edwin Dingle. It must have been written in the stars that I would discover the book as I have never seen it in any other bookstore. I knew nothing about Edwin Dingle but because of the reference to “foot” in the title and that the journey was done in 1910 in China piqued my interest.
Reading the book must have planted a quiet seed in my mind because about two years later I decided one day that I must do this journey, much to the initial horror of my family.
I did a lot of background research for nearly a year before I started the walk. I researched Dingle’s biography and found him to be an intriguing character. He was a British journalist and while working for The Straits Times in Singapore, he seemingly, on impulse, decided to cross China with no knowledge of the country or language. He went up the Yangtse by small boat and then walked from Chongqing to Tengchong. He then crossed the border into British Burma and continued to Bhamo. He later became a correspondent for The China Daily News during the rebellion of 1911 and married the first female doctor from Jersey, UK, who was working in Yunnan as a missionary. He spent some time in Tibet and took his spiritual knowledge to California where he started the Institute of Mentalphysics. This was later incorporated into the Joshua Tree Retreat whose buildings were designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, the famous American architect.
I read books on Chinese history, focusing on the period 1900 – 1915 as I wanted to get a feel for the China during the time Dingle lived in China and made his journey. I also read books by other explorers and travelers to Yunnan province during this period.
One of my big challenges was mapping out Dingle’s route. Although important as trade routes, in 1910, there were no paved roads as such, roads were mainly flagstone paths or dirt. Many of the villages Dingle stayed in no longer exist or the names have changed over time. I researched numerous maps from the late 1890s and early 1900s, including the atlas of China produced by Dingle. From these maps I was pretty well able to trace Dingle’s route and relate it to present day roads, villages and towns.
I calculated that with a pack, I could walk roughly 20 -25 km per day. I was dependent on staying in hotels and inns and as I had no desire to bivouac in a corn field. I created a daily itinerary of villages and towns I would stay in each night, staying on Dingle’s route as best as possible. Therefore, I had my entire route totally planned before I came to China. The big hiccup in my plan was that I did not know the difference between a ‘zhen‘ sized town and a ‘cun‘ sized town. As I quickly learned, a zhen will have some sort of accommodation and shops, a cun has a mahjong hall. So I had to stay flexible and change my itinerary a few times.
My family and friends were not surprised that I would embark on a journey like this, although the most common question was ‘why?’. One aspect that attracted me to this journey was that I could combine the walk with the history of the area which I would have to research. However, it was the unknown that worried my family and friends as their knowledge of China was limited and they worried about my going alone. But all were supportive and their worries abated with daily communication.
GS: How were you feeling before the trip? Any doubts? Any concerns? Did you feel prepared?
IS: Given all the research I had carried out and having a planned itinerary, I had no doubts about the trip and traveling solo through China. I have been to China, but mainly Beijing and Shanghai. From this limited experience, I perceived China to be a safe and welcoming country. My only worry before I started was whether I would find somewhere to stay in some of the smaller towns. As it turned out, I was able to find a roof over my head in even the most remote areas, mainly because of the hospitality of the locals.
Another concern I had was how I was going to stay in contact with my family and friends given the limitations on accessing gmail while in China. I got over this hurdle by learning about WeChat and arranging mobile phone contact. Once I got to China, I felt as prepared as I could be given that I really had limited idea of what I was getting in to!
GS: In light of completion, is there anything in hindsight you would take/do/prepare differently?
IS: I would have started Chinese language lessons a bit earlier! I should also have paid a bit more attention to my electronic gadgets before I started. For example, I managed to erase some of my early daily routes on my GPS as I was not exactly sure of which buttons I should press. And finally, I packed what I thought I would potentially use or need – I should have only packed essentials as I could have bought whatever I needed in China. I had a very heavy pack when I started and as a consequence my feet and toenails suffered until I was able to store some stuff in Kunming.
GS: What were the highlight/s of the journey?
IS: Being on the move and outdoors everyday! The biggest highlight was crossing the beautiful Gaoligong Mountains and discovering I was again on a more remote section of the Burma Road. When I had crossed the Longchuan River valley and looked back at the mountains, I shook my head thinking that I had actually made it across on my own. Waking up to the sounds of the small villages and watching them come to life were also always a highlight for me.
GS: What was one of the low points?
IS: The low points all had to do with having to contend with the crazy truck drivers. There was one point when, for a few moments, I seriously wondered if I wanted to continue because of a very close call with a truck hauling gravel.
GS: How did you manage to communicate without much Chinese? Did your language improve as you progressed on your journey?
IS: It’s amazing how people can communicate through facial expressions, hand waving and body language. When I started, my Chinese was very basic and I spoke mainly in nouns. I could find accommodation and food, and get directions. I also understood simple questions asked of me and was able to kind of explain what I was doing. My biggest frustration was not being able to ask my own questions as I would have been very interested in hearing people’s stories.
My vocabulary certainly increased as the days went by, but I still know more nouns than verbs and I am sure my pronunciation has a lot to be desired. But many people seemed happy to correct and teach me Chinese and I just continued to bumble along.
GS: Had things changed since Dingle’s time?
IS: I would say in most ways yes which would be expected given China’s history over the past 100 years. Social and political issues still exist but the issues are different. As far as I could figure out, none of the physical features such as buildings, temples or bridges mentioned in Dingle’s book now exist.
However, I suspect that many of the cultural and spiritual customs have remained the same since Dingle’s time.
GS: How many kilometres did you walk altogether. How many days did it take?
IS: My journey, like Dingle’s started in Shanghai. However, the walking section started in Chongqing. Between Chongqing and Yingjiang, I walked 1,635 km and it took me 67 days. So I walked on average about 24 km a day: the least distance I walked in a day was 10 km, the most was about 35 km.
GS: Would you do it again? Are you interested in returning to China? Or would you go somewhere else for your next challenge?
IS: I would not do the entire journey again as there were some tedious, and uninteresting sections and simply because it’s a case of been there, done that. However, it would be great to explore a few specific areas such as the Longchuan River valley – it was one of the prettiest areas I walked through.
I do have another journey in mind that has a historical basis, some of which would be in China.
GS: How has this experience/journey changed your previous perception and understanding of China and Chinese people?
IS: Prior to this journey, my time in China had been spent in Beijing and Shanghai. I had no knowledge or experience of the rural areas and really did not know what to expect. My mind boggled at the curiosity and friendliness of the people. I never failed to collect a crowd of people when I stopped to rest and I have never had so many photos or selfies taken. I was also overwhelmed by the hospitality, kindness and generosity shown to me. It was all the people I met along my journey that really made it a special trip.
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