In his account, Rock describes how he befriends a local prince and takes up residence in his remote principality of Choni. He reports on hown a gory local conflict had been raging in the district between Tibetans and Muslims, with bodies disembowelled and decapitated heads displayed on the town walls. Rock tells of his visits to local Tibetan monasteries to see their “Devil Dancer” ceremonies, and during his visit he falls under the spell of sorcerers and experiences a weird and disturbing trance during which he feels ‘possessed’.
After wintering in Choni, Joseph Rock then embarks on an epic six-month journey on horseback, criss-crossing the unexplored Qinghai grasslands and living among the primitive but noble Tibetan nomads clans who have never seen a white man. He plays them Caruso and La Boheme on his portable gramophone and shares their worm-ridden food. The nomads warn Rock against approaching Amnye Machen because the area around the sacred peak is populated by a murderous Tibetan tribe known as the Ngoloks. The Ngoloks do not permit outsiders to stray into their territory, and yet Rock presses on regardless and eventually gets a glimpse of the mighty peak from afar, which he believes to be as high as Everest.
On his extensive travels in the region Rock also claims to be the first to see the epic canyons of the upper reaches of the Yellow River, and he stays in remote monasteries where life has changed little since the time of Marco Polo. He describes one bizarre monastery that had a room full of ticking clocks and where the Tibetan lamas believe men in foreign lands have the heads of dogs.
So why was I not so interested in exploring this area? Well, partly because of the unappealing landscape. In contrast to his travels amid the canyons and forests of Yunnan and Sichuan, most of the grassland areas Rock traversed in Qinghai and Gansu were scenically and botanically dull. Joseph Rock himself was frank about the dreariness of the upper reaches of the Yellow river and the lack of flora and fauna. The Qinghai plateau was relatively barren and featureless. It had few settlements and the only people to be seen were yak-herding nomads and traders plying caravans across the high plateau. And even Choni, the place Rock chose as a base for his two years of botanising in Gansu and Qinghai, seemed ordinary in comparison to places such as Muli. It was a small riverside town of little note except for its Tibetan Buddhist monastery and there was little scenery to boast of except a few rice terraces. And if Choni was a dull backwater in 1925, what would it be like in the 21st century, in the era of cars and concrete? I imagined it would be just another dismal and charmless Chinese small town. It was only for the sake of completeness that I felt obliged to go to Choni and see what it was now like.
According to Joseph Rock, in 1925 Choni was a thriving monastic community with hundreds of monks in residence. It was a cultural and religious centre for the Tibetans of Gansu province. Rock described the elaborate and boisterous Choni monastery ceremonies and festivals in great detail - and I was curious to see what had become of this once great monastery. My real interest, however, was in reaching the smaller and more scenic monastery town of Radja in Qinghai, which Rock had used as his jumping off point for incursions into Ngolok bandit territory around the Amnye Machen peaks. Rock’s pictures showed Radja monastery located in a spectacular setting, at the base of huge crags rising up from the banks of the Yellow River.
And so it was that in early May of 2012 I flew into Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province. It was 86 years after Rock made his visit, and a year later than I had originally planned to go. I’d been all set to travel to Choni in mid 2011, but I broke my leg and ankle in a cycling accident just days before my scheduled departure. A tibial plateau fracture left me on crutches for three months, and I had metal screws put in my knee and ankle. After many months of physiotherapy I was still limping a year later, when I decided to try for Choni again. My gammy knee meant I was not fit to do any serious trekking, but I envisaged that I could get to Choni and Radja monasteries by bus, with perhaps a few day walks and overnight stays in remote areas.
When I flew into Lanzhou I was unpleasantly surprised by the amount of culture shock I experienced. After visiting China regularly for 20 years I had become overconfident and presumed that I would feel comfortable with the ‘other-ness’ of a provincial Chinese city. It was therefore a rude shock to the system when I was deposited by the airport bus into a crowded and noisy downtown area at dusk. I struggled to get my bearings and could not find a taxi to take me across town to the Friendship Hotel recommended in the guidebooks. After a long ride stood up on a crowded bus to the western outskirts I discovered the hotel had shut down. It was getting late and I was tired and feeling anxious and lonely. Lanzhou was not a tourist city and the locals seemed indifferent, if not . I felt intimidated and lonely as I stood on the dark street where my hotel should have been. I tried a few other hotels nearby but got the standard response of “bu she wai” - we’re not allowed to accept foreigners. After trudging round five hotels and guesthouses, I eventually got lucky when the old geezer manning the desk of the rather shoddy and empty Electric Company Hotel took pity on me and allowed me stay unofficially, without registering. Cash in hand and be gone in the morning.
After dumping my bag and washing my face, I hurried out again to the western bus station to see if I could buy tickets for Labrang the following day. No luck. The bus station proved to be much further away than it appeared on my photocopied LP map, and by the time I arrived it was shuttered and dark, closed for the evening. I would just have to try first thing in the morning. I ambled back along the dark and dusty streets and felt like I had gone back in time to 1990s China. Everything was shoddy and crude, the locals were still in the habit of hoicking and spitting, and they stared. The Lanzhou air was thick with smog and dust, and the cars sounded their horns in an almost continuous cacophany of white noise. Just like the old China.
The novel thing about Lanzhou was its highly visible Muslim population. These were ethnic Han “Hui” Muslims rather than the Uighurs of Xinjiang, but they were still distinctly different from other Chinese. The man all donned white skullcaps and the women covered their hair with a loose scarf. Not exactly Taliban country, but this quiet but firm assertion of their separate identity was something I had not encountered before in Han China.
I went back to the hotel to spend the first of what was to be many lonely nights with only Chinese TV for company. I had forgotten how isolating and solitary feeling it can be in China when you are travelling alone in China. And I also quickly realised that my four paperback books were unlikely to last for the two weeks of travel I had planned. I was reluctant to start reading them - I would have to ration myself to two or three chapters a day! So instead I pulled out all the maps and documents I had assembled for this trip and started to read again about Joseph Rock’s travels in 1925.
At that time, Rock had already had some success in plant collecting in China on behalf of the US Department of Agriculture. He had sent back tens of thousands of plant samples for the to the Smithsonian Museum from his travels around Yunnan and in particular from his forays to the kingdom of Muli and had thus made a name for himself as one of the leading international plant collectors of the day. He had obviously made a good impression on the elderly Charles S. Sargent, director of the Harvard’s Arnold Aboretum, who commissioned him to mount a three-year expedition to Qinghai on behalf of the Aboretum. The Boston-based botanical institute had plenty of plant samples from temperate Sichuan and Yunnan, and now they wanted more hardy cooler climate plant specimens from further north that might be more suited to the New England conditions.
Rock was given a budget of $14,000 for the first year. To put that in context, it was more than ten times the average US salary of $1200 a year, at a time when a new Ford would cost $300. In today’s terms, he was being paid half a million dollars to explore remote areas of China, where the US dollar could buy an awful lot more than it could in Boston or Washington DC. No wonder he could afford to hire twenty soldiers at a time to act as bodyguards, not to mention his retinue of ten Naxi ‘boy’ assistants to do his cooking, domestic chores and to perform the menial tasks of plant collecting such as sorting, drying and packing specimens.
The China that Rock was travelling in was a strange, anarchic place in 1925. The Qing dynasty had been overthrown in 1911 and it was a time of warlords, such as Yuan Shikai who wielded power in Beijing. Chiang Kai Shek had yet to mount his ‘northern expedition’ to exert control of China on behalf of the Kuomintang, and in western China it was the Muslim Ma clan whose armies held sway over Xining and arts of Qinghai. They were in constant conflict with a deposed Beijing warlord, Feng Yuxiang, the so-called “Christian general” whose troops controlled Lanzhou and Gansu. At the same time, the local Tibetans were answerable to none of these warlords. In these borderlands they lived side by side with Hui Muslims and fought bloody battles with Muslim forces and bandits for control of monastery towns such Labrang.
As a foreigner, Rock would in theory still enjoy the benefit of “exta-territoriality” by which foreigners were to be protected and not subject to Chinese law. In practice, much of the territory outside the cities was lawless and subject to attacks by bandits, renegade soldiers and armed gangs of local tribesmen. Rock was justified in filling his travel articles with tales of woe about the dangers of roaming bandits. While he escaped unharmed from several encounters with bands of thieves, a one-time American travelling companion and translator was less fortunate.
Rock could speak fluent Chinese but not Tibetan. He therefore took along an American missionary, William E. Simpson, who had been trying to spread the word among the Tibetans of Labrang, to act as translator for his Amnye Machen trip. The arrangement did not last long because Rock had little time for missionaries and quickly came to despise Simpson for being too soft and a do-gooder. Simpson returned to his proselytising, but was murdered several years later, in 1932, by renegade Muslim soldiers who hijacked a vehicle he was travelling in to Lanzhou.
Nevertheless, Rock was able to mount a well-financed, well-equipped long-term expedition to lawless and virtually unexplored Qinghai in 1925. Eighty six years later, I was sat in a Lanzhou hotel room with 3000 RMB and a small backpack in which I carried little more than a change of clothes and lots of old camera gear.
