In search of the famous Tibetan Mastiffs of Kesang Camp
The legend of their size and ferocity is told in every village in the region. “You want to see Tibetan Mastiffs?” Nepalese villagers would say, laughing. “Go to Kesang – if you can get in!”
On my first visit to Kesang I had traveled with two other Americans, an ethnomusicologist named Terry and an adventurous high-school boy named Regon. When we arrived at the district town of Jomsom (Dzongsam in Tibetan), we were stopped from going further north by a strictly enforced ban against foreign trekkers in the border area. Tibetan guerrilla action made this Tibetan frontier region dangerous. Even the Nepalese border authorities were hesitant to venture very far out of town.
Jomsom is a dry, wind-blown place with flat-roofed Tibetan-style houses and large caravanserais for traders and their pack animals (horses, yaks and yak-cow hybrids called chowri). It is only a few miles north of Tukché, the old salt traders’ village. Its inhabitants are a mixture of ethnic Thakali and Tibetans. It is also a town of yapping dogs, including Tibetan “spaniels,” popular as house pets. This is one of the few places where this breed is found in the Himalayas, probably brought back from Tibet proper decades ago by traders. Lack of scientific breeding or any form of control, however, lowers the overall quality of these dogs. As a result of mixed breeding the town has many dogs of a type that a friend of mine calls “Spastiff” – a mixture of Tibetan “spaniel” and Tibetan “mastiff.”
There were Tibetan Mastiffs north of Jomsom, we were told, at the palace of the Raja (King) of Mustang (Lo Manthang), and also east, up in the mountains at the Khampas’ guerrilla camp in Kesang meadow. I had heard of the impressive red mastiffs belonging to the Mustang Raja, but the presence of big dogs at Kesang was news to me. The Raja’s walled fortress town was off-limits to us and a long walk north if we could have gone. It was well within the Nepal government northern border area restricted zone where no foreigners were allowed. But Kesang Camp, high in the mountains nearer to Jomsom, was only a half day’s walk beyond the small village of Thini. Legally, Kesang was also off limits, but when no one was looking we sneaked out of town and into the hills to go see it.
The author with Amjo, a Himalayan mountain dog he acquired in his travels.
At 4 o’clock one morning, Terry, Regon and I scaled the compound wall in the pre-dawn light, then slipped quietly and unseen out of the town. The track took us uphill past the Thakali village of Thini and into the mountains. Kesang Camp was up there, directly beneath the awesome, icy north face of Tilichho Peak (23,405 ft, or 7133 m), the northernmost summit of the Niligiri Himalayan massif. It was a beautiful morning with clear blue sky overhead. It was also quite cold. The sun did not come up over the mountains until we were well along. For the first few hours we saw nobody, though we had an uncanny feeling that we were being watched.
A typical do-kyi (tied watchdog) at Thak Khola, Nepal.
We arrived within sight of Kesang about noon, and were met and surrounded by eight or ten burly Khampas. None spoke Nepali or English, but they did the inevitable – took us to their leader. He was a determined young man who by outward appearances looked more like an illiterate, rough-hewn yak herder’s son than a guerrilla army commander. We knew by his demeanor that this must be the fabled Wangdu, the resistance leader, though he did not formally introduce himself. His reaction to our arrival was abrupt and commanding. He did not expect us, nor want us there. We looked nothing like the CIA operatives he was used to meeting.
“What in hell are you doing here?” he sternly demanded to know, in colloquial English. (He had learned English while being trained in guerilla warfare at Camp Hale, Colo., a secret CIA base in the American Rockies that we had heard rumors about.)
Terry was the first to reply, saying that he was a musician, an ethnomusicologist studying Himalayan folk music. He was searching for a rare Buddhist musical manuscript among Tibetan monks, he said, and wanted to meet the lamas in the camp’s gomba (temple), which we could see on the far side of the camp.
