Seven Years in Tibet, by Heinrich Harrer

That's French for "the ancient system," as in the ancient system of feudal privileges and the exercise of autocratic power over the peasants. The ancien regime never goes away, like vampires and dinosaur bones they are always hidden in the earth, exercising a mysterious influence. It is not paranoia to believe that the elites scheme against the common man. Inform yourself about their schemes here.

Seven Years in Tibet, by Heinrich Harrer

Postby admin » Tue Sep 03, 2019 11:01 am

Seven Years in Tibet
by Heinrich Harrer
translated from the German by Richard Graves
With an introduction by Peter Fleming




Table of Contents:


List of Plates

• The Dalai Lama receives the sacred relic from the Indian delegation
• The Tibetan general-purpose craft
• Chained criminals
• Tibetan totem
• Such monasteries are found all over Tibet
• The youngest sister of the Dalai Lama, on horseback
• The Dalai Lama’s elder brother, Lobsang Samten
• The Dalai Lama’s mother
• View of Lhasa from the Potala
• Gaily-costumed women in a traditional dance
• The enormous banner hung before the Potala
• Huge banner in the Monastery of Tra-Yerpa
• One of the monk policemen, bearing his heavy staff
• Mounted soldiers in period uniforms
• The Dalai Lama’s small brother
• Guests in Lhasa are served beer by such girls as these
• The Monks’ Dance at the foot of the Potala
• The procession of the Dalai Lama to the Summer Palace
• The Dalai Lama, accompanied by several of his advisers
• An effigy fashioned out of butter
• Skating, introduced to the Tibetans by the author
• The flight from Lhasa; nearing Gyantse
• The golden roofs of the Monastery of Sera
• Tsarong’s daughter, with Aufschnaiter
• A sedan-chair bears the young ruler southwards
• Tibet prepares for war against the Chinese invaders

The Dalai Lama receives the sacred relic from the Indian delegation
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Re: Seven Years in Tibet, by Heinrich Harrer

Postby admin » Tue Sep 03, 2019 11:07 am


For the British, and indeed I think for most Europeans, Tibet has during the last fifty years held a growing and a particular fascination. In 1904 Younghusband, in a campaign scarcely matched in the annals of war either for its administrative difficulties or for the combination of audacity and humanity with which it was conducted, marched to Lhasa and subdued Tibet. The Tibetans, whose persistent intransigence upon an Imperial frontier had at length provoked our incursion, were granted the most chivalrous of terms; and on the remote, mysterious plateau — silhouetted for a time in sharp, painstaking relief by the dispatches which trickled back over the passes from the handful of correspondents with Younghusband’s expedition — a veil once more descended.

It was a thick veil, and it did not get much thinner as the years went by. The end of the nineteenth century found Europe’s eyes turning towards Asia. The geographical challenge of Africa had been, in its essentials, met, and on that continent the political problems, save in South Africa, appeared in those days to be soluble only in the chanceries of European capitals. In Asia, by contrast, imponderable and exotic forces were on the move. Russia’s conquests in Central Asia had fulfilled what was believed to be only the first phase of her territorial ambitions; in the minds of Lord Curzon and of Kipling her attempts to probe with reconnaissance parties the mountain barrier which separated her armies from India produced apprehensions which the event proved to be disproportionate.

But here again Asia came into the picture; for while Younghusband — bringing artillery into action, for the first and so far the last time in history, at 17,000 feet above sea-level — was defeating the Tibetans, the Japanese, with much less of apology in their manner, were defeating the Russians in Manchuria. And only three years earlier, in the Boxer Rebellion, an international expedition had raised the siege of the Legation Quarter in Peking.

Tibet did no more then than she had before, or has since, to gratify Europe’s curiosities about Asia. She continued, increasingly, to stimulate them; the extent to which she reciprocated them was minimal. Once four Tibetan boys (in the pages which follow you will meet briefly the only survivor of a sensible experiment which the Tibetans never got around to repeating) were sent to be educated at Rugby; and until the Chinese Communist forces took the country over in 1950 the sons of noblemen quite often went to school in India, learning (among other things) the English language. Europe would gladly have welcomed Tibetans, as she has welcomed travellers and students from every other Asiatic country; but whereas — broadly speaking — Europe wants like anything to go to Tibet, Tibet has never evinced the slightest desire to go to Europe.

She has moreover made it as difficult as possible for Europeans, or indeed for any non-Tibetans, to set foot on Tibetan territory, however impeccable their credentials.
The veil of secrecy, or perhaps rather of exclusiveness, which was lifted by Younghusband and then so tantalisingly dropped again, has in the last fifty years been effectively penetrated by very few, and of these it is safe to say that not one attained to the remarkable position which the author of this book, towards the end of his five years’ residence in Lhasa, found himself occupying in the entourage of the young Dalai Lama.

The European traveller is accustomed to seeing Asia, or anyhow the backwoods of Asia, from above. By that I mean that, although at times his situation may be precarious and his resources slender, the European is generally a good deal better off than the primitive people through whose territory he is passing. He possesses things which they do not — money and firearms, soap and medicines, tents and tin-openers; he has, moreover, in another part of the planet a Government which, should he get into trouble, will try to get him out of it. So the foreigner tends to ride upon the high though not very reliable horse of privilege, and to view the backwoods and their denizens from above.

It was otherwise with Herr Harrer. When in 1943 made a third and successful attempt to escape from an internment camp at Dehra-Dun and headed for Tibet, he was seeing Asia from below. He travelled on foot, carried his few possessions on his back and slept on the ground in the open. He was a fugitive, with no status, no papers and very limited funds. For a well-found expedition to follow his circuitous winter route across the Changthang plateau and down to Lhasa would have been a creditable feat; as performed by Harrer and his companion Aufschnaiter the journey was an astonishing tour de force. When they reached Lhasa they were penniless and in rags.  

Though there was no shred of justification for their presence in the Tibetan capital, they met with great kindness there, and the various subterfuges which they had practised upon officials along the route aroused merriment rather than indignation. They had nevertheless every reason to expect to be expelled from the country, and although the war was now over Harrer assumed, on rather slender grounds, that expulsion would mean their reinternment in India. He spoke by now fairly fluent Tibetan, though with a country accent which amused the sophisticates of Lhasa, and he never ceased to entreat permission to stay where he was and to do useful work for the Government.

I have not met Herr Harrer, but from the pages which follow he emerges as a sensible, unassuming and very brave man, with simple tastes and solid standards. It is clear that from the first the Tibetans liked him, and it must, I think, have been his integrity of character which led the authorities to connive at, if never formally to authorise, his five years’ sojourn in Lhasa. During this period he rose — always, it would seem, because of the confidence he inspired rather than because he angled for preferment — from being a destitute and alien vagabond to a well-rewarded post as tutor and confidant of the young Dalai Lama. Of this fourteen-year-old potentate Harrer, who was certainly closer to him than any foreigner (with the possible exception of Sir Charles Bell) has been to any of his predecessors, gives a fascinating and sympathetic account. When the Chinese Communists invaded Tibet in 1950 Harrer's parting from this lonely, able and affectionate youth was clearly a wrench to both of them.

It is unlikely that their conquerors will be able to alter the Tibetan character, so curiously compounded of mysticism and jollity, of shrewdness and superstition, of tolerance and strict convention; but the ancient, ramshackle structure of Tibetan society, over which the Dalai Lama in his successive incarnations presides, is full of flaws and anachronisms and will scarcely survive in its traditional form the ideological stresses to which it is now being subjected. It is the luckiest of chances that Herr Harrer should have had, and should have made such admirable use of, the opportunity to study on intimate terms a people with whom the West is now denied even the vestigial contacts which it had before. The story of what he did and what he saw equals in strangeness Mr. Heyerdahl’s account of his voyage on the Kon-Tiki; and it is told, I am happy to say, in the same sort of simple, unpretentious style.

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Re: Seven Years in Tibet, by Heinrich Harrer

Postby admin » Tue Sep 03, 2019 11:11 am


All our dreams begin in youth. As a child I found the achievements of the heroes of our day far more inspiring than book-learning. The men who went out to explore new lands or with toil and self-sacrifice fitted themselves to become champions in the field of sport, the conquerors of the great peaks — to imitate such men was the goal of my ambition.

But I lacked the advice and guidance of experienced counsellors and so wasted many years before I realised that one must not pursue several aims at the same time. I had tried my hand at various forms of sport without achieving the success which might have satisfied me. So at last I determined to concentrate in the two that I had always loved for their close association with nature — ski-ing and mountain-climbing.

I had spent most of my childhood in the Alps and had occupied most of my time out of school climbing in summer and ski-running in winter. My ambition was spurred on by small successes and in 1936 I succeeded after severe training in gaining a place in the Austrian Olympic Team. A year later I was the winner of the Downhill Race in the World Students’ Championships.

In these contests I experienced the joy of speed and the glorious satisfaction of a victory into which one has put all that one has. But victory over human rivals and the public recognition of success did not satisfy me. I began to feel that the only worthwhile ambition was to measure my strength against the mountains. So for whole months together I practised on rock and ice until I became so fit that no precipice seemed to me unconquerable. But I had my troubles to contend with and had to pay for my experience. Once I fell 170 feet and it was only by a miracle that I did not lose my life — and of course lesser mishaps were constantly occurring.

Return to life at the university always meant a big wrench. But I ought not to complain; I had opportunities for studying all sorts of works on mountaineering and travel, and as I read these books there grew in my mind, out of a complex of vague desires, the ambition to realise the dream of all climbers — to take part in an expedition in the Himalayas.

But how dared an unknown youngster like myself toy with such ambitious dreams? Why, to get to the Himalayas one had either to be very rich or to belong to the nation whose sons at that time still had the chance of being sent to India on service. For a man who was neither British nor wealthy there was only one way. One had to make use of one of those rare opportunities open even to outsiders and do something which made it impossible for one’s claims to be passed over. But what performance would put one in this class? Every Alpine peak has long ago been climbed, even the worst ridges and rockfaces have yielded to the incredible skill and daring of mountaineers. But stay ! There was still one unconquered precipice — the highest and most dangerous of all — the north wall of the Eiger.

This 6,700 feet of sheer rockface had never been climbed to the top. All attempts had failed and many men had lost their lives in the attempt. A cluster of legends had gathered round this monstrous mountain wall, and at last the Swiss Government had forbidden Alpinists to climb on it.

No doubt that was the adventure I was looking for. If I broke through the virgin defences of the North Wall, I would have a legitimate right, as it were, to be selected for an expedition to the Himalayas. I brooded long over the idea of attempting this almost hopeless feat. How in 1938 I succeeded with my friends Fritz Kasparek, Anderl Heckmaier and Wiggerl Vorg in climbing the dreaded wall has been described in several books.

After this adventure I spent the autumn in continuing my training with the hope always in my mind that I would be invited to join in the Nanga Parbat expedition planned for the summer of 1939. It seemed as though I would have to go on hoping, for winter came and nothing happened. Others were selected to reconnoitre the fateful mountain in Kashmir. And so nothing was left for me but to sign, with a heavy heart, a contract to take part in a ski-film.

Rehearsals were well advanced when I was suddenly called to the telephone. It was the long-desired summons to take part in the Himalaya Expedition which was starting in four days. I had no need to reflect. I broke my contract without an instant’s hesitation, travelled home to Graz, spent a day in packing my things, and on the following day was en route for Antwerp with Peter Aufschnaiter, the leader of the German Nanga Parbat expedition. Lutz Chicken and Hans Lobenhoffer, the other members of the group.

Up to that time there had been four attempts to climb this 25,000-foot mountain. All had failed. They had cost many lives, and so it had been decided to look for a new way up. That was to be our job and the attack on the peak was planned for the following year.

On this expedition to Nanga Parbat I succumbed to the magic of the Himalayas. The beauty of these gigantic mountains, the immensity of the lands on which they look down, the strangeness of the people of India — all these worked on my mind like a spell.

Since then many years have passed, but I have never been able to cut loose from Asia. How all this came about, and what it led to, I shall try to describe in this book, and as I have no experience as an author I shall content myself with the unadorned facts.

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Re: Seven Years in Tibet, by Heinrich Harrer

Postby admin » Tue Sep 03, 2019 11:25 am


I. Internment

Outbreak of war and our imprisonment — Dehra-Dun — I join up with Marchese — Escape — Marchese embraces me — We march by night and ride by day — Trout and cigarettes — The Ganges and Pilgrims’ Road — Recaptured — I escape once more, alone — Again recaptured.

By the end of August 1939 we had completed our reconnaissance. We had actually found a new way up the mountain and were now waiting in Karachi for the freighter which was to take us back to Europe. Our ship was long overdue and the war-clouds were growing ever denser. Chicken, Lobenhoffer and I accordingly made up our minds to extricate ourselves from the net which the secret police had already begun to lay for us and to slip away — wherever we found an opening. Only Aufschnaiter was for staying in Karachi. He had fought in the first world war and could not believe in a second.

The rest of us planned to break through to Persia and find our way home from there. We had no difficulty in shaking off the man who was shadowing us, and after crossing a few hundred miles of desert in our ramshackle car we managed to reach Las Bela, a little principality to the north-west of Karachi. But there fate overtook us and we suddenly found ourselves taken in charge by eight soldiers, on the grounds that we needed personal protection. We were in fact under arrest, although Germany and the British Commonwealth were not yet at war.

Soon we were back with our trusty escort in Karachi, where we found Peter Aufschnaiter. Two days later England did declare war on Germany. After that everything went like clockwork. A few minutes after the declaration of war, twenty-five Indian soldiers armed to the teeth marched into a restaurant garden where we were sitting, to fetch us away. We drove in a police car to an already prepared prison-camp fenced with barbed wire. But that turned out to be merely a transit camp, and a fortnight later we were transferred to the great internment camp at Ahmednagar near Bombay. There we were quartered in crowded tents and huts in the midst of a babel of conflicting opinions and excited talk. “No,” I thought, “this atmosphere is too different from the sunlit, lonely heights of the Himalayas. This is no life for freedom-loving men.” So I began to get busy looking for ways and means of escape.

Of course I was not the only one planning to get away. With the help of like-minded companions I collected compasses, money and maps which had been smuggled past the controls. We even managed to get hold of leather gloves and a barbed-wire-cutter, the loss of which from the stores provoked a strict but fruitless investigation.

As we all believed that the war would soon be over, we kept postponing our plans for escape. But one day we were suddenly moved to another camp. We were loaded on to a convoy of lorries en route for Deolali. Eighteen of us internees sat in each lorry with a single Indian soldier to guard us. The sentry’s rifle was made fast to his belt with a chain, so that no one could snatch it away. At the head and at the tail of the column was a truck full of soldiers.

While we were in the camp at Ahmednagar Lobenhoffer and I had determined to make a getaway before being transferred to a new camp, where fresh difficulties might endanger our chances of escape. So now we took our seats at the back end of a lorry. Luckily for us the road was full of curves and we were often enveloped in thick clouds of dust — we saw that this gave us a chance of jumping off unnoticed and vanishing into the jungle. We did not expect the guard in the lorry to spot us as he was obviously occupied in watching the lorry in front. He only occasionally looked round at us. One way and another it did not seem to us that it would be too difficult to escape and we postponed an attempt until the latest possible moment, intending to get across into a neutral Portuguese enclave situated very near the route of our convoy.

At last the moment came. We jumped off and I ran twenty yards off the road and threw myself down in a little hollow behind a bush. Then to my horror the whole convoy stopped — I heard whistles and shooting and then, seeing the guard running over to the far side of the road, I had no doubt what had happened. Lobenhoffer must have been discovered and as he was carrying our rucksack with all our gear, there was nothing for me to do but to give up my hopes of escape as well. Fortunately I succeeded, in the confusion, in getting back into my seat without being noticed by any of the soldiers. Only my comrades knew that I had got away and naturally they said nothing.

Then I saw Lobenhoffer: he was standing with his hands up facing a line of bayonets. I felt broken with the deadly disappointment of our failure. But my friend was really not to blame for it. He was carrying our heavy rucksack in his hand when he jumped off, and it seems that it made a clatter which was heard by the guard; so he was caught before he could gain the shelter of the jungle. We learned from this adventure a bitter but useful lesson, namely that in any combined plan of escape each of the escapers must carry all that he needed with him.

In the same year we were moved once more to another camp. This time we were conveyed by rail to the greatest P.O.W. camp in India, a few miles outside the town of Dehra-Dun. Above Dehra-Dun was the hill-station of Mussoorie, the summer residence of the British and rich Indians. Our camp consisted of seven great sections each surrounded by a double fence of barbed wire. The whole camp was enclosed by two more lines of wire entanglement, between which patrols were constantly on the move.

The conditions of our new camp altered the whole situation for us. As long as we were down below in the plain, we always aimed to escape into one of the neutral Portuguese territories. Up here, we had the Himalayas right in front of us. How attractive to a mountaineer was the thought of winning through to Tibet over the passes. As a final goal one thought of the Japanese lines in Burma or China.

Plans for escape in these conditions and with these objectives needed the most careful preparation. By now we had given up hope of a speedy ending to the war, and so there was nothing for it — if we wished to get away — but to organise systematically. Flight through the thickly populated regions of India was out of the question; for that one would need plenty of money and a perfect knowledge of English — and I had neither. So it is easy to imagine that my preference was for the empty spaces of Tibet. And I thought of being on the Himalayas — and felt that even if my plan failed, it would be worth having a spell of freedom in the high mountains.

I now set to work to learn a little Hindustani, Tibetan and Japanese; and devoured all sorts of travel books on Asia, which I found in the library, especially those dealing with the districts on my prospective route. I made extracts from these works and took copies of the most important maps. Peter Aufschnaiter, who had also landed in Dehra-Dun, had various books and maps dealing with expeditions in Asia. He worked at these with tireless energy and put all his notes and sketches at my disposal. I copied all of these in duplicate, keeping one copy to take with me when I escaped and the other as a reserve in case the originals were lost.

It was just as important for me, in view of the route by which I proposed to escape, to keep myself physically as fit as possible. So every day I devoted hours to exercising in the open air, indifferent alike to bad and good weather, while at night I used to be out and study the habits of the guards.

My chief worry was that I had too little money; for although I had sold everything I could do without, my savings were quite insufficient to provide for the necessaries of life in Tibet, let alone for the bribes and presents which are the commonplaces of life in Asia. Nevertheless I went on working systematically at my plan and received help from some friends, who themselves had no intention of escaping.

I had originally intended to escape alone in order not to be hampered by a companion, which might have prejudiced my chances. But one day my friend Rolf Magener told me that an Italian general had the same intentions as myself. I had previously heard of this man, and so one night Magener and I climbed through the wire fence into the neighbouring wing in which forty Italian generals were housed. My future companion was named Marchese and was in outward appearance a typical Italian. He was something over forty years of age, slim of figure with agreeable manners and distinctly well-dressed; I was particularly impressed by his physique. At the outset we had difficulties in understanding one another. He spoke no German and I no Italian. We both knew only a minimum of English, so we conversed, with the help of a friend, in halting French. Marchese told me about the war in Abyssinia, and of an earlier attempt he had made to escape from a P.O.W. camp.

Fortunately for him he received the pay of a British general and money was no problem. He was able to procure for our flight things which I could never have obtained. What he needed was a partner familiar with the Himalayas — so we very soon joined forces on the basis that I should be responsible for all the planning, and he for the money and equipment.

Several times every week I used to crawl out to discuss details with Marchese, and by practice became an expert in penetrating barbed wire.
Of course there were various possibilities for the escape but the one that seemed to me the most promising was based on one important fact — that every eighty yards along the “chicken-run” enclosing the whole camp was a steep, straw-thatched roof that had been put up to protect the sentries against the tropical sun. If we could climb over one of these roofs we should have crossed the two lines of barbed wire at a single bound. In May 1943 we had completed all our preparations. Money, provisions, compass, watches, shoes and a small mountaineer’s tent were all ready.

One night we decided to make the attempt. I climbed as usual through the fence into Marchese’s wing. There I found a ladder ready, which we had grabbed and hidden after a small fire in the camp. We leaned it against the wall of a hut and waited in the shadow. It was nearly midnight and in ten minutes the guard would change. The sentries, waiting to come off duty, walked slackly up and down. A few minutes passed until they reached the point where we wanted them. Just then the moon came up over the tops of the tea-plantation.

There we were. It was now or never.

Both the sentries had reached their furthest point from us. I got up from my crouching position and hurried to the fence with the ladder. I laid it against the overhanging top of the fence, climbed up, and cut the wires which had been bunched together to prevent access to the thatch. Marchese pushed the thicket of wires on to one side with a long forked stick, enabling me to slip through on to the roof. It was agreed that the Italian should follow me immediately, while I held the wire apart with my hands: but he did not come. He fingered for a few ghastly seconds, thinking that it was too late and that the guards were already returning — and, indeed, I heard their steps, I left him no time for further reflection but caught him under the arms and pulled him on to the roof. He crept across and dropped heavily down into freedom.

But all this had not happened in dead silence. The watch was alarmed and they started shooting; but as their firing broke the stillness of the night, we were swallowed up by the jungle.

The first thing that Marchese did, in expression of his warm southern temperament, was to embrace and kiss me, though this was hardly the moment to give vent to outbursts of joy. Rockets went up and whistles sounded near us showing that pursuers were on our track. We ran for our lives and moved very fast, using short cuts which I had got to know very well during my outings from the camp. We made little use of the roads and skirted round the few villages we found on our way. At the outset we hardly noticed our packs, but later on they began to feel heavy.

In one of the villages the natives beat their drums and we at once fancied they were sounding the alarm. That was one of the difficulties which anyone brought up among our exclusively white population can hardly imagine. In Asia the “Sahib” invariably travels with an escort of servants and never carries the smallest package himself — what could the natives think, therefore, when they saw two heavily laden Europeans plodding on foot through the countryside!

We decided to march by night, knowing that the Indians are afraid to go through the jungle in darkness on account of the wild beasts. We did not particularly enjoy the prospect ourselves, having often read stories of man-eating tigers and leopards in the newspapers available in the camp.

When day dawned we hid ourselves, exhausted, in a wady and spent the whole day there, sleeping and eating in the burning heat. We only saw one person during the day, a cowherd; fortunately he did not see us. The worst thing was that we each of us had only a single water-bottle, which had to suffice for the whole day. It was no wonder that when evening came, after a day spent in keeping quiet, we could hardly control our nerves. We wanted to get on as quickly as possible, and the nights seemed far too short for our progress. We had to find the shortest way through the Himalayas to Tibet, and that would mean weeks of strenuous marching before we could feel ourselves in safety.

We crossed the first ridge on the evening after our escape. At the top we rested for a while and saw 3,000 feet below us the countless twinkling lights of the internment camp. At 10.15 p.m. the lights all went out together and only the searchlights round the camp gave an idea of its enormous extent.

This was the first time in my life that I really understood what it meant to be free. We enjoyed this glorious feeling and thought with sympathy of the two thousand P.O.W.s forced to live down there behind the wall of wire.

But we had not much time for meditation. We had to find our way down to the valley of the Jumna, which was completely unknown to us. In one of the smaller valleys we walked into a cleft so narrow that we could not get on, and had to wait till morning. The place was so lonely and sheltered that I could without misgiving take the opportunity to dye my blond hair and beard black. I also stained my face and hands with a mixture of permanganate, brown paint, and grease, which produced a dark shade. By this means I acquired some resemblance to an Indian; that was important as we had decided, if we were challenged, to say that we were on a pilgrimage to the sacred Ganges. As for my companion he was dark enough not to be noticeable at a distance. Naturally we did not mean to court close inspection.

On this evening we set out before it was dark, but soon had to rue our haste, for crossing a slope we found ourselves in the presence of a number of peasants planting rice. They were wading half-naked in the muddy water and stared in astonishment at the sight of two men carrying packs on their backs. They pointed to the slope high up on which one could see a village, which seemed to mean that this was the only way out of the ravine. To avoid awkward questions we walked straight on, as fast as possible in the direction indicated. After hours of climbing and descending we at last reached the river Jumna.

Meanwhile night had fallen. Our plan was to follow the course of the Jumna until we reached one of its tributaries, the Aglar, and then to follow this stream till we came to the watershed. It could not be far from there to the Ganges, which would lead us to the great Himalayan chain. Most of our route up to this point had been across country, and only here and there along water courses had we found paths used by fishermen. On this morning Marchese was very much exhausted. I prepared cornflakes for him with sugar and water, and on my insisting he ate a little. Unfortunately the place where we found ourselves was most unsuitable for camping. It was swarming with large ants which bit deeply into one’s skin, and we could not sleep because of them. The day seemed endless.

Towards evening my companion’s restlessness increased and I began to hope that his physical condition might have improved. He, too, was full of confidence that he would be able to cope with the fatigue of the next night. However, soon after midnight, he was through. He simply was not up to the enormous physical effort needed of us. My hard training and condition proved a godsend to us both — I often used to carry his pack strapped over my own.
I should say that we had covered our rucksacks with Indian jute sacking to avoid arousing suspicion.

During the next two nights we wandered up-stream, frequently having to wade through the Aglar when our way along the bank was blocked by jungle or rocks. Once as we were resting in the bed of the stream between two rocky walls, some fishermen came by without noticing us. Another time when we stumbled upon some fishermen whom we could not avoid we asked in our broken Hindustani for some trout. Our disguise seemed to be convincing enough as the men sold us the fish without showing mistrust of us — indeed they cooked them for us — while conversing and smoking those small Indian cigarettes which Europeans find so distasteful. Marchese (who before our getaway had been a great smoker) could not resist the temptation of asking for one — but he had barely taken a couple of puffs when he fell unconscious, as if he had been poleaxed! Luckily he soon recovered and we were able to continue our journey.

Later on we met some peasants carrying butter to the town. We were meanwhile becoming more confident and asked them to sell us some. One of them agreed to do so, but as he ladled the almost melting butter, with his dark, dirty hands, from his pot into ours, we both of us nearly vomited with disgust.

At last the valley broadened out and our way lay through rice and cornfields. It became more and more difficult to find a good hide-out for the daytime. Once we were discovered during the morning and as the peasants kept asking us all manner of indiscreet questions, we packed up our traps and hurried onwards. We had not yet found a new hiding-place when we met eight men who shouted to us to stop. Our luck seemed at last to have deserted us. They asked us innumerable questions and I kept on giving the same answers, namely that we were pilgrims from a distant province. To our great astonishment we seemed somehow to have stood the test, for after a while they let us go on our way. We could hardly believe that we had done with them, and long after we had moved on we thought we heard pursuing footsteps.

That day everything seemed to be bewitched and we had constant upsets. Finally we had to come to the discouraging conclusion that we had indeed crossed a watershed, but were still in the valley of the Jumna — which implied that we were at least two days behind our timetable.

So we had to start climbing again, and soon found ourselves in thick forests of rhododendrons which seemed so completely deserted that we could hope for a quiet day and a chance of a long sleep. But some cow-herds came in sight and we had to move camp and bid farewell to the prospect of a good day’s rest.