This looked like it was going to be my last trip with film cameras. While the rest of the world had moved on to digital, I was still attached to my film-using Leicas and Rolleiflex. For this trip I had brought along a sturdy Leica R3 SLR and a selection of 28mm, 50mm, 90mm and 135mm lenses. They weighed a ton. But pride of place went to my Rolleiflex 3.5F, the camera that produced gorgeous images with 120 slide film. I had brought along about 40 rolls each of 35mm and 120 Kodak Ektachrome colour slide film. A few days before my departure, Kodak announced that they were discontinuing all slide film. So this would be the end of an era.
I arrived by bus in Labrang on a sunny but cool Saturday morning in May and the local Tibetans and Hui Muslims seemed to be getting along just fine. A bit of an improvement on Rock’s time, when he arrived just after a bloody battle between the local Tibetan nomads and the Sining Muslims for control of the town. The Muslims had won:
“Frightful indeed was the aspect of Labrang after the fight. One hundred and fifty four Tibetan heads were strung about the walls of the Moslem garrison like a garland of flowers. Heads of young girls and children decorated posts in front of the barracks. The Moslem riders galloped about town, each with 10 or 15 human heads tied to his saddle...”
Rock explained that the Tibetans were fiercesome fighters but disorganised. They had charged the Moslems troops on horseback, impaling many of them with long lances “like men spearing frogs”. But they were outnumbered and defeated by the Moslems, who were more disciplined and better trained. When they caught any Tibetans, they hung them up by their thumbs, disembowelled them alive “and their abdominal cavities were then filled with hot stones.”
But in 2012, the former enemies seemed to have forgotten their differences. The Hui were indistinguishable from the Han Chinese, wearing modern clothes with just a skullcap or headscarf to show their faith. They were the proprietors of many of the beef noodle shops that lined the single street of modern day Xiahe. The Tibetans, however, were flamboyantly different. The young men swaggered along the main street, sporting chubas wrapped around their waists and shoulder length hair.
Tibetan women wore long skirts and cowboy hats. Both males and females wore scarves around their mouths and noses, presumably to ward off the ever-present dust, not to mention the chill wind. In some parts of town it was if you had stepped into a live fancy dress competition, with almost everyone living up to the cliched ethnic stereotypes for the cameras - Tibetan cowboys and kids with shiny red cheeks alongside austere Muslim old men in Mao suits and old fashioned ground glass round spectacles.
I had not been sure whether I would be able to visit Xiahe. As one of the largest Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in China, I had worried that it might be caught up in the recent waves of Tibetan protests and self immolations. But I was able to buy a ticket for the four hour bus ride from Lanzhou with no problems, and there didn’t seem to be any obvious tension on the streets or signs of any additional police presence presence.
And so after checking in to the Baoma Hotel, I walked to the end of the road and entered the massive monastery complex to have a look around.
When Rock got to take a closer look at Labrang during more settled times, he was awed by its size and the sheer number of monks in residence. He took photos in the 30 large buildings that served as chanting halls for the 5000 monks, and he marvelled at the huge kitchens with their five large iron kettles designed to make butter and and rice gruel to feed thousands at one sitting. He was less impressed by the dirtiness and squalid living conditions of the monastery and what he perceived as ignorance of the Tibetan monks.
He noted that the floors were caked in spilled rice gruel and butter tramped hard underfoot and now “many inches thick.” And while the Abbott who welcomed him appeared wealthy, he was almost child-like in his ignorance of the outside world. The head lama told Rock how he knew there were people with the heads of dogs and cattle living in foreign countries “Our books tell of such people ...” He also told Rock that of course the world was flat, and the sun disappeared behind a big mountain that was situated at the centre of the earth.
In modern times, the abbot no longer lived at Labrang, but was said to have an official residence in nearby Lanzhou, some four hours drive distant. And despite its size and hundreds of monks, the monastery seemed to be a little subdued. Perhaps it was because many of the “Tibetan’ monks were not Tibetans, but ethnic Chinese. I overheard a few monks talking and had been surprised by their fluent colloquial mandarin. At first I presumed this was because they lived in close proximity to a modern city like Lanzhou. Then when I looked at them more closely, I realised they were Han Chinese.
As I toured the monastery complex I recognised a few of the larger buildings from Rock’s pictures. Many of the smaller buildings were more recent additions or renovations, and the extensive living quarters for the monks now had satellite TV dishes ad a similar mirror-tiled satellite dish contraption that appeared to be used for making boiling water. And like the rest of China, much of Labrang appeared to be a work in progress, with older buildings being torn down and newer ones being built. The sound of modern Labrang was not the conch shell or trumpet, but the hammering of wood and iron, and the put put of the tractor carrying bricks and cement.
I was later to read that the Chinese government has just approved a massive new re-building program for Labrang, which would provide for renovation of many of the temples. This was, according to an Indian journalist writing in The Hindu, part of the PRC government’s carrot and stick approach to preserving harmony and stability on the Qing-Zang (Qinghai-Tibet) plateau and winning the hearts and minds of the Tibetan Buddhists. It wasn’t entirely successful.
In a local cafe, I was accosted by a very laid back monk ‘with attitude’ who spoke halting English. He had learned the language, he told me, during the couple of years he had spent in India, where he had gone to study Tibetan Buddhism and pay a visit to the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala. I hadn’t wanted to broach the subject of Tibetan politics with the locals I met on this trip, and I kept my answers neutral and to the minimum as the young Tibetan posed question after question about how Australia was independent and how he knew many Tibetan exiles who had moved on to places in Canada, Switzerland and Australia.
I took a clockwise walk around the circular kora circuit of the monastery, walking alongside many Tibetan pilgrims. Some were obviously just there for the day - mums and dads with their kids who had come by car or motorbike. But others were more devout - old grannies who shuffled along and young hardcore pilgrims who were prostrating themselves on the ground every two or three steps, which would seem to take them more than a day to complete the 3km circuit.
The path climbed into the hills to the north of the monastery and I got spectacular views over the whole complex - and of the more mundane concrete sprawl of Xiahe beyond.
Across the valley and over the Sang Chu river there was the hillside covered with trees - “a forest of fir and spruce. It is of miraculous origin, say tradition. Long ago a famous monk, the founder of Labrang, got a haircut. His hair, scattered over the hillside, took root and produced this fine forest,” according to Rock. This appeared to be the vantage point from where Rock had taken his panoramic photographs of the monastery, but I found it was now difficult to get there.
The next day, after the usual fitful high altitude sleep, constantly waking up with a dry mouth (Labrang is 8,600 feet above sea level) I tramped out in the early morning to try ascend the hillside. However, a the new road running through the valley had been carved out of the hillside, which left a steep cutting that was impossible to climb up. There was a new condominium block that was being constructed on the hillside with no doubt idyllic views over the monastery, but I was waved away by the construction workers.
So I ended up at the big square thanka display area further down the road, the tourist viewing point overlooking the big golden pagoda. While most people took in the view and turned back here, I carried on up a dirt track to try climb the much higher ridge to the south of the monastery. At first, it was a pleasant stroll through rolling grassland. I was soon allalone and I spotted a couple of marmots, whistling and rushing to their burrows. Rock had seen marmots during his trek over the grasslands and recounted how his dog ran itself ragged chased them, sometimes catching them, and sometimes getting a nasty nip from their sharp teeth.
As I ascended the grassy ridge the incline got steeper and steeper, but I seemed to be no nearer getting an unobstructed view of the monastery. It was only when I reached the summit ridge that I realised why nobody came up here - the view was blocked by the trees of the sacred forest! What a waste of a morning! And then I also had to face a much more scary descent down a steep gradient, which hadn’t seemed half as steep on the way up. I was glad to get down in one piece.
I spent another lazy afternoon in sunny Xiahe, idling in the Nomad Cafe and watching the street life. Tibetans seemed to like to sit in cafes too - sipping butter tea and chatting away. I chatted to the owner of the Overseas Tibetan Hotel and asked about how to get to Choni. No direct buses, she told me - but get an early bus to Hezuo (Gannan) and you can get a Choni bus from there, she said. And so on to the next part of my quest.
Life among the lamas of Choni
After a decade of pondering and a year of planning to go to Choni monastery in Gansu, I was only able to spend about an hour walking round the place when I eventually got there in May 2012. This was because I was detained by the local police almost as soon as I got off the bus in Choni. Fortunately I’d gone straight to the Chanding monastery on my arrival in ‘Zhuoni’ as it is now known, and was able to spend a short time walking round the various monastery temples snapping a few pictures before I was nabbed by the Public Security Bureau. There wasn’t much to see - the monastery complex was like a ghost town, with few monks in evidence and all the temples locked up.
Back in the 1920s, Joseph Rock had received a slightly warmer reception in Choni and had struck up a more cordial relationship with the local authorities. He befriended the local prince – the tusi – an ethnic Tibetan but Chinese-accultured herditary ruler who was the latest to succeed to the post that had been passed on for 22 generations since the 1400s. Even into the 20th century, the potentate ruled by grace of the Qing dynasty and its successors in the new post-1911 Chinese Republican movement. Prince Wang Chi-Ching, as he was known in Chinese, was a suave character who liked dressing up in Chinese silks and stylish Tibetan boots. He was both temporal and spiritual head of the small Tibetan enclave of Choni, acting as both prince and head lama. However, he was not an independent prince. He had to pay tribute, obeisance - and taxes - to the Chinese authorities and warlords who held sway in Lanzhou.
At that time, Choni was the cultural and political centre of this ethnic Tibetan corner of south western Gansu. Unlike most of the arid and flat province of Gansu, Choni was mountainous and fertile, with the river Tao river helping to irrigate rice crops and support a mixed population of Tibetans (known locally as Tebbus), Muslims and Han Chinese.
