Sikhim and Bhutan/Chapter 17

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From Tsekang to Lhakhang-jong, Lhalung Monastery and Pho-mo-chang-thang Lake to Gyantse. Crossing the Bod-la between Bhutan and Tibet. Riding yaks. Welcome in Tibet. Meeting with Sir Ugyen. Wild gooseberries. Old gold-workings. Friendliness of Tibetans. Lhakhang-jong. Tuwa-jong. Dekila, widow of Norbu Sring. Lhalung Monastery. Ovis ammon. Source of the Nyeru-chhu.

I camped at Tsekang in rain, and next day marched up the valley of the Khoma through dense jungle. I had intended to reach Singhi-jong, but it was too far, so I halted at Tusum Mani (10,900 feet), amongst pines and larches, on the only level place I could find. The weather cleared up a little towards evening, and I was able to see that up the stream to the north the valley was blocked by snow-hills, with glaciers running down their sides, but mist prevented me from seeing anything more. Next day was fine, and I had a beautiful ride to Singhi-jong, a very small fort, hardly worthy of the name, but well situated on a large flat, with fine snow views ail round. I did not stay there, but went on through the valley to Narim-thang (13,900 feet), about four miles from the Kang-la (16,290 feet). I would have liked to camp at the foot of the pass, but there was no firewood so high, and the want of it would have entailed much extra work for the coolies. The morning broke rather threateningly, but by making an early start and riding as far as the lake below the pass, beyond which pack-animals cannot go, I succeeded in crossing before the snow began to fall. It was a stiff climb up the east side, and equally difficult going down for 1500 feet through snow, and then over a small glacier on the west. The Kang-la is the watershed, but not the boundary, between Bhutan and Tibet. Further on the road first led down to a stream, then up again, and round a spur leading into another valley, up which we marched for some miles, and just before reaching our camping-ground, at Metsephu (15,300 feet), we passed a fine lake. It rained heavily part of the way, but cleared up as we pitched our tents, and then later began to snow heavily—so heavily the tents had to be beaten and shaken at intervals to prevent their collapse. It was a cold and cheerless evening, but the snow ceased early and the night was clear, while the morning broke beautifully fine. We reached the Bod-la (16,290 feet), and crossed the boundary between Bhutan and Tibet early, and the coolies soon made their appearance, even carrying the heavy frozen tents. A Tibetan block-house, with loopholed walls, was built on the top of the pass. There were some fine views of the snow-peaks to the east, and after admiring them I started down the descent on the Tibetan side. It was a very tiresome march, over huge rocks covered with snow, and at the foot of the pass I was delighted to find yaks and coolies waiting for me, brought by the head of the nearest Tibetan village and a representative from the Lhakhang-jong, which is also in Tibet. I was tired, and it was very pleasant riding down on one of the yaks. Though slow, they are very sure-footed, and carried me most comfortably over some very steep slopes, but in one place I came to a flat rock, sloping at an angle of about 45 degrees, with nothing but a two-inch crack in the rock for the animal to find a foothold on, and I really could not face it, and dismounted and walked over, although my driver assured me there was no danger, and probably I should have been just as safe on the yak as on my own feet. On reaching a flat lower down I found both riding-mules and ponies waiting for me, sent by Sir Ugyen and the Tibetans, and also a message asking me to delay my arrival at Lhakhang until my camp there was prepared, so a few miles further on I pitched my tents in a beautiful glade in the midst of pines, larches, and aspens. The valley we passed through was a fine one, and the walk beautiful, with magnificent cliffs on the north side for the whole distance, nearly, if not quite, as high as those on the route above Tashi-cho-jong which I had traversed the year before on my way through Bhutan. After descending some thousands of feet we came into forests of black juniper, and below that silver pine and larch. The climate, too, was drier. The view looking down the valley across into Tibet was very fine, the hills there showing up rugged and bare, without a tree, although distant only about three miles as the crow flies, so sharp is the line dividing the wet and the dry zones.

