The Mekong is at this point just 4,000 feet above sea level, as has been said; the point in front of us, running up perpendicularly to a narrow pass in the mountains, leads on to Shui-chai (6,700 feet), and on again to Tali-shao, itself 7,800 feet high, the mountains on which it occupies a ledge being much higher. For slipperiness and general hazards this road baffles description. It leads up step by step, but not regular steps, not even as regularity goes in China.
“There are two small arched bridges in the journey. On the first I sit down and gaze far away down to the shining river below, and must ascend again in the wake of my panting men.... Where the road is not natural rock, it is composed of huge fragments of stone in the rough state, smooth as the face of a mirror, haphazardly placed at such dangerous spots as to show that no idea of building was employed when the road was made. Sometimes one steps twenty inches from one stone to another, and were it not that the pathway is winding, although the turning and twisting makes unending toil, progress in the ascent would be impossible.... Mules are passing me—puffing, panting, perspiring. Poor brutes! One has fallen, and in rolling has dragged another with him, and there the twain lie motionless on those horrid stones while the exhausted muleteers raise their loads to allow them slowly to regain their feet. There are some hundreds of them now on the hill.”
This description was made in shorthand notes in my notebook as I ascended. And I find again:—
“I have seen one or two places in Szech’wan like this, but the danger is incomparably less and the road infinitely superior. We pull and pant and puff up, up, up, around each bend, and my men can scarce go forward. Huge pieces of rock have fallen from the cliff, and well-nigh block the way, and just ahead a landslip has carried off part of our course. The road is indescribably difficult because it is so slippery and one can get no foothold. My pony, carrying nothing but the little flesh which bad food has enabled him to keep, has been down on his knees four times, and once he rolled so much that I thought that he must surely go over the ravine.... Rocks overhang me as I pass. If one should drop!... But one does not mind the toil when he looks upon his men. In the midst of their intense labor my men’s squeals of songs echo through the mountains as the perspiration runs down their uncovered backs; they chaff each other and utmost good feeling prevails. Poor Shanks is nearly done, but still laughs loudly.... A natural pathway more difficult of progress I cannot conceive anywhere in the world; and yet this is a so-called paved road, the road over which all the trade of the western part of this great province, all the imports from Burma, are regularly carried. Should the road ever be discarded, that is if the railway ever comes over this route, only a long tunnel through the mountain would serve its purpose.... We have just sat down and fraternized with the man carrying the mails to Tali-fu, and now we are working steadily for the top, around corners where the breeze comes with delicious freshness. Here we are on a road now leading through a widening gorge to Shui-chai, and as I cross the narrow pass I see the river down below looking like a snake waiting for its prey.”