Book Excerpt: Vanished Kingdoms

In her new book, Vanished Kingdoms: A Woman Explorer in Tibet, China, and Mongolia, 1921 - 1925, Mabel Cabot writes of a real-life Indiana Jones story, with a twist. It's about the first American female explorer to go to the Far East, back in the 1920s. The adventurer is Cabot's mother, Janet Elliot Wulsin.

Here is an excerpt from the book:


The route from Sining to Labrang took ten arduous days over rough terrain. They first passed through the high, lush, Tibetan meadows — the "Desert of Grass," as Alexandra David-Neel called it — and then turned south through a series of mountain ranges

"Up hill and down dale inadequately describes our route," wrote Janet. "It was picturesque in the extreme, lovely valleys, where the natives were bringing in the harvest, high green grass-covered mountains (no trees) with temples or mosques perched on top."

They eventually climbed high mountain divides, some over eleven thousand feet. Another night we stopped in our first real Tibetan village where we were lodged in the house of the herdsman, who, with much ceremony, presented us with a sheep. [His wife] wore a huge sheepskin garment (only one garment) with one sleeve always out, and a shriveled breast hanging out. She was fascinated by me, and when F. [Frederick] gave her an empty shaving soap tin, her enthusiasm was delightful.

They thanked the herdsman, ate the sheep, and slept well. They continued on through the rain for several days. The going became difficult and slow. There was a "most wearisome descent over thick red clay for miles and miles, through a perfect labyrinth of conical earthen mountains, beyond which we could see the distant Yellow River gleaming, and more mountains beyond. The slopes were too steep to ride, and great cakes of red mud clung to our shoes at every step," wrote Frederick.

The next day, as they we're finishing their picnic lunch, there was a commotion. Two soldiers pushed their way through the crowd, brandishing a flaming red umbrella and what Frederick described as two "prehistoric Spencer carbines."

Four sweating porters then arrived, struggling under a blue cloth covered chair. The local magistrate had come to call on Janet and Frederick. He turned out to be a polished, intelligent man of about fifty who had been born near Shanghai, but had lived in Kansu since he was eighteen. He told them about his district. The region was peopled by the Salars, a Muslim agricultural tribe from Sinkiang who still spoke a Turkish dialect; the Fantzu Tibetans, nomad or settled; and the Chinese traders, who had just recently arrived. He pointed with pride to the region's big sheep and tall men, but admitted, with regret, that some of the men were very wild, especially to the south — as wild as they could be."

On the whole, Janet and Frederick found the people "cheerful and friendly,"less curious and given to staring than the Chinese villagers, but far more vivacious and responsive. In the small village of Shi Shan K'o the villagers beamed and talked, took us a round to see the town, and ended by bringing us gifts in the evening. The head man started with a khata, or scarf of greeting, and I [Frederick] replied with a pocket tool roll which cost nineteen cents in Cincinnati.

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