“We have no gomba!” Wangdu declared. But from where we stood on a knoll at the northern edge of the camp we could plainly see the telltale red temple building.
For his part in this dialogue, Regon explained that he collected butterflies as a hobby and that he was looking for some on this trip. At this, our interrogator was taken aback. Tibetan Buddhists have trouble taking any life, even an insect’s. (One wonders how they fought a war!) The Khampa leader promptly informed us what we had already guessed, that there were “no butterflies” up here, either. But of course, there are many varieties of butterflies even at this high altitude, though at the time we did not argue the point with him.
My own excuse was dogs. “I want to see the famous Tibetan Mastiffs of Kesang Camp,” I said.
You know the answer: “We have no dogs!” Wangdu declared without hesitation.
Just then, a commotion in the camp below us set off a clamorous uproar from several of the camp’s – “we have no” – Tibetan Mastiffs. The Khampas did have dogs, of course; they were chained out of sight behind the buildings. The commotion began when a Tibetan man in combat attire had emerged from a hut along with large Alsatian at heel. As man and dog crossed the open compound, they demonstrated a well-rehearsed attack-dog training routine (to impress us?) then disappeared into another building. This put the unseen mastiffs into an uproar, and it reminded us that we were the sort of intruders those big dogs were prepared by instinct and temperament to repel. From the sounds of it, they could do that quite well.
My thoughts were interrupted by our host’s abrupt repeat pronouncement: “No gomba! No butterflies! No dogs! You’ve no business here!”
This was neither the time nor place for sightseeing. This man and his companions had only one thing in mind, waging guerrilla war; and though we were not their enemy, we were a nuisance to be rid of as quickly as possible.
“You must leave,” he said firmly.
We agreed, and turned to go. Behind us the dogs’ barking rang out clearly across the mountain sanctuary. As we trekked down out of the mountains we were escorted part way by a two stern Khampa partisans. We were also watched from the ridge tops by men armed with binoculars and guns. We could see the sunlight glinting off of them as we descended the trail away from Kesang Camp.
When we arrived back in Jomsom late in the afternoon, my dog Amjo met us with great excitement. So did the district police, who ordered us to leave the region immediately. We were informed that we had broken the law by going to Kesang Camp and that we were no longer welcome. We departed Jomsom that evening, and within two weeks we were out of the mountains and safely back in Kathmandu, somewhat wiser but still curious.
At Kesang Camp we had found the big Tibetan dogs that I sought. Yes, and we had heard their distinctive deep challenge bark. Loud. Deep. Dark. Authoritative. But closer inspection of the Kesang dogs was out of the question. It was disappointing. My goal was unfulfilled. I had not actually seen the dogs. Over the next months and years, they became a fading memory.
Finding Wangdi, the canine patriarch
During the 1970s, the saga of the Tibetan guerrillas hiding out in the Himalayas of Nepal suffered an abrupt about face. These tough mountain men had earlier been well supplied with American arms to keep up their resistance movement against the Chinese. But the American CIA’s clandestine support to them suddenly collapsed following Henry Kissinger’s secret trip to Beijing in July 1971. His trip eventually led to the opening of Communist China to the West. The CIA was abruptly ordered to stand down, and the Khampas were virtually abandoned. As a result, the Khampas had to flee the resistance movement and their Himalayan hideout. Some of them attempted to go west and then south into India, leaving their beloved guardian dogs behind. When the Royal Nepal Army moved into Kesang Camp, the officers and men took care of the dogs as best they could. Under the army, Kesang continued to remain off limits to strangers.
In the early 1980s I returned once again to Mustang District, accompanied by a friend named Lance. Along the way (most of a week’s walk), we looked for good dogs, but saw few that measured up to “true” Tibetan Mastiff. Then I remembered the dogs of Kesang Camp and told Lance the story of my earlier encounter. We wondered what had become of them.
