|The NuJiang River Project|
|First Bike Tour of Nujiang and Search for Flying Tigers|
I am going back to ShangriLa of Yunnan Province, China for several reasons. First, I am on the trail of some daring foreign adventurers of the 20th Century, seeking out traces of their journeys and any landmarks remaining, in a modern China blasting into the 21st Century. (Pictured at right)
Second, as Nujiang's appointed expert in preservation through ecotourism, I must further my research and expertise on an area which I predict some day will be China's most famous Scenic River Canyon.
I will be accompanied by two companions: Professor Wu Deyou, my senior Tours assistant who led my first Tiger Cycle Tour in January 1999, and Wang Qi, my friend since 1987, and China's most famous river runner. In spirit my friend, Ms Ya Na, laid low by recent surgery, will also accompany me. Without the help of NuJiang's and Yunnan's most prominent Minority Leader, I could not have taken a single step on this great journey which started back in 1994.
Since 1985 every time I get off the plane I want to run around shouting with joy in this sunny city where camelia, magnolia, azalea or primrose are always blooming. Even Marco Polo thought this was a great place. After Doolittle's famous bombing of Japan, when President Roosevelt was pestered to reveal where the planes came from, he just said, "ShangriLa." Actually they came off a carrier. But truly, especially Nujiang fits the description of the novel Lost Horizons by James Hilton (although he never visited China.) Kunming was the ShangriLa to the American volunteers who were known as General Chenault's Flying Tigers. They are the first adventurers whose history I will seek out.
Located in the middle of Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau at 6,200 feet above sea level, subtropical Kunming lies on the edge of Lake Dianchi, China's sixth largest, with the Shuimenren Mountains holding the city like a bowl. One hour away is the ancient Wenshan Hot Springs where the Flying Tigers went for blissful relaxation. Kunming is now China's major western tourist destination, and a gateway providing both road and air access to four Minority Nationality Prefectures: Dali, Lijiang, Deqen, and Nujiang Lisu.
Sixty years ago Kunming became the up-against-the-wall refuge from the invading Japanese. Things were going badly both in Europe and in Asia for the Allies. Chinese army personnel, many foreigners, even US Consulate fled here after Eastern China fell. In the early summer of 1939, the Chiang Kai-Shek's government approached Captain Claire L. Chennault seeking his help to train the demoralized Chinese Air Force. Due to increasing deafness, Chennault was retiring from US Army Air Corps and was their most skilled fighter pilot and tactical expert. Chiang Kai-Shek appointed him Adviser on Aeronautical Affairs with the rank of Colonel in the Chinese Air Force.
For two years Chennault struggled to train and deploy Chinese pilots against superior Japanese pilots and planes. Then he created an early warning system, supplying radios to thousands of patriotic peasants all over China. Whenever Japanese planes took off from any part of occupied China or IndoChina, these patriots would inform his central radio control station. This system proved to be the crucial factor for the successful defense of China. Without any comparable warning system the British were forced to abandon Myanmar (Burma) to the Japanese in 1941.
In the summer of 1941 Chennault organized the American Volunteer Group, 90 pilots who volunteered to fight for China for good pay, and 150 aircraft mechanics and administrative men. Chinese named the pilots the Flying Tigers after they painted tiger shark teeth and eyes on their P-40 planes. Besides defending Kunming and the Burma Road, AVG fighters helped to keep the Japanese at bay while Air Cargo planes flew supplies to China "over the Hump". This 500 mile air route from Assam, India to Kunming was China's only link to outside world in 1941 and passed over massive wild moutain ranges like those between which the Nujiang (Salween) River flowed.
The Salween figured very prominantly also in the land battles and the Japanese army never got beyond its natural barriers. The Salween was also the landmark that told the Pilots they were on their way home to Kunming. From December 20, 1941 until the AVG disbanded in July of 1942, the Tigers shot down 297 Japanese aircraft and 21 Tiger pilots died. Theirs was one of the few success stories for the Allies during those first bleak years of World War II.
Aided by the memories and photos of Crew Chief Frank Losonsky and Fighter Pilot Charles Bond, Wu and I are setting out to find five historic buildings: Second and Third Squadrons' dormitory, Chennault's office and his later Air Corps Club of the 1943 Over the Hump era, the original Jesuit church, and the ancient gates of Old Kunming.
Footnote: After I return I will post a complete bibliography with the hope that some of these adventurers' out of print books will come into demand again.
Not much of old Kunming exists unfortunately, although until 1998 all the travel guides touted Kunming for its extensive "Old Town": blocks of winding narrow cobblestone streets lined with ancient tiled roof buildings, their second story decks bursting with plants. Shops of every imaginable trade and a vast street market sustained generations of its community. Even an ancient two-story coffeehouse provided the weary tourists and old card playing men with the best Yunnan coffee this side of Portland, Oregon.
But in 1998-1999, Kunming government, in an overzealous effort to clean up the city, demolished most of it. Ironically, the occasion was the opening of a multimillion dollar EXPOS Park whose theme is "Man and Nature Marching into 21st Century." I suppose history is being left behind.
