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Monk Chants

Recorded on August 20, 1995, at the Rinchenpung Monastery. Symbolically Vajrayogini’s naval, the gompa houses a statue of Rang Rig Gyapo - the king of self-awareness and the wrathful emanation of Padmasambhava. The monk chants are an invocation to this meditation deity to protect all sentient beings from the consequences of their own misguided behavior.

1994
“First Trip to Tibet’s Hidden Lands”
The Drive to Pelung

1 1994 TG Troy Gil front of Monastery

We use footnotes throughout the book to describe subjects that support the narrative. When relevant in the Blog Posts, I will include them at the end giving the reader the option to review them or not at his or her discretion.

See Footnote: “Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo - Geology”

In high spirits we loaded back into the land cruisers and headed out. The drive would be a three day, 270 mile slog on primitive roads. Our route would loosely follow the Yarlung Tsangpo River to the apex of its horseshoe bend. These dirt road ramblings into and out of Tibet’s Hidden Lands took their toll on both the passengers and vehicles. The land cruisers were all prematurely old – with suspension long since collapsed. This applied to both the shocks and seat cushions. You literally felt every jarring bump as it reverberated throughout your skeletal system. The roads were terrible. Every now and then you’d hit a hole so hard it would launch your cranium into the roof. And it went on hour after hour after torturous hour.

There were meltdowns on these drives. Occasionally someone would snap and you’d see a convoy vehicle slam on its breaks. Following a string of expletives an irate passenger would hurdle out the door with a death grip on his or her lower back or concussed skull. Seriously, it was brutal.

Also, on the land cruisers everything had shaken loose. Streams of fine dust poured in the countless gaps and cracks coating passengers and baggage. You could taste the grit in your teeth. Sometimes it made mud. On long days everyone ended up looking raccoon-ish with grime caked faces. And the rattle traps were deafening as we clamored down the washboarded roads.

Equally challenging were the occasional mud bogs. We were heading east into one of the wettest regions on the planet. Many times when driving a flooded road the land cruisers would sink to their axels. Hopelessly stuck, we would all pile out, slosh through the muck to lock the hubs into four-wheel drive and push the truck out of the mire. Invariably, when the wheels gained purchase the driver would gun it spackling each of us with mud from head to toe.

2 1994 TG Truck Stuck in Mud On Drive In
The drive to Pelung was rife with obstacles. The days seemed endless.

Top that off with the god-forsaken, Chinese government sponsored “hotels” where we were forced to stay. The lice, fleas and rat-infested rooms with their bare, multi-stained mattresses were one thing – but the bathrooms were truly deplorable. The stench and filth were so wretched that many times we simply couldn’t go in.

Then there was the in-transit food. It was a standing joke that not a single chicken breast existed in the country of Tibet. We’d get the head or feet. On a good day an emaciated wing – but never a breast. There were other unrecognizable meats appearing out of dirty back room kitchens. We’d pass on those.

You earned your trips to the Hidden Lands.

It was about a fifty mile drive to our evening’s destination – a riverside village named Nang. Along the way we saw no less than forty destroyed monasteries. It was tragic. Even the rubble contained ancient Buddhist frescoes and whispers of original grandeur. The Chinese invasion took a tremendous toll on Tibet and its primeval culture.

See Footnote: “China’s Invasion of Tibet

Once in Nang our assigned hotel was squalid. They packed eight of us in one room. The toilets didn’t work and there was no water. Troy, Rick and I talked a driver into shuttling us down to the river for a bath. While the others had dinner in town, Troy and I cooked bean burritos in the room. They were delicious. Following that we struck out for a beer.

It was crazy. In these rural areas in the 1990’s we were rock stars. Everywhere people gathered and stared. And not just a few people. Throngs of gawkers would follow us through town studying our every move. And the further into the outback the more intense this scrutiny became. In the tribal villages we’d awake to twenty people staring into our tent watching us sleep.

