On 5 August 1927, the philosopher-artist Nicholas Roerich (left) – who, amongst many other things, designed the sets and costumes for Igor Stavinsky’s infamous first 1913 performance of the Rite of Spring in Paris – was trekking in the Himalayas when he saw:
‘something remarkable! We were in our camp in the Kukunor [NE Tibet] district, not far from the Humboldt chain… some of our caravaneers noticed a remarkably big black eagle flying above us. Seven of us began to watch this unusual bird. At the same moment another of our caravaneers remarked: ‘there is something far above the bird,’ and he shouted his astonishment. We all saw, in the direction north to south, something big and shiny reflecting sun, like a huge oval moving at great speed. Crossing our camp this thing changed in its direction from south to southwest, and we saw how it disappeared in the intense blue sky. We even had time to take our field glasses and saw quite distinctly the oval form with the shiny surface, one side of which was brilliant from the sun.’ Altai-Himalaya (1929)
UFOs hadn’t been invented yet, but Roerich’s sighting is a classic by any other name, often appearing in the literature as evidence of pre-Arnold anomalous airborne activity, while contributing to the painter’s otherworldly aura.
While I was poring through Leon Davidson’s CIA and the Saucers, an appendix of articles contained in later editions of Project Blue Book Special Report 14, I found this interesting titbit that would seem to provide a reasonable explanation for Roerich’s object…
In August 1927, the Swedish explorer Sven Hedin was leading an epic Sino-Swedish expedition that spent eight years exploring Mongolia and Western China. In his account of the expedition, Across the Gobi Desert (1932), Hedin describes launching 350 weather balloons over the course of the trip, including some around the time of Roerich’s sighting. Hedin takes great pleasure in noting the looks of awe on the faces of two hardy, weather-beaten Mongols as they watched one of the balloons being launched: ‘they stood speechless and stared after the bright ball till it could only be seen with field glasses’.
One can imagine a similar sense of wonder spreading amongst Roerich’s team as they viewed their own shiny object, and a stray balloon from the Hedin expedition would seem to present a parsimonious explanation for Roerich’s UFO.
However, in his own assessment of the Hedin-Roerich connection, UFO researcher Brad Sparks finds the correlation dubious. He argues that the size of the balloons – apparently only 4ft across – hardly matches Roerich’s description of his object as ‘big’, and that the two expeditions would have to be within a mile of each other for Roerich to have seen one of Hedin’s balloons.
But any one of the Sino-Swedish team’s many balloons may have drifted into Roerich’s field of vision, even some miles away, while his group’s judgement of size could have been way-off given the difficulty of making accurate measurements against a clear sky. We might wonder whether the awe felt by the witnesses might also have led them to misinterpret the size of the object that he saw.
We’ll never know the answer to this one, but given the number of balloons launched by Hedin, and the teams’ relative proximity to each other, I’d tend towards a coincidental sighting of a weather balloon before leaping off a Himalayan precipice into the unknown.