Gareth Jones

[bas relief by Oleh Lesiuk]

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JOURNEY FROM CANTON TO CHANGSHA

Far East Contents

On Wednesday, June 12th, 1935 sitting beneath a tree in Yale, Changsha, Hunan, Gareth wrote to his family: 

“Here I am safe and sound after an adventurous journey of over 400 miles from Canton on to the interior of China.  It was a journey.  So I shall describe to you in my letter." 

“On Saturday morning at 6 o’clock the Chinese boy woke me at the New Asia Hotel, Canton and I reluctantly got up.  I had packed my rucksack and small bag.  I had tea and settled the bill (very high for thanks to Roosevelt and his policy of buying silver, the money has gone up terribly) tipped the boys who looked after me, got into a rickety taxi and rattled off to the Wongsha Station.  I had a second-class ticket to Lokchong, as there was no 1st class on the train.  It is on the Canton - Hankow Railway that will be finished in 1936-37 and will have a great affect on the unification of China.  Two villainous looking coolies carried my bags from the taxi to the station and also 2 parcels filled with bread, ham, butter, cheese and chocolate. 

The train was awful - all wooden and the 2nd class was packed, so I made myself at home in the very primitive dining car.  The train left at 7.45.  There were dozens of officers of General Chen Chi-tang’s army (he is a great man in Canton) and lots of soldiers in blue uniforms.  We went pass the lotus and the fishponds and past the rice-fields.  We crawled along.  It was pouring with rain.  Soon I realised that the floods around were terrific.  There were vast areas covered with yellow water, trees peeping out of the floods and the big wide river was lashing down full speed with thousands of eddies and whirlpools.  I got rather alarmed, because I knew that most of the journey would have to be made by river and bus and I was afraid that the roads would be covered with water and that the force of the river would be too great for any sampan to go upstream. 

We stopped at lots of stations.  I got wet because the roof of the coach was leaking and the water dripped down upon me until I changed my seat.  The soldiers, armed with revolvers or rifles, stared at me.  We entered the mountains and the scenery was not unlike Devonshire, only it was more barren.  There were rice fields and there were graves on the mountainside.  In one place I saw an anti-Japanese poster representing a Japanese soldier with a bayonet at the throat of a Chinese.  People stared at me everywhere.  In one station a Chinese General, looking very funny, strutted up and down accompanied by his officers.  Coolies carried terrific weights on bamboo sticks. 

All day long the train climbed slowly into the mountains, until at 5 o’clock after 9 and half-hours the train stopped at Lokchong.  I had been told that the railway had not been built beyond that point and that I had to find a sampan as far as a town called Pingshek that is upstream.  I descended from the train.  Two boys carried my bags and we walked a mile into the town.  There were armed soldiers everywhere, but I have never seen such a hopeless or funny lot.  As I walked through the town lots of people came to look at me with amusement or amazement. 

I was taken to hotel in the dirty, main street, very primitive, but fine red silk designs at the entrance with pictures of dragons on it.  The Chinese Hotel is like a barracks; one big room and the sleeping quarters are divided by wooden partitions, but you can padlock your sleeping room.  A boy of about 11or 12 who seemed to dominate the hotel, gave orders to all, gave me boiling water to wash and a little cup of tea.  He was surprised that I wanted a dry towel.  They always give wet towels in Chinese inns and it took him along time to understand.  I had a little balcony from which I looked out at a pond and a decrepit temple. 

I had a look at the flooded river and thought it would be impossible to take a sampan to Pingshek, my next destination.  I showed my bit of paper with:  “ I want a sampan to Pingshek” written in Chinese.  The boy and two other men made gestures to imply “no good - Flood too high” by waving their hands to imitate the river and making noises like a flooded river. 

I showed the written sentence: “ I want a chair to Pingshek”.  They made gestures of a chair and seemed delighted.  Yes, they gestured you can get a chair to Pingshek at 9 dollars.  It will take two days. I did not like the idea of being bumped in a chair carried on the shoulders of two coolies for two whole days. 

I decided to go for a walk.  I wandered through the narrowest arcades you can imagine; saw Chen Chi-tangs soldiers with fixed bayonets at the entrance of each temple.  I suppose the troops were quartered at the temples. 

