Small wonder . . . that Tibet has captured the imagination of mankind. Its peculiar aloofness, its remote unruffled calm, and the mystery shrouding its great rivers and mountains make an irresistible appeal to the explorer. There are large areas of Tibet where no white man has ever trod.
-Francis Kingdon-Ward, Riddle of the Tsangpo Gorges
In early 1924, when Francis Kingdon-Ward set sail from London bound for Calcutta and, eventually, the Tsangpo River Gorge in southeastern Tibet, he was under no illusions about the challenges ahead. At thirty-nine, Kingdon-Ward was among the world's most experienced and successful plant collectors. Having served for thirteen years as a field agent in Asia for the Cheshire seed firm of Bees & Company, he was responsible for having introduced scores of exotic species to the gardens of England, from the showy yellow-bloomed rhododendron R. wardii, named in his honor, to numerous primroses, lilies, and poppies. His first commission for Bees, in 1911 as a young man of twenty-five, had taken him to the mountains of south-central China's Yunnan Province and the adjoining ranges of Tibet, not far from his intended destination on this expedition. Traveling with a personal servant and an enormous Tibetan mastiff called Ah-poh that he had found as a stray, he had spent the better part of 1911 hunting for hardy alpine species that he felt would thrive in England's temperate climate. The work was time-consuming and, because he was toiling at a breathtaking altitude, exceptionally demanding. After locating likely candidates while they were still in flower, he would have to return months later to collect their seeds, sometimes having to excavate marked specimens from beneath several feet of snow at ten thousand feet above sea level. Afterward, the seeds and plants--he was also collecting whole specimens for private herbariums and for the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh--had to be painstakingly dried, cataloged, and packed for shipment home to England. And he had to record his field notes faithfully, every night.
By the end of a year, Kingdon-Ward had collected some two hundred species, twenty-two of them new to science. He completed his fieldwork with a forced march of three weeks, finally straggling into the Chinese town of T'eng-yueh, where he'd started out. He looked frightful: "My hair was long and unkempt, my . . . feet were sticking out of my boots, my riding breeches torn and my coat worn through at the elbows," he wrote in The Land of the Blue Poppy, the second of his twenty-five books and, according to his biographer Charles Lyte, his best work. For six months after exhausting his food stores, Kingdon-Ward had managed on meager rations of native fare: tsampa (the roasted barley flour that is the staple of Tibetan diets), bitter brick tea, yak milk and butter, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and eggs when he could find them. He and his servant, Kin, had suffered illnesses, awful weather, mutinous muleteers and porters, landslides, and loneliness (especially Kingdon-Ward, who waged a lifelong battle against bouts of black depression). A revolution that rocked Yunnan Province after the fall of the Manchu Dynasty in 1911 had filled the hills with army deserters, who turned to banditry for survival. As a foreigner traveling with loaded pack animals, Kingdon-Ward was a prime target, and he was also subject to repeated questioning by wary officials. After all, it had been only seven years since British forces under Col. Francis Younghusband had made a bloody march on Lhasa, Tibet's capital, to impose British will over the recalcitrant nation. Until then Tibet had rebuffed British overtures to align with the empire and to resist Russian advances in Central Asia, and had sealed its borders. Younghusband, an archimperialist and key player in a political intrigue known as the Great Game, led a force of twelve hundred soldiers, ten thousand porters, and as many pack animals from Darjeeling, India, over the Himalayas and into the "Forbidden Kingdom." His troops slaughtered seven hundred poorly armed Tibetans in one infamous skirmish alone, and ultimately forced the government to sign a treaty of cooperation.
While Tibet was a perilous place for foreigners in 1911, its great river gorges were a plant hunter's nirvana. As Kingdon-Ward explained, there are actually two Tibets: the high, arid plateau where rivers such as the Tsangpo, Salween, and Mekong trace their upper courses, and the more formidable gorge country that comprises the rivers' middle sections. It is in the latter regions, after having meandered eastward and southeastward across the plateau, that the rivers turn south and bore through the Himalayas and barrier ranges east of Namche Barwa, the last major peak in the chain. After rampaging down through the mountains, the rivers spill out onto the plains of northern India, Burma, and Laos to eventually make their way to the sea.
Waxing eloquent, Kingdon-Ward described the gorge country as a land "of dim forest and fragrant meadow, of snow-capped mountains and alpine slopes sparkling with flowers, of crawling glaciers and mountain lakes and brawling rivers which crash and roar through the mountain gorges; . . . of lonely monasteries plastered like swallows' nests against the cliffs, and of frowning forts perched upon rocky steeples, whence they look down on villages clustered in the cultivated valleys at their feet."
