100 Years Ago: September 1921
This is the eightieth entry in my series of recaps of one-hundred-year-old National Geographic Magazines.
The first article in this month’s issue is entitled “Our Greatest National Monument” and was written by Robert F. Griggs, Director of the Katmai Expeditions of the National Geographic Society. There is an internal subtitle: “The National Geographic Society Completes Its Explorations in the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes”. Of the “91 Illustrations” contained in this article, seventy-three are black-and-white photographs, of which eight are full-page in size. Sixteen of the remaining eighteen illustrations are half-page “Natural Color Photographs by Frank I. Jones” on eight pages (271-278). These are documented on the cover as “Sixteen Illustrations in Full Color” and they are color photos, not colorized black-and-white ones. The remaining two illustrations documented on the cover are a sketch map of the Katmai District of Alaska on page 222;
Sketch map courtesy of Philip Riviere
and a relief map of the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes on page 227.
Relief map courtesy of Philip Riviere
The reports of the six National Geographic Expeditions to Katmai, including the discovery of the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, has been published in the National Geographic Magazine [See: January 1917 and February 1918]. The inclusion of the region to the National Parks System was also reported in The Geographic [See: April 1919]. The only comprehensive account of the eruption of Mt. Katmai was also published in National Geographic [See: February 1913].
From the first accounts of the explosion of Katmai Volcano, in Alaska, in June 1912, it was clear that it must rate among the dozen greatest historic eruptions. Those early accounts were from great distances, and contained no account of the eruption itself. Towns, hundreds of miles away, were buried in a foot of ash; the concussions were so loud, they were heard 750 miles away; and so much dust was thrown into the atmosphere that sunlight was diminished for several months in the Northern Hemisphere. The expeditions sent out by the National Geographic Society explored the country near Mt. Katmai and discovered that another eruption, itself of the first magnitude, had already occurred some miles from that volcano. That eruption gave rise to the Ten Thousand Smokes, and Katmai was just the closing act in a series of eruptions from the floors of valleys a considerable distance from that volcano. Proof of that fact was evident with stratified ash from Katmai everywhere lies on top of the deposits of that earlier phase of the eruption. The discovery of the Ten Thousand Smokes suggested the earlier phase of the eruption, but it wasn’t until later that the events could be interpreted. Since there were no witnesses of the catastrophe, the author was limited in framing his account of its events to deductions from the study of its effects on the surrounding country. For that reason, the author cautions that his was a narration based on evidence, and not a series of observed events.
Some time before the beginning of the terrific explosions, a host of small volcanoes burst open the floor of the green valley, through which ran the Katmai Trail. The date was unknown, but was probably near the first of June, 1912. The formation of those vents was very unusual feature in volcanic phenomena. It was not a reawakening of dormant vents, but rather the formation of new volcanoes in an area where none had existed previously. Those new volcanoes consisted of holes blown through the floor of the valley. How many holes, no one could tell, but it was a veritable host. Soon after their formation they began to throw out ash and pumice in enormous quantity. The Ten Thousand Smokes, wonderful as they were, could give no idea of what the valley must have looked like in that initial stage. There must have been hundreds of vents belching out torrents of fire. Fluid and semifluid lava issued from the vents and poured out on the ground, following the slope, consuming everything they touched. In the first stage, many volcanoes appeared in different parts of the valley, each contributing to the general chaos. From each there was probably a great black cloud rising to a considerable height. The quantity of gas given off from the boiling, semi-molten lava was so great that the whole mass of lava was puffed up into a frothy pumice, which was broken into fragments by the expansive force of the escaping gas. The region was unexplored, but fortunately, it was part of a well-known trail crossing the Alaskan Peninsula. For ages past, that trail had been an inter-tribal highway between Katmai villages. More recently, it was much used by Russians and Americans. There were many men [in 1921] still alive who camped in that valley before it erupted. None of those travelers, including at least one geologist, suspected that that peaceful valley might become the theater of such an eruption. The valley was overgrown to an altitude of about 1,500 feet, by a dense forest of spruce, poplar, and birch, broken only by ponds and tundra in the low places. Above the tree-line, there was abundant tundra vegetation. Except for ancient lava flows at the head of the valley, the rocks in the valley were not volcanic, nor even igneous, being mostly sedimentary – shale and sandstone.
