CHAPTER XXII. STALKING TIBETANS WITH A CAMERA
The road near which we were camped was one of the great trade routes into Tibet and over it caravans were continually passing laden with tea or pork. Many of them had traveled the entire length of Yuen-nan to S'su-mao on the Tonking frontier where a special kind of tea is grown, and were hurrying northward to cross the snow-covered passes which form the gateways to the "Forbidden Land."
The caravans sometimes stopped for luncheon or to spend the night near our camp. As the horses came up, one by one the loads were lifted off, the animals turned loose, and after their dinner of buttered tea and tsamba [Footnote: Tsamba is parched oats or barley, ground finely.] each man stretched out upon the ground without shelter of any kind and heedless of the freezing cold. It is truly the life of primitive man and has bred a hardy, restless, independent race, content to wander over the boundless steppes and demanding from the outside world only to be let alone.
They are picturesque, wild-looking fellows, and in their swinging walk there is a care-free independence and an atmosphere of the bleak Tibetan steppes which are strangely fascinating. Every Tibetan is a study for an artist. He wears a fur cap and a long loose coat like a Russian blouse thrown carelessly off one shoulder and tied about the waist, blue or red trousers, and high boots of felt or skin reaching almost to the knees. A long sword, its hilt inlaid with bright-colored bits of glass or stones, is half concealed beneath his coat, and he is seldom without a gun or a murderous looking spear.
In the breast of his loose coat, which acts as a pocket, he carries a remarkable assortment of things; a pipe, tobacco, tea, tsamba, cooking pots, a snuff box and, hanging down in front, a metal charm to protect him from bullets or sickness.
The eastern Tibetans are men of splendid physique and great strength, and are frequently more than six feet in height. They have brick-red complexions and some are really handsome in a full-blooded masculine way. Their straight features suggest a strong mixture of other than Mongolian stock and they are the direct antithesis of the Chinese in every particular. Their strength and virility and the dashing swing of their walk are very refreshing after contact with the ease-loving, effeminate Chinaman whom one sees being carried along the road sprawled in a mountain chair.
Of all natives whom we tried to photograph the Tibetans were the most difficult. It was almost impossible to bribe them with money or tin cans to stand for a moment and when they saw the motion picture camera set up beside the trail they would make long detours to avoid passing in front of it.
What we could not get by bribery we tried to do by stealth and concealed ourselves behind bushes with the camera focused on a certain spot upon the road. The instant a Tibetan discovered it he would run like a frightened deer and in some mysterious way they seemed to have passed the word along that our camp was a spot to be avoided. Sometimes a bottle was too great a temptation to be resisted, and one would stand timidly like a bird with wings half spread, only to dash away as though the devil were after him, when he saw my head disappear beneath the focusing hood.
Wu and a mafu who could speak a little Tibetan finally captured one picturesque looking fellow. He carefully tucked the tin cans, given for advance payment, inside his coat, and with a great show of bravery allowed me to place him where I wished. But the instant the motion picture camera swung in his direction he dodged aside, and jumped behind it. Wu tried to hold him but the Tibetan drew his sword, waved it wildly about his head and took to his heels, yelling at the top of his lungs. He was well-nigh frightened to death and when he disappeared from sight at a curve in the road he was still "going strong" with his coat tails flapping like a sail in the wind.
One caravan came suddenly upon the motion picture camera unawares. There were several women in the party and, as soon as the men realized that there was no escape, each one dodged behind a woman, keeping her between him and the camera. They were taking no chances with their precious selves, for the women could be replaced easily enough if necessary.
The trouble is that the Tibetan not unnaturally has the greatest possible suspicion and dislike for strangers. The Chinese he loathes and despises, and foreigners he knows only too well are symptoms of missionaries and punitive expeditions or other disturbances of his immemorial peace. He is confirmed in his attitude by the Church which throughout Tibet has the monopoly of all the gold in the country. And the Church utterly declines to believe that any foreigner can come so far for any end less foolish than the discovery of gold and the infringing of the ecclesiastical monopoly.
Major Davies, who saw much of the Yuen-nan Tibetans, has remarked that it is curious how little impression the civilization and customs of the Chinese have produced on the Tibetans. Elsewhere, one of the principal characteristics of Chinese expansion is its power of absorbing other races, but with the Tibetans exactly the reverse takes place. The Chinese become Tibetanized and the children of a Chinaman married to a Tibetan woman are usually brought up in the Tibetan customs.
Probably the great cause which keeps the Tibetan from being absorbed is the cold, inhospitable nature of his country. There is little to tempt the Chinese to emigrate into Tibet and consequently they never are there in sufficient numbers to influence the Tibetans around them. A similar cause has preserved some of the low-lying Shan states from absorption, the heat in this case being the reason that the Chinese do not settle there.