During the following nights we marched through comparatively unpopulated country. We learned soon enough, to our sorrow, the reason for the absence of human beings. There was practically no water. We suffered so much from thirst that on one occasion I made a bad mistake which might have had disastrous consequences. Coming across a small pool I threw myself down and without taking any precautions began to drink the water in mighty gulps. The results were awful. It turned out that this was one of those pools in which water-buffaloes are accustomed to wallow in the hot weather, and which contain more mire than water. I had a violent attack of coughing followed by vomiting, and it was long before I recovered from my horrid refreshment.

Soon after this incident we were so overcome by thirst that we simply could not go on and had to lie down, although it was long before dawn. When morning came I climbed down the steep slope alone in search of water, which I found. The next three days and nights were a little better — our path lay through dry fir woods which were so lonely that we seldom met Indians in them, and ran very little risk of discovery.

On the twelfth day of our flight a great moment came. We found ourselves on the banks of the Ganges. The most pious Hindu could not have been more deeply moved by the sight of the sacred stream than we were. We could now follow the pilgrims’ road up the Ganges to its source — and that would greatly lessen the fatigues of our journey, or so we imagined. We decided that, having got so far and so safely by our system of night travel, we would not risk a change, so we continued to be up by day and move only by night.

In the meantime we were desperately short of provender. Our food was practically exhausted, but although poor Marchese was nothing but skin and bones, he did not give in. I, fortunately, was still feeling comparatively fresh and had a good reserve of strength.

All our hopes were centred on the tea and provision stores which were to be found everywhere along the Pilgrims’ Way.
Some of them remained open late into the night, and one could recognise them by their dull glimmering oil-lamps. After attending to my make-up, I walked into the first of these stores which we came to and was driven out with cries of abuse. They clearly took me for a thief. Unpleasant as the experience was, it had one advantage; it was evident that my disguise was convincing.

Arriving at the next store, I walked in holding my money as ostentatiously as possible in my hand. That made a good impression. Then I told the storekeeper that I had to buy provisions for ten people, in order to lend plausibility to an offer to purchase forty pounds of meal, sugar and onions.

The shop-people took more interest in examining my paper-money than in my person, and so after a while I was able to leave the shop with a heavy load of provisions. The next day was a happy one. At last we had enough to eat and the Pilgrims’ Road seemed to us, after our long treks across country, a mere promenade.

But our contentment was short-lived. At our next halt we were disturbed by men in search of wood. They found Marchese lying half-naked because of the great heat. He had grown so thin that one could count his ribs, and he looked very sick indeed. We were of course objects of suspicion, as we were not in the usual pilgrims’ road-houses. The Indians invited us to go to their farmhouse, but that we didn’t want to do, and used Marchese’s ill-health as an excuse for not going with them. They went away then, but soon were back and it was now clear that they took us for fugitives. They tried to blackmail us by saying that there was an Englishman in the neighbourhood with eight soldiers looking for a couple of escaped prisoners, and that he had promised them a reward for any information they could give him. But they promised to say nothing if we gave them money. I stood firm and insisted that I was a doctor from Kashmir, in proof of which I showed them my medicine chest.

Whether as a result of Marchese’s completely genuine groans or of my play-acting, the Indians vanished again. We spent the next night in continual fear of their return and expected them to come back with an official. However, we were not molested.

With things as they were the days did little to restore our strength, and Indeed they laid a greater strain on us than the nights. Not, of course, muscular but nervous strain, as we were in a state of continuous tension. By midday our water-bottles were generally empty and the remainder of the day seemed never-ending. Every evening Marchese marched heroically forward, and in spite of exhaustion caused by loss of weight he could carry on till midnight. After that he had to have two hours’ sleep to enable him to march a stage further. Towards morning we bivouacked, and from our shelter could look down on the great Pilgrims’ Road with its almost unbroken stream of pilgrims. Strangely garbed as they often were, we envied them. Lucky devils! They had no cause to hide from anyone. We had heard in the camp that something like 60,000 pilgrims came this way during the summer months and we readily believed it.

Our next march was a long one but towards midnight we reached Uttar Kashi, the temple town. We soon lost our bearings in the narrow streets, so Marchese sat down with the packs in a dark corner and I set off alone to try and find the way. Through the open doors of the temples one could see lamps burning before the staring idols, and I had often to leap into the shadow to avoid being noticed by monks passing from one holy place to another. It took me more than an hour before I at last found the Pilgrims’ Road again, stretching away on the other side of the town. I knew from the numerous travel books I had read that we should now have to cross the so-called “Inner Line.” This line runs parallel to the true frontier at a distance of something between 60 and 120 miles. Everyone traversing this region, with the exception of normal residents, is supposed to have a pass. As we had none we had to take particular care to avoid police posts and patrols.

The valley up which our way led us became less and less inhabited as we progressed. In the daytime we had no trouble in finding suitable shelters, and I could often leave my hiding-place and go in search of water. Once I even made a small fire and cooked some porridge — the first hot meal we had eaten for a fortnight.

We had already reached a height of nearly 7,000 feet and during the night we often passed camps of Bhutia, the Tibetan traders who in summer carry on their business in southern Tibet and in winter come across into India. Many of them live during the hot weather in little villages situated above the 10,000-foot level, where they grow barley. These camps had a very disagreeable feature in the shape of the powerful and savage Tibetan dogs — a shaggy-coated, middle-sized breed — which we now encountered for the first time.


One night we arrived at one of these Bhutia villages which are only inhabited in summer. It looked very homelike with its shingle and stone-covered roofs. But behind it an unpleasant surprise was awaiting us in the shape of a swiftly running stream which had overflowed its banks and turned the adjacent ground into a swamp. It was absolutely impossible to cross it. At last we gave up trying to find a way over, and determined to wait till day and observe the ground from a shelter, for we could not believe that the Pilgrims’ Road broke off short at this point. To our utmost astonishment, we observed next morning that the procession of pilgrims continued on their way and crossed the water at precisely the spot at which we had spent hours of the night vainly trying to get over. Unfortunately we could not see how they managed it, as trees interrupted our sight of the actual place. But something else equally inexplicable occurred. We observed that later on in the morning the stream of pilgrims stopped. Next evening we tried again to cross at the same place and again found that it was impossible. At last it dawned on me that we had in front of us a burn, fed by melted snow and ice, which carried its highest head of water from noon till late into the night. Early in the morning the water level would be lowest.

It turned out to be as I had guessed. When in the first grey of dawn we stood beside the stream, we saw a primitive bridge of half-submerged tree-trunks. Balancing ourselves carefully we got across to the other side. Unfortunately there were other streams which we had to cross in the same laborious manner. I had just crossed the last of these when Marchese slipped and fell into the water — luckily on top of the trunks, or he would otherwise have been carried away by the torrent. Wet to the skin and completely exhausted he could not be induced to go on. I urged him to move at least into cover, but he just spread out his wet things to dry and started to light a fire. Then for the first time I began to regret that I had not listened to his repeated requests to leave him behind and carry on alone. I had always insisted that since we had started together, we should carry on together.  

As we were arguing an Indian stood before us, who after a glance at the various objects of obviously European origin spread out on the ground began to ask us questions. Only then did Marchese realise what danger we were in. He quickly put his things together, but we had hardly gone a couple of steps when we were stopped by another Indian, a distinguished-looking fellow leading a section of ten strapping soldiers. In perfect English he asked for our passes. We affected not to understand and said we were pilgrims from Kashmir. He thought this over for a moment and then found a solution which spelled finis to our hopes of escape. There were, he said, two Kashmiris in the neighbouring house. If we could make them understand us, we could go on our way. What devilish ill-luck had brought two Kashmiris into the neighbourhood just at that moment? I had only used this “alibi” because it was the most unlikely thing to find Kashmiris in this region.

The two men of whom he spoke were flood-damage experts, who had been called in from Kashmir. As soon as we stood before them we realised that the moment of our unmasking had come. As we had agreed to do in such a case, I began to speak to Marchese in French. Immediately the Indian broke in, speaking also in French, and told us to open our packs. When he saw my English-Tibetan grammar he said we might just as well say who we were. We then admitted that we were escaped prisoners but did not give away our nationality.

Soon after we were sitting in a comfortable room drinking tea, but all the same I felt bitterly disappointed. This was the eighteenth day of our flight and all our privations and efforts had gone for nothing. The man who had questioned us was the chief of the Forestry Department in the state of Tehri-Garwhal. He had studied forestry in English, French and German schools and knew all three languages well. It was on account of the flood, the worst catastrophe of the kind in the last hundred years, that he had come on an inspection to this region. He smilingly regretted his presence, adding that as ours had been reported to him he was obliged to do his duty.

Today when I think of the concatenation of circumstances which led to our capture, I cannot help feeling that we were victims of something worse than ordinary ill-luck and that we could not have averted our fate. All the same I did not for a minute doubt that I would escape again. Marchese, however, was in a condition of such complete exhaustion that he had given up all idea of another attempt. In a very comradely manner he made over to me the greater part of his money, knowing how short I was. I made good use of an enforced leisure to eat hearty meals, as we had hardly eaten anything for the last few days. The forest-officer’s cook kept us continuously supplied with food, half of which I tucked away in my knapsack. Early in the evening we said we were tired and wanted to sleep. Our bedroom door was locked on the outside and the forest-officer had his bed put on the veranda in front of our window to prevent any attempt at escape that way. However, he was away for a short while and Marchese and I took the opportunity to start a mock quarrel. Marchese took both parts, so to speak, shouting abuse in a high and then a low key, while I swung myself through the window, rucksack and all, on to the forest-officer’s bed, and ran to the end of the veranda. Darkness had fallen, and after waiting a few seconds till the sentries had vanished round the corner of the house, I dropped down twelve feet to the ground below. The soil into which I fell was not hard and I made little noise; in a moment I was up and over the garden wall and had vanished into the pitch-black forest.

I was free!

Everything was quiet. In spite of my excitement I could not help laughing at the thought that Marchese was still abusing me according to plan, while the forest-officer was keeping watch on us from his bed in front of our window.

However, I had to go on and ran, in my haste, into a flock of sheep. Before I could get back a sheepdog fastened on to the seat of my trousers and did not let go till he had bitten a piece out. In my terror I dashed away but found that the road I had chosen was too steep for me and so I had to go back and creep round the sheep till I found another way. Soon after midnight I had to admit that I had again gone wrong. So once more I had to go back a few miles in breathless haste. My aimless wanderings had lost me four hours and the day was already dawning. Turning a corner I caught sight of a bear about twenty yards away. Luckily he shuffled off without seeming to take any notice of me.

When it was fully light I hid myself again, although the country showed no trace of human habitation. I knew that before reaching the Tibetan frontier I should come to a village at the other side of which lay freedom. I marched through the whole of the next night and gradually began to wonder why I had not reached the fateful village. According to my notes it lay on the far bank of the river and was connected with the near side by a bridge. I wondered if I had not already passed it, but consoled myself with the reflection that one could hardly miss a village. So I marched on carefree, even after daylight had come.

That was my undoing. As I came round a heap of boulders, I found myself right under the houses of a village, in front of which stood a swarm of gesticulating people. The place was wrongly indicated on my map and as I had twice lost my way during the night, my pursuers had had time to come up with me. I was at once surrounded and summoned to surrender, after which I was led into a house and offered refreshment.

Here I met for the first time with the real Tibetan nomads, who wander into India with their flocks of sheep and loads of salt and return laden with barley. I was offered Tibetan butter-tea with tsampa, the staple food of these people on which later I lived for years. My first contact with it affected my stomach most disagreeably.

I spent a couple of nights in this village, which was called Nelang, playing vaguely with the idea of another attempt to escape, but I was physically too tired and mentally too despondent to translate my thoughts into action. The return journey, in comparison with my previous exertions, seemed a pleasure trip. I did not have to carry a pack and was very well looked after. On the way I met Marchese who was staying as a guest with the forest-officer in his private bungalow. I was invited to join them. And what was my astonishment when a few days later two other escaped members of our company in the P.O.W. camp were brought in — Peter Aufschnaiter, my comrade on the Nanga Parbat expedition, and a certain Father Calenberg.

Meanwhile I had begun to occupy my mind with plans for escaping once more. I made friends with an Indian guard who cooked for us and seemed to inspire confidence. I handed him my maps, my compass and my money, as I knew that we should be searched before being readmitted to the camp, and that it would be impossible to smuggle these things in with us. So I told the Indian that I would come again in the following spring and collect my possessions from him. He was to ask for leave in May and wait for me. This he solemnly promised to do. So now we had to go back to the camp and it was only my resolve to get free once more that enabled me to endure the bitterness of my disappointment.

Marchese was still sick and could not walk, so they gave him a horse to ride. We had another agreeable interruption, being entertained on our way by the Maharajah of Tehri-Garwhal, who treated us most hospitably. Then we returned to our barbed-wire entanglements.

The episode of my flight had left a visible mark on my person, which appeared when on the way back I bathed in a warm spring. There I found my hair coming out in handfuls. It appears that the dye I had used for my Indian disguise was deleterious.

As a result of my involuntary depilation and all the fatiguing experiences I had gone through, my comrades in the camp found it hard to recognise me when I arrived.
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Re: Seven Years in Tibet, by Heinrich Harrer

Postby admin » Tue Sep 03, 2019 11:36 am

2. Escape

A risky masquerade — I follow the same road — Tibet wants no strangers — We retrace our steps — Back to India.

“You made a daring escape. I am sorry, I have to give you twenty-eight days,” said the English colonel on our return to the camp. I had enjoyed thirty-eight days of freedom and now had to pass twenty-eight in solitary confinement. It was the regular penalty for breaking out. However, as the English took a sporting view of our bold attempt, I was treated with less than the usual rigour.

When I had finished my spell of punishment I heard that Marchese had endured the same fate in another part of the camp. Later on, we found opportunities to talk over our experiences. Marchese promised to help me in my next attempt to get loose, but would not think of joining me. Without losing any time I at once began to make new maps and to draw conclusions from the experience of my previous flight. I felt convinced that my next attempt would succeed and was determined this time to go alone.

Busy with my preparations I found the winter passing swiftly and by the time the next “escape season” came round I was well equipped. This time I wanted to start earlier, so as to get through the village of Nelang while it was still uninhabited. I had not counted on getting back the kit I had left with the Indian so I supplied myself afresh with the things I most needed. A touching proof of comradeship was the generosity of my companions who, hard up as many of them were, spent their money freely in contributing to my outfit.

I was not the only P.O.W. who wanted to get away. My two best friends, Rolf Magener and Heins von Have, were also engaged in preparing to escape. Both spoke fluent English, and they aimed to work their way through India to the Burma front. Von Have had already escaped two years before with a companion and had almost reached Burma, but was caught just before the frontier. During a second attempt his friend had a fatal accident. Three or four other internees, it was said, planned to escape. Finally the whole seven of us got together and decided to make a simultaneous break-out on the grounds that successive individual attempts increased the vigilance of the guards, and made it more and more difficult to get away as time went on. If the mass escape succeeded each of us, once out of the camp, could follow his own route. Peter Aufschnaiter, who this time had as his partner Bruno Treipel from Salzburg, and two fellows from Berlin, Hans Kopp and Sattler, wished, like me, to escape to Tibet.

Our zero hour was fixed as 2 p.m. on April 29th, 1944. Our plan was to disguise ourselves as a barbed-wire repairing squad. Such working parties were a normal sight. The reason for them was that white ants were always busy eating away the numerous posts which supported the wire and these had to be continually renewed. Working parties consisted of Indians with an English overseer.

At the appointed time we met in a little hut in the neighbourhood of one of the least closely watched wire corridors. Here make-up experts from the camp transformed us in a trice into Indians. Have and Magener got English officers’ uniforms. We “Indians” had our heads shaved and put on turbans. Serious as the situation was, we could not help laughing when we looked at one another. We looked like masqueraders bound for a carnival. Two of us carried a ladder, which had been conveyed the night before to an unguarded spot in the wire fencing. We had also wangled a long roll of barbed wire and hung it on a post. Our belongings were stowed away under our white robes and in bundles, which did not look odd as Indians always carry things around with them. Our two “British officers” behaved very realistically. They carried rolls with blue-prints under their arms and swung their swagger-canes. We had already made a breach in the fence through which we now slipped one after another into the unguarded passage which separated the different sections of the camp. From here it was about 300 yards to the main gate. We attracted no attention and only stopped once, when the sergeant-major rode by the main gate on his bicycle. Our “officers” chose that moment to inspect the wire closely. After that we passed out through the gate without causing the guards to bat an eyelid. It was comforting to see them saluting smartly and obviously suspicious of nobody. Our seventh man, Sattler, who had left his hut rather late, arrived after us. His face was black and he was swinging a tarpot energetically. The sentries let him through and he only caught up with us outside the gate.

As soon as we were out of sight of the guards we vanished into the bush and got rid of our disguises. Under our Indian robes we wore khaki, our normal dress when on outings. In a few words we bade each other goodbye.
Have, Magener and I ran for a few miles together and then our ways parted. I chose the same route as last time, and travelled as fast as I could in order to put as long a distance as possible between me and the camp by the next morning. This time I was determined not to depart from my resolve to travel only by night and lie up by day. No! this time I was not going to take any risks. My four comrades, for whom Tibet was also the objective, moved in a party and had the nerve to use the main road which led via Alussoorie into the valley of the Ganges. I found this too risky and followed my former route through the Jumna and Aglar valleys. During the first night I must have waded through the Aglar forty times. All the same, when morning came I lay up in exactly the same place which it had taken me four days to reach in the previous year. Happy to be free, I felt satisfied with my performance, though I was covered with scratches and bruises and owing to my heavy load had walked through the soles of a pair of new tennis shoes in a single night.


I chose my first day-camp between two boulders in the river-bed, but I had hardly unpacked my things when a company of apes appeared. They caught sight of me and began to pelt me with clods. Distracted by their noise I failed to observe a body of thirty Indians who came running up the river-bed. I only noticed them when they had approached dangerously near to my hiding-place. I still do not know if they were fishermen or persons in search of us fugitives. In any case I could hardly believe that they had not spotted me for they were within a few yards of me as they ran by.
I breathed again, but took this for a warning and remained in my shelter till evening, not moving till darkness had fallen. I followed the Aglar the whole night long and made good progress. My next camp provided no excitements, and I was able to refresh myself with a good sleep. Towards evening I grew impatient and broke camp rather too early. I had only been walking for a few hundred yards, when I ran into an Indian woman at a water-hole. She screamed with fright, let her water-jar fall and ran towards the nearby houses. I was no less frightened than she was and dashed from the track into a gulley. Here I had to climb steeply and though I knew I was going in the right direction my diversion represented a painful detour that put me back by several hours. I had to climb Nag Tibba, a mountain over 10,000 feet high, which in its upper regions is completely deserted and thickly covered with forest.


As I was loping along in the grey of dawn I found myself facing my first leopard. My heart nearly stopped beating as I was completely defenceless. My only weapon was a long knife which the camp blacksmith had made expressly for me. I carried it sheathed in a stick. The leopard sat on a thick branch fifteen feet or more above the ground, ready to spring. I thought like lightning what was the best thing to do, then, masking my fear, I walked steadily on my way. Nothing happened, but for a long time I had a peculiar feeling in my back.

Up to now I had been following the ridge of Nag Tibba and now at last I tumbled on to the road again. I had not gone far when I got another surprise. In the middle of the track lay some men— snoring! They were Peter Aufschnaiter and his three companions. I shook them awake and we all betook ourselves to a sheltered spot where we recounted what had befallen us on the trek. We were all in excellent shape and were convinced that we should get through to Tibet. After passing the day in the company of my friends I found it hard to go on alone in the evening, but I remained true to my resolve. The same night I reached the Ganges. I had been five days on the run.

At Uttar Kashi, the temple town which I have mentioned in connection with my first escape, I had to run for my life. I had just passed a house when two men came out and started running after me. I fled headlong through fields and scrub down to the Ganges and there hid myself between two great blocks of boulders. All was quiet and it was clear that I had escaped from my pursuers; but only after a longish time did I dare to come out into the bright moonlight. It was a pleasure for me at this stage to travel along a familiar route, and my happiness at such speedy progress made me forget the heavy load I was carrying. It is true that my feet were very sore, but they seemed to recover during my daytime rest. I often slept for ten hours at a stretch.

At length I came to the farmhouse of my Indian friend to whom I had in the previous year entrusted my money and effects. It was now May and we had agreed that he was to expect me at midnight any day during the month. I purposely did not walk straight into the house, and before doing anything else I hid my rucksack, as betrayal was not beyond the bounds of possibility.

The moon shone full upon the farmhouse, so I hid myself in the darkness of the stable and twice softly called my friend’s name. The door was flung open and out rushed my friend, threw himself on the ground, and kissed my feet. Tears of joy flowed down his cheeks. He led me to a room lying apart from the house, on the door of which an enormous lock was hanging. Here he lit a pine-wood torch and opened a wooden chest. Inside were all my things carefully sewn up in cotton bags. Deeply touched by his loyalty, I unpacked everything and gave him a reward. You can imagine that I enjoyed the food which he then set before me. I asked him to get me provisions and a woollen blanket before the following night. He promised to do this and in addition made me a present of a pair of hand-woven woollen drawers and a shawl.

The next day I slept in a neighbouring wood and came in the evening to fetch my things. My friend gave me a hearty meal and accompanied me for a part of my way. He insisted on carrying some of my baggage, undernourished as he was and hardly able to keep pace with me. I soon sent him back and after the friendliest parting found myself alone again.


It may have been a little after midnight when I ran into a bear standing on his hind legs in the middle of my path, growling at me. At this point the sound of the swiftly running waters of the Ganges was so loud that we had neither of us heard the other’s approach. Pointing my primitive spear at his heart, I backed step by step so as to keep my eyes fixed on him. Round the first bend of the track I hurriedly lit a fire, and pulling out a burning stick, I brandished it in front of me and moved forward to meet my enemy. But coming round the corner I found the road clear and the bear gone. Tibetan peasants told me later that bears are only aggressive by day. At night they are afraid to attack.

I had already been on the march for ten days when I reached the village of Nelang, where last year destiny had wrecked my hopes. This time I was a month earlier and the village was still uninhabited. But what was my delight to find there my four comrades from the camp! They had overtaken me when I was staying with my Indian friend. We took up our quarters in an open house and slept the whole night through. Sattler unfortunately had an attack of mountain sickness; he felt wretched and declared himself unequal to further efforts. He decided to return, but promised not to surrender till two days were up, so as not to endanger our escape. Kopp, who in the previous year had penetrated into Tibet by this route in company with the wrestler Kramer, joined me as a partner.

It took us seven long days’ marching, however, before we finally reached the pass which forms the frontier between India and Tibet. Our delay was due to a bad miscalculation. After leaving Tirpani, a well-known caravan camp, we followed the most easterly of three valleys, but eventually had to admit that we had lost our way. In order to find our bearings Aufschnaiter and I climbed to the top of a mountain from which we expected a good view of the country on the other side. From here we saw Tibet for the first time, but were far too tired to enjoy the prospect and at an altitude of nearly 18,000 feet we suffered from lack of oxygen. To our great disappointment we decided that we must return to Tirpani. There we found that the pass we were bound for lay almost within a stone’s throw of us. Our error had cost us three days and caused us the greatest discouragement. We had to cut our rations and felt the utmost anxiety about our capacity to hold out until we had reached the next inhabited place.


From Tirpani our way sloped gently upward by green pastures, through which one of the baby Ganges streams flowed. This brook, which we had known a week back as a raging, deafening torrent racing down the valley, now wound gently through the grasslands. In a few weeks the whole country would be green and the numerous camping-places, recognisable from their fire-blackened stones, made us picture to ourselves the caravans which cross the passes from India into Tibet in the summer season. A troop of mountain sheep passed in front of us. Lightfooted as chamois, they soon vanished from our sight without having noticed us. Alas! our stomachs regretted them. It would have been grand to see one of them stewing in our cooking-pot, thereby giving us a chance, for once, to eat our fill.

At the foot of the pass we camped in India for the last time. Instead of the hearty meat dinner we had been dreaming of, we baked skimpy cakes with the last of our flour mixed with water and laid on hot stones. It was bitterly cold and our only protection against the icy mountain wind that stormed through the valley was a stone wall.

At last on May 17th, 1944, we stood at the top of the Tsangchokla pass. We knew from our maps that our altitude was 17,200 feet.

So here we were on the frontier between India and Tibet, so long the object of our wishful dreams.

Here we enjoyed for the first time a sense of security, for we knew that no Englishman could arrest us here. We did not know how the Tibetans would treat us but as our country was not at war with Tibet we hoped confidently for a hospitable welcome.

On the top of the pass were heaps of stones and prayer-flags dedicated to their gods by pious Buddhists. It was very cold, but we took a long rest and considered our situation. We had almost no knowledge of the language and very little money. Above all we were near starvation and must find human habitation as soon as possible. But as far as we could see there were only empty mountain heights and deserted valleys. Our maps showed only vaguely the presence of villages in this region. Our final objective, as I have already mentioned, was the Japanese lines — thousands of miles away. The route we planned to follow led first to the holy mountain of Kailas and thence along the course of the Brahmaputra till at last it would bring us to Eastern Tibet. Kopp, who had been in Tibet the year before and had been expelled from that country, thought that the indications on our maps were reasonably accurate.

After a steep descent we reached the course of the Optchu and rested there at noon. Overhanging rock walls flanked the valley like a canyon. The valley was absolutely uninhabited and only a wooden pole showed that men sometimes came there. The other side of the valley consisted of slopes of shale up which we had to climb. It was evening before we reached the plateau and we bivouacked in icy cold. Our fuel during the last few days had been the branches of thorn bushes, which we found on the slopes. Here there was nothing growing, so we had to use dry cow-dung, laboriously collected.

Before noon next day we reached our first Tibetan village, Kasapuling, which consisted of six houses. The place appeared to be completely deserted and when we knocked at the doors, nothing stirred. We then discovered that all the villagers were busy sowing barley in the surrounding fields. Sitting on their hunkers they put each individual grain of seed into the ground with the regularity and speed of machines. We looked at them with feelings that might compare with those of Columbus when he met his first Indians. Would they receive us as friends or foes? For the moment they took no notice of us. The cries of an old woman, looking like a witch, were the only sound we heard. They were not aimed at us, but at the swarms of wild pigeons which swooped down to get at the newly planted grain. Until evening the villagers hardly deigned to bestow a glance on us; so we four established our camp near one of the houses, and when at nightfall the people came in from the fields we tried to trade with them. We offered them money for one of their sheep or goats, but they showed themselves disinclined to trade. As Tibet has no frontier posts the whole population is brought up to be hostile to foreigners, and there are severe penalties for any Tibetan who sells anything to a foreigner. We were starving and had no choice but to intimidate them. We threatened to take one of their animals by force if they would not freely sell us one — and as none of the four of us looked a weakling, this method of argument eventually succeeded. It was pitch dark before they handed to us for a shamelessly high price the oldest billy-goat they could put their hands on. We knew we were being blackmailed, but we put up with it, as we wished to win the hospitality of this country.

We slaughtered the goat in a stable and it was not till midnight that we fell to on the half-cooked meat.