The orderlies in charge of the yaks the Tongsa had sent took the greatest care of me whilst going over the bad places on the road, holding me on as though they were afraid I might fall off. In camp I got a letter from Sir Ugyen to say he had arrived in Lhakhang that day, and hoped to meet me in the morning.

While making my way to the Jong the following day the Jongpen met me with eggs and milk and the headman of the village with chang. At the Jong itself Sir Ugyen was waiting, and I found my camp pitched in a grove of poplars and willows, while the Jongpen had pitched his own tent for me and made all preparations for my comfort. It was a very great pleasure to meet Sir Ugyen again, and we had much to talk over and discuss.

I had hardly expected to receive such a hearty reception in Tibet, but every one vied with one another in trying to make me comfortable and in doing everything they could for me. It was most gratifying, and proved beyond dispute that the Tibetans bore no ill-will on account of the Lhasa Expedition, and also that they were genuinely pleased to see me personally. I am quite sure, notwithstanding the general opinion to the contrary, that, could the physical difficulties be overcome, there would be but little opposition shown by Tibetans generally to any one travelling in their country, so long as the immediate vicinity of Lhasa was avoided, and provided the traveller had some previous knowledge of and sympathy with the Tibetan character and that he was known to them.

Had the opportunity been taken advantage of, on the conclusion of the Lhasa Treaty, to allow a few of our own picked officers to travel in Tibet, any opposition would have died a natural death, as it existed only amongst certain members of the priestly hierarchy and the higher officials in Lhasa. The common people invariably welcomed our advent, and openly expressed the hope that they were to come under our jurisdiction. Our Government, instead of making the most of so unique an opening, has, by the most incomprehensible regulations and orders, emanating from London, raised an insuperable barrier against any fellow countrymen who may desire to travel in Tibet, while foreigners, whom they are powerless to keep out, are given every possible assistance and help. Hence, notwithstanding the vast expenditure of money, the heavy loss of life, and the many hardships endured by the Lhasa Mission of 1904, Tibet has again become an absolutely closed country to all Englishmen. In addition, Government’s unfortunate subsequent policy has been the means of handing over the Tibetans, bound hand and foot, to the Chinese, and all Tibetan officials are now obliged by their virtual masters, the Chinese, to enforce the Chinese traditional policy of exclusion of all Europeans.

Up to now I had been unaware that wild gooseberries were to be found in the Himalayas, but on this march I came across them for the first time, higher up in flower and lower down in fruit. The people eat the fruit, but I fancy it would be very sour, and not like the small wild yellow gooseberry found in Scotland.

Accompanied by the Tongsa, I visited the Karchu Monastery, which is situated on a very picturesque ridge overlooking the gorge where the Kuru-chhu commences to cut its way through the Himalayas, but beyond a very good view of Kulu-Kangri there was nothing much to be seen.

I also visited some hot springs, and near them some old gold-diggings, which were said to have been worked as recently as twelve years before my visit by the late Jongpen, who imported workmen from Tod, in Tibet, for the purpose. They were situated in an old river-bed, and are now quite abandoned, and I should think very unlikely to be worth making any future attempt to develop. I washed some of the sand, but found nothing.

Lhakhang-jong is a very dilapidated building, very dirty, and worth nothing either as a residence or a place of defence, and of no interest. The Khomthing Lhakhang, or temple, is also very uninteresting, although it had one curious feature. In one of the rooms a large apricot-tree grew through the roof, and was called for some reason, though why I could not make out, the “Mermaid Tree.” But in the monastery itself there was nothing.

The fields round the fort were brilliant with the delicate green of young corn, just beginning to sprout, and the hedges were full of wild roses and pink and white spirea, while between the fields were planted lines of apricot-trees full of blossom, making a lovely picture. The crop of fruit is so plentiful that, in addition to carrying on a large trade in dried fruit, the people feed their cattle on apricots in winter; but those I tasted were not very appetising.

