Sikhim and Bhutan/Chapter 10

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Demarcation of the northern boundary between Sikhim and Tibet. Difficulties of transport. Mountain sickness. Survey work. Caught in a storm. Durkey Sirdar. Ovis ammon. Photographing the glaciers. A ride at 21,600 feet. Evidence of former size of the glaciers.

My exploration of the northern boundary between Sikhim and Tibet was undertaken in 1902 under very different circumstances to my other explorations. The object on this occasion was, under instructions from the Viceroy, to lay down the boundary between the two countries as defined by the Tibet Treaty of 1890.

I took with me an escort of the 8th Gurkhas under command of Captain Murray and Lieutenant Coleridge, with an officer in medical charge, and Major Iggulden accompanied me as Intelligence officer.

We left Gangtak on June 15. It was my first experience of entire dependence upon local resources for the transport of so large a body of men, as well as their rations and other impedimenta, and I had some difficulty to commence with, especially at Tumlong, where the populace is very scattered, in finding a sufficient number of men and animals, and I was obliged to halt to collect them. In addition, the weather was abominable, rain coming down in torrents and wetting the tents through and thereby enormously increasing their weight. But after a short delay I got everything off and followed myself the next day. Major Iggulden caught me up just before I reached the Samatek Bungalow, wet through, and we were very glad to get into its shelter and to dry our clothes. I continued to have difficulty with transport until we reached Lamteng in the Lachen Valley, where we could get yaks, and then my troubles ended. Travelling in these very sparsely populated valleys, where only coolie transport is available, has many difficulties when a large party has to be moved. Above Lamteng the road is much easier, the gradients are better and the hot steamy valleys are left behind. Yaks, if properly treated, make excellent beasts of burden and throughout the trip I had no difficulty with them; they even crossed almost inaccessible passes with remarkable ease, and it was quite wonderful to see them picking their way through ice and snow where it was difficult even for a man to find a foothold.

After spending some days at Thangu, where I left half the escort under Lieutenant Coleridge as a reserve, and after sending on ahead rations, firewood, &c., we started for the higher lands and camped the first night at Gochung at an elevation of about 14,500 feet. I have always found from 14,000 feet to 15,000 feet a critical height in climbing, and men often feel the effects more at this elevation than higher up; also if they do not feel the height then, they are unlikely to feel it much, even at very much higher elevations. Many of the escort fell out, suffering from mountain sickness and violent headaches, nothing would induce them to go on, and they were so bad next morning we were obliged to send them back. All these men were Nepalese hill men and ought not to have felt the height at all. After this weeding out, although I took several to an elevation of over 20,000 feet, and two of them to 21,600 feet, not a man fell out.

The next day we moved on to Giaogong, a point in the Lachen Valley lying within the boundary, and claimed by the Tibetans. According to the Sikhim-Tibet Treaty of 1890, the boundary between the two countries is defined as the watershed of the river Teesta and its tributaries, and as Giaogong lies some eight to nine miles south of the watershed, it was difficult to see on what grounds the Tibetans claimed it, and it was in order to settle the disputed question and to finally demarcate the boundary, as defined in the Treaty, that I had come.

My plan was to traverse personally the whole disputed line from east of the Donkia-la to the head of the Lonak Valley. This was not a very easy undertaking as in one place only did the line come as low as a pass of 17,700 feet, while all the other passes were very much higher. We found it possible to march along the boundary, from a point north of Panhunri to a point just north of Chomiomo, across rolling downs rising to 19,000 feet, but for the remaining distance it was only possible to reach the boundary at a few scattered points on high and very inaccessible passes. My explorations to ascertain exactly where the watershed—the proper boundary—actually lay, commenced from Giaogong.

From the camp I made for the west, for the ridge running north from Chomiomo, accompanied by Iggulden and Mr. Dover and a few Gurkha orderlies. We rode as far as we could and then had to dismount to negotiate a very steep climb before reaching the ridge. Before we had gone very far, Iggulden was attacked by such a severe mountain headache he was obliged to return to camp. I went on, and on reaching the ridge, turned south towards Chomiomo and eventually reached a height of 20,700 feet, where I was stopped by ice and snow and also by the advancing day from going further.

