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A Book of Discovery by  M. B. Synge


 

 

THE EXPLORATION OF TIBET

[511] PERHAPS no land in the world has in modern times exercised a greater influence over the imagination of men than the mysterious country of Tibet. From the days of Herodotus to those of Younghusband, travellers of all times and nations have tried to explore this unknown country, so jealously guarded from Europeans. Surrounded by a "great wilderness of stony and inhospitable altitudes" lay the capital, Lhasa, the seat of the gods, the home of the Grand Lama, founded in 639 A.D., mysterious, secluded, sacred. Kublai Khan, of Marco Polo fame, had annexed Tibet to his vast Empire, and in 1720 the mysterious land was finally conquered by the Chinese. The history of the exploration of Tibet and the adjoining country, and of the various attempts to penetrate to Lhasa, is one of the most thrilling in the annals of discovery.

We remember that Benjamin of Tudela in the twelfth century, Carpini and William de Rubruquis in the thirteenth, all assert that they passed through Tibet, but we have no certain records till several Italian Capuchin friars succeeded in reaching Lhasa. There they lived and taught for some thirty-eight years, when they were withdrawn. And the little "Tibetan Mission," as it was called, came to an end.

It was yet early in the eighteenth century. England was taking up her great position in India, and Warren [512] Hastings was anxious to open up friendly relations with Tibet beyond the great Himalaya ranges. To this end he sent an Englishman, George Bogle, with these instructions: "I desire you will proceed to Lhasa. The design of your mission is to open a mutual and equal communication of trade between the inhabitants of Tibet and Bengal. You will take with you samples, for a trial of such articles of commerce as may be sent from this country. And you will diligently inform yourself of the manufactures, productions, and goods which are to be procured in Tibet. The following will also be proper subjects for your inquiry, the nature of the roads between the borders of Bengal and Lhasa and the neighbouring countries. I wish you to remain a sufficient time to obtain a complete knowledge of the country. The period of your stay must be left to your discretion."

Bogle was young; he knew nothing of the country, but in May 1774 his little expedition set off from Calcutta to do the bidding of Warren Hastings. By way of Bhutan, planting potatoes at intervals according to his orders, Bogle proceeded across the eastern Himalayas toward the Tibetan frontier, reaching Phari, the first town in Tibet, at the end of October. Thence they reached Gyangtse, a great trade centre now open to foreigners, crossed the Brahmaputra, which they found was "about the size of the Thames at Putney," and reached the residence of the Tashi Lama, the second great potentate of Tibet. This great dignitary and the young Englishman made great friends.

"On a carved and gilt throne amid cushions sat the Lama, cross-legged. He was dressed in a mitre-shaped cap of yellow broadcloth with long bars lined with red satin, a yellow cloth jacket without sleeves, and a satin mantle of the same colour thrown over his shoulders. On one side of him stood his physician with a bundle of perfumed [513] sandal-wood rods burning in his hand; on the other stood his cup-bearer."

Such was this remarkable man as first seen by the English, "venerated as God's vice-regent through all the eastern countries of Asia." He had heard much of the power of the "Firinghis," as he called the English. "As my business is to pray to God," he said to Bogle, "I was afraid to admit any Firinghis into the country. But I have since learned that they are a fair and just people."


[Illustration]

THE POTALA AT LHASA: A SEVENTEENTH-CENTURY VIEW.

Bogle would have proceeded to Lhasa, the home of the Grand Lama, but this permission was refused, and he had to return to India with the information he had collected.

The next Englishman to enter Tibet was Thomas Manning, the first to reach the sacred city of Lhasa. He was a private adventurer, who had lived in China and learnt the language. Attended by a Chinese servant, and wearing a flowing beard of singular length, he left Calcutta, crossed into Bhutan, and arrived at the Tibetan [514] border in October 1811. Then he crossed the Brahma putra in a large ferry-boat, and arrived within seven miles of Lhasa. On 9th December the first European entered the sacred city since the expulsion of the Capuchin friars. The view of the famous Potala, the lofty towering palace, filled him with admiration, but the city of which Europe, knowing nothing, had exalted into a magnificent place, was very disappointing.