One evening at a trekker’s lodge in Jomsom, we were joined at our table by a Nepal Army officer. He introduced himself as the commander of Kesang Camp. We chatted a while, as we sipped locally made apple brandy, a specialty of the inn. Before long our conversation turned to Tibetan dogs, and I asked him about those in his camp.
“Yes, they’re still there,” he said, and assured us that they were just as large, protective, respected and admirable as ever. When he saw how interested we were, he surprised me by inviting us up to see the dogs. As camp commander, he said, he could bend the rule against foreigners going to Kesang.
A few days later Lance and I joined him on the trail up to the camp.
The sky that winter morning was exceptionally clear. The Himalayan peaks around us were icy white, cold, forbidding, and seemed very close. The north wall of Niligiri massif and Tilichho Peak hung ethereally over us as we trekked upward into the mountain sanctuary. The great white bulk of Dhaulagiri peak filled the horizon at our south, its familiar snow plume streaking off the summit like a flag. We were clearly on the Tibetan side of the Himalayas, although still within the political bounds of Nepal.
We saw only one other person on the trail that morning, an old man with a basketful of radishes for the Kesang Camp kitchen. A little brown Tibetan spaniel trotted at his side, keeping him company on an otherwise empty track.
Our host rode a small white Tibetan horse, which he reined in and rested frequently on the switchback trail, allowing us to keep pace afoot. From a small portable radio he carried we listened alternately to Kenny Rogers singing ballads, static from a Voice of America broadcast, and Kiev jazz from Radio Moscow.
On the trail in this otherwise vast mountain landscape we were mere tiny specks. The scrub-strewn brown canyons and arroyos were empty, arid, rocky and deeply eroded. A brisk chilled wind blew down on us off the peaks, and Himalayan griffon vultures soared gracefully on the thermals overhead.
In time we entered the sparsely forested Kesang mountain sanctuary, sweaty and tired from the steep climb. At the camp’s perimeter we were smartly saluted and passed into the compound by neatly uniformed Nepal Army sentries.
The silence with which we were greeted was uncanny. Where were the dogs, I wondered. We expected to hear their frenzied barking challenge, or to be “rushed” as unwelcome strangers. But nothing so dramatic or frightening happened. Rather, we saw four or five large dogs napping in the sun, at rest after their all-night vigil around the camp.
One large black dog was chained. Others were loose. The commander ordered several men to hold them as we passed. “They are not to be trusted with strangers,” he said, none too reassuringly.
Each dog raised its head and watched attentively, fully alert as we approached. None, however, seemed overly concerned at our presence. They surely recognized our host, his horse and the bridle bells, but detected no alarm in his manner, nor in ours.
Tibetan Mastiffs are rarely aggressive unless seriously provoked or badly abused and mistreated, by prolonged confinement or constantly chained, for example. Their behavior at Kesang, we noted, was typical. While we assumed that strange intruders would be summarily repulsed, as guests we were allowed in without any trouble, especially after being gently introduced by the dogs’ master. After a brief examination, visitors allowed in by the master are considered safe by the dogs. So much for the myth of the innately ferocious and uncontrollable Tibetan Mastiff.
Lata, one of the Kesang Camp dogs.
Before we could examine the camp dogs more closely, however, we were invited to the officers’ quarters to rest from the trek. It was a chance to catch our breath in the rarefied air (11,500 feet). It was then that I realized we were in the courtyard of the very temple I had seen years before. No longer a gomba, a Tibetan shrine for meditation and prayer, it was now the officer’s mess.
We were joined by several other officers, and as we sat in the courtyard in the warm sunshine drinking Star Beer from liter bottles, we chatted about sports, mountaineering, hunting and, ultimately, dogs. I asked them about the protective temperament of the big Kesang dogs. One officer replied that they are basically “night dogs.” That is the time when they roam the perimeter of the camp, repelling any two-legged strangers that might approach, and all four-legged marauders such as jackals and leopards. The officers also told us how the members of a German expedition had stumbled unexpectedly into the camp a few years earlier, after losing their way down out of the mountains. The dogs raised the alarm, and in the uproar the climbers beat a hasty retreat to a safer route.
