03 April 2008

F. Kingdon-Ward. The Riddle of the Tsangpo Gorges, 1926.

F. Kingdon-Ward. THE RIDDLE OF THE TSANGPO GORGES. Edward Arnold, London, 1926.

Current Selling Prices
$1200-$3000 /£600-£1500

One of those books you occasionally glimpse at book fairs but rarely anywhere else. Early in 1924 Frank Kingdon-Ward went on an expedition to try to discover the falls on the Tsangpo river which were enshrined in Tibetan folklore. With the world's attention on China and its brutal treatment of its own Tibetan people one wonders how parties of explorers would now be received there. Kingdon Ward had heard the legend of a waterfall, over a hundred feet high, in a land which was a virtual shangri-la. Tibetans apparently believed that this was a kind of magical promised land. No westerner had ever seen it. An attempt had been made by a contemporary explorer who made the journey from the Brahmaputra through treacherous country, escaping death narrowly, and then from Tibet he started from Pemako and worked his way along the gorge but was unable to penetrate far enough to see the falls. When Kingdon-Ward began his attempt he was accompanied by Lord Cawdor who found K-W a trying companion and the pace slow "...It drives me clean daft to walk behind him... if ever I travel again, I'll make damned sure it's not with a botanist. They are always stopping to gape at weeds." Cawdor also complained about the food, despite this being the best stocked of Frank's sorties. (They had bought provisions at Fortnum and Mason) Frank was, seemingly, unaware of any problem and barely had a bad word to say about Cawdor.

K-W and Cawdor went further along the gorge than any other explorer and discovered several falls. One they named Rainbow falls which was about forty feet high,however they did not find the magical area that had given birth to the legend. 74 years later a new expedition with Ken Storm, Kenneth Cox, Ian Baker and Hamid Sadar finally discovered the falls (just about a quarter of a mile from where Frank and Cawdor turned back). They combine with the Rainbow falls to complete a compound drop of well over 120 feet. The area around is bathed in constant spray and as a result is a micro rain forest habitat. Certainly a Shangri-la, but not enough room, sadly, for the whole Tibetan race. This lead to a handsome reprint of his book "The Riddle of the Tsangpo Gorges" published by Antique Collectors Club. (I am indebeted to the Tooley Watkins blog at Geocities for much of this info.)

Kingdon Ward was primarily a plant hunter and botanist and most of his books are on these subjects. The star find of this expedition was the Meconopsis Betonicifolia. It caused a stir when shown back in England. It is also known as the Himalayan Blue Poppy or the Tibetan Poppy (see above) and is referred to in the title of one of Kingdon Ward's rarest and most prized books 'The Land of the Blue Poppy' (Cambridge, 1913.) A copy inscribed by him but not in great condition made £1700 at last year at Bloomsbury.

VALUE? 'Blue Poppy' is probably the most valuable of his books followed by 'The Mystery Rivers of Tibet' (London 1923) which made £1500 (in frayed d/w) in the same sale and then 'Tsangpo Gorges' which has made about £1300 in auction. The Antique Club reprint has not helped the book's fortunes--it is a handsome production and can be had for about £120 to £200 -with one lunatic asking £500, possibly confusing it with the Edward Arnold first. There are several copies of the first on the web right now in various states of repair with a nice copy at £2200 and another almost as nice at £920. A used but acceptable copy signed by fellower explorer George Forrest that sold at Bloomsbury last year still sits on the web at £1950 - a less than 50% mark up forom the sale price. Condition has always been vital in cloth travel books, almost more important than in literature and modern firsts, and only very sharp copies can get over £1000 with auction results being an unreliable guide to what can actually be achieved in real life--another riddle.
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