I should explain that the part between Pingshek and Lokchong was up to recently, infested by bandits.  Gerald Yorke had given me letters written by his Chinese servant Li (see Peter Fleming’s One’s Company for a description of Li and of Gerald and also of the journey I did, except that Fleming and Gerald came with his Chinese servant Li from Changsha to Canton while I did it from Canton to Changsha).  The letters were to magistrates on route asking for 2 soldiers to accompany me should there be bandits.  In Canton I was assured that there were no bandits left. 

At Lokchong I went for a walk and saw a church with a cross.  I made my way past some soldiers who were jumping (long jump) and across some rice-fields, until I came to the Church.  There was an Italian Dominican priest there and he welcomed me and we spoke a mixture of French, Latin and Italian.  He came from Sicily.   It was most lucky I called to see him, because he told me that the railways had been built many miles into the mountains along the gorges.   “You need not go by chair.   You take the railway as far as it can go, but be careful between the railway and Pingshek.  Molto bandits!  In Hunan (beyond Pingshek) there are no bandits”

The rogues at the Hotel had not told me about the railway going on, because they would have had a share of the 9 dollars for carrying me in the chair (The Chinese are most dishonest like that).  The missionary told me that 9/10 of the conversation he overheard in the streets was about money and the bargains they had made. 

I went back to the Hotel, had Chinese food and orangeade.  The Chinese food was a dish of mushrooms, a few pieces of chicken, macaroni and soup all mixed up. 

I told the boy and his cronies, the coolies I did not want the chair, that I was going on by train and they were most disappointed, but smiled as if to say that they had nearly succeeded in deceiving me. 

To bed at 8 o’clock, but people were singing Chinese songs, shouting, stamping most of the night and marching up and down.  You could here the sound of Mah Jong pieces.  Outside the temple two girls were singing monotonously, so it was hard to sleep. 

At 5.45 next morning there was a banging at the door, hot water was brought in and soon the boy was carrying my luggage on a bamboo pole for the mile to the station.  He took me to a big coach crammed with people.  There were 120 (so I counted) of us in one big coach, a number of them were soldiers of about 15 or 16 years old I was, of course, the only non-Chinese.  Next to me was a little man with glasses (but I do not think they were any use.  They did not magnify.  I looked through them.  He was just wearing them to look studious and important).  He had a tiny straw hat perched on the side of his head.  I grinned at him and he grinned at me.  We were to be travelling companions for two days, although he did not understand a word of English. 

Then little man quarrelled with a coolie.  They shouted and yelled at each other.  Chinese seem to quarrel a great deal, but rarely come to blows, although yesterday I saw a fight and one Chinese nearly pushed the other into a stream. 

At 7.45 the train started, then stopped, then went backwards, onward again, stopped.  At last we puffed on the new railway track, where hundreds of coolies were still working.  It was a fine ride along the river, through the gorges where formerly bandits had a great time descending upon the sampans.  The train went for about 1 hour 1/2 to a station called Kimma.  There my neighbour told me to follow the others out.  We went into a railway wagon and off we went again. 

I started eating bread.  The people were amazed.  They had never seen bread before.  I gave some for them to taste and they put tiny crumbs into their mouths as if it were caviar.  Then I ate the chocolate and the passengers were amused.  They tried to taste it and they kept the red and silver paper (nestles 1d bar) as a momento. 

The wagon jerked along the track, along the river and came to a stop.  My companion indicated that we had to walk to Pingshek.  We got a coolie for my bags and we started walking. 

I won’t forget that walk. I had a 15-mile walk to get here.  It lasted from 10.45 till 4 o’clock almost without stopping in boiling heat.  My tongue was cracked with thirst and heat.  In one village I got some boiling water to drink in an opium den, where a coolie was rolling his piece of opium just before smoking it, stretched out on a mat.  In one place I got lemonade, but no sooner had I drank, then I got thirsty again. 

A number of soldiers with small semi-rifles, semi-revolvers were marching along the track.  We walked through unfinished tunnels, watched hundreds of coolies build up embankments.  We saw sampans trying to go up stream, being tugged by about 10 coolies on the bank and moving about 1 foot a minute.  Had I taken a sampan it would have lasted 6-7 days to get to Pingshek? 

