Annie Taylor: breaking into Tibet, with cold tea and a Christmas pudding

If you were Annie Taylor, risking your life on a dangerous journey through Tibet in the late 1800s, you could at least expect to enjoy a decent cup of tea.  It was, after all, an important part of everyday life.

“All Tibetans drink tea.  They boil it, branches and all, in water with a little soda and salt, and before drinking add butter, barley flour (which is called tsampa), and dried native cheese.”  Scottish Geographical Journal (1894)  ‘My Experiences in Tibet’ by Annie Taylor

In Jyekundo, a town on the Tea Road which led west across Tibet, Chinese tea merchants did a brisk trade with the Tibetans.  The tea was compressed into bricks about fourteen inches long, and these were packed into skins and loaded onto yaks for transport to Lhasa.

Annie was no stranger to the Tibetan method of making tea, but in the high mountain passes she found that there was a particular challenge to overcome.  At 15,000 feet, water boiled while it was still tepid, and she had to drink it quickly before a crust of ice formed on the top.

The whole situation sounds discouraging, to say the least.  But Annie was one very determined woman, and the inconvenience of lukewarm cheese-flavoured tea was the least of her worries.

annie-royle-taylorHannah (‘Annie’) Royle Taylor was born in Egremont, Cheshire, in 1855.  Her father, John Taylor, was a director of the Black Ball shipping line, and his wealth guaranteed a privileged upbringing for his 10 children.  For Annie, however, the circumstances were different.  At the age of seven, she was diagnosed with valvular heart disease, and her doctors did not expect her to live.  Although it was impossible to say when she would die, her parents were advised not to bother her mind with study.

Being allowed to do pretty much as she liked from an early age had a lasting effect on Annie’s temperament.  She was wilful and headstrong, and got into regular arguments with her father.  It is unlikely that anyone ever discussed her future, because of course no one believed that she would have one, except Annie herself.  When she was 13, she was moved by the words of a chapel service and inspired to read the Bible.  Three years later she went to listen to a visiting missionary, who was seeking new recruits.  There and then, she decided on her life’s purpose.

After consideration, Annie settled on the China Inland Mission.  This had been established in 1865 with the aim of teaching the Christian gospels throughout China;  the first centre was near Shanghai, and new posts were quickly being established inland.  Missionary work was a popular choice for women who wanted to pursue a religious calling but were denied entry into the clergy.  Annie would need training in medicine and midwifery, which would of course cost money.  All she had to do was convince her father.

Why, demanded John Taylor, did Annie not want to settle down and marry, like her sisters?  His anger probably masked a deeper panic, and you can understand why:  the child whose death he had steeled himself to expect was now proposing to travel half-way around the world and expose herself to a multitude of unknown dangers and diseases.   He was adamant.  He would not pay for her tuition fees, and he stopped her allowance.

Annie was just as obstinate as her father.  She sold her jewellery and rented a house in London so that she could train at the hospitals there, and she worked at Sunday schools in her spare time.  In 1884, aged 28, she boarded a ship bound for Shanghai.

By that time, John Taylor must have realised that Annie’s wish was not just a flash in the pan.   He paid for a number of items – extra comforts and luxuries – that might make her journey more pleasant, and he gave her a letter granting passage home on one of his ships, feeling that she would be needing it sooner rather than later.  He was right, up to a point:  Annie worked at a couple of mission posts in China before she decided that she wanted to leave.  But she didn’t want to go home:  she wanted to go to Tibet.

From a modern viewpoint, it’s difficult to comprehend just how dangerous a prospect this was.  Once a mighty empire, Tibet was no stranger to conflict, but in the mid-19th century its geographical position meant that it was at the heart of a struggle for power in Central Asia.  The main protagonists were Britain and Russia, the former keenly guarding all access routes to the riches of imperial India, and the latter just as keenly eyeing the potential prize.  The acquisition of Tibet’s high-altitude mountain passes would give either party the ultimate advantage.  In an atmosphere of mounting intrigue and suspicion, Tibet, which by that time was a protectorate of China, closed its borders to all foreigners.  Just to drive the point home, it began to execute everyone who defied the ban.

