Sikhim and Bhutan/Chapter 16

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From Gangtak viâ Dewangiri to Tashigong and Tashi-yangtsi, and on to Tsekang. Horse-flies. Dorunga. Cypripedium Fairianum. Sudden rise of the river. Tigers near the camp. Chungkhar. Borshang iron-mines. Tashigong. Stick lac cultivation. Suspension bridges. Source of the Dongma-chhu. Tashi-yangtsi. Prayer-wheels. Old roads. Chorten Kara. New flowering trees.

For some years I had been extremely anxious to explore Eastern Bhutan and its neighbouring portion of Tibet, but it was not until May 1906 that circumstances enabled me to make arrangements to do so, and I left Gangtak accompanied by Mr. Dover, the State engineer. To reach Dewangiri, the point from which I intended to enter Bhutan, I had to travel to Siliguri, thence by rail to Dhubri, and on by steamer up the Brahmaputra to Gauhati, in Assam, and from thence march to the hills. I had a good deal of camp kit in addition to my personal baggage and riding-mules with me, and on reaching Gauhati preliminary arrangements took some time. Marching at the foot of the hills at this time of the year was very trying; mosquitoes swarmed at night, and the incessant croaking of frogs kept one awake; while worst of all was the plague of horse-flies, which attacked the mules, oxen, and elephants unmercifully. They were literally in swarms, and the sides of the elephants, streamed with blood from their attacks.

A little place called Dorunga lies at the foot of the hills, and is used as a temporary mart in the cold weather, but at this time of the year it is merely a collection of deserted thatched huts in the midst of a sea of grass, and by no means healthy, so instead of halting there I pushed on up the hills, beyond the fever zone. I had visited Dorunga a few months before in the cold weather, in the company of Sir Ugyen Wang-chuk, the Tongsa Penlop, and it had then presented a very different aspect. The place was full of bustle and movement and alive with traders from the hills, a striking contrast to its present appearance. On that occasion I entered the hills a little further to the west, at Subankhata, and accompanied Sir Ugyen for a few marches till we came to the Kuru-chhu, on the direct road to Tongsa. On this journey I came across quantities of Cypripedium Fairianum growing in masses on the magnesium limestone hills. This is the orchid of which one specimen reached England about 1860 in a consignment sent from Sikhim by Sir Joseph Hooker, but had since become extinct, and for which £1000 was offered by orchid-growers. I had been on the look-out for it for several years, and now when I did find it I was just too late, as it had been discovered during the survey of the Am-mo-chhu Valley a few months before.

At Dorunga I had a great deal of difficulty about carriage, as no arrangements had been made beforehand and I could get no coolies; however, I had four elephants, and with them and another elephant I found belonging to one of the tea-gardens, and which I impressed into my service, I started the most necessary baggage up the track to Dewangiri, leaving the remainder in charge of the Havildar till I could make arrangements from Dewangiri. Transport difficulties were augmented by the arrival of tools for road-making lent to the Tongsa by the Government of Assam, and as the store-keeper had made no arrangements for forwarding them I was obliged to take them with me. The road we had to follow was nothing but a track running up the bed of the stream, and quite impassable during the rains. Before I had gone very far—about two miles, perhaps—I came across various articles of baggage lying in the road, and soon found that one of the elephants had bolted and strewn the road with impedimenta. A little further on I overtook the other three elephants, and the mahouts entered into a lengthy explanation that one elephant would not go without its companions, and that in order to reload the delinquent they must all go back, and then return in one party, so I had to allow them to do as they liked, and hope they might somehow reach their destination. So much for the pleasure of elephant transport.

I pushed on ahead, and it was lucky I did so, as a severe thunderstorm came on, and the river rose to such an extent the coolies were unable to cross, and had to spend the night in the jungle on the banks, while my mule was very nearly carried off its feet by the torrent of reddish-yellow mud and water. The river rose with extraordinary rapidity, coming down in regular waves of red mud. I rode on in pouring rain to Dewangiri, and was lucky to find a good hut, which had been built in expectation of the Tongsa’s arrival earlier in the year, and as my orderly had kept up with me, carrying a bag, I was able to change into dry clothes in front of a good fire, and was none the worse for my adventure. Want of carriage kept me at Dewangiri for a day or two, and the first morning, on getting up, news was brought that one of the baggage mules was missing, and had been carried off by a tiger during the night. I went out and found that the carcase had been dragged at least 600 yards along a path through the dense jungle and then straight down the khud to the spot where I found it. Later in the day the remains of a sambur were brought in by a mahout, also killed by a tiger about half a mile from the camp, so tigers must be very plentiful just there, and sport ought to be good; but the jungle is very dense and game difficult to get at, and the hillsides are very steep, and in many places quite inaccessible. I had a machan put up, and waited for some hours in hopes that the tiger might return, but he did not do so, at any rate before dark, and I was not inclined to wait longer for him.