Joseph Rock’s pictures show a busy and active monastery of about five ornate temple buildings, and scores of resident monks involved in all kinds of strange ceremonies and rituals. Rock was so impressed with Choni that he selected it as his base for exploring the Qinghai grasslands - and it became the springboard for his ultimate visit to Amnye Machen. He was to stay at the Prince’s Choni yamen (compound) almost two years from 1925-26, thanks in part to being on friendly terms with the local prince.
He describes the place briefly in his National Geographic article about his Amnye Machen expedition (“Seeking the Mountains of Mystery”), but writes a lot more about Choni in a separate article entitled “Life Among The Lamas of Choni”. In this latter article he describes the lifestyle and many of the customs and clothing of the local Tibetans in Choni. He spends most of the article describing the intricate and lengthy ceremonies of the local lamas, and also something of one of their major festivals.
Accompanied by many early colour Autochrome pictures of the Tibetan “devil dancers” at the monastery and their costumes, Rock’s article gives a lengthy description of the annual Mystery Plays and Butter Festival ceremonies held at Choni. Some of the ‘devil’ dancers are dressed to look like skeletons, animals such as deer, as well as some traditional Buddhist deities and demons. One of the most interesting performers was a monk wearing a papier mache mask that looked something like the head of one of the ‘jolly Buddha’ icons.
This performer was meant to represent a oafish Han Chinese monk, Nantain, who was bested in debates by Tibetan monks, a figure of fun for the Tibetans who was the butt of many physical and verbal jokes and mockery during the comedic ceremony. It is all rather reminiscent of one of the modern day “cross talk sketches” as shown on Chinese TV, a kind of music hall act in which the characters exchange banter and mix this in with slapstick comedy and double takes.
According to Rock, the public mockery of the Chinese went down well with the Tibetan spectators, as there was little love lost between the Tibetans and Han Chinese at the time. The Han Chinese were heartily despised and the Tibetans loved to make fun of them.
However, there was also a darker side to the devil dances, with the Tibetan sorcerers supposedly summing up and exorcising demons. The scholarly Joseph Rock was skeptical and dismissive about the supposed effects of these devil dances, until he found himself severely disturbed during one such performance at the neighbouring Hochiassu monastery near Choni.
While watching the dances he noticed that some of the crowd of local onlookers appeared to have become possessed by spirits and were flailing about. Other spectators laughed at these possessed until they too became infected and equally manic. Rock and his missionarly companions then also started to feel queer.
“I began to feel a bit uneasy ... and Mr McGilvrey felt terribly oppressed,” Rock wrote later.
“At that moment I felt a most peculiar sensation, as if I was giving way to some unknown force, and I felt myself become powerless. I managed to say ‘I must go, I cannot stand this’ … and left the chanting hall as quickly as I could.”
He felt slightly better when he moved away from the devil dancers, but had a second ‘attack’ when he settled in a nearby room:
“I had hardly sat down when the powerless feeling came over me in a few minutes, and my sight was practically gone. I could ill distinguish things. I tried to repress this feeling and started taking deep breathing, but every second I felt myself going and I came to the conclusion that if I did not leave immediately I would be unconscious the next minute.”
Rock only recovered when he had fled from the monastery, and was left shaken by his experience. Despite his self image as a man of science, he could only conclude that “There is a power or spell of some kind...”
“I may say that never in all my life have I felt in such a sudden manner my willpower and my control over my being leave me ... It was like filtering of something though one’s body which took charge of one completely. It was the elimination of self and the control of self through another force, which I fought, but to which I would have sucuumbed. The lamas explained this as the god of the monastery taking possession of one’s body.”
Nevertheless, with the aid and hospitality of Prince Yang, Rock settled in Choni and installed himself in the yamen there while he prepared to mount his much-anticipated plant collecting expedition to Amnye Machen. And as a preface to his future anthropological and cultural studies of the Nakhi in Lijiang, he also made many observations about the customs and people of Choni. The monastery was famous for its library, which contained rare copies of the two major Tibetan classical sacred texts: the 108 volume Tandjur and the 209-volume Kandjur. It took a large team of monks about a year to print just one set of all these volumes, and Rock was able to buy a complete set and pack it off to Washington, where it was lodged with the Library of Congress.
During his time in Choni, Rock seemed to get along well with the sinicised and relatively ‘modern’ Prince Yang – going to him for advice about how to travel to Amnye Machen and even borrowing money from him when his funds from the US failed to come through on time.
However, like the King of Muli, Prince Yang could also be a cruel and despotic local ruler. He had several wives who he kept in servitude and with bound feet. One of them he had beaten severely after she tried to leave without his permission to visit her ailing mother. The wife hanged herself shortly afterwards
Even Rock acknowledged that Yang was a bad sort, noting that he was not popular with his local ‘subjects’. To maintain his grip on power the prince kept a network of spies and informers in addition to his own local army of enforcers. He imposed fines on the local people and ‘squeezed’ businesses for his own income. According to Rock, the prince was only tolerated because he was seen as a buffer between the locals and the even more hated Chinese.
My own journey to Choni started at Labrang (Xiahe). The locals told me there was no direct bus to Choni, but that I could catch a bus to the town of Hezuo an find one there. According to my map it was only about 70km to Hezuo and a further 100km to Choni, so I hoped I might do it in one day. I didn’t want to have to spend a night in Hezuo - there didn’t seem to be much there apart from a reconstructed nine-storey temple that Rock had photographed back in 1925, when the town was know as Hei Tso.
As things turned out, I didn’t need to stop over in Hezuo. When our bus trundled into town mid morning it looked like any other nondescript scrappy provincial Chinese town - a mix of concrete high rises and garage-front stores. A friendly Tibetan sat behind me on the bus pointed out the street corner where I should catch the Choni bus, and I jumped off the Xiahe bus just as the Choni service was departing. I was able to flag it down and jump on without having to buy a ticket.
The ride to Choni took us over rolling dull grassland and a couple of gentle passes. There were a few Tibetan herder’s houses en route, quite basic concrete blocks, but all of them seemed to have glassed-in ‘conservatories’ in front of the living areas. This seemed to be a standard feature of the Gansu-Qinghai grasslands.
Before we reached Choni the bus descended into Lintan, another scrappy town with a large Muslim population and many prominent mosques. This was the old “Taochow” that Rock had written about - but he never mentioned the obvious Muslim character of the town. After a tedious hour long wait during which time I attracted many stares from bemused locals, the bus started up again and took us the final hour’s drive down to the riverside town of Zhuoni.
I felt a certain excitement on arriving in the town. Choni! I was here! I immediately took a taxi from the simple courtyard bus station up the hill to see the Chanding monastery. Zhuoni was a busy little town with really just one main street running up from the Tao river. There were a few modern shops, restaurants and hotels by the riverside, but otherwise it was a quite unremarkable place. It didn’t appear to be Tibetan, and most of the locals looked like Han Chinese or low key Hui Muslims.
About a kilometre up the hill we turned left into the the entrance of the monastery. As I walked through the main gate, I recognised the layout of the place from one of Rock’s old photos, but the buildings were not the same. They had been rebuilt in a similar but not identical style. I started to wander about the buildings and take photographs, and it felt strange because there was hardly anyone about.
Apart from one or two Tibetan monks that I glimpsed walking about, I had the place to myself. The temples were all padlocked and there was nobody about to ask about having a look inside. I tried to catch the attention of one monk but he scurried off, unwilling to talk. I eventually found myself at the highest part of the complex, stood in front of one of the larger temples. It had started to drizzle with rain and it all felt like a bit of an anti-climax. A group of local people emerged from one of the outhouses and peered over my shoulder at the copies of the old Rock photographs of the place. The pictures barely rated a murmur, and when I asked one of the older men in the group about the pictures he just said “kanguo-le” - “We’ve seen them before.”
I don’t know what I’d expected to find at Choni, but this was quite underwhelming. I’d known that the original buildings would no longer be there - Rock himself had heard that the monastery had been almost completely destroyed after his departure by Muslim forces during the sectarian fighting of the late 1920s. According to Rock’s biography, Prince Yang of Choni had abducted, raped and murdered some women related to the Muslim General Ma. In retaliation, the Muslim forces had ransacked Choni and slaughtered many of the locals. Prince Yang escaped the killings, but when he returned to take up residence at his yamen in 1928 he was set upon by his on servants and lynched in a nearby riverbed. Well, that was one version of his sticky end - I was to hear another version later in the day.
It was mid afternoon when I trudged back down the hill in the rain towards the town centre. I was hungry and was also anxious to find somewhere to rest up. After devouring a tray of steaming xiaolongbao in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant I walked into the modern town square - complete with massive video screen - and entered what I thought was the main hotel for Choni. It was a mistake. The stark interior appeared to be a deserted office complex. A man emerged from a side doorway and asked tersely what I wanted. When I said a room, he just gestured in that Chinese way with his lips and chin that this was next door. When I re-emerged into the daylight outside I read the sign and realised that I had just been trying to check in to the town’s Communist Party Headquarters.
