The Long Riders' Guild

To Save a Country - page 2

Occasionally a horse would slip on the narrow path and the rear hooves go over the edge and the rider would have to throw himself forward along the horse’s neck as it scrambled wildly to retain its balance.  The others would then sit back in their saddles and roar with laughter at the antics of horse and rider, careless of the fact that failure to recover meant certain death.  I had heard previously that a Tibetan’s laughter at such a moment is not mockery at a companion’s predicament but a defiant defense against the evil spirits who wish their destruction and who would take advantage of any evidence of fear to accomplish this.  But while I was quite willing to concede this at times, yet there were circumstances when their laughter was too spontaneous to be other than sheer delight in danger.  Twice I went over and started two small landslides before I managed to pull the horse desperately back on to the trail, and Loshay merely sat in his saddle and laughed.  There was no question of shouted advice or help.  Balance and desperation were the only things to be used and the others had to sit and watch because there was no room to dismount;  to attempt to do so meant instant death for horse and rider.

"The Tibetans would sit back in their saddles and roar with laughter at the antics of horse and rider, careless of the fact that failure to recover meant certain death."  

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We must have traveled for three or four hours like this before we reached more solid going and the trail widened and allowed us to relax.  It was cold, bitterly cold, but I was soaked with sweat and the horses were likewise.  We dismounted and walked for a time leading the horses to give them, and ourselves, a break, as the trail was now leading down to a small, shallow depression in the mountain above the river.  Even from a distance it looked an amazing sight for there was not a bit of vegetation to be seen anywhere, mountains and valley being of rock, stones and earth in an awesome monotony, and the whole depression was covered with boulders, large and small, as if the river had risen in some incredible fashion and then had fallen to leave this incongruous saucer of stones a thousand feet up on the mountain;  or, perhaps, they had fallen off the sheer slopes above in some landslide in the distant past.  Where the boulders had been gathered to build a few houses, there were patches that had been hopefully cultivated but whether they produced anything I seriously doubted from their appearance.

Our arrival caused the usual stir and on inquiring if this was Samba Druca, our stage for the day, we were directed to the other side of the river.  It appeared that Samba Druca, or Samba Dring as the locals called it (Druca meaning “ferry” and Dring meaning “rope-way” – probably a corruption of “Iding” meaning “suspension”) was in two parts, one on either side of the Mekong River, but the far side contained the best houses and would also provide the animals for our journey.  The people were very primitive and very poor, men and women wearing only very filthy hand-woven Tibetan gowns, most of them in rags, while the children wore nothing at all.  This was possible here as the valley was warm, sheltered by the jutting sides of the mountain.

We did not waste much time there but asked how we might proceed to the far side immediately, as it was getting on to late afternoon.  I was mystified, and said so, in that I could see no way of getting to the other side even though the river had narrowed considerably at this point.  The headman of the village then led me around the houses to where the mountain dropped away again into the river about two hundred feet below.  I swallowed!  This seemed to be my day for bridge nightmares.  A bamboo rope, made of woven creepers about two inches in diameter, had been wound around a large boulder and held down by others piled on top and then led across to the far side about fifty yards or more away where it was held in the same manner.  I gazed at the rope, I gazed at the far side, I gazed at the swirling waters beneath, I gazed at the horses, and then I gazed at the headman.  I thought of Yoga and levitation and astral projection and hypnotism, and then came to the conclusion that the sheer necessity of my journey might drive me to attempt that crossing;  but I had never yet heard of a horse being subject to such natural or supernatural compulsion, and so I shook my head.

“No,” I said emphatically.  “It is impossible to cross that” – then, in case he should think that I was afraid to cross it, I added hastily – “What about the horses and loads?  We leave the rented pack animals here, but we take our own riding animals if possible.”

“Ah, we don’t cross here at this time of the year,” he said cheerfully, “only when the river is in flood, and then it is impossible for animals or loads to cross.  But you asked where the bridge was and this is it.”

I looked at him closely to see if he was pulling my leg but he seemed a simple soul and incapable of being funny – as funny as that anyway.

“How do we get across then?” I asked.

“Oh, by the ferry,” he replied, surprised at my ignorance.