We spent the next day resting and looking more closely at the houses. These were stone-built with flat roofs on which the fuel was laid out to dry. The Tibetans who live here cannot be compared with those who inhabit the interior, whom we got to know later. The brisk summer caravan traffic with India has spoilt them. We found them dirty, dark-skinned and shifty-eyed, with no trace of that gaiety for which their race is famous. They went sulkily to their daily work and one felt that they had only settled in this sterile country in order to earn good money from the caravans for the produce of their land. These six houses on the frontier formed, as I later was able to confirm, almost the only village without a monastery.

Next morning we left this inhospitable place without hindrance. We were by now fairly well rested and Kopp’s Berlin mother-wit, which during the last few days had suffered an eclipse, had us laughing again. We crossed over fields to go downhill into a little valley. On the way up the opposite slope to the next plateau we felt the weight of our packs more than ever. This physical fatigue was mainly caused by a reaction to the disappointment which this long-dreamed-of country had up to now caused us. We had to spend the night in an inhospitable sort of depression in the ground, which barely shielded us from the wind.

At the very beginning of our journey we had detailed each member of the party for special duties. Fetching water, lighting fires and making tea meant hard work. Every evening we emptied our rucksacks in order to use them as footbags against the cold. When that evening I shook mine out there was a small explosion. My matches had caught fire from friction — a proof of the dryness of the air in the high Tibetan plateau.

By the first light of day we examined the place in which we had camped. We observed that the depression in which we had bivouacked must have been made by the hand of man as it was quite circular and had perpendicular walls. It had perhaps been originally designed as a trap for wild beasts. Behind us lay the Himalayas with Kamet’s perfect snow-pyramid; in front forbidding, mountainous country. We went downhill through a sort of loess formation and arrived towards noon in the village of Dushang. Again we found very few houses and a reception as inhospitable as at Kasapuling. Peter Aufschnaiter vainly showed off all his knowledge of the language acquired in years of study, and our gesticulations were equally unsuccessful.

However we saw here for the first time a proper Tibetan monastery. Black holes gaped in the earthen walls and on a ridge we saw the ruins of gigantic buildings. Hundreds of monks must have lived here once. Now there were only a few living in a more modern house, but they never showed themselves to us. On a terrace in front of the monastery were ordered lines of red-painted tombs.

Somewhat depressed we returned to our tent, which was for us a little home in the midst of an interesting but oddly hostile world.

In Dushang, too, there were — when we came — no officials to whom we might have applied for leave to reside or travel. But this omission was soon to be rectified, for the officials were already on their way to find us. On the next day we resumed our march with Kopp and myself in front, and Aufschnaiter and Treipel a little way behind us. Suddenly we heard the tinkling of bells and two men on ponies rode up and summoned us in the local dialect to return to India by the same way as we had come. We knew that we should not do any good by talking and so to their surprise we just pushed them aside. Luckily they made no use of their weapons, thinking no doubt that we too were armed. After a few feeble attempts to delay us, they rode away and we reached without hindrance the next settlement, which we knew was the seat of a local governor.

The country through which we passed on this day’s march was waterless and empty with no sign of life anywhere. Its central point, the little town of Tsaparang, was inhabited only during the winter months and when we went in search of the governor we learned that he was packing his things for the move to Shangtse, his summer residence. We were not a little astonished to find that he was one of the two armed men who had met us on the way and ordered us to go back. His attitude, accordingly, was not welcoming and we could hardly persuade him to give us a little flour in exchange for medicine. The little medicine chest which I carried in my pack proved our salvation then, and was often to be of good service to us in the future.

At length the governor showed us a cave where we could pass the night, telling us once more that we must leave Tibet, using the road by which we had come. We refused to accept his ruling and tried to explain to him that Tibet was a neutral state and ought to offer us asylum. But his mind could not grasp this idea and he was not competent to take a decision, even if he had understood it. So we proposed to him that we should leave the decision to a high-ranking official, a monk whose official residence was in Thuling, only five miles away.

Tsaparang was really a curiosity. I had learned from the books I had studied in the camp that the first Catholic mission station in Tibet had been founded here in 1624. The Portuguese Jesuit Antonio de Andrade had formed a Catholic community and is said to have built a church. We searched for traces of it, but could not find any remains of a Christian building. Our own experience made us realise how difficult it must have been for Father Antonio to establish his mission here.

Next day we marched to Thuling to lay our case before the monk. There we found Aufschnaiter and Treipel, who had followed a different route. We all visited the Abbot of the Cloister, who happened to be the official we wanted, but found him deaf to our prayers to be allowed to proceed on our way eastwards. He only agreed to sell us provisions if we promised to go back to Shangtse, which lay on our road to India. There was nothing for it but to agree, as we were without food.

There was also a secular official in Thuling, but we found him even less accommodating. He angrily refused all our attempts to approach him and went so far as to arouse the hostility of the people against us. We had to pay a high price for some rancid butter and maggoty meat. A few faggots cost us a rupee. The only pleasant memory that we took with us from Thuling was the picture of the terraced monastery with its gold-pointed roof-pinnacles gleaming in the sunlight and the waters of the Sutlej flowing below. This is the largest monastery in West Tibet, but it has a very deserted aspect and we heard that only twenty out of two hundred and sixty monks were actually in residence.

When we had finally promised to return to Shangtse, they gave us four donkeys to carry our baggage. At first we wondered at their letting us go without any guards and only accompanied by the donkey man; but we soon came to the conclusion that in Tibet the simplest method of supervision is to forbid the sale of provisions to strangers unprovided with a permit.

The presence of the asses did not add to the pleasure of the journey. It took us a full hour to wade across the Sutlej, because the beasts were so tiresome. We had continually to urge them on so as to reach the next village before dark. This place was called Phywang and had very few inhabitants, but looking up at the hillside we saw, as in Tsaparang, hundreds of caves.


We spent the night here. Shangtse was a full day’s march distant. On our way there next day we had the most glorious views of the Himalayas to compensate us in some measure for the barren landscape through which we were driving our donkeys. On this stretch we first met the kyang, a sort of wild ass, which lives in Central Asia and enchants travellers by the gracefulness of its movements. This animal is about the size of a mule. It often shows curiosity and comes up to look at passers-by — and then turns and trots off in the most elegant manner. The kyang feeds on grass and is left in peace by the inhabitants. Its only enemy is the wolf. Since I first saw them these untamed beautiful beasts have seemed a symbol of freedom.

Shangtse was another hamlet with only half a dozen houses built of weather-dried mud bricks and cubes of turf. We found the village no more hospitable than the others. Here we met the unfriendly official from Tsaparang, who had moved into his summer quarters. He would on no consideration allow us to proceed any further into Tibet, but gave us the choice of travelling via Tsaparang or taking the western route over the Shipki pass into India. Only if we agreed to one of these routes would he consent to sell us provisions.

We chose the Shipki route, firstly because it was new country for us, and secondly because we hoped in our hearts to find some way out. For the moment we could buy as much butter, meat and flour as we wanted. All the same we felt dejected at the unenlivening prospect of landing once more behind the barbed wire. Treipel, who found nothing pleasant about Tibet, was ready to throw up the sponge and to cease from further attempts to stay in this barren land.

We spent the next day mostly in satisfying our appetites. I also brought my diary up to date and attended to my inflamed tendons, which had been caused by my forced night marches. I was determined to take any risk to avoid going back to confinement, and Aufschnaiter was of my way of thinking. Next morning we got to know the true character of the local governor. We had cooked meat in a copper pot, and Aufschnaiter must have been slightly poisoned as he felt very unwell. When I asked the Governor to allow us to stay a little longer, he showed more ill-will than ever. I quarrelled with him violently, and to some effect, for he finally consented to supply Aufschnaiter with a horse to ride as well as putting two yaks at our disposal to carry our baggage.


This was my first acquaintance with the yak. It is the regular Tibetan beast of burden and can live only in high altitudes. This long-haired species of ox needs a lot of training before you can make use of him. The cows are considerably smaller than the bulls and give excellent milk.

The soldier who had accompanied us from Shangtse carried a letter for our safe-conduct and this entitled us to buy whatever provisions we needed. It also entitled us to change our yaks without payment at each halting-place.

The weather by day was pleasant and comparatively warm, but the nights were very cold. We passed a number of villages and inhabited caves, but the people took little notice of us. Our donkey driver, who came from Lhasa, was nice and friendly to us and enjoyed going into the villages and swaggering about. We found the population less mistrustful — no doubt it was the influence of our safe-conduct. While we were trekking through the district of Rongchung we found ourselves following Sven Hedin’s route for a few days, and as I was a great admirer of this explorer, lively memories of his descriptions were kindled in my mind. The terrain we traversed remained very much the same. We continued to cross plateaux, climb down into deep valleys and climb painfully up the other side. Often these ravines were so narrow that one could have called across them, but it took hours to walk across. These constant ups and downs, which doubled the length of our journey, got on one’s nerves and we thought our own thoughts in silence. Nevertheless we made progress and had not to bother about our food. At one point, when we had the idea of changing our menu, we tried our luck fishing. Having had no luck with the hook we stripped and waded into the clear mountain burns and tried to catch the fish in our hands. But they seemed to have better things to do than to end up in our cooking-pot.

So we gradually approached the Himalaya range and sorrowfully the Indian frontier. The temperature had become warmer as we were no longer so high up. It was just here that the Sutlej breaks its way through the Himalayas. The villages in this region looked like little oases and round the houses there were actually apricot orchards and vegetable gardens.

Eleven days from Shangtse we came to the frontier village of Shipki. The date was June 9th — we had been wandering about Tibet for more than three weeks. We had seen a lot and we had learned by bitter experience that life in Tibet without a residence permit was not possible.

We spent one more night in Tibet, romantically encamped under apricot trees whose fruit unfortunately was not yet ripe. Here I succeeded in buying a donkey for 80 rupees on the pretext that I would need a baggage animal for my things in India. In the interior of Tibet I could never have managed this, but near the frontier it was different and I felt that a baggage animal was absolutely essential to the successful accomplishment of my plans.

Our donkey man left us here and took his animals with him. “Perhaps we shall meet again in Lhasa,” he said with a smile. He had spoken to us enthusiastically about the pretty girls and good beer to be found in the capital. Our road wound up to the top of the pass where we reached the frontier, but there were no frontier posts, Tibetan or Indian. Nothing but the usual heaps of stones and prayer-flags, and the first sign of civilisation in the shape of a milestone which said


We were in India once more, but not one of us had the intention of staying long in this land in which a wire-fenced camp was waiting to receive us.
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Re: Seven Years in Tibet, by Heinrich Harrer

Postby admin » Tue Sep 03, 2019 11:59 am

3. Into Tibet

Once more over the frontier — A better reception — Gartok, the seat of a Viceroy — Another strenuous journey — A red monastery with golden roofs; Tradun — Kopp leaves for Nepal.

My plan was to seize the first opportunity to slip over the frontier again into Tibet. We were all of us convinced that the minor officials we had hitherto encountered were simply not competent to decide about our case. This time we had to approach some higher authority. To find what we wanted we should have to go to Gartok, the capital of Western Tibet, which was the seat of the governor of the region.

So we marched down the great, much used trade road a few miles till we came to the first Indian village. This was Namgya. Here we could stay without arousing suspicion as we had come from Tibet and not from the plains of India. We passed ourselves off as American soldiers, bought fresh supplies and slept in the public resthouse. Then we separated. Aufschnaiter and Treipel went down the trade-road which flanked the Sutlej, while Kopp and I drove our donkey into a valley which ran in a northerly direction towards a pass which led over into Tibet. As we knew from our maps, we had first to go through the Spiti valley, which was inhabited. I was very glad that Kopp had attached himself to me as he was a clever, practical and cheerful companion, and his vein of Berlin wit never petered out.


For two days we tramped upwards on the bank of the Spiti river; then we followed one of the nearby valleys which would clearly bring us over the Himalayas. This region was not well marked on our map, and we learned from the natives that we had already passed the frontier when we crossed a certain bridge known as Sangsam. During all this part of our journey we had on the right of us Riwo Phargyul, a beautifully shaped peak more than 22,000 feet high on the crest of the Himalayas. We had reached Tibet at one of the few places where Tibetan territory extends into the Himalaya range. Of course we now began to be anxious and to wonder how far we should get this time. Luckily no one knew us here and no unkind official had warned the people against us. When questioned we said we were pilgrims bound for the holy mountain of Kailas.

The first Tibetan village we reached was called Kyurik. It consisted of two houses. The next, Dotso, was considerably larger. Here we ran into a number of monks — more than a hundred of them — in quest of poplar trunks which they were going to carry over the pass to Trashigang and there use for one of the monastery buildings. This monastery is the largest in the province of Tsurubyin and the abbot is at the same time the highest secular officer. We began to fear that our journey might come to a premature end when we met this dignitary. However, when he questioned us we said we were the advance party of a large European force that had obtained official permission to enter Tibet from the central government at Lhasa. He appeared to believe us and, much relieved, we continued our journey. We had a gruelling climb to the top of a pass called by the Tibetans Bud-Bud La. This pass must be over 18,000 feet high. The air was unpleasantly rarefied and the ice-tongues of a neighbouring glacier were to be seen below our route.

On the way we met a few Bhutias, who also wanted to go into the interior. They were nice friendly people and they invited us to share their fire and drink a cup of rancid butter-tea with them. As we had pitched our camp near them, they brought us in the evening a tasty dish of nettle spinach.

The region through which we were travelling was completely unpopulated and during the next eight days of our march we met only one small caravan. I have a vivid recollection of one person whom I encountered on this stretch of road. This was a young nomad, muffled in a long sheepskin coat and wearing a pigtail, as all Tibetan men do who are not monks. He led us to his black tent made of yak’s hair where his wife was waiting for him. She was a merry creature, always laughing. Inside the tent we found a treasure that made our mouths water — a haunch of venison. Our host gladly sold us a portion of the meat for an absurdly low price. He begged us to say nothing about his hunting or he would get into trouble. Taking of life, whether human or animal, is contrary to the tenets of Buddhism and consequently hunting is forbidden. Tibet is governed on a feudal system, whereby men, beasts and land belong to the Dalai Lama, whose orders have the force of law.

I found I was able to make myself understood by these pleasant companions, and the feeling that my knowledge of the language was improving gave me great pleasure. We arranged to go hunting together the next day, and meanwhile made ourselves at home in the tent of the young couple. The nomad and his wife were the first cheerful and friendly Tibetans we had met, and I shall not forget them. The highlight of our host’s hospitality consisted in producing a wooden bottle of barley beer. It was a cloudy milky liquid which bore no resemblance to what we call beer, but it had the same effect.

Next morning the three of us went hunting. Our young friend had an antediluvian muzzle-loader and in a breast-pocket carried leaden bullets, gunpowder and a quick-match. When we saw the first flock of wild sheep he managed laboriously to light the quick-match by using a flint. We were anxious to know how this museum-piece of a gun would function. There was a report like thunder and by the time I had got clear of the smoke, there was no sign of a sheep to be seen. Then we saw the flock galloping away in the distance; before they vanished over the rocky ridge some of them turned round to eye us with a mocking glance. We could only laugh at our own discomfiture, but in order not to return with empty hands we picked wild onions which grow everywhere on the hillsides, and which go so well with venison.

Our friend’s wife was apparently used to her husband’s bad luck in the hunting-field. When she saw us returning without any game she received us with screams of laughter and her slit-eyes almost disappeared in her merriment. She had carefully prepared a meal from the game her husband had killed a few days before and now got down enthusiastically to cooking it. We watched the operation and were somewhat astonished when she slipped off the upper half of her great fur mantle, round the waist of which she wore a bright coloured belt, without a trace of shyness. The heavy fur had hindered her movements, so she stripped to the waist and carried on happily. Later on we often encountered similar examples of natural simplicity. It was with real regret that we parted from this friendly couple, when fully rested and with our bellies full of good fresh meat we set out on our way. As we travelled we often saw the black forms of wild yaks grazing far away on the mountain-side. The sight of them prompted our donkey to make a bid for independence: he dashed through a widish stream and before we could reach him had shaken our packs off his back. We followed him cursing and swearing and eventually caught him. Then, as we were busy drying our things on the further side of the water, two figures suddenly came into view. We recognised the first at once from his regular, slow, mountaineer’s stride — it was Peter Aufschnaiter, with a hired bearer. It may be thought that such a meeting in such a place sounds far-fetched; but is it only by certain valleys and passes that one comes over the mountain ranges, and we and Peter had chosen the most well-trodden route.

After warm greetings Aufschnaiter began to tell us what had happened to him in the interval. On June 17th he had parted from Treipel, whom he left riding into India on a horse, meaning to pass himself off as an Englishman. He had bought the horse with the last of his money. Aufschnaiter himself had been ill, but when he had recovered had followed us. He had on the way heard some of the latest war news to which, though we were living in another world, we listened greedily.

At first Aufschnaiter did not want to go with us to Gartok as he believed that we would be turned out of the country again. He thought it would be wiser to press straight on into Central Tibet and join up with the nomads there. Finally we all went on together and Aufschnaiter and I were not to part company again for years. We knew that if everything went smoothly we needed about five days to get to Gartok. We had to cross another high pass, the Bongru La. Camping these days was no pleasure. It was very cold at night at 17,000 feet!

Small incidents provided variety. Once it was the spectacle of a fight between wild asses. The combatants were two stallions, probably fighting for the lordship over the mares in the herd. Chunks of turf flew, and the earth shook under their hooves. The duellists were so absorbed in their struggle that they did not notice us onlookers. Meanwhile the mares, greedy for sensation, danced around and the arena was often hidden in a thick cloud of dust.

After crossing the two passes we had the Himalayas behind us once more; and I was glad to be away from them, as we were at last reaching warmer regions. Coming down into the Indus valley we met a column of yaks bearing wool to India. We were struck by the size and strength of these beasts. Their drivers, too, were well-set-up youths, who despite the fierce cold were naked to the waist. Both men and women wore their fur-coats inside out with the fur against their bare bodies. They keep their arms out of the sleeves, so as not to hamper their freedom of movement. The drivers start the yaks off by slinging stones at them and keep them on the track by the same method. They seemed in no way interested in us foreigners and we pursued our way unmolested.

We marched for five successive days along the upper waters of the Indus before we arrived at Gartok. The scenery was unforgettable. It was the colours which enchanted the eye and I have seldom seen all the hues of a painter’s palette so harmoniously blended. Alongside the clear waters of the Indus were light yellow fields of borax, with the green shoots of springtime springing up near them (for spring in these regions does not come until June). In the background were the gleaming snow-peaks.

The first village on the far side of the Himalayas is Tirashigang, consisting of just a few houses grouped round a fortress-like monastery surrounded by a moat. Here we again found an ill-disposed population, but they showed no astonishment at seeing us and gave us no real trouble. This time we had arrived just in the season in which Indian traders stream into the country to buy up the wool. We had no difficulty in obtaining provisions from these people. Aufschnaiter tried in vain to turn his gold bracelet into cash. Had he done so, he would have been able to afford to push on directly into Inner Tibet without touching Gartok. Daring the whole of our march we were repeatedly stopped by prosperous-looking mounted Tibetans, who asked us what we had to sell. As we had no servants and were driving a pack-donkey, they could not imagine that we were anything but traders. We became convinced that every Tibetan, whether poor or rich, is a born trader and exchange and barter his greatest passion.

From our reading we knew that Gartok was the capital of Western Tibet, and the seat of the Viceroy; our geography books had told us that it was the highest town in the world. When, however, we finally set eyes on this famous place we could hardly help laughing. The first thing we saw were a few nomads’ tents scattered; about the immense plain, then we caught sight of a few mud-brick huts. That was Gartok. Except for a few stray dogs, there was no sign of life.

We pitched our little tent on the bank of the Gartang-Chu, a tributary of the Indus. At last a few curious individuals came up and we learned from them that neither of the two high officials was in the town and only the “Second Viceroy’s” agent could receive us. We decided to submit our petition to this personage at once. Going into his office we had to bend low, for there was no door, only a hole in front of which hung a greasy curtain. We came into a dimly-lit room with paper gummed over the windows. When our eyes had grown accustomed to the twilight we discerned a man who looked intelligent and distinguished sitting like a Buddha on the floor before us. From his left ear dangled an earring at least six inches long as a sign of his rank. There was also a woman present, who turned out to be the wife of the absent official. Behind us pressed a crowd of children and servants who wished to see these peculiar foreigners from close at hand.

We were very politely requested to sit down and were immediately offered dried meat, cheese, butter and tea. The atmosphere was cordial and warmed our hearts, and conversation flowed fairly freely with the aid of an English-Tibetan dictionary and supplementary gestures. Our hopes rose quickly, but we abstained from revealing all our preoccupations at this first interview. We said that we were fugitive Germans and begged for the hospitality of neutral Tibet.

Next day I brought the agent some medicines as a present. He was much pleased and asked me how to use them, whereupon I wrote out directions. At this point we ventured to ask him if he would not grant us a travel-permit. He did not directly refuse, but bade us await the coming of his chief who was on a pilgrimage to Mount Kailas, but was expected to return in a few days.

In the interval we made good friends with the agent. I gave him a burning-glass, an object of which one can make good use in Tibet. The customary return gift was not long in coming. One afternoon some bearers carried a present of butter, meat and flour to our tents. And not long after came the agent himself, accompanied by a retinue of servants, to return our visit. When he saw how primitively we were lodged in our tents, he could not get over his astonishment that Europeans led such simple lives.

However, as the time came near for the return of his chief, his friendliness began to flag and he withdrew himself almost entirely from our society. Responsibility began to oppress him. Indeed he went so far as to refuse to sell us provisions; luckily, however, there were Indian traders here, ready to help us out for good money.

One morning we heard the sound of bells in the distance as a huge mule-drawn caravan approached the village. Soldiers rode ahead followed by a swarm of male and female servants and after them members of the Tibetan nobility, also mounted, whom we now saw for the first time. The senior of the two Viceroys, whom they call Garpons in Tibet, was arriving. He and his wife wore splendid silk robes and carried pistols in their girdles. The whole village assembled to see the spectacle. Immediately after arriving the Garpon moved in solemn procession into the monastery to give thanks to the gods for his safe return from the pilgrimage.

Aufschnaiter composed a short letter begging for our audience. As no answer came we set out in the late afternoon to visit the Garpon. His house was not essentially different from that of his agent, but inside it was cleaner and of better quality. The Garpon, a high official, is invested for the duration of his mission with the fourth rank in the hierarchy of the nobles. He is in charge of five districts which are administered by nobles of the fifth, sixth and seventh rank. During his period of office the Garpon wears a golden amulet in his piled-up hair, but he may only wear this ornament while on duty in Gartok. In Lhasa he is reduced to the fifth rank. All the nobles in Tibet are ranked in seven classes to the first of which only the Dalai Lama belongs. All secular officials wear their hair piled up on their heads: monks are shaven and the ordinary people wear pigtails.

At last we came into the presence of this potentate. We explained our case to him in all its details and he listened to us with friendly patience. Often he could not refrain from smiling at our defective Tibetan, while his retainers laughed out loud. This merriment added a spice to the conversation and created a friendly atmosphere. The Garpon promised to consider our case carefully and to talk it over with the representative of his colleague. At the end of the audience we were hospitably entertained and received tea made in the European fashion. Afterwards the Garpon sent presents to our tents and we began to hope for a happy issue.

Our next audience was rather more formal but still cordial. It was a regular official meeting. The Garpon sat on a sort of throne and near him on a lower seat was the agent of his colleague. On a low table lay a file of letters written on Tibetan paper. The Garpon informed us that he could only give us passes and transport for the province of Ngari. We would in no circumstances be allowed to enter the inner provinces of Tibet. We quickly took counsel together and suggested that he should give us a travel permit to the frontier of Nepal. After some hesitation he promised to communicate our request to the Government in Lhasa, but he explained to us that the answer might not arrive for some months. We were not anxious to wait all that time in Gartok. We had not given up the idea of pushing on to the east and were anxious to continue our journey at all costs. As Nepal was a neutral country situated in the direction which we wished to go, we felt that we could be satisfied with the result of the negotiations.

The Garpon then kindly asked us to remain for a few days longer as his guests, as pack-animals and a guide had to be found. After three days our travel pass was delivered to us. It stipulated that our route should pass through the following places — Ngakhyu, Sersok, Montse, Barklia, Tokchen, Lholung, Shamtsang, Truksum and Gyabnak. It was also laid down that we had the right to requisition two yaks. A very important clause required the inhabitants to sell us provisions at the local prices, and to give us free fuel and servants for the evenings.

We were very glad to have obtained so much in the way of facilities. The Garpon invited us to a farewell dinner in the course of which I managed to sell him my watch. Afterwards he made us give him our word of honour not to go to Lhasa from his territory.

At last, on July 13th, we bade farewell to Gartok and started on our way. Our little caravan, now of decent proportions, consisted of our two yaks with their driver and my small donkey, which was now in good shape and carried no more than a tea-kettle. Then came our guide, a young Tibetan named Norbu, on horseback, while we three Europeans modestly brought up the rear on foot.

Now again we were for weeks on the way. During the whole of the next month we passed no inhabited place of any size — only nomad camps and isolated tasam houses. These are caravanserais in which one can change the yaks and find a lodging.

In one of these tasams I succeeded in exchanging my donkey for a yak. I was very proud of this bargain, which greatly multiplied my assets, but my satisfaction was short-lived — the beast turned out so refractory that I would have been glad to be rid of him. I was actually able to exchange him later for a younger, smaller animal. This creature also gave trouble and it was only after having his nose pierced and fitted with a ring of juniper wood tied to a rope that I was able to keep him on the road. We called him Armin.



The country through which we had been travelling for days had an original beauty. The wide plains were diversified by stretches of hilly country with low passes. We often had to wade through swift-running ice-cold burns. While in Gartok, we had had occasional showers of hail, but now the weather was mainly fine and warm. By this time we all had thick beards, which helped to protect us against the sun. It was long since we had seen a glacier, but as we were approaching the tasam at Barkha, a chain of glaciers gleaming in the sunshine came into view. The landscape was dominated by the 25,000-foot peak of Gurla Mandhata; less striking, but far more famous, was the sacred Mount Kailas, 3,000 feet lower, which stands in majestic isolation apart from the Himalaya range. When we first caught sight of it our Tibetans prostrated themselves and prayed. For Buddhists and Hindus this mountain is the home of their gods and the dearest wish of all the pious is to visit it as pilgrims once in their lives. The faithful often travel thousands of miles to reach it and spend years on the pilgrimage. During their journey they live on alms and hope that their reward will be a higher incarnation in a future life. Pilgrims’ roads converge here from all points of the compass. At the places from which the first sight of the mountain can be obtained are set up heaps of stones, grown through the centuries to giant proportions, expressing the childlike piety of the pilgrims, each of whom, following ancient observance, adds fresh stones to the heaps. We too would have liked to travel round the mountain as the pilgrims do, but the unfriendly master of the caravanserai at Barkha prevented us by threatening to stop our future transport facilities unless we continued on our way.


