Some of the larger villages had the arrogant look of old feudal fortresses, and up the paths leading to them, cut out in a defile in the vertical cliffs, we passed with difficulty coolies carrying on their backs the enormous loads, which are the wonder of all who have seen them, their backs straining under the boomerang-shaped frames to which the merchandise was lashed. Hundreds passed us on their toilsome journey with tea, lamp-oil, skins, hides, copper, lead, coal and white wax from Yuen-nan, and with salt, English cotton, Chinese porcelain, fans and so on from Szech’wan. One false step, one slight slip, and they would have been hurled down the ravine, where far below, in the roaring cataract, dwarfed to the size of a toy boat, was a junk being cleverly taken down-stream. And down there also, one false move and the huge junk would have been dashed against the rocks, and banks strewn with the corpses of the crew. As it was, they were mere specks of blue in a background of white foam, their vociferating and yelling being drowned by the roar of the waters. On the road, passing and re-passing, I saw coolies on the way to Yuen-nan-fu with German cartridges and Japanese guns, the packing, so different generally to British goods which come into China, being particularly good. This is one of the cries of the importer in China against the British manufacturer; and if the latter knew more of Chinese transport and the manner in which the goods are handled in changing from place to place, one would meet fewer broken packages on the road in this land of long distances.
A friend of mine, needing a typewriter, wrote home explicit instructions as to the packing. “Pack it ready to ship,” he wrote, “then take it to the top of your office stairs, throw it down the stairs, take machine out and inspect, and if it is undamaged re-pack and send to me. If damaged, pack another machine, subject to the same treatment until you are convinced that it can stand being thus handled and escape injury.” This is how goods coming to Western China should be sent away.
Gradually the days brought harder toil. The mountains grew higher, some covered with forests of pine trees, which natural ornament completely changed the aspect of the country. Torrents foamed noisily down the gorges, veiled by the curtain of great trees; sometimes, on a ridge, a field of buckwheat, shining in the sun, looked like the beginning of the eternal snows.
Food was at famine rates. Eggs there were in abundance, pork also; but it was not to be wondered at that the traveler, having seen the conditions under which the pigs are reared, refrained from the luxury of Yuen-nan roast pig. My men fed on maize. The faces of the people were pinched and wan, unpleasant to look upon, bearing unmistakable signs of poverty and misery, and they seemed too concerned in keeping the wolf from the door to attend to me. At Ta-kwan they treated themselves to a sheng of rice apiece—here the sheng is 1.8 catties, as against 11 catties in the capital of the province.