The hotel was actually next door, but I didn’t even get chance to check in. At the reception I had just asked the female clerk for a room when I was approached by two young uniformed cops and a humourless-looking Chinese guy in a suit. One of the cops ostentatiously showed me his official badge in a leather wallet, and held it under my nose for my obvious perusal, as if to emphasise that there was no possibility that he might be an imposter. Then he uttered one word in English: “Passport.” As the guy in the suit leafed through my passport, I was politely ushered to sit in one of the voluminous leather couches nearby. Without any prompting, I launched into Chinese, to make an explanation of what I was doing there.
I told them I was a tourist and that I had just come to visit the Choni monastery and take some photos because I had seen some pictures of how scenic it was in an old magazine. I took out the pictures of Rock to show them. The cops’ stiff and formal attitude loosened a little when they heard me speak Chinese, and they gave me the almost reflex compliment for a putonghua-speaking laowai: “You speak Chinese so well”. I babbled on, telling them that I was just here for the day and planning to leave the next day to go back to Lanzhou.
“How did you get here?” they asked. When I said I had come on the bus from Xiahe, they frowned and corrected me - “You mean from Hezuo?”. I said yes, and told them how I had swapped buses there. This did not compute, and I was told that “foreigners are not allowed to travel on the bus from Hezuo to Choni.” I could only presume that the bus station in Hezuo had been instructed not to sell Choni bus tickets to foreigners, and that I had evaded this by jumping on the bus as it left town.
I made what I hoped sounded like a sincere and humble apology and promised that I would leave town as soon as possible. I showed them my return bus ticket that I had bought for the next day. Seeing all my camera gear, the older man in a suit asked if I was a journalist. I said no, and that I was a pharmacist - which was not untrue in that I had trained as one. He walked off with my passport and left me in an awkward silence with the two young cops.
I was feeling a bit nervous and my mind was racing through the possibilities of what might happen to me. Arrest? Put in a cell? A fine? Deported to Lanzhou? The one thing I really dreaded was having my rolls of film confiscated, and I cursed myself for not concealing them. I continued babbling on, trying to reassure them that I was just a regular tourist. I told them that I had just arrived in China from Australia and had already visited the big monastery at Xiahe, and therefore assumed there was no problem in coming to see the smaller monastery at Choni. One of the cops said that I was not able to visit Choni because it was ... he struggled a moment for the right word ... “sensitive”. Speaking in an official tone he said that due to the current situation relating to minorities, it was not safe for me to be there.
The older cop returned with my passport, which he had photocopied, but he didn’t give the passport back. He repeated the question about how I had got to Choni, and I repeated the answer I had already given. He then asked again whether I was a journalist, and I repeated that I was a pharmacist. He then pulled out what looked like an iPhone and tapped something on the screen. He showed it to me and it was a Google search on my name. The first entry was of the medical newsletter website that I worked for, and my title “Michael Woodhead - Editor”. “Is this you?” he asked. I could hardly deny it - it had my photo there. I mumbled something about being a pharmacist who worked for a medical information service, but I could see they had already made up their minds. “Zou!” (Let’s go!).
I didn’t ask where we were going, but just accompanied them out of the building and along the street, one cop on either side of me. One of them solicitously insisted on carrying my backpack. I was taken into a courtyard next to the Party HQ and we entered an unmarked building that had a similar arrangement of corridors and apparently deserted offices. A police station? Or Party offices? Up the stairwell to the second floor, I was ushered into a room with a leather sofa, a coffee table and a couple of chairs. It could have been a doctor’s waiting room. And there I was left to stay for the remainder of the day, with the two young cops for company. When I asked what was going on I was again told that “foreigners were not allowed in Choni” and my situation “was under consideration by the relevant authorities.”
The older cop had disappeared with my passport again, and I was brought a cup of green tea and told to “rest a while”. And there I “rested” for the remainder of the afternoon. After the initial shock of being detained had worn off, it was very tedious. Outside there was a constant hammering and crashing from a construction site, but otherwise there was nothing to do. I tried chatting to the two cops, but their thick local accents made it difficult for me to understand what they were saying. They were polite and friendly, but a little distant.
To try break the ice a bit more, I told them a bit about myself and my family, how I was married and had two kids and we often visited China to see our Chinese relatives. In turn, they asked me what Sydney was like, and a few questions that revealed how little they knew about the outside world. Did we eat rice every day in Australia? Do they have many Chinese in Australia? And what kind of cars did the police drive in Australia?
All this time the door was always open, but it was quite obvious that I wasn’t going anywhere. I tried to pass the time by pacing the room, looking out the window at the builders and then reading a bit of my Eric Newby book, Love and War in the Apennines (in which he had to work out how to pass many long hours in captivity). Late in the afternoon, I asked the cops if they were hungry. As if the thought had just occurred to them, they turned the question back on me - Was I hungry? Would I like to go out and eat something? When I said yes, they simply replied “OK - let’s go ...” and we headed out and back downstairs. It was as if they were making it all up as they went along.
Not knowing how this would all pan out, and not wanting to push my luck, I suggested the first restaurant that I saw on the street outside, which inevitably was a Lanzhou beef noodle place. I went in and ordered the standard bowl of noodles from the Muslim chef-owner, but the cops didn’t have anything. They just sat around as I ate, and said the same things that all Chinese do when around a foreigner eating. “Oh, you can use chopsticks! What do you think of our Chinese dishes? Nice? Can you stomach them?”
On our return to the ‘waiting room’ in the government building we were met at the door by the plain-clothes cop. He returned my passport and just stated the obvious. “Tomorrow you are taking the bus to Lanzhou.” I wasn’t sure if this was a question or an order, so I just replied “Yes”.
He then said vaguely that I could rest where we were and take the Lanzhou bus in the morning - it departed at 6am. One of the cops took me down the corridor to a smaller corner room that had a single bed with a bed roll, a chair and a table on which was a massive TV that seemed to take up half the room space. Down the corridor was a poky bathroom and squat toilet. Next door to me was a similar room with an earthy middle-aged guy wearing a tatty suit in residence. He seemed to be the caretaker/doorman. His room also had a kettle and he spent most of the evening watching TV, smoking and cracking melon seeds.
The two cops said they were going to leave me there, but first they would have to take my photo. I assumed they meant I would have a mugshot taken for their records, but instead they both pulled out their smartphones and took cheesy self-portraits of the three of us, instructing me to say “cheese” each time. One of them gave me the parting advice to “go to sleep early, you have an early start.” The other added that I should drink more kaishui because I probably wasn’t accustomed to the high altitude.
And so it was that I was apparently left to my own devices in the room. Was I still in detention or could I go out if I wished? I wasn’t going to try find out. I turned on the TV and surfed the usual range of channels, but soon got bored of the Women’s Channel, the Army Channel, the Kid’s Channel and the Learn American-accented Chinglish channel. There seemed to be more ads than programmes. Then I decided to take the cops’ advice and drink some water, but the flask in my room was empty. I went next door to ask the caretaker if he knew where I could get hot water and he jumped up to get me a filled flask from the several he had arrayed in the corner of his room - as if having a foreigner to live next door was the most normal thing in the world.
He asked the usual questions that I got asked all the time by Chinese when on the road in China. Where was I from? Was I here travelling? Was I alone? How long had I been in China?
I told him that I had come to see the monastery because I had been inspired by seeing pictures of it in the old days. He seemed puzzled as to why anybody would come all this way to see Choni monastery, and said that Labrang (Xiahe) monastery was “more fun” to visit. I told him that I had heard about the old Prince of Choni and that I had hoped to visit his old yamen or quarters. The caretaker then became quite animated and started telling me that there was now a memorial in town to the old Tusi. His old mansion had been turned into a primary school, he said, and there was a big memorial built there.
I told him how Joseph Rock has lived in the area for two years, but the caretaker had never heard about Rock and didn’t seem interested. Instead, he said the “Choni Tusi” had become a hero of the Red Marchers because he had aided them when they had passed though the area in the 1930s. That made me stop and think - because this contradicted what Rock’s biographer had said about the Prince of Choni being killed in 1928. The caretaker then recounted to me the story as if it had been told many times before, almost like an official history.
He said the Prince of Choni had been warned by his Chinese mentors in Lanzhou to be on the lookout for the arrival of the Red Army marchers in the early 1930s. The Chinese warlords in Lanzhou were affiliated with the Kuomintang (KMT) anti-communist Nationalists and wanted to prevent the Long Marchers moving north through a narrow defile called Lazikou near Choni.
The Long Marchers had already won a victory by capturing the Luding Bridge from KMT forces in the now legendary battle that enabled them to cross the Dadu River and escape entrapment. The next barrier that Mao and his marchers faced after the Snowy Mountains was gaining access to the grasslands via Lazikou. According to the caretaker, the Choni Prince had been told to gather his local Tebbu Tibetan fighters and use them to help block the Lazikou gorge at a narrow bridge over a river. The steep-sided Lazikou gorge was a great obstacle and could easily be defended against thousands by just a few hundred armed men.
However, the Long Marchers such as Mao and his army chief Peng Dehuai had good intelligence about the Lazikou pass and its would-be defenders. They sent runners ahead with letters to the Choni Prince, saying that they were just passing through and would not occupy Choni or make any demands on the local people and their resources. The envoys stressed that the Long Marchers were an anti-Japanese force, and a friend of all the minority peoples.
Whether through patriotism or political calculation, the Choni Prince decided to defy his KMT sponsors and side with the Long Marchers and allow them passage through the Lazikou gorge. He instructed the Tebbu Tibetans to assist the Long Marchers and act as guides. The Red soldiers still faced a tough battle at Lazikou against KMT forces, but with the help of Choni Prince’s guides they were able to outflank the defenders and make a breakthrough and eventually reach the Gansu grasslands and go beyond to establish their new revolutionary base in the loess caves of Yanan.
