The Long Riders' Guild

To Save a Country

by 

George Patterson

Long Riders are a unique group of humans. They set off to explore the world on horseback for a variety of reasons. Adventure. Science. Even religion.

One such unusual case involved a young Scotsman. It was 1946 when George Patterson received a clear command from God. The 26-year-old factory manager was to go to Tibet and proclaim his Christian faith to the local populace. Of course there were a few minor problems. George had never been out of his native land, spoke no Tibetan, and had no money. But what the young Long Rider did have  was LOTS of faith.

The tale of George's travels, first across war-ravaged China and then into the mysterious mountain kingdom of Tibet, is a moving account alternately full of spiritual insight and hair-raising adventure. It is a grand and moving story. Yet this much we can say. Against all odds the young Scot became a medical missionary, learned fluent Tibetan, and adopted the customs and manners of his mounted hosts so completely as to become nearly "Tibetan" himself.

It was because of the amazing emotional confidence placed in him that the Tibetan leadership entrusted the young Long Rider with the entire fate of their wind-swept kingdom. In January, 1950 word reached Tibet that the Chinese Communist army was preparing to invade and conquer George's adopted homeland. Winter had set in and all the traditional passes were closed. There was only one option and it entailed crossing the Himalayas, during the height of winter, over a pass that no one had ever attempted.

The mission was tantamount to suicide. But if George had one thing on his side, it was unwavering faith that God had sent him to Tibet for a purpose. With that conviction lodged firmly in his heart, he saddled up his horse, "who was built like a song and moved like a melody", then set off into a winter wasteland.

2nd February - 1950
Lawo to Samba Druca, Tibet

The stage for today was to be a long one, and so we took sufficient food out of the boxes to carry in our saddlebags as a snack.  As we were leaving with our caravan today it meant that we would arrive ahead of them, and would have to wait until they arrived with the loads before we could have a proper meal.  This was where I appreciated the tsamba and dried meat.  For no matter how sustaining porridge and the like might be in the civilized West, I had found such food insufficient during my travels in Tibet.  The high altitudes, the rarefied atmosphere and the constant exercise created a tremendous appetite a few hours after the heaviest meal of bread or potatoes or porridge, and with the prospect of another six or seven empty hours one lost one’s confidence in Western conceptions of food values.  Thus I had come to prefer the nourishing monotony of tsamba and dried meat rather than the unsatisfying variety of Western food;  further, there were insuperable difficulties in the supply and transport of the latter.  With two or three bowls of tsamba and a handful or two of dried meat dipped in pepper tucked away inside me, and a supplementary lump of tsamba and a few pieces of dried meat tucked away inside my gown, I was ready to face the elements and the future;  and thus it was on this day and occasion.

I was now back on my own bay, having sent back Dege Sey’s horse with his groom, and with this reminder that all trimmings were past I settled down to the grim journey ahead.

Almost immediately we were reminded of just how grim the journey was going to be when the trail led suddenly into the dry bed of a river.  At first there was a trickle of water among the stones but gradually this died out and we were left in remarkable surroundings.  The valley had narrowed until there was no room on either side of the river for even a trail over which a horse or man could go.  The place must have been completely impassable when the river was in spate:  now what little trail there was disappeared in the course of the river and appeared at times among the small stones and huge boulders of the river bed, and the horses picked their way with the greatest difficulty.  The sides of the mountains were so steep that no sun entered at this time of the morning, adding to the already eerie character of the gorge.  When the muleteers let out an occasional yell at a horse or mule or yak which wandered to the sides in search of grass, the sound seemed to rise in a diminishing spiral until it escaped over the tops of the distant mountains.  

I learned to ride without hands, swinging left and right on a madly-galloping horse while dipping earthwards to pick up stones on the ground, using my knees only to grip the horse.  I learned to ride up and down steep, narrow trails, in mountain races where nerve as well as skill was necessary to stay alive, as the mad Tibetan riders drove their horses past each other on precipitous ledges above sheer drops of thousands of feet.

HorseUp.jpg (32236 bytes) Photograph by 
Matthieu Paley
click to enlarge

It must have been about three hours later when we found a path leading out of the river bed, which was by that time beginning to fill up with water from some invisible source.  I had been growing more and more anxious as the boulders grew in size, towering above us, and the water rose gradually all round us gurgling ominously in that grey half-light as it met resistance from the stones.  However, just when it appeared that we might have to retrace our steps, the water now swirling about the horses’ knees, a faint path appeared on the left bank and snaked its way up the sheer side of the mountain.  We followed this trail over the high shoulder of the mountain, still keeping that menacing gorge under our stirrups until we were two or three thousand feet above it, when it dipped into a hollow and led to a few scattered houses.  The unconscious strain of that journey must have been tremendous for when Loshay suggested a short stop for tea I felt a surge of relief which was almost physical in its impact;  the others showed it too in an exaggerated belligerence and impatience with the startled villagers.

