Read CHAPTER XI - GOSSIP ON THE ROAD TO THE FRONT of The Unveiling of Lhasa, free online book, by Edmund Candler, on ReadCentral.com.

ARI, SIKKIM,
June 24.

I write in an old forest rest-house on the borders of British Bhutan.

The place is quiet and pastoral; climbing roses overhang the roof and invade the bedrooms; martíns have built their nests in the eaves; cuckoos are calling among the chestnuts down the hill. Outside is a flower-garden, gay with geraniums and pétunias and familiar English plants that have overrun their straggling borders and scattered themselves in the narrow plot of grass that fringes the forest. Some Government officer must have planted them years ago, and left them to fight it out with Nature and the caretaker.

The forest has encroached, and it is hard to say where Nature’s hand or Art’s begins and ends. Beside a rose-bush there has sprung up the solid pink club of the wild ginger, and from a bed of amaryllis a giant arum raises itself four feet in its dappled, snake-like sheath. Gardens have most charm in spots like this, where their mingled trimness and neglect contrast with the insolent unconcern of an encroaching forest.

At Ari I am fifty miles from Darjeeling, on the road to Lhasa.

On June 21 I set my face to Lhasa for the second time. I took another route to Chumbi, via Kalimpong and Pedong in British Bhutan. The road is no further, but it compasses some arduous ascents. On the other hand it avoids the low, malarious valleys of Sikkim, where the path is constantly carried away by slips. There is less chance of a block, and one is above the cholera zone. The Jelap route, which I strike to-morrow, is closed, owing to cholera and land-slips, so that I shall not touch the line of communications until within a few miles of Chumbi, in which time my wound will have had a week longer to heal before I risk a medical examination and the chance of being sent back. The relief column is due at Gyantse in a few days; it depends on the length of the operations there whether I catch the advance to Lhasa.

Through avoiding the Nathu-la route to Chumbi I had to arrange my own transport. In Darjeeling my coolies bolted without putting a pack on their backs. More were secured; these disappeared in the night at Kalimpong without waiting to be paid. Pack-ponies were hired to replace them, but these are now in a state of collapse. Arguing, and haggling, and hectoring, and blarneying, and persuading are wearisome at all times, but more especially in these close steamy valleys, where it is too much trouble to lift an eyelid, and the air induces an almost immoral state of lassitude, in which one is tempted to dole out silver indifferently to anyone who has it in his power to oil the wheels of life. I could fill a whole chapter with a jeremiad on transport, but it is enough to indicate, to those who go about in vehicles, that there are men on the road to Tibet now who would beggar themselves and their families for generations for a macadamized highway and two hansom cabs to carry them and their belongings smoothly to Lhasa. Before I reached Kalimpong I wished I had never left the ‘radius.’ No one should embark on Asiatic travel who is not thoroughly out of harmony with civilization.

The servant question is another difficulty. No native bearer wishes to join the field force. Why should he? He has to cook and pack and do the work of three men; he has to make long, exhausting marches; he is exposed to hunger, cold, and fatigue; he may be under fire every day; and he knows that if he falls into the hands of the Tibetans, like the unfortunate servants of Captain Parr at Gyantse, he will be brutally murdered and cut up into mincemeat. In return for which he is fed and clothed, and earns ten rupees more a month than he would in the security of his own home. After several unsuccessful trials, I have found one Jung Bir, a Nepali bearer, who is attached to me because I forget sometimes to ask for my bazaar account, and do not object to his being occasionally drunk. In Tibet the poor fellow will have little chance of drinking.

My first man lost his nerve altogether, and, when told to work, could only whine out that his father and mother were not with him. My next applicant was an opium-eater, prematurely bent and aged, with the dazed look of a toad that has been incarcerated for ages in a rock, and is at last restored to light and the world by the blow of a mason’s hammer. He wanted money to buy more dreams, and for this he was willing to expose his poor old body to hardships that would have killed him in a month. Jung Bir was a Gurkha and more martial. His first care on being engaged was to buy a long and heavy chopper ’for making mince,’ he said; but I knew it was for the Tibetans.

To reach Ari one has to descend twice, crossing the Teesta at 700 feet, and the Russett Chu at 1,500 feet. These valleys are hotter than the plains of India. The streams run east and west, and the cliffs on both sides catch the heat of the early morning sun and hold it all day. The closeness, the refraction from the rocks, and the evaporation of the water, make the atmosphere almost suffocating, and one feels the heat the more intensely by the change from the bracing air above. Crossing the Teesta, one enters British Bhutan, a strip of land of less than 300 square miles on the left bank of the river. It was ceded to us with other territories by the treaty of 1865; or, in plain words, it was annexed by us as a punishment for the outrage on Sir Ashley Eden, the British Envoy, who was captured and grossly insulted by the Bhutanese at Punakha in the previous year. The Bhutanese were as arrogant, exclusive, and impossible to deal with, in those days, as the Tibetans are to-day. Yet they have been brought into line, and are now our friends. Why should not the Tibetans, who are of the same stock, yield themselves to enlightenment? Their evolution would be no stranger.

