In the Forbidden Land/Chapter XXXII

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"Devil's Camp"—A fierce snowstorm—Abandoning our tents—Dangers and perils in prospect—Collecting the men—One load too many!—Another man wanted and found—A propitious night—Good-bye to Wilson—The escape—Brigands.

BY eight o'clock in the evening I had collected all the men who had promised to follow me. They comprised my bearer, Kachi and six coolies.

We named this camp "Devil's Camp," for diabolical indeed was the wind that shook our tents, not to speak of the snow blown into our shelters by the raging storm. During the night the wind grew in fury. Neither wood, dung, nor lichen for fuel was to be found. Our tents were pitched at 16,900 feet above sea-level, and to ascend to the summit of the range would mean a further climb of two thousand feet. In such weather the difficulties of the ascent were increased tenfold, though for evading the vigilance of the Tibetan watchmen, who spied upon our movements, we could have no better chance than a dirty night like this. I arranged with the doctor that he was to take back to Garbyang all the baggage I had discarded and the men who had declined to follow me. He must display all our tents until late in the afternoon of the next day, so as to let the Tibetans suppose that we were all under them, and give me time to make a long forced march before they could get on our track. Hard as it would be for us going forward, we would take no tent except the small tente d'abri, weighing about four pounds. We should anyhow be unable to pitch one for several days, for fear of being detected by the Tibetans, who would be soon seen abroad in search of us. We should have to march long distances at night, keeping mostly on the summit of the range, instead of proceeding, like other travellers, along the valleys, and we must get what little sleep we could during the day, when we could hide in some secluded spot. The thought of seeing a fire had to be abandoned for an indefinite period, because, even in the remote contingency of our finding fuel at the great altitudes where we should have to camp, every one knows that a fire and a column of smoke can be seen at a very great distance, both by day and night. We pondered and discussed all these matters before we made a start, and, moreover, we were fully aware that, if the Tibetans could once lay their hands upon us, our numbers were too small to offer a stout resistance, and we might well give ourselves up for lost. In fact, taking things all round, I rather doubted whether the lives of my few followers and my own were worth more than a song from the moment of our leaving "Devils' Camp."

With this full knowledge of what we were undertaking, we may have been foolish in starting at all, but lack of determination cannot in fairness be credited as one of our faults.

The thoughtful doctor had brought with him from our last camp a few lichens, with which he was now attempting to light a fire, to cook me some chapatis before leaving. Alas! four hours' hard work, and an equal number of boxes of matches, failed to produce the semblance of a flame.

At midnight I sent Chanden Sing and Kachi to collect the men. Two came trembling into the tent; the others could not be roused. I went myself and took them, one by one, to their loads. They were all crying like children. It was then that I discovered that in the haste and confusion I had made one load too many. Here was a dilemma! Everything was ready and propitious for our flight, and a delay at this juncture was fatal. At any cost, I must have another man.

The moans and groans in the coolies' tent, when I went in search of one, were pitiful. You would have thought that they were all going to die within a few minutes, and that they were now in their last agonies, all because of the terror of being picked out to follow me.

At last, after endless trouble, threats and promises, Bijesing the Johari was persuaded to come. But the load was too heavy for him; he would only carry half. To save trouble, I agreed I would carry the other half myself in addition to my own load.

We put out our hurricane lantern, and at 2 A.M., when the gale was raging at its height, driving the grit and snow like spikes into our faces; when the wind and cold seemed to penetrate with biting force to the marrow of our bones, when, as it seemed, all the gods were giving vent to their anger by putting every obstacle in our way, a handful of silent men, half frozen and staggering, left the camp to face the blizzard. I ordered my men to keep close together, and we made immediately for the mountain side, taking care to avoid the places where we supposed the Tibetan spies were posted.

We could not have selected a more suitable night for our escape. It was so dark that we could only see a few inches in front of our noses. The doctor, silent and with a swelling heart, accompanied me for a couple of hundred yards. I urged him to return to the tent. He stopped to grasp my hand, and in a broken voice the good man bade me farewell and God-speed.

"The dangers of your journey," whispered Wilson, "are so great and so numerous that God alone can guide you through. When I think of the cold, hunger and hardships you will have to endure, I can but tremble for you."

"Good-bye, doctor," said I, deeply moved.

"Good-bye," he repeated, "good——" and his voice failed him.

Two or three steps and the darkness separated us, but his touching words of farewell rang and echoed in my ears, as with sadness I remembered the loyalty and cheerful kindness of this good friend. The journey towards Lhassa had recommenced in grim earnest. In a short while our ears, fingers, and toes were almost frozen, and the fast driving snow beat mercilessly against our faces, making our eyes ache. We proceeded like so many blind people, speechless and exhausted, rising slowly higher on the mountain range, and feeling our way with our feet. As we reached greater altitudes it grew still colder, and the wind became more piercing. Every few minutes we were compelled to halt and sit close together in order to keep warm and get breath, as the air was so rarefied that we could barely proceed under our heavy loads.

We heard a whistle, and sounds like distant voices. My men collected round me, whispered, "Dakus, dakus!" ("Brigands, brigands!"), and then threw themselves flat on the snow. I loaded my rifle and went ahead, but it was vain to hope to pierce the obscurity. I listened. Yet another shrill whistle!

My Shokas were terrified. The sound seemed to come from straight in front of us. We slightly altered our course, winning our way upward slowly and steadily, until we found at sunrise we were near the mountain top. It was still snowing hard. One final effort brought us to the plateau on the summit.

Here we felt comparatively safe. Thoroughly exhausted, we deposited our burdens on the snow, and laid ourselves down in a row close to one another to keep ourselves warm, piling on the top of us all the blankets available.