Adventures in Tibet by William Carey

Abstract: This travel account is a combination of 19th century background information on Tibet along with an edited version of Miss Annie Taylor’s Diary. The supplementary knowledge provided by Carey is illuminating because it shows the extent of European knowledge about Tibet before Younghusband’s expedition in 1904. Annie Taylor ventured into Tibet in the early 1890s. Not only was such a journey dangerous, but also illegal, with the culprits susceptible to punishment or deportation. Her diary entries vary between long descriptions and concise snippets, usually detailing the scenery, people, and difficulties of her journey. Although her goal was to set up a proselytizing mission in Lhasa, her English identity was discovered and she was turned back before reaching the holy city.

Annie Taylor’s Diary: Tibet as The Last Frontier

Journey to Lhasa

Miss Taylor began her journey in 1892, setting out from “Tau-Chau” [Taozhou, Gansu] in September. Before Younghusband, many foreigners had tried to infiltrate the “holy city,” but since 1811 none had been successful. The uncertainty of being able to slip past border patrols probably influenced the timing of Taylor’s departure; however, beginning her trip on the eve of winter amplified its difficulty. She was traveling for nearly four months, spending most of the time dealing with intense cold and snow. Originally, Miss Taylor’s party consisted of herself and three companions, bringing a combination of Tibetan and Chinese escorts. During the course of the trip, some members deserted while others were added. Her Diary enumerates the daily struggles of travel, commenting most frequently on the weather and interpersonal relations.

The frequency of robbery is astounding. Miss Taylor and her party were almost constantly threatened by bands of brigands. Within her party, even, items were continuously being stolen. Although theft was against the law, people were not morally adverse to it. There were raids against merchants, other nomad groups; almost anyone was susceptible to abuse. In addition to banditry by strangers, one of Taylor’s companions, Noga, blatantly admitted to stealing from her. Within this context, there seems to be anarchy, with everyone fending for himself or herself. Yet, there was a contrasting atmosphere of benevolence and charity.

Taylor must have stood out amongst the native Tibetans. Although she donned traditional Tibetan clothes and was conversant in Tibetan, others must have been able to recognize her outsider status. Not only did they conceal her identity from the authorities, they frequently helped her. Lamas and chiefs sent her gifts of food and animals, allowing her to join with their parties during parts of her trip. Taylor’s Diary shows an almost dynamic relationship between survival and religion. While people do what they must to survive, when there were surplus goods they were more than willing to give to those less fortunate.

Although Lhasa was Taylor’s final destination, she was pointed out to the authorities by her guide, Noga, and forced to leave by the Tibetan government. In order to adjudicate her case, a huge contingent of officials were commissioned. The presence of a foreigner, considering the tense relationship with the British and the pressure being applied by the Chinese, was considered a national concern. Miss Taylor was forced to leave, but she was also provided with sufficient food and resources for her return journey.

European Attitudes Towards Tibet

Annie Taylor’s Diary chronicles her journey into the heart of Tibet. Like any diary, the composition implements little overarching structure; it is merely a recording of daily feelings and experiences. Unlike other autobiographical forms, diaries provide fewer opportunities for self-censorship or embellishment. They are inherently personal, usually without any intention of public circulation. Furthermore, the temporal gap between an event and its documentation is small. One has to be careful, however. Diaries can be both heavily subjective and factually erroneous. Whereas works done retrospectively can utilize resources to help supplement and verify details, diaries are limited. They only present an immediate, individualistic perspective.

One of the most salient features about Miss Taylor is her religiosity. Born in England in the 1850s, she came from an affluent family. Although educational opportunities were open to her, Miss Taylor felt little attraction towards academia, instead choosing a life devoted to Christianity. For centuries, religious organizations had tried to establish a foothold in Tibet. Although largely unsuccessful, the possibility of converting the extremely religious Tibetans to Christianity proved too tempting. Miss Taylor planned on setting up a missionary center in Lhasa; a center for proselytizing missions throughout the country.

Feelings towards the dominant Gelukpa sect varied. Carey portrayed them negatively as shamans and witchdoctors, utilizing fear to subjugate and exploit the people. Commoners were not active agents, but victims. Carey was trying to promote religious missions, justifying the forceful interjection of Christianity. This almost universal condemnation of lamas was challenged by Miss Taylor’s own account, however. The journey from China to Lhasa took months and led its travelers through brigand-infested areas. Miss Taylor had to weather the elements while dealing with thieves and unfaithful traveling companions. On numerous occasions she was forced to rely on the kindness of others, without whom she would never have been able to survive. Although Carey demonized them, two of Miss Taylor’s most frequent benefactors were chiefs and lamas. It was only due to their help that she was able to make it so close to Lhasa, eventually being exposed not by a Tibetan, but by her own Chinese guide.

Expansion under the guise of religion was a common feature of European imperialism. Although Tibet maintained an aura of impenetrability, in actuality there was a significant amount of trade. On her travels, Miss Taylor noticed the movement of tea and barley into Tibet, in exchange for furs and woolen fabrics. The only problem for foreign powers was that China maintained a monopoly on Tibetan trade, leaving Europe salivating at the economic possibilities. As Carey pointed out, if allowed to compete, the British would have been able to quickly end Chinese trade dominance (68). Not only was Indian tea of a higher quality, but it could also be transported much easier. Coming over the border from the south, Indian tea could easily infiltrate the market and provide alternatives to the very poor grade of tea sold by the Chinese. Tibet offered an immense market just waiting to be tapped. Although this never came to fruition, these kinds of excerpts illuminate European motivations towards Tibet. As the 20th century continued and Tibet looked to assert its independence, it believed it had an ally in the British. To Europe, however, economic concerns were of paramount importance, with the relationship between China and Tibet very ambiguous.

Carey remarked on the hazy nature of political sovereignty. He wondered who really controls the interior affairs and international relations of Tibet. Although the British were able to sign treaties with the Chinese, they rarely extended into Tibet. There was an understanding that, practically speaking, political agreements carried little weight in Tibet. Were the lamas hampering foreigners in order to protect their own power and trade interests, or were the Chinese wary of foreign influence over one of their border provinces (62). Tibetans dealt with Miss Taylor when she was caught. However, by threatening to go to the Chinese amban, Taylor was able to gain a certain amount of leverage in her negotiations. The Tibetans wanted to handle affairs, yet were cognizant that their powerful neighbors could intervene if the situation called for it. At the turn of the 20th century, the status of Chinese sovereignty over Tibet was very uncertain.


Miss Taylor has to be commended for her attempt to reach Lhasa. She braved harsh weather, treacherous landscape, along with deceitful companions, all in the hope of bringing the Gospel to the Tibetans. Tibet was a dangerous place. Yet, at the same time, it also showed itself as a place of extreme kindness. Miss Taylor’s Dairy exemplifies the struggle between making a life in Tibet and how religion affected people. “Lamaism” was not only a negative force, but also the source of much generosity and kindness.
Although her goal of converting Tibetans was futile, this work is an interesting enumeration of British motivations. It helps to explain some of their future relations with Tibet, and subsequently, how Tibet’s future has developed during the 21st century. Tibet’s allies had selfish interests, leaving Tibet without effective international connections concerned about their national rights. Consequently, Tibetan claims to independence have deteriorated.

Taylor, Annie. My diary in Tibet, ed. W. Carey, Travel and adventure in Tibet (1902)

Entry by Daven Farnham