My companion gave me his umbrella against the sun.  Visions of iced drinks floated before me all the time until they almost became an obsession.  We scrambled over embankments across hills, got carried by a ferry across a river.  Then suddenly the sun disappeared and it poured.  Sun came out again and we boiled. 

It was a pleasant Sunday afternoon when we saw Pingshek, a small town on the river.  We found a primitive inn where my room was like a prison cell with bars instead of windows.  I swallowed 2 bottles of orangeade at once.  

At 8.15 I went to bed.  There were noises all night, people tramping up and down in wooden shoes, shouting playing Mah Jong games and singing Chinese songs.  

On Monday at 4.50 a.m. my companion woke me, told me to hurry, the hotel boy carried out luggage through dim streets till we came to a mob of people fighting for bus tickets.  It was on the Kwangtung - Hunan frontier.  

Then I found my money was no good!  I had Canton money and I had Hong Kong dollars, but they were worthless and I was stranded and penniless.  People would not look at my valuable money!           

Luckily my travelling companion came to my rescue.  He was willing to exchange my Canton dollars for Hunan or Shanghai dollars.  Saved again!  He bought my ticket and we were pushed into a lorry, just like a prison lorry, no windows, but some windows with iron bars.  There were 21 of us inside.  At 6 o’clock off we went across the frontier into Hunan province.  We changed bus again, another lorry, very uncomfortable. 

Again we changed bus at Ichang.  The bus had ledges along the side less than a foot wide. You have no idea how luxurious White’s buses are.  We do not realise our advantages in Britain. 

My destination was Chenchow.  We rattled along all day.  Three times our bus was stoned.  It was lucky there were no glass windows.  One big stone came right near me, but no one was hit.  There were boys throwing them.  Then the pouring rain came. 3 o’clock in the afternoon we stopped after 9 hours bus!  We were in Chenchow so I thought.            

It did pour.  A coolie got my luggage and my bespectacled companion and I got into a sampan and crossed a very wide river to a most miserable town I have ever seen.  We almost slipped on the landing place.  Rickshaw coolies bombarded us.  I paid off my coolie (carrier) and gave him lots of copper coins thinking I was most generous.  He yelled and shrieked and cried and I could not understand and the rain was dripping down my neck and everywhere.  I discovered later that I had given him Canton copper coins instead of Hunan copper coins. 

I got a ride in a terribly old rickshaw.  I wanted to go the Presbyterian Mission where Dick Weigle had told me to spend the night with Rev. and Mrs. Johnston. I said to the rickshaw coolie.   “Meriko  “ (American) and I made the sign of the cross (i.e. Church).  He nodded and said “Yay-su” (Jesus). I said “yes” and off we went. 

It was terrible.  I had my legs perched over my luggage.  The rain was pouring through the hide covering over the rickshaw.  The streets were so narrow that 2 rickshaws could hardly pass each other, about as broad as the drawing room at home.  Then the roofs were so near each other that the streets were dark.  Worse than that the roofs gathered all the rain and poured threefold onto the rickshaw and upon myself.  The stones of the road were bad and I was bumped and bumped.  He went on and on and on, never stopping.  The rain never stopped either and I was getting wetter and wetter.  At last he came to a river.  He pointed and I saw a church.  I was never so delighted to see a cross, for we had gone about 3 miles.  We took a ferry across an angry flooded river.  Then we had to walk through flooded streets up to my ankles and got to the church.  “Now for a lovely bath and a welcome from Americans” I thought. 

Then it seemed funny.  A Chinese man came and glared at me.  Then another came and scowled - a rotten welcome in the pouring rain.  I realised that it was a Chinese Roman Catholic Church and later I heard that they probably mistook me for a White Russian tramp.  The rickshaw coolie had made a quite understandable mistake.  No white priest came.

So out we went into the drenching rain.  “Yay-su?” (Jesus) said the coolie.  I said “Yes, Yay-su!” and he nodded, so we walked splashing in the mud and water past blind beggars and diseased people.  We crossed the ferry and returned to where we had left the rickshaw.  Rain, rain, rain, bumped over bad stones, narrow streets, nearly knocked over a few blind, beggars, bashed into umbrellas.  We came to a place full of debris.  It was a road being widened by order of Chang Kai Shek.  Then my rickshaw coolie stumbled in the street and fell just like a horse in shafts.  I got out.  He stood up, tried to arrange my bags for me and by accident pushed my rucksack into a pool of mud. 

