Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Himalayan earthquakes

Hardcore Tibetan Communist Raidi with Chinese Panchen Lama
Once upon a time, Raidi was a powerful Tibetan Communist cadre. He was the leader of the Nagchu clique, ruling over the Tibetan plateau.
Now, he is honorifically titled, vice chairman of the 10th Standing Committee of China's National People's Congress, but he is very old.
Nonetheless, he recently sent a letter to the Tibet Autonomous Region’s government to “express his sympathies for the victims of the recent earthquake, offer his condolences to the relatives of those injured or killed, and pay his respects to the relief workers.”
Raidi explains to his comrades in the Communist administration that Tibet being located in “an alpine area, the mountains are high, valleys are deep, and the geology is complex”.
Relief work is therefore very difficult: “In such a serious disaster, it is really not easy to have achieved such results in the phased earthquake relief efforts."
Nothing wrong. Raidi then speaks of the massive 8.6-magnitude earthquake on August 15, 1950, whose epicenter was located in Metok County (Dzong) and Zayul Dzong.
Raidi recalled that he was 12 years old at that time: “At the quake’s epicenter, there were landslides from the mountains and the ground opened up, and the Yarlung Tsangpo (Siang/Brahmaputra) was divided into four parts. Some villages were thrown on the opposite of the river and houses collapsed. Even places that were far from the epicenter, like Lhasa, Chamdo, and Nagchu, were also greatly affected. According to incomplete statistics from the time, more than 2,000 people were killed, countless people went missing, and the disaster area was covered in ruins.”
Now comes the ideological part of the letter: “Tibet was still ruled by the old Tibetan government. Led by the 14th Dalai Lama, not only did the government not care about the lives of common people, but they also increased several taxes.”
Raidi’s conclusion is: "There is a sharp contrast between the earthquake relief in Old Tibet and in New China. …this shows that only under the leadership of the CPC, in a socialist society can the Tibetan people have the confidence, courage, and ability to overcome any disaster and rebuild their homeland. Thus Tibet, especially those areas affected by the recent earthquake, will achieve leapfrog development and long-term stability.”
There is no doubt that the infrastructure is very different today from what it was in 1950. In Nepal too, it is far easier to bring food, supplies, warm cloths to those affected by the tragedy. In 1950, Lhasa, without speaking of Metok or Zayul, located north of the McMahon Line, had never an ‘iron birds’, helicopters or planes.
But to compare the rescue operations during the recent tragedy and the ones, 65 years ago is unbecoming of a former senior Communist cadre. Mr. Raidi should have kept quiet. He probably does not realize that the progress in infrastructure, roads, airfields, transportation have been planetary and due to the Communist Party only.
By the way, the Chinese Panchen Lama (also a Nagchu native) has personally donated 200,000 yuan(32,300 US dollars), for the quake-affected areas, “to show his sympathy for the needy people.”
I am wondering how, under a Communist dispensation, Lamas can become rich, like their predecessors in Old Tibet.
How do they get richly-endowed labrangs (estates) like in the past?
Buddha too must be wondering: is what I thought my monks.

The 1959 Earthquake
To give an idea of the devastating 1950 Earthquake, known in India as the ‘Assam Earthquake’, I post the report of the famous British botanist Kingdon-Ward.

(AUGUST 15, 1950) 

A vividly-written account of an unforgettable experience.
The Author is a well-known Himalayan explorer, and describes how, while camping near the Tibetan frontier, he and his wife narrowly escaped with their lives from the havoc wrought by one of the most violent earthquakes on record.
Finishing an entry in my diary, I shut it and lay back in the deck chair near the entrance to our tent. On the camp table beside me the hurricane-lamp burnt dimly; my wife was already in her cot, half asleep. I told myself I must soon put out the light and turn in; we were due to start off again early the following morning, and a good night’s rest was essential. First of all, however, I wanted to lie back and relax for ten minutes, enjoying the comparatively cool night air. The date was August 15th, 1950, the time about 8 p.m. and the place the wilds of Upper Assam.