From what we saw of their size and general conditions, the dogs seemed to be getting enough to eat – mostly leftovers from spicy rice, meat and vegetable curries. But quantity does not make up for quality. Under Nepal Army care, the dogs may have had plenty, but were probably not getting the high protein from meat and milk byproducts, nor the wheat and barley-based diet that their former Tibetan masters had fed them. That traditional diet, which the ancestors of these dogs had eaten for hundreds of generations, is not the same as what is available from the plates of their new masters from the lowlands.
The present generation of dogs appeared to us to have suffered as a result of the change in diet. Nutritional problems may account for the somewhat smaller than expected size of some of the dogs. Poor nutrition may also account for other problems, like the slightly splayed forelegs of one of the camp’s largest dogs. But, as neither of us was a veterinarian or nutrition specialist, we could only speculate.
When we heard about the camp’s breeding program we knew where the most serious problems were. The officers told us that they regularly gave away the best of each litter, and that they allowed the dogs to breed indiscriminately.
“That’s a mistake,” I said. “If you really want to improve breeding to produce better dogs, you’ll have to keep the best bitches and permit them to breed only with the best, most well-conformed males.”
They agreed, and the conversation turned to some of the faults and the favorable points in the dogs’ conformation. We spoke of such characteristics as color, size, voice and temperament or disposition. The camp officers knew generally what to look for, but had applied that knowledge haphazardly to breeding practices.
After talking, Lance and I went out to inspect and photograph the dogs. Several officers held the dogs while I measured each at the withers, and Lance took notes. Under the circumstances, however, we were unable to determine their weight.
We were most impressed with two large black males, one named Lata (it literally means “dumb” or “mute,” from lato in Nepali) and another named Kali (“Blacky,” from kalo, meaning “black”). They were heavily built dogs and strong-boned, each with a massive head and shoulder, a thick mane, a well-formed, broad muzzle with properly pendulous upper lips at the flews. The large head, solid blocky muzzle, heavy mane, broad, strong forebody and deep brisket are diagnostic of Tibetan Mastiffs. So is the deep, sonorous bark. But we never heard these dogs bark (though the dogs’ barks that I had heard during my earlier visit perfectly fit the description).
Kali and Lata were superb specimens. Their coats were thick and healthy to the look and the touch. We had no trouble handling them, after properly cautious introductions. Once they were roused from napping, they stood proud, noble and alert, and untroubled by our attentions.
Lata was chained, but not aggressive. He was coal black, with a white spot on his chest – the “white heart” so much desired on black dogs by the Tibetans. He stood 26 inches at the withers, about average according to international standards of the Fédération Cynologique Internationale (but slightly on the small side by the standards written later by American Tibetan Mastiff clubs). This strong five-year-old was father to Kali, his lookalike.
Kali was 12 months old, not fully mature. He was only 23 inches at the withers, but the rest of his looks more than made up for his youthful shortness. He was solid black and well proportioned with a thick coat, mane and full, bushy tail. Kali had free run of the camp, but seemed to prefer hanging around the officer’s mess, where he napped in the sun in front of the great wooden door.
Next we met the two bitches of the camp, four-year-old Kanchi (“Little Girl” or “Youngest Sister”) and one-year-old Julie. Both were quite small and did not impress us. They each stood only 21 inches at the shoulders. They were thin, and Julie, in particular, was ill-proportioned. Their generally low-protein diet of leftovers allowed for less than full potential in growth. Kanchi had good coloring, black with tan eye spots, and tan on her muzzle, chest, legs and vent. Julie was yellowish-gray, with light-colored facial markings and light spectacles or “mask” that reminded me of a Malamute’s face.
