The Long Riders' Guild

 A Word from the Founder

The Price of a Pilgrimage

by CuChullaine O'Reilly

As I write these words, a brave man sits in prison.

Some have mocked him as a fool.

Others have denounced him as a law-breaker.

He is all these things, brave, foolish and an admitted trespasser.

He is also an equestrian explorer whose Quixotic pilgrimage along one of the world’s oldest trading routes has landed him in a gruesome Indian prison.

At first glance the case of Daniel Robinson seems clear enough.

According to the international press, the 39-year-old Englishman set off last year on an equestrian trek across China and Tibet.

His plan, they said, was to follow the legendary Tea Horse Trail.

His problems arose when, after a gruelling 3,000 kilometre journey across the roof of the world, Daniel’s beloved horses became ill in the Himalayas.

His mistake, the Indian judicial authorities say, started when the naïve Englishman wandered into their country in search of a vet, a hot meal, and the legendary hospitality of the country that gave birth to Buddha and Gandhi.

From London to Tibet


I don’t know if Daniel really understood what he was taking on when he left his job in London and set his eyes on the distant Tibetan horizon? If he had contacted The Long Riders’ Guild prior to his departure we would have warned him that despite its modern reputation as being the revered birthplace of the current Dalai Lama, Tibet had enjoyed a historical mean streak. The journey Daniel was contemplating had broken, killed and destroyed stronger, tougher, more seasoned travellers than he.


For example, the famous English Long Rider Henry Savage Landor had tried to ride across Tibet in 1890, only to be captured, tied to a saddle full of spikes and forced to undergo a ride through hell. But at least he lived.

Fearing it might become a political pawn in the "Great Game" being waged by Czarist Russia and the English Raj in India, Tibet closed its borders to all Western travellers in the late 19th century. When the English Long Rider Henry Savage Landor was caught trespassing, Tibetans bound him, tied him into a spiked saddle and forced him to ride across their country.


The American Long Rider and CIA spy, Douglas MacKiernan wasn’t so lucky. After fleeing capture by the Red Chinese in 1950, he was shot and beheaded in Tibet by over-zealous border guards.

If Daniel had approached The Guild prior to his departure we would have warned him that the sun and moon may change but the harsh Tibetan landscape is still a man-breaker.

But the former chef turned spiritual pilgrim didn’t seek any advice before trying to make his way along the Tea Horse Trail, a bone-breaking track stretching thousands of miles from western China, up and over Tibet and down into the distant plains of India. Instead he joined up with a company of Tibetans in China and set off in search of that oft-times deadly combination, external adventure and internal harmony.

The Tea Horse Trail

They say it takes raw courage to travel the Tea Horse Trail to Lhasa and pure nerve to follow it from there on.

It was in the Tang Dynasty, (618 - 907), that caravans began to transport bricks of tea from Xishuangbanna, over the crow’s nest of Central Asian mountains before reaching India many thousands of miles away.


Historians date the introduction of tea to Tibetan-inhabited areas back to the 7th century. Tea quickly became indispensable to Tibetan people's daily life as its role in dissolving fat helped them digest their diet of meat and milk. As Tibet's climate and geography precluded tea cultivation, the hermit kingdom heavily relied on inland areas for tea supply.


The Chinese tea was exchanged for Tibetan horses during the ancient dynasties. Normally a horse was traded for 50 kilograms of tea but sometimes, as in the Reign of Yuanfeng (1076-85) of the Song Dynasty, for just 20 kilograms of tea. The Office of the Tea-Horse Department in Mingshan could handle 2,000 traders a day, said Ren Xinjian, a Tibet specialist in Beijing, and some 7,500 tons of tea were dispatched into the Tibetan interior every year.


Unlike its more famous logistical cousin, the Silk Road, the historical value of the route known as the Tea Horse Trail is only now being fully appreciated by international historians – and amateur equestrian explorers. While silk fabrics found in sixth century B.C. German graves, and silk threads found on an Egyptian mummy dated at 1000 B.C., demonstrate the longevity of the well-documented Silk Road, efforts to document the Tea Horse Trail have barely begun.


For example, Chinese archaeologists have only recently determined that a temple-like building in Mingshan is actually a government office set up in 1047 during the Song Dynasty to manage the tea-horse trade. Yet while ancient buildings have their appeal, eye-witness accounts of still living Tea Horse Trail travellers are little less than astonishing.


"This was the highest and most perilous known passage of economic and cultural exchanges between different ethnic groups in the world," said Li Xu, a research fellow with the Yunnan Provincial Academy of Social Sciences.


