Home >mint-lounge >features >From Nepal to Lhasa: Report of a route-survey

This essay is part of a report read to the Royal Geographic Society, London, on 23 March 1868 by Captain T.E. Montgomerie, in-charge of the Trans-Himalayan Survey Parties. Pundit Nain Singh and his brother were employed by the British to conduct a secret survey of Tibet, a mission of great secrecy and high risk. At the time of the writing of this report they were still employed on explorations and could not be named in it.

The route between Kathmandu and Kumaon taken by the Pundit is the worst part of the whole of his route. It crosses the Himalayas twice, and also several high passes, and the road on the Cis-Himalayan side is particularly rough and rocky, with great ascents and descents. It was consequently to be expected that his pace would be somewhat shorter than on the route between Tadum and Gyangze, which runs the whole distance by the easiest slopes possible, without crossing a single steep pass…

...Between the Mansarowar lake and Lhasa the Pundit travelled by the great road called the Jong-lam (or Whor-lam), by means of which the Chinese officials keep up their communications for 800 miles along the top of the Himalayan range from Lhasa, north of Assam, to Gartokh, north-east of Simla. A separate memorandum is given hereafter as to the stages, &c., on this extraordinary road. Starting from Gartokh on the Indus, at 15,500 feet above the sea, the road crosses the Kailas range by a very high pass, descends to about 15,000 feet in Nari Khorsum, the upper basin of the Sutlej, and then coasting along the Eakas Tal, the Mansarowar, and another long lake, rises gradually to the Marihamla pass, the watershed between the Sutlej and Brahmaputra, 15,500 feet above the sea. From the Mariham-la the road descends gradually, following close to the north of the main source of the Brahmaputra, and within sight of the gigantic glaciers, which give rise to that great river.

At about 50 miles from its source the road is for the first time actually on the river, but from that point to Tadum it adheres very closely to the left bank. Just before reaching Tadum the road crosses a great tributary, little inferior to the main river itself. The Tadum monastery is about 14,200 feet above the sea.

From Tadum, the road follows down the Brahmaputra, sometimes close to it, sometimes several miles from it, but at 80 miles east of Tadum the road leaves the river, and crossing some higher ground, descends into the valley of the Baka Sangpo river, which is a great tributary of the Brahmaputra; leaving the Eakas valley, the road crosses over the mountains, and again reaches the Brahmaputra at about 180 miles below Tadum. About 10 miles lower the road changes from the left bank to the right bank, travellers having to cross the great river by ferry-boats near the town of Janglache. Below Janglache, the road follows the river closely to a little below its junction with the Baka Sangpo. From that point the road runs some 10 miles south of the river, crossing the mountains to the large town of Shigatze, 11,800 feet above the sea. From Shigatze the road runs considerably south of the river, it ascends the Penanangchu river, and crossing the Kharola pass, 17,000 feet above the sea, descends into the basin of the Yamdokcho lake. For two long stages the road runs along this great lake, which is 13,700 feet above the sea, then rising sharply, crosses the lofty Khamba-la pass, and descends to the Brahmaputra again, now only 11,400 feet above the sea. Following the great river for one stage more, the road (which has hitherto been running from west to east) here leaves the Brahmaputra, and ascends its tributary, the Kichu Sangpo, in a north-easterly direction for three stages more to Lhasa, which is 11,700 feet above the sea. The total distance is about 800 miles from Gartokh to Lhasa. 

The Karola Glacier. Photo: iStock
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The Karola Glacier. Photo: iStock

This long line of road is generally well-defined, though it is not a made road, in the European sense of the word. The natural slopes over which the road is carried are however wonderfully easy. The Tibetans have, as a rule, simply had to clear away the loose stones, and only in three or four places, for a few miles, has anything in the way of making a road been necessary. 