The fifth dog, Tiger, was led to us on a rope leash. He was considered dangerous, but displayed no aggression toward us. His battle scars attested to some ferocity in the past, however. He had clearly fought with other dogs and probably with jackals in the forest. We were even told that he had mated with a wild jackal – the stuff of legends.
Tiger was a poor example of a Tibetan Mastiff. His coloring was not good. His neck and back were light brown, accented by an even lighter undercoat and markings. His undersides were yellow-gray, and his muzzle was gray-white and marked like that of Julie, his daughter. Only Tiger’s size impressed us; he was 28½ inches at the withers, large by any standard. Nonetheless, we politely suggested that he be removed from the breeding pool of Kesang dogs. (Tiger may, in fact, have been descended from the Alsatian I had seen here 20 years earlier.)
The officers mentioned two other dogs of lower quality, but we did not see them. There was one more dog at Kesang, the patriarch of the camp, old Wangdi. We would see him, they said, after lunch.
The author's book, "Big Dogs of Tibet and the Himalayas," from which this article is excerpted.
Lunch was served in what had been the God Room of the former Buddhist temple, now the army officers’ mess. We sat with the officers at a large table in the center of a room filled with military memorabilia, medals and trophies of the regiment. Mountaineering equipment covered one wall – ice axes, pitons, crampons, ropes and other expedition gear. Silver cups, plaques and other awards from various competitions filled a case at one side that had once housed Tibetan sacred books. Pictures covered another wall, with the king and queen of Nepal in silver frames prominently at the center. A large cast-iron woodstove stood at the front of the room, a necessity on cold winter evenings.
We ate in the traditional Nepalese style – with our fingers, and with little conversation. We were served great quantities of boiled rice, curried vegetables and copious helpings of spiced meat in a thick sauce (wild goat that one of the soldiers had shot). The bones and leftovers all went to the dogs, particularly to Kali, who was called into the yard.
After eating, we gathered in the sunny courtyard once again to take our leave and bid farewell to our generous hosts. It was afternoon, and we had to start down for Jomsom now if we were to arrive back before dark.
As Lance and I were escorted back across the camp compound, we came across old Wangdi asleep on the flagstone path. In his prime, this big dog had been the best in the camp. He was black, now going to gray, with tan points. He was named after the last Tibetan guerrilla commander of Kesang Camp.
Legendary Wangdu-the-man was killed in September 1974 by the Royal Nepal Army as he tried to flee Nepal following the collapse of the Tibetan resistance movement. He was ambushed on Tinker-Lipu La, a high pass in far west Nepal near Saipal Himal. Wangdi-the-dog, however, was still alive, but old and lame, his formerly lustrous coat matted and ragged. A cyst-like growth protruded from his rump. The men tried to rouse this tired old dog, but he was uncooperative. We left him reclining in the sun.
Wangdi was probably whelped not long after the first big dogs were brought from Tibet to guard the camp. The descendants of those first dogs still guarded the mountain stronghold; but though they retained their dignity, their circumstances had changed dramatically. They looked to us like old nobility from a distant past – no longer enjoying the same respect they had commanded nor the prestige to which they were previously accustomed in old Tibet.
As we walked out of camp the dogs watched, but were as silent as when we had arrived.
Excerpted with permission from “Big Dogs of Tibet and the Himalayas” by Don Messerschmidt, Orchid Press, Bangkok, Thailand. To purchase, click here.
About the Author
Don Messerschmidt is an award-winning author and anthropologist. He has spent more than four decades studyin Tibetan Mastiffs in their natural setting (and has the scars to show for it). His long-time companion, Intl. Ch. Saipal Baron of Emodus ("Kalu"), can be found in the pedigrees of Tibetan Mastiffs in North America and Europe.
© Modern Molosser Magazine. This article may not be reposted, reprinted, rewritten, excerpted or otherwise duplicated in any medium without the express written permission of the publisher.
Fri, 10/27/2017 - 9:02pm