For two whole days we had the glaciers to look at. We mountaineers were more strongly attracted to the majestic Gurla Mandhata, mirrored in the waters of Lake Manasarovar, than by the Sacred Mountain. We pitched our tents on the shore of the lake and feasted our eyes on the indescribably beautiful picture of this tremendous mountain, which seemed to grow out of the lake. This is certainly one of the loveliest spots on earth. The lake is held to be sacred and round it one finds many small monasteries in which the pilgrims lodge and perform their devotions. Many pilgrims creep round the lake on their hands and knees and carry home jars of the holy water. Every pilgrim bathes in its icy cold water. We did likewise, though not from piety. Here I nearly came to grief. After swimming out some little way from the shore I got into a boggy place from which I only extricated myself with a tremendous effort. My comrades had not noticed my desperate struggle to get clear of the mud.

As we were, at this time of year, a little in advance of the pilgrimage, most of the people we met were traders. We saw also many suspicious-looking people, for this region is notorious as the Eldorado of robbers, who find it hard to resist the temptation to attack the traders frequenting the markets. The biggest market in the region is that of Gyanyima. Here hundreds of tents form a huge camp given over to buying and selling. The tents of the Indians are made out of cheap cotton material, while those of the Tibetans are woven from yak’s hair and are so heavy that it takes one or even two yaks to carry them.

We wandered for some hours in an easterly direction along the lake and felt as if we were on a seaside walk. Our pleasure in the beauty was disturbed only by the midges which we did not get rid of till we were clear of the lake.

Proceeding towards Tokchen we met an important-looking caravan. It was the new district governor of Tsaparang on the way to his post from Lhasa. We halted by the roadside and our guide, with whom we had never got on really friendly terms, made a deep, stiff obeisance and put out his tongue in greeting — a perfect picture of submissiveness. He explained our presence: weapons which had threatened us were put away and we were handed dried fruit and nuts.

In our persons there was no longer any sign of European superiority to be seen. We lived like nomads; for the past three months we had been sleeping mainly in the open air, and our standards of comfort were lower than those of the native population. We camped and cooked and made our fires in the open, whatever the weather, while the nomads could find shelter and warmth in their heavy tents. But if we looked as if we had come down in the world, our wits were not blunted and our minds were continually occupied. Very few Europeans had been in these regions and we knew that everything we observed might have a value later on. We still thought then that we should be returning to civilisation within a measurable time. Common dangers and struggles had linked us in a close bond of companionship; each knew the others’ virtues and failings, and so we were able to help one another in times of depression.


On we went over low-lying passes till we came to the source of the Brahmaputra, which the Tibetans call the Tsangpo. This region is not only of religious significance to Asiatic pilgrims; it is also highly interesting geographically for it contains the sources of the Indus, the Sutlej, the Karnali and the Brahmaputra. For the Tibetans, who are accustomed to give a symbolical religious sense to all designations, the names of these rivers are associated with the sacred animals — the Uon, the elephant, the peacock and the horse.

For the next fortnight we followed the Tsangpo. Fed by numerous streams from the nearby Himalayas this river grows larger all the time, and the bigger it gets the more tranquil is its stream. Now the weather was continually changing. Within minutes one was alternately freezing or roasting in the sunshine. Hailstorms, rain and sunshine followed each other in quick succession — one morning we awoke to find our tent buried in snow, which in a few hours melted in the hot sunshine. Our European clothes were unsuited to these continual changes of temperature and we envied the Tibetans their practical sheepskin cloaks, belted at the waist and with long wide sleeves to take the place of gloves.


Despite these inconveniences we made good progress, stopping whenever we came to a roadhouse. From time to time we had a view of the Himalayas which surpass in natural beauty anything I have ever seen. We met fewer and fewer nomads and the only living creatures we saw on the right bank of the Brahmaputra were gazelles and onagers.


We were now approaching Gyabnak, the last name on the list of places mentioned on our travel permit. Further than this the authority of our friend in Gartok did not extend. The decision as to what to do next was taken out of our hands, for on the third day of our stay at Gyabnak a messenger arrived in breathless haste from Tradun and summoned us to go at once to that place. Two high officials wanted to see us. We had no regrets about leaving Gyabnak, which was so small that it hardly deserved to be called a place. It consisted of a single house belonging to a monastic official of the province of Bongpa. The nearest nomad tent was over an hour’s march away. We started at once and spent the night in a lonely place inhabited only by wild asses.


I shall always remember the next day for one of the most beautiful experiences I have ever had. As we marched forward we caught sight, after a while, of the gleaming golden towers of a monastery in the far distance. Above them, shining superbly in the morning sun, were tremendous walls of ice, and we gradually realised that we were looking at the giant trio Dhaulagiri, Annapurna and Manaslu. As Tradun and the filigree towers of its monastery lay at the far end of the plain we had many hours in which to enjoy the view of these mighty mountains. Not even the necessity of wading through the icy waters of the Tsachu damped our exuberance.  

It was evening when we marched into Tradun. In the last rays of the setting sun the red monastery with its golden roof looked like a fairy palace on the hillside. The houses of the inhabitants, the usual mud-brick dwellings, were built behind the hill to shelter them from the wind. We found the whole population assembled and waiting for us in silence. We were at once taken into a house which had been made ready for us. Hardly had we unloaded our baggage when several servants arrived and invited us most courteously to come to their masters. We followed them full of expectation to the house of the two high officials.

We walked through a whispering crowd of servants into a good-sized room where in the highest seats sat a smiling, well-fed monk and by him, at the same level, his secular colleague. A little lower down were seated an abbot, the monastery official from Gyabnak and a merchant from Nepal. The merchant spoke a few words of English and acted as interpreter. They had prepared a bench with cushions so that we did not have to sit cross-legged on the floor like the Tibetans. Tea and cake were pressed upon us and questioning politely postponed. At last we were asked to show our travel permit. This was passed round and carefully studied by all present. There was a period of oppressive silence. The two officials slowly came out with their misgivings. Could we really be Germans? It was simply incredible that we should be escaped prisoners of war and much more probable that we were British or Russians. They made us fetch our baggage which was unpacked and spread out on the floor of the courtyard and then carefully examined. Their chief worry was the idea that we might have weapons or a transmitting set, and it was difficult to persuade them that we had neither. The only things among our possessions to arouse suspicion were a Tibetan grammar and a history book.

The Tibetan general-purpose craft, made from yak's skin

It was stated in our travel permit that we wanted to go to Nepal. The idea seemed to please our questioners and they promised to help us in every way. They said we could start on the following morning and by crossing the Korela pass would be in Nepal in two days. This did not altogether suit us. We wished, at all costs, to remain in Tibet and were determined not to give up the idea without a struggle. We begged for right of asylum, hammered on the theme of Tibetan neutrality and compared the situation of Tibet with that of Switzerland. The officials stubbornly, if courteously, insisted on the conditions laid down in our travel document. However, during the months of our sojourn in Tibet, we had become better acquainted with the mentality of Asiatics and knew that to give way early was against the rules. The remainder of our discussion passed off in perfect calm. We all drank endless cups of tea and our hosts informed us modestly that they were there on a tax-raising journey and that in Lhasa they were not such exalted persons as they seemed to be in Tradun. They were travelling with twenty servants and a great number of pack-animals, so that one got the impression that they were, at the least, ministers.

Before taking our leave we stated clearly that we wished to remain in Tradun a few days longer. Next day a servant brought an invitation to luncheon from the Ponpos — as all high personages are called in Tibet. We had a wonderful meal of Chinese noodles and I think we must have appeared to be starving, to judge from the masses of food they piled on our plates. We were greatly impressed by the skill with which the Tibetans handled their chopsticks and our astonishment was great to see them picking up individual grains of rice with them. Mutual wonder helped to create a friendly atmosphere and there was much hearty laughter. At the end of the meal beer was served and added to the cheerfulness of the gathering. I noticed that the monks did not drink it.

Gradually the talk veered towards our problems and we heard that the authorities had decided to send a letter to the Central Government in Lhasa, communicating our request for permission to stay in Tibet. We were told to compose a petition in the English language which the two officials desired to forward with their letter. This we did on the spot and our petition was in our presence affixed to the official letter which had already been prepared. This was sealed with due ceremony and handed to a courier, who immediately started for Lhasa.

Chained criminals; they are permitted to beg for alms on the Buddha’s birthday

We could scarcely realise the fact of our friendly reception and that we should be allowed to stay in Tradun until an answer arrived from Lhasa. Our experience of junior officials had not been satisfactory, so we asked for written confirmation of the verbal consent to our residence in Tradun. This we obtained. At length we returned to our quarters happy that things had gone so well. We had hardly arrived when the door was opened and a regular procession of heavily laden servants trooped in. They brought us sacks of flour, rice and tsampa as well as four slaughtered sheep. We did not know from whom the gifts had come until the headman, who had accompanied the servants, explained to us that the two high officials had sent them. When we tried to thank him, the headman modestly disclaimed all credit, and no one seemed willing to admit the generous action. As we parted the easygoing Tibetan said something which was to serve me in good stead. The haste of Europeans has no place in Tibet. We must learn patience if we wished to arrive at the goal.

As we three sat alone in our house looking at all the gifts, we could hardly believe in our change of luck. Our request for permission to reside in Tibet was on its way to Lhasa, and we had now enough supplies to last us for months. For shelter we had a thick roof instead of a flimsy tent, and a woman servant — alas, neither young nor beautiful — to light the fire and fetch water.
We regretted that we possessed nothing of worth which we might have sent to the Ponpo in token of our gratitude. We had nothing but a little medicine to offer him, but we hoped for an occasion to express our thanks in due form. As in Gartok, we had here had occasion to encounter the courtesy of the nobles of Lhasa, in praise of which I had read so much in Sir Charles Bell’s books.

As we were to stay for months here, we made plans for passing the time. We must without fail make expeditions in the Annapurna and Dhaulagiri regions and in the plains to the north. But, a little later, the abbot, whose assistance the headman had tried to enlist on our behalf, came to see us. He told us that our stay in Tradun had only been approved on the condition that we must never go further away from the town than one day’s march. We could go on excursions wherever we liked, provided we were back before night. If we did not comply with these instructions he would have to report to Lhasa and that would no doubt prejudice our whole case.  

The village consisted of about twenty houses dominated by the hill on which the monastery stood. It housed only seven monks. The village houses were narrow and crowded together, but, nevertheless, every house had its own courtyard, in which wares were stored. All the inhabitants of the village were in some way connected with trade or transport; the real nomads lived scattered over the plain. We had occasion to attend several religious festivals, the most impressive of which was the harvest thanksgiving. We were now on a friendly footing with all the inhabitants and used to doctor them, being particularly successful in our treatment of wounds and colics.

The monotony of life in Tradun was varied now and again by the visits of high functionaries, and I have a vivid recollection of the arrival of the second Garpon on his way to Gartok.

Long before there was any sign of his convoy soldiers arrived to announce his coming. Then came his cook, who at once began to prepare his food, and it was only next day that the Garpon himself arrived with his caravan and retinue of thirty servants. The whole population, including ourselves, crowded to see him come in. The great man and his family rode on splendid mules, and the elders of the village each conducted a member of the family, holding his animal’s bridle, to the quarters prepared for them. We were less impressed by the Garpon than by his daughter. She was the first soignee young woman we had seen since 1939 and we found her very pretty. Her clothes were of pure silk and her nails lacquered red. Perhaps she had slightly overdone the rouge, powder and lipstick, but she exhaled freshness and cleanliness. We asked her if she was the prettiest girl in Lhasa but she modestly said no, and declared that there were many far prettier girls in the capital. We were very sorry to lose her charming company when the party moved on the next day.

We had a new guest in Tradun soon after — a state official from Nepal who came to see us but posed as a pilgrim. We felt that he wished to persuade us to go to Nepal against our wishes. He said we should be well received in Katmandu, the capital, and find occupation there. Our journey would be organised by the administration and 300 rupees had already been allocated for our expenses. That all sounded very attractive — perhaps too attractive — for we knew how great was British influence in Asia. We did not take his advice.

After three months we began to lose patience and to get on each other’s nerves. Kopp kept on saying that he would gladly accept the invitation to go to Nepal. Aufschnaiter as usual went his own way. He bought four sheep as pack-animals and wanted to go to Changthang. It is true that this was contrary to our original decision to await the letter from Lhasa, but we greatly doubted getting a favourable answer.


Aufschnaiter, losing patience, marched out one afternoon with his loaded sheep and pitched his camp a few miles away from Tradun. We helped him to carry his things there and intended to visit him the next day. Kopp also began to pack and the local authorities promised to give him transport. They were very pleased that he had decided to go to Nepal, but they disapproved of Aufschnaiter’s behaviour. From that day onwards guards slept in front of our door. But next day, to our surprise, Aufschnaiter came back to us with his baggage. His sheep had been attacked by wolves, which had eaten two of them. This compelled him to return and so we three spent one more evening together.

On the following morning Kopp bade us farewell. The whole population collected to see him off. So now, out of the seven of us who had broken out of the internment camp, five of whom had made for Tibet, only Aufschnaiter and I remained. We were the only mountaineers in the group and consequently physically and mentally best fitted for the lonely and strenuous life in this bleak land.

It was now late November and the caravan routes were no longer much frequented. The monastic official sent us some sheep and twelve loads of yak’s dung for fuel — and we needed it, for the temperature was already twelve degrees below zero Centigrade.
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Re: Seven Years in Tibet, by Heinrich Harrer

Postby admin » Wed Sep 04, 2019 2:09 am

4. The Village of Happiness

We are ordered to move on — Kyirong, the happy village — Our first New Year in Tibet — Improvised skis — The war ends — The Abominable Snowman?

Kyirong Valley

In spite of the wintry weather we were more than ever determined to leave Tradun, with or without a letter of authorisation. We started hoarding provisions and bought a second yak. But just in the middle of our preparations the abbot arrived with the news that the long-awaited letter had come from Lhasa. What we had secretly feared had come true. We were forbidden to travel into Inner Tibet. The letter was not handed to us personally. We were merely told that we must go by the shortest route to Nepal, but that we might march in Tibetan territory as far as Kyirong. From there it was only eight miles to the Nepalese frontier and seven days’ march to the capital, Katmandu. We would be given transport and servants for the journey. We agreed at once to this ruling, as our route would take us somewhat further into Tibet and the longer we remained on the right side of the law the better.

On December 17th we left Tradun, which had sheltered us for four months. We felt no grudge against the Tibetans for not allowing us to go to Lhasa. Everyone knows how hard it is for foreigners without passports to get a footing in any country. By giving us presents and providing us with transport the Tibetans had shown hospitality far exceeding that customary in other countries. Although I did not then appreciate our good fortune so much as I do now, Aufschnaiter and I were still thankful for the eight months we had passed outside the barbed wire.

Peter Aufschnaiter

Heinrich Harrer

Now we were on the march again. Our convoy consisted of Aufschnaiter and myself accompanied by two servants. One of these carried, wrapped up like a sacred relic, the letter of the Government to the district officer at Kyirong. We were all mounted and our two yaks were kept moving by a driver. One could see from far off that our caravan belonged to persons of consequence — very different from the three down-at-heel vagabonds who had crossed the Himalayas into Tibet some months before.

Our road took us again over the Himalayan watershed towards the south-east. The Tsangpo was already frozen when we crossed it, and the nights in the tent were bitterly cold.

After riding for a week we reached Dzongka, which was visible from a long way off by reason of a thick cloud of smoke which hung over the houses. Dzongka really deserved to be called a village. It contained about a hundred mud-brick houses grouped about a monastery, and round the village were cultivated fields. The village was situated at the junction of two streams which form the river Kosi and, penetrating the Himalayas, flow into Nepal. The place was enclosed by a thirty-foot rampart and commanded by a splendid peak, some 20,000 feet high, called by the natives Chogulhari. It was Christmas Day when we came into Dzongka — our first Christmas since we had escaped. We were lodged in surprisingly comfortable quarters. The tree-line was only two days away, and wood was no longer an expensive luxury; it could be used for building and for all household needs. A contraption of tin served as a stove in which we burnt crackling juniper wood, soon warming the whole room very agreeably. When evening came we lit some Tibetan butter-lamps, and to celebrate the day we soon had a leg of mutton stewing in our cooking-pot.

As in every other place in Tibet there were no public inns here. Billets in private houses are assigned to travellers by the authorities. This is done by rotation, so that the population is not too badly inconvenienced and the arrangement forms part of the taxation system.

We had not planned to stay here long, but we were kept in Dzongka a whole month by heavy snowfalls.
All day thick snowflakes fell and communications were interrupted. We were glad of our rest here, and interested ourselves in some of the activities of the monks and enjoyed as spectators the performances of a group of dancers from Nyenam.

A number of aristocratic officials lived here and we soon made friends with them. By now we spoke good Tibetan and carried on long conversations through which we got to know much about the manners and customs of the country. St. Sylvester Eve passed uncelebrated, but our thoughts dwelt more than ever on home.

Whenever we could, during this period of waiting, we made short expeditions in the neighbourhood and found many sandstone caves, a mine of interest to us, containing as they did idols of wood or clay and leaves from Tibetan sacred books — offerings no doubt to the saints who used to live in these caverns.

On January 19th the roads were sufficiently passable to allow us to start off in company with a huge yak-caravan. Ahead of us went a herd of yaks, carrying no loads, which acted as snow-ploughs and seemed to enjoy the exercise very much. The country was intersected by valleys and ravines and in the first two days we crossed no less than twelve bridges over the Kosi. My yak, which came from Changthang, was unused to bridges and jibbed vigorously when he had to cross one. It was only by pushing behind and pulling in front — an operation in which the drivers enthusiastically assisted us — that we could get him across. I had already been warned not to bring him to Kyirong as he would not be able to stand the hot summer climate, but I had not wanted to leave him behind in view of our plans for flight, which we had not abandoned. Throughout all this time my thermometer showed an unvarying temperature of —30 degrees Centigrade [-22 Fahrenheit]. There were no lower markings on the instrument!

We were deeply impressed by a rock monastery in the neighbourhood of the village of Longda. Seven hundred feet above the valley red temples and countless cells were perched like birds’ nests on the rocks. Despite the danger of avalanches Aufschnaiter and I could not refrain from climbing the rockface, and so obtained another wonderful view of the Himalayas. We also met some monks and nuns and learned from them that this was the monastery founded by Milarepa, the famous Tibetan saint and poet, who lived in the eleventh century. We could easily understand that the glorious surroundings and the loneliness of the place were peculiarly adapted to meditation and the making of poetry. We left this place regretfully and determined to revisit it one day.

Every day we found less snow and after reaching the tree-line soon found ourselves in a really tropical region. In this atmosphere the winter garments given us by the Tibetan Government were too warm for us. Now we came to Drothang, the last stopping-place before Kyirong. I remember that all the inhabitants of this place had highly developed goitres, which one rarely sees in Tibet. We took a week to get to Kyirong, which when the road is good is only three days’ march from Dzongka, and can be reached in a single day by a fast courier.

The name Kyirong means “the village of happiness” and it really deserves the appellation. I shall never cease thinking of this place with yearning, and if I can choose where to pass the evening of my life, it will be in Kyirong. There I would build myself a house of red cedar-wood and have one of the rushing mountain streams running through my garden, in which every kind of fruit would grow, for though its altitude is over 9,000 feet Kyirong lies on the twenty-eighth parallel. When we arrived in January the temperature was just below freezing; it seldom falls below —10 degrees Centigrade. The seasons correspond to those in the Alps, but the vegetation is sub-tropical. One can go ski-ing the whole year round, and in the summer there is a row of 20,000-footers to climb.

There are about eighty houses in the village, which is the seat of two district governors who administer thirty villages. We were told that we were the first Europeans who had ever come to Kyirong, and the inhabitants watched our entry with astonishment. This time we were quartered in the house of a farmer, which reminded me of our Tyrolese houses. As a matter of fact the whole of the village might have been transplanted from the Alps, except that instead of chimneys the roofs of the houses were decorated with prayer-flags.
These were always in the five colours which represented different aspects of life in Tibet.

On the ground floor were the stables for cows and horses. They were separated by a thick ceiling from the living-rooms of the family, which are approached by a ladder from the courtyard. Thick stuffed mattresses served as beds and easy chairs, and near them were small, low tables. The members of the household kept their clothes in brightly painted wardrobes, and before the inevitable carved wooden altar butter-lamps were burning. In winter the whole family sit on the deal floorboards round a huge open log-fire and sip their tea.

The room in which Aufschnaiter and I were put was rather small, so I soon shifted to the hay barn next door. Aufschnaiter carried on our unceasing struggle with rats and bugs, while I had to cope with mice and fleas. I never got the better of the vermin, but the view over glaciers and rhododendron forests made up for my discomfort. We had a servant allotted to us, but preferred to do our cooking ourselves. We had a fireplace in our room and were given wood to burn. We spent very little money; our provisions did not cost us more than £210s. a month each. I had a pair of trousers made, and the tailor charged half a crown.

The staple food in this region is tsampa. This is how they prepare it. You heat sand to a high temperature in an iron pan and then pour barleycorns on to it. They burst with a slight pop, whereupon you put the corns and the sand in a fine-meshed sieve through which the sand runs: after this you grind the corn very small. The resulting meal is stirred up into a paste with butter-tea or milk or beer and then eaten. The Tibetans make a special cult of tsampa and have many ways of preparing it. We soon got accustomed to it, but never cared much for butter-tea, which is usually made with rancid butter and is generally repugnant to Europeans. It is, however, universally drunk and appreciated by the Tibetans, who often drink as many as sixty cups in a day. The Tibetans of Kyirong, besides butter-tea and tsampa, eat rice, buckwheat, maize, potatoes, turnips, onions, beans and radishes. Meat is a rarity, for as Kyirong is a particularly holy place no animal is ever slaughtered there. Meat appeared on the table only when it had been brought in from another district or, more often, when bears or panthers left part of their prey uneaten. I never understood how this doctrine could be reconciled with the fact that every autumn some 15,000 sheep are driven through Kyirong bound for the slaughterhouses in Nepal and that the Tibetans levy export duty on them.

At the very beginning of our stay we paid a call on the district authorities. Our travel document had already been delivered by a servant and the Ponpo thought that we would go straight on into Nepal. That was by no means our intention, and we told him that we would like to stay for a while at Kyirong. He took this very calmly and promised, at our request, to report to Lhasa. We also visited the representative of Nepal who described his country in the most attractive terms. We had meanwhile learned that Kopp, after staying a few days in the capital, had been pushed off to an internment camp in India. The seductions of automobiles, bicycles and the cinema which, we were told, we should find in Katmandu, made no appeal to us.

We could not really hope to get a residence permit from Lhasa, and if we went to Nepal, we expected to be expelled into India. Accordingly we decided to recruit our strength in this fairy-like village and stay there till we had worked out a new plan of escape. We could not foresee then that we should stay nearly nine months in Kyirong.

We were not in the least bored. We filled exercise books with notes on the manners and customs of the Tibetans. On most days we went out to explore the neighbourhood. Aufschnaiter, who had been secretary of the Himalaya Foundation in Munich, used his opportunities for map-making. There were only three names on the map of the region we had brought with us, but we now filled in more than two hundred. In fact we not only enjoyed our freedom but made practical use of it.

Our excursions, which at first were limited to the immediate neighbourhood, gradually extended further and further. The inhabitants were quite accustomed to us and no one interfered with us. Of course it was the mountains that attracted us most, and after that the hot springs round Kyirong. There were several of these, the hottest of which was in a bamboo forest on the bank of the ice-cold river Kosi. The water bubbled out of the ground nearly at boiling point and was led into an artificial basin, where it still had a temperature of about 40 degrees Centigrade [104 degrees Fahrenheit]. I used to plunge alternately into the hot pool and into the glacial waters of the Kosi.

In the spring there is a regular bathing season in this place. Swarms of Tibetans came along and bamboo huts sprang up everywhere in this usually lonely spot, two hours distant from Kyirong. Men and women tumbled naked into the pool and any signs of prudishness provoked roars of laughter. Many families pay holiday visits to this spa. They set out from their homes, with sacks full of provisions and barrels of beer, and settle down for a fortnight in bamboo huts. The upper classes also are accustomed to visit the springs and arrive with caravans and a staff of servants. But the whole holiday season lasts only a short time as the river, swollen with melting snow, overflows the springs.

In Kyirong I made the acquaintance of a monk who had studied in the school of medicine in Lhasa. He was much respected and was able to live richly on the provisions which he received as fees for his services. His methods of treatment were diverse. One of them was to press a prayer-stamp on the spot affected, which seemed to succeed with hysterical patients. In bad cases he branded the patient with a hot iron. I can bear witness to the fact that he thus restored a seemingly hopeless case to consciousness, but this treatment affected many of his patients adversely. He also employed this drastic treatment on domestic animals. As I was reckoned a sort of half-doctor and am greatly interested in everything connected with medicine, I used to have long conversations with this monk. He confessed to me that his knowledge was limited, but he did not worry himself unduly about that and managed to avoid unpleasant incidents by frequently changing his place of residence. His conscience was relieved by the fact that the emoluments derived from his dubious cures served to finance his pilgrimages.

In the middle of February we had our first Tibetan New Year. The year is reckoned by the lunar calendar and has two names, one of an animal and the other of an element. The New Year festival is, after the birth- and death-days of Buddha, the greatest event of the year. During the previous night we already heard the voices of singing beggars and wandering monks going from house to house in quest of alms. In the morning fresh-cut pine-trees decked out with flags were stuck on the roofs, religious texts were solemnly recited and tsampa offered to the gods. The people bring an offering of butter to the temples and soon the huge copper cauldrons are overflowing. Only then are the gods propitiated and ready to grant favours in the New Year. White silk veils are draped round the gilded statues as a special mark of respect, and the worshippers reverently lay their foreheads against them.

Rich or poor, all come full of devotion and with no inner misgivings, to lay their offerings before the gods and to pray for their blessing. Is there any people so uniformly attached to their religion and so obedient to it in their daily life? I have always envied the Tibetans their simple faith, for all my life I have been a seeker. Though I learned, while in Asia, the way to meditate, the final answer to the riddle of life has not been vouchsafed to me. But I have at least learned to contemplate the events of life with tranquillity and not let myself be flung to and fro by circumstances in a sea of doubt. The people did not only pray at the turn of the year. For seven days they danced, sang and drank under the benevolent eyes of the monks. In every house there was a party, and we, too, were invited.

It is sad to remember that the festal celebrations in our house were overclouded by a tragedy. One day I was called into the room of our hostess’s younger sister. The room was dark, and only when hot hands gripped mine did I realise that I was standing near her. When my eyes had got accustomed to the darkness, I looked towards the bed and recoiled in a horror which I could hardly conceal. There lay completely transformed by sickness one who two days before had been a pretty, healthy girl. Though a layman, I instantly saw that she had smallpox. Her larynx and tongue were already attacked and she could only cry out with thick articulation that she was dying. I tried to tell her that it was not so, and then escaped from the room as quickly as possible to have a thorough wash. There was nothing to be done and one could only hope that an epidemic would not break out. Aufschnaiter also visited her and agreed with my diagnosis. Two days later she died.

So after the joys of the festival, this mournful event made us acquainted with the ceremonies of a Tibetan burial. The decorated pine-tree which stood on the roof was removed and the next day at dawn the body was wrapped in white grave-cloths and borne out of the house on the back of a professional corpse-carrier. We followed the group of mourners, who consisted of three men only. Near the village on a high place recognisable from afar as a place of “burial” by the multitude of vultures and crows which hovered over it, one of the men hacked the body to pieces with an axe. A second sat nearby, murmuring prayers and beating on a small drum. The third man scared the birds away and at intervals handed the other two men beer or tea to cheer them up. The bones of the dead girl were broken to pieces, so that they too could be consumed by the birds and that no trace of the body should remain.

