Kham revisited: Tracing explorer Joseph Rock's path through old Tibet

Travel | by Ric Stockfis
Posted: April 2nd, 2010 | Updated: August 9th, 2014 | Comments

Joseph Rock, Tibet Ric Stockfis interviews travel writer and trekker Michael Woodhead about tracing the footsteps of 1920s adventurer and scientist Joseph Rock. Some of the trails Rock blazed through rugged Southwestern China's Tibetan mountains hadn't been revisited since Rock first put them on the map, while others have become major tourist destinations. A fascinating look into the ever-evolving story of travel in some of China's most remote regions. >>> Joseph Francis Rock, the remarkable man whose writings and photographs would inspire the myth of Shangri-La, was born in Austria in 1884, emigrated to America in 1905, and first made his  name as a botanist in Hawaii. He came to China in the 1920s,  basing himself near modern-day Lijiang and Yunnan, Sichuan and Tibet – known before the 20th century as the Tibetan region of Kham. His articles and photographs, published in National Geographic between 1922 to 1935, were widely celebrated, and Rock is credited with creating the definitive work in English on the language and history of the region's Naxi people. By the time he left China for good in 1949, Dr. Rock had spent a total of 24 years in the country, sent more than 80,000 plant specimens back to the US, and earned a reputation as one of history's most eccentric adventurers. He is the subject of In China's Border Provinces: The Turbulent Career of Joseph Rock, Botanist-Explorer, and an archive of his photos can be found online here. But Rock's legacy isn't just to be found in libraries and archives – it lives on in the present through British writer and photographer Michael Woodhead, who has spent a good part of the past two decades researching Rock's life and travels and tracing the great explorer's steps. Michael Woodhead; Joseph Rock Woodhead, now based in Sydney, first visited Southwest China in 1990, and has made regular trips back to the area since then to visit the more remote regions featured in Joseph Rock's articles. Descriptions of his trips and photographs, which include some stunning then-versus-now images, can be found on his blog In the Footsteps of Joseph Rock, best described as "a photoblog showing how eastern Tibet looked in the 1920s and how the same places and people look now."  (Readers in China will need a VPN or proxy for access. Alternatively, subscribe to it directly through your RSS reader.) As a journalist, he's usually the one asking the questions. Here though, he discusses his personal fascination with Joseph Rock, his own experiences in the wilds of China, and shares some of his photos. How would you introduce Joseph Rock to people who haven't come across him before? The popular view propagated by the Lonely Planet guide seems to be that he was an irascible, despotic and reclusive plant-collector and explorer who had delusions of grandeur, traveling in palatial style through the wilds of Yunnan and Sichuan in the 1920s. While there's some truth in this, I would say he was essentially a serious and practical scholar – first of botany, and later of the Naxi language and customs. He was also a polymath. In addition to his fastidious scientific skills, he was also a gifted linguist, an accomplished photographer and also a good, if flawed, mapmaker, apothecary, writer, minor diplomat and self-publicist! I think he was driven by the fact that he knew he was a very talented man, but because of his penniless immigrant background he lacked the formal qualifications to succeed in mainstream US academia. He left Hawaii and moved to China because the university wouldn't award him credits towards a PhD, even though he had produced the definitive guide to the plants of the islands that is still a standard reference book today. He knew he could make his mark in China because there was so much to discover in Yunnan for anyone prepared to go out into the field, which he did. What did he accomplish, and why was it so important? I think his main accomplishment, obviously, was being the most prolific plant collector in western China and eastern Tibet – discovering and catalogueing so many new species of flowers, plants and trees as well as birds and insects etc. He literally wrote the book about the flora of Hawaii, and then did the same for western China. I don't think he was a 'great' explorer, but he was very good at appearing to be one by documenting his travels – in writing, with maps and most of all with some superb photographs of both the people and landscapes he encountered. Joseph Rock, Michael Woodward Through his articles in National Geographic he inspired the whole Shangri-La myth (via James Hilton's Lost Horizon, which drew heavily on Rock's articles) as well as poetry by Ezra Pound. And yet while he was an excellent 'collector' of plants, images and places in Southwest China, he showed surprisingly little insight into the people and their customs. He was dismissive of what he saw as the hopelessly hidebound customs of the Han Chinese, and equally contemptuous of the Tibetan religious 'superstitions' such as prayer wheels and chanting. He was a rational, practical man who had little time for frivolous things, archaic practices or religious hokum – and that was why he also kept well away from the western missionaries who were practically the only other foreigners in western China at that time. When did you first encounter his work? What was it that resonated with you? I first came across Rock's articles in some old copies of National Geographic that I was browsing through in a public library, shortly after my first trip to Yunnan in 1990. I was curious to find out more about China, and his florid prose about 'lands that are destined to remain untrodden for years to come' jumped off the page