A Wayfarer in China/Chapter 6
TACHIENLU is surely sui generis; there can be no other town quite like it. Situated eight thousand four hundred feet above the sea, it seems to lie at the bottom of a well, the surrounding snow-capped mountains towering perhaps fifteen thousand feet in the air above the little town which, small as it is, has hardly room to stand, while outside the wall there is scarcely a foot of level ground. It is wedged into the angle where three valleys come together, the Tar and the Chen rivers meeting just below the town to form the Tarchendo, and our first view of the place as we turned the cliff corner that here bars the gorge, was very striking, grey walls and curly roofs standing out sharply from the flanking hillsides.
Within the walls of Tachienlu, China and Tibet meet. As we made our way through the long, dirty main street, here running parallel with the Tar which comes tumbling down from the snow-fields of the Tibetan range, I was struck at once by the varied aspect of the people. The dense crowd that surged through the streets, some on horseback and some on foot, was more Tibetan than Chinese, but the faces that peered out from the shops were unmistakably of the Middle Kingdom. Groups of fierce-looking fellows, clad in skins and felt, strode boldly along, their dark faces bearing indelible marks of the hard, wild life of the Great Plateau. Many of them carried weapons of some sort, for the Chinese have scorned to disarm them. Among them walked impassively the blue-gowned men of the ruling race, fairer, smaller, feebler, and yet undoubtedly master. It was the triumph of the organizing mind over the brute force of the lower animal. Almost one man in five was a red-robed lama, no cleaner in dress nor more intelligent in face than the rest, and above the din of the crowd and the rush of the river rose incessantly weird chanting and the long-drawn wail of horns from the temples scattered about the town. Lamaism has Tachienlu in its grip, and I could have fancied myself back in Himis lamassery, thousands of miles away on the western frontier of Tibet. It was an extraordinarily picturesque scene, full of life and sound and colour.
Marco Polo described the territory lying west of Ya-chou as "Thibeth," and a century ago the Chinese frontier stopped at Tachienlu, but to-day Batang, a hundred and twenty-five miles to the west as the crow flies, is the western limit of Szechuan. In actual fact, however, direct administration by the Chinese stops at the Ta Tu, on the right bank of the river the people being governed by their tribal chiefs.
Between Tachienlu and Lhasa lie many hundred miles of barren, windswept plateaus and perilous mountain passes. There are, I believe, at least ten of these passes higher than Mont Blanc. Connection between the two places is over one of the most difficult mountain roads in the world, yet it was by this route that the Chinese finally conquered Tibet in the eighteenth century, and to-day most of the trade goes the same way. Those who deny the Chinese all soldierly qualities must have forgotten their achievements against the Tibetans, let alone the still more extraordinary military feat of their victory over the Gurkhas of Nepal, when a force of seventy thousand men of the Middle Kingdom crossed the whole width of the most inaccessible country in the world, and, fighting at a distance of two thousand miles from their base, defeated the crack warriors of the East.
The China Inland Mission has a station at Tachienlu, but to my disappointment the two missionaries were away at the time of my visit, and although their Chinese helpers made me welcome, providing a place for me in one of the buildings of the mission compound, I felt it a real loss not to talk with men who would have had so much of interest to tell. Moreover, I had been looking forward to meeting my own kind once more after two weeks of Chinese society. Fortunately another traveller turned up in Tachienlu about the time I did, an English officer of the Indian army, returning to duty by a roundabout route after two years' leave at home. As he too was installed in the mission compound we soon discovered each other, and I had the pleasure of some interesting talk, and of really dining again. Eating alone in a smelly Chinese inn cannot by any stretch be called dining. I found that Captain Bailey had gone with the Younghusband expedition to Lhasa, and was now on his way to Batang with the hope of being able to cross Tibet from the Chinese side. We had an enjoyable evening comparing experiences. I was impressed, as often before, by the comfort a man manages to secure for himself when travelling. If absolutely necessary, he will get down to the bare bones of living, but ordinarily the woman, if she has made up her mind to rough it, is far more indifferent to soft lying and high living, especially the latter, than the man. One thing I had, however, that Captain Bailey lacked,—a dog,—and I think he rather envied me my four-footed companion. I know I begrudged him his further adventure into the wilds beyond Tachienlu. Months later I learned that although he did not reach Lhasa as he had hoped to do, his explorations in the little-known region between Assam and Tibet and China had won him much fame and the Gill Medal awarded by the Royal Geographical Society.