Everything seemed very quiet. Now and then a dog barked in the village of Rima, away behind us, and I could just detect the muffled echo of the river as it entered a narrow part of the deep gorge. Occasionally an owl shrieked somewhere close by.
Suddenly, as I reclined there in a semi-doze, the chair on which I sat, the table, and finally the tent itself began to shiver. Aroused, my wife sat up in her cot. A split second later the whole valley appeared to be convulsed, and the air was filled with a loud roaring. Involuntarily I sprang to my feet.
“What on earth’s that?” I asked, startled, and thrust my head out between the tent-flaps.
The high mountains were silhouetted against a riband of clear, star-flecked sky, but their outlines, instead of being sharp and hard, were strangely fuzzy. Meanwhile noise continued, becoming louder even as I stared about me in bewilderment. Then the dread truth dawned on both of us but it was my wife who put it into words.
An earthquake the cried, now thoroughly awake and forth with leaped from her bed. “Outside –quick!”
I seized the lantern, with some vague idea of a fire risk, and together we rushed out into the most awful pandemonium. The turmoil was terrifying. Mingled with the dreadful sound of the tearing and shearing of the earth’s crust came the roar of mountains that were apparently tumbling downing every direction. It appeared as though the very arch of heaven was falling.
Directly we left the tent a violent tremor threw us to the ground, and we felt the earth beneath us bucking and heaving madly. Every moment I expected it to split open and precipitate us into some yawning figure. Great rocks were crashing from the mountainsides; dust rose like the smoke of some vast conflagration, blotting out the stars. Meanwhile a rain of gigantic hammer-blows thundered on the ground below; it seemed that it must soon be pulverized into fragments.
Too frightened to move, we lay where we had fallen, with the familiar world around us breaking up bodily. For quite five minutes—minutes as long as years—mountains and valleys shook, shivered, and trembled to the accompaniment of ear-splitting sounds of destruction. It is impossible to convey an adequate idea of our sensations or the impression of overmastering terror and utter helplessness in the face of stupendous disaster.
At last, however, the earth-tremors began to die away. Then, quite suddenly, there came a series of five explosions high in the sky; they followed one another, loud and distinct, at equal intervals of a few seconds. The detonations reminded me of anti-aircraft shells bursting round enemy planes, but their effect was very different. Abruptly the shaking of the ground ceased, the last boulders rumbled down the mountains, the splintering trees stood firm. Even the river—which had roared like a wild beast in pain throughout the cataclysm—became quieter. There could be no doubt the earthquake was over.
What caused that extraordinary “gunfire” is a complete mystery. The explosions were heard on the plains of Assam, two hundred miles away, where the soft earth “wobbled like a jelly” during the worst phases of the quake.
We rose slowly to our feet, thanked to be alive and unhurt, but not yet quite sure that we were. Had we passed through some terrible nightmare, or had it all really happened? It seemed hard to believe it was an actual experience—but there was the dust which filled the air and now began to settle, silently and impalpably. It was in our eyes, our ears, our mouths; already it was lining our lungs and forming a grey film on our faces. For days thereafter we were eating dust as well as breathing it!
The quake was mercifully over, but its dread aftermath was only just beginning. From the village came no sound of barking dogs, no shouting of men. Had all those poor souls been killed? Fortunately, this was not the case, for presently there strolled into our camp the familiar figure of a villager of our acquaintance—and he had a broad grin on his face! I envied his stolidity, in the midst of this tremendous calamity he still contrived to remain cheerful! The sight of that simple Hillman put new life and confidence into us, and especially into our two Sherpa boys, who had been badly frightened.
Our friend told us that the village had been badly damaged, despite the fact that the houses—massively built of logs resting on solid stone foundations—were only one storey high. By great good luck, however, nobody had been killed.
