The Tale of Mae Ling and Hu Mae
Daniel Robinson FRGS
Though the Long Riders’ Guild is used to dealing with various types of crisis, an exceptional emergency arose in February, 2007, when a reporter passed on a tip that an English equestrian traveller had been imprisoned for ten years in India.
Following various clues, a story emerged which indicated that the unknown journeyer had travelled from China, along the infamous Tea Horse Trail, managed to cross Tibet undetected, then traversed the Himalayan mountains into India alone.
China to India? Alone across Tibet? How was such a feat possible?
When New Zealand’s most famous Long Rider, Ian Robinson (no relation), had recently tried to ride across Tibet, he was ruthlessly pursued by the Chinese police, arrested three times, and eventually deported. So who was this lone traveller who had stayed under the police radar so successfully?
In the ensuring weeks the truth about Daniel Robinson’s extraordinary adventures were discovered and related to an astonished world. The young man had indeed made a journey which required equal doses of courage, stamina and naivety. It was also true that Robinson’s journey had ended with him being unfairly imprisoned.
The resulting international campaign to “Free Dan” saw an unprecedented alliance of Long Riders, explorers, newspaper editors and political leaders all urging the Indian authorities to release Robinson. The details of that campaign are detailed in the editorial entitled “The Price of a Pilgrimage.”
Luckily, Daniel was freed. However the location and welfare of his two faithful mules, Mae Ling and Hu Mae, remained a mystery. Thanks to his diligent efforts, Daniel was finally able to rescue the animals from Indian custody. The tale of how the intrepid threesome happened to survive this incredible series of events is related for the first time in Daniel’s story.
In April 2006 I left west China to walk 20 miles a day crossing over Tibet and finally into Uttaranchal, Northern India.
The journey took 155 days and covered a distance of more than 3220 km (2000 miles) over some of the most difficult terrain in the world.
In October, 2005 I travelled from England to Guangzhou in China to visit the world’s largest trade show to establish a new business. After two weeks of searching over thousands of products I found nothing but disillusionment. My heart was not there.
My calling came seeing a beautiful landscape on the back of a twenty-yen note. Inspired, I travelled to Yangzhou where I found a Kung Fu master and studied five and a half hours a day, seven days a week for six months. It was during this discipline, growing in fitness and confidence, the idea came: it was time to follow my dream of adventure!
Knowing Tibet was not far away, and knowing I would need a horse to carry my camera equipment, I typed ‘Tibetan horse’ into Google search.
I found information relating to the Tea Horse trail. The trail started 1500 years ago with the green (Pu-ur tea), being taken from Yunnan province in West China. The tea was transported either on the backs of porters or by mule up to Lhasa in Tibet, where the Tibetan monastic lamas were happy to make a trading exchange for green tea. They valued the tea for its digestive medicinal properties and they gave Tibetan warhorses to the Chinese in exchange, also valued because they were considered to be some of the finest in the eastern hemisphere.
On top of a lone hilly mound, protruding out from the back end of Dali, six Tibetans and I turned the world’s largest golden prayer wheel. Because I had no real plan or knowledge of horses, I felt more than a little apprehensive! I asked for guidance and protection for the journey about to be undertaken.
Leaving the wheel, following instinct, I decided not to walk down the great steps but instead I walked around the mound’s crest and looked for an alternative way down. Looking over the back end of town in the long beams of a red setting sun, I could see, in amongst the buildings, a walled enclosure holding a large group of mules.
It was by chance the Pu-ur Tea Company. They were recreating history following the Tea Horse Trail, by carrying the green tea from Pu-ur to Lhasa for charity and publicity. The following day they started the second leg of the second year of their journey. Before they left I brought a translator and after negotiations they agreed that I could walk with them. It was fate and no longer a dream.
When the group passed through Deqen, Slow and I joined in with the Pu-ur Tea Company’s caravan of ninety-nine mules, all of which carried the green tea loaded in wooden cradles on their backs. I walked beside Slow in line with the group, for twenty miles a day, for sixty-five days, until we reached Lhasa in Tibet.