Once out to the road we saw a row of matchbox restaurants. A swarm of Tibetan kids were peering in one of the windows. “That must be our group.” Troy said.

It was. They were just finishing up. We joined them for a couple of luke-warm beers and then headed back to the hotel and went to bed. Our cotton liners were no match for the onslaught of fleas and crawling mites.

The next morning, May 17th, we didn’t bother with breakfast. It would be an all day, 150 mile hammering to that night’s layover in the military town of Bayi. It was sunny and Troy and I made a critical mistake. We wore shorts. Nobody wears shorts in Tibet. This didn’t help with the unwanted attention.

Grinding out of town Rick told us that significant to the day’s travel was our route along the Yarlung Tsangpo’s Valley of the Kings. This was Tibet’s cradle of civilization dating back 11,000 years. The dramatic drive was full of tattling ruins revealing stories of ancient, though sophisticated, societies.

3 1994 Yaks Plowing Field
On our long drive we experienced a traditional Tibet that is fast disappearing.
Note: The Tibetans we encountered in rural areas were always smiling.

4 1994 TG Troy in Front of Yak Hair Herder Tent
Nomadic herders and their Yak hair tents.

5 1994 TG Troy Above Valley New Tengri
A late afternoon hike afforded tremendous valley views.
A welcome break from the battering land cruisers

Towards the end of the day we would be entering Tibet’s, fabled Kong Po region. The China National Tourism Administration refers to this scenic area as the “Switzerland of Tibet”. Due to the wetter climate, Kong Po is a botanical powerhouse. Summer months find the valley carpeted vibrantly yellow in full bloom rapeseed fields. At an elevation of 10,000 feet, the region is home to forests of cypress trees – some dating back 2500 years (as old as Buddha himself). In addition, Kong Po is a stronghold for Tibet’s pre-Buddhist Bön religion. Many of the religion’s most holy pilgrimage sites are found in the forested hills around Bayi.

See Footnote: “Bön & Buddhism in Tibet”

Bouncing along lost in thought, I noticed a golden roof off to our right. I asked the driver if we could go there. He pulled up the road and coasted into a courtyard. It was a secluded monastery tucked away on a hill. We found the priest and he let us in. He told us this was the Buchusergila Khang Temple. Originally built in the seventh century it was one of Tibet’s oldest. On either side of the entrance were two huge prayer wheels, probably twelve feet high and I would guess eight feet around. Each had a gear on its base with a leather strap. Two wrinkled crones in traditional Tibetan chubas (ankle-length, woolen robes) were sitting on the floor and tugging on the straps, spinning the super-sized prayer wheels round and round and round. All the while they recited Buddhist mantras. They did this all day.

I knew there were sacred syllables and all that. But the scene reminded me of a Dalai Lama interview. When asked about this practice he pragmatically answered, “Well, at least when they are reciting mantras their minds aren’t scheming misdeeds.”

There was an off limits inner-sanctum. Ten yuan handled that. The priest unlocked the huge wooden doors. They creaked as he muscled them apart. Inside were hundreds of burning yak butter candles with occasional streams of light finding their way through sooty windows. The rancid aroma was thick. It was so dark that we couldn’t make out the statued images. But they felt old. Three Om-Ah-Hums and we turned and walked back into the stabbing, high-altitude sunlight.

The monastery was ringed with 100 smaller brass prayer wheels. They stood about a foot high each and were mounted – waist high – in the perimeter wall. There were a few pilgrims spinning the gold colored cylinders. Troy and I jumped in and spun every single one. After our river adventure we were thankful – very thankful.

Rattling down the road we crested a hill and sighted a distant scab melded into the pristine landscape. It jumped out at us. It was an injury. It was the sterile Chinese town of Bayi. We checked into a government sponsored hotel, moved our stuff into the rooms and were then told we had to leave because we were foreigners. Our next option was a four-storied, cement block government hotel that didn’t have bathrooms. When we asked the Chinese manager in the sweat stained t-shirt with the cigarette dangling sideways out his mouth, he just shrugged and directed us to the back lot. Here we found a mine field of human feces. Troy and I were staying on the top floor so we just did our business on the roof. And we weren’t the first ones to think of that.