Although the pass was frequently crossed by travelers, there was no permanent settlement in the valley. About half way up, however, there was a group of native huts, known as Ukak. They were hunting lodges used by the natives of the village of Savonoski, for the valley had plentiful game. At the first sign of the eruption, frequent earthquakes, the chief of the Savonoski, “American Pete”, went to Ukak to remove his gear. He was on the trail when the eruption occurred. He was the only human being to witness what happened to the valley. Pete was interviewed by Mr. P. R. Hagelbarger, of the 1918 Expedition. In broken English he talked about the Katmai Mountain blowing up and fire coming down the valley, with lots of smoke. He went fast to Sabanoski, where he and the villagers got in boats and fled. They reached Naknek where the sky drew dark; no one could see and hot ash fell. They could never go back to Sabanoski to live. He felt Sabanoski was a good place; he didn’t care much for Naknek. Mr. Hagelbarger questioned Pete further but could get no more information concerning the event. Ordinarily, stories of fire in connection with eruptions were discounted, for the flow of molten lava rather than flames were seen. Pete’s story, however, was literally true. The hot ash started fires that swept over the adjoining mountainsides, consuming every vestige of vegetation. So completely were the plants destroyed that there were no remains, not even charred wood. The Expeditions had to carry in wood for camping from outside the burned zone, a dozen miles away. If it had not been for Nature’s fire, it would have been impossible to cook. Long before the fires had time to run its course, a mass of red-hot sand and rock, which had accumulated around the vents, began to roll down the valley under gravity. Before it finally came to rest, that fiery torrent ran down the valley for about seventeen miles. The charcoal forests, uncovered where streams had later cut into the cooled and stiffened flow, were impressive witnesses to the fiery avalanche which overwhelmed them. It was no ordinary lava flow, which was a viscous liquid, moving slowly. The flow may have started out liquid, but the escaping gas converted it into solid fragments buoyed by the gas. The flow moved like water, not like tar. Had the quantity of gas been less, the flow might have remained lava, and hardened into solid rock; but even the heavier constituents were so completely disrupted, that on cooling they became ash and pumice.
One of the most conspicuous features of the valley was the clear-cut margin of the great mass of incandescent sand, which stretched in a practically continuous high-water mark all around its margin. The continuity of that “high-sand mark” showed clearly that the incandescent mass was not poured down one of the adjacent mountain sides into the valley, but must have originated from vents within its confines. During the whole period of flow the mass was probably kept in a state of constant turmoil by gas leaking from the solid components. After motion had ceased, explosions continued for a time, tearing great holes in the surface of the valley – the craters which dotted the surface. Some were isolated; others stretched out in long chains. In other places they were thickly peppered over the surface, forming compound nests of craters. The explosions responsible for the valley craters were insignificant in violence as compared to the great outburst of Katmai. All the debris fell within the valley. Still, it tore up the ground, half a mile square. Not only did the flow continue down the main arm of the valley for 17 miles, it also ran back across the divide behind Novarupta Volcano and completely encircled the Broken Mountains, coming down a side valley to join the main flow several miles downstream. Its greatest length was 20 miles, while its greatest breath was 9 miles. The total area covered was 53 square miles, and the volume of incandescent sand was greater than a cubic mile.
To piece together the above narrative took a large amount of time and study. The previous expeditions described the various volcanic activity lending to our knowledge of volcanism. Some in the scientific world were skeptical of the claims from those expeditions. To allay those doubts, The Geophysical Laboratory of the Carnegie Institute was invited to join the National Geographic Expedition of 1919. The Society would pay for the trip, and the Geophysical Laboratory would work up the results upon return. The production of a moving-picture record of the wonders of the region was another top priority of the expedition. The motion pictures brought back by the expedition showed the rolling columns of big volcanoes, the sizzling fumaroles, and even leaping salmon. The activities of the expedition were so varied that the men were kept scattered at different camps. Some men rarely saw others during the season. At no time were all the members assembled at one spot. After the field season, the group assembled at Kodiak, but even then, three members were absent. One member was forced to leave early, while the other two returned trough the Bering Sea with a cargo of specimens too heavy to carry over the pass. The author then listed the nineteen members of the expedition. In addition to regular members, the expedition also received visitors for the first time. The first “tourist” to visit the Katmai National Monument was Rodney L. Glisan, of Portland. Later in the summer, the wives of three members came to see their husbands, the first women to visit to region.
When the Naknek section of the expedition arrived, the river was low. It was difficult to get the boats over the bars. Nevertheless, they were able to ship 1,500 pounds in a single load. At the time, the low water was considered a handicap, but they found later that it was extremely lucky. It was hard to line a boat through swift water. Either way, it was difficult work, yet it was much easier than a day with a pack on one’s back; and three times as much could be transported. Later in the summer, the river rose to three feet, covering all the shoals and rising up over the grassy bank. The rapids were found extremely difficult to travel, the increased swiftness of the water far outweighed the advantage of greater depth. They were surprised to find that the season was later on the south side of the peninsula than the Bering Sea side. They feared the lake would not have broken up yet, and delay Sayre’s party. As it turned out, it was the author’s party that was delayed. It was the first day in June before they were ready for a try at the pass and the valley beyond. The calm of early morning gave way to squalls of rain, sleet, and snow. Everywhere, except on the lowlands close to camp, was covered with snow, through which they had to plow. It was a monotonous, weary grind uphill. As they neared the pass, expectations grew – the author to see the changes, and his companion, Kolb, to see if the stories were true. Upon reaching the pass they found the upper flat blanketed with snow. The little twin fumaroles that had beckoned the author in 1918 were nowhere to be seen. Peering over the rise, half a mile beyond, that hid the valley itself, a puff of vapor was seen rising to join the clouds. The Smokes were still there.
