Trans-Himalaya – Discoveries and Adventurers in Tibet, Vol. 1

Trans-Himalaya – Discoveries and Adventurers in Tibet, Vol. 1 – Sven Hedin

One of the most important travel books ever written is the story of Dr. Sven Hedin’s discoveries and adventures in Tibet, which he has brought out in two volumes under the general title “Trans-Himalaya.” Besides being a closely woven, carefully prepared account of the achievements of a scientific explorer, geographer, and ethnologist, this work is an entertainingly told story of startling experiences, exciting adventures, and really remarkable achievements in the field of exploration. The expedition of this Swedish explorer started in August, 1906, entering the Forbidden Land from the northwest. He thoroughly explored the country, penetrating with the aid of his thirty-seven Asiatic followers into sections in which not only had no Western man ever trodden, but in which the existence, even, of Europe was unknown. Dr. Hedin’s description of his meeting with the Tashi Lama shows that head of the Buddhist church to be not a divinity in human form but a man who in kindness of heart, innocence, and purity approaches as near as possible to perfection. This is volume one out of two.

Trans-Himalaya - Discoveries and Adventurers in Tibet, Vol. 1

Trans-Himalaya – Discoveries and Adventurers in Tibet, Vol. 1.

Format: eBook

Trans-Himalaya – Discoveries and Adventurers in Tibet, Vol. 1.

ISBN: 9783849663117  (eBook)


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In the spring of the year 1905 my mind was much occupied with thoughts of a new journey to Tibet. Three years had passed since my return to my own country; my study began to be too small for me; at eventide, when all around was quiet, I seemed to hear in the sough of the wind a voice admonishing me to “come back again to the silence of the wilderness”; and when I awoke in the morning, I involuntarily listened for caravan bells outside. So the time passed till my plans were ripened and my fate was soon decided; I must return to the freedom of the desert and hie away to the broad plains between the snow-clad mountains of Tibet. Not to listen to this secret voice when it speaks strongly and clearly means deterioration and ruin; one must resign oneself to the guidance of this invisible hand, have faith in its divine origin and in oneself, and submit to the gnawing pain which another departure from home, for so long a time and with the future uncertain, brings with it.

In the concluding lines of my scientific work on the results of my former journey (Scientific Results) I spoke of the impossibility of giving a complete description of the internal structure of Tibet, its mountains and valleys, its rivers and lakes, while so large a part of the country was still quite unknown. “Under these circumstances,” I said (vol. iv. p. 608), “I prefer to postpone the completion of such a monograph till my return from the journey on which I am about to start.” Instead of losing myself in conjectures or arriving at confused results owing to lack of material, I would rather see with my own eyes the unknown districts in the midst of northern Tibet, and, above all, visit the extensive areas of entirely unexplored country which stretches to the north of the upper Brahmaputra and has not been traversed by Europeans or Indian pundits. Thus much was à priori certain, that this region presented the grandest problems which remained still unsolved in the physical geography of Asia. There must exist one or more mountain systems running parallel with the Himalayas and the Karakorum range; there must be found peaks and ridges on which the eye of the explorer had never lighted; turquoise-blue salt lakes in valleys and hollows reflect the restless passage of the monsoon clouds north-eastwards, and from their southern margins voluminous rivers must flow down, sometimes turbulent, sometimes smooth. There, no doubt, were nomad tribes, who left their winter pastures in spring, and during the summer wandered about on the higher plains when the new grass had sprung up from the poor soil. But whether a settled population dwelt there, whether there were monasteries, where a lama, punctual as the sun, gave the daily summons to prayer from the roof by blowing through a shell,—that no one knew. Tibetan literature, old and recent, was searched in vain for information; nothing could be found but fanciful conjectures about the existence of a mighty chain, which were of no value as they did not accord with the reality and were not based on any actual facts. On the other hand, a few travelers had skirted the unknown country on the north and south, east and west, myself among the number. Looking at a map, which shows the routes of travelers in Tibet, one might almost suppose that we had purposely avoided the great white patch bearing on the recently published English map only the word “Unexplored.” Hence it might be concluded that it would be no easy feat to cross this tract, or otherwise someone would ere now have strayed into it. In my book Central Asia and Tibet I have fully described the desperate attempts I made in the autumn and winter of 1901 to advance southwards from my route between the Zilling-tso and the Pangong-tso. One of my aims was to find an opportunity of visiting one or more of the great lakes in Central Tibet which the Indian pundit, Nain Sing, discovered in 1874, and which since then had never been seen except by the natives. During my former journey I had dreamt of discovering the source of the Indus, but it was not then my good fortune to reach it. This mysterious spot had never been inserted in its proper place on the map of Asia—but it must exist somewhere. Since the day when the great Macedonian Alexander (in the year 326 B.C.) crossed the mighty stream with his victorious host, the question of the situation of this spot has always stood in the order of the day of geographical exploration.

