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Ella Maillart's contribution to the book Explorers’ and Travellers’ Tales, Odette Tchernine, Ed., Jarrolds Publishers Ltd, London, 1958:

Tibetan Jaunt

In 1945 I walked through Southern Tibet to Phari Dzong with an English friend whom I shall call B. It was a rather short but enjoyable journey and possibly not worth recalling if between now and then the Bamboo Curtain had not isolated us from Tibet. The political situation makes a journey into that distant country seem again rather difficult. What we saw and did there is suddenly viewed in a different light – the beautiful light that shines over the unattainable. 


Five long years spent in the tropical heat of South India had renewed my longing for the bracing wind of high altitudes. After having suffered day and night from too hot a climate, the white snows of the Himalayas are truly miraculous. Then it is obvious that such immutable mountains are fit for gods. 


I had decided to join my friend B at Kalimpong, a village some 4,300 feet high in Sikkim, near the border of Tibet. She lived there with her daughter Clio aged three, while her husband was fighting the Japanese. B is the most intelligent, gay and courageous person I know. She is a master at reading while knitting in the kitchen and while watching over the cooking pots. Alone she had walked across the Andes in Southern Argentine and crossed from China into Burma over the Hump when that incredible road was under construction. With her husband, in Chitral, near the Afghan border, she nearly climbed to the top of Tirish Mir (25,263 ft.). And like myself she travels light.


I had met her for the first time in 1939 at a party in Delhi. I had liked her at once after she had told me that one of the best travel books was my Turkestan Solo ! Therefore she knew who I was while I had only my instinct to tell me that this tall and beautiful girl with fair hair and blue eyes was fascinating as well as reliable. After a while we had decided to leave the noisy party and go for a walk through Old Delhi with a friend of hers, a man. India was nearly new to me and I wanted to sample the spiced dishes of the local food-shops, a thing very awkward to do when you are alone and a greenhorn abroad. Having similar tastes, we spent a lively evening, while she described how – by looking utterly ignorant and innocent – she had obtained her visa from the consul at Tali Fu to go over the Burma Road which was still closed, and another time had outwitted the Governor in Peshawar so that she could accompany her husband into Chitral which was then closed to white women. 


Now I was travelling and I would soon be with her again. My excitement began at Sealdah Station in Calcutta when I saw two Tibetan women pacing the platform, wearing their beautiful costume. It consists of a brightly striped apron tied over a long sleeveless dress of dark woollen material enhanced by the vivid satin sleeves of the blouse worn underneath. Their black hair was smooth and shining, tightly drawn back to show the sculptured beauty of those brown faces accustomed to living at high altitudes.


I was on my way to their highland. Having already seen the desert waste of northern Tibet, this time I was heading for the villages of southern Tibet, a region unknown to me.


Within twenty-four hours – India was not yet partitioned – it was possible to go from Calcutta to the border of Tibet at an altitude of 14,000 ft. But I was not yet so far. The express train reached Siliguri in the early morning and there I boarded one of the green, toy-like mountain trains that crawl up either towards Darjeeling or towards Gielkola, terminus of a branch line near the great bridge over the Teesta River. 


To the north lay Sikkim – a semi-independent state of 150,000 inhabitants with a Maharajah residing at Gangtok, Sikkim, ensconced between the states of Nepal and Bhutan where one finds the quickest way to Lhasa. Like Lauterbrunnen at the foot of the Bernese Alps, the platform at Siliguri was full of mountain people. What a surprise while still in India to see men with darkly tanned faces, wearing heavy climbing boots, ancient tweeds, rucksacks, and to detect the well known smell peculiar to mountain people, of smoke and sweat in woollen clothes.


At Lauterbrunnen – in my own country – I would have known at once who was who. But at Siliguri I felt very much a novice, especially when I sat in a kind of saloon compartment, watching a man wearing the most curious hat I had ever seen; a sort of wicker basket topped by one beautiful peacock feather. I learned later that it was the uniform of the orderlies of Sikkim. Just before the train started, an elderly man wearing what I then took to be a short Tibetan robe, made of the finest gabardine, got into the compartment, accompanied by a well-dressed younger man, a Tibetan, who showed him much respect. They started talking in English, and I could not help hearing their conversation. The Tibetan was in corduroys. My interest was awakened suddenly when the elderly man said: “Of course, before leaving Kalimpong she had to put her daughter Clio in the house of some friends, because though she was willing to walk day and night without stopping over the Nathu La to reach Yatung as quickly as possible with the mail runner, it would have been a week before she could be back at ‘Flower Patch’!”


Clio was the name of B’s daughter, and ‘Flower Patch’ the bungalow where B lived, and the aim of my journey. I listened more carefully and was delighted to find out in what high esteem they held the friend I was rejoining. I gathered that a British officer on leave had decided to spend Christmas at Yatung, the first village on the Tibetan side of the border; that he was taken seriously ill, and had sent to Kalimpong Hospital an SOS for medicine – penicillin – or anything to cure what was obviously pneumonia. No trained nurse was available to go over the high pass to Yatung in mid-winter, so B volunteered, having been a V.A.D.


I was later to learn from her the full story, but meanwhile I broke into the conversation and was told how she did the three stages without a stop over the mountain range, and not seeing the difficult part of the pass on its northern side. There was an icy and narrow passage above a precipice, and when she came back in daylight she was glad not to have known what it was like when she passed that way at night, walking in the steps of the Tibetan postman. When she reached the Yatung rest-house, she found, alas, that the officer had been dead three days.


Appalled by the sight and the smell she wanted to run away, but as she told me later, when she turned towards the door, she saw that she was being watched from outside by a row of Tibetans flattening their noses again the window-panes the better to see what she was doing. In those lively brown faces was an unspoken enquiry: “What happens when a white man dies?” It was a challenge. There was no way out, and no running away, for the honour of the ‘white race’ was at stake. B had never buried anyone before, of course. She began washing and dressing the body, and gave orders for a grave to be dug. It was an appalling job needing all her courage.


My informant, the elderly man, was Raja Dorji, the Prime Minister of Bhutan, who used to live at Kalimpong. As the train progressed through the forest, he explained to me the regulations governing trips to Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim, and to Tibet. He was most amusing while describing the kind of mild folly that seizes certain people as they approach Tibet. Some foreigners hide themselves and try to dodge the authorities so as to go on though they have no permits. 


                                                                                                                            © Ella Maillart, 1958

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