Thanks to Captain Bailey I suffered no inconvenience from the absence of the missionaries on whom I had relied for help in getting a cheque cashed, as he kindly introduced me to the postmaster, to whom he had brought a letter from the English post-commissioner at Chengtu, and this official most courteously gave me all the money I needed for the next stage of my journey. The Imperial Post-Office was in 1911 still under the same management as the customs service, and was marked by the same efficiency. All over China it had spread a network of post-routes, and by this time, unless the Revolution has upset things, as it probably has, there should be a regular mail service between Tachienlu and Batang and Lhasa. To be sure, the arrangements at Tachienlu were rather primitive, but the surprising thing was that there should be any post-office at all. When I went for my letters the morning after I arrived, I was shown a large heap of stuff on the floor of the little office, and the interpreter and I spent a good half-hour disentangling my things from the dusty pile, most of which was apparently for members of the large French mission in Tachienlu. I was sorry not to have a chance to meet representatives of the mission, which has been established for a long time, and works, I believe, among both Tibetans and Chinese, the Protestants confining themselves to the Chinese community. Nor was I more successful in learning about the Protestant work, owing to the absence of the missionaries on a journey to Batang. But I was greatly impressed by the truly beautiful face and dignified bearing of a native pastor who called upon me at my lodgings. Fine, serene, pure of countenance, he might have posed for a Buddha or a Chinese St. John. In my limited experience of the Chinese, the men who stand out from their fellows for beauty of expression and attractiveness of manner are two or three Christians of the better class. Naturally fine-featured and of dignified presence, the touch of the Christian faith seems to have transformed the supercilious impassiveness of their class into a serenity full of charm. It is a pity that it is not more often so, but the zeal of the West mars as well as mends, and in imparting Western beliefs and Western learning carelessly and needlessly destroys Eastern ideals of conduct and manner, often more reasonable and more attractive than our own. The complacent cocksureness of the Occidental attitude toward Oriental ways and standards has little to rest on. We have reviled the people of the East in the past for their unwillingness to admit that there was anything we could teach them, and they are amending their ways, but we have shown and show still a stupidity quite equal to theirs in our refusal to learn of them. Take, for example, the small matter of manners,—if it be a small matter. More than one teacher in America has confessed the value of the object lesson in good breeding given by the chance student from the East, but how few Westerners in China show any desire to pattern after the dignified, courteous bearing of the Chinese gentleman. I have met bad manners in the Flowery Kingdom, but not among the natives.
It had been a long, hard pull from Ning-yũan-fu; two weeks' continuous travelling is a tax upon every one, but at no place had we found comfortable quarters for the whole of the party, and as the men preferred to push on, I was not inclined to object. But usually a seventh-day rest is very acceptable to them; so we were all glad for a little breathing-space in Tachienlu. The servants and coolies spent the first day in a general tidying-up, getting a shave, face and head, and having their queues washed and combed and replaited. Some also made themselves fine in new clothes, but others were content to wash the old. As none of them, with the exception of the fu t'ou, had ever been in Tachienlu before, they were as keen to see the sights as I was, and in my rambles about the town the next two or three days, I was greeted at every turn by my coolies, enjoying to the full their hard-earned holiday.
