Explorations in Mongolia and Tibet
Exploration of Tibet and Mongolia is a travel account of the second attempt of the American scholar W. Woodville Rockhill to reach Lhasa. This extract documents seven months of Rockhill’s journey that started in 1892, southwards from Peking towards Nepal or India to the warmer terrain. With 5 men and 1500 rupees in his hand, he packed his bag and provisions for the months-long journey southwards. The mapping of his routes seems very complex in totality but it is a natural outcome of a simple logic; he was not aiming for specific destination in long run. Instead, his journey was shaped as he proceeded with short-term goals to reach nearby destinations over the period of months and days. The palette of his account began with a politically structured space in China, entered nomadic space and then reached Tibetan spaces under the control of the Lhasa government. The territory under the Lhasa government was described by the lamasery present and the land division structure. Missionary and diplomatic travel from the Christian and Western world is something we have talked about through Desideri reading in class. Rockhill also seemed to be highly educated like the Jesuits; his references in the footnotes are very thorough and the nature ranges from language to ethnology. Lastly, the way he recognizes the tribes he encounters is doubtable, for example, he briefly states that they have Turki origin. The line between the Mongol tribes and Tibetan tribes in the Tibetan region was very blurred in his narration.
On the 9th of January, the very first destination he reached after his departure from Peking or Beijing was the “large Chinese Christian community (some three hundred families residing in four villages) of San-tao ho-tz, created and managed by the Belgian Catholic foreign missions” (662, Rockhill). Totally dependant on the mules in his journey from San-tao ho-tz he heads towards Kumbum [Sku ’bum], or “rather the contiguous village of Lusar, some 20 miles south of His-ning [Xining]”(665). On the 5th of February, following the Yellow River and the Hsi-ho [Xihe], he prepared to enter Tibet. He assured the reader that he had taken the path before. Despite the fact that he was carrying a “prismatic compass,” determining the untrodden trails to reach a favorable destination was an ordeal. His decision to follow the Yellow River shows his reliance on natural landmarks to plan his route.
The survival gear his team had for the journey was: two small blue tents, saddle blankets used as bedding, and heavy sheep-skin garments. His team consisted of “four Chinese,” “three from Lusar” and a cook “from near Peking” (Rockhill, 666). He was very much interested in the ethnology of the people settled “along the Yellow River due south of Lusar, of Mongol, and Turkish descent; those of the latter called Salars or Salaris.” He encountered followers of Mohammedans who were caught up in their internal conflict of practicing their faith in a certain manner. This location was only 30 miles west of Xining. On the 29th of February, he reached the Lusar proper and on 14th of March they departed for Kokonor country.
This was the “first stage of” their “journey to Tibet” (Rockhill, 666). Their journey could not be taken southwards from Kokonor because the south of the Kokonor lake is “more mountainous than that to the north” (Rockhill, 667). The description of the weather in this region was: “violent westerly wind, great dryness, chilly night[s] and clear day[s]” due to its altitude of 11,000 feet. The geographical challenges faced in the very first stage of entering Tibet deviated their route westwards and later southwest leading them to the country of the Panaka. Rockhill’s description of Panaka or Panakasum tribe is very interesting because it bears both Chinese and Tibetan origination; he claims that there were eight settler Tibetan tribes who first came here. This became one of the most difficult parts of his journey, and he complained that the men gave him more trouble than the animals on this part of the journey.
On crossing the most difficult part of the Panakasum’s country, they reached the river basin of Tsahan ossu, which is considered one of the most important rivers of the Tsaidam. Thus, on the 4th of April they reach the Mongol village of Shang. Sending his heavy baggage to their campsite in Tsaidam to the chief of Baron. He ventured to the lake Tosu Nor, one of the sources of the river Tsahan ossu, with a Mongol guide. Basins of lakes are considered favorable by the nomadic inhabitants. It is clear that Rockhill did not encounter anything very foreign besides the nomadic way of living, though he did describe them as “half-wild inhabitants of Turki origin.” He included the footnote from Douglas Forsyth, who claims that these tribes “emigrated there about hundred sixty years ago and were half musselmans” (Rockhill, 670). Forsyth’s indirect description of cannibalism through the words of Mongolian Lama Sherab jyatso was an interesting observation about internal nomadic life in Sikkim, Bhutan, and Tibet in 1856-1886. According to Forsyth, the lama stated that the mother of the bride was slaughtered if they did not find wild men to serve for the wedding.
