The 1905 British Nujiang Expedition
Into the Land of the Black Lisu

The Nujiang Canyon, on Yunnan's western frontier, was until the 1930s a blank area on the map that not even Chinese troops dared to enter. In 1905 two British explorers made the first foray into this land of the Black Lisu.

The Hengduan 'Longitudinal' mountains dominate Yunnan's west, their ridges formidable obstacles to any journey from Burma to China. Yet for travellers even more threatening were the deep river gorges carved between the mountains. And the most feared of them all was the valley of the Nujiang, or Salween as it is known in the west.

In this deepest of all gorges, almost 500m below the level of the Mekong flowing almost parallel only a few dozen kilometres east, tropical diseases were endemic, killing scores of explorers and traders. And those not struck down by malaria often fell prey to the Black Lisu, a fierce tribe controlling the Nujiang's upper reaches.

All this did not deter George Forrest and George Litton, two Britons in Yunnan at the beginning of the 20th century. Forrest was a 'Plant Hunter', professionally collecting new species for European gardens, while Litton was Britain's consul at Tengyue (now Tengchong), a trading post on China's route to Burma, not far from the southern end of the Nujiang's canyon.

They shared a sense of adventure, yet at the same time, they had good reasons for their dangerous trip. For Forrest, it was a splendid occasion to collect plants in a hitherto unexplored region. For Litton, it was more insidious. On the western side of the Gaoligongshan mountains, Britain had advanced its holdings to the Chinese frontier. His mission was to explore the Nujiang for a possible British annexation.

In October 1905 they set out from Tengyue in perfect weather. Yet it was not to last. Only a few days later, heavy rains began. But despite the downpours they pushed on to Pianma, a little hamlet, which only years later would see military clashes between Britain and China.

It took Forrest and Litton almost three weeks to reach the Nujiang proper, not far from modern Luzhang, then a Lisu village and - at least in name - seat of the Chinese administration. North of Luzhang stretched a wild jungle, the Land of the Black Lisu. Progress was slow for Forrest and Litton, as they recorded in a 1908 article in The Geographical Journal:

Poisonous-looking scarlet fruits hang from the overarching jungle; lianas and tree-roots trip up the unwary traveller; if he catches the nearest plant to save himself, the chances are that it is a stinging nettle of the size of a laurel, and poisonous in proportion. In some places, especially around maize-fields, the natives provide a further diversion in the shape of "panji", or hard pieces of sharp-pointed bamboo, which are driven into the ground amongst the grass, and will, if trodden upong, pierce even through a leather boot and deep into the foot.

Yet even though the Black Lisu had a fearsome reputation, their reception in the first villages was good. For this Litton had paved the ground by paying their porters well. But, further up the canyon, the situation became different. An an attempt to cross the Nujiang by ropebridge almost ended in tragedy:

As we were all crowded together on a narrow path, near a tree to which the rope bridge was secured, and the bellicose Lissoo [Lisu] was about to draw his bow again with an arrrow in it which might find a billet in the body of any of us, the situation was critical. [...] I fired several shots from my Winchester repeater over his head at a boulder on the other side of the river.

But Forrest and Litton pushed on, passing the site of modern day Fugong, where there was nothing but a small village. Their hardships were rewarded by the canyon's splendid vistas:

[...] the scenery of the upper Salwin can never be forgotten by any one who has wondered at it in the rich sunshine which prevails after the autumn rains have given way to the first touch of winter. The great variety of rock formation, the abundant forests and vegetation, and the diversity of light effects bttween the summits of the ranges [...] and the abyss in which the river flows produce a vast panorama of ever-changing beauty. In the morning the sun, at it touches the Mekong divide, sends wide shafts of turquoise light down the side gullies to the river, which seems to be transformed into silver. The pines along the top of the ridges stand out as if limned by the hand of a Japanese artist. In the evening all the wide slopes of the Mekong side are flooded with red and orange lights, which defy photography and would be the despair of a Turner.

From north of Fugong they even crossed the mountains eastwards to the Mekong side, a feat even more appreciated knowing that today, one hundred years later, no road, no path crosses these mountains. After two months on the "road", Litton and Forrest returned to Tengchong. Forrest had collected valuable species, while Litton had established that Chinese rule in the valley was weak, if non-existent. The Lisu, he thought, could be brought over to the British.

Litton and Forrest had escaped the canyon's dangers, it seemed. Yet even these brave men could not beat the Nujiang's scourge. Litton fell ill soon afterwards, never to recover, and while Forrest had a few more years, died alone in the Hengduan mountains returning from another Nujiang expedition. And the British? Their advance on Pianma was thoroughly repelled by the Lisu.