Moral Shadows of the Darkest Kind Abound

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Isabella Bird and Gyalpo in Tibet
Isabella Bird and Gyalpo in Tibet

For sheer enjoyment, and for improving your descriptive skills, you just can’t beat Isabella Bird. She wrote lots of books about her travels, and most of them are out in new inexpensive paperback editions.

I’m reading ‘Among the Tibetans‘ about her trip there in 1889. You can read it on Gutenburg; text starts on page seven. Here is her description of Leh, the capital of Ladakh:

“Great caravans en route for Khotan, Yarkand, and even Chinese Tibet arrived daily from Kashmir, the Panjab, and Afghanistan, and stacked their bales of goods in the place; the Lhassa traders opened shops in which the specialties were brick tea and instruments of worship; merchants from Amritsar, Cabul, Bokhara, and Yarkand, stately in costume and gait, thronged the bazaar and opened bales of costly goods in tantalising fashion; mules, asses, horses, and yaks kicked, squealed, and bellowed; the dissonance of bargaining tongues rose high; there were mendicant monks, Indian fakirs, Moslem dervishes, Mecca pilgrims, itinerant musicians, and Buddhist ballad howlers; bold-faced women with creels on their backs brought in lucerne [alfalfa]; Ladakis, Baltis, and Lahulis tended the beasts, and the wazir’s jemadar and gay spahis moved about among the throngs.

In the midst of this picturesque confusion, the short, square-built, Lhassa traders, who face the blazing sun in heavy winter clothing, exchange their expensive tea for Nubra and Baltistan dried apricots, Kashmir saffron, and rich stuffs from India; and merchants from Yarkand on big Turkestan horses offer hemp, which is smoked as opium, and Russian trifles and dress goods, under cloudless skies. With the huge Kailas range as a background, this great rendezvous of Central Asian traffic has a great fascination, even though moral shadows of the darkest kind abound.”

In ‘A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains,’ which I also highly recommend, she writes about her faithful horse Birdie, whom she rode through ice-bound passes and snow-filled¬† ravines. Here she has a¬†horse named Gyalpo, who has a much nastier disposition. He kicks and bites and even picks people up by the cummerbun and shakes them. Isabella thinks it’s cute:

“Gyalpo, my horse, must not be forgotten–indeed, he cannot be, for he left the marks of his heels or teeth on every one. He was a beautiful creature, Badakshani bred, of Arab blood, a silver-grey, as light as a greyhound and as strong as a cart-horse. He was higher in the scale of intellect than any horse of my acquaintance. His cleverness at times suggested reasoning power, and his mischievousness a sense of humour. He walked five miles an hour, jumped like a deer, climbed like a yak, was strong and steady in perilous fords, tireless, hardy, hungry, frolicked along ledges of precipices and over crevassed glaciers, was absolutely fearless, and his slender legs and the use he made of them were the marvel of all.

He was an enigma to the end. He was quite untamable, rejected all dainties with indignation, swung his heels into people’s faces when they went near him, ran at them with his teeth, seized unwary passers-by by their kamar bands, and shook them as a dog shakes a rat, would let no one go near him but Mando, for whom he formed at first sight a most singular attachment, but kicked and struck with his forefeet, his eyes all the time dancing with fun, so that one could never decide whether his ceaseless pranks were play or vice.”

He was always tethered in front of my tent with a rope twenty feet long, which left him practically free; he was as good as a watchdog, and his antics and enigmatical savagery were the life and terror of the camp. I was never weary of watching him, the curves of his form were so exquisite, his movements so lithe and rapid, his small head and restless little ears so full of life and expression, the variations in his manner so frequent, one moment savagely attacking some unwary stranger with a scream of rage, the next laying his
lovely head against Mando’s cheek with a soft cooing sound and a childlike gentleness. When he was attacking anybody or frolicking, his movements and beauty can only be described by a phrase of the Apostle James, ‘the grace of the fashion of it.’ Colonel Durand, of Gilgit celebrity, to whom I am indebted for many other kindnesses, gave him to me in exchange for a cowardly, heavy Yarkand horse, and had previously vainly tried to tame him. His wild eyes were like those of a seagull. He had no kinship with humanity.