Troy Gillenwater’s 1994 journal notes:

We walked through Bayi. It’s a typical Chinese frontier town: dirty, bleak, architecturally bland, disheartening. All the buildings look identical whether they’re brand new or decades old. They’re little more than rectangular concrete shells with blue or purple tinted glass, and shiny metallic monikers across the transoms. It’s atrocious really, like an architecturally castrated Las Vegas. The Chinese don’t smile. The rain drizzles. Meanwhile in the streets, frontier Tibetans wearing skins and brightly colored Chubas walk wide-eyed at the bustling activity of the biggest city many of them will ever see. I could sit and admire these Tibetans all day long. They smile constantly. Their faces, radiant and expressive, belie an inner tranquility that weaves a common thread through their entire culture. Quite different, I must say, than their Chinese neighbors.

Bayi was a military town. No photos allowed. This concrete conglomeration exemplified China’s relocation policy. As explained by the locals, the absorption policy for Tibet was designed to render the Tibetans a minority in their own land. By offering inviting monetary incentives for Han Chinese to relocate to these remote areas, the interlopers flocked by the thousands – by the hundreds of thousands.

Note: In 2006 China completed the final 710 mile section of a 1,215 mile railway between Beijing and Lhasa. This high-altitude train reaches Himalayan elevations over 16,000 feet and can transport up to 1000 relocating passengers per run.

The strategy achieved its desired results. But the human consequences were abominable. The native village people were by and large illiterate. They were drawn to these newly established Chinese outposts by the lure of television, alcohol, prostitution and all the worst that frontier cities have to offer. The Tibetans were soon relegated to the lowest rung on the social ladder. They were treated terribly by their new neighbors. We witnessed several beatings and public humiliations.

And while it was hard to watch – it’s an age-old story for native peoples – a savage evolutionary scenario. One need look no further than our own country of America to see the same pattern of occupation and how it played out for the indigenous.

Equally as miserable, most of the Chinese we met had come from large bustling cities. Suddenly they found themselves isolated and bored to tears in these disconnected territorial settlements. Apathy and alcoholism were rampant.

They just weren’t happy places.

That night we ate part of a dead duck, some fried pig’s ears and other greasy food that we couldn’t identify. Eric liked the pig ears.

Driving out of Bayi the next morning, Troy and I could never have imagined that in three years we would be back in this same military city in the Public Security Bureau (PSB) police station under arrest.

Footnotes

Footnote: “Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo - Geology”

To truly appreciate the magnificence of southeastern Tibet’s, Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo it helps to have a basic understanding of its genesis. Geologic theory estimates that 225 million years ago a huge chunk of land, which is now India, broke from an early continent near present day Australia. It began drifting north at a rate of between 3 to 6 inches per year. As it plowed its way across the sea it collected massive sheets of rock. Around 50 million years ago it rammed into Asia. The collision caused the earth’s crust to thicken to twice its normal size - to around 50 miles. The Himalayas were born.

These mountains rose to a height of nearly 30,000 feet. Today the 1,500 mile long Himalayan range demarcates the collision crease between India and Asia. The movement of continental India is still grinding forward at approximately 2.5 inches per year. Scientists project that over the next 10 million years India will surge a further 1,000 miles into Asia. This planetary crunch is forcing the mountains upwards almost a half an inch per year.

Due to their lofty height, the Himalayas are the third largest deposit of ice and snow in the world, after Antarctica and the Arctic.

This ongoing geologic movement generates frenetic seismic actively. The 1950 Assam-Tibet earthquake measured 8.6 on the Richter scale and was the strongest recorded as of that date. The epicenter was directly beneath the “Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo”. Smaller earthquakes, landslides and earth fissuring plague the area to this day. The locals refer to the region as “tremor land”. Maintaining passable roads and trails is an ongoing effort.