The Potala Palace in Lhasa, residence of the Dalai Lama until 1959
The Potala Palace in Lhasa, chief residence of the Dalai Lama until 1959
Annie knew all about this, but still she held on to her purpose.  She had a plan in mind, and it was going to take all the courage she had, plus an almost inhuman degree of stamina and luck.  Because not only was she going to plunge into forbidden territory;  she intended to journey for hundreds of miles across inhospitable, bandit-infested country, right into Lhasa itself, a city where no European woman had ever been, and certainly none would ever be invited, and she was going to talk the Dalai Lama into converting to Christianity.  As game-plans go, you have to admit it was quite ambitious.

Preparation was key, and in China’s Gansu province Annie travelled from one town to the next along the Tibetan border, carrying out her duties of missionary work but also keeping an ear to the ground, conversing with merchants and learning the Tibetan language as it was spoken in Lhasa.  She cut her hair short and wore traditional loose-sleeved robes, intending to disguise herself as a Buddhist nun.  Braving suspicious glances, she gathered together a small band of people who were willing to go with her, among them a young Tibetan named Pontso whose life she had saved when he was on the run from a cruel master.  Of the others, one man had a legitimate reason for wanting to go to Lhasa with his wife;  it would have to be enough.  Annie packed cooking pots and pans, two months’ supply of food, sleeping bags, cloth for barter, and gifts for any chieftains she might come across, assuming of course that they were friendly.  Six people and 16 horses set off from Tauchau on 2nd September 1892.

At first, the landscape consisted of arable fields and villages with temples, but as they climbed higher the trees and shrubs dwindled and then disappeared.  They were following one of the Tea Roads, a route used by merchants to and from Lhasa, rising and falling for hundreds of miles through precipitous valleys carved by great rivers: the Yangtze, the Mekong and the Salween.  Communities of hardy people lived here, and Annie was interested to observe the different tribes.  The Drog-pa lived in black tent encampments, and sold fresh meat to wayfarers;  in the same country dwelt the Mongols, whom she described as tall and fierce-looking, clad in sheepskin gowns and high boots of felt and skin:

“The women dress their hair in little plaits, more than a hundred, caught together at the ends in a wide band of coloured cloth, which is embroidered with gay silks and gold thread, and studded with coral and turquoise, silver coins and brass buttons, which they get from Lhassa.”   “Pioneering in Tibet” by Annie Taylor

In her journal, Annie noted that the Mongols constructed circular tents of trellis work covered with white felt, leaving a gap for a small wooden door and a hole in the roof to let out the smoke.

mule-caravan-tibet
Mule caravan in Tibet (Wikimedia)
Annie’s party crossed the Ma-chu river by means of a raft made from branches and inflated bullock skins, towed by two swimming horses.  This brought them into the land of the Golok people, bleak and exposed, with only a few patches of pasture in the valleys and on the lower mountain slopes.

The Goloks, Annie knew, were the most notorious brigands in Tibet, feared by traders and nomads, and when they rode out on a raid the party could be two thousand strong;  not surprisingly, they were the richest cattle-owners in Tibet.  Annie’s party had already been attacked and robbed, and she was slightly apprehensive about encountering the Golok people, but she was received with courtesy by their chieftainess and had ample opportunity to observe their appearance and customs.

Both men and women grew their hair long, the women wearing earrings of silver and coral, and the men favouring just one massive piece of jewellery in the right ear.  Their hats were of fox-fur or sheepskin or felt, of many different shapes, and on their legs they wore garters woven from brightly coloured wool.  Their tents, about forty feet by twenty, were of black cloth woven from yak hair, supported by wooden beams and ropes made from the hair of yaks‘ tails.

On 19th October, when Annie took her leave, she was given an escort of two warriors who accompanied her through the most dangerous country and protected her from potential attack.

snowstorm-in-tibetan-mountains-by-mckay-savageThe combined effects of sub-zero temperatures, wind-chill and oxygen starvation were now taking their toll.  Setting aside Annie’s difficulties with tea-making, it is absolutely astonishing to think that she survived, equipped as she was with just a simple tent and a sleeping bag.  On the high mountain passes she would wake at night, gasping for breath.  One of her companions, a Chinese man named Leucotze, was the first casualty.  The others dug a grave for him in the frozen ground, and at night Annie heard wolves howling.

The most terrifying part of Annie’s journey was yet to come.  Another member of her party, a man named Noga, turned out to be violent and treacherous.  Having threatened Annie several times, he and his wife made off with a horse and one of the tents.  Annie was glad to see them go, but she could not have guessed that they would ride on ahead and spread poisonous rumours about her.  This was her undoing.