The general commanding the local KMT forces was humiliated by the defeat at Lazikou and would exact his revenge on the Prince of Choni for his treachery. According to the caretaker, several years later, after the Long Marchers had passed through and KMT control was re-asserted, the general returned to Choni and attacked the Prince’s compound. The Choni Prince was captured and executed, but his son managed to escape.
When I asked what happened to the Prince of Choni’s son, the caretaker said he became the new tusi until the Liberation, when his father, the late Prince, was declared a revolutionary martyr by none other than Zhou Enlai himself. Hence the local memorial. I found it grimly ironic that the Han Chinese authorities portray the non-violent Dalai Lama as an evil serpent, and condemn the ‘old’ Tibetan society as feudal and barbaric, citing examples of child sacrifices and serfdom. And yet here in Choni they put up memorials to the despotic local ‘Prince’ who had raped and murdered women and brutally taxed and oppressed the local people. I was later to see similar memorials to the savage Muslim leader General Ma Pufang in Xining. In China, political expediency can turn monsters into masters - and vice versa.
Interestingly, I also learned form the caretaker that the grandson of the Choni Prince had also grown up in the area, become a magistrate and was still alive and carrying on the family tradition, he added.
So it seemed that for once, the visit of Joseph Rock to an area and his acquaintance with local nobles was just a footnote in local history rather than a defining moment as it had been for his Shangri-La inspiring travels in Yunnan and Sichuan.
I retired to my room and tried to sleep, even though the construction hammers on the building site outside my window continued to clang until late into the night. I was worried that I would sleep in and miss the bus out of town but I needn’t have worried. In the early hours I was woken by a young Tibetan woman night clerk who rapped on the door at 5am. I was ready to within a few minutes, but oddly found I had no escort. The young woman sleepily - and with a hint of sullen resentment at being woken so early - unlocked the thick bike padlock chain around the handles of the main glass doors of the building and released me like a bird into the cold dark morning of Choni.
I made my own way down the main street towards the bus station, humming to myself and wondering what would happen if I turned round and made a last visit to the monastery. Would anyone be watching to stop me? The streets were deserted except for a couple of old ladies sweeping up dust with those crude stick-and-branch Chinese sweeping brushes. I bade them a hearty “good morning” in English and strode across the bridge to the waiting bus. Already a few would be passengers were stood around the locked and darkened bus, stamping their feet and smoking in the nippy morning air.
They looked at me with curiosity and I smiled back stupidly, happy to be “out of jail”. At five to six the driver strode up, opened the bus door and started the engine. I took my place on the half empty bus, which suddenly filled to capacity with babbling passengers who seemed to come out of nowhere at the very last minute. I looked out of the grimy window at Choni as the sky just started to lighten. A woman came down the aisle to check everyone’s tickets, and then when I turned again to look out of the window, there was a tiny police van pulled up next to the bus with my two cop friends stood next to it. They didn’t acknowledge me, but as the bus pulled out I looked back and saw them still stood there, watching my departure from Choni.
Interlude in Xining
The bus from Choni to Lanzhou went through unexpectedly marvellous scenery. I’d thought it would go back the same way as I had come - on the good but boring road via Hezuo. However, I found that instead, the bus took a more direct but uncomfortable route northwards back to Lanzhou over some dirt roads that went over some high passes, into spectacular limestone gorges and also through some interesting Hui Muslim towns.
The first stop was in another grotty small town, known simply as “New Town” and which seemed to be predominantly Muslim. After that the tarmac road deteriorated into a rutted dirt track and the bus trundled along for mile after mile until it went over a high pass and into a limestone gorge similar in appearance to the countryside around Muli in Sichuan. This was the Lotus Mountain (Lianhu Shan) district, and it culminated in a small town called Yeliguan, which was surrounded by steep sided rock walls. The bus threaded along a narrow gorge from here, but I noticed that a tunnel was being bored through the mountain to improve access from Lanzhou to this town, which appeared to be being groomed as a tourism centre.
Emerging from the gorge, we rolled out into a flatter landscape dotted with small Muslim settlements, each with its own distinctive mosque. These Chinese-style mosques all had triple golden crescents jutting from their roofs. It was a straightforward drive back to Lanzhou from here - delayed only by a busy market clogging the road in one of the Muslim towns near Kangle.
Back in Lanzhou, I found the place quite overwhelming. It was noisy, pushy, crowded and very rough around the edges - quite unlike the more sophisticated and flashy cities of eastern China. Again, the Hui Muslim presence was very marked, and sometimes even made me forget I was in China. I checked into another grubby hotel near the station and bought a soft seat ticket to Xining for the next day.
Xining was a revelation after Lanzhou. Where Lanzhou was oppressive and congested, Xining was light and open. The air felt fresher and everything seemed quite green and new. In fact, it almost had the air of a midwestern US town - this was the Chinese frontier and the Han Chinese here had all moved from the east. The buildings were modern and not very Chinese, and the roads were wide and the traffic flowed freely - quite unlike the congestion and confusion of Lanzhou. I was a bit worried when the train whizzed through the city centre without stopping and continued into the no-man’s land of the western suburbs. Then it was announced that the train would be terminating at Xining West station because the central station was being rebuilt. It had only taken a couple of hours or so to make the journey from Lanzhou.
Our train pulled in next to a long distance train that was marked as “Shanghai to Lhasa”. The very idea made my mind boggle. Could Joseph Rock and his contemporaries ever have imagined there would ever be a rail link between Shanghai, the urbane “Paris of the Orient” on the Pacific, and the remote Lhasa, ‘forbidden city” on the roof of the world in the Himalayas? I noted that the carriage opposite me was a hard seat. Who would ride a hard seat from Shanghai to Lhasa - and how long would that take?
Everything about Xining seemed to be positive. The people seemed open, friendly and down to earth. I had an honest taxi driver take me to the city centre, and I checked in to the wonderful Lete Hostel, situated on the 15th floor of a high rise just south of the town centre. The hostel was run very efficiently and affordably by a young Chinese woman who had worked in hotels in Switzerland. Something of the Swiss approach must have rubbed off - the hotel was clean and well organised and had a neat little bar-cafe where you could eat her home made pizza and drink a Qingdao beer for only 40 kuai.
It was odd to be back among other laowai again. Even more odd was the fact that they all had laptops or iPads and spent all their time gazing at them and tapping on them. This is the “new normal” for travellers in the digital age, but it made it hard to start conversations and chat. When I did get talking to a few other guests, it appeared that most people at the hostel were using Xining as a staging post to get to Lhasa on the train. When I mentioned I was heading down to Amnye Machen nobody had ever heard of it.
I was worried about whether Ragya monastery would be another too-sensitive “closed to foreigners” area like Choni, but had no problem buying a bus ticket to nearby Dawu - apart from a bit of a jostle with the usual would-be queue jumpers. With a couple of days to kill before my departure for Ragya, I took a stroll around the “Muslim quarter” of Xining around the grand mosque. It was an interesting area with varying degrees of adherence to Islamic dress codes. Some young girls wore just a loose headscarf with flashy Chinese clothes, while others wore a veil that covered their mouth and a full-length skirt that went right down to the ground. It was interesting to see that Muslim women dressing this way also attracted stares of bemusement and puzzlement from Han Chinese as well.
And in this way I spent a whole afternoon just mooching round the area near the mosque, people watching, perusing the market and stuffing my face at one of the many great Qingzhen (Muslim) restaurants there.
Kumbum (Taersi) monastery
Joseph Rock made a visit to Kumbum monastery in September 1925 but it doesn’t rate much of a mention in any of his articles in the National Geographic. It’s surprising because Kumbum was then one of the most important Gelugpa monasteries in the Tibetan-speaking world. Perhaps it didn’t rate a mention because it is so close to ‘civilisation’ in the form of Xining (then known as Sining) the provincial capital of Qinghai. Kumbum was often the home of the Panchen Lama - then as now the great political (and more pro-Chinese) rival to the Dalai Lama.
However, another American adventurer who visited Kumbum a fw years before Rock had something interesting to say about it. Fred Schroder was a Klondike fortune-seeker turned China trader. He plied camel caravans between Mongolia and north- western China in the early years of the 20th century, and wrote a little of his experiences in a book China Caravans. He describes a visit to Kumbum, which then stood on the border of Han and Tibetan influence (“wehere the blue-clothed Chinese disappeared and we began to see nomads ressed in sheepskins”).
Schroder notes that Kumbum was a scared place for thousands of pilgrims because it was the birthplace of Buddhism’s Martin Luther - the Tsong Khapa, who purified Lamaism and rid it of corruption in the sixteeth century.
At that time Kumbum was already a large and self sustaining community with thousands of monks who both prayed and worked as traders, labourers, policemen, doctors and stable hands.
Such was the fame of Kumbum that even in the pre-WW1 era there were professional tour guides, one of whom gave Schroder the basic tour. After seeing the many temples, colleges of botany and medicine and the impressive Kumbum library of ancient texts, Schroder also saw Kumbum’s famous “Tree of Faces”. This was a tree said to have sprung from the hair (or blood, depending on who you believe) of Tsong Khapa, and which had leaves which bore likenesses of Tibetan deities. The branches and bark of the tree were also said to resemble images of Gods and prayers such as the characters Om Mani Padme Hum. In fact, the name Kumbum is said to come from the phrase “hundred thousand images”. If you started at the tree for long enough you would begin to see images of relatives you would meet in the coming year – a very popular thing for family and clan-oriented Tibetans.