It was both impossible and unnecessary to draw up beforehand a complete plan of a journey of which the course and conclusion were more than usually uncertain and depended on circumstances quite beyond my control. I did, indeed, draw on a map of Tibet the probable route of my journey, that my parents and sisters might know roughly whereabouts I should be. If this map be compared with my actual route it will be seen that in both cases the districts visited are the same, but the course and details are totally different.

In the meantime, I wrote to Lord Curzon, then Viceroy of India, informed him of my plan, and begged for all the assistance that seemed to me necessary for a successful journey in disturbed Tibet, so lately in a state of war.

Soon after I received the following letter, which I reproduce here with the consent of the writer:

Viceregal Lodge, Simla,

1.       July 6, 1905.

My dear Dr. Hedin—I am very glad that you propose to act upon my advice, and to make one more big Central Asian journey before you desist from your wonderful travels.

I shall be proud to render you what assistance lies in my power while I still remain in India, and only regret that long before your great expedition is over I shall have left these shores. For it is my intention to depart in April 1906.

Now as regards your plan. I gather that you will not be in India before next spring, when perhaps I may still see you. I will arrange to have a good native surveyor ready to accompany you, and I will further have a man instructed in astronomical observations and in meteorological recording—so as to be available for you at the same time.

I cannot say what the attitude of the Tibetan Government will be at the time that you reach India. But if they continue friendly, we will of course endeavour to secure for you the requisite permits and protections.

Assuring you that it will give me the greatest pleasure in any way to further your plans,—I am yours sincerely,


It may easily be conceived how important this active protection and help on the part of the Viceroy was to me. I was especially pleased that I was allowed to take with me native topographers experienced in survey work, for with their co-operation the maps to be compiled would be far more valuable, while, released from this complicated work which takes up so much time, I could devote myself entirely to researches in physical geography.

With this kind letter at starting, I commenced my fifth journey to Asia. Lord Curzon had, indeed, when I reached India, already left his post, and a new Government was shortly to take the helm in England with Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman as premier. But Lord Curzon’s promises were the words of a Cæsar, and I had not the slightest doubt that a Liberal Government would respect them.

On October 16, 1905, the same day on which I had started twelve years before on my journey through Asia, I again left my dear old home in Stockholm. This time it seemed far more uncertain whether I should see all my dear ones again; sometime or other the chain that binds us must be broken. Would it be granted me to find once more my home unchanged?

I travelled via Constantinople and the Black Sea, through Turkish Armenia, across Persia to Seistan, and through the deserts of Baluchistan to Nushki, where I reached the most western offshoot of the Indian railway system. After the dust and heat of Baluchistan, Quetta seemed to me a fine fresh oasis. I left this town on May 20, 1906, descended in four hours from a height of 5500 feet to a country lying only 300 feet above sea-level, and found in Sibi a temperature of 100° F. in the evening. Next day I passed along the Indus and Sutlej through Samasata and Batinda to Ambala, and I was now, in the hottest part of the year, the only European in the train. The temperature rose to 107°, the height I had shortly before recorded in Baluchistan, but it was much more endurable in the shady carriage, which was protected by a roof and hanging screens from the direct heat of the sun; it was well, however, to avoid touching the outside of the carriage, for it was burning hot. Two window openings are covered with a tissue of root-fibers which are automatically kept moist, and a wind-catcher sends a draught into the carriage through the wet matting. At a window like this the temperature even at noon was only 81½°, and therefore I had nothing to complain of. At some stations there are excellent restaurants, and natives travelling on the train sell on the way lemonade and ice as clear as glass.

