Dad worked in Chongqing from August 1942 – January 1944. Before he left China he visited Kunming and travelled the Burma Road to Dali. This was the heart of my trip to Yunnan in March 2015. He describes his journey in a letter to his friend Bren Trevor:
On 31st December 1943 I left Chungking for 10 days leave before coming to this place (Staff College, Quetta, India). I and Norman Standen of the Embassy went to Kunming.
This is a lovely city though even more expensive than Chungking. It is still surrounded by its ancient city wall. I shall never forget coming in through the North Gate on the evening of my arrival. The city is in a wide valley about 6000ft above sea level. Unlike Chungking the air is clear and crisp. There is a grove of Eucalyptus trees around the North Gate, which is actually a large square tower. You enter from one side through enormous wooden doors, covered with iron plates and spikes, into a very pretty courtyard containing a few Eucalyptus and Cypress trees and the gatekeeper’s house; then you turn sharp left through the actual opening in the city wall. Unlike Chungking where all the buildings are in a drab slate colour and the tiles appear to be made of pounded coke, Kunming has quite picturesque buildings and gaily coloured rooves.
We stayed 2 days in Kunming and then took a truck down the Burma Road to Tali (Dali). Unfortunately 50km out of Kunming the truck ran a big end bearing. The driver managed to cadge a lift back to Kunming to get a new connecting rod. We resigned ourselves to awaiting his return sometime the next day. We were in a very desolate spot. About half a mile from the truck there was a ramshackle village consisting of a temple and about ten mud huts. The truck mechanic said it was bad bandit country and asked me to get protection from the nearest political head.
Next day a relief truck arrived which took us on without further mishap to Tsuyung (Chuxiong) where we spent the night with an American missionary. She has lived there with two short breaks for leave for the past 36 years. Think of it, she was in China in the days of the Mandarin Emperors, in pre-republic days. The following day I had to call on the local General so our start was delayed and we did not reach Tali till 7pm.
Tali is a pleasant walled city about one mile square. Much of the land within the walls is cultivated. It is almost completely untouched by modern “progress”. Unlike so many Chinese cities which I have seen and which are built of stamped mud or wattle, Tali is built of stone. In consequence the streets are not inches deep in mud or dust but are comparatively clean. We ourselves lived in a courtyard of a most attractive Chinese house. The city is a great market centre for trucks coming from the north and Tibet. We saw in the streets a number of Tibetans in their peculiar leather boots and coats.
Towards the end of our stay we (self, Standen and hosts) spent a day trying to climb up the mountain (Cang Shan, 4122m). Though it is 14,000ft high, Tali itself is over 7000 so it is a not impossible climb to do in one day. Unfortunately two days before our attempt it snowed and though from down below it appeared to be only a powdering, by the time we had got to 11 or 12,000ft it was knee deep and quite impossible for us to reach the top.
The Burma Road
The Burma Road is a magnificent engineering feat. It was built by the Chinese without foreign assistance. I believe they only started work on it in 1938. I shudder to think of the number of coolies whose lives must have gone to its construction. We passed over the highest section of the road where much of it is over 8000ft above sea level and some of it over 9000. The surface by English standards is bad, but the alignment is wonderful. I think there is nowhere a gradient of more then 1 in 10.
I left Kunming for India on the 13th and had a most wonderful flight in brilliant sunshine over “the hump”. The view was magnificent as we flew close by peaks of between 18 and 20,000ft. At the highest point we flew through a pass with mountains rising on either side of us.