With all this beauty the climate of Lhakhang is abominable; situated at the mouth of the Kuru gorge, a cold, damp, violent wind never ceases blowing, while the sun at the same time is extremely hot; but even with this disadvantage the two days’ rest was very welcome. The export trade consists chiefly, in addition to dried apricots, of dried mutton, sheep-skins, wool, and salt, while rice, madder, and stick lac are imported from Bhutan.

A good road through the Kuru Valley would be sure soon to become a popular trade route, as it would be a direct outlet from Tibet to the plains, with no snow-passes to cross, and from Lhakhang onwards to Tibet the present road is reported to be very easy. The few miles I traversed were broad and much used. The section between Lhuntsi and Lhakhang would be very difficult to negotitate, as it passes through an immense gorge, which would require a great deal of blasting as well as bridging; and as things have now turned out, it is very unlikely such a road will be made for many generations, if ever, though at the time of my visit it was still within the range of possibility that the Governments of India and Tibet would co-operate to improve trade routes between the two empires.

Roads already run from Lhakhang to Nagartsi and Chetang, across country in which there is said to be much good grazing and many flocks of sheep, and consequently there should be a quantity of wool to be bought. The route from Tawang also taps this country.

After leaving Lhakhang I crossed the two branches of the Kuru-chhu just before they enter, as one stream, the mouth of this magnificent gorge. The road wound along the side of the hills some thousand feet above the river, and was in some places very pretty, with hedges of yellow and red roses, spirea, gooseberry and currant-bushes, apricot-trees, and a sort of blackthorn, but for the greater part it was uninteresting. The villagers en route turned out to meet me, and burnt incense, and at Dur they had a tent pitched for my lunch, and presented me with chang, the native liquor, milk, and eggs. I camped at Mug (11,650 feet), in a grove of poplars, where a second messenger arrived from the Tongsa’s sister with another letter of welcome and more rice, eggs, and butter.

From this village a road branches off over the Monla-Kachung-la Pass to Bya-gha, but my way led me to Singhi-jong, still in Tibet. A very hard march took me first down to the river, some thousand feet below camp, and then up again over a spur to Singhi-jong, a climb of 1740 feet in the full glare of the sun; then down again to a side stream, and again up to Myens-la (14,800 feet), and at last to my camp, pitched in a small side valley at Tashichukar (14,480 feet). I found the sun very trying climbing the southern slopes, but on reaching camp it clouded over, and the afternoon was wet and windy and very cold—the coldest camp I had yet been in on this expedition.

Singhi-jong is a deserted fort in ruins, situated on a fine rock, and the Jongpen does not live there, but prefers a house at its foot less pretentious and more comfortable. He was an old acquaintance of mine, whom I had met in Lhasa, where he was the official who issued rations to the Mission camp. About a year before my visit he had been transferred to Singhi, where I now met him. We had to change transport here; but everything was in readiness, so it did not take long. I had a fine view of some high snows looking up the valley on leaving Singhi-jong.

The Tibetans were not nearly so ready to be vaccinated as the Bhutanese, probably because there had been no recent outbreak of small-pox, and very few came forward, while in Bhutan the numbers already done had reached 800. From Tashichukar I made a long march and pushed right on to Lhalung, the Bhutan monastery, passing Tuwa-jong on the way. The road took me first straight down to the river, a descent of 2400 feet, and then straight up the other side in short zigzags, which were very trying. It then wound round the hillside for some distance and again dropped down to the stream at Tuwa-jong (13,000 feet). If I had only been a little earlier in the season all these ups and downs might have been avoided, as during the winter there is a path along the bed of the stream; but the glaciers had begun to melt, and the rivers were consequently in flood, so it was impracticable.

