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Yunnan: Through the Eyes of The Adventurers

Ashley Greenwood 2016-03-01 13:38

George Forrest


Born in Scotland in 1873, Forrest was a botanist who introduced hundreds of species to the West. In his quest for the most exotic blooms, he became one of the first Western explorers of China’s then-remote province of Yunnan. 


During his first expedition he arrived at the town of Talifu (Dali) in 1904. He took the time to know the people and made an effort to learn their language, displaying a sincere respect for the local people and their culture. Forrest would later pay for the inoculation of thousands of locals against smallpox, a crippling and potentially fatal disease that was still ravaging millions of people throughout the world at the time. 


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In the summer of 1905 he set off on his first expedition to the north of Yunnan near the border with Tibet, to the lush rhododendron forests above the Lancang River. He stayed briefly at the French mission in Tzekou (modern day Cigu) with his 17 local collectors. At the time there was unrest in the region and so Forrest returned to Dali with the support of the Lisu people. 


After a brief period of recovery he travelled to Tengyueh and then up to the Salween district with his friend, where they spent two months before his friend developed malaria. He later set off on another trip to Lijiang before h developed malaria himself. 


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After his first trip he grew to love the region and returned for six more expeditions. His contributions to the study of natural history in western China were immense. He discovered over 1,200 new plants species previously unknown to West, as well as many birds and mammals. After his final trip in the 1930s, Forrest suffered a heart attack and died. He was buried in Tengchong in the land he had come to call home. 


Joseph Rock 


Born in Austria in 1884, Rock was an Austrian-American explorer, botanist, and anthropologist. For more than 25 years, he travelled extensively through Tibet and Yunnan, Gansu, and Sichuan provinces in China before finally leaving in 1949. Several of his travelogues were published in the National Geographic magazine. These articles inspired James Hilton to write Lost Horizon and introduced the world to the paradise of Shangri-la. 


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Rock was first sent to northwestern Yunnan in 1924 on an expedition to collect plant and bird specimens. In his own time he studied the cultures and languages of local tribes, especially the Naxi tribe in Yunnan, about whom he wrote two history books. 


He collected thousands of Naxi manuscripts and became fluent in unique Naxi pictographic language. With help from the Naxi shamanistic priests, or dongbas, Rock translated many of the manuscripts that he collected, and created a 1094-page Naxi dictionary. He is still remembered by some of the older villagers of the Nguluko (Yuhu) where he lived, at the foot of Mt. Yulong (Jade Dragon Snow Mountain), close to Lijiang. 


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In 1949 Rock left Lijiang on a chartered plane together with his friend-traveller and author Peter Goullart. 


Peter Goullart


Rock’s friend was the Russian traveller and writer Peter Goullart, who also lived in Lijiang and travelled throughout the area during the early 20th century. Peter Goullart’s book Forgotten Kingdom describes the life and beliefs of the Naxi and neighbouring peoples. 


Goullart had an interest in the Orient from an early age, and after the Bolshevik Revolution he fled to China, settling in Shanghai in 1924. He became fluent in Chinese and worked for several years as a guide for Western tourists before moving to Sichuan, and then to Lijiang. 


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For over eight years he lived in Lijiang, documenting the life and customs of inhabitants of this remote region. His writings show his awareness of the transience of the life and culture of the people. He classified the tribes in the area in to those that will disappear in time, and those that will adopt and prosper in the future. Of course, he counted the Naxi as a group that will continue to survive in the face of change. 



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