Nine miles above the Teesta bridge is Kalimpong, the capital of British Bhutan, and virtually the foreign mart for what trade passes out of Tibet. The Tomos of the Chumbi Valley, who have the monopoly of the carrying, do not go further south than this. At Kalimpong I found a horse-dealer with a good selection of ‘Bhutia tats.’ These excellent little beasts are now well known to be as strong and plucky a breed of mountain ponies as can be found anywhere. I discovered that their fame is not merely modern when I came across what must be the first reference to them in history in the narrative of Master Ralph Fitch, England’s pioneer to India. ‘These northern merchants,’ says Fitch, speaking of the Bhutia, ’report that in their countrie they haue very good horses, but they be litle.’ The Bhutias themselves, equally ubiquitous in the Sikkim Himalayas, but not equally indispensable, Fitch describes to the letter. At Kalimpong I found them dirty, lazy, good-natured, independent rascals, possessed, apparently, of wealth beyond their deserts, for hard work is as alien to their character as straight dealing. Even the drovers will pay a coolie good wages to cut grass for them rather than walk a mile downhill to fetch it themselves.

The main street of Kalimpong is laid out in the correct boulevard style, with young trees protected by tubs and iron railings. It is dominated by the church of the Scotch Mission, whose steeple is a landmark for miles. The place seems to be overrun with the healthiest-looking English children I have seen anywhere, whose parents are given over to very practical good works.

I took the Bhutan route chiefly to avoid running the gauntlet of the medicals; but another inducement was the prospect of meeting Father Desgodins, a French Roman Catholic, Vicar Apostolic of the Roman Catholic Mission to Western Tibet, who, after fifty years’ intimacy with various Mongol types, is probably better acquainted with the Tibetans than any other living European.

I met Father Desgodins at Pedong. The rest-house here looks over the valley to his symmetrical French presbytery and chapel, perched on the hillside amid waving maize-fields, whose spring verdure is the greenest in the world. Scattered over the fields are thatched Lamas’ houses and low-storied gompas, with overhanging eaves and praying-flags ’horses of the wind,’ as the Tibetans picturesquely call them, imagining that the prayers inscribed on them are carried to the good god, whoever he may be, who watches their particular fold and fends off intruding spirits as well as material invaders.

Behind the presbytery are terraced rice-fields, irrigated by perennial streams, and bordered by thick artemisia scrub, which in the hot sun, after rain, sends out an aromatic scent, never to be dissociated in travellers’ dreams and reveries from these great southern slopes of the Himalayas.

Pere Desgodins is an erect old gentleman with quiet, steely gray eyes and a tawny beard now turning gray. He is known to few Englishmen, but his adventurous travels in Tibet and his devoted, strenuous life are known throughout Europe.

He was sent out from France to the Tibet Mission shortly after the murder of Krick and Bourry by the Mishmis. Failing to enter Tibet from the south through Sikkim, he made preparations for an entry by Ladak. His journey was arrested by the Indian Mutiny, when he was one of the besieged at Agra. He afterwards penetrated Western Tibet as far as Khanam, but was recalled to the Chinese side, where he spent twenty-two perilous and adventurous years in the establishment of the mission at Batang and Bonga. The mission was burnt down and the settlement expelled by the Lamas. In 1888 Father Desgodins was sent to Pedong, his present post, as Pro-vicar of the Mission to Western Tibet.

With regard to the present situation in Tibet, Father Desgodins expressed astonishment at our policy of folded arms.

‘You have missed the occasion,’ he said; ’you should have made your treaty with the Tibetans themselves in 1888. You could have forced them to treat then, when they were unprepared for a military invasion. You should have said to them’ here Pere Desgodins took out his watch ’"It is now one o’clock. Sign that treaty by five, or we advance to-morrow.” What could they have done? Now you are too late. They have been preparing for this for the last fifteen years.’

Father Desgodins was right. It is the old story of ill-advised conciliation and forbearance. We were afraid of the bugbear of China. The British Government says to her victim after the chastisement: ‘You’ve had your lesson. Now run off and be good.’ And the spoilt child of arrested civilization runs off with his tongue in his cheek and learns to make new arms and friends. The British Government in the meantime sleeps in smug complacency, and Exeter Hall is appeased.

