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Friday, 22 January 2021

Lamas of the Western Heavens Part 2

“Brother, are you at peace?”

The Houng Mao Eul turned quickly round and shouted at the top of his voice: “You tortoise egg, what is it to you whether I at war or at peace. What right have you to call brother, a man who has never seen you before?” 

This exchange took place at the town of Tang Keou Eul with particularly barbarous inhabitants. 

The Houng Mao Eul, as described by Huc had black greasy hair hanging down to their shoulders and covering much of their face. They carried broad sabres hilts embedded with jewels. The more prosperous wore robes edged with tiger skin, and they spoke in short, rasping sentences ‘vaguely metallic.’ It must have been an unsettling start to their journey:

‘The town appears a den of brigands. Everyone is dishevelled and untidily dressed. The entire population shouts, jostles, fights and often blood flows. In the depths of winter – and this land is extremely cold – arms and legs remain bare. To dress sensibly was seen as a  sign of cowardice. 

They journeyed on to Kounboum and, to them, the equally weird Amdo who had a thing about butter. 

The Amdo at least were more peaceful. Every year, incredibly detailed works of art were sculpted from butter. These were on a vast scale and depicted in minute detail texture, fur, fabric even races—Africans—heard of but not seen. Temples competed with each other and people wandered from one to another in judgement. Finally, the Grand Lama of Kounboum inspected each one, space made for him by attendant lamas carrying long black whips. To Huc, he looked glum and bored out of his mind. 

And then, what everyone had been waiting for, the great butter statues and friezes were demolished and thrown down ravines for ravens to feed on while the inhabitants of Kounboum got riotously drunk. Bit like Christmas with butter. And like Christmas, it came around every year, with ever new and ambitious friezes and sculptures carved and finessed from butter and then discarded.

The two missionaries rested awhile near the Blue Sea surrounded by plains of tall grass, Mongolian herders and Brigands. It was because of the latter they were persuaded to wait for the return of the Tibetan Ambassador enroute to Lhasa from Peking. The Ambassadorial train was spectacular to say the least, with its 15,00 yaks, 1,200 horses, as many camels, and 2000 men. The ambassador himself—the Tchanak Kampo— resting on a large litter carried by mules. An escort of 300 Chinese soldiers and 200 Tartar warriors protected both him and the caravan.

Americans often talk of the Oregon Trail and stories of the Donner Pass. This journey had its dangers, too. Crossing the mountains of Bourhan Bota saw them struggling against poisoned gases—Carbonic acid gas being heavier than air settled at ground level poisoning animals and men and making it almost impossible to light fires. 

At the base of Mount Chuga they were caught by prolonged and ferocious blizzards, and in the white-out (even with 1500 yaks) it proved almost impossible to locate enough dung to make fire.

Conditions became even more terrible in what Huc termed the ‘death wilderness’ beneath the great chain of mountains—the Bayen Kharat—between the Blue and Yellow rivers. He describes how, from a distance, they saw a series of dark lumps in a frozen river. These, it transpired, were fifty wild ox frozen in transparent ice, their legs caught in the motion of swimming.


As conditions worsened, Huc describes how the ox and yaks were forced to walk bow-legged because their long haired stomachs turned into long and heavy stalactites.

And if it wasn’t ice, it was fire where he first appreciated the irredeemable stupidity of camels:


"A moment of carelessness saw the caravan menaced by a fast-moving grass fire. Whilst the rest of the camp saw to the yak and horses, the two missionaries focused on rescuing their four precious camels:

‘…we pushed and beat those silly camels to try to force them to run, but in vain. They stood still, turning their heads around coolly, as if asking us what right we had to come and stop them from grazing. We could have killed them! The flames ate up the grass at such speed that it soon reached the camels. Their long thick coats caught fire, and we had to run at them with rugs to put out the flames. We were able to save three."

It must have been a relief when from a high mountain peak and after eighteen months of travelling,  they spied Lhasa on the 29th of January, 1846.

A momentous journey and worse yet to come; a tribute to daring and courage. However within days of reaching their goal their reaction was predictable, perhaps disappointing, but then they weren't 'New Age Hippies' looking to find themselves. Only certainty had got them through this far. Writing of Lassa, 

 Huc wrote how the houses were whitewashed and pretty from a distance, but smoky and smelly inside, ‘whited sepulchres like all false and pagan religions.’

 For those wishing to trace their route again eg Mount Chugu - the map is below.

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