Annie’s little caravan now consisted only of herself, Pontso and another Tibetan called Penting.  Having sold their remaining tent to buy food, they slept in the open air, finding holes in the ground for shelter from the winds.  They joined a small caravan wending its way along the Tea Road and over yet another of Tibet’s high mountain passes where travellers were known to freeze to death by the wayside.  Despite the appalling conditions, on Christmas Day Annie managed to conjure a pudding from the supplies of flour, sugar, suet and currants that she had brought with her.  After two hours of boiling, she was disappointed to find that it was still cold in the middle, but she cheerfully put it down to the “strange climate”.  On 3rd January 1893, shortly after they had crossed the Bo-chu River, they were arrested.

Knowing that any sign of submission would be seen as weakness, even an admission of guilt, Annie determined to look her captors in the eye and demand justice.  She had to wait several days for officials to travel out from Lhasa to question her;  meanwhile, at all times, she was surrounded by 20 Tibetan soldiers.  Scornfully, she said she was proud that it took so many warriors to keep her at bay.  When the officials arrived she was subjected to a kind of tribunal, at which her perfidious companion Noga was present.  She was accused of stealing, which she forcefully denied, and soon the real reason for her journey was revealed.

To her remarkable credit, Annie still allowed herself to notice the beautiful way in which her questioner’s hair was dressed:  “The fringe across his forehead was caught together at the ends in a kind of horizontal Grecian plait not unlike the plaited edging of straw litters in a well-appointed stable.”  (Pioneering in Tibet)  The rest of his hair hung down his back in plaits.  The sheath of his sword was silver, studded with coral and turquoise.  But if his appearance was intended to invoke fear and respect, it had little effect on Annie.  She was furious about being detained, and she didn’t care who knew it.

Perhaps all those years of arguing with her father were finally paying off.  Firstly, Annie refused to answer questions that she considered impolite.  She demanded better food and a comfortable mat to sit on, and was given both.  After days of cross-questioning and much collaboration, her captors gave her two options:  she could continue to Lhasa, where her companions would undoubtedly be beheaded;  or she could return to China.  There was really no choice;  but when Annie learned that she must make the return journey unaccompanied, with only her own exhausted supplies, she flew into another rage and accused them of sending her to her death by exposure, starvation, or violent attack.  She did have a point.  With the country in the grip of winter, she would not have stood a chance.

Surprised into backing down, the officials provided Annie with two horses, an old tent, some food, and ten ounces of silver.  They also gave her an escort of ten soldiers.  By some miracle, Pontso and Penting were allowed to go with her.

Tibet was now in the grip of winter, and the challenge of crossing such an inhospitable landscape can hardly be imagined.  And there was an extra threat, because the rumours started by Noga were still spreading, and the people who had been so welcoming on her outward trek were now extremely suspicious.  Annie had to move on quickly from a monastery, to avoid being stoned.  Making detours to avoid the deepest snowdrifts, the three travellers edged along precipitous mountain tracks and picked their way down glaciers, leading the terrified horses.  Eventually both animals died of the cold, but Annie, Pontso and Penting survived.  When they reached Jyekundo, Penting went off to his home in Gala, and on 12th April Annie and Pontso arrived in Sichuan, gazing in wonder at green fields with flowering fruit trees.  Miraculously, they were safe.  In 7 months and 10 days, they had travelled 1,300 miles.

gama-la-pass-by-reurinkjan

“I have nothing but praise to give the Tibetans for their chivalry and kindness.”   Scottish Geographical Journal (1894)  ‘My Experiences in Tibet’ by Annie Taylor

When she lectured at the RSGS in December 1893, Annie was keen to defend the reputation of the Tibetan people, and said that her treatment at the hands of the officials was due to the country being so jealously guarded by China.  As a note of interest for anyone considering a trip to Tibet – unlikely, in view of her account – she gave it as her opinion that mastery of the language was essential for would-be explorers, and assured her audience that it was easier to acquire Tibetan than Chinese or Arabic.  She then gave a comprehensive list of all the mammals that she had seen, their appearance and habits, and apologised for the poor botanical content of her paper.

Pontso almost certainly accompanied Annie to Edinburgh and Glasgow, although he is not mentioned in the newspaper reports.  Annie’s adventure had made her something of a celebrity, and she was using the publicity to gain recruits for a new missionary centre which she hoped to set up in Sikkim.  As a result, five Scotsmen returned with her to Asia, along with a handful of people from England, Norway and Sweden.  Her plan came to nothing, however, and most of her staff eventually joined the China Inland Mission.

