lblanchard: (swannfountain)
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I've been re-reading On the Eaves of the World, Reginald Farrer's most lighthearted travelogue / botanizing report from his expeditions to the far east. This one was written before World War I had sobered him up a bit.


Farrer's map, with all his made-up names. Click to embiggen


Farrer begins by talking about the delicacy of negotiating with Chinese officialdom and the adventures of assembling a staff. Then he and Bill Purdom (a man who so deeply loved China and its flora that he agreed to go with Farrer on nothing more than the assurance that his expenses would be paid) assembled a ragtag staff and headed out to the remote province of Kanshu on the Tibetan marches. It's hard to follow Farrer's itinerary because he insists on re-naming things according to how he hears the Chinese, or how a feature appears to him -- don't try to find the peak "Thundercrown" on any map.


View from "above the pink temple" outside Siku


Farrer also switches back and forth between an account of his travels and rhapsodizing about the plants. He had previously described the walled city of "Siku" (eventually I'll find the modern equivalent but so far Google has failed me), which was governed by the civil authority of Great Lord Jang and the military authority of Great Man Pung: both, in his eyes, Gilbert and Sullivan-esque figures of comic officialdom. After an interval there, it was off to botanize. Farrer rhapsodizes about the wonderful plants he and Bill encountered on the descent back to Siku, where they were plunged into preparations for war -- the territory was being terrorized by famed brigand Pai-Lang, the White Wolf, whose troops were expected any day. But now I'll let Farrer take over the narrative himself:

Siku: Chung Li-To (On the Eaves of the World, vol. 1, p. 275-281

But fresh storms, and of less supernatural nature, were brooding round Siku in the backwash of the Wolf, and it was well that the little town was still alert and well furbished in defence from the late scare. The March was on the move; four Tibetan spies were discovered inside the walls, and only one of them was caught and subjected to the fatherly interrogations of Great Lord Jang, whose views on government never allowed him to take any drastic steps, and who therefore failed to elicit any information. Accordingly the captive very soon found a way to influence the Yamun underlings into conniving at his escape. However, his character was not left long in doubt, for within twenty-four hours Siku was once more plunged into a passion of excitement by sure news that Tibet was moving upon them from the west, with a view to perpetrating the annual amicable foray on a specially grand and ferocious scale, in view of the present powerlessness of China.

Immediately the gates were shut, and the walls manned with every available male, while the streets were full of agitated women ; the tattered baker's dozen of scoundrels who composed the garrison ran frantically up and down with screeches of trumpets and other alarms and excursions, over which Mr. Pung presided with a wried little smile of contemptuous pity, seeing them making so vain a show of refurbishing their ridiculous muskets and the pair of mud-embedded mortars on the wall that might last have been fired for the death of Queen Elizabeth. Their inadequacy, however, did not so greatly matter, he remarked, as the Chinese soldier is never at any pains to aim his gun, no matter how modern and accurate, nourishing a firm conviction that the marksman's only part is to hold the weapon, while the indwelling spirit of the gun does all the rest, and insures each bullet finding its appointed billet. No wonder the little town had scant confidence in its garrison, or in that garrison's commander, sunk in a humorous and despairing apathy. Accordingly the thoughts of the populace turned in our direction, and a deputation of leading townspeople was despatched to entreat our aid, while Great Lord Jang came up through the Yamun in full state to confer with Great Man Pung next door on the subject.

A dingy and wall-eyed person—though no doubt a man of property — was the spokesman, and the proceedings were conducted with all ceremonious observance and handing of cups of tea. But before the tortuous conversation could allow itself to come twining within sight of its object it was interrupted by both the Great Men, attended by their trains. The Lord Jang, magnificent and elephantine beneath his flat-brimmed bowler hat of black moire, lost no time in coming to the point, and entreated us to lend our countenance to the defence of the city. We had already, indeed, sent up our arms and tents and ammunition on to the wall to inspire confidence, but now it was a case of our own immediate presence being required.

Accordingly a pompous procession was promptly formed, and down through the streets we defiled to the western gate, escorted by both the Great Men and all their retainers, and a disorderly bodyguard marching in an avenue on either side, in their unaltered scarlet and yellow blouses of the Imperial regime, and armed with every sort of theatrical and medieval halberd hung about with crimson tassels to keep away the ubiquitous devils of Chinese imagination. Up on to the wall at the western gate this awe-inspiring demonstration flowed, where we found the population densely gathered along the battlements and round the gate-tower, eagerly prospecting the stony path that goes westward, and is clearly visible at intervals for three or four miles along the flanks and over the high shoulders of the towering hills that here shut in the Blackwater. Amid enthusiastic crowds the tents were unfurled and pitched, and all our weapons and cartridges displayed, to the edification and encouragement not only of the multitude, but of the two Governors themselves.


The Defense of Siku


The prowess and powers of the rifle, indeed, soon became a legend, and swelled at last to such proportions that in time all the March believed that Siku was mysteriously armed with howitzers and maxims. Meanwhile the long hours passed; we anxiously scanned the steep sky-lines and khaki crumples of the fell. Now and then, amid a hum of excitement, a head would become visible on some high horizon, linger for a few moments, and disappear again—evidently a spy. Then there was much agitation over a knot of six Isabella-coloured figures who were discovered motionless on a distant pinnacle; these, too, were clearly spies, unless they might be peasants from one of the imperilled little villages on the loess shelf so far above, come down to inform themselves as to the fate of the capital. The population was in an incessant buzz of excitement; all the time-honoured triangular banners were flapping from the walls, and in the machicolations of the battlements the soldiers knelt here and there over the long rusty barrels of their guns, where members of the city manhood were not already posted over the heaps of stones amassed all along. As for Great Man Pung, in happy indifference, he slept an opium dream, meanwhile, in comfort on the Kang of the gate-tower's ground-floor room.

