The Long Riders' Guild

Across Tibet from India to China - page 4

Tibetan New Year Begins in February

As the New Year holidays approached, the stream of pilgrims increased daily.

The first month of the Tibetan year begins in early February. It is celebrated by a series of religious and historical ceremonies, all of which we attended upon the invitation of the Kashag, or Grand Council, which furnished us with special seats and gave a luncheon and entertainment for us at each function.

At the time of the New Year the city and its administration were taken over by monks from the near-by monasteries. All day throngs of them kept pouring into Lhasa. Caravans with goods from India and northern Tibet arrived daily, and tents were pitched in the parks and fields around the city.

Traveling sorcerers and bands of dancers roamed the city, entertaining on the streets and in the homes of the wealthy. Women wore magnificent dresses and the Lhasa style of three-pronged headdresses covered with seed pearls and semiprecious stones. Had they appeared on the streets not dressed in holiday costume, the monks most likely would have sent them home.

There were pageants by soldiers in 15th-century armor who went through sham battles and dances depicting battles of days gone by. Magnificent religious dances performed in the courtyard of the Potala by monks in grotesque masks portrayed the lamas of the church ridding the people of evil spirits.

Most of the festivities began early in the morning and lasted throughout the day. Wielding large willow sticks, the provost monks had difficulty maintaining order and keeping the public from blocking the way of the processions in the narrow streets.

At the end of the month, when the New Year's ceremonies were almost over, permission was granted us by the Tibetan Government to proceed to China.

Since further communication with the outside world would be impossible until we reached China, and since we faced dangerous unknown terrain, peril of bandits, and hazards of passes likely to be snow-blocked, we took great care in outfitting ourselves for the journey. Two of our men, who were returning to India, had to be replaced.

Mr. Fox, the British radio operator, had just received some small American commercial radio receiving sets which he had ordered from the United States over a year before. He was kind enough to let us have one, and we carried it with us all the way to China. This little radio kept us informed of the events of the world and astonished many nomads along the way.

We usually could get London once a day and at times Chungking and India. Occasionally we got San Francisco. Tokyo we could get at any time—a fact which sometimes embarrassed us when Tibetans wanted to hear the United States.

After awaiting an auspicious date to depart, we started out from Lhasa about the middle of March, our caravans leading the way. Near the northern outskirts of the city we were given a military send-off by an honor guard and were served ceremonial tea and rice in specially erected tents. From there a large group of our friends and officials rode with us to the estate of a nobleman, where we were given a luncheon.

Scarfs Serve as Leis Do in Hawaii

After the luncheon, according to Tibetan custom, we were accompanied to the gate. There our friends placed scarfs over our heads. This was done by everyone, including even our servants, just as leis are placed around the necks of travelers leaving Hawaii. By the time the last person had bidden us farewell, our necks were bundled in more than 200 of those scarfs.

Following the custom further, we got on our horses, still wearing the kattaks, and rode the rest of the day with them on. For the remainder of the trip each of us carried at least one scarf around his neck.

Both Brooke and I felt a moment of sadness at leaving our friends behind, and we could see sincere emotion on their faces.

Concerned about our safety in bandit territory, the Tibetan Government detailed a sergeant and five soldiers to accompany us as far as we wished to take them. We took them as escort only through Tibet proper. The Chinese representative informed us that we would be met at the border by a detachment of Chinese soldiers. They never showed up.

Sandup Bids the Party Good-bye

Our boy Sandup and his wife had to return to India. Since he had been our interpreter, we felt that losing him weakened our outfit in that respect. We had only our cook, Tommy, to replace him.

Tommy became our Number 1 man and Lakhpa was promoted a step. We found a young Tibetan named Punzo to act as camp boy and a young monk to look after the ponies. This monk was going in our direction also and was delighted to work his way through. He changed his monk's robes to a simple Tibetan civilian garb.

All the servants had to be given proper clothes and bedding for the trip, and their family affairs had to be carefully worked out before departure.

After the first few days we approached the wide, valley-like stretches of the Tibetan northern steppes, or plateaus. On the way up to and down the passes the streams were frozen, often with thick ice bridges over dried stream beds.

We carried peas and considerable grain, especially barley, and as much as we could of barley straw, for it was necessary to maintain our fine animals in good condition through the bitter stretch of northern uplands where neither straw nor grain was grown or available. Since it was March, the last year's grass was either grazed down or worthless after the winter snows.