Though horses had a role to play on the return journey, it was displays of incredible human strength by heavily-laden porters carrying immense loads of  tea into Tibet which set the tone for the outward journey.


“It was 180 kilometres one way from Tianquan to Kangding," says Li Zhongquan, an 81-year-old survivor, who carried loads along the Tea Horse Trail when he was a teenager.   "An able-bodied porter would carry 10 to 12 packs of tea, with each weighing 6 to 9 kilograms. Then you would carry 7 to 8 kilograms of your own grain and five or six pairs of homemade straw sandals to change on the way. The strongest could carry 15 packs of tea, with a total load of 150 kilograms [330 pounds]," he recalled.


The legendary Tea Horse Trail was still functioning in 1946 when the Scottish Long Rider, George Patterson, made his way from western China into the Khampa region of Tibet. This rare photo, which George took on his journey into Tibet, shows Chinese porters burdened with immense loads of tea.


According to the retired tea porter, the worst part of his journey was the climb over Erlang Mountain, which towers 3,437 metres [11.276 feet’] above sea level. The precipitous mountain path was so narrow that it allowed only one person to pass.


When contacted by Chinese authorities seeking Tea Horse Trail survivors, the retired porter said he had no idea anyone was interested in the ancient tea-horse trade. Yet while several government expeditions have attempted to document the old route, Tea Horse historian Cheng Minghui is disappointed that so little is being done to study and preserve this ancient highway of commerce and culture.


"While the government has focused their attention on the more famous caravan routes, no one seems to know there was a porter passage and that there are still survivors of the trade,” he said.

According to Cheng there are more than 30 stopovers along the Tea Horse route through the Tianquan area of China alone.


"I think it's worthwhile to dig up the forgotten history and preserve all the relics that serve as witness to this ancient trade, including the path dotted with holes bored by porters' sticks, the tools they used, the houses that once served as post stations, and so on."

While documenting China’s ancient commercial past is undoubtedly of interest to her social scientists, what could have driven Englishman Daniel Robinson to join the group of Tibetan traders who were preparing in April, 2006 to journey along this frequently deadly, and now largely forgotten, trail? Was he seeking Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame? Or was he lured into travelling not at the speed of fuel but at the pace of the wind?


A Search for the Sacred

Why would a man such as Daniel Robinson leave all he knows, his family, child, friends, culture, language, and country, everything that defined him at birth, to undertake an emotional migration to the back of beyond?


Could it be that he discovered that even though everything in the world has changed, the ancient urges of our nomadic ancestors remain the same? Though Daniel Robinson resided in a country of great material prosperity, could he have been driven to reach Tibet in order to satisfy the deep human longing for inner peace? Though Europe offered him labour saving devices, new cars and scientific advances, could he have wanted instead to repair the moral order of his life? Could he have felt so spiritually impoverished in Britain that he longed for freedom, not campaign speeches and mindless television? Could he have decided to risk his life travelling the forgotten Tea Horse Trail, rather than be reduced to the bland sameness he witnessed in his neighbours? Could he have discovered that happiness doesn’t come from things, but from accomplishments?

If Daniel had those thoughts before he left England, then he probably also jettisoned the three sacred texts of today’s modern tourist, namely comfort, convenience, and security.

It was the 1970s travel philosopher, Ed Buryn, who grumbled that tourists are pseudo-travelers, vegetables in motion, pawns with accessible bank accounts in economic servitude to travel agents, governments, businessmen, and industry,.

“Unfortunately the tourist is a human locust. Tourists bring their easy money and upset the economy of the places they visit. They flaunt the customs, insult the natives, leave behind a bad taste and a glut of money that threatens public morality and private integrity. Tourism destroys what it touches. The values that created the original tourist interest are inevitably eroded or simply grossed out of existence by the profit grubbers. Kathmandu and Everest are good examples of modern tourist catastrophes,” Buryn wrote.

This avant-garde travel writer believed that a true traveller is a person who’s interested in spending as little money as possible. That he shouldn’t want to disrupt anyone’s economy. That he should keep a low profile, living as the locals live on their standards. That he should be interested in native customs, observing, practising and learning from them. That he should be especially interested in meeting people for the richness of involvement and sharing. That he should offer and expect friendship. That he should never forget that honesty never costs very much.

Because Robinson fits those definitions, I suspect Buryn would have approved of the Englishman and sent him on his way with one final bit of advice.

“Travel light so as to leave behind the things which rob you of first hand experiences, weigh down your spirit and burden your back,” Buryn was fond of saying.

When Daniel Robinson sat on his horse at the Chinese border, staring ahead at unknown destiny, hoping he could survive to reach mystical Lhasa, he must have realized that Buryn was right and that life never tastes sweeter than to the man previously condemned to drudgery, whose spirit has awakened on that altar of travel, the saddle.