At this elevation I sat down and ate my lunch. It was a magnificent afternoon and the view over Tibet was glorious. Khamba-jong was distinctly visible and also the Everest Group. The power of the sun’s rays at this height and in the very clear atmosphere was extraordinary, and I have never before or since felt it in the same way. I was obliged to keep my hands in the shade of my sun helmet, for, though they are very hard, I could not stand the heat and was afraid of being blistered. But there is something very exhilarating in these high altitudes, the tremendous expanse of snow around gives a feeling of freedom not experienced at lower elevations, while there is always a fascination in arriving at a summit of a mountain, particularly when the unknown is on the other side. After sitting for some time drinking in the delightfully fresh atmosphere and admiring the view, we reluctantly started down the ridge on our return to camp by a somewhat roundabout way, but one which appeared a little easier. We had not gone far, however, before the weather changed, clouds came up and in a few minutes it began to snow with a light wind; this soon changed into a blizzard, and we had the greatest difficulty in reaching the camp, where we did not arrive till long after the dinner hour. It was a very nasty walk in the dark in the teeth of blinding snow over unknown country. Murray and Iggulden were getting anxious and thinking of sending out search parties, but they had no idea from which direction I would come. A change to dry clothes and some dinner was very acceptable.

Next morning everything was a sheet of snow, which luckily soon melted in the sun, but it had been a cold night for the sentries. I was expecting some of the Tibetan officials to come along the disputed boundary, and soon heard that they had arrived at the Sebu-la and were on the way to my camp. I was also informed that the Lhasa Government had sent as one of their representatives a man named Durkey Sirdar, a Darjeeling rascal, who had been obliged to fly to Tibet to escape the attentions of the police. The Tibetans gave as their reason for sending him that he “knew our ways.” Of course, I absolutely refused to have any dealings with the man, and gave orders he was not to be allowed to enter the camp, and told the Tibetans I could have no dealings with them until they sent a proper representative. I mention this incident to show the curious methods on which the Tibetans work. I have no doubt Durkey, who was a clever scoundrel, had impressed the very stupid Tibetan officials in Lhasa, but it was extraordinary they should believe that a man of his character, which they knew, would be accepted by us as their representative. Durkey held a minor post under the Tibetans in Yatung, and on my visits I had invariably refused to receive him, and our Government ought never to have allowed him to remain there.

From Giaogong I moved camp to Gyamtso-na, a lake about four miles up the valley. It was a very exposed and cold camp, but no better or more sheltered place was to be found. From this camp I surveyed the boundary from Chomiomo, working east. It was bitterly cold work for the native surveyors who had to take theodolite readings at elevations up to 20,000 feet. All the work had to be done by day, and during the day, and all day, the wind blew a small gale, it never stopped for a moment till the sun went down, and then mercifully we nearly always had quiet nights, but only to have the same howling wind next day. It commenced as early as eight o’clock and was never later than ten-thirty. It was a veritable curse, and I was often glad to lie down in some hollow or to crouch behind stones so as to be out of it even for a few minutes.

Murray stayed in camp with his escort, but Iggulden always came with me and we had some fine rides over the wind-swept heights. There was not much game to be seen, but we generally managed to get a Tibetan antelope or a brace of Tibetan sand-grouse, and occasionally we came across a solitary male kyang. They are pretty creatures, but shy when not in herds, and they generally made oh in a bee line for the plains in Tibet across the border.

On one of our rides we were lucky enough to come across some fine male ovis ammon. Iggulden saw them first up a side valley, so we divided, he going up one ravine and I up another. I had crawled most carefully for quite 1½ miles, seeing no signs of them, and was crouching behind a rock, having almost given them up, when suddenly the whole seven charged past me not thirty yards off. I knocked over two and hit a third, when my rifle jammed and I could do nothing except watch the remainder make off into Tibet. I only succeeded in picking up one of those I hit, where the other got to I never knew. A little later we came upon the flock of females, who were quite tame and did not mind us, but of course we left them alone.

I afterwards found that there were one or two flocks that remained permanently in the valley, and even in the summer, when the Tibetans drive their flocks of sheep up to these heights to graze, they do not leave.

What a flock of 1500 to 2000 sheep could find to eat in these parts was a marvel. Casually looking at the ground you would say there was no grass on it, but on close examination a few blades appeared. To watch the flock grazing on these few and scanty blades was a curious sight. The sheep literally run over the ground, those in front eating and those behind running on ahead to find an ungrazed spot. In spite of this, the sheep at this season fatten quickly and are excellent eating, which proves that the sparse pasturage provides a great deal of nourishment.

From this point almost the only habitation visible was the Nunnery of Ta-tshang which stood out against a limestone hill and across an apparently enormous plain. We often wished to visit it, but of course could not cross the boundary, though I subsequently did visit it when encamped at Khamba-jong with the Tibet Mission in 1903. That was a red-letter day to these poor creatures who live here always with not a single other habitation in sight. They are grossly ignorant, and live in absolute filth, but they are good-natured and the abbess has a good face. The photograph shows them wearing a curious woollen head-dress, as their own heads are shaved.