Barbaric as all this seems, the ceremony draws its origin from deep religious motives. The Tibetans wish to leave no trace after death of their bodies, which, without souls, have no significance. The bodies of nobles and high-ranking Lamas are burned, but among the people the usual way of dealing with them is by dismemberment and only the bodies of very poor people, for whom this form of disposal is too costly, are thrown into the river. Here the fishes perform the function of the vultures. When poor people die of contagious diseases, they are disposed of by special persons paid by the Government.

Fortunately the cases of smallpox were few and only a small number died. In our house there was mourning for forty-nine days, and then a fresh tree with prayer-flags was hoisted on the roof.
At this ceremony appeared many monks who said prayers to the accompaniment of their own peculiar music. All this naturally costs money, and when deaths occur in the family the Tibetans usually sell some of their jewellery or the possessions of the defunct, the proceeds of which pay for the obsequies performed by the monks and the oil used in their countless little lamps.

During all this time we continued our daily walks and the excellent snow gave us the idea of making skis. Aufschnaiter got hold of a couple of birch trunks which we stripped of their bark and dried before the fire in our room. I started making sticks and straps and with the aid of a carpenter we succeeded in producing two pairs of decent-looking skis. We were delighted with their workmanlike appearance and looked forward to trying them with great excitement. Then, like lightning from a clear sky, came an order from the Ponpo forbidding us to leave Kyirong except for walks in the immediate neighbourhood. We protested energetically, but were told that Germany was a powerful state and that if anything happened to us in the mountains, complaints would be made in Lhasa and the authorities in Kyirong held responsible. The Ponpo remained unshaken by our protestations and did his best to convince us that in the mountains we should be in great danger of attacks by bears, leopards and wild dogs. We knew that their anxiety about our safety was all humbug, but conjectured that they had adopted their attitude in deference to the requests of the superstitious population, who possibly believed that our visits to the mountains might make the gods angry. For the moment we could do nothing but submit.

During the next few weeks we obeyed orders, but then we could not resist the temptation to go ski-ing. The attraction of the snow and ice slopes was too much for us and one day we had recourse to a stratagem. I took up my quarters provisionally by one of the hot springs only half an hour distant from the village. A few days later when the people had got accustomed to my absence, I fetched our skis and carried them by moonlight some way up the mountain-side. Early on the following morning Aufschnaiter and I climbed up over the tree-line and enjoyed ourselves on a splendid snow-surface. We were both astonished at being able to ski so well after being so long away from it. As we had not been spotted, we went out again another day but this time we broke our skis and hid the remains of these weird instruments. The people of Kyirong never found out that we had been snow-riding, as they called it.

Springtime came, work in the fields began and the winter corn came up in lovely green shoots. Here, as in Catholic countries, the cornfields are blessed by the priests. A long procession of monks, followed by the villagers, carried the 108 volumes of the Tibetan bible round the village accompanied by prayers and sacred music.

As the weather grew warmer my yak fell sick. He had fever and the local vet declared that only the gall of a bear would do him good. I bought the stuff, and dear it cost me, not so much from a belief in its properties as to give satisfaction to the “doctor.” I was not astonished at the lack of results. I was then advised to try goat’s gall and musk and hoped, subconsciously, that the long experience of the Tibetans in the treatment of sick yaks would save my precious beast. However, after a few days I was obliged to have poor Armin slaughtered, as I wanted at least to save his meat.

For such cases the people use a slaughterer; a man obliged to live as an outcast on the fringe of the village like the blacksmith, whose craft ranks lowest in Tibet. The slaughterer receives as pay the feet, the head and the intestines of the yak. I found the manner in which he dispatched the animal to be as speedy as, and more humane than, the methods of our slaughterers. With one swift stroke he slit open the body, plunged his hand in and tore out the cardiac artery, causing instant death. We took away the meat and smoked it over an open fire, thus providing a basis for the stock of food we should need when we next escaped.

About this time an epidemic had broken out in Dzongka causing a number of deaths. The District Officer with his charming young wife and four children came over to Kyirong to escape the danger. Unfortunately the children brought with them the germs of the disease, a kind of dysentery, and one by one went down with it. At that time I still had some yatren, reckoned to be the best remedy for dysentery, and offered it to the family. This was a considerable sacrifice for Aufschnaiter and myself, as we had been keeping the last few doses for ourselves in case of need. Unfortunately it did no good and three of the children died. There was no yatren for the fourth, the youngest, who fell ill after the others. We were desperately anxious to save him and advised the parents to send a messenger in all haste to Katmandu with a specimen of the stools to find out what was the proper medicine to give. Aufschnaiter wrote a letter in English for this purpose, but it was never sent. The child was treated by the monks, who went so far as to call in a reincarnated lama from a distant spot. All their efforts were fruitless and after ten days the child died. Sad as this business was, it acquitted us, in a way, of blame, for if the last child had recovered, we should have been held responsible for the deaths of the others.

The parents of these children and several other adult persons also fell ill, but recovered. During their illness they ate heartily and drank large quantities of alcohol, which may have accounted for their getting well. The children had refused food during their illness and their strength had quickly ebbed away.

Tibetan totem made of stone, in the Brahmaputra valley

Afterwards we became very friendly with the parents, who, though they felt their loss very deeply, consoled themselves in some measure by their faith in reincarnation. They stayed on for some time at Kyirong in a hermitage and we often visited them there. The father was called Wangdula and was a progressive and open-minded man. He was very anxious to acquire knowledge and made us tell him many things about life outside Tibet. Aufschnaiter, at his request, drew him a map of the world out of his head. His wife was a twenty-two-year-old beauty from Tibet; she spoke fluent Hindi, which she had learnt at school in India. They made a very happy couple.

After several years we heard of them again. They had had a tragic fate. Another baby was born and the mother died in child-bed. Wangdula went mad with grief. He was one of the most likeable Tibetans I ever met, and his melancholy story moved me deeply.

During the summer the authorities sent for us again and summoned us to leave Kyirong. In the meantime we had learned from merchants and the newspapers that the war was over. It was known to us that after the first world war the English had kept the P.O.W. camps going in India until two years after hostilities were over. We had clearly no wish to lose our freedom now and were determined to make another attempt to penetrate into Inner Tibet. The fascination of the country was growing on us and we were ready to stake everything to satisfy our ambition to know it better. Our knowledge of the language was now good and we had acquired a lot of experience. What was to hinder us from going further? We were both mountaineers and here we had a unique opportunity of surveying the Himalayas and the nomad districts. We had long ago given up all hope of returning home soon, and now wished to push through to China over the northern plains of Tibet, and, maybe, to find work there. The termination of the war had made our original project of getting through to the Japanese fines pointless.

So we promised the Ponpos to leave in the autumn if they would in return allow us freedom of movement. This was approved and from that time on the chief aim of our excursions was to find a pass through which we could reach the Tibetan plateau without touching Dzongka.

Such monasteries are found all over Tibet, wellnigh inaccessible in their mountain retreats

During these summer expeditions we got to know the fauna of the region. We came across a great variety of animals, including species of monkeys which must have migrated here through the deep valley of the river Kosi. For some time leopards used to kill oxen and yaks nightly and the villagers tried to catch them in traps. As a precaution against bears I used to carry in my pocket a snuffbox full of red pepper. The bear, as I have mentioned, is only dangerous by day, when he will attack a man. Several of the woodcutters had bad face-wounds as a result of encounters with bears, and one had been blinded by a blow from a bear’s paw. In the night-time one could drive these animals away with a pine-torch.

On the tree-line I once found deep footprints in the newly fallen snow which I could not account for. They might have been made by a man. People with more imagination than I possess might have attributed them to the Abominable Snowman.

I made a point of always keeping fit and had no lack of strenuous occupation. I helped in the fields or at the threshing. I felled trees and cut torches from the resinous pinewood. The bodily toughness of the Tibetans is due to the bracing climate and the hard work they do.

They are also addicted to competitive sports. Every year a regular athletic meeting is held in Kyirong. It lasts several days. The principal events are horse-racing, archery — distance and height of shot — foot races, and long and high jump. There is also an event for strong men, who have to lift and carry a heavy stone for a certain distance.

I contributed to the enjoyment of the public by competing in some events. I nearly won the foot race, having led, after a massed start, for most of the way, but I had not reckoned with the local methods. In the last and steepest bit of the track one of the competitors grabbed me by the seat of my trousers. I was so surprised that I stopped dead and looked round. That was what the rascal was waiting for. He passed me and reached the winning post first. I was not prepared for that sort of thing and amid general laughter received the rosette awarded as second prize.

There was a good deal of variety in life at Kyirong. In summer caravans came through every day. After the rice-harvest in Nepal men and women brought rice in baskets and exchanged it for salt, one of the most important exports of Tibet. It is brought from the lakes in Changthang which have no exit.

Transport from Kyirong to Nepal is effected by means of coolies, as the road goes through narrow ravines and is often cut into stairways. Most of the carriers are women from Nepal wearing cheap dresses and showing their stout muscular legs below their short skirts. We witnessed a curious drama when the Nepalese came to gather honey. The Tibetan Government has officially forbidden Tibetans to take honey, because their religion does not allow them to deprive animals of their food. However, here, as in most other places, people like to circumvent the law, and so the Tibetans, including the Ponpos, allow the Nepalese to have the honey they collect, and then buy it back from them.

This honey-taking is a very risky adventure as the bees hide the honeycomb under the projecting rocks of deep ravines. Long bamboo ladders are dropped down which men climb sometimes two or three hundred feet, swinging free in the air. Below them flows the Kosi and if the rope which holds the ladder breaks it means certain death for them. They use smoke-balls to keep the angry bees away as the men collect the honeycomb, which is hoisted up in containers by a second rope. For success of this operation perfect and well-rehearsed combination is essential, as the sound of shouts or whistles is lost in the roar of the river below. On this occasion eleven men worked for a week in the ravine, and the price at which they sold the honey bore no relation to the risks they ran.
I much regretted that I had no cine-camera with which to take a picture of this dramatic scene.

When the heavy summer rains were over, we began to explore the long valleys systematically. We often stayed out for several days, taking provisions, drawing materials and compass with us. At these times we camped on the high pastures alongside the herdsmen who, just as they do in the Alps, spent the summer months grazing their cattle on the luxuriant mountain meadows. There were hundreds of cows and female yaks feeding on the green stretches of pasture in the middle of a world of glaciers. I often helped with the butter-making and it was a pleasure to receive a slab of fresh golden butter for my pains.

By all the inhabited huts are found fierce, pugnacious dogs. Mostly they are chained up and by their barking at night protect the cattle from leopards, wolves and wild dogs. Very powerfully built, their usual diet of milk and calves’ flesh gives them enormous strength. They are really dangerous, and I had several disagreeable encounters with them. Once one of these dogs broke loose from his chain as I came up and sprang at my throat. I parried his attack, and he sank his teeth into my arm and did not let go till I had wrestled him down. My clothes hung in rags from my body, but the dog lay motionless on the ground. I bound up my wounds with what remained of my shirt, but I still bear deep scars on my arm. My wounds healed very quickly as a result of prolonged baths in the hot springs, which at this season of the year are more frequented by snakes than by Tibetans. The herdsmen told me later that I was not the only sufferer from this battle. The dog had lain in his corner and refused to eat for a week afterwards.

During our excursions we found masses of wild strawberries, but where we found the best we also found the most leeches. I knew from my reading that these creatures are the plague of many Himalayan valleys, and now learned from personal experience how helpless one is against them. They drop from trees on men and animals and creep through all the openings in one’s clothes, even the eyelets in one’s shoes. If one tears them off one loses more blood than if one lets them drink their fill, when they fall off by themselves. Some of the valleys are infested to such a degree by leeches that one simply cannot protect oneself against them. The best way of keeping them out is by wearing socks and trousers steeped in salt.  

Our excursions gave us many opportunities of map-making and sketching, but we found no pass which would have provided us with a line of escape. Without ropes and other mechanical aids we could not hope to cross any of the high mountain ridges, heavily laden as we should be. And we were neither of us enthusiastic about the idea of returning by the Dzongka road which we knew already. We sent a petition to Nepal to ascertain whether, if we went there, we would be handed over to the British or not, but got no answer. At this time we had still about two months to run before we should have to leave Kyirong, and we spent our days in preparing for our journey. In order to increase my capital, I lent it to a merchant at the usual 33 per cent rate of interest. I was to regret this later, as my debtor delayed repayment and this nearly prevented our departure.

Our contact with the peaceable, industrious villagers had become more and more intimate. They did not reckon their work by the hour, but used every minute of daylight. As there was a shortage of labour in the agricultural regions, hunger and poverty were unknown. The numerous monks, who do no manual work and occupy themselves with spiritual matters, are supported by the community. The peasants are well-off and their wardrobes contain enough tidy clothes for the whole family to wear on feast days. The women weave their own cloth and all the clothes are made at home.

There are no police in our sense of the word. Evil-doers are publicly sentenced. The punishments are pretty drastic but they seem to suit the mentality of the population. I was told of a man who had stolen a golden butter-lamp from one of the temples in Kyirong. He was convicted of the offence, and what we would think an inhuman sentence was carried out. His hands were publicly cut off and he was then sewn up in a wet yak-skin. After this had been allowed to dry, he was thrown over a precipice.

We never saw any punishments as cruel as this. As time has gone on the Tibetans seem to have become more lenient. I remember witnessing a public flogging, which I thought was not severe enough. The condemned persons were a monk and a nun belonging to the reformed Buddhist Church, which enforces celibacy. The nun had cohabited with the monk and had had a child by him, which she killed when it was born. Both were denounced and put in the pillory. Their guilt was publicly announced and they were condemned to a hundred lashes each. During the flogging the inhabitants begged the authorities to show mercy, offering them presents of money. This produced a reduction of the sentence, and sobs and sighs of relief were heard among the crowd of onlookers. The monk and the nun were exiled from the district and deprived of their religious status. The sympathy shown by the whole population towards them was, to our notions, almost inconceivable. The sinners received numerous presents of money and provisions and left Kyirong with well-filled sacks to go on a pilgrimage. The reformed sect, to which these two persons belonged, is dominant in Tibet, though in our particular neighbourhood there were a large number of monasteries obeying other rules. In them monks and nuns could live a family life together and the children remained in the monastery. They worked in their fields, but were never appointed to official posts, which were reserved for members of the reformed “Yellow Church.”

The supremacy of the monastic orders in Tibet is something unique. It can well be compared to a stern dictatorship. The monks mistrust any influence from the outside world which might undermine their authority. They are clever enough not to believe that their power is limitless, but they punish anyone who suggests that it is not. For that reason some of the monks of Kyirong disapproved of our close contact with the villagers. Our behaviour, which remained uninfluenced by any of their superstitions, must have given the Tibetans something to think about. We used to go by night into the forests without being molested by demons, we climbed mountains without lighting sacrificial fires; and still nothing happened to us. In some quarters we noticed a certain reserve which could only be attributed to the influence of the Lamas. I think they must have credited us with supernatural powers, for they were convinced that our excursions had some hidden purpose. They kept on asking us why we were always communing with streams and birds. No Tibetan ever takes a step without a particular object, and they felt that when we roamed in the woods or sat by brooks we were not doing so aimlessly.
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Re: Seven Years in Tibet, by Heinrich Harrer

Postby admin » Wed Sep 04, 2019 2:27 am

5. On the Move

Dramatic departure from Kyirong — Over the Chakhyungla Pass — To Lake Pelgu — Mount Everest, an unforgettable view — A grim journey — Among friendly nomads.

Meanwhile autumn was upon us and the permitted term of our residence coming to an end. It was hard to have to quit this paradise of nature, but we had not succeeded in obtaining a residence permit, and there was no doubt that we would have to leave. Realising from past experience the importance of a sufficient reserve of provisions, we made a cache twelve miles away on the Dzongka road where we deposited tsampa, butter, dried meat, sugar and garlic. As had been the case when we escaped from the camp, we had no transport and had to carry all our stores on our backs.

Heavy snowfalls betokened an early winter and interfered with our calculations. We had already decided what was the maximum weight we could carry, and now had to make up our minds to take another blanket each. The winter was, of course, the most unfavourable season for crossing the high plateaux of Central Asia, but we could not remain in Kyirong. For a time we played with the idea of hiding ourselves somewhere in Nepal and spending the winter there, but we gave it up as the Nepalese frontier guard were known to be highly efficient.

When our depot was ready we set to work to rig up a portable lamp. It was clear that the villagers knew we were up to something, and we were continually spied upon; so in order to prepare our lamp we went one day for a walk in the mountains, where we manufactured a sort of lantern out of Tibetan paper and the binding of a book, inside which we placed a cigarette-box filled with butter to keep the flame burning. We needed a light, however faint, as we had determined to travel by night as long as we were in inhabited country. I was now waiting for the repayment of the money I had lent. I expected to get it on the next day and we stood prepared for action.

For tactical reasons it was agreed that Aufschnaiter should go first on the pretext of an excursion. On November 6th, 1945, he boldly left the village by daylight with his pack on his back. With him went my long-haired Tibetan dog — a present from a notable of Lhasa. In the meantime I tried to get my money back, but had no luck. My debtor was suspicious and did not want to repay me till Aufschnaiter had returned. It was no wonder that we were suspected of plotting to escape. If we really meant to go to Nepal, there was no need for secrecy. The officials were afraid of getting into trouble with the Government if we succeeded in getting into Inner Tibet, and so they egged on the villagers against us. The latter were in constant fear of the local authorities and did what they were told.

A hunt for Aufschnaiter was organised and I was hauled up and questioned. The authorities were not impressed by my feeble attempts to persuade them that he had gone on one of his usual excursions. As for my money I had to wait another day and then only received part of it. It would never be repaid in full before Aufschnaiter’s return.

On the evening of November 8th I had resolved to break away — by force if need be. I was shadowed wherever I went. There were spies inside and outside the house. I watched till ten o’clock hoping that they would go to bed, but they showed no signs of doing so. Then I made a scene, pretending to be very angry and saying that the conduct of the people in the house had made it impossible for me to remain there and that I must go and sleep in the forest. As they watched me I started packing. My hostess and her mother rushed in, and when they saw what was happening threw themselves on the ground before me and entreated me with tears not to go. They said that if I did, they would be whipped out of the village and would lose their house and be outlawed. They had not deserved this at my hands. The old mother handed me a white veil in token of her respect for me, and when she saw that my heart was not softened by her appeals, offered me money. I felt sorry for the two women and tried to persuade them that nothing would happen to them if I went away. Unfortunately their cries and screams had aroused the whole village and I had to act at once, if it was not already too late.

I can still see the butter-smeared Mongol faces staring into my window with the light of their pine-torches shining on them. And now the two mayors arrived panting with a message from the Ponpos to say that if I would stay till morning, I could then go wherever I wished. I knew that this was a trick to keep me and did not answer. So they ran off to fetch their chiefs. My hostess clung to me weeping and saying that I had always been like one of her own children and that I ought not to cause her such pain. My nerves were overstrung. Something had to happen. I resolutely shouldered my pack and walked out of the house. I was astonished that the crowd collected round the door did not interfere with me. They said “He’s going, he’s going,” but no one touched me — they must have noticed that I really meant business. A couple of young men called to one another to stop me, but they got no further than saying it. I walked untouched through the crowd which gave way before me.

But I was glad when I had passed out of the torchlight into the dark. I hurried along the Nepal road for a bit in order to deceive possible pursuers, then I made a wide detour round the village and by morning had reached our depot. Aufschnaiter was sitting on the side of the road, and my dog jumped up to greet me. We walked on for a bit in search of a good hiding-place for the day.

For the last time for years we camped in a wood. The next night we marched up the valley and soon were far above the tree-line. We knew the mountain paths well from our excursions and our feeble lantern did its job. Still, occasionally we did get off the track. We had to be very careful in crossing the narrow wooden bridges over the river. They were glazed over with ice and we had to balance ourselves like tight-rope walkers. We made good progress, though each of us was carrying a weight of nearly eighty pounds. By day we always found good secluded spots to rest in, but camping in that temperature was too cold for pleasure.

One fine day we found we could not go on. In front of us was an unclimbable rockface. A path led up to it and lost itself in the wall. What were we to do? We could never get up it with heavy loads on our backs, so we decided to turn back and try to wade through the stream, which here divided into several branches. The cold was intense — fifteen degrees below zero. Earth and stones froze on to our feet when we took off our shoes and stockings to wade across, and it was a painful business pulling them off before putting on our shoes again. And then we were faced by fresh streams. There must have been an exit as the caravans passed that way, but we could not see where. So we decided to pass the night where we were, and next day to watch from our hiding-place to see how the caravans dealt with the situation. Soon after dawn a caravan came along, stopped before the rock-face, and then (we could hardly believe our eyes) the heavily laden coolies climbed swiftly up the rocky path like chamois one after the other — a lesson to us hardened mountaineers — while the yaks waded across the stream with their drivers on their backs.

We determined to try again and after a day which seemed to us endless, night came, and we tackled the difficult ascent. We had the moonlight to see by, which was much more helpful than our little lantern. If we had not seen the coolies negotiating the rocky wall we should have given it up again, but manage it we did.

After two more night marches we bypassed Dzongka and found ourselves in unknown country. Our next objective was the Brahmaputra river, which provided the most serious question mark in our itinerary. How were we to cross it? We hoped that it was already frozen over. We had only a vague notion of the road which led to the river, but hoped that it would not offer serious obstacles. The great thing was to go ahead as fast as possible and to avoid all places in which we might run into officials. Shortly after passing Dzongka we camped in a cave where we found thousands of small clay idols. The place must formerly have been a hermitage. Next night we climbed steeply, hoping to get over the pass in one march. But we had overrated our strength; breathless and exhausted by marching in the thin air at an altitude of over 16,000 feet, we had to stop in an ice-cold camp. We were again approaching the Himalayan watershed. The view from the top of the Chakhyungla pass was disappointing; we had the satisfaction of thinking that we were probably the first Europeans to cross it, but the weather was far too cold to feel pleasure or pride in anything!


In this snowy deserted waste we ventured to travel by day. We made good progress, and after spending the night freezing in camp, we were rewarded the next morning by a magnificent view of a great deep-blue lake, Pelgu, lying below us. The plateau on which we were was ringed by a gleaming chain of glaciers; we felt proud of knowing the names of two of the peaks, Gosainthan (26,000 feet) and Lapchi Kang. Both were yet unconquered, which one can say of most of the Himalayan peaks. Our fingers were stiff with cold but we got out our sketchbook and in a few strokes drew the outlines of these mountains. Aufschnaiter took the bearings of the most important peaks with a shaky compass and wrote down the figures, which one day might be of use. We went down through this dreamlike winter landscape to the shore of the lake where we found a ruined caravanserai, and had once more to spend the night in the snow.

As a matter of fact we were surprised how well we could stand the high altitude and what speed we made, considering our heavy loads. But our poor dog was miserable. He was half-starved. At night he lay across our feet and helped to warm us and we needed it, for there must have been twenty-two degrees of frost.

How happy we were to find a trace of life next day! A flock of sheep came slowly towards us followed by some shepherds muffled in thick cloaks. They pointed out where the next habitations lay and the same evening we reached the village of Trakchen, which lay a little off the caravan route. It was high time for us to be with human beings again as our provisions had run out. Even if we were arrested . . . !

This little settlement certainly deserved to be called a village. It contained about forty houses with a monastery built above them on the hillside; a better-looking place than Gartok, standing several hundred feet higher. We had indeed discovered here the highest inhabited place in Asia and perhaps in the whole world.

The natives took us for Indians and sold us provisions freely. We were received hospitably in a house, and did we enjoy the luxury of being warm after long marches through snow and ice! We rested here a day and a night, eating well and feeding our dog. We avoided meeting the local authorities as the Ponpo had locked up his residence and ignored us. Perhaps he was avoiding responsibility.

Willy-nilly we had to buy another sheepskin as our clothes were not made for the Tibetan winter. And after long and enjoyable chaffering we bought a yak. This was the fourth in our line of Armins and he was no different from the others except that perhaps he was naughtier.

From here we went on to cross the Yagula Pass, meeting no one on the way. After three days we came to cultivated land belonging to the large village of Menkhap Me. We again introduced ourselves as Indians and bought straw for our yak and tsampa for ourselves. The people here lead a very hard life. Their barley and lentil fields are strewn with stones and need a great deal of labour to produce a poor crop. But they are cheerful and friendly people and in the evenings we sat with them and drank beer. On the slopes round the village there are some little monasteries which the villagers, in spite of the hard lives they lead, keep going with their usual spirit of piety and self-sacrifice. On every side we found ruins of surprising dimensions, bearing witness that this region had seen better times. We could not ascertain if the decline had been due to wars or a change of climate.

As Road Leaves The Tingri Plain For The Pass To Mount Everest North Base Camp In Tibet

We had been marching for an hour when we came out into the huge plain of Tingri. Behind — and we caught our breath — stood the highest mountain in the world. Mount Everest. Full of wonder, enthusiasm and awe we looked at the mighty peak and thought of the many expeditions in which brave men had lost their lives vainly trying to win to the summit. We made a few sketches of the mountain, which had certainly never been viewed by a European from where we stood.

16,500 feet, Kora Pass

It was hard to turn from this marvelous spectacle but we had to move on to our next objective, the 18,000-foot pass of Kora which lay to the north. Before starting to climb, we spent the night in a little hamlet called Khargyu at the foot of the pass. This time we could not pass ourselves off as Indians so easily, because the villagers had seen many Europeans.

Tingri County

Nearby was the village of Tingri where all the British Everest expeditions used to hire their porters. The inhabitants seemed to be weighing us up and asked us first if we had been to see the Ponpo at Sutso. We then realised that the big house we had seen at that place must have been the official residence. We had noticed the house right enough, as it stood on a hill and commanded a view of the whole district. Luckily we had got by without being observed.

Now we had to be cautious. We did not pursue the subject but repeated our story of being on a pilgrimage. The villagers appeared to be satisfied and told us about the road we should have to follow, which from their account was a good one.

Late in the afternoon we reached the top of the pass. At last we would be going downhill again. We had finished with wearisome ascents for the time being and glad we were of it. Our yak, however, thought otherwise. He broke away and ran back uphill towards the pass. After endless difficulty we managed to catch him, but we could not get him to move and were obliged to camp in a most inhospitable spot where we could not light a fire — and so we supped on dry tsampa meal and raw meat. Our only consolation was the distant view of Mount Everest in the sunset glow.

Next day Armin again began to “create.” We tied a rope round his horns and led him over the pass, but he continued to misbehave. We had had enough of Armin IV and determined to exchange him at the next opportunity for another animal.

Our chance came soon. At the next village I made what I thought was a good bargain and exchanged him for a shaky-looking nag. We were overjoyed and went on our way in high spirits.