We waited until the pack animals had caught up with us, and then, having checked the loads, which had received a severe knocking-about among the boulders in the river, we took to the trail again.  The shoulder of the mountain had flattened out somewhat to form a sheltered declivity in which the houses nestled, but the sound of the river from that forsaken gorge could still be heard.  Once the end of the declivity had been reached we descended sharply again, and I received another rude jolt.  For an almost identical gorge was unfolding itself before me but this one had to be crossed by bridge – and what a bridge!  The supports (excuse the term!) of this contraption consisted of roughly trimmed logs laid crosswise on each other to form the tapering sides of a tower-like structure on either side of the gorge, in much the same manner as we built houses of matches when we were children, and these were spanned by two trees from which the branches had been trimmed and over which some boards were loosely tied by creepers.  Underneath this appalling sight there was not even sufficient water to make a probable landing bearable, only the grey nakedness of giant boulders leering up at us invitingly.  Well, it had to be crossed.  Fortified by a deep breath, several bowls of tea and a – comparatively! – blameless youth, I recklessly lunged forward wishing fervently I had had tennis shoes instead of heavy riding boots as I felt the boards move uneasily beneath my feet.  Now to cross that structure alone would have been a superb feat for an iron-nerved trapeze artist, but when one had to lead a horse across it as well it became a nightmare (and I hope you’ll pardon the unintentional pun).  I do not know what the horse felt like but if outward appearances were any criterion then I reckon we were the two biggest hypocrites in the animal world at that moment, for my apparent sang-froid was excelled only by the horse’s.  I had horrible memories of a similar occasion when, in negotiating a “bridge,” a friend’s horse had slipped down between the boards on a wildly swinging suspension above a raging river in the dark.  I was ahead and could not move forward, Geoff was behind and could not move at all.  The memory of that horrible night will haunt me forever – and it haunted me now.  I had a confused idea that I was being unconsciously sacrilegious as I got mixed up in my prayers for myself and the horse;  but this was understandable, since I was not sure whether to hold on to the horse if I slipped, or hold on to the horse if he slipped.

And then, suddenly, space stopped heaving around me and I was on terra firma once more, and so, miraculously, was the horse.  I gazed hypnotically at the Tibetans as they crossed, wondering if their calm was natural or assumed and coming to the conclusion that if it was natural it was supernatural – and if any philosopher reading this book thinks that a paradox – let him cross that bridge.  

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"The path was moving beneath our weight and stones being kicked off the edge would turn and jump all the way down in horribly delayed fashion to disappear in the river far below.  There was not a tree or bush or scrub even to break that slowly executed drop to eternity."

Click on photo to enlarge

For some time after that, I was unconscious of my surroundings as I pondered on the mutability of things in general and bridges in particular and only noted vaguely that we were climbing again.  It was the roar of the river gradually increasing which brought me from the speculative to the real and I noticed that the river of our morning’s journey was once again in sight and was now raging forward in snarling flood.  While the alley had widened perceptibly, the river was still confined to the narrow limits of the gorge and was racing forward to pour itself into a larger river flowing at right angles to it.  Just before meeting this river ahead it had to pass through a narrow channel of solid rock, rising on both sides sheer out of the depths, and it was the roar from its foaming madness at this immovable barrier which had attracted my attention.

As I said, we had been climbing steadily over the shoulder of the mountain and we were now nearing the ridge where we would be in a position to scan the country for miles around.  Already I could see that an impassable range of mountains lay ahead from north to south and that we would have to turn down the valley to the south before we could find a way through.  This was confirmed, when, topping the ridge, I saw a large unfordable river filling the valley as well.  The confluence of the two rivers blocked the way to the north so the way to the south alone was left.  If the valley out of which we had just come was savage, the one we now entered was majestic, although it had something of the same cruelty.  Perhaps the feeling was lessened somewhat by the greater width and calm of the river and the greater height at which we were travelling, for we were now five or six thousand feet above the river below.  This was the Dza Chu or Mekong River, I gathered from the map.