Professor Wu and I set off to find the ancient gates of Kunming. We found at the location of the Main Gate, a new bright and shiny "Gate to the City", in a new circular plaza surrounded by Kunming's modern multi-storied department stores. Where part of Old Town once was, two long plazas in T formation stretch, the last with two more shiny new gates at either end. I must return when I am 100 years old to see an "old" Gate.
Next to the last plaza is a new shopping mall with a "people's" performing arena - the architecture faintly reminiscent of Disneyland. Across the new boulevard is a block of rubble with three tiny ancient row houses not yet demolished, their walls crumbling. Only one elderly lady still stubbornly hangs out her wash; she looks rather sad. I ruefully take photos of all of this and then we took off again by taxi.
OK, Wu, I said. What IS old and still standing? So he took me here to the oldest TEMPLE GARDEN in Kunming on one of the busiest streets. An ancient lady at the gate charges me a few cents of entry which includes a cup of tea. I enter a timeless garden lined with old blooming Camelia trees, Yunnan pines, and tiny tables of Senior Citizens. They chat and laugh and gossip as they play majong, Chinese chess and cards. In one arbor covered walkway, a traditional music band plays, and in another, pet song birds, out for a stroll, sing in their cages.
I could hang out here for the rest of my trip! But to business at hand, and I urge Wu to question some of the old men. Surely, someone will remember the old days. We strike gold with the acquaintance of an old Chinese soldier smartly dressed with blue feudora hat. He was among the Chinese soldiers flown to India to be trained by Colonel Joe Stilwell. He did indeed remember those days of the early 40's and Chennault's Tigers. A real survivor, he fought in the battle for Burma and later went to east China to fight.
Soon we have a crowd all talking at once and passing around my photos, arguing about their memories. "Come back tomorrow and talk to the old Chinese Pilot," they say.
He was not there but an old filmy eyed guy was, who agreed to take us to several places. The first turned out to be THE oldest building dating back to 1900 and extensively extended by the French Jesuits into a church/monastry. Beside its Baroque style door were four white marble carved pillars. The shopkeeper next door said they had saved them when the building across the way was demolished. AND THAT, he said, was Chennault's first headquarters.
Next we drove out to the airport looking for the Pilots' Dormitory. And drove around…and around. Even the taxi driver was discouraged and I started watching the meter. Suddenly, after much discussion and asking, we encountered a woman who recognized the photo, and then another man led us down a walled road. And we pulled up to….the Chinese Air Force Compound! There it was, inside the walls, or half of it. Half had been removed for the driveway, but the other half of Second & Third Squadron's Dorm & Office was a one story old brick building, with tiled roof and a front porch supported by red painted wood pillars on stone pots. After 60 years the Flying Tigers' dorm was still an office for air force personnel!
While a young officer went inside to ask permission for me to take pictures, a dozen officers surrounded us studying the old photos of P-40's and scenes. The proud look in their eyes said they want to save this piece of their history. After all, Chennault became a Brigadier General in THEIR air force.
Ms Ya Na had been busy calling around and gathered two experts at her home for me to interview. And her son brought a CDROM movie (all the rage in China, forget VCRs) on Flying Tigers and the Recovery of Pilot Frank Fox's plane in Nujiang. It is now exhibited at Pianma on Burmese border - a wonderful destination on my Ox Tour. Fox crashed on Gaoligong Mt. en route Over the Hump.
Mr. Ling told me funny stories of the Flying Tigers who used to drink too much, crash their jeeps, and try to pick up girls, literally. Japanese planes bombed Kunming and killed many thousands before the Tigers came to their defense, so the People forgave the boys their rude behavior. Between him and his friend Mr. Wang, Director of Kunming Museum, more pieces of history feel into place. After our discussion and the movie we ended the day with a walk to a restaurant meal hosted by Ya Na and her husband Mr. He. The table crowded with wonderful food and family and new/old friends - this experience is the best of China for me.
END OF CHAPTER ONE
Chennault's Air Corps Clubhouse, my final trip back into Kunming's wartime past is as romantic as the legends which surround General Chennault and his Chinese wife Anna. After AVG disbanded and the Chinese retired the name Flying Tigers, Chennault continued his service in China. He organized the China Air Task Force on the foundation of a few AVG members who stayed on and Over the Hump pilots. This became the US Fourteenth Air Force in 1943. The old clubhouse, no doubt luxurious in those days gone by, rests quietly near the edge of Dianchi Lake in Western Hills of Kunming. It is the last complete structure standing of those American adventurers who volunteered to save China.
Today Professor Wu and I leave on the Yunnan Burma road tracing the footsteps of England's most illustratious female adventurer Violet Cressy-Marck. In 1939 Violet set out from Mandalay Burma along the old southern silk road into China, crossing the Salween and Mekong Rivers to Dali, ancient capitol of the Bai people. ITS ancient gate through which Marco Polo passed is still standing. Violet traveled across China intent on interviewing Mao Tse-Tung, and she did! Along the way she rafted on the Yellow River, MY kind of adventurer.
Another English adventurer we will trace was named Fraser. He spent his adult life in Lisuland (Nujiang) preaching to his beloved Lisu, Kachin, and other peoples. He also helped to preserve the Lisu language by creating a written phonetic language so as to translate part of the Bible.
I look forward to returning to the wonderful ShangriLa of the Nu River.
First Bike Tour of Nujiang