On the same day we reached a broad valley through which rushed a stream of green water carrying small ice-floes with it. It was the Tsangpo (Brahmaputra). That disposed of our dream of finding the river frozen and getting across on the ice. But we did not lose heart. On the opposite bank we saw monasteries and a number of houses and reckoned there must be some means of getting across the river. We thought of a ferry and as we were searching for one I found the piers of a hanging rope bridge. When we came to it we concluded that the bridge was all right for us to cross but no good for our horse. Animals have to swim, though the coolies manage sometimes to carry their donkeys across the swaying rope bridges on their backs. We tried to drive our horse into the water but he simply would not budge. By this time we were quite accustomed to having trouble with our animals, so I sadly made up my mind to go back to the village and try to effect a re-exchange. It cost me money and hard words to get back Armin, but I got him. He showed no sign of pleasure or of sorrow at seeing me again.

It was dark by the time I brought him back to the bridge. By that time it was too late to get him across, so I tethered him to a stake nearby. Aufschnaiter had in the meantime found us a lodging and we passed a pleasant, warm night under cover. The villagers were accustomed to passing traders and took little notice of us.

Chung Riwoche

Next morning I forgave Armin all his misdeeds. When we had managed to persuade him to go into the water, he showed himself to be a splendid swimmer. He was often submerged by the rushing water and was carried some way downstream, but that did not disturb him. He swam steadily on, and when he had come to the other side we admired the gallant way in which he breasted the steep bank and shook the water out of his long coat. We spent the rest of the day in the village which was called Chung Rivoche — a very interesting place with a famous monastery. This building, which contained a number of temples with Chinese inscriptions on their doors, rose sheer from the rocky walls which flanked the river. One of the most remarkable things about this monastery was an outsize Chorten (a form of tomb), perhaps seventy feet high, which bore witness to the sanctity of the place. Round it were grouped a great number of prayer-wheels — I counted up to eight hundred — which continually revolved with their drums containing strips of paper inscribed with prayers entreating the blessing of the gods. It is important that they should be continuously in movement and I noticed a monk going round and greasing their axles. No devout person passes by the wheels without giving them a turn. Little old men and women often sit by these giant drums for the whole day turning them with devotion and praying heaven to grant them and those who support them rebirth in a higher state. Others carry little handwheels with them when they go on pilgrimages. These prayer-wheels and the childlike mentality which they express are as typical of Tibet as the cairns and prayer-flags we had found on all the mountain passes.

As we were very pleased with our quarters and fascinated by all the interesting things we saw here, we decided to remain for another night. It was worth it, as we had a very interesting visitor, a Tibetan who had lived for twenty-two years in a Christian mission in India and had now returned, homesick for Tibet. Like us he had wandered alone over the passes through the winter snow, but when he could he had attached himself to caravans. He showed us English illustrated papers and in them we saw for the first time pictures of bombed cities and read about the end of the war. These were for us shattering moments and we burned to hear more. In spite of the discouraging news he gave us we were glad to meet someone who brought us a breath of air from the outside world — our world. What he told us strengthened out resolve to continue our journey into Central Asia. We would have been only too glad to take him with us as a travelling companion, but could offer him neither protection nor comfort. We bought from him a few pencils and some paper, so that we could continue writing up our diaries, then said goodbye to him and set out alone.

Our route now led us away from the Brahmaputra. We followed it over another pass, and in two days reached Sangsang Gevu and so joined once more the caravan road from Gartok to Lhasa, from which we had branched off a year ago on our way to Kyirong. The Ponpo’s representative at Sangsang Gevu asked us many questions, but treated us kindly. We felt that the gentlemanly way in which the two officials at Tradun had dealt with us had become known in the surrounding country as far as Sangsang and had set an example to other authorities. Fortunately this officer had no idea that we were here contrary to instructions.

It was a blessing that he did not put additional difficulty in our way, as we already had worries and to spare. We had to take a decision one way or the other. We had only 80 rupees left and one gold piece. The rest had gone in the purchase of provisions and in buying a fifth yak to replace our latest Armin. We found prices higher as we approached the villages and it was clearly impossible for us to think of getting through to the Chinese frontier with no more than the money we had. We still had thousands of miles to cover before we came to China. But — our money would be enough to get us to Lhasa. There it was again — the lure of the “Forbidden City.” And the possibility of getting acquainted with the object of our dreams was now almost within grasp. Anyhow we could not control our desire to go there and this new objective seemed to us worth any sacrifice.

While we were in the P.O.W. camp we had greedily read every book we could get which dealt with Lhasa. There were few of these and all of them had been written by Englishmen. We had learnt that in 1904 a British punitive expedition consisting of a small force had marched as far as the capital, and that in the last twenty years several Europeans have visited it. Since that time the world has had only superficial knowledge of Lhasa; and no goal is more attractive to the explorer than the Dalai Lama’s home. And we, so short a distance away, should we not seek to get there? For what other purpose had we overcome every sort of difficulty by cunning and stratagem, exerted ourselves physically to the limit of our endurance and learnt to speak the language of the country? The more we thought about it, the stronger was our resolve, and “On to Lhasa” became our motto. Our experience had shown us that high officials were much easier to deal with than subordinates. We felt that we should be all right once we got to Lhasa. I kept thinking of a brilliant example we might follow, that of Father Johann Gruber, who smuggled himself into Lhasa in a caravan three hundred years ago and was hospitably entertained there.

So there was no doubt about our goal; but we were not so sure how to reach it. We were of course attracted by the much-frequented high-road with its roadhouses. Going by it, we should reach Lhasa in a few weeks. But we risked discovery and arrest. Even if we by-passed Shigatse, the second largest city of Tibet, we should find several other administrative centres on the way, each of which might mar our chances. The risk this way was too great. So we decided to travel through the northern plains, which they call Changthang. This district is inhabited solely by nomads with whom we could safely associate. Then, we thought, we could approach Lhasa from the northwest. No one expects foreigners to come from that direction and it would be easier for us to slip into the town. Sven Hedin made a similar plan forty years ago, but it failed owing to the obstinacy of some local officials. His failure to reach Lhasa may have seemed a great misfortune to him personally, but it enabled him to explore regions hitherto completely unknown. There were no maps or accounts of the route which we meant to follow: we simply had to push on into the unknown, always aiming for the northeast. We should probably meet nomads here and there on our way and get them to put us wise about directions and distances.

While in Sangsang we naturally said nothing about our plans but gave out that we wished to go to the salt deposits in the north. People were horrified at the idea and tried hard to dissuade us. The country was so inhospitable that only lunatics would wish to go there. But our deception had the desired result of removing any suspicion that we might be bound for Lhasa. Our plan, as a matter of fact, involved considerable danger; and the icy blizzards we encountered in Sangsang gave us an idea of what to expect.

Nevertheless we set out on December 2nd, 1945. While at Sangsang we had made friends with some Sherpas. These people are Tibetans who live mostly in Nepal and have made a name for themselves as guides and porters in the Himalayas. They are nicknamed “the tigers of the Himalayas.” They gave us valuable advice regarding our preparations and helped us to find a new yak, which was a real service to us, as we had hitherto invariably been swindled when we bought one of these creatures. We noted with satisfaction that our new yak was a well-behaved beast. He was a powerful bull, black with a few white flecks, and his long flowing coat nearly swept the ground. In his youth his horns had been removed and the operation seemed to have improved his temper without diminishing his strength. He wore the usual nose-ring. With a very little encouragement one could get him to exceed his average speed of two miles an hour. The poor devil had a lot of weight to carry, as we had made it a rule always to have at least eight days’ rations with us.

Our first day out from Sangsang passed without difficulties. Our way led through a gently rising valley. Just as the sun went down and the biting cold began to penetrate our clothing, we saw, as if we had ordered it, a black nomad tent. It was pitched in the shelter of a surrounding stone wall called a Ihega. One finds these enclosures scattered over the whole of Tibet as the nomads are always moving to new pastures, and when they do, they put stone fences round their tents. The Ihegas also help to protect their beasts against the cold and the attacks of wolves. As we approached the tent some dogs made for us, barking. The noise brought a nomad out of the tent. He was not very forthcoming when we asked for a night’s shelter, and flatly refused to allow us into his tent; but afterwards he brought us some dried yak’s dung with which to make a fire. We had to camp in the open, but eventually made ourselves fairly comfortable; we collected a lot of juniper branches with which we managed to keep a good fire going throughout the night.

All the same I could not sleep. I had a feeling in the pit of my stomach reminding me of my sensations before tackling the North Wall of the Eiger. It is certainly a good thing that we did not know what lay before us. Had we had even a faint idea of it, we would certainly have turned back. We were setting out into terra incognita, marked only by blank spaces on the maps, drawn by the magnet of our ambition as explorers.

Next day we reached the top of the pass and were astonished to find that there was no descent and that we had simply come to a high plateau. The view over the unending plain was discouraging. One seemed to be facing infinity and the huge spaces would certainly take months to cross. As far as we could see there was no sign of life and an ice-cold wind blew over the snow.

We spent the following night in abandoned lhegas finding enough yak’s dung to make a fire. In summer nomads evidently lived here and caravans passed through the region. The snow-plains were then, no doubt, green Alpine pastures — and the thought of them reminded us that we had not chosen the best time of year for our journey.

Then we had a lucky day. We ran into a tent and got a warm reception from an old married couple and their son, who had been camping there for several months. They had had a hard time of it and since the heavy snowfalls eight weeks before had hardly left their tent. Many of their yaks and sheep had died since the deep snow had buried their pasture. The rest stood apathetically near the tent or kicked up the snow with their hooves in the hope of finding fodder. These heavy falls of snow are rare in Central Asia and do not count among the normal risks of life.

Our hosts seemed glad to see human faces again. This was the first time that we had been invited into a nomad’s tent and asked to stay the night. We were taken for Indians and aroused no suspicion. There was plenty of meat as many of the animals had had to be killed. We bought a leg of yak for a sang and at once sawed off a huge chunk with a kukri in order to make a meal. Our hosts were horrified to hear of the route we proposed to take and strongly advised us to give it up. However, in the course of conversation they did say that we should find other nomad tents on our road, and this information strengthened our determination to carry on.

Next day soon after setting out we ran into a deep snowdrift. Walking with our inadequate footwear soon became a torture. The upper crust of snow was treacherous and we and our yak often broke through. In some places there were streams running under the snow and we found ourselves wading through ice-cold water which we could feel but not see, and our shoes and stockings were soon frozen stiff. We had an exhausting day and covered only a few miles. Glad indeed we were to see another nomad tent towards evening. This time the inmates did not invite us to come inside, but they were not unfriendly and pitched a little yak-hair tent for us. I was happy at last to be able to remove my shoes from my smarting feet. Some of my toes showed signs of frostbite, but I rubbed them for a long time and at last the circulation came back.

The difficulties of this day’s march and the warning of frostbite had made us anxious, and Aufschnaiter and I had a long and earnest talk. We could still return, and we thought seriously of doing so. We were worried about our yak, which had not eaten properly for days, and we could reckon on our fingers how many days he would last. But we could not think of going on without him. For a long time we argued backwards and forwards and eventually came to a compromise solution. We would continue our march for one more day and then decide. Our decision would depend on the snow conditions.

Next day we passed through undulating country till we came to a pass. On crossing it, what was our astonishment to find no more snow! Providence had decided for us.

We soon ran into a nomad’s tent where we were well received and allowed to graze our yak to his heart’s content. This time our hostess was a young woman. She quickly made us cups of butter-tea and for the first time I drank this brew with relish.
The warmth ran through our frozen bodies and brought us to life again. Only then did we notice what a picturesque figure our young hostess made. Over her bare skin she wore a sheepskin cloak reaching down to the ground. In her long black pigtail she wore mussel-shells, silver coins and various cheap ornaments imported from abroad. She told us that her two husbands had gone out to drive in the animals. She said they had 1,500 sheep and a great many yaks. We were astonished to find polyandry practised among the nomads. It was only when we were in Lhasa that we came to know all the complicated reasons which led to the simultaneous existence in Tibet of polyandry and polygamy.

The two men, when they came home, greeted us as warmly as their wife had done. An abundant supper was prepared and we even got sour milk to drink. This was a pleasure we had not enjoyed since we used to help the butter-makers in Kyirong. We sat for a long while in comfort by the fire and felt ourselves rewarded for the hardships of the road. We laughed and jested much, and as is usual when the company consists of several men and a single pretty young woman, our hostess got her share of teasing.

We started fresh and rested the next day and were glad to have left the lonely snowy landscape behind us. We saw signs of life here and there. Herds of wild goats showed themselves on the slopes and sometimes came so near that a pistol would have given us a steak for our dinner. Unfortunately we hadn’t one.

It was a pleasant surprise to find more friendly nomads as evening fell. They called in their dogs as we approached and we decided to rest for a day among them and give our yak a chance of grazing on their fertile pastures.

In winter the men living a nomad life have not much to do. They busy themselves with various household chores and for recreation go hunting with their antiquated muzzle-loaders. The women collect yak-dung and often carry their babies round with them as they work. In the evening the herds are driven in and the cows milked — though it is little they give in winter. As one can imagine, the nomads have the simplest methods of cooking. In winter they eat almost exclusively meat with as much fat as possible. They also eat different kinds of soup — tsampa, the staple diet in agricultural districts, is a rarity here.

The whole life of the nomads is organised so as to make the most of the scanty aids to living which nature provides. At night they sleep on skins spread upon the ground and, slipping out of the sleeves, use their sheepskin cloaks as bedclothes. Before they get up in the morning they blow up the still live embers of their fire with a bellows and the first thing they do is to make tea. The fire is the heart of the household and is never allowed to go out. As in every peasant’s house, one finds an altar in every tent; it usually consists of a simple chest on which is set an amulet or a small statue of the Buddha. There is invariably a picture of the Dalai Lama. A little butter-lamp burns on the altar, and in winter the flame is almost invisible owing to the cold and the lack of oxygen.

The greatest event of the year in the life of the nomads is the annual market in Gyanyima to which they drive their flocks and barter some of their sheep for grain. And there they buy household articles, needles, aluminum pots and pans and brightly coloured ornaments for the women.

We were sorry to be on the road once more after a glimpse of domestic life. We would have wished to do something to repay the hospitality of these people. We gave them small presents of coloured yarn and paprika — that was all we had.

For a time after this we covered from ten to twenty miles each day, according to whether we found tents on our route or not. Often enough we had to bivouac in the open. At those times it took us all our energy to collect yak-dung and find water, and even talking was a waste of strength. We suffered much with our hands, which were always stiff with frost, for we had no gloves and used a pair of socks instead. Once a day we cooked meat and ladled the gravy straight out of the simmering saucepan. One could do that here without fear of scalding one’s tongue as the boiling-point was so low. We cooked only at night, and warmed up anything that was left over before we started in the morning. We marched through the whole day without halting.

I could write a chapter on the miseries of our nights, when we lay close together often unable to sleep because of the cold and the countless lice which tormented us. The reader must imagine what we suffered.

On December 13th we reached Labrang Trova, a “settlement” consisting of a single house. The family to which the house belonged used it only for camping and lived in their tent which they had pitched nearby. When we asked them why, they replied that the tent was far warmer. We gathered from their conversation that we had landed in an official’s residence. The Ponpo was away, but his brother acted for him. The latter began to ask us questions, but soon seemed to be satisfied with our tale of being pilgrims. For the first time we admitted that we wished to go to Lhasa, for at this point we were at a safe distance from the caravan route. Our man shook his head in horror and tried to make us understand that the quickest and best way to Lhasa was by way of Shigatse. I had my answer ready. We had chosen the hard way in order that our pilgrimage might have greater merit. He was impressed by this explanation and gladly gave us good advice.

He said we had two alternatives. The first was to follow a route which was very difficult. It would take us over many passes and tracts of uninhabited country. The second was easier but it meant going through the middle of the Khampas’ country. There it was again, the name “Khampa,” spoken in a mysterious tone, which we had already heard from so many nomads. “Khampa” must mean an inhabitant of the eastern province of Tibet, which is called Kham. But you never heard the name mentioned without an undertone of fear and warning. At last we realised that the word was synonymous with “robber.”

We, unfortunately, made light of the warning and chose the easier route.

We spent two nights with the Ponpo’s family — not unfortunately as guests in their tent, as the proud Tibetans did not deem us poor Indians worthy of such an honour. But the Ponpo’s brother was a very impressive fellow. He was serious-minded and sparing in his speech, but when he said anything it made sense. He shared his brother’s wife and lived on his flocks. The family seemed to be well-off and they lived in a considerably larger tent than those of most nomads. We were able to replenish our stores, and money was accepted for our purchases as a matter of course.
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Re: Seven Years in Tibet, by Heinrich Harrer

Postby admin » Wed Sep 04, 2019 4:02 am

6. The Worst Trek of All

A meeting with the robber Khampas — Hunger and cold: and an unexpected Christmas present — The safe-conduct — Prayer-flags on the Pilgrims’ Way — A convict as fellow-lodger — We approach Lhasa.

We had been some time on the way when a man came towards us wearing clothes which struck us as unusual. He spoke a dialect different from that of the local nomads. He asked us curiously whence? and whither? and we told him our pilgrimage story. He left us unmolested and went on his way. It was clear to us that we had made the acquaintance of our first Khampa.

A few hours later we saw in the distance two men on small ponies, wearing the same sort of clothes. We slowly began to feel uncomfortable and went on without waiting for them. Long after dark we came across a tent. Here we were lucky as it was inhabited by a pleasant nomad family, who hospitably invited us to come in and gave us a special fireplace for ourselves.

In the evening we got talking about the robbers. They were, it seems, a regular plague. Our host had lived long enough in the district to make an epic about them. He proudly showed us a Mannlicher rifle for which he had paid a fortune to a Khampa — five hundred sheep, no less! But the robber bands in the neighbourhood considered this payment as a sort of tribute and had left him in peace ever since.

He told us something about the life of the robbers. They lived in groups in three or four tents which serve as headquarters for their campaigns. These are conducted as follows: heavily armed with rifles and swords they force their way into a nomad’s tent and insist on hospitable entertainment on the most lavish scale available. The nomad in terror brings out everything he has. The Khampas fill their bellies and their pockets and taking a few cattle with them, for good measure, disappear into the wide-open spaces. They repeat the performance at another tent every day till the whole region has been skinned. Then they move their headquarters and begin again somewhere else. The nomads, who have no arms, resign themselves to their fate, and the Government is powerless to protect them in these remote regions. However, if once in a way a district officer gets the better of these footpads in a skirmish, he is not the loser by it for he has a right to all the booty. Savage punishment is meted out to the evildoers, who normally have their arms hacked off. But this does not cure the Khampas of their lawlessness. Stories were told of the cruelty with which they sometimes put their victims to death. They go so far as to slaughter pilgrims and wandering monks and nuns. A disturbing conversation for us! What would we not have given to be able to buy our host’s Mannlicher! But we had no money and not even the most primitive weapons. The tent-poles we carried did not impress even the sheep-dogs.

Next morning we went on our way, not without misgivings, which increased when we saw a man with a gun, who seemed to be stalking us from the hillside. Nevertheless we kept straight on our course, and the man eventually disappeared. In the evening we found more tents — first a single one and then a cluster of others.

We called to the people in the first tent. A family of nomads came out. They refused with expressions of horror to admit us and pointed distractedly to the other tents. There was nothing for it but to go on. We were no little surprised to receive a friendly welcome at the next tent. Everyone came out. They fingered our things and helped us to unload — a thing which no nomads had ever done — and suddenly it dawned on us that they were Khampas. We had walked like mice into the trap. The inhabitants of the tent were two men, a woman and a half-grown youngster. We had to put a good face on a poor situation. At least we were on our guard and hoped that politeness, foresight and diplomacy would help us to find a way out of the mess.

We had hardly sat down by the fire when the tent began to fill with visitors from the neighbouring tents, come to see the strangers. We had our hands full trying to keep our baggage together. The people were as pressing and inquisitive as gipsies. When they had heard that we were pilgrims they urgently recommended us to take one of the men, a particularly good guide, with us on our journey to Lhasa. He wanted us to go by a road somewhat to the south of our route and, according to him, much easier to travel. We exchanged glances. The man was short and powerful and carried a long sword in his belt. Not a type to inspire confidence. However, we accepted his offer and agreed on his pay. There was nothing else to do, for if we got on the wrong side of them they might butcher us out of hand.

The visitors from the other tents gradually drifted away and we prepared to go to bed. One of our two hosts insisted on using my rucksack as a pillow and I had the utmost difficulty in keeping it by me. They probably thought that it contained a pistol. If they did, that suited our book and I hoped to increase their suspicion by my behaviour. At last he stopped bothering me. We remained awake and on our guard all through the night. That was not very difficult, though we were very weary, because the woman muttered prayers without ceasing. It occurred to me that she was praying in advance for forgiveness for the crime her husband intended to commit against us the next day. We were glad when day broke. At first everything seemed peaceful. I exchanged a pocket mirror for some yak’s brains, which we cooked for breakfast. Then we began to get ready to go. Our hosts followed our movements with glowering faces and looked like attacking me when I handed our packs out of the tent to Aufschnaiter. However, we shook them off and loaded our yak. We looked out for our guide but to our relief he was nowhere to be seen. The Khampa family advised us urgently to keep to the southern road, as the nomads from that region were making up a pilgrim caravan to Lhasa. We promised to do so and started off in all haste.

We had gone a few hundred yards when I noticed that my dog was not there. He usually came running after us without being called. As we looked round we saw three men coming after us. They soon caught us up and told us that they too were on the way to the tents of the nomad pilgrims and pointed to a distant pillar of smoke. That looked to us very suspicious as we had never seen such smoke-pillars over the nomad tents. When we asked about the dog they said that he had stayed behind in the tent. One of us could go and fetch him. Now we saw their plan. Our lives were at stake. They had kept the dog back in order to have a chance of separating Aufschnaiter and me, as they lacked the courage to attack us both at the same time. And probably they had companions waiting where the smoke was rising. If we went there we would be heavily outnumbered and they could dispose of us with ease. No one would ever know anything about our disappearance. We were now very sorry not to have listened to the well-meant warnings of the nomads.

As though we suspected nothing we went on a short way in the same direction, talking rapidly to one another. The two men were now on either side of us while the boy walked behind. Stealing a glance to right and left we estimated our chances, if it came to a fight. The two men wore double sheepskin cloaks, as the robbers do, to protect them against knife-thrusts, and long swords were stuck in their belts. Their faces had an expression of lamb-like innocence.

Something had to happen. Aufschnaiter thought we ought first to change our direction, so as not to walk blindly into a trap. No sooner said than done. Still speaking, we abruptly turned away.

The Khampas stopped for a moment in surprise; but in a moment rejoined us and barred our way, asking us, in none too friendly tones, where we were going. “To fetch the dog,” we answered curtly. Our manner of speaking seemed to intimidate them. They saw that we were prepared to go to any lengths, so they let us go and after staring after us for a while they hurriedly went on their way, probably to inform their accomplices.

When we got near the tents, the woman came to meet us leading the dog on a leash. After a friendly greeting we went on, but this time we followed the road by which we had come to the robber camp. There was now no question of going forward — we had to retrace our steps. Unarmed as we were, to continue would have meant certain death. After a forced march we arrived in the evening at the home of the friendly family with whom we had stayed two nights before. They were not surprised to hear of our experiences and told us that the Khampas’ encampment was called Gyak Bongra, a name which inspired fear throughout the countryside. After this adventure it was a blessing to be able to spend a peaceful night with friendly people.

Next morning we worked out our new travel-plan. There was nothing for it but to take the hard road which led through uninhabited country. We bought more meat from the nomads, as we should probably be a week before seeing a soul.

To avoid going back to Labrang Trova we took a short cut entailing a laborious and steep ascent but leading, as we hoped, to the route we meant to follow. Halfway up the steep slope we turned to look at the view and saw, to our horror, two men following us in the distance. No doubt they were Khampas. They had probably visited the nomads and been told which direction we had taken.

What were we to do? We said nothing, but later confessed to one another that we had silently made up our minds to sell our lives as dearly as possible. We tried at first to speed up our pace, but we could not go faster than our yak, who seemed to us to be moving at a snail’s pace. We kept on looking back, but could not be sure whether our pursuers were coming up on us or not. We fully realised how heavily handicapped we were by our lack of arms. We had only tent-poles and stones to defend ourselves with against their sharp swords. To have a chance we must depend on our wits. ... So we marched on for an hour which seemed endless, panting with exertion and constantly turning round. Then we saw that the two men had sat down. We hurried on towards the top of the ridge, looking as we went for a place which would, if need be, serve as good fighting ground. The two men got up, seemed to be taking counsel together and then we saw them turn round and go back. We breathed again and drove our yak on so that we might soon be out of sight over the far side of the mountain.

When we reached the crest of the ridge we understood why our two pursuers had preferred to turn back. Before us lay the loneliest landscape I had ever seen. A sea of snowy mountain heights stretched onwards endlessly. In the far distance were the Transhimalayas and like a gap in a row of teeth was the pass which we calculated would lead us to the road we aimed at. First put on the map by Sven Hedin, this pass — the Selala — leads to Shigatse. Being uncertain whether the Khampas had really given up the pursuit, we went on marching even after nightfall. Luckily the moon was high and, with the snow, gave us plenty of light. We could even see the distant ranges.

I shall never forget that night march. I have never been through an experience which placed such a strain on the body and the spirit.
Our escape from the Khampas was due to the desolation of the region, the nature of which brought us new obstacles to surmount. It was a good thing that I had long ago thrown away my thermometer. Here it would certainly have marked — 30 degrees as that was the lowest it could record. But that was certainly more than the reality. Sven Hedin registered —40 degrees hereabouts at this season of the year.

We loped on for hours over the virgin snow, and as we went our minds travelled afar on their own journeys. I was tormented by visions of a warm, comfortable room, delicious hot food and steaming hot drinks. Curiously enough it was the evocation of a commonplace buffet at Graz, known to me in my student days, which nearly drove me crazy. Aufschnaiter’s thoughts lay in another direction. He harboured dark plans of revenge against the robbers and swore to come back with a magazine of arms. Woe to all the Khampas!

At last we broke off our march, unloaded our yak and crawled under cover. We had taken out our bag of tsampa and some raw meat as we were ravenously hungry, but as soon as we put a spoonful of dry meal into our mouths the metal stuck to our lips and would not come away. We had to tear it loose, amid curses and oaths. With appetites blunted by this painful experience we huddled up together under our blankets and fell, despite the piercing cold, into the leaden sleep of exhaustion.

Next day we toiled on painfully, trudging along in the footprints of our gallant yak and hardly looking up. In the afternoon we suddenly thought we were seeing the fata morgana; for, far away on the horizon, yet very clearly outlined, appeared three caravans of yaks moving through the snowy scene. They were moving very slowly forward; and then they seemed to come to a stop — but they did not vanish. So it was no mirage. The sight gave us new courage. We summoned up all our strength, drove our yak on, and after three hours’ march reached the spot where the caravans were laagered. There were some fifteen persons in the caravan — men and women — and when we arrived their tents were already pitched. They were astonished to see us, but greeted us kindly and brought us in to get warm by the fire. We found out that they were returning from a combined pilgrimage and trading voyage to Mount Kailas to their homes by Lake Namtso. They had been warned by the district officials about the brigands and so had chosen to follow this difficult route in order to avoid the region infested by the Khampas. They were bringing home fifty yaks and a couple of hundred sheep. The rest of their herds had been bartered for goods and they would have been a rich prize for the robbers. That was why the three groups had joined together and they now invited us to come along with them. Reinforcements could be useful, if they met the Khampas.

