Sven Hedin Maps Tibet

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Sven Hedin Maps Tibet


At the beginning of the nineteenth century approximately four-fifths of the land area in the world was still virtually unknown to the Western world. In particular, there was very little knowledge about central and eastern Asia. Between 1893-1933 Swedish geographer and explorer Sven Hedin (1865-1952) made four expeditions to central Asia to gather geographic and other scientific information. During the third expedition between 1906-08 Hedin explored and mapped large tracts of previously uncharted territory in central Asia and the Himalayas. He was able to trace the Indus, Brahmaputra, and Sutlej rivers to their source as well as discover and map the Kailas mountain range. This expedition made a significant contribution to our knowledge and the geography of Tibet and central Asia.


In a previous expedition into Tibet, Hedin had disguised himself as a Mongol. Hiring a Tibetan monk as an interpreter, he had led a large and well-equipped caravan across Tibet, which in the nineteenth century was officially off limits to foreigners. Jesuit missionaries had visited Lhasa, the capital city, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but otherwise almost no Westerners had traveled in Tibet. Nominally under Chinese rule, the Tibetans were very much in control of who came into this remote place. Tibet was anxious to keep their country out of the British sphere of influence. During his 1901 expedition, Hedin took leave of his caravan and, accompanied by only an interpreter and one other person, attempted to enter Lhasa. After a series of harrowing experiences, Hedin was turned back by Tibetan warriors and escorted back to his caravan. He later attempted another crossing of Tibet but was stopped by orders from the Dalai Lama and ordered to leave Tibet.

Despite these problems, Hedin returned to Tibet in 1906, aiming to explore a region that the British maps simply designated as "unexplored." Hedin set two goals for this expedition: the mapping and surveying of the great mountain range north of the Himalayas that later he was to call the Trans-Himalaya; and to find the precise definition of the sources of the great rivers Brahmaputra, Indus, and Sutlej. This area covered a mountainous area north of Tsangpo, or the upper Brahmaputra River, and as far as was known, no Westerners had ever been there before.

This time Hedin decided to enter Tibet from the south. He was able to obtain letters of introduction from the Tashi Lama, second in command to the Dalai Lama. Through Swedish contacts he received a passport from the Chinese government allowing him to travel in Sinkiang province, where he was known because he had worked on a previous expedition in the region. Although this document made no specific mention of Tibet, he hoped it would impress officials if needed and allow his party to travel overland.

When Hedin left the British summer capital of Simla, he informed officials that his destination was Leh, capital of the British-controlled western-most province of Tibet, Ladakh. Traveling northward, he entered into Sinkiang Province and once in Leh, assembled a caravan of considerable size. He engaged the services of 21 men and bought or hired 88 horses, 30 mules, 10 yaks, and many sheep and goats. The latter served a dual purpose: if the caravan were to run into Tibetan officials, Hedin planned to disguise himself as a shepherd, while at the same time some of the animals were to provide food for the expedition.

Hedin left Leh in mid-August 1906, and for the next several months was "lost." The British authorities forbade him to enter Tibet; however, he managed to slip into the Tibetan highlands before that order was received by the British in Leh. For the next six months, through the harsh winter of the highlands, Hedin and his caravan traveled eastward across Tibet. He crossed the great chain of mountains that ran parallel to the Himalayas to the north. He measured the elevations of mountain peaks and passes and the depths of remote salty lakes, as well as making maps, drawing panoramas, and sketching landscapes and people. The temperatures reached minus 50° and sheep and horses froze to death. For months the expedition saw no other human beings. However, in early February 1907, Hedin ran into Tibetan officials, who immediately ordered him to leave Tibet.

When a shipment of mail from India "found" Hedin's group, however, the Tibetan officials were so impressed that they allowed the party to continue its journey to the Tashi Lama's residence in Lhasa. Part of the journey was by riverboat on the upper course of the Brahmaputra River. Hedin managed to keep a low profile in Lhasa and was able to stay for nearly six weeks. His Chinese passport impressed the local officials, and he was cordially received by the Tibetan officials, including the Tashi Lama. Hedin's time in Lhasa coincided with the Tibetan New Year, a time of special celebrations, and he was able to photograph and sketch the spectacular ceremonies and festivities without hindrance.