From Dewangiri I moved on to Rading, and for a short distance followed a path which had been made up the left bank of the Tsokhi river; but it was a hopeless track, without any attempt at alignment, and with such steep gradients over the rocks no animals could possibly use it. At Rading I was met by the Tongsa Jongpen, whom I had met when in Bhutan with Sir Ugyen in the spring. In the morning, after a very early start, I passed the large monastery of Yong-la, near the crest of the ridge, at about 7700 feet. It was very well situated, looking out over the plains, but I did not visit it, as to do so would have taken me five or six miles out of my way. The road here was good and rideable, and brought me to Chungkhar, the residence of the Jongpen, at an elevation of 6475 feet. Going down the hills from the pass the woods were full of a pretty ground orchid, and there was some very fine timber. At Chungkhar I found a good camping-ground, with extensive views, and the snows in the distance, due north. The Jongpen was living in a temporary hut, as his house had been demolished by the earthquake of 1897, and although his new residence had been commenced it was not yet finished. He had prepared some small huts for us, which we found most comfortable and cool, and used in preference to our tents.

Sikhim and Bhutan - Bhutanese Houses.jpg


The mules sent by the Tongsa now arrived, the delay having been caused by the destruction of the Dongma-chhu bridge on account of an outbreak of small-pox. That is the primitive method in Bhutan of checking the disease. The wrought-iron chains of the bridge are left, but the cane roadway is cut away to prevent communication from one side to the other. I had heard of the outbreak before starting, and had brought a vaccinator with me, who set to work at once and vaccinated over a hundred people in the camp. All the villagers seemed glad to be vaccinated, and men, women, and children came in willingly. I also had my mules and ponies re-shod, and this afforded some amusement as well as instruction to the villagers, who had never seen the operation before, and after it was done they crowded round to examine the animals’ hoofs. There were a number of small boys smoking cigarettes, which shows that the latest vice has penetrated even into these wilds.

On leaving Chungkhar my road led straight down the hill to the Chalari-chhu, and another few hundred yards brought me to the Demri-chhu (2455 feet), where I found huts ready prepared; but it was still early, and would be exceedingly hot in the valley, so I decided to go on to Denchung, where I heard the Tashigong Jongpen was waiting.

It was a very hot ride from the Demri-chhu up the south-east face of the hill to Sari (4000 feet), on the ridge. Then the road fell again to the Tondong bridge (3000 feet), and then a very hot climb up a steep rock-face brought me to the camp at Denchung (4275 feet). The camp was a very good one, situated in the middle of woods of oak, pine, and rhododendron, with huts built for my reception and the Jongpen in waiting.

The next day’s march into Tashigong was much longer than I expected, and I was over twelve hours on the road. From the first ridge I could see the famous iron-mines of Borshang, situated in a fine valley, fairly well cultivated. The ore is reported to be both red and black and easy of extraction, and it is from this mine that the iron comes from which chains are made for the bridges in this part of Bhutan. If I had only known of this a little earlier I should have paid the mines a visit, and have no doubt I should have been well rewarded for the trouble, but it was too late to do so then.

The road took me over the Yuto-la (8300 feet), and was so narrow in many places—sometimes only six to nine inches wide—and on such a very steep hillside, that I walked most of the way in preference to riding even my sure-footed mule. The alignment, however, was good, and just below the Yuto-la, to the north, there were some fine downs and very good views; but these grassy uplands were infested by ticks, and it was necessary to stop frequently to pick them off the dogs, for they absolutely swarmed in hundreds, and even occasionally attacked us.