There was less to see of interest in Tachienlu than I had expected. The shops are filled mainly with ordinary Chinese wares, and my efforts to find some Tibetan curios were fruitless, those shown to me being of little value. I imagine it is a matter of chance if one secures anything really worth while. At any rate, neither the quaint teapots nor the hand praying wheels that I was seeking were forthcoming. Nor could I find any decent leopard skins, which a short time ago formed an important article of commerce, so plentiful were they. But at least I had the fun of bartering with the people, whom I found much the most interesting thing in Tachienlu, and thanks to the indifference or the politeness of the Tibetan I was able to wander about freely without being dogged by a throng of men and boys. Chinese soldiers were much in evidence, for this is naturally an important military post as well as the forwarding depot for the troops stationed along the great western trade route to Batang and Lhasa. The Chinese population under their protection, numbering some four hundred families, mostly traders, looked sleek and prosperous. Evidently they made a good living off the country, unlike the Tibetans who were generally dirty and ragged and poor in appearance. I must confess that I was disappointed at the latter. In spite of their hardy, muscular aspect and bold bearing, I did not find them attractive as do most travellers. They lacked the grotesque jollity of the Ladakhis of Western Tibet, their cousins in creed and race, and I met nothing of the manly friendliness which marked the people of Mongolia whom I had to do with later. Never have I seen men of more vicious expression than some I met in my strolls about Tachienlu, and I could well believe the stories told of the ferocity shown by the lamas along the frontier. Very likely the people are better than their priests, but if so, their looks belie them. There is rarely a man—or a people—so low as to lack a defender, and it is a pleasing side to the white man's rule in the East, that if he be half a man he is likely to stand up for the weak folk he governs. It may be due to pride of ownership, or it may be the result of a knowledge born of intimate acquaintance, but whatever the cause, no race is quite without champions in the white man's congress. Captain Bailey who had had long experience of the Tibetans in administrative work on the northeastern borderland of India, was no exception, and he defended them vigorously. I had no knowledge to set against his, but when he declared that they were a clean people it seemed to me he was stretching a point, for I should have thought their dirt was as undeniable as it was excusable in the burning sun or biting cold of their high plateaus.
Practically all the traffic between China and its great western dependency passes through Tachienlu, and the little town is full of bustle and stir. From Tibet are brought skins and wool and gold and musk, to be exchanged here for tobacco and cloth and miscellaneous articles, but tea, of course, forms the great article of trade, the quantity sent from Tachienlu annually amounting to more than twelve million pounds. Conspicuous in the town are the great warehouses where the tea is stored, awaiting sale, and there are numerous Tibetan establishments where it is repacked for the animal carriage which here replaces the carrier coolies from the east. Among the Chinese the trade is mostly in the hands of a few great merchants who deal with the women representatives of the Tibetan priesthood who practically monopolize the sale in their country, deriving a large income from the high prices they charge the poor people to whom tea is a necessity of life.
When I grew weary of the confusion and dirt of the narrow streets I was glad to escape to the hillside above my lodgings. The mission compound is small and confined, affording no room for a garden, although fine masses of iris growing along the walls brightened up the severity of the grey stone buildings; but a little climb behind the mission house brought me to a peaceful nook whence I could get a glorious view over the town and up and down the valley, here so narrow that it seemed possible to throw a stone against the opposite hillside.
The first fine morning after my arrival I made an early start for the summer palace of the King of Chala, situated about eight miles from Tachienlu in a beautiful, lonely valley among the mountains. This is the favourite camping-place of Chengtu missionaries, who now and then brave the eleven days' journey to and fro to exchange their hothouse climate for a brief holiday in the glorious scenery and fine air of these health-giving uplands. We were mounted, the interpreter and I, on ponies provided by the Yamen, one worse than the other, and both unfit for the rough scramble. After traversing the town, first on one side and then on the other of the river which we crossed by a picturesque wooden bridge, roofed in but with open sides, we passed out at the South Gate— Tachienlu has no West Gate—and found ourselves in a small suburb with a few meagre gardens. A mile farther along we crossed the river again by a striking single arch bridge, known as the "Gate of Tibet." We were now on the great trade route to Lhasa, but between us and the mysterious city lay many days of weary travel.
