Quite by chance I met some people from the Cultural Bureau in Xiangyun County early in 2013. We were chatting about the caravan trail in that county, and particularly the uniquely well-preserved caravan town at Yunnanyi. Someone wondered if I knew that Yunnanyi was also notable because the Red Army passed through it during the Long March? I did happen to know that, I said. And had I also heard about that foreigner who retraced the Long March a few years ago. Um, well, as a matter of fact…

The revelation of my secret identity caused a minor sensation. The Cultural Bureau invited me to visit Xiangyun and once again retrace the Long March through their county. Now as it happens I had not seen much of Xiangyun during New Long March 2 in 2006. In northern Yunnan Yang Xiao and I followed the route of the Red 6th Army, which ran somewhat to the north of the Red 2nd Army’s route.  We passed through a remote corner of Xiangyun and moved straight on to Binchuan County – the reason being that the 2nd Army largely followed the caravan road, which became the main highway after the Revolution and so was not very amenable to trekking. However, given that my principal interest for the last 6 years has been that very caravan road, I decided that this chance to revisit the Long March was not to be passed up.

It took two days to hike from Pupeng, near the eastern border of Xiangyun, to the county town, where this short journey ended. Unfortunately all but a very few traces of the old caravan road have been erased.

Above is the old main street through Pupeng, where a shadow of the Ming-era style has been preserved. Shopfronts once lined both sides of this street, through which caravans would have proceeded westward over the hill in the distance.

Not far west of Pupeng we searched for the remnants of Shuipan Pu. There is still a village of that name, but the new houses have mostly been built some distance away from the former main street. The latter is largely abandoned, with only a handful of elderly or poor inhabitants making use of the decrepit buildings.

Besides the main street of Yunnanyi (see further down the page) this was the only section of paved caravan road we could find.

The ‘pu’ 铺 character in a number of villages on this route suggests the former presence of small shops and places of refreshment to serve the caravan trade. One might even stay the night, as at the old inn pictured above, but a ‘pu’ 铺 was not really equipped to handle the overnight demands of a large caravan, which needed a proper staging post (驿站) such as Yunnanyi.

Approaching Mubang Pu we found this old zhaobi, a screen erected close to the east entrance in order to improve the village’s fengshui. My comrades in this journey are standing on the line of the former caravan road. By the look of it, this zhaobi has collapsed/been knocked down at least once and then been restored in fairly rough fashion.

Not far beyond the zhaobi was this temple, first photographed by an Englishman named J.S. Ker in 1896 (I think). Ker was traveling with a Major H. R. Davies (1865-1950), a British army officer and member of the British intelligence services who led expeditions into Yunnan between 1894 and 1900 to identify potential routes for a railway link between British-occupied Burma and southwest China. Davies’ account of his and Ker’s journey from Dali to Xiangyun accompanied me on my own trip (his book was published in 1909 as Yün-nan, the Link Between India and the Yangtze). Davies called Xiangyun County (then known as Yunnan County) a ‘place of very small importance’ and consequently said almost nothing more about it. He and Ker stayed two nights in this temple; on the second day they were joined by another British officer, Captain W.A. Watts-Jones, who was on a similar surveying mission.

This is the old main street through Yunnanyi, the only one of the staging posts on the Kunming-Dali caravan road to retain something of its former aspect. I think there were 11 such staging posts in total, but don’t take this as gospel as I’m proceeding entirely from memory here. Yunnanyi has been slated for development as a tourism attraction, and so the remaining courtyards and official buildings of the caravan trading era are now theoretically protected. I say ‘theoretically’ because a protection order does not necessarily prevent historic buildings being demolished and completely reconstructed in allegedly ‘authentic’ style.

You can see an example above. A couple of years ago the main street began renovation. Part of this involved a perfectly sensible move to pull up the flagstones and install a more modern sewage system – after which the original stones were replaced. I saw them doing this on a previous visit. Another part involved the ‘restoration’ of the old shop fronts, such as those on the right of the picture. It’s an idealization of what the street actually looked like, a cookie-cutter approach to construct a tourism attraction that conforms to expectations, rather than reflecting historical reality. Besides all looking exactly the same, almost none of them is a functioning shop at this point, so it all just looks a bit phoney and sad.

More satisfying is the former caravan inn, which is on the verge of falling apart but offers a wonderful – and to my knowledge unique – illustration of how a working establishment was organized.

This shot looks into the inn across the first courtyard, in which the mules could be tethered, fed and unloaded. The muleteers slept in rooms on the second floor. Across the road from the inn is another lovely building, which now houses quite a nice museum commemorating the period when the Flying Tigers used the airfield at Yunnanyi to help supply the Allied war effort against Japan. We stayed the night in Yunnanyi with a gentleman who plans to open a restaurant in honour of this period of Sino-American cooperation. His old mum made coffee for the US airmen during the war.

This is a street in old Yunnanyi that has yet to be renovated. I’ll say just a brief word about the Red Army in Yunnanyi. The Reds arrived on the evening of April 17, 1936 and marched straight through on their way to Xiangyun County Town. As the Red 2nd Army numbered several thousand, it took until late morning on the 18th for the column to complete its passage through Yunnanyi.

There are still some impressive courtyards along the route of the caravan trail in between Yunnanyi and Xiangyun. Pictured above is the passageway connecting courtyard homes that once belonged to three members of the same wealthy family. It’s hard to imagine structures like these will survive much longer. The ones above would surely cost millions to restore; given that they are inhabited by relatively poor farming families in an unremarkable village, they will probably be demolished the moment some money becomes available to replace them with a low-cost modern house.

On the outskirts of the county town we found this tea trail memorial behind bars. Was the government afraid someone might steal the sculptures?

The centre of old Xiangyun is still occupied by this lovely bell tower. The rest of the old town has been redeveloped rather unsympathetically, but still makes a better impression than your average county town.

Coming back to the Long March, the 6th Regiment of the Red 2nd Army surrounded Xiangyun on April 18, 1936 and took the town without great difficulty the following day. The army leaders briefly set up in the building whose entryway you can see above – occupied by myself, a lady from the Xiangyun cultural bureau, and various curious locals including a handful of local scholars and historians. There was a lot of dressing up and a bit of revolutionary song and dance as the event was recorded for the benefit of Xiangyun television; in between the entertainment, however, we had a very interesting conversation. I always enjoy meeting local historical enthusiasts. They know ever so much about the details, things you never read in official histories or ‘big picture’ accounts. It reminded me properly of the New Long March expeditions and what a wonderful time I had studying on the road.