In Lhasa, I part exchanged Slow for two other company mules, which were in better condition and slightly faster. Mae Ling, Hu Mae and I then travelled alone towards the west without a firm plan.
To avoid detection at the Chinese police/military road checkpoints, we mostly travelled through the wild vast landscape, which is sparsely inhabited by Tibetan nomads. I relied upon the nomads for my survival by asking for food. My diet each day consisted mainly of three bowls of sampa, barley flower mixed with river water. By the time I reached Mount Kailash in the west of Tibet it was late October, and with temperatures dropping to -20°C, and wind chill down to -50°C, the harsh Tibetan winter was moving in fast.
Our lives were at risk. I was in a bad physical condition and my mules suffered also. I knew at this point, we were in trouble and headed south. I had no map or guide and no path to follow. I relied upon intuition whilst crossing over the border regions between Tibet and into the state of Uttaranchal, in northern India.
Crossing over the great Himalayan mountains, at 19,000 feet we were all suffering from exposure and altitude sickness.
Hu Mae collapsed and wanted to die. It was a long hard struggle to keep going and get us over the high mountain passes. After five days of treacherous terrain and little to eat, exhausted, I made a bad decision and consequently we fell down a landslide. We came close to death.
The following day I found an Indian army camp stationed15,500 feet down on a mountainside. Unsure of my ability to lead on and unsure of whether we could last another day, I was faced with a decision that would change the course of my life.
I felt extremely apprehensive because I knew I was about to step away from experiencing the solitude of nature, and a feeling of absolute freedom, to an un-certain roller coaster ride back to humanity. I believed I was doing the right thing and put my faith in my decision. I walked straight into the Indian army camp and handed myself in.
The solders at the camp were astonished I’d made the crossing. They fed me and treated me with great respect. Officially I was classed as an intruder and detained by guards armed with AK-47s. I did not sleep that night. The following morning I was blind folded and escorted on foot out of the mountains until we reached an army truck at the end of a road. At this point the guards lifted the blindfold and let me say my final good byes to Mae Ling and Hu Mae. I felt disorientated, vulnerable, anxious and very, very upset.
I wondered if I would ever see my two trusted companions again?
That day I was blindfolded for a period of fourteen hours; it was taken off when I arrived in a cell at army headquarters in Joshimath. There the army, police, Home Ministry and secret service intelligence bureaus interrogated me. After three intense days of questioning Indian intelligence made a report and cleared me of any incriminating evidence. I was no spy, no terrorist, and no drug runner, just a tourist on an adventure/pilgrimage. After interrogation I was handed over to the local police and sent straight to prison because I had entered India without a visa.
Under international protocol I was allowed to make one call. My mum was so relieved to hear my voice, she said, ‘‘Thank God, you are alive.’’ I answered back, ‘‘Mum, I’m going to prison! Call the Foreign Office. Get some help! Try not to worry.’’
From then on I had no communication or support for more than six weeks.
Conditions in the first mountain prison were of rank, freezing, dark, Dickensian standards. The food given had only just enough nutrition to survive on. It clearly was a human rights case and the worst place I could possibly be after such a journey.
In two days of harsh prison conditions my body rapidly collapsed. I was fighting for my life and seriously worried that I was going to die. After seven days of suffering on death’s freezing concrete floor, the prison officials reluctantly transferred me to hospital. There I was tightly shackled to the hospital bed and diagnosed with pneumonia, a kidney infection, acute bronchitis and severe malnutrition.
It came as a shock when I was sentenced under Section 14 of the Foreigners Act. The judge gave me one and a half year’s imprisonment, reduced to one year if I paid twenty five thousand rupees.
My family and friends started a campaign. My story hit the world's news; I was given support from The Long Riders’ Guild, British MPs, Maharajas, Lords, The British and Indian horse societies, famous explorers and celebrities.
Thousands of people signed an online petition so that I should be set free. Thanks to the Long Riders’ Guild, I was made a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.