They surmounted the rise, they found the valley, exactly as the author remembered. What a contrast to the snow-covered valley leading up to the pass. There was no snow except for a few patches in cold spots around the margins. It was as clear and bare as in midsummer. The valley appeared the same as it was when it was discovered in 1916. Although the little fumaroles at the head of the valley, which were about a hundred in 1916, 1917, and 1918, were reduced to two or three in 1919. There were a large number of boiling springs at the foot of the valley. That area was markedly lower than the year before. Falling Mountain, likewise, was not as active, with a lower frequency of trembling. The old volcanoes were less vigorous than in 1916 and 1917. They could not determine if Katmai was active or not. There were signs of new activity around the edges of the valley where temperatures were much higher than before, high enough to melt lead and zinc. It was late in the season when those hot spots were discovered. Three fumaroles were hot enough to melt zinc, with one reaching 496 degrees C. (915 degrees F.). The next day the chemists reported several temperatures above 500 degrees C., the highest being 645 degrees (nearly 1,200 degrees F.). All of the high temperatures measure were found in in small, inconspicuous fumaroles rather than the big vents. The biggest, most impressive vents with their tremendous heat were seldom more than two or three times as hot as ordinary steam.
In the seven years since the formation of the fumaroles, the country round about had gradually been populated by a new generation of bear, having grown up in the vicinity of the valley. When first discovered, the active area was totally devoid of living creatures. The next year, they saw the tracks of a single bear which had crossed the valley. But in 1919, many tracks were found all throughout the valley. Their tracks were often found close around the largest vents. It seemed they sought a good place to enjoy the heat, like a dog behind a kitchen stove. No one in the expedition caught sight of a bear in the valley. It was not unusual to find bear tracks leading straight up to a large vent, where he apparently stopped to peer into the mysterious, hot hole. One spot, the hot ground had excited a bear’s curiosity. He had dug a hole to investigate and started a little fumarole of his own. In addition to bears, which never entirely deserted the region, many other forms of animal life were coming in. On one of the little ponds, they saw several loons, golden-eye ducks, geese, and even a swan. They enjoyed swan cooked by the steam of a fumarole. On the hillside, grouse were nearly always found, and there were a number of colonies of ground squirrels. To complete the fauna seen, there were many short-tailed mice.
The new members of the expedition were shocked by the colors of the valley. The previous article had stated that the ground was painted with “all the colors of the rainbow”, but words, and black-and-white photographs, did not prepare them for what they saw. The author’s companion, Kolb, grew up near the Grand Canyon. As colorful as that gorge was, he was struck by the brilliant coloring around the vents. Where the canyon’s color was seen from a distance, the valley’s riot of color was up close and thus heightened by contrast. The throats of the fumaroles were most often a shade of red; sometimes light pink; or bright scarlet, or, in hotter places, rich crimson passing into purple and black in the hottest vents. With the purple patches was frequently associated a bright orange encrustation. Those two colors were often found together in highly acidic fumaroles, which left spots of pure white silica. In some places, large areas were bleached white by the acid fumes. Added to that palette were faint tinges of pink and yellow. In places, the ground colors of red, white, and gray were overlaid by deposits of pure yellow Sulphur. Many hundreds of acres glowed with brilliant colors, sometimes black as asphalt, grading through shades of blue into pearl grays; or various shades of red; while round about were ochraceous yellows and browns. After a trek across the valley, one’s shoes were covered with multi-colored mud. Where the ground was not too hot, places were covered in a layer of bright green algae, adding the last color needed to complete the spectrum. It was a striking color near one of the conical craters, which was a bright orange. In other places one found a combination of reds and blues and yellows by digging into loose ground near a fumarole. But to convey by verbal descriptions of the gorgeous coloring was impossible. Ever since the author beheld the colors of the valley, he had been anxious to have them photographed in color. Color photography was more difficult than black-and-white picture-take, which required two or three mechanical processes – shutter speed, diaphragm, etc. – while watching the subject and taking the photo when the conditions were right. But in color work, the number of mechanical factors was greatly increased, and the demands of artistic conception by the operator were also greatly increased. The difficulties were so great that the author made no promises in advance of what could be done; but the results were so beautiful and preserved the natural colors with perfect fidelity. He credited the photographer, Mr. Jones, for his patience and his artist’s vision.