In such varied alarms and suspense the day proceeded, and every moment increased the excitement of thetown and the wildness of the rumours that prevailed as to the fate of the villages up above, reported harried and burned. But still nothing was visible anywhere over the wild and precipitous distances of the west, from which alone any efficient force could have advanced against Siku. The citizens beguiled time with our field glasses, prospecting eagerly through the wrong end, or holding the right one so far from their eyes that they could see nothing, and exclaimed incessantly on the marvels of foreign science in order to pretend they did. Finally, they got to such a pitch that harmless boulders on the hill were turned into Tibetan hordes, and it was positively a relief when, towards the beginning of dusk, the whole Tibetan army was discerned advancing in force against Siku from the west. Doing or dying became instantly the order of the day; screams and rushings about made general pandemonium. But the Tibetan army turned out to consist of a respectable elderly Chinese person of quality, coming into the city for refuge on her mule, with an attendant at each stirrup, and a boy with a bundle.

Night came down; under a serene sky of stars the watch-fires flickered and shone all round the line of battlements in an unbroken chain of sparks, girdling the city. We took our places at the tents amid the unexampled enthusiasm of the populace, now huddled in knots along beside the fires. The scene might have been laid in Troy two thousand years ago. One had, indeed, the full feeling of having been carried back at a jump into the Middle Ages, or realising what it must have been to live on the English March in some small burg perpetually at the mercy of Scottish raiders.

Great Man Pung, indeed, blasé with all this absurd medievalism, went cynically home to bed— a step that by no means raised his popularity. Great Lord Jang, on the contrary, played his characteristic and proper part, continually going the round of the walls with his underlings, addressing fatherly words of cheer to each little group at the watch-fires as he passed. In this task, on which Purdom accompanied him, he was further assisted by the Mee, whose Yamun blood could never resist the appeal of any Yamun proceeding (nor, indeed, any opportunity of thrusting himself forward), and now quacked and clattered officiously on the Great Lord's track with all the typical zeal of a Yamun underling to anticipate and explain his lord's remarks to hearers who understand them perfectly well already. As for me, I stayed in my post on the wall by the western gate, and there remained through all the multitudinous turmoil of that agitated night, with the big town gong incessantly uttering its splendid booming note to an undercurrent of smaller ones, while trumpets wailed across the drone of drums, and clackers pitilessly clacked with a noiselike nails being hammered into a packing-case above an obbligato of corncrakes. Thus were the demons of sleep effectually dispelled at need, for the favourite hour of Tibetan attacks is always in the last dark before the dawn.

When the day came we found that our precautions and our presence had proved effectual; gunshots were heard far up from the loess shelf, and then on the sky line appeared what looked like the antennae of some forty gigantic beetles, which turned out to be the pro jecting prongs of the Tibetan arquebuses as their wearers peered over the horizon of the hill. These warriors were a scout-party from the main body that had just been harrying the villages up behind. They waited long, and narrowly inspected the city from their height ; but its resolute appearance daunted them, or they must have heard of the supernatural reinforcements it had received. In any case, after a prolonged pause they retired again from view, and insensibly the tension inthe town relaxed, possibly because this was also a festal day. Cards were generally sent and exchanged, and Great Lord Jang gratified us with a present of pork and rice and hens.

The evening, however, brought a recrudescence of excitement; for two undoubted villains, whether spies of Tibetans or Wolves it made no matter, had been captured in the street during the afternoon. And hardly had this emotion been survived than there appeared on the public wall a proclamation openly denouncing Great Man Pung for a slacker and a shirker and a wencher and a sot. All the town hummed; the Great Man himself whizzed in and out of the Yamun in a red blanket, as sick-looking as a bilious monkey. The scandal did, indeed, so prick him that he was actually stirred into sending out a band of scouts; but as they merely slept outside the gate all night, and reentered in the morning with loud fanfaronades, they cannot be said to have accomplished any high end.

And our own case was now much worse than ever, for every hope of the mountains was blasted for some time to come. It had been bad enough before, but the scare of the Wolf had been subsiding, and had never, anyhow, been so local and permanent. But after this new scare nobody could tell what Tibetan bands and isolated raiders might not be lurking in the fastnesses of Thundercrown overhead; and Thundercrown, accordingly, was the very last direction in which the harassed Mandarins could contemplate allowing the foreigner to go, for fear of "incidents." Thus "some day perhaps" was the timeless date on which we seemed doomed to nourish cheerfulness for any amount of time to come. In this insurgence of the March there was no earthly telling when things would so far have settled down as to allow us up into the mountain without injustice to the kind and friendly Mandarins. Thus stood our sad state on the 30th of May, two days after the invasion; and so it bode fair still to stand, so far as we could see, till the 30th of June, or July, or August, or September.

Date: 2016-11-28 11:42 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] pondhopper.livejournal.com
A dingy and wall-eyed person

the Great Man himself whizzed in and out of the Yamun in a red blanket, as sick-looking as a bilious monkey

He describes people like he describes plants.

The man certainly did have a style of his own!

Date: 2016-11-29 05:03 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lblanchard.livejournal.com
[I decided my reply here constituted over-sharing on a public post, so I've removed it and done a friends-only post...]

Date: 2016-11-29 09:27 pm (UTC)

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