‘But why did you not treat with the Tibetans themselves?’ Pere Desgodins asked. ’China!’ here he made an expressive gesture ’I have known China for fifty years. She is not your friend.’ Of course it is to the interest of China to keep the tea monopoly, and to close the market to British India. Travellers on the Chinese borders are given passports and promises of assistance, but the natives of the districts they traverse are ordered to turn them back and place every obstacle in their way. Nobody knows this better than Father Desgodins. China’s policy is the same with nations as with individuals. She will always profess willingness to help, but protest that her subjects are unmanageable and out of hand. Why, then, deal with China at all? We can only answer that she had more authority in Lhasa in 1888. Moreover, we were more afraid of offending her susceptibilities. But that bubble has burst.

Others who hold different views from Pere Desgodins say that this very unruliness of her vassal ought to make China welcome our intervention in Tibet, if we engage to respect her claims there when we have subdued the Lamas. This policy might certainly point a temporary way out of the muddle, whereby we could save our face and be rid of the Tibet incubus for perhaps a year. But the plan of leaving things to the suzerain Power has been tried too often.

As I rode down the Pedong street from the presbytery someone called me by name, and a little, smiling, gnome-like man stepped out of a whitewashed office. It was Phuntshog, a Tibetan friend whom I had known six years previously on the North-East frontier. I dismounted, expecting entertainment.

The office was bare of furniture save a new writing-table and two chairs, but heaped round the walls were piles of cast steel and iron plates and files and pipes for bellows. Phuntshog explained that he was frontier trade examiner, and that the steel had been purchased in Calcutta by a Lama last year, and was confiscated on the frontier as contraband. It was material for an armoury. The spoilt child was making new arms, like the schoolboy who exercises his muscle to avenge himself after a beating.

‘Do you get much of this sort of thing?’ I asked.

‘Not now,’ he said; ’they have given up trying to get it through this way.’

A few years ago eight Mohammedans, experts in rifle manufacture, had been decoyed from a Calcutta factory to Lhasa. Two had died there, and one I traced at Yatung. His wife had not been allowed to pass the barrier, but he was given a Tibetan helpmate. The wife lived some months at Yatung, and used to receive large instalments from her husband; once, I was told, as much as R,400. But he never came back. The Tibetans have learned to make rifles for themselves now. Phuntshog had a story about another suspicious character, a mysterious Lama who arrived in Darjeeling in 1901 from Calcutta with 5,000 alms bowls for Tibet, which he said he had purchased in Germany. The man was detained in Darjeeling five months under police espionage, and finally sent back to Calcutta.

Our Intelligence Department on this frontier is more alert than it used to be. Dorjieff, Phuntshog told me, had been to Darjeeling twice, and stayed in a trader’s house at Kalimpong several days. He wore the dress of a Lama. The ostensible object of his journey was to visit the sacred Chorten at Khatmandu and the shrines of Benares. He visited these, and was known to spend some time in Calcutta. On the occasion of the mission to St. Petersburg Dorjieff and his colleagues entered India through Népal, took train to Bombay, and shipped thence to Odessa. The discovery of the Lamas’ visit to India was almost simultaneous with their departure from Bombay.

Phuntshog is not an admirer of our Tibetan policy. We ought to have laid ourselves out, he said, to influence the Lamas by secret agents, as Russia did. There was no chance of a compromise now; they would fight to the death. Phuntshog said much more which I suspected was inspired by the daily newspapers, so I questioned him as to the feelings of the natives of the district.

‘The feeling of patriotism is extinct,’ he said; and he looked at his stomach, showing that he spoke the truth. ’We Tibetan British subjects are fed well and paid well by your Government. We want nothing more. My family are here. Now I have no trade to examine.’ His eyes slowly surveyed the room, glanced over his office table, with its pen and ink and blank paper, lit on the 150 maunds of cast-steel, and finally rested on two volumes by his elbow.

‘Do you read much?’ I asked.

‘Sometimes,’ he said. ‘I have learnt a good deal from these books.’

They were the Holy Bible and Miss Braddon’s ‘Dead Men’s Shoes.’

‘Phuntshog,’ I said, ’you are a psychological enigma. Your mind is like that cast-iron huddled in the corner there, bought in an enlightened Western city and destined for your benighted Lhasa, but stuck halfway. Only it was going the other way. You don’t understand? Neither do I.’

And here at Ari, as I look across the valley of the Russett Chu to Pedong, and hear the vesper bell, I cannot help thinking of that strange conflict of minds the devotee who, seeing further than most men, has cared nothing for the things of this incarnation, and Phuntshog, the strange hybrid product of restless Western energies, stirring and muddying the shallows of the Eastern mind. Or are they depths?

Who knows? I know nothing, only that these men are inscrutable, and one cannot see into their hearts.