A lama who came to pay his respects proved to be unusually intelligent, and gave me a good deal of information regarding routes, &c. From the Yuto-la the road led for some way through oak and rhododendron woods, until the village of Rungthung was passed, when the last five miles wound along a bare, steep hill-slope, and I was glad to get to my destination. The latter part of the march was very hot, and the only shade to be found was behind an occasional chorten, where I sat down and drank quantities of murwa sent by the Tongsa; but the full force of the afternoon sun was very trying. At the Jong I was met by the Jongpen. The usual form of touching a wand was gone through, and I was installed in his own room.

The Jong at Tashigong is particularly well situated on a ridge between two rivers, the Dongma-chhu and the Gamdi-chhu, and is constructed after the Bhutanese fashion, with courtyards and citadels. It has a fine temple, with an unusually large pair of tusks supporting the altar, and fittings in excellent metalwork. I was lodged in the Jongpen’s own room, facing south. It was a fine, lofty room, but there was a peculiarly pungent and disagreeable smell, which I discovered came from stores of dried mutton and rancid butter kept under the floor. I asked the Jongpen to remove them, and when he had done so the surroundings were quite pleasant, as the room itself was perfectly clean. He had the skins of some very fine tigers, which he told me had been shot during the last cold weather, and that every year several tigers come up the valley and work havoc amongst the cattle, so large rewards are given for their destruction.

With regard to the geological features of the journey, as far as the Yuto-la the strata were all quartzites, but after that mica-schist was met with in small quantities.

It was a dreadfully hot camp, but my baggage had not come up, so I was obliged to halt. I started my vaccinator at work early, and before evening he had vaccinated over two hundred people, who all seemed very pleased, and flocked in for the operation. I had sent the Tongsa a consignment of lymph from Gangtak, as he wished to introduce vaccination throughout Bhutan, and his operator met us here to be instructed what to do.

From Tashigong a road runs to the small Tibetan State of Tawang, first crossing the river Gamdi-chhu, then passing over a very steep spur, and thence to the Tawang-chhu. The Tawang-Bhutan boundary is three days’ march up the stream, at a place called Dong Shima, situated a little below the bridge by which the road crosses the river. The greater part of the trade from Tawang, which is, comparatively speaking, large, already comes by this route to the plains, and as soon as the Tongsa, as he hopes to do, makes a really good mule-track it will all follow this route to Dewangiri, and as the valleys are well populated and cultivated it is likely to increase rapidly.

There is a great deal of stick lac grown in the valley of Tashigong, but the Bhutanese do not carry on its cultivation in any systematic manner, which seems a pity, as if placed under proper supervision the industry might have a great future before it. Its culture is unusual, quite an interesting process, and only occasionally to be met with. Lac is an insect growth, and is cultivated on two distinct plants. Small pieces of lac containing colonies of the insect are placed on the stem of a shrub called Gyatso-bukshing in the autumn, and this plant is regularly cultivated and planted in rows in fields on the hillsides. In the spring these growths, which have meanwhile spread a few inches over the stem of the plant, are cut off and placed on the branches of a tree called Gyatso-shing. On these trees during the summer it spreads rapidly over all the branches, and the crop is gathered in the autumn. With the present want of system there are no plantations for the purpose, and the cultivator has to depend on any trees he may find growing wild in the jungles, which is, of course, a hopeless method, whereas if proper plantations were made it would facilitate not only the collection and save time and labour, but also increase the output. It is a paying crop, but can only be grown in these hot, dry valleys.

It was my original intention to follow the route viâ Tawang and the Dozam-la to Lhakhang, but the Government of India did not wish me to enter that part of Tibet. I therefore had to abandon it and go round by a longer and more difficult route. Another route, the direct one, along a road running from Tashigong along the right bank of the river, and said to be fit for mules and ponies, is a very easy one, and by it I could, I believe, have reached Lhakhang in five or six days; but this also took me into prohibited country, and had to be abandoned.

From Tashigong a very steep descent of about 1100 feet took us down to the iron suspension bridge over the Dongma-chhu. These suspension bridges in Bhutan are very interesting, and merit description. They consist of four or five chains of wrought iron, made of welded links, each fifteen to eighteen inches in length. The three lower chains are tightened up to one level, and on them a bamboo or plank roadway is placed. The remaining chains, hanging higher up and further apart, act as side supports, and between them and the roadway there is generally a latticework of bamboo, or sometimes grass, in order that animals crossing may not put their legs over the side. The roadway is never more than three or four feet wide. Many of the chains on these bridges are extremely old—many hundreds of years—and appear to be of Chinese workmanship. The links are in excellent order, and very little pitted with rust. The other and newer chain bridges have been made in Bhutan.