When they first camped in the valley, the rule was “safety first”; but by 1919, they were willing to take chances. They camped at the corner of Baked Mountain, near some large vents. That position proved untenable; but some magnificent photographs were taken. As far as convenience, that location had all that could be desired. The big fumaroles provided heat for cooking, while a snowdrift behind the tents provided fresh water and refrigeration. They had to adjust how they cooked. The acidic steam from the “cook-stove” ate the pots when they were hung over the vents. Instead, they dug holes in the hot ground. The holes were different temperatures and they used them for the results desired. The kept a pot of water warm on a “slow” hole, but when in a hurry they put it in a hot place. What made such varied temperatures readily available was the fact that the valley was located on the roof of one of the great bridged-over fissures which encircled the margin of the valley. In several places, the fissure stood gaping open ten feet wide. From such openings issued enormous volumes of superheated steam, forming some of the greatest smokes of the valley. For the most part, the fissure was closed by an arched bridge of ash, that was strong enough to support the weight of a large party. The hottest hole was hot enough to fry bacon and bake bread. Their staples were oatmeal, rice, beans, corn-bread, dehydrated potatoes, butter, cheese, and pilot bread. Occasionally, they ate corn-beef hash or trout. Vegetables included string-beans, spinach, and “boiled dinner vegetables”, mostly carrots. Their fruits included apples raisins, peaches, pears, apricots, loganberries, cranberries, and cherries. On a hot day, they even indulged in iced tea.
All went well at Baked Mountain camp as long as the weather remained good, but when the storms struck, they encountered a fury that no tents could withstand. They were blown out four times before they learned their lesson and move the camp to a safer, if less convenient, location. A priority of the expedition was to climb Mt. Martin, a volcano and the most active vent in the region. Clouds and bad weather had thwarted their efforts in the past. They attempted an ascent in early June, but the snow persisted longer at the head of Martin Creek than anywhere else in the district. It covered the region they had wished to study. It was not until August that they camped at the foot, waiting for a chance. The first attempt ended in rain, but not before they picked out the best route ahead. On the second attempt, clouds settled in, but they were able to continue across the glacier in obscurity hoping it would clear so they could scale the summit. They went as far as they could and stopped and ate lunch. Later they found that they were under the last steep pitch of the cone, a few minutes from the rim. It was a mournful bunch that descended the mountain that evening. Five days later, the weather cleared and they made another attempt, but from the wrong side of the range. It meant covering a mile in altitude and 30 miles in distance. Before they reached the high snow-fields, they had to cross an area all cut up by close-set crevasses. They carefully crossed without mishap, following narrow crests between bottomless crevasses on each side. They pushed on while the summit was clear. They made rapid progress to the last pitch as the clouds began to gather. It was 250 feet tall with a slope of 60 degrees. Finally, they reached the rim at 5,300 feet, but were unable to see anything due to clouds and steam. Using handkerchiefs to cover their mouths they went down into the crater. The further they went, the worse the visibility became. When they could go no further, they stayed for a half hour and then climbed back up. The mountain had been climbed, but it was a hollow victory; no photos were taken due to the clouds and steam.
The climb up the cone had been difficult, but the climb down was perilous. At an angle of 60 degrees, the risk of dislodging boulders was great, and at time they had to jump down, hoping not to hit anything hard on landing. Upon reaching the snow-fields, the clouds were much thicker than before. They descended several hundred feet before they came out into clear day again. They were lucky the clouds hadn’t descended to the crevassed glacier. They wormed their way in and out around the crevasses, and reached an area of snow-bridges. With no other options, they made a perilous trip across a rotten snow-bridge. Finally, they reached the solid floor of the valley. After a long drag across to camp, they noticed the wind picking up; a storm was coming. They were still at the Baked Mountain camp at the time. The tents had been shored up since the last storm. Once the storm hit, they were to tired from the climb to do much. The stormed intensified after dark, with windblown pumice an ever-increasing danger. The apparatus tent went first, torn to shreds, exposing the chemists’ instruments and cameras to soaking rain and driving pumice. By 10 o’clock, the poles of their tent snapped, and they move their beds and duffle into the grub tent, the only one left standing. Slowly, the grub tent was taken apart by the storm. By 1 o’clock, only one layer remained between them and the storm. Crawling out to see if there was anything they could do, they were greeted by a hail of pumice, sharp, not round like hail. Once the tent had ripped, the wet pumice began to collect all over them. Soon it was four inched deep on the floor. They huddle against the windward corner, the last little shelter remaining. They prayed for dawn to arrive. They dared not flee in the dark. Time and again the wind would pick up, as they were buffeted around what was left of their shelter.