As we went forward parallel to the river the trail became more and more precarious, and Loshay went ahead with Dawa Dondrup while Aku followed behind me.  The path, such as it was, was only about two feet wide, and wound upwards across the sheer face of the mountainside.  This in itself would have been difficult enough to negotiate, but there was also a loose scree slope to be considered.  While I held myself easily in the saddle with an appearance of nonchalance I could yet feel my abdominal muscles contracting into a hard lump.  The path was moving beneath our weight and stones being kicked off the edge would turn and jump all the way down in horribly delayed fashion to disappear in the river far below.  There was not a tree or bush or scrub even to break that slowly executed drop to eternity.  I kept my eyes glued to a spot about a yard behind Loshay’s horse and eased my feet until they were almost out of the stirrups, hoping that I might be able to make a safe landing if I had to throw myself off my horse.

Occasionally a horse would slip on the narrow path and the rear hooves go over the edge and the rider would have to throw himself forward along the horse’s neck as it scrambled wildly to retain its balance.  The others would then sit back in their saddles and roar with laughter at the antics of horse and rider, careless of the fact that failure to recover meant certain death.  I had heard previously that a Tibetan’s laughter at such a moment is not mockery at a companion’s predicament but a defiant defence against the evil spirits who wish their destruction and who would take advantage of any evidence of fear to accomplish this.  But while I was quite willing to concede this at times, yet there were circumstances when their laughter was too spontaneous to be other than sheer delight in danger.  Twice I went over and started two small landslides before I managed to pull the horse desperately back on to the trail, and Loshay merely sat in his saddle and laughed.  There was no question of shouted advice or help.  Balance and desperation were the only things to be used and the others had to sit and watch because there was no room to dismount;  to attempt to do so meant instant death for horse and rider.

"The Tibetans would sit back in their saddles and roar with laughter at the antics of horse and rider, careless of the fact that failure to recover meant certain death."  

Click on picture to enlarge

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We must have travelled for three or four hours like this before we reached more solid going and the trail widened and allowed us to relax.  It was cold, bitterly cold, but I was soaked with sweat and the horses were likewise.  We dismounted and walked for a time leading the horses to give them, and ourselves, a break, as the trail was now leading down to a small, shallow depression in the mountain above the river.  Even from a distance it looked an amazing sight for there was not a bit of vegetation to be seen anywhere, mountains and valley being of rock, stones and earth in an awesome monotony, and the whole depression was covered with boulders, large and small, as if the river had risen in some incredible fashion and then had fallen to leave this incongruous saucer of stones a thousand feet up on the mountain;  or, perhaps, they had fallen off the sheer slopes above in some landslide in the distant past.  Where the boulders had been gathered to build a few houses, there were patches that had been hopefully cultivated but whether they produced anything I seriously doubted from their appearance.

Our arrival caused the usual stir and on inquiring if this was Samba Druca, our stage for the day, we were directed to the other side of the river.  It appeared that Samba Druca, or Samba Dring as the locals called it (Druca meaning “ferry” and Dring meaning “rope-way” – probably a corruption of “Iding” meaning “suspension”) was in two parts, one on either side of the Mekong River, but the far side contained the best houses and would also provide the animals for our journey.  The people were very primitive and very poor, men and women wearing only very filthy hand-woven Tibetan gowns, most of them in rags, while the children wore nothing at all.  This was possible here as the valley was warm, sheltered by the jutting sides of the mountain.

We did not waste much time there but asked how we might proceed to the far side immediately, as it was getting on to late afternoon.  I was mystified, and said so, in that I could see no way of getting to the other side even though the river had narrowed considerably at this point.  The headman of the village then led me around the houses to where the mountain dropped away again into the river about two hundred feet below.  I swallowed!  This seemed to be my day for bridge nightmares.  A bamboo rope, made of woven creepers about two inches in diameter, had been wound around a large boulder and held down by others piled on top and then led across to the far side about fifty yards or more away where it was held in the same manner.  I gazed at the rope, I gazed at the far side, I gazed at the swirling waters beneath, I gazed at the horses, and then I gazed at the headman.  I thought of Yoga and levitation and astral projection and hypnotism, and then came to the conclusion that the sheer necessity of my journey might drive me to attempt that crossing;  but I had never yet heard of a horse being subject to such natural or supernatural compulsion, and so I shook my head.

“No,” I said emphatically.  “It is impossible to cross that” – then, in case he should think that I was afraid to cross it, I added hastily – “What about the horses and loads?  We leave the rented pack animals here, but we take our own riding animals if possible.”

“Ah, we don’t cross here at this time of the year,” he said cheerfully, “only when the river is in flood, and then it is impossible for animals or loads to cross.  But you asked where the bridge was and this is it.”

