The High Road To China: George Bogel, The Panchen Lama and the First British Expedition to Tibet

Written by Kate Teltscher
Review by Lucinda Byatt

This is an extraordinary tale of a young Glaswegian, George Bogle, who developed a genuine friendship with the incarnation of the Buddha of Boundless Light, aka the Panchen Lama. It is also a remarkable account of a journey into unknown territory – the only map he was given of Tibet was based on sketchy information gathered by Jesuit missionaries. The purpose of his unprecedented endeavour was to find a ‘high road’ to China via Tibet and to establish British trade relations with the impenetrable court of Imperial China, ruled over by the Qianlong Emperor.

                Bogle had arrived in Calcutta in 1770 as a lowly clerk but within four years he had won the trust of the Governor Warren Hastings and in 1774 he was appointed to accompany Purangir, a travelling Hindu monk who was acting as a Lama’s envoy on a daring mission northwards. Both Hastings and Bogle were interested in genuine trade, diplomatic relations and social observation. Bogle was an acute observer and an assiduous and gifted diarist and letter writer. Based on this unique testimony, Kate Teltscher’s outstanding account offers a lively and vivid insight into the workings and failures of the early British empire as well as an extraordinary description of Tibetan life as ‘a mountain stronghold of innocent happiness’, an image that laid the foundations for the myth of Shangri-La.