After crossing the ridge the road wound along the hillside some distance above the river till we came to a place called Gom Kora. Here there is a very curious little temple, with a prayer-wall completely surrounding a large stone, which has a curious water-worn hole through its centre. It is considered extremely holy, and to crawl into the small hole and out at the other side is an act of merit. Needless to say, that act of merit is not placed to my credit, though the more devout of my servants and followers performed it before being regaled by the Tomsha-Tungba.

A little further on the Dongma-chhu was left on the right, and the road, crossing the Kholung-chhu by a cantilever bridge, climbed a very steep ridge to the camp at Serpang (6450 feet). The Dongma-chhu is here a very large river, much bigger than the Kholung-chhu, and probably as big if not bigger than the Kuru-chhu, running swiftly and carrying much silt. It takes its rise in a range of snow-mountains a long way to the east, beyond Tawang. In this camp also people crowded to be vaccinated, and to be treated for various diseases. I did what I could, and Mr. Dover was indefatigable in dispensing medicines, but it would have made a very great difference if I had had a doctor with me.

The road on to Tashi-yangtsi wound round the side of the hill, covered with oak and rhododendron, and the march was very beautiful, though a short one. The Jong of Tashi-yangtsi (5900 feet) is situated on a sharp spur between the Kholung and Dongdi rivers, with a very pretty view looking up the valley. In the river, with its beautiful pools and numbers of fish, there ought to be some good fishing. It ran, in places, in deep, silent reaches, very rare in any Himalayan river, with the trees overhanging and dipping in the water, much more like a river in-Scotland, with a very gradual fall, and the water a beautiful blue colour. A feature of the march was the number of water-driven prayer-wheels, most of them in a state of picturesque decay, and only a few still in working order. For the benefit of my readers who are unacquainted with this practice, the following is a short description. A prayer-wheel consists of a hollow cylinder filled with written or printed prayers, and fixed to a perpendicular shaft of wood, to the lower end of which horizontal flappers are attached, against which water is directed from a shoot; the end is shod with iron, and revolves in an iron socket driven by the force of the stream. With each revolution the prayers are believed to be prayed for the benefit of the builder of that particular wheel, and count so much to his credit. They are very easily kept in order, but probably because only construction, and not preservation, is a work of merit in the Buddhist religion, no one seems to take the trouble to clear out the watercourses or to mend a broken flapper, and consequently most of them were at a standstill. It is a delightfully easy method of praying, and some enormous wheels have been erected. One at Lamteng, in the Lachen Valley, in Sikhim, contains no less than four tons of printed paper, and measures about 9 feet in height by 4½ feet in diameter; but these very large ones are seldom worked by water-power, and generally have a crank on the lever end of the shaft, which any one anxious to pray has only to turn, while a bell sounding automatically at each revolution records the number of prayers repeated. Every monastery throughout Sikhim has a row of prayer-wheels at the entrance to the temple, and as every true Buddhist passes he twirls each cylinder in turn with the ejaculation, “Om mani padmi hum.”

The road along which we were travelling had evidently at one time been well made and properly aligned, although it had been allowed to go out of repair. It must have been cut to four or five feet in width, and well graded also, but though all agreed that it had been made a very long time ago, no one could tell me when. My own opinion is that it was probably built by one of the old Rajas who once reigned in these valleys, and of whom some historical records remain in the manuscripts I found dealing with the reign of the Sindhu Raja of Pumthang, and have mentioned elsewhere. This march throughout was a great contrast to the last, as it was entirely through cultivated land, with small collections of houses, two or three together, not large enough to form villages. All the crops looked excellent, especially the wheat and barley; the country was thickly populated, and the inhabitants flourishing and well fed. I saw one iron-impregnated stream.