In this prettified, Shangri-La-esque portrait, however, he neglects to point out that the gorges are also nightmarishly inhospitable. Their jungles teem with leeches, gnats, stinging nettles, venomous snakes, and large, dangerous animals, including Bengal tigers. The densely forested slopes are horrifically steep and often trackless. There are few villages, little cultivation, and not much food to be had. The weather is abominable for most of the year--wilting heat, pouring rain, snow and ice at higher elevations. Catastrophic floods and landslides rearrange the landscape with alarming regularity.
The idea of a Tibetan jungle might seem incongruous given the semidesert conditions that prevail north of the Himalayas. But Tibet lies in the rain shadow of the Himalayas, just as Death Valley does in that of the Sierra Nevada. The range forms a barrier to monsoons that batter the Indian subcontinent with rain. By the time their moisture-laden winds have been deflected up and over the mountains and sweep down onto the Tibetan Plateau, they have dropped their burden and turned dry and hostile to plant life.
But at the eastern end of the Himalayas, east of Namche Barwa's icy ramparts, the monsoon is able to find a way through the mountains by funneling up the gorges. Kingdon-Ward called the roughly two hundred miles between Namche Barwa and the foot of the Yunnan Plateau "the Achilles' heel in that otherwise impenetrable mountain defence which rings Tibet like a wall." Storms rush furiously up through the chasms, dumping quantities of rain and snow as they rise. Thus drenched, the canyon lands are thick with rhododendrons and giant bamboo; higher up, they are blanketed with lovely woodlands of pine, cedar, and poplar, which spread out in fanlike formations behind the Himalayas and then quickly disappear as the arid conditions on the plateau take hold. This breach in the mountains was Kingdon-Ward's lifelong hunting ground, the source of most of the twenty-three thousand species he collected during his career.
In the thirteen years that Kingdon-Ward had been tramping the divide, he had explored every major watershed in it except the Tsangpo's. Approaching its gorge, either from the top by traversing the Tibetan Plateau and following the river downstream or from the bottom by marching upstream from the state of Assam in northeastern India, posed serious problems, due not least to the political upheaval in China and the presence of hostile aborigines in the Abor and Mishimi foothills below the gorge. Still, it was not for lack of trying that he had failed to reach his hoped-for destination.
In 1913, for instance, after chronicling his first expedition in The Land of the Blue Poppy, Kingdon-Ward had returned to China uncertain of his itinerary. But now he had the added support of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS), which had made him a fellow and was eager to have him survey the region. One of his missions, in addition to mapmaking for the RGS and collecting seeds for Bees & Co., the Cheshire plant firm that launched his career as a plant hunter, was to trace the middle course of the Brahmaputra River, or Tsangpo as it is called in Tibet, through the gorge. The connection between the two rivers had been a matter of guesswork until around the turn of the century, when British survey expeditions determined that the Tsangpo fed the Brahmaputra. Yet none of these teams had managed to penetrate the Tsangpo's rugged central canyon. In 1913, it remained a black hole to geographers.
The name Brahmaputra had been fixed in Kingdon-Ward's mind since he had heard it as a boy. His father, Harry Marshall Ward, was a distinguished botanist at Cambridge, and scholars and explorers returning from abroad would often stop at the university to see him. One whom young Frank met had been to India and spoke of the Brahmaputra as a river of mystery. "There are places up the Brahmaputra where no white man has ever been," he is reported to have told the boy. The remark captured Kingdon-Ward's imagination and stayed with him for years. In 1925, when he was writing The Riddle of the Tsangpo Gorges, he would repeat very nearly the same line about Tibet as a whole.
It was on the 1913 expedition that Kingdon-Ward wanted to solve the "riddle" that had been a source of fascination from the drawing rooms of Mayfair to the meeting halls at the RGS: How could the same river that flowed past Lhasa at an altitude of about twelve thousand feet lose so much elevation so rapidly after spilling off the Tibetan Plateau? By the time the river emerges in the Abor Hills at the bottom of the gorge, roughly two hundred miles from the top, it has dropped about ten thousand feet. Somewhere in the depths of the Tsangpo's canyon, the speculation went, there must exist a waterfall to rival or surpass Niagara, or even Victoria Falls on Africa's mighty Zambezi River. Indeed, the idea of a great lost waterfall in the gorge gained further credibility after the link between the Tsangpo and Brahmaputra was established. Were the Tsangpo connected to a more distant river such as the Irrawaddy or Salween, which lie east of the Brahmaputra, its mysterious journey through the mountains would be long enough to bring it down to the foothills without a waterfall. But the prevailing theory in 1913 was that the Tsangpo formed the headwaters of the Brahmaputra, and the only way the two rivers could be linked was if there was a monumental drop somewhere in the gorge.