India’s continued northward continental drift is warped by compounding lateral tensions. These counter torsions have created a "thrust-pivot point" whereby the earth’s surface is pleated and bent back upon itself like a geologic gymnast. Easily recognized on modern maps as the horseshoe shaped “Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo”, this pivot point is the heart of the Hidden Lands. It contains the deepest gorge in the world - 19,714 feet (almost 4 miles). Comparing this to the southwest United States, Grand Canyon’s depth of 6,093 feet helps put its immensity in perspective.

In 1993 the Guinness Book of World Records recognized the inner gorge of the “Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo” as the deepest in the world.

As of 1994, there was still a four mile segment of the inner gorge that had not been explored. This four mile segment was rumored to harbor the fabled “Lost Falls of the Brahmaputra.

Footnote: “China's Invasion of Tibet”

Since the beginning of the Dalai Lama lineage in 1642, Tibet has operated as a theocracy with the seated Dalai Lama as its ruler. The current Dalai Lama is recognized as the 14th reincarnation. (The first four Dalai Lama’s were identified posthumously.) Under this governance the country became religiously top-heavy. One out of three Tibetans was a socially dependent monk.

Five main Buddhist monasteries housed the majority of Tibet’s monastic population. The monasteries also owned the majority of the agricultural land. To grow sufficient food to support the substantial religious population, a feudal system of serfdom was established essentially enslaving the general citizenry. With practically all of its resources invested in maintaining its religion, the country had no military.

While the Dalai Lama conducted Buddhist affairs on high - from one of the world’s greatest castles - the Potala, the secular officials also led privileged lives. Not wanting to disrupt their affluent lifestyles, this elite religious and temporal bureaucracy adopted an isolationist governmental policy. This coupled with Tibet’s rugged and virtually impassable frozen boundaries served to politically and geographically "close" the country.

This isolationist posture prevented Tibet from formulating outside alliances. With no international coalitions and no military, the resource rich Tibet was ripe for invasion. 

On October 7, 1950, forty thousand troops from Communist China's, People's Liberation Army crossed the Yangtze River and entered Tibet in the eastern province of Kham. This Chinese presence insidiously worked its way into a full scale invasion. The Communist Chinese couched their invasion as a “liberation” of the Tibetan people from the serfdom imposed by the existing theocracy. By 1959 Tibet was locked under Chinese rule. In 1965 the country was restructured as the Tibetan Autonomous Region. Two-thirds of its original territory was absorbed into existing Chinese provinces. This Chinese invasion took a terrible toll on the Tibetan people and their ancient culture. An estimated one million were murdered. (One out of five of the country's entire population.) All evidence of Buddhism was eradicated in an effort to spread the ideas of Marxist atheism.

Of Tibet's 30,000 monasteries, all but nine were desecrated, looted and destroyed. The scale of exploitation, destruction and human suffering is incalculable. As reported by refugees, thousands of monks and nuns were crucified, vivisected, burned alive or had their tongues pulled out for verbalizing faith in the Dalai Lama. Men and women were publicly tortured to death or driven to suicide to escape the horror and humiliation. As stated in a July 25, 1959 report prepared by the International Commission of Jurists Legal Inquiry Committee:

"It would seem difficult to recall a case in which ruthless suppression of man's essential dignity had been more systematically carried out."

In the 1980's the Chinese adopted a more liberal attitude towards Buddhism in accordance with a nationwide policy of ending suppression of organized religion. With the profit motive of creating "cultural relics" to increase the tourist industry, the Chinese government began allowing certain of the ancient monasteries to be restored and in some cases rebuilt.

Footnote: “Bön & Buddhism in Tibet”

Tibetan origination theory can seem a bit odd to those in the West. They believe the Buddha of compassion - Chenrezig - sent his disciple, a holy monkey, to be a hermit in the Himalayas. While meditating in his cave the monkey heard an ogress crying. He took pity on her loneliness and married her. Their offspring are the Tibetan people. The early Tibetans practiced the Bön religion, a faith filled with demons and magic. They believed their first kings descended from the sky. This belief in heavenly descension played a pivotal role for Troy and me on our 1997 expedition. 

