The Long Riders' Guild

Long Riders on the Roof of the World - page 3

According to recently released, previously top-secret American State Department documents obtained by The Long Riders’ Guild, MacKiernan and his men were attacked by the Tibetan border guards. MacKiernan and two of the Russians were slain. Bessac and the remaining Russian were wounded. The Tibetans then tied up the two survivors, threw them on their horses and began heading them towards the still distant Lhasa.  Click here to read Bessac's journal.

Marching before the dazed Bessac was a baggage camel carrying a filthy sack. With his own life hanging by a thread the wounded American didn’t comment on what he knew was swinging back and forth before him, for his Long Rider comrade, MacKiernan, had been beheaded on his birthday. And that grisly trophy, along with the heads of the deceased Russians, now led the way to Lhasa.

CIA agent, turned Long Rider, Douglas MacKiernan lost his life trying to ride across Tibet in 1950.

With Bessac captive and radio contact broken off, rumours began swirling across Central Asia that MacKiernan may have been wounded or slain, so Washington directed its agents to ask George Patterson for help. Upon reaching India the Long Rider had instantly delivered his appeal for help, only to see it rejected by the various world powers. Soon afterwards Patterson fell ill. It was while he was recovering, and planning on returning to Tibet, alone if need be, that agents of the American government attempted to enlist his aid in finding the missing MacKiernan.

Knowing of George’s medical background, his intimate knowledge of the country and his ability to speak Tibetan fluently, the American State Department believed the Scottish Long Rider might be able to locate MacKiernan and guide the missing agent and his men to safety.

Yet before Patterson could set off, word reached Washington that though Bessac had reached Lhasa alive, his CIA boss was slain. The Dalai Lama’s government expressed official sorrow at the murderous border mix-up. But they had other things on their mind. With MacKiernan dead, Bessac on his way to India, Patterson ill, and Clark gone, Tibet was left to face the invading Chinese. Eventually the Dalai Lama fled the grasp of his captors. But before he left Lhasa he took along the “magnificent” gold watch presented to him by President Roosevelt’s Long Rider ambassadors.

In an ironic Tibetan twist of fate, even though Douglas MacKiernan was the first CIA agent killed in the line of duty, his work remains so sensitive that the Agency still refuses to either confirm or deny his existence. To learn more about the death of this James Bond style Long Rider, The Guild recommends, “Into Tibet: The CIA’s First Atomic Spy and His Secret Expedition to Lhasa,” by Thomas Laird.

Upon returning to the United States his astonishing story was written up and published in Life magazine under the title, “This Was the Perilous Trek to Tragedy,” 13th November, 1950. He later became Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at the University of Montana. After waiting fifty years for previously secret documents to be de-classified, Frank has just published his incredible story in a new book entitled, “Death on the Chang Tang.” For details on how to purchase this important work, please contact The Guild.

The details of Bessac’s amazing journey across Tibet, as well as the details of MacKiernan’s death, were recorded in an amazing diary which the American Long Rider kept during this unique adventure. This singular document was recently discovered by a scholar and friend of Long Rider George Patterson. Entitled Bessac’s Journey, this declassified document makes for hair-raising reading and is made available to the public for the first time here as a Guild “Story from the Road.”

The Curtain Drops

There was one final small Long Rider act yet to play before the Iron Curtain fell across Tibet.

Though he had fought unsuccessfully for years on a number of diplomatic fronts, George Patterson had been forced by international events not to return to Tibet. So by the early 1960s George had hung up his saddle.

But what do you do when adventure calls at an inopportune time? Who do you turn to, but God, when you need answers to how you should travel along an uncertain road? These were the type of personal and spiritual dilemmas George Patterson faced when risk knocked at his door late one night. The missionary turned Long Rider had married brilliant Scottish scientist, Dr. Meg, and they were raising a family, when his adopted homeland entered their life one last time.


Think of Tibet, that frozen kingdom hiding behind its protective barrier of high mountains. Now add in the fact the Red Chinese had recently placed a bounty on Patterson’s head for his role in helping orchestrate the escape of the Dalai Lama. Next, bring in a band of determined Tibetan guerrillas who offer Patterson a chance to witness their attack on the invading Communist army. There’s just one catch – he has to leave his wife and children long enough to accompany them on what looks like a one-way journey. The problem is no other westerner can get into Tibet, except Patterson, so the outside world is oblivious to the Chinese atrocities being perpetrated on the Tibetans. That’s why the rebels need Patterson of Tibet to make one last journey. Just before you leave on this literary journey of a lifetime, don’t forget to tie down the independent English film-maker who will document this amazing journey with the Tibetan rebels.


Now you’re ready to set off on a roller-coaster of a ride packed with undercover action, fast-shooting freedom fighters, revengeful Communists and a Scotsman who’s seen more excitement than a dozen other men. The resultant book, Gods and Guerrillas is a rare glimpse into the 1960s forgotten war when a handful of Tibetans took on the might of the Red Army.


Scottish Long Rider George Patterson, (right), has spent his life helping Tibet and its spiritual ruler, His Highness the Dalai Lama, (centre).

But after George returned from this guerrilla raid into Tibet, there would be only equestrian silence for more than fifty years, until the unlikely appearance of two Long Riders from opposite ends of the earth, who happened to share the same last name and the same desire to revive the time-honoured tradition of equestrian exploration in Tibet.

A New Call to an Ancient Land

If the communist rulers of occupied Tibet had bothered to ask The Long Riders’ Guild what would eventually occur, we would have told them that despite their restrictions, sooner or later a new generation of adventurous humans would mount up and once again set off across the roof of the world.