Around 4 o’clock they finally could see the gray shapes of the fumaroles. Since outside was little worse than within, they decided to try it down the valley. They collected what they needed the most and headed down the valley. The wind lifted up the author and blew him into the air. He was grateful he landed in mud. He couldn’t go back so he pressed forward. The wind tried to force them to the middle of the valley, but they needed to keep to the east side in order to make the ford of Knife Creek above the point where it plunged into an impassable canyon. They reached the shelter of Ukak, ten miles distance, in record time, despite the weariness of the day before and the strain of the night. As hoped, the camp was full. Everyone got up to let the party crawl into sleeping bags and get some sleep. The gale continued all day, but in the night, it calmed down enough to visit the ruins the following day. Everything was covered with pumice. They gathered their scattered effects and put them on a cot extracted from the collapsed sleeping-tent. They finally decided to move the camp over in front of Mt. Cerberus, sheltered from the severest winds. The experience showed that the presence of a base camp in a less-devastated region was necessary.
Many people didn’t realize that near the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes lied a country of great charm and beauty. Within five miles of the fumaroles was heavily timbered county, little injured by the eruptions and supporting an abundance of wild life. The Katmai National Monument was by no means a devastated wilderness, with nothing of interest but the volcanoes. The upper end of Naknek Lake was as beautiful a body of water as could be found anywhere. It sat between the wooded slopes of two mountains, Mount La Gorce (3,000 ft.) and Mt. Katolinat (5,800 ft.) On scaling the pinnacled ridge of Katolinat, one obtained an unsurpassed view over a wide stretch of country. On a clear day, one could see down the tundra-covered coastal plain to the Bering Sea, a hundred miles away. To the south, stood forth the whole range of snow-capped volcanoes, from Douglas to Peulik. To the east was the broad, green valley of Savanoski River, which flowed to Kamishak Bay on Cook Inlet. To the north was a great expanse of lake and mountain country, covered with forest. Lying roughly parallel to Naknek Lake were three other lakes – Lake Grosvenor, Lake Coville, and Lake Brooks. Lake Grosvenor was 28 miles long and even more beautiful than Naknek. All sides of the lake were shut in by high, forest-clad mountains. Lake Coville extended out of the mountains into the coastal plain. Lake Brooks lied on the other side of Naknek Lake to the west. It was smaller than the others, only about 15 miles long. In the outlet stream of Lake Brooks was a waterfall about six feet high. It was a great place to be when the fish were running. These lakes were spawning grounds for the sockeye (red) salmon, the choicest species by the connoisseur of tinned food. The falls afforded a great opportunity to observe the continuous procession of salmon leaping upward to reach the lake above to spawn and die. The author counted a rate of salmon going over at 1,200 an hour. He was saddened by the fact that the falls were outside the boundaries of the park.
In addition to salmon, the natives caught abundant “white fish” in gill-nets set in the lake. The party needed no flies, the salmon had voracious appetites. They use bacon rind as bait, and it was snatched up almost immediately. Their catch averaged two feet, with the largest measuring 32 inches. Bears were abundant in that country. The party came upon then rather frequently, and killed one, one morning, right in front of their tent. The author had measured tracks 9 X 14 inches in hard ground. A fox regularly used to bring her litter to feed at the garbage pile, a few feet from their tent. Moose were common before the eruption, and were beginning to come back. Caribou were formerly very common and were expected to return in a few years. Elk were also found occasionally. There were grouse in the woods and the lakes were breeding grounds of waterfowl – swans, geese, and many kinds of ducks. Ducks were easy to bag, but they shot no geese. They shot a number of swans, which the author felt their flesh superior to any fowl he had ever tasted. The Katmai National Monument was well located to serve as a sanctuary to conserve all that wild life. The author felt that the park would become one of the most important game preserves in the world.