During my time of imprisonment, the British Foreign office was repeatedly asked by the Indian High Commission in London for a letter asking for my release. By receiving this request from Britain, the Indian High Commission would have been able to act accordingly and set me free. However the British Foreign Office refused to help!
A reporter from the Sunday Times recommended a Supreme Court lawyer, Mr. Abani K. Sahu, who took over the case.
During my imprisonment the Indian police tried to submit an additional charge against me. Anyone caught crossing a military zone would receive an automatic five to ten year prison sentence. “Just doing our duty,’’ the police told me.
Thank God, I had a sharp lawyer who managed to overturn this intervention at the very last moment. Mr. Sahu also managed to reduce the prison sentence at an appeal trial held in Dehra Dun. The appeal judge stated, ''Daniel Robinson should never have been sent to prison in the first place, as deportation would have been more appropriate.''
I was set free from Haridwar prison on May 7, 2007, then I was taken to Delhi and deported back to England on May 9, 2007.
On release, the Indian authorities served an embargo stating that I could never return to India.
When I was taken into custody, the police seized all my belongings: walking equipment, cameras, laptop, diaries, etc. During my time back in England during the past year and a half, my lawyer has fought in the courts, so that I may be reunited with my personal possessions and for them not to be destroyed.
I am now happy to say after receiving a lot of help from friends in high places, and the persistence of my lawyer, the Indian Home Ministry granted me permission to return to India for thirty days so as to collect my possessions.
This has been a worrying time for me, especially concerning the welfare of Mae Ling and Hu Mai. I had no information about where they were kept, or how they were being treated, apart from being told they were still being held by the Indian Tibet Border Police (I.T.B.P).
One of my intentions for crossing over into India was because Mae Ling and Hu Mae would have never survived the Tibetan winter. Mae Ling and Hu Mae had made a long and harrowing journey, during which I made a promise that after putting them through absolute hell that someday I would find them a good home.
In March 2009, I travelled back to Gopeshwar. A court decision granted permission allowing me to visit Mae Ling and Hu Mae. The I.T.B.P. had looked after them well in a transit camp station for army mountain mules. Though they were in confinement, they were now in better health than when they were crossing over from Tibet.
After a pile of bureaucratic tape and court procedures I was finally united with them after two and half years of separation.
I now had just one problem. Where on earth could I find them a good home?
Having a few days left before my Indian visa expired. I transported them for two days on the back of a goods truck to the western edge of the Nepalese border. We then crossed into Nepal on foot (March 31, 2009) and headed towards the East in 36ºC heat. Still with no idea where to go!
Five weeks previously, I had met a London lawyer for five brief minutes in a guesthouse in Delhi. When I told him about my predicament of finding a suitable home, Andrew said he had a Nepalese friend with a small guesthouse which was near to a national park. Andrew was sure that his friend would help me. But our meeting was so brief that I could not remember the name of the guesthouse or the name of his friend.
I was walking down a long straight Nepalese forested road when a bus on the way to Delhi drove past and pulled over. A man came running towards me. I recognized Andrew, out of breath, hot and sweating. He handed me Mr. B’s card (saying), ‘‘He is willing to help and is expecting you.’’
Mr. B has now taken Mae Ling and Hu Mae on as part of his family, without charging a fee. He has built them a small stable in the grounds of his guesthouse, Bardia Hide Away Cottage. They are now being treated as royalty. Mr. B has told me that I am free to leave them there and am free at any time to take them on another journey. Indefinitely they shall always have a home next to Bardia’s national wildlife jungle reserve in western Nepal.
I cannot list all of you who supported and helped throughout this journey.
The Long Riders, CuChullaine and Basha O’Reilly, have been a solid bedrock of support, without which so much would not have happened.
The supporting letters received from Long Riders, and all of you who signed the petition, meant a great deal too. It was a ray of hope shining though the black steel heavy bars of adversity.
You have all restored my faith in humanity.
Big Thank You to all of you.