In many parts there appears to have been considerable danger of losing the road in the open stretches of the table-land, the whole surface looking very much like a road; but this danger is guarded against by the frequent erection of piles of stones, surmounted with flags on sticks, &c. These piles, called lapcha by the Tibetans, were found exceedingly handy for the survey; the quick eye of the Pundit generally caught the forward pile, and even if he did not, he was sure to see the one behind, and in this way generally secured a capital object on which to take his compass bearings. The Tibetans look upon these piles partly as guide posts, and partly as objects of veneration; travellers generally contribute a stone to then as they pass, or if very devout and generous, add a piece of rag; consequently, on a well-used road, these piles grow to a great size, and form conspicuous objects in the landscape. Over the tableland the road is broad and wide enough to allow several travellers to go abreast; in the rougher portions the road generally consists of two or three narrow paths, the width worn by horses, yaks, men, &c., following one another. In two or three places these dwindle down to a single track, but are always passable by a horseman, and, indeed, only in one place, near Phuncholing, is there any difficulty about laden animals. A man on horse back need never dismount between Lhasa and Gartokh, except to cross the rivers.

The Southern Friendship Highway, Lhoka Preftibet. Photo: iStock
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The Southern Friendship Highway, Lhoka Preftibet. Photo: iStock

The road is, in fact, a wonderfully well-maintained one, considering the very elevated and desolate mountains over which it is carried. Between Lhasa and Gartokh there are 22 staging places, called Tarjums, where the baggage animals are changed. These Tarjums are from 20 to 70 miles apart; at each, shelter is to be had, and efficient arrangements are organised for forwarding officials and messengers. The Tarjums generally consist of a house, or houses, made with sundried bricks. The larger Tarjums are capable of holding 150 to 200 men at a time, but some of the smaller can only hold a dozen people; in the latter case, further accommodation is provided by tents. At six Tarjums tents only are forthcoming. Each Tarjum is in charge of an official, called Tarjumpa, who is obliged to have horses, yaks, and coolies in attendance whenever notice is received of the approach of a Lhasa official. From ten to fifteen horses, and as many men, are always in attendance night and day. Horses and beasts of burden (yaks in the higher ground, donkeys in the lower) are forthcoming in great numbers when required; they are supplied by the nomadic tribes, whose camps are pitched near the halting houses.

Though the iron rule of the Lhasa authorities keeps this high road in order, the difficulties and hardships of the Pundit’s march along it cannot be fully realized, without bearing in mind the great elevation at which the road is carried. Between the Mansarowar lake and the Tadum monastery the average height of the road above the sea must be over 15,000 feet, or about the height of Mont Blanc. Between Tadum and Lhasa its average height is 13,500 feet; and only for one stage does the road descend so low as 11,000 feet, whilst on several passes it rises to more than 16,000 feet above the sea. Ordinary travellers with laden animals make two to five marches between the staging-houses, and only special messengers go from one staging-house to another without halting. Between the staging-houses the Pundit had to sleep in a rude tent that freely admitted the biting Tibetan wind, and on some occasions he had to sleep in the open air

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A Tibetan monastery. Photo: iStock
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A Tibetan monastery. Photo: iStock

Bearing in mind that the greater part of this march was made in mid-winter, it will be allowed that the Pundit has performed a feat of which a native of Hindustan, or of any other country, may well be proud. Notwithstanding the desolate track they crossed, the camp was not altogether without creature comforts. The yaks and donkeys carried a good supply of ordinary necessaries, such as grain, barley-meal, tea, butter, &c., and sheep and goats were generally procurable at the halting places. A never-failing supply of fuel, though not of the pleasantest kind, was generally forthcoming from the argols or dried dung of the baggage animals, each camp being supposed to leave behind at least as many argols as it burns. At most of the halting places there is generally a very large accumulation.

A painting of a mountain shelter in Tibet.
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A painting of a mountain shelter in Tibet.