Sikhim and Bhutan - Tuwa-jong.jpg


Tuwa-jong I found to be a fine building, in Tibetan style, with the fort on the top of a very steep rock, and the monastery below, also a fine building. The Tibetan and Bhutanese Jongs have a general resemblance in their architecture, particularly remarkable in the slope given to the walls, but in detail are not very similar. In Bhutan the courtyards are much larger, and the lavish use of timber gives the buildings a different aspect, especially the sloping shingle roofs invariably used there, whereas in Tibet the roofs are generally flat. The Tuwa buildings are all quite new, as they were rebuilt after the earthquake of 1897. A little before reaching the Jong we found a tent pitched, and the Nerpa, or steward, of the Jongpen waiting with refreshments. He was very anxious that I should break my journey at Tuwa, and the same request was renewed when I reached the Jong by the Jongpen and the lamas, but I told them that, if possible, and if they could make the necessary arrangements for transport, I was anxious to reach Lhalung that day. They had a camp pitched ready below the building, in a side valley, out of the wind, in a charming, fresh green garden, and the invitation was very tempting, and I should have been glad to give pleasure to my kindly hosts, but I could not manage it. All I could do was to stop and partake of the refreshments they had provided while the transport was being changed, and the arrangements were so good that by the time we had finished luncheon all the loads had gone on. I can only repeat again that I received nothing but the most unvarying kindness and attention from every one throughout my journey in this part of Tibet, and that every pains was taken, by officials and villagers alike, to make things easy and comfortable for me; and at no time, during the years I have served on the frontier, when I have been brought into contact with Tibetans, have I had any discourtesy shown me.

I was told that Dekila, the widow of Norbu Sring, is still imprisoned at Tuwa-jong, but as I only heard this at Lhalung I had no opportunity of making inquiries or trying to see her. Norbu Sring was brother to the late Tengay-Ling, Regent of Tibet. Tengay-Ling was accused of practising sorcery on the Delai Lama, and consequently seized, and later put to death, while his brother, Norbu Sring, a layman, was also cruelly killed. His widow, Dekila, who was famous throughout Tibet for her beauty, and is a member of the highly respectable Doring family of Lhasa, and some relation to the Maharani of Sikhim, was arrested on the same charge, and, after being cruelly scourged through Lhasa, was condemned to imprisonment for life in Tuwa-jong. She is said to be even now in chains in a cell on the outskirts of the Jong, and had I known beforehand I should have made an effort to see the unfortunate woman and ascertain if nothing could be done for her. The man who volunteered this information had heard of the release of several State prisoners, and especially of the cases of my Lachung men and the friend of Sarat Chunder Das, during the Lhasa Expedition, and seemed to think the Indian Government might extend a helping hand; but I am afraid the only, and very unlikely, chance for the poor lady might have been my personal influence with the Jongpen; and even then he was responsible to the authorities at Lhasa for her safe custody, and could not, I fear, on his own initiative have done anything for her.