"We passed under a large gateway," says Manning, "whose gilded ornaments were so ill-fixed that some leaned one way and some another. The road as it winds round the palace is royally broad; it swarmed with monks, and beggars were basking in the sun. There is nothing striking in its appearance; the habitations are begrimed with smut and dirt. The avenues are full of dogs—in short, everything seems mean and gloomy. Having provided himself with a proper hat, Manning went to the Potala to salute the Grand Lama, taking with him a pair of brass candlesticks with two wax candles, some 'genuine Smith's lavender water, and a good store of Nankin tea, which is a rare delicacy at Lhasa. Ushered into the presence of the Grand Lama, a child of seven, he touched his head three times on the floor, after the custom of the country, and, taking off his hat, knelt to be blessed by the little monarch.' He had the simple and unaffected manners of a well-educated princely child. His face was affectingly beautiful—his beautiful mouth was perpetually unbending into a graceful smile, which illuminated his whole countenance."

Here Manning spent four months, at the end of which time he was recalled from Pekin, and reluctantly he was obliged to return the way he came.

The next man to reach the forbidden city was a Jesuit missionary, the Abbé Huc, who reached Lhasa in 1846 from China. He had adopted the dress of the Tibetan [515] Lama—the yellow cap and gown—and he piloted his little caravan across the wide steppes on horseback, while his fellow-missionary, Gabet, rode a camel and their one Tartar retainer rode a black mule. It took them a year and a half to reach the sacred city of Lhasa, for many and great were the difficulties of the way. Their first difficulty lay in crossing the Yellow River, which was in flood.

"It is quite impossible to cross the Yellow River," they were told. "Eight days ago the river overflowed its banks and the plains are completely flooded."

"The Tartars only told us the truth," remarked Huc sadly. "The Yellow River had become a vast sea, the limits of which were scarcely visible: houses and villages looked as though they were floating upon the waves. What were we to do? To turn back was out of the question. We had vowed that, God willing, we would go to Lhasa whatever obstacles impeded."

And so they did. The camels were soon up to their knees in a thick slimy compost of mud and water, over which the poor animals slid on their painful way. Their courage was rewarded, native ferry-boats came to their rescue, and they reached the other side in safety. They were now on the main caravan route to the Tibetan frontier and the Koko-Nor. Immense caravans were met, with strings of camels extending for miles in length. Three times between the Yellow River and the Koko-Nor Lake did they pass the Great Wall built in 214 A.D. After over four months of travel Huc arrived at the monastery of Kunkum on the borderland of Tibet. This was the home of four thousand Lamas all clothed in red dresses and yellow mitres, and thither resorted the worshippers of Buddha from all parts of Tartary and Tibet.

"The site is one of enchanting beauty," says Huc. "Imagine in a mountain-side a deep, broad ravine adorned [516] with fine trees and alive with the cawing of rooks and yellow-beaked crows and the amusing chatter of magpies. On the two sides of the ravine and on the slopes of the mountain rise the white dwellings of the Lamas. Amid the dazzling whiteness of these modest habitations rise numerous Buddhist temples with gilt roofs, sparkling with a thousand brilliant colours. Here the travellers stayed for three months, after which they made their way on to the Koko-Nor Lake.

"As we advanced," says Huc, "the country became more fertile, until we reached the vast and magnificent pasturage of Koko-Nor. Here vegetation is so vigorous that the grass rose up to the stomachs of our camels. Soon we discovered far before us what seemed a broad silver riband. Our leader informed us that this was the Blue Sea. We urged on our animals, and the sun had not set when we planted our tent within a hundred paces of the waters of the great Blue Lake. This immense reservoir of water seems to merit the title of sea rather than merely that of lake. To say nothing of its vast extent, its waters are bitter and salt, like those of the ocean."

After a month spent on the shores of the Blue Lake, an opportunity offered for the advance. Towards the end of October they found that an embassy from Lhasa to Pekin was returning in great force. This would afford Huc and his companion safe travelling from the hordes of brigands that infested the route through Tibet. The caravan was immense. There were fifteen hundred oxen, twelve hundred horses, and as many camels, and about two thousand men. The ambassador was carried in a litter. Such was the multitude which now started for the thousand miles across Tibet to Lhasa.

After crossing the great Burkhan Buddha range, the caravan came to the Shuga Pass, about seventeen thousand feet high, and here their troubles began.

[517] "When the huge caravan first set itself in motion," says Huc, "the sky was clear, and a brilliant moon lit up the great carpet of snow with which the whole country was covered. We were able to attain the summit by sunrise. Then the sky became thickly overcast with clouds and the wind began to blow with a violence which became more and more intense."

Snow fell heavily and several animals perished. They marched in the teeth of an icy wind which almost choked them, whirlwinds of snow blinded them, and when they reached the foot of the mountain at last, M. Gabet found that his nose and ears were frostbitten. As they proceeded, the cold became more intense. "The demons of snow, wind, and cold were set loose on the caravan with a fury which seemed to increase from day to day."

