National Geographic : 1931 Mar
ON THE WORLD'S HIGHEST PLATEAUS Through an Asiatic No Man's Land to the Desert of Ancient Cathay BY HELLMUT DE TERRA With Illustrations from Photographs by W. Bosshard BEYOND the Himalayas, that grand wall of giant mountain peaks which guards the north Indian plain, lies a country where three empires meet: India, China, and Russia. It is the most rugged and desolate alpine region known to man, a country where grim mountain ranges 26,000 feet high look down on barren, storm-bitten plateaus on which no human being has ever dared to settle. Farther toward the north this highest upland on our globe slopes down to the vast desert of Chinese Turkestan, the western con tinuation of the great Gobi and a part of ancient Cathay, as China was called in the diaries of Marco Polo. This region was the goal of our expedition, and the fact that great portions of the countryhad never before been explored lent added interest to the undertaking.* In 1926 our plans had crystallized, and we applied to the Government of India for permission to use the "high treaty road" which leads from Kashmir to Leh, the capi tal of Ladakh, or western Tibet. Dr. Emil Trinkler, of the University of Munich, hoped to find traces of the last great Ice Age in the mountain ranges of this coun try and remnants of ancient civilizations hidden away in the vast deserts. CHINESE TURKESTAN IS A GRAB BAG OF HISTORY The desert of Chinese Turkestan offers all the excitement of a giant grab bag, for ruins of ancient cities and Buddhistic tem ples lie buried there under a sea of sand, and trails worn by migrating races, pre historic as well as historic, are waiting there to be discovered. The third member of our Central Asian Expedition, Mr. W. Bosshard, of Zurich, joined our expedition in order to obtain a pictorial record of human life in this part * See, also, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAG AZINE, "By Coolie and Caravan Across Central Asia," by William J. Morden, October, 1927, and "Desert Road to Turkestan," by Owen Lat timore, June, 1929. of the world, where the Orient still eludes the contagion of modern civilization. We were more than delighted to have him with us, for he was well known to us as one of the outstanding photographers of his coun try and as a man experienced in Eastern travel. I believe the material which Chi nese Turkestan provided for his insatia ble lenses-strikingly beautiful murals painted hundreds of years ago on the walls of forgotten monasteries, the picturesque qualities of the natives, and the majesty of the mountain ranges themselves-more than recompensed him for the hardships he was to undergo. Problems of mountain structure and re gional geology of this locality appealed to me, especially in view of the fact that it was practically pioneer work. I knew, however, from the outset that my work would have to be more in the nature of a geological reconnaissance than a detailed study, as this was made practically im possible by the nomadic caravan life which we were to lead for 18 months. Trinkler and I landed in Bombay the end of April, 1927, and the Indian Gov ernment was kind enough to release us from heavy customs duties. Our baggage was dubbed "central Asian merchandise," and, as this is duty free, we were able to leave Bombay immediately, traveling across the Indian peninsula with the Fron tier Mail Express. Perfumed by vast pine and cedar for ests, the cold, pure air of the Himalayas, sweeping through the Vale of Kashmir,* quickly made us forget the IIo-degree (Fahrenheit) heat which prevails in the Indian lowland. Here, at Srinagar, Boss hard had for two months been busy with preparations. We came upon him in his hotel bedroom literally buried under heaps of woolen blankets, gloves, fur boots, and fur coats, kitchen and tent utensils, things * See, also, "House-Boat Days in the Vale of Kashmir," by Florence H. Morden, in the NA TIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE for October, 1929.