“Let’s have some tea,” suggested my wife; there was no thought of going back to bed again after such an awakening. The wood fire was still burning, and we re-lit the lanterns. The stream from which we drew our water was only a dozen yards from the cook-house and boys’ tent, and one of the Sherpas took the kettle and went off. Next moment he gave a shout of dismay, and we all rushed towards him to see what had happened. The brook, which two hours previously had flowed swiftly along its bed, was now nothing but a trickle. Even as we watched it grew smaller and smaller.
    “Quick!” I shouted. “Bring buckets, saucepans—anything!”
We filled a couple of kettles and a pail, but only with difficulty, for the trickle soon died away to a mere thread and, finally, intermittent drops. Our water supply had vanished, and there was nothing we could do about it!
    We sat around sipping tea and talking for an hour. We still felt slightly dazed; it seemed incredible that these mighty mountains, rising ten or twelve thousand feet above our heads—the village in the gorge was itself 5000 feet above sea-level—should have been in the grip of a force which shook them as a terrier shakes a rat. The previous day they had looked as solid and immovable as the Rock of Gibraltar; now they were riven and shattered, their rocky slopes disintegrating like sand-dunes in a breeze.
Inside our tent, curiously enough, everything appeared exactly as it had done before the quake. Nothing was broken, nothing disarranged, even the aluminium tent-poles had not Shifted! The knoll on which our little camp was pitched had withstood the terrific shaking and battering unharmed, moreover-very fortunately for us—it had not been in the line of descent of the falling rocks. Thousands of huge boulders, dislodged from the mountainsides by the violent tremors, had leaped, bounced, and rolled down the steep slopes, snapping off stout trees like match-sticks. Any one of these flying masses could have demolished our tents and swept them away, leaving nothing but rags and shattered corpses to mark the site. Yet we had emerged scatheless!
Though the disturbance was over, there was as yet no reassuring restfulness about our surroundings. Those adjustments of the earth’s crust which inevitably follow a severe earthquake-especially in regions so notoriously unstable as the mountains on the Assam frontier—had still to come. We were blissfully unaware of the fact at the moment, but these minor movements were destined to continue for months! In our state of nervous tension, in the dust and darkness of that night of terror, it was enough for us that, practically every half-hour, the tortured ground gave a convulsive shudder. Each of these tremors—some of hall a minute’s duration—was accompanied by a roaring sound, like a great wind, and by fresh rock-falls close at hand, either on the opposite side of the big Lohit River or on our own bank, close to the village and camp.
Not knowing the ways of major earthquakes—indeed, we were ignorant as yet that it was a major earthquake—we feared a repetition of the major shock, and before venturing to lie down on our beds again we made careful preparations for a rapid get-out if necessary. There was no sleep for any of us during the remainder of the night, although I believe I dozed off once or twice for half an hour.
Meanwhile, in England, California, South Africa, and almost every modern city in the world, seismographs had been registering the greatest upheaval of the earth’s crust since these delicate instruments were invented. As a matter of fact, seismographs thousands of miles distant had been thrown off balance; they either ceased to record or the tremendous oscillations extended beyond the limits of the graph paper. Within a few hours scientists were hard at work trying to decide in what part of the globe this terrific cataclysm had occurred, and later the newspapers announced that there had been an earthquake of great intensity somewhere in north-east India. Not for several days was the real magnitude of the disaster realized.
Its “epicenter,” according to American physicists, was in the south-eastern corner of Tibet, about twenty-five miles from the frontier with Assam. The ‘quake shook the whole of Upper Assam, two hundred miles away, and must also have done the same with a large area in Tibet, but as this region is almost uninhabited no record of what happened there has come to hand.
Dawn arrived at last, and we got up and looked outside once more. Things appeared more or less normal. A bird was singing sweetly; in a nearby field a small boy was shouting to scare birds off the ripening crops. Presently, from the village, there emerged a file of old women and young girls plodding out to work, as they had done every morning for months. We felt very thankful; evidently the world was nor completely topsy-turvy!