There is an easy and good trade route which runs from Tashi-yangtsi over the Ging-la to Donkhar, where it joins the route from Tashigong and Tawang and Tshona, and this is a good deal used by traders in the cold months. My shortest route was by a road branching off one day’s march up the valley, and running over the hills to Singhi-jong, but I was told it was very difficult and neither ponies nor mules could be taken over it, and also that snow was lying on the pass. In consequence of this report, I decided to proceed viâ the Dongo-la, and to branch off near Lhuntsi-jong and follow the valley leading from there to Singhi-jong, if I could not get up the valley of the Kuru-chhu. While at Tashi-yangtsi I visited Chorten Kara. It is a fine specimen, and is built partly on the lines of the big chorten at Khatmandu, but, like everything else, has its origin in an unknown past. Near the chorten there were some terraced paddy- and rice-fields of a fair size, on which ploughing and sowing were in full swing, and some large villages, and in spite of the clouds snow-capped hills appeared every now and then up the valley to the right.

The road on to Lhuntsi took me up a side valley through jungle the whole way, and I camped the first night at Wangtung (10,000 feet), at the level of silver pine, on a ground so cramped that I was obliged to cut several trees down to admit some light and air; and as it was also pouring with rain and very cold it was altogether miserable and uncomfortable. The morning broke very wet, but it cleared a little, enabling me to get to the top of the first pass, the Shalaptsa-la (12,000 feet), without rain. On the west side of the pass I crossed the head-waters of the Sheru-chhu, and going about half a mile further on a fairly level road, reached the Bogong-la, where I crossed the watershed of the Kuru-chhu. This double pass is known as the Dong-la. It rained hard whilst I was crossing the pass, and for some distance down the other side, where for some miles the road was as bad as it was possible to be. It then ran over some good downs, but ended in a dripping forest, with deep mud under foot the whole distance down to Singhi (6225 feet).

At Singhi I was met by the Jongpen, and stayed in a house built on a steep hillside, with some fine walnut-trees in front and a lovely view down the valley. I held a conference which lasted over two hours as to the best way to get to Lhakhang-jong, but it was very difficult to elicit any information, or even to get an answer to a simple question. I wanted to march up the Kuru-chhu, but found that would be impossible, as the season was too far advanced, and the temporary bridges, erected during the cold weather, had all been carried away by the early rains. After much discussion I learnt that there were tracks on both sides of the river, though both were reported bad and quite impassable for mules or ponies, the one viâ Singhi-jong as we should have to cross a glacier, and the other on account of precipitous rocks. It seemed rather hopeless, but I finally decided to try the Singhi-jong route on foot and to send my mules and ponies, as well as Sir Ugyen’s, along a road running from Singhi, on the left bank of the Kuru-chhu, to the Kuru Sampa, and round viâ Bya-gha-jong, from whence they would cross the Monla-Kachung-la and meet me at the Lhalung Monastery.

After a very wet night I got away in fairly fine weather, and went down a very steep descent to the Kuru-chhu (4100 feet), and then for some distance along the road on the left bank, over which the mules would go, but, owing to there being no bridge over the Khoma-chhu, I had to climb up and down an unnecessary 1400 feet. Leaving the Kuru-chhu, I branched off from Pemberton’s route, going north, while his led across the river and down its right bank; then, passing the village of Khoma, an exceedingly steep ascent brought me to Pangkha, where I lodged in the Angdu-phodang Donyer’s house.

From the village of Nyalamdung, on the way, I had a good view of Lhuntsi-jong, standing on the right bank of the Kuru-chhu. The Jong is, as usual, built on a fine spur between two rivers, and is a large fort with two towers, but I did not visit it, as it was at least six miles out of my way. The Jongpen was much disappointed that I would not stay some days with him, but I had news that the Tongsa had already started from Bya-gha to meet me at Lhakhang, and I did not wish to keep him waiting. All the same, it took me a couple of days to get my coolies together, as they had to carry food for five, or six days along with them. The Donyer’s house, in which I lodged, was perched on the side of a steep hill, and on leaving it one was obliged to go either straight up or straight down, so I remained a good deal indoors. Every square yard of ground round the village had been made the most of, and all of it was terraced, manured, and well cultivated, to get the best possible crop off it.

From Pangkha I crossed the Ye-la, a mere spur, and had to descend again 3000 feet to the Khoma-chhu, which I had left only a few days before. While on the descent I saw for the first time some very fine flowering trees called, in Bhutanese, Chape and Phetsi, which were very handsome. The blossom somewhat resembles a large tea-flower, and they bear an edible fruit, which is gathered in August. This is the only place where I have come across these trees, and I have no idea what they are.