Two days later the Frenchmen saw and entered their first Chinese town, Ssu-mao. They had been traveling all day when, at four in the afternoon, rounding the flank of a hill, they saw the unmistakable sight of a Chinese provincial town. Set in a vast plain, Ssu-mao was a fortified city whose centre lay behind regular walls. Surrounding this central area were the less-ordered outer settlements, the market gardens, and dotted here and there the villas of wealthy inhabitants. Running away from the settlement were roads paved with stone and gravel, a sight they had not come upon since leaving Saigon more than fifteen months earlier. They were finally in China, the first European travelers ever to cross into this southwestern region of the Chinese Empire.
Paved roads crossed each other in the rice fields. Women crowded to their doorsteps to see us pass; children escaped from school, followed by their master, still carrying in his hand a long rod, and wearing spectacles with round glasses; and groups formed around the notices stuck up on the walls left off reading to look at us. Armed guards were in waiting for us; they saluted us politely and requested us to follow them. Our escort, which augmented at every step, soon comprehended the entire population of Seumao. We kept by the wall of the town; then turning to the right, we arrived, after ten minutes’ walk, at the pagoda where we were to stay. The narrow court was already invaded, and the soldiers had some difficulty in making a passage through the tightly-packed ranks of the crowd; they were even on the roofs. The pagoda, a vast square building, quite open on the side of the interior court, was in a moment filled by the multitude, in spite of the effort of policemen, armed with staves. These officials, finding themselves powerless to keep back this flood let loose, were obliged to give way, at the same time recommending us to look well after our baggage. Accustomed for long months to vast horizons, and solitudes without bonds, I felt myself quite giddy amidst this human ant-nest, crowded into a narrow space.
de Carne: 214-215