“Lead us to the ferry,” I requested patiently, greatly tried.  I do not know what I expected, but whatever it was it was never like this.  After descending sharply from boulder to boulder like a young hind and watching the horses being helped by their ears and tails, I arrived in a deep cleft in the rocky wall of the mountain beside the river.  If, from the point above, the river seemed to swirl, from here it positively swished.  Being compressed into this comparatively narrow channel of forth to fifty yards’ width by the sheer slopes of the mountain seemed to annoy it intensely, and it raced angrily, gurgled menacingly and leered invitingly in protest.  Lest this chronicle should become monotonous from the number of deep breaths inspired, let me hasten to record:  I expired deeply.

“Where is the boat or coracle?” I asked, looking around that cramped space in vain.

“It is kept on the far side,” he answered.  “I will shout and they will bring it over.”

He gave a yodel, whose echo would have been amusing in other circumstances as it curled and rebounded around us for some time, and an answering yodel from the far side showed me where some people were already hurrying to the river’s edge.  The launching point on the far side was slightly downstream and was also only a narrow gap in the mountain face, and from there in a few minutes two men pushed off on a raft.  The swift current in mid-stream carried them away below us but in the calmer water of the side they paddled more easily upstream toward us.

Was this country ever going to cease to provide the unsuspected and marvelous?  I thought.  Six logs were half submerged in the water and water appeared in the spaces between the logs, as it dipped and plunged in the comparative quiet of the side-stream current.  A load?  Yes!  With resignation, I thought.  A man?  Yes!  In desperation.  But, a horse?  No!  Under no circumstances whatever could I see a horse boarding, negotiating and alighting from that contraption.  I was wrong.

The first trip was to take a man and some of the loads.  Aku was chosen by unnatural selection – the survival of the slickest.  They pushed off and one man paddled on either side, while Aku kept the balance and his eyes on the boxes – he could do no more;  he appeared petrified while the raft dipped, plunged, and spun on its way across to the far side.  It arrived.

A horse this time, and Dawa Dondrup’s turn.  He got his own back by taking his horse.  He backed onto the raft pulling at the reins to drag the horse after him and then it balked when its forefeet were on and the tail end off.  The problem was easily solved by a cut from a whip, and the raft gave a wild lurch as the horse suddenly arrived.  This is it, I thought.  But no, the raft miraculously righted itself and the men on it even more miraculously likewise.  It was only then that I was initiated into the secret of How To Ferry A Horse Across A Dangerous River On A Raft Its Own Size.  A metal ring had been driven into a log and the reins, or halter rope, were passed through this and the horse’s head drawn down until its nose touched it.  This, coupled with the co-operation of a man holding its tail, was deemed sufficient to keep the animal steady during the trip.  It was – or, at least, it appeared to be.

However, when my turn came the world seemed to be filled with moving horses.  I had firmly declined to sit on a box at one end and hold the animal’s tail, choosing the more precarious end of the raft, if not the horse’s, to take up my position for the trip.  When the raft started pitching the horse snorted and tried to shy and I had to throw all my weight on the reins to keep it steady, but then when it quieted suddenly I was almost catapulted over the side, for I was ankle-deep in water most of the time.  When the raft and the horse and the mountains and the world ceased to spin I was sitting on a boulder and watching the raft nearing the other side again.

There were no casualties and this formed the topic of our conversation, later that night in the village, where we sat in a filthy room over a charcoal brazier and drank tea.  When I felt sufficiently fortified and settled, I told Loshay to get the hard-boiled eggs out of my saddlebag and heat them;  for the claims of my inner man were clamoring to be met.  I think I had six – or maybe it was sixteen;  I was not in the mood to quibble or nibble – for a snack, and then the soldiers managed to round up a quantity of fresh eggs, or, rather, a quantity of eggs with fresh ones among them.  I looked longingly at one or two choice little piglets running around and wondered if I should make my thoughts plain to the others, but knowing that the villagers would not sell and that my companions would probably stretch their authority to “requisitioning” to gratify my desires, I held my peace and the vision faded.

This is an excerpt from George Patterson's forthcoming book, "Tibetan Odyssey," which will shortly be published by The Long Riders' Guild Press.  If you would like more information, please email us.

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