Popular Science Monthly/Volume 21/August 1882/The Topmost Country of the Earth


By Lieutenant G. KREITLER.

THE name Thibet, as we call that highland, the natural isolation of which gives it a unique position in the world, is not known among the people who inhabit it. The Thibetans call their country Bod, or Bod-yirl; the inhabitants of the northern slopes near the great desert call it Tungut; the Chinese, Si-fan. The highland proper rises in the form of a huge elongated segment of a circle from the adjacent lowlands, and is formed by Nature herself, through the sharply denned rocky precipices that inclose it on every side, into a separate part of the world. The country is bordered on the south by the heaven-aspiring crests of the Himalayan system, consisting of three nearly parallel ranges, the southernmost of which forms the real roof of the Thibetan highland. Impenetrable tropical woods rising from the fever-breeding forest and swamp lands are met at a considerable height by the pine-growths, the whole forming a wonderful panorama; above these rise the rocky walls bearing in their clefts the eternal ice which glitters and sparkles in the clear sunlight like a gigantic diamond. Similar in structure, but made more imposing by the fact that the steep precipices are planted directly on the untilled plain of the Tarim basin, without any notable intermediate slopes, rises the extreme chain of the Kuenlun system as the northern boundary of the Thibetan highland. The western boundary is formed by the chain of the Karakorum, with its Triassic and Carboniferous formations, and the furrowed Pamir plain; and the eastern boundary by the curved declivities of the Himalaya system itself, descending with a somewhat more gentle slope toward China. Penetrated by numerous streams which, as a whole, maintain a north and south course, the intervening mountain-regions present formidable impediments to communication. The traveler is overlooked from all directions by icy mountain-peaks that rise to an average height of at least twenty thousand feet. The high table-land itself presents a sad aspect. The enormous height and the climatal conditions dependent upon it restrict vegetation within a narrow limit. No trees are found there, or cultivated fields, no flowers or fruits; and the green spots on which the stunted lavender maintains a precarious existence may be counted among the broad basins filled with gravel and pebbles. The winds bring no moisture. The sparse snow-falls of the year are not enough to impart productivity to the earth, and the plateau is nearly destitute of animal and plant life.

The Thibetan settlements are almost entirely situated in the valleys of the larger rivers, which the relatively lower situation, the higher degree of moisture in the atmosphere, and the possibility of irrigation enable the inhabitants to bring to a measure of tillability. A certain degree of fertility of the soil of the capital can not be denied. Two principal rivers have their sources at a nodal point in the Himalayas, whence they cross the more southern country and India from left to right. They are the Indus in the west and the Sampo in the east. The course of the Indus is well known and marked, but all that has been ascertained of the Sampo is that it maintains a nearly easterly course to southeast of Lassa, after which it is still in doubt whether it becomes the Brahmapootra or the Irrawaddy.

The climate is very severe. The temperature in winter often falls to from 13° to 22° below zero; all the rivers and lakes are covered with ice as early as November, and even in April the sun has not acquired vivifying force enough to melt their crystal surfaces.

No European is allowed to pass over the southern boundary of this country. The East Indian Government has made several attempts to gather information about it, but has been baffled. Colonel Montgomery, a few years ago, conceived the idea of instructing young Indian Buddhists in geography, and sending them to Thibet in the guise of natives. Carrying only indispensable instruments with them, they have been exploring the plateau since 1865, and have till recently returned regularly to India with valuable information. The suspicion of the Thibetans was, however, at last aroused, and a pundit sent in 1879 was not allowed to reach Lassa, but, some of his words having been overheard and his mission divined, he was compelled to flee, leaving most of his baggage behind him. An imperfect map of the country was made in the beginning of the eighteenth century, by order of the Emperor of China, with the aid of the Roman Catholic missionaries, but its data rest upon report rather than upon the results of actual observation. It has been, however, the foundation on which all our maps of the region have had to rest.