On March 23 we crossed the upper Kyi near Phongdo. The men crossed on a crude suspension chain bridge lined with yak hides, and the animals forded the stream, which was low at that time of year.

We left our trail for half a day's ride to Reting Gompa, the seat of the ex-Regent of Tibet, a very high religious personage. Before leaving Lhasa, we had exchanged greetings and gifts with the ex-Regent by means of messengers, and he had invited us to stop with him on the way north.

Our poor Lakhpa fell ill here, and after we got him well we had to leave· him behind to return to Gyangtse. In his place we found a simple Tibetan boy.

The ex-Regent was a great lover of horses and without a doubt had the best stable of imported Mongolian pacers in Tibet. Some of his ponies came from as far away as Urga (Ulan Bator), Outer Mongolia.

He had one remarkable animal, a cross between a Mongolian pony and a wild ass, or kiang. This type of mule has almost as great endurance and ability to live off the country as the wild ass. It is much larger and stronger than the ordinary mule and has the advantage of hoofs shaped like those of a horse.

On April 3 we crossed the divide of Langlu La. It is 15,000 feet high and separates the waters of the Brahmaputra and the upper Salween. Within another two days we reached Nagchu Dzong, administrative capital of northern Tibet. Here we were met by the commissioner, Tsarong's son-in-law, a few other city officials, and an honor guard detachment.

We picked up at Nagchu Dzong some additional supplies we had sent ahead. After a three-day rest we set off again.

Hit by the First Snowstorm

Two days out of Nagchu Dzong we hit our first snowstorm. The going became difficult, since the snow had covered some of the dangerous spots. It was remarkable how our animals sensed and avoided the hazards.

For the first time we encountered a caravan carrying tea from China. It had left Jyekundo (Yushu) four months previously with 1,000 yaks and 25 ponies. Only 700 yaks and 15 ponies survived, for the winter was extremely severe. The drivers were brewing tea in the lee of the stacked-up loads of tea, while the yaks were grazing in the hills.

About April 13 we came to Kema, where a nomad chieftain had been notified of our arrival. He received us with great honor by setting up guest tents, at the end of which had been erected two pillars of loosely piled stones. On the top of them burning yak chips and brush threw off heavy columns of smoke.

From these pillars stones were laid out in a line as if marking the approach to the camp. This is a customary gesture toward ranking visitors, and it certainly added a little air of importance to our modest outfit.

When the Dalai Lama travels across Tibet, the natives lay similar stones along both sides of the road for many miles at a stretch and individually bring along small containers in which they burn brush and incense while he passes by.

That justice is rigorously upheld in that part of the country was attested by an occasional gallows fashioned of a flimsy pole, from which was suspended the head of a horse thief or bandit. Rumors of banditry were becoming more prevalent, and by now our outfit was well whipped up for defense in any emergency.

The road became quite difficult and the terrain cut up with steep banks of mud and snow. Some of the streams were only partly frozen, and the animals kept breaking through the ice. Snow fell intermittently. Whenever the sun was in, we could feel the bitter cold and wind through our Tibetan fur robes.

A Precarious Suspension Bridge

A few miles beyond Sok Gomba we crossed the first suspension bridge over the Sok River. This bridge was nothing but two chains over which was drawn a matting of saplings, with no railing or support along its sides. As the animals passed over it, the bridge swerved and shook like a ribbon in midair, 250 feet above the gorge.

One man led each animal by the head and another held the tail. The yaks and the more stubborn of the other animals had to ford the cold water a couple of miles downstream. Even some of our native men crossed that bridge on all fours.

We saw the first spring plowing being done in the Sok Valley. In this region yaks were used for that purpose.

On April 19 we reached Pachen, where we remained for a few days. Some miles beyond was the Tsangne La, which leads into Tsinghai Province. The Chinese representative in Lhasa had told us we would be met at the pass by a detachment of Chinese soldiers, but runners we sent ahead returned to say that no Chinese were anywhere in sight and that none of the nomads had seen any Chinese in that region for a couple of years.

At this point we sent our Tibetan escort back to Lhasa and proceeded with our small group from one nomad camp to the other, trusting in Tibetan gods and keeping alert.

The administrative jurisdiction of the Dalai Lama ends at this point, and beyond, for over 200 miles to Jyekundo, bandits and feuding nomad clans prey on the transports.