During his stay at Kumbum, Schroder surreptitiously tested the bona fides of the gold roofing of the temples, dropping nitric acid on to it and finding it to be the real thing. He also claims to have popularised the stetson hat among Tibetans, after the resident Tashi Lama took a liking to his “centre crush” Canadian Mountie hat. And like Rock, he found that the lamasery had a special storeroom for relics and curiosities, containing an odd collections of old bones, coins, bowls and some ancient rapiers that could have dated form the time of Marco Polo.
There is still a sacred tree compound at Kumbum, but whether it is the original “tree of Faces” I could not ascertain. Sadly, Kumbum now seems to be more of a museum piece than a real spiritual centre of Tibetan Buddhism. The lamasery is now also virtually a suburb of Xining - you can catch a local bus from just near the youth hostel and it takes only about half an hour to get there. I spent a pleasant morning visiting Kumbum, and even in May it was quite busy with tourists.
Nonetheless, it was a pleasant place, and had a fair number of genuine Tibetan pilgrims doing a circuit of the monastery, prostrating themselves all the way.
One of the odd things about Kumbum monastery is that it is situated in the middle of what seems to be a predominantly Muslim town. When you get off the bus and walk the half a mile up to the monastery, most of the people you see are Hui Muslims.
To Amnye Machen – or not
Joseph Rock starts off his article about his 1926 expedition to the ‘mountains of mystery’ - the Amnye Machen peaks - with the now familiar litany of outlandish and colourful claims. It is a remote and unexplored region, he writes, forgotten by time and peopled by warlike and nomadic Tibetan bandit tribes who know nothing of the outside world. An arduous journey across bleak grasslands is needed to reach this unknown mountain, which he says is 28,000 feet high - “almost as high as Everest” (it is actually only about 25,000 feet in height).
His article continues in this vein for several pages, perhaps to make up for the fact that he achieved so little. His generously-funded and extravagantly mounted expedition did not get anywhere near the mountain, despite two years of trying. After floundering about in the gorges and canyons of the upper reaches of the Yellow valley, Rock only managed to get a glimpse of the Amnye Machen range from a distant mountain pass 30 miles away. This seems especially odd to the modern reader as these days the mountain is easily accessible and can be circumambulated in a few days by backpackers. The terrain in the immediate vicinity of the mountain is bleak but poses no particular deterrent to the competent and prepared traveller. So why did Rock spend so long faffing around in the labyrinths of the Yellow river gorges - especially (as he admits himself) the area is so disappointing from a plant collector’s point of view?
Perhaps it is easy with the benefit of hindsight and the images of Google Earth at one’s fingertips, to forget how difficult it must have been to approach Amnye Machen in the 1920s. The area had been visited earlier by several western and Russian explorers, but it was still very much an unknown region. The main barrier to any curious outsider must have been the hostile Ngolok tribes who lived in the area and who violently repelled any intrusions by outsiders. And yet Rock had already dealt with a similar situation when trying to visit his so-called “Holy Mountains of the Outlaws”, the Konkaling mountains near Muli. This time however, the scale of the country was much greater, and his friendship with the wily Prince of Choni was of little use because the prince held no influence over the distant Ngoloks in another province.
Nevertheless, Rock took the advice of the Choni prince, who told him that the best way to approach the Amnye Machen mountain would be via the small monastery of Ragya (or ‘Radja’ as Rock calls it) on the upper reaches of the Yellow river.
With a commission and a large cheque from the Arnold Aboretum to conduct a comprehensive plant hunting expedition in the botanical ‘virgin territory’ of Amnye Machen, Rock set off in the spring of 1926. He didn’t travel lightly. In addition to his 12 Naxi helpers, he had 34 mules and 60 yaks carrying five months of supplies. As if this wasn’t enough, he also hired a mob of surly and cantankerous local Tibetan horsemen, known as ‘Sokwo Arik’ to act as a bodyguard on his journey across the grasslands from Labrang to Ragya.
This was also one of the few trips on which Rock took along another westerner. Although he doesn’t mention him by name, Rock brought along the American missionary William Simpson “dressed in Tibetan garb”, to act as a Tibetan translator. As already mentioned, Simpson had been working as a missionary in the Labrang area, but Rock soon found he disliked the missionary’s “do gooder” ways and lack of firmness with the natives.
Their journey from Labrang to Ragya took them westwards over bleak and boggy grasslands, peopled only by a few itinerant nomads living in black yak hair tents. Rock’s photographs portray the Tibetan nomads as wild and magnificent people, but in his writings he dismisses them as ignorant, superstitious and filthy.
On one occasion he looked on with disgust as an old woman pulled out a dirty bowl for him from on top of a heap of dung, wiped it with her filthy fingers and greasy clothes and then filled it with a hunk of yak butter that had the imprints of many other soiled fingernails scraped into it. Rock made his excuses to leave by saying that he had to take photographs outside.
According to Rock, this was a land that time had passed by - the local people had never seen a car or could conceive of a train. They had no concept of electricity or modern appliances and believed the world was flat. Things had not changed since the time of Marco Polo, he wrote. He played them records by Caruso and Dame Nellie Melba and they marvelled at the music produced by the “Urussu” (Russian) - their local word for all foreigners.
The landscape they travelled across was ‘dreary’ and disappointing, not just to the eye but also from a botanical perspective. So instead of plants, Rock noted the many types of wildlife in the region - marmots and pheasants, blue sheep and rabbits. There were tame birds that had never learned to be afraid of man. But there were also wolves, following the expedition caravan at a safe distance and watching them from the ridgelines.
From Labrang they passed through the Sang Chu valley, still littered with the bones of Tibetans slaughtered in a recent battle with the Muslims. Traversing grasslands dotted with the black tents of nomads, they crossed a 13,000 foot high pass - in a blizzard in June - to descend towards the Yellow River. The ‘unruly’ Sokwo bodyguard were then paid off to return to Labrang, “without a word of farewell or the slightest sign of interest in me”.
It is here that Rock makes another “first white man” claim - this time, to be the first to explore the steep canyons of gorges of the Yellow River, which he says are at least 3000 feet deep.
“It gave me a peculiar feeling in this lonely wilderness to be the first to look upon this mighty river flowing through hitherto unknown gorges,” he writes.
After exploring several sheer-sided tributary valleys of the Yellow river and killing a pair of eagles (“now in the museum at Harvard”), Rock made a brief stop at a monastery called Dzangar, before continuing upriver to Ragya monastery.
Once again he was both enthralled and disgusted by the extremes of a remote and secluded community. “Few in the outside world know that Radja Gompa exists ...Life here is unbelievably crude ...”
One of the strange things he encountered at Ragya was a room room full of clocks and timepieces collected by the Abbott of the monastery. It reads like a scene from a movie.
“From floor to ceiling, clocks and watches of every description and size were ticking away, each keeping its own time regardless of the actual hour. Clocks struck at various intervals, some in unison, others in quick succession.”
Rock added to the collection with the gift of a watch.
After the long journey, Joseph Rock settled in to quarters at the Ragya monastery, and prepared for the next phase of the expedition - the approach to Amnye Machen though Ngolok territory. However, the officials of the monastery warned him against taking his expedition into Ngolok territory, saying the tribes would probably murder them. If he was to go, he must make a quick dash on horseback, before the Ngoloks knew of his presence, they advised.
Rock demurred and asked the lamas to send an envoy with requests to visit - and accompanied with generous gifts for the Ngolok chiefs. He had not come all this way for a brief visit, and he wanted to spend an extended period collecting plants and viewing the mountain. While waiting for a reply from the Ngolok, he explored the area around the monastery - photographing the stupendous cliffs under which it sat, and the tiny hermit residences on the hillside, where lamas lived on nothing but nettle soup.
He observed the daily lives of the lamas and again was scornful of their superstitious and feudal ways. One lama was observed ‘printing’ Buddha images on the surface of the Yellow river by slapping a board onto the water carved with a sacred image. “He occupied himself in this way for hours,” Rock observes drily. Rock also recounts cynically how the Living Buddhas always seemed to be found among the offspring of families of high lamas and officials - how convenient!
To Raja Gompa from Xining
After my run-in with the cops at Choni I didn’t rate my chances of getting to Ragya monastery because of its previous history of Tibetan troubles. After all, Choni was a quiet and obscure backwater, far away from the turmoil of Sichuan and Qinghai. Ragya, on the other hand, had already had ‘uprisings’ by local Tibetans. According to reports in the free Tibetan media, in 2009 a riot had developed in Ragya after a Tibetan flag was displayed at the monastery. Police arrested and beat a monk they suspected of hiding the flag, and the monk reportedly drowned while trying to escape by swimming the Yellow river. This prompted hundreds of locals to surround and stone the police station at Ragya, leading to scores of other arrests.
So I wasn’t too hopeful of getting there - and even if I did manage to get a bus ticket, I feared being kicked out of town, just as had happened in Choni. Well nothing ventured, nothing won, so I tried my luck at the chaotic ticket hall at Xining coach station. The bus station was a throw-back to the old China of the 1990s - a dark hall containing long lines of unwashed nongmin all pushing and shoving towards ticket selling windows clutching their wads of renminbi.