Between the Mansarowar and Sarkajong nothing in the shape of spirits was to be had, but to the eastward of the latter place a liquor made from barley could generally be got in every village. This liquor, called chung, varies in strength, according to the season of the year, being in summer something like sour beer, and in the winter approximating closely in taste and strength to the strongest of smoked whiskey. The good-natured Tibetans are constantly brewing chung, and they never begrudge anyone a drink. Thirsty travellers, on reaching a village, soon find out where a fresh brew has been made; their drinking cups are always handy in their belts, and they seldom fail to get them filled at least once. The Pundit stoutly denied that this custom tended to drunkenness among his Tibetan friends; and it must be allowed that in Ladak, where the same custom prevails, the people never appeared to be much the worse for it; guides had however to be rather closely watched, if the march took them through many villages, as they seldom failed to pull out their cup at each one.

A good deal of fruit is said to be produced on the banks of the Brahmaputra, between Shigatze and Chushul. The Pundit only saw it in a dried state.

When marching along the great road, the Pundit and his companions rose very early; before starting they sometimes made a brew of tea, and another brew was always made about the middle of the march, or a mess of stirabout (suttoo) was made in their cups, with barley-meal and water. On arriving at the end of a march they generally had some more tea at once, to stave off the cravings of hunger, until something more substantial was got ready, in the shape of cakes and meat, if the latter was available. Their marches generally occupied them from dawn till 2 or 3 p.m., but sometimes they did not reach their camping ground till quite late in the evening. On the march they were often passed and met by special messengers, riding along as hard as they could go. The Pundit said these men always looked haggard and worn. They have to ride the whole distance continuously, without stopping either by night or day, except to eat food and change horses. In order to make sure that they never take off their clothes, the breast fastening of their over-coat is sealed, and no one is allowed to break the seal, except the official to whom the messenger is sent. The Pundit says he saw several of the messengers arrive at the end of their 800 miles ride. Their faces were cracked, their eyes blood-shot and sunken, and their bodies eaten by lice into large raws, the latter they attributed to not being allowed to take off their clothes. 

An aerial view of Tibet and Nepal. Photo: Christopher Prentiss Michel
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An aerial view of Tibet and Nepal. Photo: Christopher Prentiss Michel

It is difficult to imagine why the Lhasa authorities are so very particular as to the rapid transmission of official messages, but it seems to be a principle that is acted upon throughout the Chinese empire, as one of the means of government. Ordinary letters have a feather attached to them, and this simple addition is sufficient to carry a letter from Lhasa to Gartokh, 800 miles, in little over thirty days. A messenger arriving at a village with such a letter is at once relieved by another, who takes it on to the next village. This system was frequently made use of by the Surveyors in Ladak and Little Tibet, and it generally answered well.

If any very special message is in preparation, and if time permits, an ordinary messenger is sent ahead to give notice. Food is then kept ready, and the special messenger only remains at staging-house long enough to eat his food, and then starts again on a fresh horse. He rides on day and night, as fast as the horses can carry him. The road throughout can be ridden over at night; if there is no moon the bright starlight of Tibet gives sufficient light. Tibet is rarely troubled by dark nights; but, in case it should be cloudy, or that a horse should break down, two mounted men always accompany the messenger. These men are changed at every stage, and are thoroughly acquainted with their own piece of road. Each of these two men has, at least, two spare horses attached behind the horse he is mounted. If any horse gets tired it is changed at once, and left on the road, to be picked up on the return of the men to their own homes. By this means the messenger makes great progress where the road is good, and is never stopped altogether, even in the rougher portion. A special messenger does the 800 miles in twenty-two days on the average, occasionally in two or three days less, but only on very urgent occasions.