Since the district had been set aside by Presidential proclamation [See: The Geographic, April 1919], the first question on everyone’s mind had been, Can the place be made accessible? It was located near the new government railroad being built. The trip went through the “Inside Passage” and along the coast, under Mt. St. Elias, to the head of Cook Inlet, thence into the interior past Mt. McKinley [Denali] by rail, and up the Yukon by steamer, returning via White Pass. To reach Katmai from the route required a side trip of only a few hours by steamer. Alas, people would have been compelled to land in small boats, as the expedition had had to do. A major goal of the 1919 expedition was given to a thorough exploration of the coastline in hopes of finding a suitable harbor. One party, under the direction of P. R. Hagelbarger, spent almost the entire season in that work. They found one that was all that could be desired, and had a good route from it back to the reservation. The new harbor was christened Geographic Harbor, in honor of the Society. It was found in an arm of Amalik Bay, and was not on any chart. Boldly entering a narrow canal at the head of the charted portion of the bay, they steered a straight course for about a mile. There, they reach a broad inner bay, completely landlocked and secured from all manner of tempests. The inner bay was bisected by a chain of islands, but there was good passage around them, admitting them into the innermost harbor, which measured about two miles in diameter. There was plenty of water and room for the largest ships. From the head of the bay, an easy pass of 1,200 feet led over the divide into Soluka Valley near a fine hot spring and a sightly waterfall. That Valley lead directly into Katmai Valley. The route was favorable for the construction of a road through the whole district. The length of road needed to reach the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes and connect to the navigation on Naknek Lake was not more than 50 or 60 miles. Once the road was built, a tourist could leave his steamer in the morning, traverse the valley, and return to the boat before night. Not only was that a safe and commodious harbor, it was a fitting entrance to such a picturesque wonderland. With the exploration of the route into the valley, the field program of the Katmai Expedition had been completed. Although there remained many scientific problems to be solved, the general features of the region had been made known.
The second, and last, article in this month’s issue is entitled “Life Among the People of Eastern Tibet”. It was written by Dr. A. L Shelton, for Seventeen Years Medical Missionary at Batang, near the Chino-Tibetan Border. The article contains thirty-five black-and-white photographs, of which seven are full-page in size. The article also contains a sketch map of Tibet and border countries on page 296.
Sketch Map courtesy of Philip Riviere
Of all the great forces that had molded the outside world, only Buddhism had left its impress behind Tibet’s towering border’ and even that force had been almost swallowed up in the devil-worship of the Tibetans. Until recent years, practically nothing was known of Tibet in the West except for the writing of a few travelers to Tibet in the Middle Ages. The expedition of Sir Francis Younghusband to Lhasa in 1904 made that hitherto forbidden city known to the outside world. More recent visits had added to the knowledge of Lhasa and other Tibetan towns. [See: “The Most Extraordinary City in the World”, The Geographic, October 1912 -&- “The World’s Strangest Capital”, The Geographic, March 1916.] Just as visiting New York or Paris didn’t give much to be learned about the U. S. or France, to get an accurate picture of life in Tibet, one had to visit the nomadic people of the uplands and the villages of farmers that dotted the many small valleys. The author figured it would take many years to get a complete picture of Tibetan life. His intention for this article was to “sketch in a few lines” about Tibet and its people.
The southern portion of the border between China and Tibet was the valley of the Yangtze, where it flowed almost due south at the eastern end of the Himalayas before it swung northward through China. Where the Yangtze separated Tibet and China, it was already a river of considerable size. The region on both sides of the river where it flowed south were Tibetan in nature, but ruled by China. It had been a region of strife since the Chinese officials were expelled from Tibet during the Chinese revolution in 1912. China’s maintenance of the region was tenuous, and on the western side of the river, almost nonexistent. That region, with Batang at its center, contained both Roman Catholic and Protestant missions. They were bringing Christianity, as well as, modern conceptions of sanitation, medicine, and surgery toward Lhasa, stronghold of Lamaism – the degenerate Buddhism of Tibet. The border region was a country of mountains. Batang, its chief city, was one of the lowest points, and yet its altitude was 9,000 feet, nearly twice that of Denver. Most of the surrounding country was 12,000 to 15,000 feet high, with peaks as high as 20,000 feet. Below the timber-line were some fine forests. The Alpine flowers of the short summer were exceedingly beautiful. The lakes were so cold that fish could not live in most of them. Kham, the easternmost province of Tibet, gave its color to the entire border region. Little was known of the origin and ancestry of the Tibetans. That was probably due to the rigid exclusion of men of science and other travelers. The Tibetans, themselves, had fairy tales and legends of their origin. One was that they were descendants of a she-devil of the Himalayas and an ape from the plains of Hindustan. Tibetans bore little resemblance to the Chinese or the Malayan. They most resembled the American Indian, and may have sprung from the original Mongol people. Many of the people of Kham were nomads, who tended flocks of sheep and yak. They lived in yak-hair tents. Others engaged in crude farming in the valleys that were low enough for grain to mature.