With the help of a nomad chief on the Tibetan side we finally were able to gather drivers and animals to take us across. However, they refused to proceed until we had hired at least 25 more men with rifles.

On April 23 we parted with the accommodating baron of the Pachen nomads, who had assisted us in procuring the transport, and began climbing the border range of Tsangne La, more than 16,000 feet high. The higher we went, the deeper the snow became. This pass is seldom open in January, February, and March.

At that high altitude, carrying full loads, the yaks had a system for getting through heavy snow. The leading animal would lunge through the drifts until it was winded. Then it would lie down while the next yak in line came up to make a few more lunges. When the second, too, became exhausted, the third yak passed the first two. This process continued until the animals eventually reached solid ground.

After a blizzard had subsided, we could see from the top of the pass the vast, forbidding-looking wastes of the northern uplands, with a few snow-capped ranges in the distance. The temperature was below freezing, and the ceaseless winds were the strongest yet encountered.

Birthplace of Great Rivers of Asia

We dropped into this vast area and next day were riding along the mountains which served as a divide for the headwaters of the Salween, Yangtze, and Mekong.

We were now traveling over the territory from which many of the great rivers of Asia start. On April 30 we again began to encounter ranges of cut-up terrain. Two days later we reached the encampment of a nomad chieftain who furnished us with transport for the next six days, together with some men, most of whom were armed only with slings. Those boys were extremely accurate with these weapons, even up to 60 yards, and could kill a dog or a man with them easily.

Our only interpreter now was Tommy, and he with his limited Chinese and English had a hard time understanding the natives, who spoke a different Tibetan dialect.

One day we were surrounded by men on horseback, who rode around us at a great distance out of range. We let out a few machine-gun bursts in the direction we were heading, and the riders disappeared from our path. One night our mastiff caught a bandit spy near the camp. We turned the fellow over to the chieftain the next day.

Often one chieftain would tell us that another one was a bandit. In a few cases we had to resort to keeping a close watch on a chieftain and his men while they were traveling with us.

Fording the Mekong River

On May 6 we forded the Mekong River, which, though rather wide, was shallow. We camped at an attractive little monastery called Zuru Gomba. Unmolested by the monks, large flocks of blue sheep, or bharals, ranged the hills. Here we watched a remarkable feat by a Tibetan hound. The dog actually ran down and hamstrung a full-grown gazelle.

At all times we tried to send ahead an outrider to notify the next chieftain of our coming and need of transport. In one instance we had a Tibetan monk write out an important-looking document ordering a chieftain to provide us with transport.

On May 10 we passed the beautiful valley and plain of Nima Rungsha where hundreds of wild asses and gazelles were grazing. The mountain slopes were thickly forested, and we saw musk deer jumping high through the underbrush. Riding along a stream, we jumped a small flock of Lhasa stag, also known as Prejevalsky's deer.

An Outpost of Chinese Mohammedan Soldiers

In this territory travelers often lost their horses and mules. The animals ran away to join wild ass herds. For that reason we kept bells on all our stock while they were resting or running loose. The noise of the bells frightened away the wild asses.

On May 12 we came upon the first outpost of Chinese Mohammedan soldiers, who were grazing their transport animals in the fertile valley. Maj. Ma Ying-hsiang, their leader, told us that his commanding general in Jyekundo had been notified by Gen. Ma Pu-fang, Governor of Tsinghai Province, that Chungking expected our arrival there and that he had been on the lookout for us, searching for some time along the different passes. He was relieved that we finally had arrived safely.

After 56 days on the road from Lhasa, we halted for two days to clean up and rest before appearing in Jyekundo. We understood that Gen. Ma Pu-Iang was to give us an elaborate reception.

On May 15 we rode into the outskirts of Jyekundo. The commanding general, his staff, and the town's officials greeted us. A detachment of cavalry was lined up along the side of the road, and farther on monks of the local monastery were out with their band.

A holiday was proclaimed in the city, flags and banners were displayed, and all the people turned out to greet us. Whenever we approached a native sitting in the street, he would rise in welcome.

We were escorted into a comfortable Tibetan house by our host, the General. Here we were really settled in style, with big Chinese beds made up with brand-new silk quilts, servants and a cook to attend us, and two armed guards to watch the gate. In all this customary Chinese hospitality we relaxed and forgot the worries of the trail.

There was a wireless from Jyekundo to Sining, and we asked the General to send a message to Chungking via Sining to notify General Stilwell's headquarters of our safe arrival.