The Pundit made fifty-one marches between Lhasa and the Mansarowar Lake, and his brother makes out the remaining distance to Gartokh seven marches more, or, in all, fifty-eight marches. The Pundit found very few of the marches short, while a great many were very long and tedious…

…From the Mansarowar Lake to Tadtim (140 miles) glaciers seem always to have been visible to the south, but nothing very high was seen to the north; for the next 70 miles the mountains north and south seem to have been lower, but further eastward a very high snowy range was visible to the north, running for 120 miles parallel to the Raka Sangpo River. From Janglache to Gyangze the Pundit seems to have seen nothing high, but he notices a very large glacier between the Penanang valley and the Yamdokcho Lake.

From the lofty Khamba-la Pass the Pundit got a capital view. Looking south he could see over the island in the Yam dokcho Lake, and made out a very high range to the south of the lake; the mountains to the east of the lake did not appear to be quite so high. Looking north the Pundit had a clear view over the Brahmaputra, but all the mountains in that direction were, comparatively speaking, low, and in no way remarkable. 

About Lhasa no very high mountains were seen, and those visible appeared to be all about the same altitude. Hardly any snow was visible from the city, even in winter. From the Mansarowar to Ralung, 400 miles, there were no villages, and no cultivation of any kind. The mountains had a very desolate appearance, but still numerous large camps of black tents, and thousands of sheep, goats, and yaks were seen. The fact being that the mountain sides, though looking so arid and brown, do produce a very nourishing coarse grass. 

To the eastward of Ralung, cultivation and trees were seen every day near the villages. Near the Yamdokcho Lake the lower mountains seem to have had a better covering of grass. The Pundit mentions the island in the Yamdokcho as being very well grassed up to the summit, which must be 16,000 or 17,000 feet above the sea. This extra amount of grass may be due to a larger fall of rain, as the Pundit was informed that the rains were heavy during July and August.

As a rule, the Pundit’s view from the road does not seem to have been very extensive, for although the mountains on either side were comparatively low, they generally hid the distant ranges. 

The only geological fact elicited is that the low range to the east of the Lhasa River was composed of sandstone. According to the Pundit, this sandstone was very like that of the Siwalik range at the southern foot of the Himalayas. 

The probability of this is perhaps increased by the fact that fossil bones are plentiful in the Lhasa district. They are supposed to possess great healing properties when applied to wounds, &c., in a powdered state. The Pundit saw quantities of fossils exposed for sale in the Lhasa bazaar. The people there call them Dug-rupa, or lightning bones. One fossil particularly struck the Pundit; it consisted of a skull which was about two-and-a-half feet long, and one-and-a-half feet broad. The jaws were elongated, but the points had been broken off. The mountains crossed were generally rounded with easy slopes. The roundness of those on the Yamdokcho Island seems to have been very remarkable; this general roundness and easiness of slope probably points to former glacier or ice action.

Besides the Yamdokcho, a good many smaller lakes were seen, and two much larger ones were heard of. Those seen by the Pundit were all at about 14,000 feet above the sea. There are hardly any lakes in the lower Himalayas; the few that exist being all at, or below, 6,000 feet, but from about 14,000 to 15,000 feet lakes and tarns are particularly numerous.* This may be another evidence of former ice action. 

Whilst the Pundit was at Shigatze and Lhasa, he took a series of thermometer observations to determine the temperature of the air. During November, at Shigatze, the thermometer always fell during the night below the freezing point, even inside a house. The lowest temperature recorded was 25°, and during the day the temperature hardly ever rose to 50°. At Lhasa, in February, the thermometer generally fell below 32° during the night, and the lowest observed temperature was 26°; during the day it seldom rose to 45°. During the whole time the Pundit was in the Lhasa territory, from September to the end of June, it never rained, and snow only fell once whilst he was on the march, and twice whilst in Lhasa.

The snow-fall at Shigatze was said to be never more than 12 inches; but the cold in the open air must have been intense, as the water of running streams freezes if the current is not very strong. 

Excerpted with permission from Himalaya: Adventures, Meditations, Life, an anthology edited by Ruskin Bond and Namita Gokhale (Speaking Tiger). Price, 799.

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