From time to time we met groups of Tibetans, men and women, rough-looking and shy, with the shyness of a wild animal. Generally after a moment's pause to reassure themselves, they answered my greeting in jolly fashion, seeming quite ready to make friends. Occasionally the way was blocked by trains of ox-like yaks, the burden-bearers of the snow-fields, bringing their loads of skins and felt and musk and gold. Astride of one was a nice old man who stuck out his tongue at me in polite Tibetan fashion.
After an hour's ride we left the highway and turned into a beautiful green valley, following a very bad trail deeper and deeper into the mountains, the soft meadows gay with flowers forming a charming contrast to the snow-peaks that barred the upper end of the valley. We came first to the New Palace, a large rambling building having no more architectural pretensions than an ordinary Chinese inn. As the king's brother, who makes his home there, was away, I saw nothing more of the place than the great
A mile farther up the valley we came to the Old Palace, a collection of hovels banked with piles of manure. Far more attractive than the royal residence were some tents not far off, where a band of Tibetans, retainers of the prince, were encamped. They came out to greet us in friendly fashion, pointing out a blind trail up the valley where we could get better views of the snow-peaks; but we had to turn back, sorry though I was to leave the spot, parklike in its beauty of forest and meadow, a veritable oasis in a wilderness of rock and ice. It was more like home than anything I had seen in West China, for there were stretches of fine, grassy meadows where the royal herds of cattle were grazing, and all at once I realized that it was weeks since I had seen a field of grass or real cows. It is the great lack in this country. Pigs abound, and fowls, but there is no place for cattle, and the horses live on beans and corn, or more likely on leaves and twigs.
Priest-ridden Tachienlu boasts many temples and lamasseries, and the last day of my stay I paid a visit to one of the largest, not far from the South Gate. It was a wide, rambling, wooden building standing near a grove of unusually fine trees, a sort of alder. The approach was not unattractive, flowers growing under the walls and about the entrance. Once inside the portal, we found ourselves in a large courtyard paved with stone and surrounded by two-story galleried buildings. Facing us was the temple, scarcely more imposing in outward appearance than the others. On one side a group of half-naked lamas were gathered about an older man who seemed to be relating or expounding something, whether gossip or doctrine I could not tell, but I should judge the former from their expressions. They paid little attention to us, nor did others strolling about the yard, but the big dogs roaming loose were not backward in their greeting, although to my surprise they did not seem at all ferocious, and treated my imperturbable little dog with distant respect. Earlier travellers recount unpleasant experiences, but perhaps the lamas have learned better in late years, and fasten up their dangerous dogs if visitors are expected. Afterwards I saw in another inner courtyard a large, heavy-browed brute adorned with a bright red frill and securely chained. He looked savage, and could have given a good account of himself in any fight.
While I was waiting for permission to enter the temple, I inspected the stuffed animals—dogs, calves, leopards—suspended on the verandah. They were fast going to decay from dust and moth, but I was told that they were reputed sacred. The temple, which we were forced to enter from a side door, was large and high, hung with scrolls and banners and filled with images, but it was so dark that I found it difficult to discern much save a good-sized figure of Buddha, not badly done.
At the invitation of an old lama, a friend of our guide, I was invited to a large, disorderly dining—or living—hall on the upper floor, where we were very courteously served with tea, Chinese fashion. The old man had a rather nice face, and I tried to learn a little about the place, but conversation through two Chinese intermediaries, one speaking imperfect English and the other bad Tibetan, was not very satisfactory, and I soon gave up the attempt. I did succeed, however, in making the lama understand my wish to hire some one to cut for me a praying-stone, to which he replied that there were plenty outside, why did I not take one of them? I had thought of that myself, but feared to raise a storm about my ears. Now, acting on his advice, I made a choice at my leisure and no one objected. Under the double restraint of an unusually strong prince, backed by Chinese officials, the priests of Tachienlu are less truculent than farther west, but at best Lamaism rests with a heavy hand upon the Tibetans; it is greedy and repulsive in aspect and brutalizing in its effects; wholly unlike the gentle, even though ignorant and superstitious, Buddhism of China.