Annie made no more attempts to reach Lhasa.  She lived for a while with Pontso and his wife on the Tibetan border, where they kept a small store.  The missionary William Carey visited her there, and later she gave him her diaries to transcribe.  After the British invasion of Tibet in 1904 she helped to nurse the wounded, but it seems that the violence sent her into a downward spiral and in 1907 she was brought back to Britain by her sister.  There is some uncertainty about her life after that, but at least one source says that she spent her last days in an institution.

How did Annie survive that journey?  She was remarkably robust both physically and mentally, but that wasn’t enough in an environment which regularly killed the strongest of men.   One thing that sets her apart is her absolute belief that she had divine protection, which she visualised as a cloak shielding her from every evil that life could throw at her.  And what unshakeable courage she had!  Setting aside her evangelical fervour, which was well-intended if slightly misguided, it is astounding to think that she was prepared to walk into the palace of the Dalai Lama and confront him about his apparent religious misconceptions.  She had a kind heart, although her colleagues at the China Inland Mission found her difficult to live with.  She never married – it’s hard to see how that could have worked – and she had no children.

I am just in awe of these amazing women, and there are plenty more to read about.  But from now on, whenever I let my tea go cold, I will spare a thought for Annie Taylor.

yaks-in-tibet-jp-davidson

Out of interest, the first European woman to enter Lhasa was a Frenchwoman named Alexandra David-Néel, in 1924.  There’s another story here, as you can imagine!

Sources and reference:

Scottish Geographical Magazine (1894) 10:1, ‘My Experiences in Tibet’ by Annie Taylor
Pioneering in Tibet by Annie Taylor
On Top of the World – Five Women Explorers in Tibet’ by Luree Miller
Unsuitable for Ladies’ by Jane Robinson
The Blessings of a Good Thick Skirt’ by Mary Russell
Christianity Today
Contemporary newspaper cuttings

Annie donated many Tibetan artefacts to museums in Scotland, and you can read about some of them on the National Museum of Scotland’s website.

Photos:   All in public domain.  1: Annie Taylor – photo by William Carey, 1902, from ‘Travel and Adventures in Tibet’, an account of Annie’s adventures, by William Carey.   The caption says:  “The cap is of fox-skin, made for her in the Mongol encampment”.  2:  Potala Palace, Lhasa.  3: Mule caravan in Tibet (Pushpa Ratna Sagar).  4:  Snowstorm in Tibetan mountains by McKay Savage.  5:  Gama La pass.  6:  yaks in Tibet by J P Davidson.

Writer and editor at The Hazel Tree (www.the-hazel-tree.com). Writer in Residence at the Royal Scottish Geographical Society and writing a blog on great explorers at www.rsgsexplorers.com

4 thoughts on “Annie Taylor: breaking into Tibet, with cold tea and a Christmas pudding

  1. You’ve written about so many incredible people that I wonder if there’s any way of saying which of the many outstanding characters linked to the RSGS has the most astonishing story. It struck me when reading this that Annie could give any one of them a run for their money. It’s like the ultimate adventurous fiction, this story. The idea of her sleeping outside in holes in the ground during a Tibetan winter takes my breath away. Even without a history of heart problems that would be an exceptionally tall order. Her undaunted spirit appears to have made her almost superhuman. Another absolutely cracking tale, brilliantly written, Jo.

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    • Haha, I know, Lorna, the story about Annie practically wrote itself! I was astounded that she actually survived, especially in view of her previous health issues. And she downplays all the drama in her account. I cannot begin to imagine how she even got to sleep in those conditions! It just goes to prove the power of mental attitude – in Annie’s case, I’m sure that’s what saved her. When I first started finding out about her I thought her story might be very similar to others, e.g. Isabella Bird, but my goodness was I wrong. It’s wonderful when people surprise you like this. Thank you very much, glad you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it! 🙂

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  2. You’ve done it again! Marvelously fascinating tale of a quite remarkable woman. I have to wonder if that doctor got his diagnosis right, that’s quite an ordeal for someone with a bad heart!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Pat! 🙂 It was a wonderful story to tell. I know, it does make you wonder about the diagnosis, but if it was right then it makes Annie’s survival even more miraculous. What a remarkable woman, as you say, and I really only came across her by chance. I can’t help wondering what the Dalai Lama would have made of her, had she got there.

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