The city seemed huge and we went on and on past miserable houses.  At last he stopped by a grey wall, opened a door and I went in.  It looked like a Mission.  Dripping wet, I went in, paid the coolie, but he refused to take the money, because it was Canton money. 

Finally a rather sad looking missionary lady came in.  I learned after that she had every right to be said, because a big American Bank had smashed in Shanghai and that she had lost all her savings and the Mission had lost a lot of money.           

“How do you do Mrs Johnson “ I said.  “Dick Weigle suggested I should stay here in Chenchow and has given me this letter of introduction to you”. 

“But this is not Chenchow.  This Henchow and I am not Mrs Johnson.  You have come 100 miles to far!”   It just shows the difficulty of travelling in a country where one doesn’t know the language. 

The American Presbyterian missionaries were most kind.  A Mr and Mrs Birkle gave me a much-needed hot bath and a room.  A Dr and Mrs Brody gave me dinner and music. 

They said that there was a famine in the area I had come through.  I had not noticed a single thing, as all seemed well fed.  The rice crops failed last year and some of the peasants were eating grass.  I should never have known it.  They also said that robbers who took all the money from the passengers often stopped the buses.  Therefore I had been sensible to take only a little money. 

Next morning, which was Tuesday at 4.45, Mr Birkle called me.  I had a good breakfast.  A rickshaw coolie took me for miles into the country until I thought he was misleading me on purpose, but it was a fine morning and the lotus ponds looked beautiful.  At last we reached the bus station. 

Then began the last day of the journey, the 4th day, a 6-hour journey by bus from Henchow (or Hengyang, its new name).  By the way, it was near here that the village folk fearing that the railway builders were disturbing the spirits of the mountains by making a tunnel, descended upon them and killed 16.  They are very afraid of the new railway here.  They believe that a newborn baby is buried in each pillar of the bridges built.  They also believe that for each pillar a local man must die. 

At nine o’clock the bus left.  It was a luxury bus, because it had windows (green ones) and seats facing the front!  Next to me sat a German Missionary.  He pointed out that the lines dividing the rice-paddies and paths were never straight”.  It is because the villagers believe that the dragons or dragon spirits cannot go straight, but wriggle along in a curving line”. 

I noticed that some of the women had tiny deformed bound feet and that they wore white flowers in the back of the head.  There were soldiers everywhere, some of whom had curved swords and that that there was a large tower or blockhouse on the top of every hill.  These were built against the Communists who ravaged the country in 1931 and among other things destroyed the mission where I was invited to dine last night Wednesday night, taking out 8 pianos and smashing them all to pieces.  Just before 3 o’clock we came to the gates of Changsha (a city of 1/2 million).  Soldiers came out of the towers and searched the bus for firearms. 

By the way one of the men on the bus could speak English.  He was a keen anti-Japanese Nationalist.  “We must have machines everywhere in China.  We are building roads and railways.  We will have railway right to Szechuan.  The Canton-Hankow railway that will be finished next year will unify China.  Chiang Kai Shek is a wonderful man.” 

“Why is he is friendly with the Japanese” I asked. 

“Oh! That’s a trick.  He is pretending to be friendly to mark time until he is strong enough to have revenge and regain Manchuria!” 

We drove to the middle of Changsha.  I took a rickshaw that brought me to this great place, a big public school run by Yale University.  Dick Weigle whom I met on the President Monroe gave me a warm welcome.  I had done the journey of 420 miles by railway, by wagon, by sampan, by walking, by bus and by rickshaw and I was glad to have arrived with nothing more than a slight cold that is now disappearing.  I had a hot bath, rest, met a number of Yale graduates who are most kind and jolly.  I like the Americans very much. 

This is a most excellent place. I shall stay here a few days, write some articles and then go on to Hankow, Nanking and Shanghai.

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Original Research, Content & Site Design by Nigel Linsan Colley. Copyright © 2001-11 All Rights Reserved Original document transcriptions by M.S. Colley.Click here for Legal Notices.  For all further details email:  Nigel Colley or Tel: (+44)  07796 303  8888