About two miles below Tuwa-jong the valley opens out; so far it is a deep-cut gorge, impossible to traverse except during the winter months, when temporary bridges are thrown across the stream which save many miles in actual distance and many thousands of feet in ascent and descent, but of course at this time of the year I had to follow the longer route. On leaving the Jong the road runs along the bottom of the valley—cultivated wherever water can be found for irrigation, but elsewhere a typical Tibetan valley, an arid wilderness of stone and sand, hot, bare, and dusty, with a howling wind always blowing, making it very unpleasant. The ride up this unprepossessing valley in the face of the afternoon sun was a hot one, but I was well repaid by the reception I received at Lhalung, where I was met by the Tulku, or Avatar, a nephew of Sir Ugyen’s, and the monks and headmen of Lhalung. They conducted me to a charming camp, pitched in the monastery gardens, where it was pleasant to sit on the grass in the cool shade of the willows, out of the glare, and sheltered from the violence of the wind by the high wall surrounding the garden. It was a dehghtful place in which to rest and do nothing, and at the urgent request of Sir Ugyen I remained with him for two days, taking photographs of the buildings and of the Tulku and others, and receiving deputations from the Jongpen of Tuwa-jong, the Avatar and the lamas of Lhalung, as well as the headmen of these places. One day the Tulku entertained me at lunch, and afterwards we witnessed a Tibetan dance which was quite new to me. Most of the performers wore very little clothing—quite a new experience, as in all the Tibetan dances I have seen the dancers are rather overburdened with heavy garments. I also spent much of my time with the Tongsa, discussing the affairs of Bhutan and talking over his projects for improvements, roads, developments, &c., all very interesting subjects; and I often wonder now how he is carrying out all his schemes, and wish I had been able to set him a little further on the road towards their accomplishment before my retirement. At Sir Ugyen’s request I left the vaccinator to accompany him to Bya-gha, and then to travel through Bhutan before returning to Sikhim. I also left my plant-collector, as it was still too early in the season to find plants or flowers in the high plateaux of Tibet. He made a very good collection of plants, both on this occasion and when he accompanied me on the first Bhutan Mission, and they were duly forwarded to the Botanical Gardens in Calcutta, but up to the present date I have had no news of any classification having been made. The delay seems regrettable, as there may have been some new and interesting plants among them. I certainly saw many plants which do not occur in Sikhim, where every valley and hill has been thoroughly explored.

Sikhim and Bhutan - Lhalung Monastery.jpg


Sikhim and Bhutan - Interior of Lhalung Monastery.jpg


The following day I continued my journey up the valley, and camped at Lung, passing en route the Guru Lhakhang, a very old building, surrounded by ancient poplars, but in itself uninteresting. On this march I discovered that the main stream of the Monass takes its rise in the great amphitheatre of snow-mountains, averaging 24,000 feet in height, round Kulu-Kangri. It rises from some large glaciers, and is exceedingly muddy, the water a thick yellowish-red colour. At Lyateoh, where my transport was changed, the main valley turned to the west, although the river containing by far the most water came in from the south. The quantity of silt brought down is very great, and shows what enormous disintegration is in progress. I was particularly struck by the number of ruined villages I passed on this march.

In the hills round Lung there is some fine ovis ammon ground, and I saw several large flocks. They were extraordinarily tame, and allowed me to walk, across the open, to within thirty or forty yards, and then only moved slowly away. I first saw them from my bed. I awoke early, and on looking out I saw eight grazing on the hillside not half a mile away. They have never been shot at, which accounts for their tameness.

A path from Lung, used by yaks and their drivers, leads over the snow to the head-waters of the branches of the Mo-chhu, and is said not to be a very difficult one. My route, however, took me up the valley and over the Ta-la Pass (17,900 feet), the watershed between India and the Pho-mo-chang-thang Lake basin, which has no outlet, then along high, rolling downs, and, after passing three small lakes, came to the large plain at the head of the Pho-mo-chang-thang Lake itself. The lake appears to be receding to a certain extent, and I think probably this is chiefly owing to the large quantities of silt brought down by an unnamed river from the glaciers, and its consequent filling up on the west side. We crossed the plain in a violent hailstorm, and camped in the middle of it on a bare and exposed yak station called Sagang, in sight of the lake. The Tongsa accompanied me to the top of the pass, where he took his leave, presenting me with scarves of different colours, a pretty custom which is both picturesque and at the same time expressive of the most cordial good feeling.