On my first attempt it took me half an hour to reach the tiny window, only to be told to go to Window Number 7, where the line was even longer and wilder. I braced myself and after another tedious and tense wait, fending off would-be pushers-in, I got to the window and was able to buy a ticket to Dawu, the nearest major town to Ragya. The only problem was that the ticket was for three days later - a Saturday. And the bus departed at 11.30 am, rather than the usual sparrow-fart crack of dawn departure time. The woman told me it took only seven hours to Dawu, but that seemed optimistic given my experience of the roads so far in this part of the world.
Anyway, I had three days to kill and to mull this over. Three days. I nearly went mad. There’s only so much you can do in a provincial Chinese city like Xining. Visit the museum, wander round the market, visit some parks and try a few day excursions. By the third day I was thoroughly bored of Xining and the Lete hostel. As I’ve said already, this hostel was a pleasant and well run place, but it had the usual quota of creepy and cringeworthy westerners. There was an older English gent who seemed to spend every day sat in the common room/bar tapping away at his laptop and striking up conversation with any strangers he was able to make eye contact with. Nothing wrong with that, but he was a bore who loved the sound of his own voice, spouting the usual bar-room reactionary world view. He proclaimed that he had been able to retire from his work in the “financial sector” and was now able to travel at leisure.
Like a lot of expats, he had only bad things to say about his home country and how it had gone to the dogs. Travelers who he buttonholed would initially gave him the benefit of the doubt and a sympathetic ear, but soon acquired a glazed look and made their excuses to leave. The old bore would then start to regale the Chinese girls working behind the bar with the same stories and conspiracy theories, and they would nod politely but awkwardly, barely understanding a word of what he said.
The sad thing was that I felt the same way myself. I’d hardly spoken any English during my week on the road and I craved conversation. And yet I did not want to end up like the bore, so I just sipped my beer and read my new copy of 1984, purchased at Xining’s Xinhua bookstore.
I found it hard to cope with nobody to talk to. Going a whole day without using your voice is odd - and after three or four days I started to think I was losing my grip on reality. I started singing to myself, just to hear English words. Then I started talking to myself and having conversations with imaginary companions. If I was feeling this desperate for company after just a week, how did Joseph Rock manage for months on end in the wilderness with just his Naxi ‘boy’ assistants for company? Did he not care for companionship and conversation? No wonder he was so cranky.
Saturday 5th May found me at the Xining bus station, looking for the coach to Dawu. I was expecting the usual long distance coach and was surprised to be ushered towards a minibus already bursting with Tibetans and their luggage. But they were a friendly and cheerful lot and I managed to squeeze onto the last seat near the door, and soon we were crawling through the gridlocked traffic and road of Xining. I found myself sat next to a couple of Tibetan teenage girls, the one nearest me having angelic looks and pouty lips.
However, as soon as we got going she started to play rap and hi-energy music on tinny speakers plugged into her mobile phone. And so as the bus strained over the first mountain range and into a barren eroded loess valley, my attention was distracted by an LL Cool J song that seemed to consist of the phrase “Shut the F### Up” repeated ad nauseum.
The landscape around the first town of Guide (pronounced Gwee-duh) was a weird arrangement of serrated and eroded red soil mounds and ridges, with not a blade of grass in sight. However, in the town itself, and along the banks of the Yellow River, the land was irrigated and marked by its vivid green grass and trees.
We continued south and up onto a bleak grassland plateau. This was where the Tibetan nomads had once roamed, but now they had been corralled by the Chinese government into grim settlements of identical small houses arranged in neat rows.
The Tibetan nomad now used a motorbike instead of a horse, and was confined to the road festooned with powerlines and mobile phone towers, with the occasional dirt track leading to more remote settlements.
There was little to see out of the window, and I soon settled into a bored stupor. Then, as our bus pulled up and over another bleak grassland pass I was surprised to see a late model black Range Rover abandoned by the side of the road, with a goat chewing grass next to it. As we passed it saw that the axle was bent and one of the front wheels had been twisted at an unusual angle, rendering it undriveable. Why abandon such an expensive car out here? Was it because no breakdown truck would venture this far into the wilderness?
The road was smooth and we made good progress. I dozed off for a while, and woke up at a dogleg in the road where it turns 90 degrees to the west. This was a feature that I had seen on Google Earth when planing the trip and it was surreal to now find myself ‘in’ Google Earth, or rather the real equivalent.
The road ascended three more undulating passes, each higher than the last, before we started a long and twisting descent towards the Yellow River and Lajia.
At this point I should have been in a state of wonderment and excited anticipation. I was about to reach my much sought-after destination. But the Tibetan girl next to me was still playing her irritating tinny gym music and someone else at the back of the bus was playing jaunty Tibetan disco-style karaoke music at the same time. I was fed up and just wanted to get off the bus. We passed through a dramatic red canyon and then suddenly emerged onto the main street of a small Tibetan frontier town of Hebei (‘North of River’). The town seemed busy - perhaps because of all the construction activity related to the building of the Maerdang hydro dam and power station, which was mentioned on a big propaganda poster just outside the town.
Downhill again, I readied myself for getting off at Lajia. I hadn’t told the driver about getting off here until the last rest stop, because I didn’t want to risk being refused boarding for the bus or getting kicked off at the nearest PSB station - but he only seemed bemused by my request.
And then suddenly we were there. I recognised the huge distinctive cliff face, below which were clustered many monastery buildings. But Lajia had sprawled since Rock’s time, and there were now many more modern buildings and streets on both sides of the river.
There seemed to be a festival or fair on in town - the road was clogged with cars, vans and motorbikes, and there were crowds of festive-looking Tibetans and monks milling about the roadside. As we hit this gridlock, the driver signalled me to get off. I hauled my bag onto my back and jumped out of the open door, right in front of a policeman. My heart sank and I expected a quick rebuke and apprehension, but he just looked right through me. Not interested! Before he had any chance to think further, I legged it down the road through the crowds, towards the bridge.
According to my guidebook there was only one guesthouse in town and I was worried that with all the Tibetan festival visitors it would be booked out, especially this late in the day. And sure enough it was. The manager of the Muslim guesthouse near the bridge just waved me away. I sauntered over the bridge in a desperate, pessimistic mood and walked into the ‘new’ part of town, and was fortunate to find a place called the Rujia Guesthouse that took me in with no qualms. The place was overseen by a fey teenage kid with a camp vibe and bizarre stuck up hairstyle, who just shrugged and said ‘dunno’ when I asked him why there were so many people in town.
The hotel was right next to the Yellow River and by the time I had unpacked my bag and had something to eat it was dark and did not see any point in going up to the monastery. Instead I sat in my room, trying to read 1984 and dreading the prospect of a knock on the door from the local PSB. They never came.
I was up bright and early on Sunday, eating one of those Greek-style yoghurts that are so popular in Qinghai, and swilling it down with a cup of tea made with the kettle in the room. It was only just light and still something of a gloomy dawn when I set off back up the road to go see the Ragya monastery. As I got closer to the river I couldn’t help grinning at the sight of the towering cliffs, appearing just like they were in Joseph Rock’s photos.
However, intruding into the view in the 21st century was a newly built petrol station, of the appropriately named U-Smile franchise. With no other shop open so early in the morning I wandered in to buy a drink. The layout was the same as petrol stations the world over. A couple of fridges containing drinks and ice creams and a few shelves of snacks, motor accessories, magazines and maps. The barcode scanner beeped as the sleepy assistant scanned my Ice Lemon Tea and I headed back out into the vision from the past.
It was still only 7.30 in the morning and there was nobody else about except for a lone Tibetan woman scurrying up from behind me. She was wearing the usual long skirt and chunky jacket, along with some agate bead necklaces, a scarf wrapped around her face as a mask against dust, and a bonny sun hat. She overtook me as I sauntered over the bridge, and as she passed me she turned around and said a cheery “Hello! Good Morning!” I was taken aback. I had hardly spoken any English in the last week and now I was being hailed in fluent English by a wild looking woman in the middle of nowhere.
I muttered a surprised “Good morning” in return, and the Tibetan woman asked in faintly-accented English if I wanted to see the monastery. When I said yes, she bade me follow her and said: “I am going there also.” Then I recognised the accent - Indian. The woman explained that she had spent several years in a Tibetan community near Dharamsala, but she had now returned to live in “Golog” as she called this part of the world.
Without saying anything else, she led me into the monastery complex and ushered me though a doorway, shielded by a heavy canvas curtain. It was one of the main prayer halls and inside there were about 30-40 monks all sat in rows and chanting away. They looked up in surprise at my arrival, and started nudging each other and gesturing at me. The chanting continued, although it seemed to miss a beat. The Tibetan woman smiled and then disappeared through another dark doorway.
I hung around in the prayer hall for a while, trying to take a few discreet photos with my Rolleiflex without a flash. There was a whole row of candles down one wall, which seemed like a major fire hazard given that the whole building was made of wood!
The chanting was overseen by a senior monk, who periodically put on his yellow “cock’s comb” lama hat and blew on a conch shell, to the accompaniment of a drum and some cymbals. Then after about half an hour some young monks emerged with kettles full of butter tea, and they scampered around pouring the thick tea into the bowls of the monks sitting in rows. I was surprised to see a large image of the Dalai Lama on display, given his pariah status with the PRC government as a separatist. Perhaps Ragya was just too remote for the authorities to pay much attention.
