At the moment of writing the Panchen Lama is still en route: it was from Kumbum that he dispatched to the British Ambassador in Peking a telegram of condolence on the death of King George V.
Having left Sining, Peter Fleming and Ella Maillart have reached Tangar and joined a camel caravan due west.
Soon they find hospitality in a monastery – and here the main topic of discussion is the imminent return to Tibet of the exiled Pancehn Lama – which Peter Fleming calls also the Tashi-Lama, from the name of the Panchen Lama’s traditional seat, Tashilhunpo Monastery in Shigatse.
Now, who’s this exiled lama guy?
Thubten Choekyi Nyima, Ninth Panchen Lama, had fled Tibet in 1924, fearing for his own safety and repairing in Inner Mongolia.
The Panchen Lama is the second most important lama in the Gelung Tibetan Buddhuist School that governed Tibet since the 16th century.
The Panchen Lama is second only to the Dalai Lama, and the two are connected by a system of mutual recognition by which each validates the other.
It is understandable that this state of affairs can lead to power struggles, as each of the two high lamas has his own “party” of supporters.
In 1924, apparently on the Dalai Lama’s orders, monks from Tashilhunpo were excluded from public offices, and the Panchen Lama’s high officers in the government were put under arrest.
Also, the Dalai Lama was supposedly trying to tax the estate of the Panchen Lama to both undermine his temporal power and finance Tibetan military expenses.
Given the situation, the Panchen Lama did a runner, retreating to Chinese-controlled Inner Mongolia.
His return in 1936 was due to the death of the Dalai Lama in 1933, and the need for the Panchen Lama to validate the new one, once it was found.
The 9th Panchen Lama’s political and ideological proximity to the Chinese had caused the delay – as the Chinese authorities in Inner Mongolia were willing to let go of the Panchen Lama, and indeed support his return to Tibet, only if he would go to Lhasa accompanied by 500 Chinese soldiers.
But there’s more, to Thubten Choekyi Nyima, Ninth Panchen Lama, than his role in this power struggle and his importance as a conversation item for travelers on their way West.
A much more modern figure than traditionally (and romantically) perceived by westerners, the 9th Panchen Lama had apparently vast and detailed plans to turn Tibet into a modern, technological power.
To achieve these aims, he apparently contacted an American adventurer, Gordon B. Enders, that was supposed to convert a treasure in gold into modern supplies that the Panchen Lama and his men would then use to kickstart a technological revolution.
The story of Gordon B. Enders is quite interesting, very pulpy, and deserves a more in-depth discussion.
The 9th Panchen Lama died in 1937, while still “en route”, as Peter Fleming put it.