From the downs at Sagang I had a clear view of the snow-hills which form the boundary between Bhutan and Tibet, with the country to the north of the hills clearly to be seen and the courses of the rivers quite plainly visible. Fortunately, some of the dopkas (yak herdsmen) had pitched tents, which were most welcome, as there was a very strong, cold wind blowing, and, the march having been a long one, our things did not arrive till late. En route we saw some ovis ammon, but did not shoot any. We had to cross the large river which takes its rise on the north of the snows forming the boundary between Bhutan and Tibet and runs into the west end of the lake, and had some difficulty in finding a ford, as the bed was full of quicksands, but eventually a herdsman showed us one, and also told us there were only two places at which it could be crossed in safety. This man came from a very large encampment of herdsmen, who had hundreds of yaks and a few sheep in their care. They were extremely hospitable, spread carpets for us to sit on, and gave us fresh milk and Tibetan tea, as well as parched barley. It was a curious sight to watch the milking of the yaks, the method being, to say the least of it, peculiar, and one I had not seen or heard of elsewhere in Tibet.

I made a very early start from Sagang, and after climbing 600 feet came to the watershed between the lake basin and the Nyeru-chhu. These hills are nearly all rounded, with very few precipices, and are evidently much frequented by both ovis ammon and burhel, for I saw numerous fine heads lying about. The natives explained this by saying that in winter wolves attack and kill the males, who in consequence of the weight of their heavy horns cannot get quickly over the ground and out of reach. From the ridge I followed a stream which took me the whole way to the Nyeru Valley, but which is not marked on the map Ryder made at the time of the Lhasa Mission. This may be accounted for by the very narrow gorge through which it passes on entering the valley. The Bhutan boundary runs right up to the head of the Nyeru Valley, and from Nelung the Wagya-la, over which there is a trade route to Bhutan, can be seen. We had a long, weary march across a flat plain in hail and rain before reaching Nelung, where tents had fortunately been pitched by the headman, and very welcome they were, as all our things did not come up till past eight o’clock, and it continued to rain and blow hard nearly all night, though it was fairly fine towards morning.

I discovered that the Nyeru-chhu takes its rise in the high snows not far from the source of the Kuru-chhu. It breaks through the dividing ridge between the lake basin and the Nyeru Valley under the snow, and then takes a right-angle bend to the north and comes down past Nyeru.

All the valleys I have seen to the north of the watershed—viz., from Eastern Bhutan to some distance west of Sikhim—appear to have at some remote period been much more densely populated than at present. At every turn I came on ruins of habitations and remains of old irrigation channels; and overcrowding may possibly account for this migration over the Himalayas into the comparatively hot valleys of Bhutan, in which no Tibetan would willingly settle, though he might be forced by circumstances to do so. This also raises the interesting question of the former climate of these parts. I think there is no doubt that there must have been considerably more rain, and everything appears to support this view—the receding glaciers and diminishing streams, also the fact that all the lakes in this part of Tibet show a large amount of contraction, and to all appearances are still decreasing. On the Yam-dok-tsho several distinct old shores can be traced running round the lake, some quite sixty feet above the present lake level. Pho-mo-chang-thang, Kala-tsho, Bam-tsho, and Rhum-tsho are all drying up. What is the cause of this? Is it the gradual elevation of the Himalayas, shutting out the monsoon current, or has the monsoon current itself diminished? The migration southward might also be accounted for by diminished rainfall, the people being no longer able to support themselves and their cattle on the produce of the land, and being obliged to seek new and more productive country.

It is a very interesting subject, but requires more time and research to be devoted to it than I have been able to give.

At Nelung I lost one of my favourite mules, Kitty, whom I had had for many years, and who had served me well. She must have contracted a chill crossing in the hail, for soon after reaching camp she was taken ill with colic, and nothing I could do was of any use, and she died during the night.

From Nelung my route took me over an easy pass to the Phari-Gyantse road. At Gyantse I spent a few days making a visit of inspection to Bailey, the officiating British Trade Agent and my Assistant Political Officer. The post is a lonely and isolated one, and the work was none too pleasant, owing to the attitude of the Chinese, who did all in their power to be obstructive, and used every possible means to prevent the Tibetans having any direct intercourse with us; but things on the whole were fairly satisfactory. From Gyantse I returned by the ordinary route to Chumbi, and thence to Gangtak, thus bringing to an end my exploration in Bhutan.