Into the Unknown


Later, after he had become the first foreigner to cross the Tea Horse Trail in modern times, after he nearly died in the Himalayas, after he was betrayed and imprisoned, and after a British reporter finally tracked him down to a shabby jail cell in India, Daniel Robinson recalled that his journey had taken him across some of the cruellest mountains in the world, that when his original Tibetan companions remained in Lhasa he journeyed on alone with just his two trusty horses and that after more than a year on the road the physical side of his sacred journey had become a gruelling nightmare, especially when the infamous trail forced him to winch his horses across steep mountain gorges.


In 1930 the elusive amateur biologist, Joseph Rock, made an historic mounted exploration of the mountainous regions running between China and Tibet. Because he travelled with a large mounted guard, Rock was able to have his mules and horses winched across the raging rivers of  Tibet, something Daniel Robinson had to manage alone.


“After Lhasa I went on my own. It was extremely difficult because only nomads in yurts live there. I marched more than 18 miles every day without stopping, except when I walked on a sprained ankle for five days,” Robinson recalled.


When things were good he lived on fried cabbage or rice. When things were bad he was reduced to surviving on handouts of flour given to him by villagers along the way.


“At one point I nearly died crossing a river. The current was taking my legs away. It was freezing cold. When you reach a point close to death it’s like turning towards the light again and it brings you alive and makes you realise that everything in life has a great value,” he said.


But despite the discovery of these important personal revelations, Daniel learned that there was always one more obstacle lurking just ahead on the Tea Horse Trail. After climbing a nearly 20,000 foot high mountain, for example, the equestrian explorer experienced the agony of altitude sickness.


“When the horses became sick I was already suffering headaches because of the altitude. Then the snow came. That’s when I realized our chances of surviving were growing slimmer,” the English pilgrim remembered.


Yet fate wasn’t done with Robinson. He and his horses were on a treacherous portion of the trail that left them balanced on top of a 100 foot drop down to a raging river below. With things already looking grim, the horses bolted.


“We all three ending up falling down the slope. If we had slid for another 4 feet we would have gone over the edge into the river,” Robinson said.


“That’s when I cried, he recalled, “I couldn’t see my way through anymore.”


If, as he later told the Indian court, Robinson had launched the expedition as a spiritual journey that would test him to the limit and bring him face to face with death, the weary traveller had reached his physical and spiritual goals by surviving sub-zero temperatures at high altitude and crossing raging Himalayan torrents. He now knew that the more you know, the less you need. But what he needed was help.


At the end of October, 2006, with the temperatures dropping, Robinson decided to head south towards Nepal and the end of his long pilgrimage along the Tea Horse Trail. The problem was that he no longer had a map, didn’t know exactly where Nepal began and had no entry visa for India.


But with winter’s icy winds rushing down on him from the high slopes of the Himalayas, Robinson began trying to guide his still trusting, but now ill, horses south as quickly as possible. Then their food ran out in a vast and empty landscape. To make matters worse, the weather was trying to kill them and they were all three weary unto death.


Under such conditions mistakes are made.


With his horses clinging to life, and the temperature plummeting, circumstances forced Robinson to change course away from the more distant Nepal and descend instead down a mountain pass into Uttaranchal, one of India’s northern Himalayan states bordering China.


Thus in freezing weather and desperate for assistance, Robinson crossed the northern Indian border near Mana and entered a military zone without a visa. Yet instead of attempting to evade the authorities, Robinson sought help by walking into the Lapkhal military post near Chamoli, thereby making the fateful decision to place the veterinary requirements of his horses before his own legal needs.

The Mana Pass which Daniel Robinson crossed with his two horses lies between the largely uninhabited Tibetan plains and the mountainous regions of northern India.

Physically starving, Robinson later told a friend that he was overjoyed to see the soldiers of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police. Yet having tasted the wind and lived side by side with his horses through a great adventure, the emotionally relieved equestrian explorer made no apologies for following the hoof-prints of other nomads over the historic Mana Pass. Naïve fool that he was, Robinson had no way of knowing his true trial had just begun.

Imprisoned in the land of Hospitality

It was undoubtedly innocent of Daniel Robinson to think he would be greeted by a display of the famed Indian hospitality, a legendary tradition which has made the country a magnet for peaceful pilgrims throughout the centuries.


