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.

The head man then answered with a great burst of friendship, by giving me a sheep, and I was forced to fall back on coined silver to properly express my esteem. We parted in the morning with expressions of lifelong affection. After ten days of rugged but fascinating travel the expedition arrived in Labrang. Janet's first impression was not positive. "It is the filthiest village I have ever seen, dead animals in all stages of decay, and filth unimaginable," she wrote.

Frederick agreed. The village is a dirty little place, half Chinese, half Tibetan. Its architecture has no charm, but its populations has; a medley of lamas, wild tribesmen, Chinese fur buyers, Mohammedan soldiers, and richly dressed Tibetan women with magnificent straight figures, and white sheep skin hats. Many live by their charms. It is a sight to see others, in never rending processions, bring up tall wooden buckets of water from the river on their backs.

Janet and Frederick spent several days exploring Labrang. They photographed, took copious notes, drew diagrams and sketches, followed detailed maps, and compiled their notes into a long entry in Frederick 's expedition journal: Labrang naturally falls into two parts, the monastery full of monks, and the village full of merchants, and the Mohammedan garrison. The monastery is half a mile up the valley, west of the village. The immediate space is broad and fairly level.

It gives one a fine view of massive buildings, with gold roofs rising here and there, above a regular city of low dwelling in which the lamas live. To the right, as one looks from the village, is a fine white stupa, or t'a around which pilgrims ceaselessly perambulate. It stands at the mouth of a small side valley where dead lamas' remains are devoutly fed to the vultures. The stupa was put there, they say, to prevent floods from rushing down this valley into the temple. A road leads from the village to the temple beyond. On it there is a ceaseless stream of lamas, pilgrims, hucksters, townsmen, idlers, soldiers, and peasants.

One comes first to long sheds filled with prayer wheels that pilgrims spin as they pass. These sheds surround the whole monastery, a circuit, they say, of tenli [three miles], and great is the merit of the devout one who makes the entire circuit of these spiritual fortifications, turning each prayer wheel he comes to.

The morning market is a fascinating place to shop, for here the belongings of dead lamas, and all manner of odd wares, are likely to come for sale. I bought a prayer drum made of two [human] skulls for a few hundred cash. Another stall had finely mounted eating knives, each with a set of ivory chopsticks in the same scabbard. Another had little temple bells of bronze. Another had some wooden rifle cartridges, stolen or smuggled, and others still brass teapots, wooden tea bowls and cloth.

Each merchant spreads his wares under a big umbrella, and squats beside them. Most of the buyers are lamas, in greasy red gowns which reek of rancid butter, but there is a fair sprinkling of townspeople among them. At the hillock at the edge of the crowd stood a few wild nomads holding a horse, but whether they came to sell or stare, I could not tell. The language one hears on all sides is Droc Wa Tibetan, and he who knows only Chinese feels a stranger in a strange land.

From the market one turns in through the city of lamas. Low mud-walled dwellings hide the view on either side. One comes at last to a big, open space, on which face the massive buildings, which are the heart of Labrang [see page 151]. First among these is a great gold-roofed chanting hall. Outside it is an imposing Tibetan structure, with a pillared courtyard, golden hinds on the roof, and richly painted doorways. Inside a glowing blaze of softened light plays on red wood pillars, silken streamers, and yellow patterned cushions for five thousand crouching lamas. The light streams in from the windows on a gallery above, and underneath this gallery, in almost total shadow, stands a row of golden images, each with its burning butter lamps and other signs of worship.

Next to the great chanting hall are the kitchens, with copper kettles ten feet across for the lamas' tea. The cooking arrangements are those of a Tibetan house, but magnified in size; wooden lidded cauldrons of copper, half-round on the bottom, are let into an oven of brick, stone or clay, where the fire is built. Like all Chinese, Mongols or Tibetans, these lamas are famous consumers of tea, and carry their taste so far that they even drink it at services.

They make it in the Tibetan style with milk, that is none too fresh, and may perfect the brew by adding large lumps of rancid butter. This buttered tea, with barley meal, is the principal food of the northern Tibetans. One mixes the meal into the liquid with one's fingers, kneads a brown lump, and swallows it. This is the famous "tsamba," a nourishing food, and a good one if the materials happen to be clean.

Every temple of some standing has a Living Buddha of its own, and Labrang is no exception. The transmigration of souls is a cardinal doctrine of northern Buddhism. The Living Buddha is a monk, but one of great sanctity, for in him the spirit of Buddha is supposed to dwell. When he shuffles off his mortal coil, he is said not to die, but to transmigrate, and his new incarnation is looked for among children conceived at the time of his last transmigration.

The child is recognized by its ability to pick out the late Buddha's possessions from a great heap of similar objects, when five or six years old. Then it is escorted, with state and pomp, to the monastery, there, through his lifetime to incarnate the Divine. Practical affairs are dealt with through advisors, old experienced monks, who surround the little Buddha. It has been noted that these incarnations rarely remain very long in one body, as a rule. In fact, the little Buddha transmigrates at eighteen or twenty, when his personal character might begin to assert itself to the cost of those who surround him?

At Labrang the present incarnation is nine years old. On State occasions, he appears in public. We asked whether he had been to Peking, and was told, "Oh yes, before he died the last time." West of the great Chanting Hall and the kitchen lies a paved open space with a high platform where the Living Buddha sometimes sits enthroned. Next comes the house where he dwells. There are many more temples at Labrang, all of the same general type: Tibetan exterior, carved doorways and capitols, sacred images on silk or gold, and little lamps of shining brass filled with melted butter.

One building contains statuettes of the Gods in glass cases, another, sacred books.

Still another has a museum in it, horrible, rather than attractive. Badly stuffed wild beasts loom up in semi-darkness between pillars on which hang old Tibetan guns. A live lynx moves nimbly among them. Butter lamps drip endlessly on beasts and rugs and the floor. Sulky lamas opened the door against their will for us, driven and threatened by our Muslim guide, a great bearded veteran of the Mohammedan rebellion, long exiled among the Tibetans, and now supremely powerful over their fate in the Labrang region, because of his post as official interpreter at the mayor' office in the town.

Generally, the lamas are indifferent enough, as far as visitors are concerned, though a few years ago, they almost murdered a missionary who tried to photograph the Temple. This praiseworthy change of heart dates from a thrashing administered by the Mohammedan general at Sining, who rules this whole border. Thanks to his vigor, peace reigns as far west as the Tsaidam. A strong Muslim garrison has stayed at Labrang. The garrison is now about three hundred stro n g, and has been further reinforced at the time of our visit. A Mohammedan official made the lamas ke ep quiet while we photo graphed the great Chanting Hall, and forced an entrance for us into the museum.

At the conclusion of their visit Janet wrote to her mother, "The village is always alive with Tibetans, and the color of their costumes would delight you. The women's headdresses are gorgeous, with silver, amber and coral ornaments. They are all so full of merriment, and the peals of laughter from the square as the women bargain and sell their milk, butter or fire wood, are delicious to hear — quite a contrast to the subdued Chinese women. We were very comfortable in the Mission house with two young married couples, Americans, and very nice. The officials in the town were most courteous to Freddie, and had all sorts of places specially opened in the temples for him to photograph. His pictures are splendid. Labrang is the most important Lamasery in N.E. Tibet, and it is a magnificent group of buildings in pure Tibetan style. Only no photograph can give you any idea of their picturesqueness."

Excerpted with permission from Vanished Kingdoms: A Woman Explorer in Tibet, China, and Mongolia, 1921 - 1925 by Mabel Cabot, Aperture, Copyright May 2003.