The General told us he had instructions to facilitate the procurement of our transport and escort to Sining. In a few days our four faithful Tibetans were ready to start back to Lhasa and the Indian border, this time via the southern route through Chamdo.

The Pack Animals Swim the Yangtze

When we left Jyekundo, we were escorted for several miles by the General, his staff, and an honor guard. It was only a short journey from Jyekundo to the Yangtze River, which was a hundred yards or more wide at that point and rather swift. We swam the animals across and ferried the equipment on rafts floated on blown-up skin bags.

On June 1 we camped near Shewu Gomba, which perches on the side of a mountain. The country became more and more swampy in the lower parts of  the valleys and plains and our animals bogged down frequently.

On June 3 a heavy snowstorm caught us and made traveling difficult for several days. The climate of this section of the country is severe, snow sometimes falling even in midsummer. The ranges are farther apart, and the valleylike plains bear better grass than elsewhere. Because the numerous rivers are broad, many of them were difficult for the animals to swim. We had to stop sometimes and kill sheep to make blown-up skins for our rafts.

Though we were now traversing country where the wild yak once was numerous, we saw none of these animals. The introduction of automatic rifles by Chinese Mohammedan troops had exterminated the herds. Day after day we passed horned skulls.

The Stars and Stripes reach China.

Click on picture to enlarge.

On June 7 we neared the Tra La between the Yangtze and Yellow (Hwang) River headwaters. We came across as many as nine bears in one day. This bear appeared very close to our grizzly in size and coloring. Captain Dolan shot one, and we preserved its skull and hide.

There were signs of the great Asiatic bighorn sheep, and on a few occasions we got away for short hunts off the trail. A group of nine rams was the largest I spied. Crossing the Yehmatan plains with their almost impenetrable swamps, we camped for three nights virtually in water. Even at night without their loads, the animals bogged down.

Reaching Gamoh Nor, a large freshwater lake situated near the Chinese military outpost of Hwanghoyen, we crossed the Yellow River not many miles from its source.

This country was familiar to Captain Dolan, for in 1935 he had taken an expedition there to collect mammals for the, Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.

Floods Make River Crossing Difficult

Beyond Changshitou our helpers and escort were Ngoloks. These people, taller and more rugged than central Tibetans, are known as the fiercest tribe in this area.

On June 17 we came to the Ta River, on the far side of which was the old Chinese fort of Tahopa. A downpour in the morning had swelled the river to about 300 feet in width, and it was exceptionally swift. It took a day and a half to cross our animals and supplies on rafts.

The Tahopa fort was known to have telegraph and telephone communication, but we found both out of commission. In the summer-time several trucks manage to get up to the fort over the hard turf. At the time of our visit, however, motor traffic was out of the question.

On June 21 we approached the west end of Koko Nor (Tsing Hai), where we were met by the Chinese Mohammedan garrison commander of Cheche. Here and there were signs of fields that had been under cultivation in previous years. Our yak transport gave way to bullocks of yellow Mongolian cattle.

The night of June 25 we rested in another Chinese fort, Chapucha, where we met a large detachment of Mohammedan cavalry on their way to Jyekundo. They were wearing white felt robes made for warmth as well as for shedding the frequent rains of that region.

Skirting a considerable stretch of desert not unlike the arid sands found in Arizona, we passed over several dunes which the winds keep moving from place to place.

For some time now we had felt the approach of spring, and every day we saw more and more wild flowers. We soon rode through solid expanses of wild iris.

We arrived in the Chinese city of Hwang-yuan on the 89th day of travel and, proceeding along the cultivated valleys and through small Chinese villages, soon were within a day's march of Sining. The last ten miles we rode in a car sent out for us by the Governor of Tsinghai.

First Place of Call a Turkish Bath

The most memorable occurrence in Sining, outside of a visit with the Governor, was our visit to the Turkish bath, which we made our very first place of call in the city.

From Sining we hired a truck and drove on to Lanchow over a fairly good road. There, awaiting us, was our mail, which had been sent up by plane from Chungking to the compound of American missionaries. We reported our safe arrival to General Stilwell by telegram, and a few days later received his telegram of congratulations and orders to report to Chungking.

After their return to the United States, Dolan was sent back to China. Sadly, the young naturalist, turned army officer, was killed soon after combat had been officially concluded with Japan. So it was left to Tolstoy to record the tale of this remarkable equestrian journey.

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