I looked at him closely to see if he was pulling my leg but he seemed a simple soul and incapable of being funny – as funny as that anyway.

“How do we get across then?” I asked.

“Oh, by the ferry,” he replied, surprised at my ignorance.

“Lead us to the ferry,” I requested patiently, greatly tried.  I do not know what I expected, but whatever it was it was never like this.  After descending sharply from boulder to boulder like a young hind and watching the horses being helped by their ears and tails, I arrived in a deep cleft in the rocky wall of the mountain beside the river.  If, from the point above, the river seemed to swirl, from here it positively swished.  Being compressed into this comparatively narrow channel of forth to fifty yards’ width by the sheer slopes of the mountain seemed to annoy it intensely, and it raced angrily, gurgled menacingly and leered invitingly in protest.  Lest this chronicle should become monotonous from the number of deep breaths inspired, let me hasten to record:  I expired deeply.

“Where is the boat or coracle?” I asked, looking around that cramped space in vain.

“It is kept on the far side,” he answered.  “I will shout and they will bring it over.”

He gave a yodel, whose echo would have been amusing in other circumstances as it curled and rebounded around us for some time, and an answering yodel from the far side showed me where some people were already hurrying to the river’s edge.  The launching point on the far side was slightly downstream and was also only a narrow gap in the mountain face, and from there in a few minutes two men pushed off on a raft.  The swift current in mid-stream carried them away below us but in the calmer water of the side they paddled more easily upstream toward us.

Was this country ever going to cease to provide the unsuspected and marvelous?  I thought.  Six logs were half submerged in the water and water appeared in the spaces between the logs, as it dipped and plunged in the comparative quiet of the side-stream current.  A load?  Yes!  With resignation, I thought.  A man?  Yes!  In desperation.  But, a horse?  No!  Under no circumstances whatever could I see a horse boarding, negotiating and alighting from that contraption.  I was wrong.

The first trip was to take a man and some of the loads.  Aku was chosen by unnatural selection – the survival of the slickest.  They pushed off and one man paddled on either side, while Aku kept the balance and his eyes on the boxes – he could do no more;  he appeared petrified while the raft dipped, plunged, and spun on its way across to the far side.  It arrived.

A horse this time, and Dawa Dondrup’s turn.  He got his own back by taking his horse.  He backed onto the raft pulling at the reins to drag the horse after him and then it balked when its forefeet were on and the tail end off.  The problem was easily solved by a cut from a whip, and the raft gave a wild lurch as the horse suddenly arrived.  This is it, I thought.  But no, the raft miraculously righted itself and the men on it even more miraculously likewise.  It was only then that I was initiated into the secret of How To Ferry A Horse Across A Dangerous River On A Raft Its Own Size.  A metal ring had been driven into a log and the reins, or halter rope, were passed through this and the horse’s head drawn down until its nose touched it.  This, coupled with the co-operation of a man holding its tail, was deemed sufficient to keep the animal steady during the trip.  It was – or, at least, it appeared to be.

However, when my turn came the world seemed to be filled with moving horses.  I had firmly declined to sit on a box at one end and hold the animal’s tail, choosing the more precarious end of the raft, if not the horse’s, to take up my position for the trip.  When the raft started pitching the horse snorted and tried to shy and I had to throw all my weight on the reins to keep it steady, but then when it quieted suddenly I was almost catapulted over the side, for I was ankle-deep in water most of the time.  When the raft and the horse and the mountains and the world ceased to spin I was sitting on a boulder and watching the raft nearing the other side again.

There were no casualties and this formed the topic of our conversation, later that night in the village, where we sat in a filthy room over a charcoal brazier and drank tea.  When I felt sufficiently fortified and settled, I told Loshay to get the hard-boiled eggs out of my saddlebag and heat them;  for the claims of my inner man were clamoring to be met.  I think I had six – or maybe it was sixteen;  I was not in the mood to quibble or nibble – for a snack, and then the soldiers managed to round up a quantity of fresh eggs, or, rather, a quantity of eggs with fresh ones among them.  I looked longingly at one or two choice little piglets running around and wondered if I should make my thoughts plain to the others, but knowing that the villagers would not sell and that my companions would probably stretch their authority to “requisitioning” to gratify my desires, I held my peace and the vision faded.

This is an excerpt from George Patterson's forthcoming book, "Tibetan Odyssey," which will shortly be published by The Long Riders' Guild Press.  If you would like more information, please email us.

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