After his meeting with the rest of the team at Dazassak [Jasagh, a title of leadership] of Baron’s camp on the 18th, he started preparing for the next level of the journey: “Ulterior Tibet: Shigatse.” After four days they reached Tengelik. At this point, he poured out his frustrations about dirt and other challenges of being on the highlands. His reaction towards nomadic journeys was an obvious one, which made him doubt his sustenance and commitment to his journey of six more months. He calls thied lifestyle Sinico-Mongolo-Tibetan. We come to know through his words that bits of wool were present in almost everything, air, food, and life in general, for example: wool in his tea and tsamba.
Then, he followed the Naichi river after the stay at Tengelik, towards northern Tibet. Their record of mountain crossing was set here, as they cross four mountains with an altitude of about 16000 feet (Rockhill, 672). Finally, on the 7th of July they saw dotted black tents. The view itself could define that this is one of the few destinations that is politically structured. The travelers were held by the local officers to get permission from the Lhasa government officers. On the 13th of July, it is decided that their team would be escorted by the government soldiers and their route will be defined by their decisions and on the 22nd of July they reached the highroad to Lhasa in the Dangchu valley, “a day and a half’s ride north of Nagchuka” (Rockhill, 673). The centralized authority at this period has managed to extend into many territories but the geographic dispersal seemed to be very inconsistent. Rockhill depicted this very situation; he was visited by the natives from the left bank of the Nagchu river and told that the tribes to the east of them were not subject to Lhasa. The chief of the Pere band stated that they do not bear any knowledge of the region beyond Chamdo region and that Lamaism is professed in Chamdo, whereas he and his people followed Bonpo. Cultivation began around 13,000 feet, near the timberline and their only cultivated crops were barley and turnips. People from this region traded salt, making salt their principle article of commerce. The salt from this region is described as being brick-red.
On the 20th of august, they reached Merdjong safely and passing through welcoming communities, Rockhill also found that this place was geographically favorable for cultivating wheat and vegetables. He thought that the Merdjong community was more agrarian than focused on animal husbandry. From Merdjong they traveled to Riwoche, which was an important commercial location. This journey from Merdjong to Riwoche was the first landscape he encountered with beautiful valley bottoms covered with flowers and mountainsides covered with forest. When they reached the Chinese postal station on the highroad to Lhasa, they receive the “first eggs and vegetables” in Zechu valley. After four days walk to Pung-de the worst part of the journey was considered to be over, and he complemented the scenery. One of the important towns he passed through after leaving Riwoche was Draya [Brag gyap] located on a gentle slope while the lamsery occupied the higher part of the slope.
On his continuation of the journey, he realized that there were officials sent by the Lhasa government all over the place in the most arable lands of Nya river and other localities belonged to this class (Rockhill, 677). He claimed that these localities came under Lhasa through “intrigues or open aggression.” He did notmention the source of this information, but he sounded quite confident. Gartok’s population was predominantly natives from the region, then lamas and very few Chinese. This was where he got to taste fruits like grapes, peaches and apricots, finding vegetable gardens and animal domestication all at once for the first time. His journey ended when he left Gartok for Litang and he stayed in Batang on the way for four days. Lastly, on his journey, he always paid attention to the grapevine news about the travelers passing through the nearby region, and one of them was Capt. Bower from London, with whom he became friends later.
Rockhill, William Woodville. Explorations in Mongolia and Tibet. Smithsonian Institution. Annual report; 1892.
Entry by Tenzin Doma Lama
Rockhill, William Woodville. Explorations in Mongolia and Tibet. Smithsonian Institution. Annual report ; 1892