Nevertheless, the sun rose on a scene very different from that on which it had set the previous evening. The flanks of the mountains were mutilated and torn asunder, the wounds gleaming white as snow against the prevailing green of summer. The broad terraces that led step by step down to the river—many of them cultivated—were now corrugated and fissured with deep cracks, sometimes raised, sometimes downwards. The high river-bank itself had slipped in a hundred places, piling up mounds of gravel. The village, in its bower of trees, appeared to be in ruins. It was true that the stout main timbers of the twelve or fifteen log houses still held firm, but every roof had gone, and flimsier erections lay flat. Many of the hapless cattle and pigs, shut up in pens that had collapsed, lay dead or dying—a sad loss to their owners. The monastery building lay on its side, hurried clean off its foundations, and a bottle-shaped chorten (religious memorial) had been stripped to its core.
The most amazing sight of all, perhaps, was the Lohit River, now a wildly-tossing sea of liquid mud which had suddenly risen several feet. On its turbulent bosom it carried innumerable great tree-trunks, plunging and tossing amidst huge waves, dancing madly in the swirling eddies, and rushing headlong through the gorge. Literally millions of big trees must have been uprooted or smashed; they passed in endless procession. The stench of the mud was horrible.
No less wonderful, though on a smaller scale was the spectacle presented by the minor tributary which swept swiftly down from the Burma border to join the Lohit at Rima. The previous afternoon it had been crystal-clear; carefully choosing the right place, one could easily have waded across it. Now, like the Lohit, it was just liquid mud—the colour of coffee—laced with froth, and considerably deeper. Three mills housed to timber cabins along its bank in ruins the primitive cantilever bridge that spanned it was in grave danger of collapse and shaking like a leaf. I shouldn’t have cared to essay a crossing.
We learned later that on the plains of Assam, two or three hundred miles from where we were, the earth had swayed sickeningly and sagged in many places. Over a wide area several buildings had fallen, railway lines had snapped, bridges had been shattered, and roads had sunk. On the whole, however, direct damage had been comparatively slight. But the damage had been comparatively slight. But the floods resulting from the damming of rivers far away back in the mountains, long after the earthquake was over, eventually caused the death of hundreds of people by drowning.
So much for external matters; I will now return to our own position. Once it was fully light we were able to get a better idea of the havoc the ‘quake had wrought, but we still had no idea of its extent and intensity. As the sun rose over the mountain ridge the air began to heat up, and the usual daily wind swept through the river gorge. Loosened rocks started to fall again, and soon the shaken mountains were disgorging avalanches of gravel and boulders, which swept down their slopes to the accompaniment to rise from these rock slides, spread far and wide by the wind until the sun was veiled and the mountains across the river, only a mile away, appeared dimly outlined through the choking fog.
Meanwhile, every hour or so, there was a terrifying subterranean rumble, after which the ground shook for several seconds. These earth-tremors felt—and sounded—exactly as though an enourmous train were rushing through a tunnel just beneath our feet.
You will already have gathered that when all this happened my wife and I were far away from anything representing civilization. It was three weeks before we were able to cross the flooded river and start our difficult homeward journey. This was because the rope bridge across the impassable Lohit had been destroyed and—with the stream in gigantic flood—it proved impossible to replace it. Even then it was nearly three months, after a series of adventures, before we succeeded in getting out of the mountains and safely back to the plains. Here we discovered that our friends had been exceedingly anxious as to our fate; even the Home newspapers had indulged in speculation as to what had happened to us. We learned also, for the first time, that we had been at the very heart of one of the greatest earthquakes on record—and, luckily, survived uninjured to tell our story!
From the strictly scientific point of view, however, all that occurred was the sudden collapse of a relatively small block of the earth’s crust a few miles down. Possibly the fracture was several miles long, and one half of it slipped downwards, thus creating a geological “fault.” On the other hand, the roof of some vast subterranean cavern may have given way, thereby jarring the upper crust. Nobody knows for certain; it is just a matter of theory. At all events, whatever its cause, the displacement produced the awe-inspiring phenomenon I have endeavoured to describe, and which my wife and I will never forget.

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