Yet the man could hardly have presented much of a threat when he staggered into the Indian army camp severely weakened by altitude sickness, pneumonia, malnutrition and a kidney infection. And while it’s true that Daniel Robinson was initially welcomed at the encampment, he was soon arrested and his horses taken into military custody. The weary journeyer later told a reporter he was then blindfolded and forced to march for three hours to an Indian intelligence centre. There he was interrogated by intelligence agents who denounced the equestrian explorer as a suspected Chinese spy and trespasser.


Things were had already turned bad when Robinson glimpsed an army intelligence letter which referred to him as an “intruder.”


Though his interrogators were eventually satisfied that Robinson was a harmless, if ill-prepared traveller, he was nevertheless charged with violating India’s immigration laws.  He faces a sentence of five years if convicted, and he has been  threatened with two years in custody awaiting a trial date if he protested his innocence.

The price of a pilgrimage

After his arrest, Robinson was taken to Pursari Jail where was placed in a cell with nearly two dozen Indian prisoners. He was held there throughout November and December, during which time he was hospitalized twice.


When his case came to court on January 7 the Indian authorities no longer believed Robinson was involved in espionage. Nevertheless, he was charged with crossing the Indo-Tibetan border illegally.


Local authorities took little interest in the historic nature of Robinson’s journey.


At a recent seminar Jambian Gyamco, a research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Science, had described how despite the dangers the Tea Horse Trail had served as a corridor for cultural and economic exchanges between China and India.


"This ancient road, whose name ‘Cha Ma’ means "tea horse" in Chinese, was an extension of the ancient Silk Road," Gyamco had reported.


But the Indian authorities weren’t interested in ancient history.


Nor were they impressed by the remarkable feats of courage and endurance Robinson had displayed on his 3,000 kilometre (1,875 mile] journey.


The only thing that concerned them was that after being frightened into confessing, the English equestrian explorer had pleaded guilty to crossing their border illegally.


To his shock, on January 9, 2007 a local magistrate fined Robinson 25,000 rupees [£288; $565] and sentenced him to a year in prison for illegally entering the country.


Puzzled by the severity of his sentence Robertson said, “I knew it wasn't an orthodox way of entering the country. But I thought the worst I could expect would be a fine and repatriation to England. I didn’t think I would end up in prison because I’m not a criminal. I even hoped they might give me a visa so I would be able to meet my daughter and spend Christmas in India.”


This photo was taken of English equestrian explorer Daniel Robinson after he was imprisoned in India.


Family and Friends pay the price

Back in England, Robinson’s widowed mother, his family and friends had become frantic with worry. They eventually learned of his arrest but were distraught to discover the ill man had only had one visit by a representative of the British Foreign Office.

Mary Selman, a family friend, said she was surprised at how little had been done to assist Daniel.

"As a British person, I thought the Foreign Office was there to help you. But that isn't the case. They told us Daniel's location was too remote and they would not visit him again until May,” she said.

Disappointed at the lack of governmental support, on December 15th Selman journeyed to India with Robinson’s 19-year-old daughter, Justina.

Upon arriving at the remote Himalayan capital, the British women were shocked to discover that the local magistrate had not even allowed Daniel Robinson to have a lawyer present at his trial.

Despite the fact that she had travelled five thousand miles, local authorities at Hardiwar Prison in the northern Indian state of Uttaranchal only permitted the distraught daughter to visit with her father for 40 minutes. What Justina found wasn’t a healthy prisoner, but a man who was emaciated, ill and suffering.

After visiting her father, Miss Robinson said, " Even though I hadn't seen him in more than a year, they allowed me less than an hour to visit with him in that horrible prison. It left me in tears and completely heartbroken.”


Describing his predicament in a letter dated January 17, Robinson wrote: "I am in a prison built by the British in 1902. It is very small. In my barrack, which is 10 foot square, there are 16 of us sleeping on the floor. It's tight for space and I cannot lie with my legs stretched out at night. Hygiene is very poor because of open drains filled with urine, spit and food. They try to keep it clean, but it's a hopeless battle.”

The horse acts as our guide on the secret road of life

Perhaps it won’t surprise you to learn that despite his own terrible troubles, this idealistic man has expressed great concern about the horses who helped him make this incredible journey. As any Long Rider will tell you, it is the mutual conquest of dangerous hardships that cements our lifelong friendship to these beloved animals.

Daniel Robinson is no different.

"I nearly died on the Tibetan plateau. Coming over a freezing mountain pass at the end, I was suffering from altitude sickness, exhaustion and dehydration. I really thought it might be the end. But I just couldn't leave the horses to die up there. Those animals had been through hell with me and I'd developed a spiritual bond with them."

The Long Riders’ Guild is currently attempting to confirm the location and welfare of Daniel’s horses, especially as it is believed his mare may have foaled by now.