The nomads lived the year round in their tents. When the lower slopes of the mountains become free from snow, they began their upward pilgrimage with their herds, closely following the receding snow-line. By summer, they were living far up in the highlands. When winter began to set in, they made the reverse journey, going down to the valley only as fast as the descending snow-line drove them. The herders remained close to snow because their yak thrived best in a cold temperature. The agricultural people of the lower valleys lived in substantial houses of mud with flat roofs. They had few animals. Yak were employed for plowing, however, being brought down from the higher country for that purpose at the proper time. The plows were made entirely of wood, with removable digging parts, which were replaced when worn or broken. The plow was attached to the Yak by a beam attached to their horns. One man would lead the yak team, while another would follow, holding the plow’s handle. The men did the plowing and planting, while the women did the harvesting. The harvested grain was carried to the tops of the houses, where it was threshed. Primitive mills were set up along the streams, where the grain was ground into flour, and parched into “tsamba”, an important part of the Tibetan diet. The mills were a simple, stone type, powered by water-wheels. The living quarters of the valley folk usually consisted of a single room, where the family cooked, ate, and slept. “Going to bed” meant curling up on the floor with feet toward the stove. The stoves were built of mud, with a fireplace below and a hole at the top where pots could be set for cooking. Families with domestic animals shared their houses with them. In two-story houses, the people lived upstairs while the animals lived below. In one-story houses, the front portion was for animals, while the family lived in the rear.
The food of the Tibetan was most monotonous. They lived almost the year round on two things, parched barley meal, called “tsamba”, and “butter tea”. Tsamba was made by parching barley and then grinding it into a very fine flour. Being parched, it did not require cooking. When Tibetans were journeying, they carried tsamba in small leather pouches inside their coats. To make butter tea, the Tibetans first boiling a strong Chinese tea, which was strained into a churn. A lump of stale butter was added with a handful of salt. The mixture was then churned into an emulsion. The typical meal started with two or three bowls of butter tea. The Tibetan blew back from the rim of the bowl the butter floating on top. After several bowls there was a considerable accumulation of butter. The bowl was then half filled with the emulsion and tsamba was pour in and kneaded into lumps and eaten. The wooden bowl was licked clean. Knives, forks, and spoons were unknown, all meals were eaten with fingers. Their queer foods must have constituted a well-balanced ration, for they thrived on them. When the occasion and their economic status permitted, Tibetans also ate meat. That was especially true of the nomads, to whom tsamba was a luxury. Meat was either cooked fresh or dried for later cooking. Most Tibetans ate meat raw, sometimes even spoiled. Stomach troubles were rampant among the nomads. Tibetans were probably the first users of condensed milk. After the butter was removed by churning, the milk was boiled down until it reached a consistency of thick syrup. It was then poured out in a thin sheet and allowed to dry. It was then broken up and stored. The pieces, hard as stone, were soaked in butter tea and eaten. The pastural Tibetans produced a great deal of butter, Much, they consumed themselves, and the rest was traded in the lowlands for tsamba. Salt was so important that in some parts of the country it was a medium of exchange. Flat roofs of mud, with raised rims and beaten with poles to make them impervious to water, were filled with salt water, which was allowed to evaporate. The thin film of salt left on the roofs was collected, not without plenty of dirt which didn’t lessen the salt’s value.
The Tibetans were almost wholly independent of the outside world in the matter of clothing material. A great majority of the nomads wore garments of raw sheepskin. The sheepskin garments were made with the wool inside. A single garment would last for years. The women among the nomads spun wool on rude spinning-wheels, then woven on a crude loom into heavy woolen cloth about six inches wide. They would trade the cloth with the people of the lower valleys for tsamba and barley meal. The villagers used it to make their gown-like garments. One could not easily judge the financial status of a Tibetan by the clothes he wore. Some wealth Tibetans used gold dust as currency, but more commonly the rupees of Chinese mintage were used. Chinese brick tea, like salt, was used in some sections as money. The marriage customs of the people of Tibet presented a peculiar combination of monogamy, polygamy, and polyandry. Monogamy was the prevailing system. Under the polyandrous system, the eldest son married a woman and she became the common wife of himself and his brothers. Polyandry was common, especially among the nomads. Each husband had his own duties. The oldest brother was considered the father and the other brothers the uncles of the family. If a family had no sons, a daughter was kept and a husband brought in to carry on the family succession. The remaining daughters were given to other families. In a few cases, where there were two daughters, one husband was brought in for both. In both polyandrous and polygamous families, the members seem to live together in harmony. Women, on the whole, occupied a better position in Tibet than many of the Eastern countries. She was practically the master in the home. Usually, all transactions of a business nature concerning the family required her sanction. She was not confined, but to go out as she pleased.