What a pleasure it was to be once more sitting by a fire and ladling down hot soup. We felt that this meeting had been ordained by providence. We did not forget our brave Armin, for we knew how much we owed him, and we asked the caravan leader to let us load our baggage on one of their free yaks, for which we would pay a day’s hire. So our beast was able to enjoy a little rest.

Day after day we wandered on with the caravans and pitched our little mountaineer’s tent alongside theirs. We suffered very much from the difficulty of pitching our tent during the hurricanes that often blew in these regions. Unlike the heavy yak-hair tents which could resist the wind, our light canvas hut would not stand up in rough weather and we sometimes had to bivouac in the open air. We swore that if we ever again came on an expedition to Tibet we should have with us three yaks, a driver, a nomad’s tent and a rifle!

We thought ourselves very lucky to be allowed to join the caravans. The only thing which disturbed us was the extreme slowness of our progress. Compared with our previous marches we seemed to be gently strolling along. The nomads start early, and after covering three or four miles pitch their tents again and send their animals out to graze. Before nightfall they bring them in and fold them near the tents where they are safe from wolves and can ruminate in peace.

Only now did we perceive how we had imposed on our poor Armin! He must have thought us as mad as the Tibetans did when we spent our days climbing the mountains round Kyirong. During our long periods of rest we devoted much time to filling in our diaries which we had recently neglected. We also began systematically to collect information about the road to Lhasa from the people in the caravan. We questioned them separately and gradually gathered a definite sequence of place-names. That was of great value to us as it would enable us later to ask the nomads the way from one place to another. We had long agreed that we could not go on spending our life taking short walks. We must leave the caravan in the near future. We took leave of our friends on Christmas Eve and started off again alone. We felt fresh and rested and covered more than fourteen miles on the first day. Late in the evening we came to a wide plain on which were some isolated tents. Their inmates seemed to be very much on their guard, for as we approached a couple of wild-looking men, heavily armed, came up to us. They shouted at us rudely and told us to go to the devil. We did not budge, but put up our hands to show we were not armed and explained to them that we were harmless pilgrims. In spite of our rest days with the caravan, we must have presented a pitiful appearance. After a short colloquy the owner of the larger tent asked us in to spend the night. We warmed ourselves by the fire and were given butter-tea and a rare delicacy — a piece of white bread each. It was stale and hard as stone but this little present on Christmas Eve in the wilds of Tibet meant more to us than a well-cooked Christmas dinner had ever done at home.

Our host treated us roughly at first. When we told him by what route we aimed at reaching Lhasa he said dryly that if we had not been killed up to now, we certainly would be in the next few days. The country was full of Khampas. Without arms we would be an easy prey for them. He said this in a fatalistic tone, as one utters a self-evident truth. We felt very disheartened and asked for his advice. He recommended us to take the road to Shigatse which we could reach in a week. We would not hear of that. He thought for a while and then advised us to apply to the district officer of this region, whose tent was only a few miles distant. This officer would be able to give us an escort, if we absolutely insisted on going through the robbers’ country.

That evening we had so much to discuss that we hardly gave a thought to Christmas in our own homes. At last we agreed to take a chance and visit the Ponpo. It only took us a few hours to reach his tent and we found it a good omen that he greeted us in a friendly way and placed a tent at our disposal. He then called his colleague and we all four sat down in conference. This time we discarded our story about being Indian pilgrims. We gave ourselves out as Europeans and demanded protection against the bandits. Naturally we were travelling with the permission of the Government and I coolly handed him the old travel-permit, which the Garpon had formerly given us in Gartok. (This document had a story. We three had tossed up to decide who should keep it and Kopp had won. But when he left us, I had had an inspiration and bought it from him. And now its hour had come.) The two officials examined the seal and were clearly impressed by the document. They were now convinced that we had a right to be in Tibet. The only question they asked was where the third member of the party was. We explained that he had been taken sick and had travelled back to India via Tradun. This satisfied the Ponpos who promised us an escort; they would be relieved at different stages by fresh men, who would conduct us as far as the northern main road.

That was a real Christmas greeting for us! And now at last we felt like keeping the Feast. We had stored up a little rice at Kyirong especially for the occasion. This we prepared and invited the two Ponpos to come and share it. They came bringing all sorts of good things with them and we passed a happy, friendly evening together.

On the following day a nomad accompanied us to the next encampment and “delivered” us there. It was something like a relay race with us as the baton. Our guide went back after handing us over. With our next guide we made wonderful progress and we realised how useful it was to have a companion who really knew the way, even though he did not provide absolute security against robbers.

Our permanent companions were the wind and the cold. To us it seemed as if the whole world was a blizzard with a temperature of minus thirty. We suffered much from being insufficiently clothed and I was lucky to be able to obtain an old sheepskin cloak from a tent-dweller. It was tight for me and lacked half a sleeve, but it only cost me two rupees. Our shoes were in a wretched state and could not last much longer: and as for gloves, we hadn’t any. Aufschnaiter had had frostbite in the hands and I had trouble with my feet. We endured our sufferings with dull resignation and it needed a lot of energy to accomplish our daily quota of miles. How happy we would have been to rest for a few days in a warm nomad’s tent. Even the life of the nomads, hard and poverty-stricken as it was, often seemed to us seductively luxurious. But we dared not delay, if we wanted to get through to Lhasa before our provisions ran out. And then? Well, we preferred not to speculate.

A dog in a Khampa camp in the hills around Yatung. On Tibetan New Year's Day Hopkinson found himself left alone and was able to take a walk and to climb a nearby mountainside. He was surprised to come across a vicious dog, which was owned by a group of Khampa people, whom he was then able to photograph. -- A. J. Hopkinson's Tour of Duty as British Trade Agent, Gyantse, 1927-28

We often saw, happily in the far distance, men on horseback, whom we knew to be Khampas from the unusual type of dogs which accompanied them. These creatures are less hairy than ordinary Tibetan dogs, lean, swift as the wind and indescribably ugly. We thanked God we had no occasion to meet them and their masters at close quarters.

On this stage of our travels we discovered a frozen lake which, on later search, we could find on no map. Aufschnaiter sketched it into our map at once. The local inhabitants call it Yochabtso, which means “water of sacrifice.” It lies at the foot of a chain of glaciers. Before we came to the main road we met some armed footpads carrying modern European rifles against which no courage could have helped us. They, however, let us alone — no doubt because we looked so wretched and down-at-heel. There are times when visible poverty has its advantages.

After five days’ march we reached the famous Tasam road. We had always imagined this to be a regular highway which, once reached, would put an end to all the miseries of our march. Imagine our disappointment when we could not find even the trace of a track! The country was in no way different from that through which we had been wandering for weeks. There were, it is true, a few empty tents at which caravans could halt, but no other signs of an organised route.

For the last stage we had been accompanied by a couple of sturdy women, who now handed us over to the Tasam road after a touching farewell. We quartered ourselves in one of the empty tents and lit a fire, after which we took stock of our position. We really had some ground for satisfaction. The most difficult part of our journey lay behind us and we were now on a frequented route, which led straight to Lhasa, fifteen days’ march ahead. We ought to have been happy in the knowledge that we were so near our goal. But, as a matter of fact, our terrific exertions had got us down to such an extent that we were no longer capable of enjoyment. What with frostbite and lack of money and food, we felt nothing but anxiety. We worried most of all about our animals. My faithful dog was reduced to skin and bones. We had hardly enough food to keep ourselves alive and could spare very little for him. His feet were in such a dreadful state that he could not keep up with us and often we had to wait for hours in our camp before he arrived. The plight of the yak was little better. He had not had enough grass to eat for weeks and was fearfully emaciated. It is true that we had left the snow behind us after leaving Lake Yochabtso, but the grass was scanty and dry and there was little time for grazing.

All the same we had to go forward next day; and the fact that we were now on a caravan route, and had no longer to think of ourselves as Marco Polos in the unknown gave a spur to our morale.

Our first day on the Tasam route differed very little from our worst stage in uninhabited country. We did not meet a soul. A raging storm, driving snow and swathes of mist made our journey a hell. Fortunately the wind was at our backs and drove us onward. If it had been in our faces, we could not have moved a step forward. All four of us were glad when we saw the roadside tents in the evening. I made the following note in my diary that night:

December 31, 1945. Heavy snowstorm with mist — first mist we have met in Tibet. Temp.: about — 30°. The most exhausting day of our journey up to date. The yak’s load kept slipping off and we nearly got frozen hands adjusting it. Lost the way once and had to go back two miles. Towards evening reached the route-station of Nyatsang. Eight tents. One tent occupied by road officer and his family. Well received.

So this was our second New Year’s Eve in Tibet. Thinking what we had achieved in all this time made one despondent. We were still “illegal” travellers — two down-at-heel, half-starved vagabonds forced to dodge the officials, still bound for a visionary goal which we seemed unable to reach — the Forbidden City. On such a night one’s thoughts turn in sentimental retrospect to home and family. But such dreams could not distract us from the stern reality of the struggle to keep alive which needed all our physical and spiritual strength. For us an evening in a warm tent was more important than if, in the safety of our homes, we had been given a racing-car as a New Year’s gift.

So we kept St. Sylvester’s day in our own fashion. We wanted to stay here somewhat longer in order to thaw ourselves out and to give our beasts a day of rest. Our old travel-paper did its job here too, and the road official was friendly and put his servants at our disposal, sending us water and fuel.

We took it easy and slept late. As we were breakfasting somewhat before noon, there was a stir before the tents. The cook of a Ponpo, wearing a fox-skin hat, had arrived to announce the coming of his master and make preparations for him. He ran around and threw his weight about properly.

The arrival of a high official might be of importance for us, but we had been long enough in Asia to know that “high” official status is a relative conception. For the moment we did not excite ourselves. But things turned out well. The Ponpo soon arrived on horseback surrounded by a swarm of servants. He was a merchant in the service of the Government and was at present engaged in bringing several hundred loads of sugar and cotton to Lhasa. Hearing about us, he naturally wanted to ask questions. Putting on a virtuous expression I handed him our travel paper, which had the usual good effect. No longer acting the stern official, he invited us to travel with his convoy. That sounded well, so we gave up our rest day and began to pack our baggage as the caravan was to move on in the afternoon. One of the drivers shook his head as he looked at Armin, a veritable skeleton, and finally offered for a small sum to load our baggage on one of the Tasam yaks and let our beast run loose with us. We gladly agreed. Then off we started in haste. We had to go on with the caravan on foot, while the Ponpo and his servants, who had changed horses at the stage, started later. They caught us up before long.

It had been a sacrifice to give up our rest day and set out on a twelve-mile march. My poor dog was too exhausted to accompany us so I left him behind in the settlement, which was better for him than dying on the road.

Marching with the caravan we covered long distances every day. We profited by the patronage of the Ponpo and were everywhere well received. It was only at Lholam that the road official looked askance at us. He would not even give us fuel and insisted on our showing our permit to go to Lhasa. Unfortunately we could not oblige him. However, we had a roof over our heads and were to be glad of it, because soon after our arrival all sorts of suspicious-looking characters began to gather round the tents. We recognised them at once for Khampas; but we were too tired to bother about them and left the rest of our party to deal with the situation. We at least had nothing worth stealing. Some of them tried to get into our tent, but we shouted at them and they went away.

Next morning we missed our yak. We had tethered him the night before and thought he might be grazing somewhere, but Aufschnaiter and I could find no sign of him. The ruffians who had been there the night before had also vanished and the connection was obvious. The loss of our yak was a serious blow to us, and we burst into the tent of the Tasam official and in my rage I threw the pack-saddle and coverings at his feet, telling him that he was responsible for the loss of our beast. We had become very much attached to Armin V, the only yak who had served us well, but we had no time to mourn his loss. We had to catch up the caravan, which had gone ahead some hours before with our baggage.

Nyenchenthanglha range

We had already been marching for some days towards a huge chain of mountains. We knew they were the Nyenchenthanglha range. There was only one way through them and that was the pass which led direct to Lhasa. On our way to the mountains we passed through low hills. The country was completely deserted and we did not even see wild asses. The weather had improved greatly and the visibility was so good that, at a distance of six miles, our next stopping place appeared to be just in front of us.

Longchenpa's Hermitage, Gangri Tokar, Tibet

The next halt was at a place called Tokar. From here we began the ascent into the mountains, and the next regular station was five days away. We did not dare to think how we could hold out till then. In any case we did what we could to keep up our strength and bought a lot of meat to keep us going.

Namtso or Lake Nam (officially: Nam Co; Mongolian: Tenger nuur; “Heavenly Lake”; in European literature: Tengri Nor, 30°42′N 90°33′E) is a mountain lake on the border between Damxung County of Lhasa prefecture-level city and Baingoin County of Nagqu Prefecture in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, approximately 112 kilometres (70 mi) NNW of Lhasa.

The days seemed endless and the nights even longer. We travelled through an improbably beautiful landscape and came to one of the largest of the world’s lakes — Nam Tso or Tengri Nor. But we hardly looked at it, though we had for long looked forward to seeing this mighty inland sea. The once-longed-for sight could not shake us out of our apathy. The climb through the rarefied air had left us breathless, and the prospect of an ascent to nearly 20,000 feet was paralysing. From time to time we looked with wonder at the still higher peaks visible from our route. At last we reached the summit of our pass, Curing La. Before us this pass had only once been crossed by a European. This was Littledale, an Englishman, who came over it in 1895. Sven Hedin had estimated it at nearly 20,000 feet and described it as the highest of the passes in the Transhimalaya region. I think I am right in saying that it is the world’s highest pass traversable all the year round.

Here we again found the typical cairns, and fluttering over them the brightest-coloured prayer-flags I had yet seen. Near them was a row of stone tables with prayers inscribed on them — an imperishable expression of the joy felt by thousands of pilgrims when, after their long and weary march, they saw the pass opening to them the road to the holiest of cities.

Here, too, we met an astonishing throng of pilgrims returning to their distant homes. How often has this road echoed to the words “Om mani padme hum,” the time-honoured formula of prayer that all Buddhists use and the pilgrims murmur ceaselessly, hoping, among other things, that it will protect them against what they believe is poison gas and we know to be lack of oxygen. They would do better to keep their mouths closed! From time to time we saw on the slopes below us skeletons of animals, bearing witness to the dangerous nature of the road. Our drivers told us that almost every winter pilgrims lost their lives in snowstorms in this mountain crossing. We thanked God for the good weather which had favoured us during our climb of four thousand feet.

The first part of our descent led over a glacier. I had fresh cause to wonder at the extraordinary sure-footedness of the yaks in finding their way across the ice. As we stumbled along I couldn’t help thinking how much easier it would be to glide over these smooth, uncreviced surfaces on skis. I suppose Aufschnaiter and I were the only people who had ever talked about ski-ing on the pilgrims’ road to Lhasa.

While we were marching along a young couple caught us up. They had come a long distance and, like us, were bound for Lhasa. They were glad to join the caravan and we fell into conversation with them. Their story was a remarkable one.

This pretty young woman with her rosy cheeks and thick black pigtails had lived happy and contented with her three husbands — three brothers they were — for whom she kept house in a nomad tent in the Changthang. One evening a young stranger arrived and asked for lodging. From that moment everything was different. It must have been a case of “Love at first sight.” The young people understood each other without saying anything and next morning went off together. They made nothing of a flight over the wintry plain. Now they were happy to have arrived here, and meant to begin a new life in Lhasa.

I remember this young woman as a gleam of sunshine in those hard, heavy days. Once as we were resting she took out her wallet and smilingly handed each of us a dried apricot. This modest gift was as precious to us as the wheat-bread the nomad had given us on Christmas night.

In the course of our journey I realised how strong and enduring Tibetan women are. This very young woman kept up with us easily and carried her pack as well as a man. She had not to worry about her future. In Lhasa she would hire herself out as a daily servant and with her robust country-girl’s health easily earn her living.

We marched for three successive days without coming to tents. Then we saw in the distance a great column of smoke rising into the sky. We wondered if it came from a chimney or a burning house, but when we got near we saw it was the steam rising from hot springs. We were soon gazing at a scene of great natural beauty. A number of springs bubbled out of the ground, and in the middle of the cloud of steam shot up a splendid little geyser fifteen feet high. After poetry, prose! Our next thought was to have a bath. Our young couple disapproved, but we did not let that deter us. The water was boiling when it came out of the ground, but it was quickly cooled to a bearable temperature by the frosty air. We hurriedly turned one of the pools into a comfortable bath-tub. What a joy it was! Since we had left the hot springs at Kyirong we had not been able to wash or bathe. But, sitting now in water that was almost boiling, the temperature of the air was so low that our wet hair and beards became frozen stiff in an instant. In the brook which flowed out of the hot springs there were a lot of good-sized fish. We hungrily debated how to catch them — we could have boiled them easily enough in the spring — but we found no way, and so, much refreshed, we hurried on to catch up with the caravan.

We spent the night with the yak-drivers in their tent. There I had for the first time in my life a bad attack of sciatica. I had always regarded this painful complaint as a disorder of old age and had never dreamed I should make acquaintance with it so soon. I probably contracted it as a result of sleeping every night on the cold ground.

One morning I could not get up. Besides suffering frightful pain I was chilled by the thought that I would not be able to go on. I clenched my teeth and hoisted myself to my feet and took a few steps. The movement helped, but from that time on I suffered much every day during the first few miles of our march.

In the evening of the fourth day after crossing the pass we reached Samsar, where there was a road station. At last we were in an inhabited place with built houses, monasteries and a castle. This is one of the most important road junctions in Tibet. Five routes meet here and there is a lively caravan traffic. The roadhouses are crowded, and animals are changed in the relay stables. Our Ponpo had already been here for two days, but though on a government mission he had to wait five days for fresh yaks. He procured us a room, fuel and a servant. For the moment the traffic was, so to speak, intense and we had to make up our minds for a long wait, for we could not go on alone.

We used our leisure to go on a day’s excursion to some hot springs which we had seen steaming in the distance. These turned out to be a unique natural phenomenon. We came to a regular lake whose black bubbling waters flowed off into a clear burn. Of course we decided to bathe, and walked into the water at a point where it was pleasantly warm. As we walked up-stream towards the lake it grew hotter and hotter. Aufschnaiter gave up first, but I kept on, hoping that the heat would be good for my sciatica. I wallowed in the hot water. I had brought with me my last piece of soap from Kyirong, and put it on the bank beside me, looking forward to a thorough soaping as the climax of my bath. Unluckily I had not noticed that a crow was observing me with interest. He suddenly swooped and carried off my treasure. I sprang on to the bank with an oath, but in a moment was back in the hot water, my teeth chattering with cold. In Tibet the crows are as thievish as magpies are with us.

On our way back we saw for the first time a Tibetan regiment — five hundred soldiers on manoeuvres. The population is not very enthusiastic about these military exercises, as the soldiers have the right to requisition what they want. They camp in their own tents, which are pitched in very orderly fashion, and there is therefore no billeting; but the local people have to supply them with transport and even riding-horses.

When we came back to our lodging a surprise was awaiting us. They had given us as room-mate a man wearing fetters on his ankles and only able to take very short steps. He told us smilingly, and as if it was a perfectly normal thing, that he was a murderer and a robber and had been condemned first to receive two hundred lashes and afterwards to wear fetters for the rest of his life. This made my flesh creep. Were we already classed with murderers? However, we soon learned that in Tibet a convicted criminal is not necessarily looked down on. Our man had no social disadvantages: he joined in conversation with everybody and lived on alms. And he didn’t do so badly.

It had got round that we were Europeans, and curious persons were always coming to see us. Among them was a nice young monk, who was bringing some goods to the monastery of Drebung and had to be off the next day. When he heard that we only had one load of baggage and were very keen to continue our journey, he offered us a free yak in his caravan. He asked no questions about our travel permit. As we had previously reckoned, the nearer we came to the capital, the less trouble we had — the argument being that foreigners who had already travelled so far into Tibet must obviously possess a permit. Nevertheless we thought it wise not to stay too long in any one place, so as not to invite curiosity.

We accepted the monk’s offer at once and bade farewell to our Ponpo with many expressions of gratitude. We started in pitch darkness, not long after midnight. After crossing the district of Yangpachen we entered a valley which debouched into the plain of Lhasa.

So near to Lhasa! The name had always given us a thrill. On our painful marches and during icy nights, we had clung to it and drawn new strength from it. No pilgrim from the most distant province could ever have yearned for the Holy City more than we did. We had already got much nearer to Lhasa than Sven Hedin. He had made two attempts to get through from the region through which we had come, but had always been held up in Changthang by the escarpment of Nyenchenthanglha. We two poor wanderers were naturally less conspicuous than his caravan and we had our knowledge of Tibetan to help us, in addition to the stratagems we had been compelled to use; so we had some things in our favour.

In the early morning we arrived at the next locality, Dechen, where we were to spend the day. We did not like the idea. There were two district officers in residence and we did not expect them to be taken in by any travel document.

Our friend the monk had not yet arrived. He had been able to allow himself a proper night’s sleep, as he travelled on horseback, and no doubt he started about the time when we arrived at Dechen.

We cautiously started looking for a lodging and had a wonderful “break.” We made the acquaintance of a young lieutenant who very obligingly offered us his room as he had to leave about midday. He had been collecting in the neighbourhood the money contributions payable in lieu of military service. We ventured to ask him whether he could not take our baggage in his convoy. Of course we would pay for it. He agreed at once and a few hours later we were marching with light hearts out of the village behind the caravan.

Our satisfaction was premature. As we passed the last houses someone called to us and when we turned round we found ourselves facing a distinguished-looking gentleman in rich silk garments. Unmistakably the Ponpo. He asked politely but in an authoritative tone where we had come from and where we were going. Only presence of mind could save us. Bowing and scraping we said we were going on a short walk and had left our papers behind. On our return we would give ourselves the pleasure of waiting on his lordship. The trick succeeded, and we cleared off.

We found ourselves marching into spring scenery. The pasture lands grew greener as we went on. Birds twittered in the plantations and we felt too warm in our sheepskin cloaks, though it was only mid-January.

Lhasa was only three days away. All day Aufschnaiter and I tramped on alone and only caught up with the lieutenant and his little caravan in the evening. In this region all sorts of animals were used for transport — donkeys, horses, cows and bullocks. One saw only yaks in the caravans, as the peasants had not enough pasture to feed herds of them. Everywhere we saw the villagers irrigating their fields. The spring gales would come later, and if the soil were too dry it would all be blown away in dust. It often took generations before constant watering made the soil fertile. Here there is very little snow to protect the winter seed and the peasants cannot grow more than one crop. The altitude has naturally a great influence on agriculture. At 16,000 feet only barley will thrive and the peasants are half-nomads. In some regions the barley ripens in sixty days. The Tblung valley through which we were now passing is 12,300 feet above sea-level, and here they also grow roots, potatoes and mustard.

We spent the last night before coming to Lhasa in a peasant’s house. It was nothing like so attractive as the stylish wooden houses in Kyirong. In these parts wood is rare. With the exception of small tables and wooden bedsteads there is practically no furniture. The houses, built of mud bricks, have no windows; light comes in only through the door or the smoke-hole in the ceiling.

Our hosts belonged to a well-to-do peasant family. As is usual in a feudally organised country the peasant manages the property for his landlord, and must produce so much for him before making any profit for himself. In our household there were three sons, two of whom worked on the property whilst the third was preparing to become a monk. The family kept cows, horses, a few fowls and pigs — the first I had seen in Tibet. These are not fed but live on offal and whatever they can grout up in the fields.

We passed a restless night thinking of the next day, which would decide our future. Now came the great question: even if we managed to smuggle ourselves into the town, would we be able to stay there? We had no money left. How, then, were we going to live? And our appearance! We looked more like brigands from the Changthang than Europeans. Over our stained woollen trousers and torn shirts we wore greasy sheepskin cloaks, which showed, even at a distance, how we had knocked about in them. Aufschnaiter wore the remains of a pair of Indian Army boots on his feet, and my shoes were in fragments. Both of us were more barefoot than shod. No, our appearance was certainly not in our favour. Our beards were perhaps our most striking feature. Like all Mongols, the Tibetans have almost no hair on their faces or bodies; whereas we had long, tangled, luxuriant beards. For this reason we were often taken for Kazaks, a Central Asian tribe whose members migrated in swarms during the war from Soviet Russia to Tibet. They marched in with their families and flocks and plundered right and left, and the Tibetan army was at pains to drive them on into India. The Kazaks are often fair-skinned and blue-eyed and their beards grow normally. It is not surprising that we were mistaken for them, and met with a cold reception from so many nomads.

There was nothing to be done about our appearance. We could not spruce ourselves up before going into Lhasa. Even if we had had money, where could we buy clothes?

Since leaving Nangtse — the name of the last village — we had been left to our own devices. The lieutenant had ridden on into Lhasa and we had to bargain with our host about transport for our baggage. He lent us a cow and a servant and when we had paid we had a rupee and a half left and a gold piece sewn up in a piece of cloth. We had decided that if we could not find any transport, we would just leave our stuff behind. Barring our diaries, notes and maps we had nothing of value. Nothing was going to hold us back.
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Re: Seven Years in Tibet, by Heinrich Harrer

Postby admin » Wed Sep 04, 2019 4:16 am

7. The Forbidden City

The golden roofs of the Potala Palace — Two vagabonds beg for food and lodging — The fugitives are spoilt — Guests in the family home of the Dalai Lama.

View across Kyichu Valley from the Potala showing a section of Potala Sho in the bottom left corner and showing parks on the plain, donated by St. Antony's College, Oxford. Sir Charles Bell's Mission to Lhasa 1920-21

It was January 15th, 1946, when we set out on our last march. From Tolung we came into the broad valley of Kyichu. We turned a corner and saw, gleaming in the distance, the golden roofs of the Potala, the winter residence of the Dalai Lama and the most famous landmark of Lhasa.


This moment compensated us for much. We felt inclined to go down on our knees like the pilgrims and touch the ground with our foreheads. Since leaving Kyirong we had covered over six hundred miles with the vision of this fabulous city ever in our mind’s eye. We had marched for seventy days and only rested during five. That meant a daily average of almost ten miles. Forty-five days of our journey had been spent in crossing the Changthang — days full of hardship and unceasing struggle against cold, hunger and danger. Now all that was forgotten as we gazed at the golden pinnacles — six miles more and we had reached our goal.

We sat down near the cairns which the pilgrims put up to mark their first sight of the Holy City. Our driver, meanwhile, performed his devotions. Going on, we soon came to Shingdongka, the last village before Lhasa. The cowman refused to come any further, but nothing could discourage us now. We went to find the Ponpo and coolly informed him that we were the advance party of a powerful foreign personage on his way to Lhasa and that we had to reach the city as quickly as possible in order to find quarters for our master. The Ponpo swallowed our tale and gave us an ass and a driver. Years later this story used still to set people laughing at parties in Lhasa, even in the houses of Ministers. The fact is the Tibetans are very proud of their organisation for keeping foreigners out of the country, and they found the manner in which we had broken through the barriers not only deserving of attention but highly humorous. That was all to our advantage, for the Tibetans are a laughter-loving folk.