The terrain across which Daniel Robinson journeyed is so severe that there are even few Long Riders who can relate to the hardships he and his horses endured while travelling across the top of the torturous and twisting Himalayas. This photo was taken by Matthieu Paley, one of the friends of The Guild.


An Outcry in India

If he could travel down country to the warm and crowded cities of the south, Daniel Robinson would be pleasantly surprised to learn that news of his case has shocked the Indian nation.

India’s leading newspaper, The Daily Pioneer, published a scathing editorial wherein it called for the release of the hapless traveller.

"As a human rights case, the Robinson case is a tragedy; as a public relations exercise, an unmitigated disaster. This Englishman is no jihadi caught crossing the Line of Control. He is not a smuggler, not a drug-runner, not even an illegal migrant from Bangladesh, millions of whom have walked into this country without fear of interception.

The “crime” in question was to retrace ancient trade routes in the Himalayas, which is in crying need for scholarship in that region, and to stray into Indian territory due to his horses falling ill and becoming pregnant.

The area that Mr. Robinson crossed is not particularly sensitive. It is the least contentious part of the 4,056 km Sino-Indian border and does not have any significant military objectives or deployments on either side. Indeed, the Chinese routinely permit Indian pilgrims to travel to Mansarovar Lake and Mount Kailash from an adjacent pass.

The Robinson episode is not merely a miscarriage of justice, it is so ridiculous a legal case as to make a laughing stock of India and Indian bureaucracy. The inability to tell the difference between an eccentric adventurer and an espionage agent reflects poorly on policing and jurisprudential skills. It also paints a picture of a very insensitive, rule-driven governing system that would be completely comfortable with North Korea or with the isolationism of Enver Hoxha's Albania.

What the authorities should is to withdraw the case against Robinson and request the court to allow the poor man to go home. His spirit of adventure survived Communist China; let India not write its obituary,” The Daily Pioneer thundered !


An Appeal for Mercy

On February 12, 2007 a higher court will hear Daniel Robinson’s appeal and decide if the Long Rider should be released based, among other things, on an international petition circulated by the Robinson family and supported by The Long Riders' Guild.  

If this appeal fails, Robinson will spend a long time in the Indian prison.

Daniel was indeed naïve and foolish when he entered Indian territory without an entry visa via a sensitive mountain pass. By that act the Tea Horse Trail pioneer undoubtedly committed a crime. Yet Robinson, who entered India with no criminal intent, has always been honest about that mistake.

“I may be stupid,” he said, “but I didn’t have any bad intentions. I just got carried away by the spirit of adventure and didn’t know how to stop.”

Regardless of the legalities, it cannot be denied that Robinson has successfully completed an epic journey over some of the hardest terrain known to man. Ironically, it was not the thousands of miles or the traditional dangers that brought him low. It is the punishing treatment heaped upon him by the real enemies of adventure, those born without imagination.


Naïve, brave, foolhardy, courageous. All these words have been used to describe Daniel Robinson, the English equestrian explorer who made a dangerous 3,000 kilometre crossing of the infamous Tea Horse Trail from China to India.


What would the Mahatma Do?

Here at The Long Riders’ Guild we are very familiar with the ideals of freedom, courage and sacrifice as those are the values which enable The Guild’s equestrian Argonauts to undertake life-changing, and often perilous, journeys around the world.

I would leave you with this final thought.

India has traditionally enjoyed a reputation for spiritual generosity. Yet until now the Robinson case has been defined by bureaucratic severity, not tolerance and forgiveness. Far be it from me to gently remind my friends in India that it was the great Mahatma whose actions and philosophy should guide us now.

Mahatma Gandhi is rightly considered to be the father of the Indian nation.

Though tiny in body, he was a giant in spirit. Among the Mahatma’s many accomplishments was his pioneering of “Satyagraha,” the resistance of tyranny through civil disobedience. His timeless teachings of non-violence, communal tolerance and religious forgiveness inspired Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Steve Biko and Aung San Suu Kyi.

Motivated by the bravery of the Mahatma, The Long Riders’ Guild is calling upon the Indian court to remember what that great law-giver, Gandhi said, “In matters of conscience, the law of the majority has no place… It is the law of an eye for an eye that makes the whole world blind.”

Free Daniel Robinson !

Update:  Thanks in part to an international equestrian campaign led by The Long Riders’ Guild and the British Horse Society, Daniel was freed on May 7th, 2007Click here to read more.

Beloved father of India, and spiritual role model to millions, Mahatma Gandhi symbolizes the concepts of mercy and forgiveness which The Long Riders' Guild hopes the judicial system of India will use as their role model when they consider Daniel Robinson's case on February 12th, 2007.

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