as a challenge to me. The beautiful photographs of the landscape and people of Yunnan and Sichuan were also very inspiring, as well as the fact that many of the places that he wrote about appeared to still be 'off the map' in 1990 – or at least mentioned in the Lonely Planet guide. I wanted to rediscover these mysterious places! What was it like the first time you found yourself standing where he'd stood? Muli Monastery Joseph Rock, Michael Woodward I clearly remember the thrill I felt when I walked 'off the [modern] map' north of Lugu Lake and found that the small settlements I encountered still bore the same names as those jotted down by Rock on his hand-drawn maps. And it was rewarding to hear the people in places like 'Vudju' (now 'Wujiao') recount how they remembered a European man with 'magic glasses that could see through mountains' (binoculars). Some of the younger generation had only heard of Rock by word of mouth, and thought that 'Luoke' was a legend rather than a real person. In one remote mountain hamlet called Mongdong (Mundon) [pictured above], above the Yalong river, the older generation had many interesting tales to tell about the foreigner who had passed through, and how as children they'd incurred his anger by accidentally setting his sleeping bag on fire. Muli Monastary, Joseph Rock; Michael Woodhead One of the times I got a shiver down the spine was when I tracked down the site of the old Muli monastery [pictured above and right] that had once comprised about 100 buildings surrounded by a wall. All that was left was an outline of the wall, a few stumps of ruins and a small rebuilt temple. I could tell I was stood in exactly the same spot where Rock has set up his camera, and the vibrant community that he had recorded was now gone. All that was left were ghosts. In some of the more remote villages I visited in the 1990s there were still people who remembered Rock's visit. Of course there are well known people like the Lijiang Naxi orchestra leader Xuan Ke and herbal clinic personality Dr Ho who also knew Rock – Xuan Ke says he learned English from him and his family still have some of Rock's furniture and books. He told me he remembered Rock as a studious man who just wanted to be alone to read his books and write. Michael Woodhead, Joseph Rock Did any other local people still remember him? How do you go about tracing his old routes? How much is based on maps, and how much on asking people on the ground? What problems have you faced? It was initially almost all based on the small sketch maps he'd included with his articles in the National Geographic. As I mentioned above, they proved to be quite reliable for place names and distances, but lacking in detail, especially topographic features. What appeared as a blank centimeter on his maps might entail a whole day's travel across a canyon or over an enormous ridge. I later got hold of facsimiles of his original hand drawn maps from the Royal Geographical Society library in London. These were huge and had almost every boulder marked on them – literally 'too much information.' However, as seen with Rock's notoriously inaccurate overestimates of mountain heights, some of his maps had huge gaps in them – such as his apparent bypassing of Wuxu Lake, near Jiulong in Sichuan. The narrative descriptions of his journeys could also be relied on in terms of travelling times and distances – if he said it took four days to cross from the Mekong to the Salween (Nujiang) then that would still hold true for hikers today. However, again there are some odd omissions in his writings (such as his failure to mention the huge peak of Kangwu Shan near Jiulong [pictured left]), which I attribute to him passing through areas during periods of bad weather and missing some obvious views due to low cloud. Another problem in retracing his routes is that he traveled at a time when there were few or no motor roads, and he used walking/horse tracks. Many of these traditional transport routes have now fallen into disuse, superseded by less direct and longer road connections, and if you ask local people they have no idea about the old routes. "Take the bus," they say. Looking at some of your comparative photos it seems that, for the most part, very little has changed in this corner of China. Is that a fair assessment? Joseph Rock, Michael Woodhead It would have been a fair assessment in 1990, but not now. Lugu Lake, where Rock rested for many months, was still very much as he portrayed it when I first visited in the mid 1990s – a quiet backwater with just a collection of rather shabby Naxi wooden houses around the water's edge. Now the lakeside [including the Zhamei Si Temple pictured below] is very developed for tourism – likewise for many of the surrounding areas, such as the hot springs near Yongning. The same can be said for Baisha and the area around Rock's home ('Nguluko') north of Lijiang. There are now sculpture parks, ski lifts and the tiny temple has been turned into a coach tour stop. Muli (Wachang) temple was completely razed to the ground in the Cultural Revolution and only small sections have been rebuilt. Joseph Rock, Michael Woodhead The Konka Gompa at the foot of Minya Konka (Gongga Shan) was quite unchanged until recently, but now there is a new temple and a road has been built over the once remote Tsemi Pass. Ditto Yading – the 'no go' area (on pain of death) for Chinese that Rock described was still almost unexplored in 1990, but is now a nature park charging a 158 RMB entrance fee and has porters to carry you around on their backs. Deqen and Mt Kawa Karpo are also rapidly opening up to tourism [see Kangding are still pretty remote and unchanged. The Catholic settlements along the northern Nujiang are also very much as Rock found them [see pictures below]. Joseph Rock, Michael Woodhead Joseph Rock, Michael Woodhead