Sikhim and Bhutan - Nuns from Ta-tshang Nunnery.jpg


Our next camp, Yeum-tsho, was in a much more congenial spot, lying right behind Kangchenjhau and sheltered from the south-west monsoon and winds, and consequently dry. It was situated on a flat sandy plain with a river meandering through it and with many round pools, surrounded by rushes. It was an interesting camp-ducks of many varieties were breeding in these little pools, and the sandy plain was covered with larks’ nests, while the old moraine terraces were full of marmots and hares. There were also a good many foxes and I saw one wolf. Another day, climbing along a ridge of moraine about six miles from camp, I came across a Tibetan lynx with two cubs. I fired at the lynx, but missed it, and they all three got into inaccessible holes amongst the stones and I saw no more of them. It was a handsome animal and no doubt lived well on both the wild and tame sheep in the vicinity.

A round hill to the north above the camp was also the run of a flock of ovis ammon. The whole hill was lined with their tracks, and they would come out in the evenings and look down on the camp, but they were all females with not a head amongst them.

Our doctor was a hopeless individual, who hated being at this elevation and loathed the cold, and I could not induce him to do anything. He would not even attempt to collect plants, butterflies, birds or geological specimens—generally lay in bed until the bugle sounded for meals, when he turned up only to go to bed again till the next meal. It seemed a terrible waste of opportunities, and greatly to be deplored, that on an occasion like this a better selection could not have been made. Any number of keen young officers would have given a great deal to be allowed to accompany me, and would have thoroughly appreciated so unique an experience, and it seems extraordinary that such an officer was not sent.

While I was encamped here I received formal visits from the small Chinese official stationed at Giri, and also from the officials from Tashi Lhunpo, who came to pay their respects.

I again moved camp to near the Cholamo lakes, a more exposed position on account of the keen high wind blowing across the Donkia-la, but it was more convenient for my work. The Khamba Jongpen paid me a visit soon after my arrival.

I left the escort in this camp for a few days and moved with Iggulden, and very light loads, to a higher camp at an elevation of 18,600 feet. We pitched our tents on the lateral moraine above the magnificent glacier from which the river Teesta springs. This is one of the most beautiful glaciers I have ever seen, with its magnificent sweep down from the perpetual snows. It also shows the stratification of the ice most clearly almost the whole way down.

I waited for hours to get a good photograph, and in the end I was successful, although I was nearly frozen in the attempt. The wind swept down the glacier and was most bitterly cold and with it some light clouds kept blowing almost continuously across the glacier from a small gap on the left, and I had to wait for a clear moment. The result, however, repaid me for my trouble.

Next day Iggulden and I started out to climb a snow peak which looked like the watershed at the head of the valley. We rode our mules and got on well till we came to almost the last rise, when it became so steep we had to dismount. The mountain side was not only very steep, but a mass of loose rounded stones, and very difficult for the mules, so Iggulden left his behind. I, however, stuck to mine, and was able to ride up the last 500 or 600 yards, which were comparatively flat. The peak proved to be 21,600 feet high, and I fancy few people have ridden a mule at that elevation. The sun was terribly hot during our climb as we were ascending the southern face, and also there was a tremendous glare off a huge snow field coming down from Panhunri.

At some remote period, the whole valley, lying between us and Panhunri, must have been filled with ice, as by no other means could the hill opposite have been covered, as it is, with gneiss moraine débris, the mountain itself being shale.

All along these mountains there is everywhere evidence of the former enormous size of all these glaciers, both on the north and south. To the north, moraine débris is found fifteen to twenty miles within Tibet, and boulders of gneiss are found on limestone hills with nothing now but huge flat plains between them and the peaks of the Himalayas. To the south, along all the valleys, old lateral moraines extend for many miles and in many places are quite distinct, 1000 feet to 1500 feet above the present river level. It seems almost impossible to take in the fact that these valleys were once filled with ice, or to imagine what these mountains were like in former days, as the moraine débris now showing, would by itself form mountains as high as those we have in England without taking into account the enormous quantites of silt carried down by the rivers during these ages.

The rainfall in these parts is very heavy, and this very great alteration in the glaciers can, I suppose, only be accounted for by the gradual change of temperature, although theoretically, in accordance with the scientific opinion held by many authorities, that the Himalayas are still being elevated by the contraction of the earth’s surface, the mountains must in those days have been more massive if individual peaks were not higher. From this point we had a splendid view of the Bam-tsho and Yeum-tsho lakes, of which I had known for some years, but had not seen before, with Chomolhari in the background, standing up splendidly against the blue sky. The panorama of interminable ranges in Tibet was also very impressive, although gloomy, and I wished I could march into the then forbidden land.