And even though Beijing neglected to consult us, that’s exactly what happened.

For nearly fifty years China has imposed her own brand of crushing colonialism on Tibet. It has murdered Tibet’s people, slain her ancient customs, uprooted her religion, forced her ruler into exile and driven a high-speed rail line into her countryside like an iron stake. Yet despite these horrors the allure of ancient Tibet still shines through the political corruption.

And that is what inspired Ian and Daniel Robinson to travel from opposite ends of the globe so as to explore Tibet on horseback.

New Zealand Long Rider Ian Robins was the first to go.

He had already explored Mongolia alone on horseback. So after the death of his Tibetan spiritual advisor in New Zealand, Ian vowed to deliver his teacher’s ashes to Mount Kailas, Tibet’s most sacred mountain. The resultant epic attempt to cross Tibet on horseback began in 2002. That’s when Ian set out to ride from the eastern border of China, straight across the heart of Tibet. Along the way the intrepid equestrian explorer fought off bitter cold and altitude sickness – all to no avail. When word reached the Chinese authorities that a lone foreigner was attempting to ride across portions of Tibet which they had declared “off-limits,” they sent a police posse out to find him.

Ian was arrested and placed under house arrest in a tiny hotel. Though his horses had been confiscated, he decided not to give up. He bluffed his way past  the guards, made his way into town, purchased two more horses, and with police jeeps in pursuit, rode for the hills. He eluded the authorities across half of Tibet and nearly made it to the sacred mountain.

Eventually the Chinese authorities cornered him. This time they were taking no chances, so they deported him straight back to New Zealand.

But like a character from the movie, “The Great Escape,” the New Zealand Long Rider refused to give up.

He returned to Tibet, bought another horse, and this time by managing to evade contact with the authorities, the determined equestrian explorer reached the sacred mountain on the far side of Tibet.

Ian’s remarkable story of riding across the width of Tibet is recounted in his thrilling book, “You Must Die Once.” And he has kindly shared one of his adventures with The Guild’s readers in this “Story from the Road,” entitled Riding to Mount Kailas.

Upon reaching Mount Kailas, the sacred mountain of Tibet, Long Rider Ian Robinson gave his horse, Monlam, to this Tibetan monk named Tashi Puntsog.

But not all adventures end up on such a jolly note.

As history demonstrates, if you attempt to ride across Tibet you could be strapped to a spiked saddle like Henry Savage Landor, murdered like Douglas MacKiernan, or become the first equestrian traveller in the 21st century to end up in prison, like Daniel Robinson.

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 Chinese traders 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 that caravans began to transport bricks of tea over the crow’s nest of Central Asian mountains to Tibet. 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. 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.


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 Chinese companions remained in Lhasa he journeyed on alone with just his two trusty mules 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 mules 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.

“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. 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, mules 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.


With his animals 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 Tibet. 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.

Daniel was jailed by the Indian authorities, who were prepared to imprison him for ten years. Thanks in part to an international equestrian campaign led by The Long Riders’ Guild and the British Horse Society, Daniel was freed in May, 2007. Details of Daniel’s journey across Tibet, and the subsequent campaign to free him from an Indian prison, may be read in the Long Rider editorial, The Price of a Pilgrimage.

Despite its uncertain political future and the inherent dangers of travelling there, the lure of ancient Tibet still draws equestrian pilgrims like Daniel Robinson.

The Future of Tibetan Equestrian Travel

A recent news article reported that despite the fact that millions of ethnic Chinese have immigrated into Tibet, the Khampa horsemen who once hosted Long Rider George Patterson still hold their annual horse fair. Every August these wild horsemen come together on a 14,000 foot high plateau to share their stories, gallop their horses, and keep the equestrian traditions of their Tibetan past alive.

It was Khampa horsemen, such as this, who hosted Long Rider George Patterson and resisted the invasion of their country.

Despite the political challenges which lie ahead for Tibet, The Guild believes Ian and Daniel Robinson demonstrate that in spite of political restrictions more and more Long Riders will begin to explore Tibet on horseback. Upon their return this new generation of equestrian journeyers will have their own stories to share.

And as His Holiness the Dalai Lama is fond of saying, “Sharing your knowledge is a way to achieve immortality.”

For additional information regarding Tibet’s equestrian past, The Guild recommends “Warriors of the Himalayas – Rediscovering the Arms and Armour of Tibet” by Donald LaRocca, “Vanished Kingdoms – A Woman Explorer in Tibet” by Mabel Cabot, "Into Tibet:  The CIA's first atomic spy and his secret expedition to Lhasa" by Thomas Laird, and "A Portrait of Lost Tibet" by Rosemary Jones Tung.

For a passionate appeal for Tibet by Long Rider George Patterson, a.k.a. "Patterson of Tibet," please click here.  It was written as the Olympic Flame was being taken all over the world in early 2008, when it was greeted by furious protesters on behalf of Tibet.

To learn more about Tibet's political struggle, please visit the website of the International Campaign for Tibet  and listen to the monthly English-language radio magazine, "The Tibet Connection."

Finally, The Long Riders' Guild is happy to report that the equestrian exploration legacy of Count Ilya Tolstoy is being continued by Countess Alexandra Tolstoy, a Member of The Guild and a Fellow of The Royal Geographical Society.  To discover how Alexandra rode the length of the Silk Road and recently journeyed on horseback from Turkmenistan to Moscow, please visit her website.

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