During the last six miles of the road we mixed with a stream of pilgrims and caravans. From time to time we passed stalls displaying all sorts of delicacies — sweets, white bread and what-not — which almost brought the tears to our eyes. But we had no money. Our last rupee belonged to our driver.

Drepung Monastery

We soon began to recognise the landmarks of the town about which we had read so often. Over there must be Chagpori, the hill on which stands one of the two famous Schools of Medicine. And here in front of us was Drebung, the greatest monastery in the world, which houses ten thousand monks and is a city in itself, with its multitude of stone houses and hundreds of gilded pinnacles pointing upwards above the shrines.

Nechung Monastery

Somewhat lower down lay the terraces of Nechung, another monastery, which has for centuries been the home of the greatest mystery of Tibet. Here is made manifest the presence of a protective Deity, whose secret oracle guides the destinies of Tibet and is consulted by the Government before any important decision is taken. We had still five miles to go and every few steps there was something fresh to look at. We passed through broad well-tended meadows surmounted by willows where the Dalai Lama pastures his horses.

Located on the western edge of Lhasa at the bank of River Kyichu and just a kilometer from the famous Potala Palace, Norbulingka Palace offers the best landscapes in the region. Spread over an area of 360,000 square meters, [approx. 4 million square feet] Norbulingka features the summer palaces of the Dalai Lamas with 374 rooms, and the largest, most beautiful, and well-preserved gardens in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau.

Palaces of Norbulingka: Norbulingka has five distinct sections: Kelsang Palace, Tsokyil Palace, Golden Linka, Takten Migyur Palace, and Lake Heart Palace. Each palace has three main sections: the palace area, the forest area, and the area in front of the palace. (Note: the Tibetan word for “Palace” is “Potrang”.)

Kelsang Palace: This palace was built by the 7th Dalai Lama in typical Tibetan style and consists of worship rooms, reading rooms, and bedrooms. The main hall features the throne of the 7th Dalai Lama amidst statues of Guanyin Bodhisattva and Longevity Buddha.

Tsokyil Palace: It lies to the northwest of Kelsang Palace in the midst of the lake and is the most attractive pavilion built by the 8th Dalai Lama.

Golden Linka and Chensel Palace: To the northwest of Kelsang Phodrong lies also the Chensel Palace and on the west side of Norbulingka is the Golden Phodron. Both these were built in 1922 by a benefactor for the 13th Dalai Lama.

Lake Heart Palace: The most beautiful area in southwest Norbulingka, the Lake Heart Palace was built by the 8th Dalai Lama to hold parties with dignitaries.

Takten Migyur Palace: Completed by 1956, Takten Migyur Palace was built by the 14th Dalai Lama and is also referred to as the New Summer Palace. More magnificent and larger than the other palaces, the New Palace features exquisite murals of Sakyamuni and his eight contemplative disciples, and also those related to the development of Tibet.

-- Norbulingka Summer Palace, by

For nearly an hour a long stone wall flanked our road and we were told that the summer palace of the God-King lay behind it. Next we passed the British Legation, situated just outside the town, half-hidden by willow-trees. Our driver turned to go towards it thinking it must be our destination and we had some trouble in persuading him to go straight on. In fact for a moment we hesitated about going there ourselves, but the memory of the internment camp was still present in our minds and we thought that, after all, we were in Tibet and that it was the Tibetans we should ask for hospitality.

Nobody stopped us or bothered about us. We could not understand it, but finally realised that no one, not even a European, was suspect, because no one had ever come to Lhasa without a pass.

Pargo Kaling entrance gate to Lhasa, sometimes known as the Western Gateway, taken from the east. Charles Alfred Bell or Rabden Lepcha?, 1920-1921

As we approached, the Potala towered ever higher before us. As yet we could see nothing of the town itself, which lay behind the hills on which the Palace and the School of Medicine stood. Then we saw a great gate crowned with three Chorten, which spans the gap between the two hills and forms the entrance to the city. Our excitement was intense. Now we should know our fate for certain. Almost every book about Lhasa says that sentries are posted here to guard the Holy City. We approached with beating hearts. But there was nothing. No soldiers, no control-post, only a few beggars holding out their hands for alms. We mingled with a group of people and walked unhindered through the gateway into the town. Our driver told us that the group of houses on our left was only a sort of suburb and so we went on through an unbuilt area coming ever nearer to the middle of the town. We spoke no word, and to this day I can find no terms to express how overwhelming were our sensations. Our minds, exhausted by hardships, could not absorb the shock of so many and such powerful impressions.

Pack mules passing through the Yuthok Sampa (Turquoise Bridge) so named because of the turquoise glazed tiles on its roof. The Potala Palace is visible beyond. The original structure dates back to the 7th century but it is now destroyed [CH 2003] Faith Spencer Chapman, British Diplomatic Mission to Lhasa 1936-37

We were soon in front of the turquoise-roofed bridge and saw for the first time the spires of the Cathedral of Lhasa. The sun set and bathed the scene in an unearthly light. Shivering with cold we had to find a lodging, but in Lhasa it is not so simple to walk into a house as into a tent in the Changthang. We should probably be at once reported to the authorities. But we had to try. In the first house we found a dumb servant, who would not listen to us. Next door there was only a maid who screamed for help till her mistress came and begged us to go somewhere else. She said she would be driven out of the quarter if she received us. We did not believe that the Government could be as strict as all that, but we did not want to cause her unpleasantness and so went out again. We walked through some narrow streets and found ourselves already at the other side of the town. There we came to a house much larger and finer-looking than any we had yet seen, with stables in the courtyard. We hurried in to find ourselves confronted by servants, who abused us and told us to go away. We were not to be moved and unloaded our donkey. Our driver had already been pressing us to let him go home. He had noticed that everything was not in order. We gave him his money and he went off with a sigh of relief.

The servants were in despair when they saw that we had come to stay. They begged and implored us to go and pointed out that they would get into fearful trouble when their master returned. We, too, felt far from comfortable at the idea of exacting hospitality by force, but we did not move. More and more people were attracted by the din, and the scene reminded me of my departure from Kyirong. We remained deaf to all protestations. Dead-tired and half-starved we sat on the ground by our bundles, indifferent to what might befall us. We only wanted to sit, to rest, to sleep.

The angry cries of the crowd suddenly ceased. They had seen our swollen and blistered feet, and, open-hearted simple folk as they were, they felt pity for us. A woman began it. She was the one who had implored us to leave her house. Now she brought us butter-tea. And now they brought us all sorts of things— tsampa, provisions and even fuel. The people wanted to atone for their inhospitable reception. We fell hungrily on the food and for the moment forgot everything else.

Suddenly we heard ourselves addressed in perfect English. We looked up, and though there was not much light to see by, we recognised that the richly clad Tibetan who had spoken to us must be a person of the highest standing. Astonished and happy we asked him if he was not, perchance, one of the four young nobles who had been sent to school at Rugby. He said he was not but that he had passed many years in India. We told him shortly what had happened to us, saying we were Germans, and begging to be taken in. He thought for a moment and then said that he could not admit us to his house without the approval of the town magistrate, but he would go to that official and ask for permission.

When he had gone the other people told us that he was an important official and was in charge of the electricity works. We did not dare to set too much store by what he had said, but nevertheless began to settle down for the night. Meanwhile we sat by the fire and talked to the people, who kept coming and going. Then a servant came to us and asked us to follow him saying that Mr. Thangme, the “Master of Electricity,” invited us into his house. They called him respectfully “Ku-ngo,” equivalent to “Highness,” and we followed suit.

Thangme and his young wife received us very cordially. Their five children stood around and looked at us open-mouthed. Their father had good news for us. The magistrate had allowed him to take us in for one night, but future arrangements would have to be decided by the Cabinet. We did not worry our heads about the future. After all we were in Lhasa and were the guests of a noble family. A nice, comfortable room was already prepared for us with a small iron stove which warmed us well. It was seven years since we had seen a stove! The fuel used was juniper wood, which smelt very good and was a real luxury, for it needed weeks of travel on the backs of yaks to bring it into Lhasa. We hardly dared, in our ragged garments, to sit on our clean carpet-covered beds. They brought us a splendid Chinese supper, and as we ate they all stood round and talked to us without ceasing. What we must have been through! They could hardly believe that we had crossed the Changthang in winter and climbed over the Nyenchenthanglha range. Our knowledge of Tibetan astonished them.
But how ugly and shabby we seemed to ourselves in these civilised surroundings. Our possessions, indispensable to our journey, suddenly lost all their attraction and we felt we would be glad to be rid of them.

Dead-tired and confused in mind we went at last to bed, but we could not go to sleep. We had spent too many nights on the hard ground with nothing but our sheepskin cloaks and a torn blanket to cover us. Now we had soft beds and a well-warmed room, but our bodies could not quickly accustom themselves to the change and our thoughts revolved like millwheels in our heads. All we had gone through crowded into our minds — the internment camp and the adventures and hardships of the twenty-one months since our escape. And we thought of our comrades and the unbroken monotony of their lives, for though the war had long been over the prisoners were still in captivity. But, for that matter, were we now free?

Before we were properly awake we found a servant with sweet tea and cakes standing by our beds. Then they brought us hot water and we attacked our long beards with our razors. After shaving we looked more respectable but our long hair was a grave problem. A Moslem barber was called in to get busy on our manes. The result was somewhat exotic, but provoked lively admiration. Tibetans have no trouble with their coiffure. Either they have pigtails or shaven heads.

We did not see Thangme till noon, when he came home much relieved after a visit to the Foreign Minister. He brought us good news and told us we would not be handed over to the English. For the time being we might remain in Lhasa but were politely requested to stay indoors until the Regent, who was in a retreat in Taglung Tra, decided about our future. We were given to understand that this was a precautionary measure made advisable by previous incidents in which fanatical monks had been involved. The Government was willing to feed and clothe us.

We were highly delighted. A few days’ rest was just what we needed. We attacked a mountain of old newspapers with enthusiasm, though the news we gathered was not precisely exhilarating. The whole world was still simmering and our country was going through hard times.

On the same day we received a visit from an official sent by the town magistrate. He was accompanied by six policemen, who looked dirty and untrustworthy. But our visitor was most polite and asked leave to inspect our baggage. We were astonished that he should be doing his job with such exactness. He had with him a report from Kyirong which he compared with the dates of our itinerary. We ventured to ask him if all the officials through whose districts we had passed would really be punished. “The whole matter will come before the Cabinet,” he said thoughtfully, “and the officials must expect to be punished.” This upset us very much, and to his amusement we told him how we had dodged the district officers and how often we had deceived them. It was our turn to laugh when he then announced to us that the evening before he had been expecting a German invasion of Lhasa. It seems that everyone with whom we had spoken had rushed off to report to the magistrate. They had the impression that German troops were marching into the city!

In any case we were the talk of the town. Everyone wanted to see us and to hear the story of our adventures with his own ears, and as we were not allowed out people came to visit us. Mrs. Thangme had her hands full and prepared her best tea-service to receive guests. We were initiated into the ceremonial of tea-parties. Respect for guests is shown by the value and beauty of the tea-service. The teacups consist of three parts: a stand, a porcelain cup and a cover. The stand and the cover are often of silver or gold.

Dasang Damdul Tsarong was a favourite of the 13th Dalai Lama, a military man and later a shappe (cabinet minister in the Tibetan government) until he was removed from office as a result of his modernising policies. He was a great friend of the British Mission frequently inviting them to his house and accompanying them on their various visits around Lhasa. He was considered by the mission to be a great character, as Gould recalled “Once, after a long and festive party at the De Kyi Lingka, he fell asleep in my arms murmuring, “Great minister, I love you, I love you”. At breakfast next morning he had his usual bright eye and was quite unperturbed. He spoke a little English. To him it seemed strange that anybody in India should not welcome British rule”. (1957:236) He had four wives (Including Rigzin Choden, Pema Dolkar, Rinchen Dolma (later Mary Taring) and Tseten Dolkar) and ten children. Although he was in India in 1956 he insisted on going back to Tibet to help the Dalai Lama to escape into exile. He was captured by the Chinese and in 1959 died mysteriously the night before what was due to be his public humiliation.

"The door [of Tsarong's house] is ornamented in the best Tibetan style, but in front of it are a dozen granite steps covered with pots of flowering plants" ['Lhasa: The Holy City', F. Spencer Chapman, London: Chatto & Windus, 1938, p. 104] [MS 28/03/2006]

February 13th 1937. On this day Tsarong took Chapman unofficially to the Potala so that he could take photographs of the New Year ceremonies (no other Mission members accompanied because an official invitation had not been extended to them). This photograph, therefore, was probably taken at the end of the day, when Tsarong returned home with Chapman [MS 28/03/2006]

Every day important guests came to Thangme’s house. He himself was a noble of the fifth class, and since etiquette is very closely observed here, he had hitherto only received the visits of persons of equal or inferior rank. But now it was the most highly placed personages who wanted to see us. Foremost among them was the son of the celebrated Minister Tsarong and his wife. We had already read much about his father. Born in humble circumstances, he became the favourite of the thirteenth Dalai Lama, rose to a highly honourable position and acquired a great fortune by his industry and intelligence. Forty years ago the Dalai Lama was obliged to flee before the Chinese into India, and Tsarong then rendered his master valuable service. He was for many years a Cabinet Minister and as first favourite of the Lama had virtually the powers of a Regent. Subsequently a new favourite named Khunpela dislodged Tsarong from his position of authority. He was, however, able to retain his rank and dignities. Tsarong was now in the third order of nobility and was Master of the Mint.

His son was twenty-six years old. He had been brought up in India and spoke fluent English. Conscious of his own importance he wore a golden amulet in his pigtail, as the son of a Minister had the right to do.

When this young noble came to call servants handed tea and soon the conversation became lively. The Minister’s son was an incredibly versatile young man with a special interest in technical matters. He asked us about the latest discoveries, and told us that he had put together his own radio receiving-set and fixed a wind-driven generator on the roof of his house.

Yangchen Dolkar was educated at the private school of Nyarongshar in Lhasa at the age of 7 years. In June 1941, at the age of 15, she married the celebrated Dundul Namgyal Tsarong. The couple had five children, known as Namgyal Lhamo Taklha, Norzin Shakabpa, Tsewang Jigme Tsarong, Drikung Chetsang Rinpoche and Tseten Paljor Tsarong. In 2006, Yangchen Dolkar Tsarong published her autobiography in Tibetan, commented on by Tashi Tsering.

We were in the middle of a technical discussion in English, when his wife interrupted us laughingly and said she wanted to ask us some questions. Yangchenla, as she was called, was one of the beauties of Lhasa; she was well dressed and very soignee, and clearly acquainted with the use of powder, rouge and lipstick. She was not at all shy, as was obvious from the lively manner in which she questioned us in Tibetan about our journey. Now and again she broke into our explanations with swift gestures and bursts of laughter. She was particularly amused by our account of how we had imposed on the officials with our expired travel permit. She seemed to be astonished at our fluency in Tibetan, but we noticed that neither she nor even the most staid of our visitors could forbear from laughing at us from time to time. Later our friends told us that we spoke the commonest kind of peasant dialect that one could imagine. It was rather like a backwoodsman from the remotest Alpine valley talking his own lingo in a Viennese drawing-room. Our visitors were immensely amused but much too polite to correct us.

By the time this young couple left us we had made friends with them. They had brought with them some very welcome gifts — linen, pullovers and cigarettes, and they begged us to tell them frankly when we wanted anything. The Minister’s son promised to help us and later delivered a message from his father inviting us to go and stay with him, if the Government gave us their approbation. That all sounded very consoling.

More visitors came trooping in. Our next was a general of the Tibetan Army, who was desperately anxious to learn everything possible about Rommel. He spoke with enthusiasm of the German general and said that with his smattering of English he had read everything available about him in the newspapers. In this respect Lhasa is not at all isolated. Newspapers came in from all over the world via India. There are even a few persons in the town who take in Life. The Indian daily papers arrive regularly a week after publication.

The procession of visitors continued. Among them were highly placed monks, who courteously brought us gifts. Some of them became my good friends later on. Then there was a representative of the Chinese Legation and after him an official belonging to the British Agency in Sikkim.

We were particularly honoured by the visit of the Commander-in-Chief of the Tibetan Army, General Kunsangtse, who insisted on seeing us before leaving for China and India on a friendly mission. He was the younger brother of the Foreign Minister and an unusually well-informed man. It took a load off our minds when he assured us that our request for permission to stay in Tibet would certainly be approved.

We gradually began to feel at home. Our relations with Thangme and his wife developed into a cordial friendship. We were mothered and well-fed and everyone was pleased to see that we had such good appetites. However, doubtless as a reaction from hardship and overstrain, we suffered from all sorts of minor complaints. Aufschnaiter had an attack of fever and my sciatica gave me a lot of trouble. Thangme sent for the doctor of the Chinese Legation, who had studied in Berlin and Bordeaux. He examined us in approved European style and prescribed various medicines.

It is probable that no other country in the world would welcome two poor fugitives as Tibet welcomed us. Our parcel of clothes, the gift of the Government, had arrived with apologies for delay caused by the fact that we were taller than the average Tibetan and there were no ready-made clothes to fit us. So our suits and shoes were made to measure. We were as pleased as children. At last we were able to throw away our lousy old rags. Our new suits, though not up to the highest sartorial standards, were decent and tidy and quite good enough for us.

In the intervals between our numerous visits we worked at our note-books and diaries. And we soon made friends with the Thangmes’ children, who usually had already gone off to school before we got up. In the evening they showed us their homework which interested me very much as I was taking some trouble to learn the written language. Aufschnaiter had long been studying this and during our wanderings had taught me something, but it took me years to learn to write Tibetan more or less fluently. The individual letters present no difficulty, but their arrangement into syllables is no easy task. Many of the characters are taken from the ancient Indian scripts, and Tibetan writing looks more like Hindi than Chinese. Fine, durable parchment-like paper is used and Chinese ink. There are in Tibet several high-class mills, where the paper is made from juniper wood. In addition thousands of loads of paper are imported yearly from Nepal and Bhutan, where the stuff is manufactured in the same way as in Tibet. I have often watched the process of papermaking on the banks of the Kyichu river. The chief drawback of Tibetan paper is that the surface is not smooth enough, which makes writing difficult. Children are usually given wooden tablets for their exercises and use watered ink and bamboo pens. The writing can afterwards be wiped out with a wet cloth. Thangme’s children often had to rub out their exercises twenty times before getting them right.

The Dalai Lama's mother; in the background is the Potala Palace

The youngest sister of the Dalai Lama, on horseback.

The Dalai Lama's elder brother, Lobsang Samten

Soon we were treated like members of the family. Mrs. Thangme talked over her problems with us, and was delighted when we paid her compliments on her good looks and good taste. Once she invited us to come into her room and look at her jewels. These she kept in a great chest in which her treasures were stored either in small jewel cases or in fine silk wrappings. Her treasures were worth looking at. She had a glorious tiara of corals, turquoise and pearls, and many rings as well as diamond earrings and some little Tibetan amulet-lockets which are hung round the neck by a coral chain. Many women never take these lockets off. The amulet they contain acts as a talisman which, they believe, protects them from evil.

Our hostess was flattered by our admiration of her treasures. She told us that every man was obliged to present his wife with the jewels corresponding to his rank. Promotion in rank entailed promotion in jewellery! But to be merely rich was not enough, for wealth did not confer the right to wear costly jewels. Of course the men grumble about their wives’ pretensions, for here, as in the West, every woman seeks to outshine her rivals. Mrs. Thangme, whose jewels must have been worth several thousand pounds, told us that she never went out unaccompanied by a servant, as attacks by thieves on society women were common.

Eight days passed, during which we had dutifully kept indoors. It was a great surprise to us when one day servants came bringing an invitation to visit the home of the Dalai Lama’s parents, and telling us to come at once. As we felt ourselves bound by our promise not to leave the house, we consulted our host. He was horrified that we should have any misgivings; such an invitation overrode everything else. A summons from the Dalai Lama or the Regent had precedence over all other considerations. No one would dare to detain us or later to call us to account. On the contrary, hesitation to comply would be a serious offence.

View of Lhasa from the Potala Palace

We were glad to learn his opinion, but then began to be nervous about the reason for our summons. Was it a good omen for our future? Anyhow we hurriedly prepared ourselves for the visit, dressing ourselves in our new clothes and Tibetan boots for the first time. We looked quite presentable. Thangme then gave us each a pair of white silk scarves and impressed on us that we must present them when we were received in audience. We had already witnessed this custom in Kyirong and had noticed that it was observed by quite simple people. When paying visits or presenting a petition to a person of higher standing, or at the great festivals, one is supposed to give presents of scarves. These scarves are found in all sorts of qualities and the kind of scarf offered should be consistent with the rank of the giver.

The 14th Dalai Lama's mother, Gyayum Chenmo, 1948, Hugh E. Richardson Collection. The photograph is most probably taken in front of a large window of the Dalai Lama's new family house in Lhasa.

The house of the parents of the Dalai Lama was not far away. We soon found ourselves standing before a great gate, near which the gatekeeper was already on the look-out for us. When we approached he bowed respectfully. We were led through a large garden full of vegetable plots and clusters of splendid willows till we came to the palace. We were taken up to the first floor: a door was opened and we found ourselves in the presence of the mother of the God-King, to whom we bowed in reverence. She was sitting on a small throne in a large, bright room surrounded by servants. She looked the picture of aristocratic dignity. The humble awe which the Tibetans feel for the “Great Mother” is something strange to us, but we found the moment a solemn one.

The 14th Dalai Lama's father, Choekyong Tsering, 1937

The “Great Mother” smiled at us and was visibly pleased when we handed her the scarves with deep obeisances and stretching out our arms to the fullest extent as Thangme had instructed us. She took them from us and handed them at once to the servants. Then with a beaming countenance she shook our hands, contrary to Tibetan custom. At that moment in came the father of the Dalai Lama, a dignified elderly man. We bowed low again and handed him scarves with due ceremony, after which he shook our hands most unaffectedly. Now and then Europeans came to the house, and the host and hostess were to some degree familiar with European customs and not a little proud of the fact.

Then we all sat down to tea. The tea we drank had a strange flavour, and was made differently from the usual Tibetan brew. We asked about it, and the question broke the ice, for it led our hosts to tell us about their former home. They had lived in Amdo as simple peasants until their son was recognised as the Incarnation of the Dalai Lama. Amdo is in China in the province of Chinghai, but its inhabitants are almost all Tibetan. They had brought their tea with them to Lhasa and now made it, not as the Tibetans do with butter, but adding milk and salt. They brought something else from their old home — the dialect they spoke. They both used a patois similar to that of the central provinces, but not the same. The fourteen-year-old brother of the Dalai Lama interpreted for them. He had come as a child to Lhasa and had quickly learnt to speak pure Tibetan. He now spoke the Amdo dialect only with his parents.

While we were conversing with them we took occasion to observe our hosts. Each of them made a very good impression. Their humble origin expressed itself in an attractive simplicity, but their bearing and demeanour were aristocratic. It was a big step from a small peasant’s house in a distant province to a dukedom in the capital. They now owned the palace they lived in and large properties in the country. But they seemed to have survived the sudden revolution in their lives without deterioration.

The 14th Dalai Lama's brother, Lobsang Samten, 1956

The boy whom we met, Lobsang Samten, was lively and wide awake. He was full of curiosity about us and asked us all manner of questions about our experiences. He told us that his “divine” younger brother had charged him to report on us exactly. We felt pleasantly excited by the news that the Dalai Lama was interested in us, and would have liked to learn more of him. We were told that the name Dalai Lama is not used in Tibet at all. It is a Mongolian expression meaning “Broad Ocean.” Normally the Dalai Lama is referred to as the “Gyalpo Rimpoche,” which means “Precious King.” His parents and brothers use another title in speaking of him. They call him “Kundun,” which simply means “Presence.”

The Great Parents had in all six children. The eldest son, long before the discovery of the Dalai Lama, had been recognised as an Incarnation of Buddha and invested with the dignity of a Lama in the monastery of Tagtsel. He too was styled Rimpoche, the form of address applied to all Lamas. The second son, Gyalo Tondrup, was at school in China. Our young acquaintance Lobsang was destined for a monastic life. The Dalai Lama himself was now eleven years old. Besides his brothers he had two sisters. Subsequently the “Great Mother” gave birth to another “Incarnation,” Ngari Rimpoche. As the mother of three “Incarnations” she held the record for the Buddhist world.*

Our visit led to cordial relations with this adaptable, clever woman, which were to continue until she fled before the invasion of the Reds from China. Our friendship had nothing to do with the transcendental worship which the “Great Mother” received from others. But though I have a fairly sceptical attitude towards metaphysical matters, I could not but recognise the power of personality and faith with which she was invested.

It gradually became clear to us what a distinction this invitation was. One must not forget that, with the exception of his family and a few personal servants holding the rank of abbot, no one has the right to address the God-King. Nevertheless, in his isolation from the world he had deigned to take an interest in our fate. When we rose to leave we were asked if we needed anything. We thanked our hosts, but preferred modestly to ask for nothing; in spite of which a line of servants marched up with sacks of meal and tsampa, a load of butter and some beautiful soft woollen blankets. “By the personal desire of the Kundun,” said the “Great Mother,” smiling, and pressed into our hands a hundred-sang note. This was done so naturally and as if it was a matter of course that we felt no shame about accepting.

After many expressions of thanks and deep obeisances, we left the room in some embarrassment. As a final proof of friendliness Lobsang, on behalf of his parents, laid the scarves on our necks as we bowed to him. He then took us into the garden and showed us the grounds and the stables, where we saw some splendid horses from Siling and Hi, the pride of his father. In the course of conversation he let drop the suggestion that I might give him lessons in some branches of Western knowledge. That chimed in with my own secret wishes. I had often thought that I could manage to keep myself by giving lessons to the children of noble families.

Loaded with gifts and escorted by servants we returned to Thangme’s house. We were in high spirits and felt that now our fortunes were on the mend. Our hosts awaited us with impatient excitement. We had to tell them everything that had happened, and our next visitors were informed in detail of the honour that had been done to us. Our shares rose steeply!

14th Dalai Lama and the family members, 1956 from left: Diki Tsering (Mother), Tsering Dolma (elder sister), Thupten Jigme Norbu (eldest brother) Taktser Rinpoche, Gyalo Thondup (second-eldest brother), Lobsang Samten (third-eldest brother), Tenzin Gyatso (14th Dalai Lama), Jetsun Pema (younger sister), Tenzin Choegyal (youngest brother) Ngari Rinpoche.

Next day, when the brothers of the Dalai Lama came to visit us, our hostess at first concealed herself out of reverence and appeared only when the whole household had been mustered to greet them. The young Rimpoche, now five and twenty years old, had actually come from his monastery to see us. He laid his hand in blessing on each member of the household. He was the first Incarnated Lama whom we came to know. People are accustomed to think of all Tibetan monks as Lamas. In fact this name is only given to “Incarnations,” and a few other monks distinguished by their ascetic lives or the miracles they have performed. All Lamas have the right to give their blessing and are revered as saints.



* For the “recognition” of the Dalai Lama see Chapter 16.
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