Thus was born the legend of the Falls of the Brahmaputra--"the great romance of geography," as Kingdon-Ward called it. With typical pluck, he took a crash course at the RGS in surveying and mapmaking before embarking for China in late 1912. But in the field, surveying was for him a distraction from botanizing, and he had little aptitude for the tools of the surveyor's trade--the plane table, which looks like a ruled drawing board mounted on a tripod and is used for recording the lay of the land; the theodolite, a kind of transit to measure vertical and horizontal angles; and various sextants, barometers, clinometers, and compasses. All these instruments were heavy and complicated, and attracted unwanted attention. Anyone, especially a European, found with a plane table and theodolite in Tibet would be suspected of spying.
During the nineteenth century, the British administration's Survey of India had gone to elaborate lengths to develop equipment and methods for its native surveyor-spies, called pundits, to use on covert mapping missions in Tibet. Unlike Kingdon-Ward, with his fair looks, they could disguise themselves as religious pilgrims or traders. Among their few possessions, the pundits carried innocuous-looking prayer wheels in which they concealed compasses and coded route notes; walking staffs that held thermometers for measuring the boiling point of water and converting the results into altitude readings; rosaries strung with a mathematically convenient 100 beads rather than the usual 108, the better to keep track of their uniformly long paces, which they counted carefully, slipping a bead every hundred paces, day after day after day.
In 1874 the pundit Nain Singh was dispatched from India with orders to follow the length of the Tsangpo. Walking west to east, he reached the riverside town of Tsetang, about 250 miles short of the gorge, where he ran out of funds and was forced to return home by a southern route across the Himalayas. Four years later, the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India recruited a lama named Nem Singh--code-named "G.M.N" in survey reports (the middle consonants of his name scrambled)--to carry on beyond Tsetang. After training in clandestine surveying techniques, he set out from Darjeeling with a stouthearted Sikkimese tailor, Kintup, or "K.P." The pair succeeded in reaching the upper end of the gorge and the village of Gyala, but extreme terrain below the hamlet forced them to abandon the effort.
After their journey, about a hundred miles of the river was left uncharted--the stretch between Gyala and the British outpost of Sadiya, in Assam. The river's plumbing in that hundred-mile gap was still unverified. Any one of the three rivers that converged near Sadyia--the Dihang, Dibong, and Lohit Brahmaputra--might have been connected to the Tsangpo, as far as was known in the 1870s. British survey parties had also been working upriver from Assam to find out which of the three it was and, they hoped, to close the hundred-mile gap. Abor guerillas and a dense jungle slowed them to a pathetic pace; some days they could manage only a hundred yards. Lt. Henry Harman, who commanded the surveys, reported that even his dog could not make it through the wall of vegetation and had to be carried. Harman became so debilitated by the tropical climate that he had to return to the Indian hill station of Mussoorie to recuperate.
Harman chose Kintup again for the next mission--to survey the hundred-mile gap--and paired him with a new pundit, a Chinese lama. They crossed into Tibet in 1880 and reached Tsetang without incident. Here the lama fell ill for three weeks, during which time he treated Kintup "very badly," Kintup would later report. Further downriver, they stopped at a village called Thun Tsung and found lodging. The lama, evidently a worldly fellow, developed an eye for the innkeeper's wife and struck up an affair with the woman--that lasted four months. The adulterers were found out, and only when Kintup offered to pay the cuckolded husband twenty-five rupees were the pundits allowed to proceed.
Things went from bad to worse for poor Kintup. By March of 1881, he and the lama had reached Gyala in the gorge. They trekked beyond the village for several miles to the little monastery at Pemakochung. In a report of his debriefing published some years later, Kintup was quoted as saying that two miles below the monastery the Tsangpo fell over a cliff about one hundred and fifty feet high. Beyond this point, the trail along the river peters out, and one must detour up onto the steep, rhododendron-choked slopes above. Kintup and the lama could manage no more and retraced their steps to a fort called Tongkyuk Dzong (dzong means fort), where the lama promptly vanished. Kintup discovered that the scoundrel had sold him into slavery, to the dzongpon (district administrator), and then made a hurried exit.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Siege of Shangri-La by Michael McRae. Copyright © 2002 by Michael McRae. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.