"One cannot imagine a more terrible country," says poor Huc.

Not only were the animals dying from cold and exposure, but men were beginning to drop out and die. Forty of the party died before the plateau of Tangla had been crossed, a proceeding which lasted twelve days. The track, some sixteen thousand feet above the sea, was bordered by the skeletons of mules and camels, and monstrous eagles followed the caravan. The scenery was magnificent, line upon line of snow-white pinnacles stretched southward and westward under a bright sun. The descent was "long, brusque, and rapid, like the descent of a gigantic ladder." At the lower altitude snow and ice disappeared. It was the end of January 1846, when at last our two travellers found themselves approaching the longed-for city of Lhasa.

"The sun was nearly setting," says Huc, "when we found ourselves in a vast plain and saw on our right Lhasa, the famous metropolis of the Buddhist world. After eighteen months' struggle with sufferings and [518] obstacles of infinite number and variety, we were at length arrived at the termination of our journey, though not at the close of our miseries."

Huc's account of the city agrees well with that of Manning: "The palace of the Dalai Lama," he says, "merits the celebrity which it enjoys throughout the world. Upon a rugged mountain, the mountain of Buddha, the adorers of the Lama have raised the magnificent palace wherein their Living Divinity resides in the flesh. This place is made up of various temples; that which occupies the centre is four stories high; it terminates in a dome entirely covered with plates of gold. It is here the Dalai Lama has set up his abode. From the summit of his lofty sanctuary he can contemplate his innumerable adorers prostrate at the foot of the divine mountain. But in the town all was different—all are engaged in the grand business of buying and selling, all is noise, pushing, excitement, confusion."

Here Huc and his companion resided for two and a half months, opening an oratory in their house and even making a few Christian converts. But soon they were ordered to leave, and reluctantly they travelled back to China, though by a somewhat different route.

After this the Tibetans guarded their capital more zealously than before. Przhevalsky, "that grand explorer of Russian nationality," spent years in exploring Tibet, but when within a hundred and sixty miles of Lhasa he was stopped, and never reached the forbidden city.

Others followed. Prince Henri of Orleans got to within one hundred miles of Lhasa, Littledale and his wife to within fifty miles. Sven Hedin, the "Prince of Swedish explorers," who had made so many famous journeys around and about Tibet, was making a dash for the capital disguised as a Mongolian pilgrim when he, too, was stopped.

[519] "A long black line of Tibetan horsemen rode towards us at full gallop," he relates. "It was not raining just at that moment, so there was nothing to prevent us from witnessing what was in truth a very magnificent spectacle. It was as though a living avalanche were sweeping down upon us. A moment more and we should be annihilated! We held our weapons ready. On came the Tibetans in one long line stretching across the plain. We counted close upon seventy in all. In the middle rode the chief on a big handsome mule, his staff of officers all dressed in their finest holiday attire. The wings consisted of soldiers armed to the teeth with gun, sword, and lance. The great man, Kamba Bombo, pulled up in front of our tent. After removing a red Spanish cloak and hood he "stood forth arrayed in a suit of yellow silk with wide arms and a little blue Chinese skull-cap. His feet were encased in Mongolian boots of green velvet. He was magnificent."

"You will not go another step towards Lhasa," he said. "If you do you will lose your heads. It doesn't the least matter who you are or where you come from. You must go back to your headquarters."

So an escort was provided and sorrowfully Sven Hedin turned his back on the jealously guarded town he had striven so hard to reach.

The expedition, or rather mission, under Colonel Younghusband in 1904 brings to an end our history of the exploration of Tibet. He made his way to Lhasa from India; he stood in the sacred city, and "except for the Potala" he found it a "sorry affair." He succeeded in getting a trade Treaty signed, and he rode hastily back to India and travelled thence to England. The importance of the mission was accentuated by the fact that the flag, a Union Jack bearing the motto, "Heaven's Light our Guide," carried by the expedition and placed on the [520] table when the Treaty was signed in Lhasa, hangs to-day in the Central Hall at Windsor over the statue of Queen Victoria.

The veil so long drawn over the capital of Tibet had been at last torn aside, and the naked city had been revealed in all its "weird barbarity." Plans of the "scattered and ill-regulated" city are now familiar, the Potala has been photographed, the Grand Lama has been drawn, and if, with the departure of Younghusband, the gates of Lhasa were once more closed, voices from beyond the snowy Himalayas must be heard again ere long.


[Illustration]

THE WORLD'S MOST MYSTERIOUS CITY UNVEILED: LHASA AND THE POTALA.


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