During Hedin's stay in Lhasa, negotiations occurred between Lhasa, Peking, and London regarding his future travel, since under the Chinese-British convention of 1904 foreigners were not allowed to enter Tibet. After complex negotiations Hedin was allowed to return to Leh, and he and his remaining caravan departed for western Tibet. However, it was another 17 months before he returned to India, and some of his most important scientific work was conducted during this time.

Other travelers who visited western Tibet before Hedin had established the general area where the Indus, Brahmaputra, and Sutlej rivers were located. However, it was Hedin's expedition that mapped with topographic accuracy the location of the headwaters of these three great rivers: the Brahmaputra at 15,860 feet (4,834 m) above sea level where a small rivulet runs from a large glacier; the Indus at a group of springs; and the Sutlej, one of the major rivers of Pakistan, at the Ganglung Glacier in western Tibet. By April 1908 Hedin felt satisfied that the goals of the expedition had been accomplished. He then mapped, surveyed, and sketched his way back into India.


Hedin's third expedition into Tibet lasted nearly 28 months. He accomplished his goal of mapping and surveying the Trans-Himalayan mountain range and found the precise sources of the three Asian rivers. This work made a significant contribution to our knowledge and geography of Tibet and provided the first accurate maps of the unknown regions through which he traveled. He had cleared up so many problems of Tibetan geography that no major discoveries remained; the work of future explorers would be simply to fill in the details on Hedin's maps.

Hedin's other major contribution to the geography of Tibet included his series of measurements, maps, and panoramas describing the Trans-Himalaya, the great mountain system that runs parallel to the Himalayas, north of the area occupied by the Indus and Brahmaputra rivers. He crossed seven of the major passes across the Trans-Himalaya and recorded the extent, height, and boundaries of the range. Among the descriptions of the land and people of Tibet, one of the most interesting is the chapter on the pilgrims circumambulating the holy mountain of Mount Kailas. Here the mountain rises nearly 22,966 feet (7,000 m), and around its base is a 28-mi (45-km) trail that was used by pilgrims making a circuit of the mountain. Hedin himself walked the trail around Kang-Rinpoche—the Holy Ice Mountain—with a group of Buddhist pilgrims.

Hedin published the results of his expedition in a massive work entitled Transhimalaya: Discoveries and Adventures in Tibet, written for a non-scientific readership. The three volumes (in the English edition) total nearly 1,300 pages and are illustrated with photographs and sketches made by Hedin. It contains many enthusiastic descriptions of the events that he regarded as high points of the journey.

The nine volumes of Southern Tibet: Discoveries in Former Times Compared with My Own Researches, 1906-1908, were published between 1917 and 1922. This set of volumes is a complete survey of the exploration and mapping of Tibet up until the early twentieth century. These volumes represent Hedin's most significant contribution to geography, with the volumes containing impeccable scholarship along with lavish illustrations. The eight volumes of text together with the separate index volume total 3,547 pages. In addition to the text there are two portfolios containing 98 maps compiled from Hedin's own maps drawn in the field and 552 panoramas, also drawn by him. The volumes contain historical and ethnographic information, survey and mapping information, as well as meteorological, astronomical, geological, and botanical information about the entire central Asia region. The books were favorably reviewed and have given readers past and present an unparalleled opportunity to travel with this eminent geographer and explorer.

The scientific research and results he and the men under his leadership obtained are his lasting legacy. He was a fine geographer, mapmaker of extraordinary talent, and an artist of unusual skill. His books were translated into many languages and he was well known throughout the world. He was honored by kings and emperors and by the great geographical societies of the time, and he left a legacy of unsurpassed exploration and discovery in Asia.


Further Reading

Hedin, Sven. Transhimalaya: Discoveries and Adventures in Tibet. 3 vols. Leipzig, Germany: F.A. Brockhaus, 1909-13.

Hedin, Sven. Southern Tibet: Discoveries in Former Times Compared with My Own Researches. 9 vols. Stockholm, Sweden: Lithographic Institute of the General Staff of the Swedish Army, 1917-1922.

Kish, George. To the Heart of Asia: The Life of Sven Hedin. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1984.