What have been your most rewarding expeditions? Joseph Rock, Micheal Woodhead My first trip to Muli monastery from Lugu Lake was the best because it was very much a trip into the unknown, and it was a revelation to see that everything was still as Rock had described it. It was at a time when foreigners were still a rarity in rural Yunnan, and I was often the first foreigner that the locals had ever seen – at least since 1949. When I crossed over the pass into Muli county and first saw the white monastery far away on top of a hill it was like discovering Shangri-La. In more recent times my trip to the remote Maidi Ganga mountain near Jiulong was a really rewarding trip because again I was going in to a place where no foreigners had been since Rock's visit. I only managed that because I struck up a friendship with a local Party leader who was also of Pumi ethnicity [as are the women in the old-and-new pictures below] and a native of the remote hilltop hamlet that Rock had described. He recognized his grandfather in one of Rock's photographs that I'd brought along from the 1930s, and from then on he was my best friend! My visit to Gongga Shan was special because I stayed with local Khampas in their yak hair 'yurts' and saw how they lived. I also enjoyed my trips to the Nujiang – except for the nightmarish roads along the river north of Bingzhongluo. [In 2009, Time identified the Nujiang valley as the "Best Place to Visit Before It's Gone."] Pumi, Joseph Rock, Michael Woodhead An attempt to emulate Rock's trip from Muli via the 'back door' to Yading failed because of poor weather and because we spectacularly underestimated the sheer scale of the landscape and the amount of ascent/descent involved through rough country. Again, a case of the blank on the map not revealing what tough terrain we faced. The environmental damage caused by clear tree felling was also very depressing. Deqen was also a major disappointment because of over-development, such as that around the Fei Lai Si viewing point for the mountain. The Mekong valley was nice, but again bad weather stopped us from crossing over to the Nujiang. Are there any particular places Rock visited that you'd still like to get to? The last missing piece of the jigsaw is to retrace his year long sojourn through the Min Shan area to Chone (Zuone) in Gansu and his long, abortive attempt to get to Amnye Machen and Ngolok territory. I'd also like to see the other more remote Muli temples of Kangwu and Waerzhai, where the Muli 'king' used to live. I should also say that there were many other interesting explorers in this area in the early 20th century and I look forward to retracing the steps of others such as Frank Kingdon-Ward, Ronald Kaulback and Heinrich Handel Mazzetti.

Joseph Rock, Michael Woodhead
Joseph Rock, Micheal Woodhead

Is there a particular route that you'd recommend to first time visitors to this part of China? The Konka Gompa monastery (Gongga Si) is now quite accessible from Kangding and Chengdu, and much of that Minya Konka range is still fairly unspoilt once you get away from the main roads [ Outside magazine has a harrowing account of a climbing expedition in this region]. You can do a return hike to the monastery through some spectacular scenery in about five days, or take a Jeep in and see it in an overnight visit. I'm also surprised so few people visit the area around Jiulong, such as Wuxu Lake. It's only an easy day's trip from Kangding, has a mild climate and many unexplored valleys, but at the moment only a few Chinese tourists visit the region.

Joseph Rock, Michael Woodhead

Interested in doing a bit of your own exploring in the mountains and valleys of northwestern Yunnan, southwestern Chengdu and eastern Tibet? Your best point of access is the traditional Naxi town of Lijiang, today served by regular flights. Book Lijiang flights and Lijiang hotels on Ctrip, then head for the hills. If you're trekking, be sure to prepare for high-altitude conditions and use a knowledgeable local guide.

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