Nevertheless in India’s sultry dried-up plains one longs for the mountains with their pure cool air. From Kalka a small narrow-gauge railway carries one in 6½ hours to a height of 7080 feet, and one finds oneself in Simla, the summer residence of the Viceroy and the headquarters of the Indian Army. The road is one of the most charming and magnificent in the world. The little railway climbs up the steep flanks in the boldest curves, descends the slopes into deep and narrow ravines, passes along steep mountain spurs, where the train seems as though it would plunge into space from the extreme point; then the train crosses bridges which groan and tremble under its weight, enters pitch-dark tunnels, and again emerges into the blinding sunshine. Now we run along a valley, catching a glimpse of the bottom far below us, then mount upwards to a ridge affording an extensive view on both sides, then again traverse a steep slope where several sections of the marvelously winding line can be seen below. The scene changes every other minute, new contours and landscapes present themselves, new points of view and lights and shades follow one another and keep the attention of the traveler on the stretch. There are 102 tunnels on the route, most of them quite short, but the longest has a length of three-quarters of a mile.

We pass through one zone of vegetation after another. The flora of the plain is left far behind; now the eye notices new forms in new zones—forms characteristic of the various heights of the southern slopes of the Himalayas—and at last appear the dark deodar forests, the royal Himalayan cedars, with their luxuriant green foliage, amidst which are embedded the houses of Simla like swallows’ nests. How fascinating is this sight, but how much more imposing as a symbol of the power of the British Empire! Here the eagle has its eyry, and from its point of vantage casts its keen eyes over the plains of India. Here converge innumerable telegraph wires from all the corners and extremities of the British Empire, and from this center numerous orders and instructions are daily dispatched “On His Majesty’s Service only”; here the administration is carried on and the army controlled, and a host of maharajas are entangled in the meshes like the prey in the nest of a spider.

I approached Simla with some anxiety. Since Lord Curzon’s letter I had heard nothing more from the authorities in India. The singular town on its crescent-shaped ridge appears larger and larger, details become clearer and clearer, there remain only a couple of curves to pass, and then the train rolls into the station at Simla. Two servants from the Foreign Office, in scarlet liveries, took possession of my luggage, and I was welcomed in the Grand Hotel by my old friend Colonel Sir Francis Younghusband—we kept Christmas together in Kashgar in 1890, and he was just as friendly and pleasant as then. I was his guest at dinner in the United Service Club. During half the night we reveled in old reminiscences of the heart of Asia, spoke of the powerful Russian Consul-General, Petrovski, in Kashgar, of the English expedition to Lhasa, which was led by Younghusband, of life in Simla and the coming festivities in the summer season—but of my prospects my friend did not utter a word! And I did not ask him; I could believe that if everything had been plain and straightforward he would have told me at once. But he was silent as the grave, and I would not question him, though I was burning with impatience to learn something or other.

When I went out on to my balcony on the morning of May 23, I felt like a prisoner awaiting his sentence. Below me the roofs of Simla glittered in the sunshine, and I stood on a level with the tops of the cedars; how delightful it was here far above the heavy sultry air of the plain. To the north, through a gap in the luxuriant woods, appeared a scene of incomparable beauty. There gleamed the nearest ranges of the Himalayas covered with eternal snow. The crest shone white against the turquoise-blue sky. The air was so clear that the distance seemed insignificant; only a few days’ journey separated me from these mountains, and behind them lay mysterious Tibet, the forbidden land, the land of my dreams. Later on, towards mid-day, the air became hazy and the glorious view vanished, nor was it again visible during the few weeks I spent in Simla. It seemed as though a curtain had fallen between me and Tibet, and as though it had been vouchsafed to me to see only once from a distance the mountains over which the road led into the land of promise.

It was a sad day; at twelve o’clock I was to hear my sentence. Younghusband came for me and we went together to the Foreign Secretary’s Office. Sir Louis Dane received me with great amiability, and we talked of Persia and the trade route between India and Seistan. Suddenly he became silent, and then said after a pause:

“It is better you should know at once; the Government in London refuses you permission to pass into Tibet across the Indian frontier.”

“Sad news! But why is this?”

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