The survey of this portion of the boundary finished, I returned to Thangu in order to reach the Lonak valley viâ the Nangna-la. It was a very roundabout, and very difficult route, and took several days longer than if I had gone direct to the Naku-la, crossing a small portion of Tibet, but as I was debarred from entering Tibet, I had to make the best of the bad track.

Sikhim and Bhutan - Lonak Valley.jpg


I reconnoitred the Nangna-la and found it deep in snow, with large snow cornices on the western side, where the snow lay deep to nearly the bottom of the valley. At the best of times the pass is a difhcult one, especially for yak transport, as the descent is over a succession of terraces which were covered with snow and exceedingly dangerous. At this time of year the snow was, of course, melting, and yaks cannot travel over soft snow. However, we were obliged to go on, and taking as many coolies as I could muster to help us, we set out. The ascent was comparatively easy, but soon our difficulties commenced. On reaching the pass, the snow cornices had to be cut away to make a passage for the yaks, and the soft snow on the west side had to be trampled down to enable them to go over it. It was a wonderful sight to see the loaded animals cleverly negotiate these huge steps, and they eventually got down, somewhat late, but with no mishap. It was a difficult climb even for a man, and in one place I came upon the doctor, very miserable, who had got himself into rather a tight corner, and with some trouble I got him out of his difficult position and down some rather nasty smooth, slippery rocks, when he cheered up a little.

We pitched our camp at Teble, again in a dry climate, but I did not remain long there, but moved on to Pashi which, lying further up the valley, was more convenient for survey work. While surveying and exploring the valley and its offshoots, I discovered many lakes of glacial origin, in one place a fine chain of five, called the Kora-tsho.

There were numbers of burhel (Ovis nahura) in this valley, but no ovis ammon, and very little else, with the exception of marmots, of which there were some large warrens, and a few duck and solitary snipe on the marshes, in the beds of the old partly silted-up lakes.

By this time I had again left behind me the undulating hills so characteristic of parts of Tibet and was again to the south of the main Himalayan range. The peaks in this part of the boundary are magnificent, and all the way up the valley of the Lungpo-chhu the scenery is splendid. To the north lies the chain of hills which bound Sikhim, and to the south the magnificent peak of Kangchenjunga, with the range running from it to the north, which, combined with the huge glaciers coming down on all sides makes up a splendid picture which is not easy to surpass in any other part of the world.

From my camp in the Lungpo-chhu I went up to the Chorten Nema-la, a difficult pass, but occasionally used by Tibetan graziers bringing their flocks and herds to graze in this valley. The southern side is a scree for some thousands of feet, and the northern is a glacier, and I should think a difficult one to climb. It was a very weird spot, and the pinnacles of bare rock starting out of the snow on the top of the pass gave it a very wild and most distinctive character.

One of my most interesting journeys from this camp was to the head of the valley. This I found filled by an enormous glacier which I suddenly came upon looming out of the mist, a sheer wall of perpendicular ice some forty to fifty feet high. I managed to climb this in one place, and went for some miles along the top, which was almost quite flat, but the weather was bad, and it commenced to snow, and I had to retrace my footsteps. Unfortunately I never had the time or opportunity to explore further up. Coming suddenly upon these glaciers on a misty day, they look very weird, standing out in ghostlike shapes, the stratification of the ice adding to their peculiar appearance. In sunlight they are quite different and look very beautiful, as the colouring in the ice is then seen to perfection. Once, while exploring down the glacier, I came upon the most beautiful sight I have ever seen. The glacier was cut up into a succession of huge ice waves and looked exactly like an angry sea suddenly frozen solid. The ice hummocks were in many places fifty to sixty feet high, and between them were the most enchanting ice lakes of an exquisite turquoise blue, while the colours in the surrounding ice varied, as the sun’s rays caught it, in all shades of deep blue, green, violet, and almost prismatic colours in places. Some of these little lakes might have been in fairy-land they were so lovely, and my photograph cannot do them justice, as it only produces the colour in shades of black and white.

Sikhim and Bhutan - Glacial Lake, Lonak Valley.jpg


As I could only demarcate certain accessible points on this part of the boundary, I soon finished my work and returned to Thangu, to find that Coleridge had been working hard during my absence on the road leading towards Nangna-la and had made quite a passable path. I only remained a few days in Thangu, just long enough to settle accounts and to pay the head men of the district for transport, &c., and then returned to Gangtak, having completed the object for which I had been sent on the expedition.