Any reference to the social institutions of Tibet would be incomplete without mention of the lamas. They were the monks or priests of Tibetan Buddhism and lived in great monasteries called lamaseries. Nearly every family in Tibet has at least one son who was a lama. Fully one-seventh of the population lived in the lamaseries, being supported by the remainder of the people. The lamas had acquired much money and land. Some of the lamas in local monasteries are fairly well educated, having spent some years in Lhasa. In the lamaseries was to be found whatever there was of art in Tibet, most valuable thing found their way into the hands of the priest. The strong hold which Lamaism had upon the Tibetans was due to the fact that they were perhaps the most religious people on earth. Their faith was nominally Buddhism, but in reality, it was a veneer of Buddhism over the old Bon religion, a religion of devil-worship. They were exceedingly superstitious. In its form of government, Tibet was one of the few remaining theocracies in the world. The Dalai Lama of Lhasa was both head of the church and temporal ruler of Tibet. His chief government assistants were also priests. The lamas occupied a privileged position, in effect a class to themselves. Next in rank to the lamas were lay officials of the government. Next were the headmen of the villages, usually the wealthiest residents. Next were the wealthy villagers, not headmen, and below that came the ordinal folk. At the bottom of the social ladder, were servants and slaves of the well-to-do. In education, the Tibetans were very backward, there being nothing in the nature of public instruction. The Tibetan Buddhists believed in repetition of prayers mechanically, they would write prayers on yards of paper and place them in prayer-wheels. The wheels were twirled by hand, or powered by water. The very wind was harnessed to pray, for the mystic phrase was written upon thousands of flags. The sacred words were even carved on stones, which were placed in great piles along the roads.
The nomads and villagers engaged in a number of minor industries in addition to tilling the soil and tending their herds and flocks. In the past, a considerable number of Tibetans have hunted musk deer, collecting the musk for export. Owing to the rapid decrease in their numbers, exports had fallen off rapidly, and the industry was dying. Chinese medicine contributed much to the industries of Tibet. The collection of deer horn “in the velvet” was a case in point. The Chinese prized it as one of the best tonic ingredients in all their pharmacopoeia. In the spring and summer months. The Tibetans dug plants and collected fungi and other articles of supposed medical value for export to China. One of those ingredients very highly prized by the Chinese was the grass worm. It was the remains of a grub which had been killed by fungus. This seeming combination of animal and vegetable life was not only used as a medicine, but also eaten as a delicacy. Some mining was carried out in the eastern border region, but the industry was of small proportions. The products mined included lead, gold, and iron. Iron was used for swords, some of the most elaborately ornamented commanding a high price. Iron was also used in the manufacture of crude guns, or it was until it became possible to obtain firearms of Western manufacture. In Chaimdo, principal town of Kham, large iron wine flasks were made. They were much sought after throughout Tibet. In some of the lamaseries, the monks made gild idols for sale all over the country. With their crude facilities, they needed to apply a rather heavy coat of pure gold. Because of that, the prices were high. At the lamaseries at Litang, 100 miles east of Batang, and at Derge, 200 miles above Batang, in the Yangtze Valley, the printing of religious books was an industry of importance. The Kanjur, the Buddhist Bible, and the Tanjur, its commentary, each comprising 108 volumes, were printed at the two lamaseries.
As in most of the world’s border lands at times, brigandage was rife in Kham, especially among the nomads. Bandits preyed on other Tibetans, and on caravans. In Tibet, all travelers went armed. Until a few years prior, the most formidable weapons used were old firelocks of local manufacture. More recently, many modern firearms had been introduced. As a result, the depredations of the outlaws were much more serious. The Tibetan’s conception of personal and family honor had led to blood feuds, one of which, the author actually witnessed. Most of those feuds dated back to events in the past histories of the families involved. While in Lozong, the author met, and befriended, the head of a band of brigands. One day, the bandit proposed that they became brothers. According to that custom, when to people like each other very much, they drew up a contract making them brothers. The author declined saying that he couldn’t kill and rob and drink like the bandit did. After some time, the bandit returned with a contract saying that, he too, would no longer do those things. Except for drinking, he had men to do those things for him. That paper was a pretty good passport in some parts of the country. A year and a half later, while in Batang, Dr. Shelton received a letter from the bandit asking how he was and stating that the bandit had kept his vow for the past year and a half. The Markham Tigi, Governor of Lower Kham, assisted the author in forwarding to the Dalai Lama at Lhasa a letter asking permission to establish, in the Forbidden City, a hospital where young Tibetans could be trained in medical work. The Tibetan ruler sent a favorable reply. It was the author’s intention to establish the hospital without delay, but on a journey to the coast of China, he was captured by Chinese bandits and injured, necessitating a return to America. Though it had been delayed, the author still intended to return to Lhasa and carry the project through. Tibet was slowly modernizing; the Younghusband Expedition, in 1904 and 1905, helped sway the Tibetans by the way treatment was accorded to the prisoners and populace. The fact that thirst for a knowledge of the world was making itself felt in Tibet. That fact argued well for the future of its people.
Keep up the good work Tom!
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