The Thibetan legend of the origin of the people is that, in the beginning, only one man and his three sons lived on the table-land. They had no houses or tents, but led a migratory life, without being troubled with the cares of existence, for the land was not then desert, or poor, or cold. Trees were growing which afforded choice fruits, rice flourished without man having to labor to raise it, and the tea-plant thrived in the fields that Buddha afterward changed into stony places. Thibet was then all the more a fortunate, rich land, because these four men, then the only living creatures in the world, knew nothing of war and contention, but lived in unity and peace. At last the father suddenly died. Each of his sons wanted his body, to dispose of it in his own way. This was the first dispute. The corpse lay for some days on a large rock, and the sons avoided one another. At last the eldest son made a proposition: "Why should we be alienated because a misfortune has happened to us all in common? Let us be agreed, and divide the body." They all accepted the proposition. The corpse was divided into three parts, and each son took a part. The eldest son got the head. He went away toward the east, and became the father of the Chinese, who excel in craft and have great skill in trade. The second son was satisfied with his dead father's limbs. He also left his home and settled where the great Desert of Gobi gives his posterity, the Mongols, plenty of room; their characteristic is restlessness. The youngest son received the breast and bowels. He remained in Thibet, and from him are descended the Thibetan people, who are distinguished in ordinary intercourse by good nature, openness, and cordiality, in war by courage and enthusiasm.

The knowledge that Ptolemy had of the country consisted of obscure sketches which were closely connected with stories of the Chinese capital. Herodotus tells something of the wealth of the land in gold. He says that the gold was found by ants and collected by them into large heaps which were guarded by griffins; and he also tells that a number of Hindoos once got into the country at night when the guardians were asleep, gathered up as much gold as they could carry away on their shoulders, and went back to their homes rich.

The expedition of Count Szechenyi, to which I was attached as a geographer, was permitted, a little more than a year ago (in 1880), to add a little to our geographical knowledge of the eastern part of the Thibetan highland, particularly of the table of Chung-yen, where no European had ever before penetrated. The priests used every means in their power to prevent our carrying out our project of going to Lassa; and, when they at last came out against us with a thousand soldiers, we were compelled to leave the main road and force our way to the south.

The Thibetans belong to the great Mongolian race, but they are distinguished in many respects, and to their advantage, from their congeners, the Mongols proper and the Chinese. The external characteristics which they have more or less in common with them are the small black eyes, the prominent cheek-bones, the flattened nose, large mouth, and thin lips. They are, like all mountaineers, stout and strong. When I saw Thibetans for the first time at Ta-tsien-lu, I was prepossessed with them. They had come down out of the high mountains and wild clefts expressly to see us Europeans. The contrast between them and the Chinese was made clear not only by their imposing appearance, but also by their earnest quietude and the grave demeanor they maintained in the midst of the crowd of shrieking and boisterous Chinese townsmen. These robust, muscular figures, with weather-browned, wrinkled, thin, earnest faces, were the people called "wild" by the Chinese; and their black, deep-set eyes, framed in a tangled forest of straggling hair, glowed with the fierce fire of religious fanaticism.

The men are always armed, if not with a Chinese matchlock, with the sword of their country, a weapon often of marvelous workmanship, having the hilt adorned with turquoises and the sheath richly chased. Every one wears on his breast, as an amulet against evil spirits, a casket of gold, silver, or copper, containing various forms of incantation. The women and girls, with their two braids of raven hair, their brightly colored, chubby cheeks, their ample drapery, and their precious ornaments of metal and jewels, drive their puny Chinese rivals quite out of the field of comparison. Variety rules in the Thibetan dress, particularly in the arrangement of the women's hair. Sometimes it is worn in two braids, sometimes re-enforced with great structures of yak-hair; always, if the wearer is able, adorned with jewels, silver ornaments, or strings of coins. The women's faces are never clean, but the custom prevails of soiling them purposely.

Their dwellings are situated, either scattered or in little hamlets, wherever tillable soil can be found. Their houses rather resemble defensive towers than residences: they are made of drift-stones, of one story or more, and are expected to accommodate the domestic animals as well as the family; and, if the house is of one story only, the arrangement is apt to be rather promiscuous. The separation is more effective if the house has an additional story; but in the houses of the better class the only means provided for the family to reach the upper stories are split trunks of trees, with notches for steps cut in the round side. The rooms are dark and gloomy, well ventilated through the half-stopped chinks in the walls, with a fire in the middle of the floor, and light bunks or the floor itself for beds, but innocent of any other furniture except a low table and two or three skin mats; chairs and benches are known only by hearsay. The only roof is a flat platform over the rooms, on which the crops are spread in dry weather and the inhabitants sun themselves in the winter, and where a shrine of Buddha is often erected. The nomadic, cattle-raising Thibetans live in tents, which they weave from the hair of their domestic animals.