After an hour or so I headed back outside and found there were more Tibetan visitors milling about the place. Many of them were circumambulating the prayer hall or other temples within the complex. I ascended to the highest temple, which many Tibetans were circling, and I looked beyond, higher up the hill, to see if there was a way up to the summit of the crag. All I could see was another clutch of prayer flags and a strip of white material beneath the crags.
I set off up the hill, along a faint track, and after much huffing and puffing at this altitude, I reached the “white line” which turned out to be a plastic water pipe. I followed it around to the right as it wended higher up the hill. The track petered out and the terrain became more difficult, covered with thick spiky bushes as I passed directly under the crag. There didn’t seem to be any obvious way up to the summit, and the water pipe disappeared into a narrow defile between two almost vertical rock faces. I squeezed through and followed a little further up this mini-canyon but the terrain soon became impassable - I had reached a dead end.
I turned back and skirted round to the right even more, heading up a gentle grass slope riven with small gullies created by erosion. As I rose higher I attained a grand view of the side of the Ragya crag, and I could see this was one of the sites from which Rock had taken a photo of a group of tents.
Now the landscape was devoid of any tents - just a couple of Tibetans further down foraging for the lucrative congcao fungal caterpillar.
Atop the crags I could just make out a nest of prayer flags - but how to get up there? The sides were far too steep and covered with brambles. How had Rock managed to get to the top? There must be a path somewhere. Just as I was wondering about this I sensed I was being watched. I looked up and there on the skyline in the distance above me was a man in a suit stood gazing down at me. For an instant I jokingly thought it was the ghost of Joseph Rock, then whoever it was turned around and walked away behind the ridge, out of sight.
I started up the hillside to where the figure had been - following a faint path up to a notch in the ridge. When I got there some ten minutes later, there was nobody around, but I could see a long roundabout way that might lead up to the top of the crag. I skirted the side of the hill, following the contour line and into another new valley. Again as I got higher the sides became steeper until near the top the track became very exposed and the sides of the hill gave way to almost vertical stone faces. I picked my way carefully up the trail to yet another ridge - which proved to be another false summit and led to yet another ridge.
After much more scrambling I finally topped out on a grassy platform amid a maze of ridges and steep slopes. I was level with the summit of the crags now, but it seemed even further away than ever, and I was separated from it by several huge gullies. This wasn’t the way to the top.
However, I had great views over the surrounding hills. This hillside was the place where Joseph Rock had been brought by the lamas of Radja to celebrate the feast of Amnye Machen.
They set up tents, picnicked on butter tea “the usual unpalatable Tibetan delicacies” and burnt juniper twigs on a makeshift altar as an offering.
“After final prayers, the Buddha left riding a beautiful horse with its saddlecloth and trappings of gold brocade and sheltered by a big gilded umbrella. When he was safely out of site the lamas played hilarious games and frolicked to their heart’s content in a very childish manner...” Rock wrote.
No such splendour or fun and games for me. Unable to reach the crag summit, I reluctantly turned around and shimmied my way cautiously down the slopes, feeling rather scared of the steep drops on either side, and taking great care with every foothold and handhold above the rock walls.
Back down at the first ridge, I was startled by a flock of sheep that came around the hillside. And there with them was the man in the suit I had seen earlier - a Tibetan shepherd. Not the ghost of Joseph Rock after all.
When I finally got back to the monastery, it was thronging with visitors - whole Tibetan families on a day out. Some were doing circuits of the buildings while others queued up to enter one particular room, which contained a sacred circle or mandala.
After queueing up myself for fifteen minutes I managed to get in to see the mandala. I’d expected a pious atmosphere of reverence and solemnity but all the Tibetans in the room were coo-ing, smiling and taking photos of it, as if it was a rock star.
I started to take a picture myself, when suddenly the room went quiet and the temperature seemed to suddenly drop a few degrees. I turned around to see an old and very serious looking monk, who everyone else was deferring to. He gave me a puzzled, disapproving look, wrinkled his brow and then walked out again. Not sure what it was all about - very odd!
Outside, there were quite a few monks about now - their chanting duties over for the time being. One was exceedingly tall and looked like the James Bond villain Jaws. He told me he was an ethnic Mongolian monk and was well over two metres tall.
I was surprised by the number of monks who came up to me and welcomed me in English and asked if they could be of any help. This level of English language ability was quite extraordinary for China. Then one of them explained that there was a local school that had been set up independently to teach Tibetan and English. They had certainly done a good job, but I had to wonder how long this would last in the current environment of control in Tibetan areas of China. I later read several news items about similar independent schools in Qinghai and Sichuan being shut down by authorities.
For the time being, though, Radja was a pleasant and friendly place. It was not on the tourist map and so people were open and natural. On this Sunday afternoon there was almost a festive air, as families and friends milled around, chatting and catching up with each other. A few people roped me into have photos taken with them, while others just patted me on the back in a comradely way, as if to congratulate me for making it to Radja.
It was all quite a contrast to the image of Radja painted by Joseph Rock in 1923. As he bided his time here waiting for an opportunity to evade the Ngolok tribes and visit Amnye Machen, he was scathing of the local monks for their filthiness and ignorance.
“Few in the outside world know that Radja Gompa exists. Life here is unbelievably crude ...” he wrote. He noted the many hermit monks who lived in tiny chambers on the hillside below the crags - structures that were still there. He also bemoaned how the water supply had to be brought up to the monastery from the Yellow River in buckets. Even after being filtered it was still as thick as pea soup, he observed.
While waiting for the head lama to arrange passage through hostile Ngolok territory, Rock stayed in the Radja area for more than a month, making side trips into the Dakhso canyon of the Yellow River and an 18-day trip northwest to the Jupar mountains. He then grew impatient and threatened the Radja lamas that he would seek help instead from the Muslims instead. Perhaps this was why the monks sent him on a wild goose chase through the canyons of the Yellow River. They said he could make a quick dash to the mountain from the camp of the nearby Dawu clan. Rock concurred, and took only horses and a minimum of supplies to ensure they could ensure a highly mobile party. They would need to be quick to escape the hostile Ngoloks, he was told.
“I had come to the conclusion that to work at Amnye Machen peacefully would be out of the question. It is feasible to get there, but to stay and work is another story. It would mean either keeping a large well-armed party for one’s protection or else depending on the friendly co-operation of all the Ngoloks.”
He did not get the friendly co-operation of the Ngoloks, and was told bluntly by a local relative of one Ngolok chief that the Ngoloks were expecting him and planned to murder him if he intruded on their territory.
Rock decided to chance his hand by skirting the edges of Ngolok territory on a quick trip escorted by Gomba, the chief of of another local Tibetan tribe, the Jazza clan.
From Radja monastery they crossed to the west side of the Yellow river and headed for a small peak called Amnyi Druggu, from where he hope to be able to see and photograph what Rock still suspected and hoped would be the highest mountain peak in the world, Amnyi Machen.
Rock found that in terms of flora and fauna, the western side of the river was quite different to the barren eastern grasslands.
He found the region to be “one great zoological garden” abundant in blue sheep, deer and wapiti, as well as bird life - much of which he shot and despatched as samples back to the museums of Washington DC. And in the region of another friendly tribe, the Yonzhi, Rock at last found many flowers - blue poppies, primulas and forests of junipers.
After several day’s journey, they eventually ascended Amnyi Druggu, and Rock got his long awaited view of Amnye Machen. However, he says little of his first glimpse of the mountain, saving his praise for a better viewing he obtained through his telescope from a peak in the nearby Tarang valley a few days later.
“I shouted for joy as I beheld the majestic peaks of one of the grandest mountain ranges of all Asia,” he effused. And still he believed the mountain to be as high as Everest.
“We stood at an elevation of nearly 16,000 feet, yet in the distance rose still higher peaks - yet another 12,000 feet of snow and ice!”
He was completely wrong. Rock says that without a theodolite he could not measure the exact height of Amnye Machen, and yet he still concluded it was higher than 28,000 feet (its true height is 20,610 feet). His wild overestimate was to fuel speculation for decades to come about whether Amnye Machen was a contender for the highest mountain in the world. During WW2 some American freighter pilots flying the Hump route into China claimed that they had been blown off course near Amnye Machen and estimated its height to be 30,000 feet. This later proved to be a hoax.
But Rock was never taken to task for his surveying gaffes. He left the mountain with the usual sentimental odes of triumph and romantic lament:
“With difficulty I tore myself from that sublime view - a view of the eastern massif of the mountain from the west of the Yellow River which no other foreigners had ever had. I remained for some time alone on that isolated summit, lost in reverie and easily comprehending why the Tibetans should worship these snowy peaks as emblems of purity.”
He returned to Radja and after some extended wandering to the north to visit Lake Koko Nor, he eventually made his way back to Choni. looking back on his trip, he acknowledged that it had been botanically disappointing - and he blamed this on the high altitude and year-round cold climate that did not support plants or trees.
My own return from Radja more than 80 year later was a lot easier and rather mundane. After another night at the Rujia Guesthouse I hopped on an empty coach that made the return journey on the smooth highway all the way back to modern Xining in a single day. As we crossed over the high pass above Radja I looked back and saw the snow peaks of the Amnye Machen range in the distance. Ho hum. Give me the Yading peaks or Minya Konka anyday.