The Thibetans are pleasantly disposed, and intercourse with them would be cordial and agreeable were not the free development of their natural traits restricted by the pressure of their religion. Frank and hearty in word and deed and in everything that is not connected with religion, generous in intercourse and in trade with the crafty Chinese, they always come out second best when they have dealings with them. They are brave soldiers and feared as such, but are never cruel. The men are fond of gymnastic exercises, and try their strength together at every opportunity. They are excellent pedestrians and horsemen, and are extravagantly proud if they can boast of having the best horse in the place. As porters they have wonderful powers of endurance. While we Europeans, suffering in the thin air of an elevation of seventeen thousand feet, had to stop often to recover our breaths, I could not but envy our Thibetan bearers, who kept on up the heights with their heavy loads, as often as not singing. Their social intercourse is marked by sharp, sprightly wit and humor; but some of the upper classes ape the artificial courtly manners of the Chinese.

The principal food of the country is called jamba. To make it a quantity of powdered tea is cooked for several hours, after which it is poured into a churn, when salt and butter are added, and the whole is stirred till a complete mixture is effected. The broth is then divided among the hungry ones, each of whom gets his share in a wooden bowl, after which a sack of roasted barley-meal is brought out. Every one takes a handful of meal from the sack, puts it into the tea and mixes the mass into a shapely lump, and swallows his dough with a keen appetite. I have seen a Thibetan devour thirty-two of these lumps in an hour. The preparation of this meal makes it possible for each Thibetan to have his hands washed twice a day. After the meal is over, the wooden bowls are licked clean with the tongue, and worn on the breast next to the skin as something precious.

Polyandry is practiced, not on account of any lack of women, for there is no such lack, but as a measure of economy. When the eldest son marries, his wife becomes also the wife of all his brothers. The custom does not lead to so many difficulties as it might be supposed it would, and the chief troubles arising out of it concern the fatherhood of the children. The housewife occupies rather a commanding than a subordinate position.

Three ways of burying the dead prevail. The poor sink their dead in one of the mountain-streams; those of a better class hang the bodies upon a tree, where they are consumed by birds, and the bones are afterward thrown into the river; the rich cut the bodies up into small pieces, pound the bones and mix them with jamba, and then carry the remains to the mountains, where they are left for the birds. These are old customs, and have no connection with religion.

Buddhism was introduced in the seventh century, and soon became the national religion. The present line of Dalai Lamas is in succession to the reformer Tsong-Kaba, who flourished in the fourteenth century, and denounced the corruptions into which the religion had fallen. The branch of the church which it represents is called the yellow sect, in distinction from the red sect of followers of the old dynasty, which prevails in the principalities of the southern Himalaya range. A dynasty of lamas, the Teshu lamas, founded by another reformer in the fifteenth century, resides at Teshulumbo, near Shigatze, and is on the best of terms with the Dalai Lamas. The lamas are believed only to change form when they die, their identity passing to some child. So, on the demise of the Dalai Lama, the new lama is sought out in ways that are known to the priests, and is always found in some obscure family, thus leaving people of any influence always free from governmental care and influence. He is carefully brought up, so as to be always as a child, and under the entire control of the priests, who receive their reward in the power they exercise, and in the rich gifts that are brought by the pilgrims who come from all Buddhist countries to seek the Dalai Lama's blessing. Besides the two orthodox chiefs, there exist in Thibet and Mongolia one hundred and three Kutuktus, or heads of cloisters, to whom an immortality similar to that of the Grand Lamas is ascribed.

The priests, by virtue of their ownership of all the land in the country, exercise a despotic power over the people, who can hold only as their tenants, and keep them under complete spiritual control. They are thus enabled to keep the country isolated, and to defy the Chinese Government, while they are willing and even anxious to enjoy its protection.