Recorded history in Tibet began in the 7th century AD with the reign of a young warrior king - Songtsen Gampo. He was the 33rd successor of the Yarlung dynasty and he unified all Tibet. He moved the capital of Tibet from Tsethang northwest to Lhasa. He established an alliance with both China and Nepal by marrying a princess from each country. (He also had three Tibetan wives.) The two foreign princesses, both Buddhists, converted the king from the hostile Bön faith to compassion-based Buddhism. The king built the first Potala in Lhasa as a fortress to house his wives. He also built the Jokhang to display the gold Buddha his Chinese wife - Princess Wencheng - brought as part of her dowry. To this day the Jokhang is Tibet’s most sacred temple housing its most hallowed object - the golden Buddha. This 1,400 year old statue is considered so holy that even the Red Guard vandals did not harm it during the 1950 Communist Chinese invasion.

As with any life-altering change, many Tibetans first regarded Buddhism as a foreign religion and were reluctant practitioners. In response, in 747 AD, the 38th king of the Yarlung dynasty invited a tantric sage from India, Padmasambhava (the “Lotus-Born”, also known as Guru Rinpoche), to travel to Tibet and help with the dissemination and acceptance of Buddhism. Padmasambhava handled the task masterfully by incorporating many of the indigenous Bön principles and deities into the Buddhist philosophy.

In this way Buddhism absorbed the supernatural Bön religion and reinterpreted it more in line with the Buddhist concepts of interconnectedness and compassion. Padmasambhava transformed hostile powers into guardians. This explains the existence of many of Tibetan Buddhism's modern day wrathful deities that are in reality "carry overs" from the early Bön religion.

Padmasambhava's teachings deepened the people's understanding of the mind’s ability to shape reality. Their dualistic view of a separate environment to be feared and propitiated was remolded into an interdependent sense of reverence and guardianship.

Padmasambhava successfully introduced Vajrayana (Tantric) Buddhism to the "Land of the Snows" and laid the foundation for the Nyingma tradition. The result was a hybrid Buddhism uniquely known as “Tibetan Buddhism”.

Interestingly, the Western world’s recent discovery of the brain’s “neuroplasticity” has been known and practiced in Tibetan Buddhism for well over 2,000 years. It’s at the very heart of the teachings. The Tibetan term used is “le-su-rung-wa” which loosely translates to “pliability”. It’s the capacity to replace old neuronal connections with new ones. In this way we can rewire our minds so they can better shape our physical reality. This is the “method” or “technique” the Tibetan Buddhists utilize to eliminate negative mental habits and replace them with positive ones. This is how we can work with our minds to create our happiness.

1994
Foreign Travel in Tibet
Exploration of Tibet's "Hidden Lands”

Overview Map copy

So we made it off the river and out of the Upper Granite Gorge. Four years later, in 1998, a Chinese team rafted the Yarlung Tsangpo River approximately 1000 miles across Tibet to the village of Pei (just before the large elevation drops of the Great Bend). However, the rafters were forced to portage the Upper Granite Gorge citing the fifty mile stretch of Class 5 whitewater as un-runnable.

In Peter Winn’s “First Descents of the Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibet” (http://www.shangri-la-river-expeditions.com/1stdes/yarlung/yarlung.html) he states the following:

History of the Gyatse Gorge (a.k.a. the Upper Granite Gorge) of the Yarlung Tsangpo River in SE Tibet.

The Gyatse Gorge is a fifty mile stretch of Class 5 whitewater located between Sangri and Gyatse. 

In 1994, Troy and Gil Gillenwater, Rick Fisher and Eric Manthey completed the first descent of the upper 15 miles of this 50 mile roadless canyon, from near Sangri (29.251N, 92.027E) to Sangzhuling (29.252N, 92.219E), using a paddle raft. After portaging several rapids, they abandoned their raft and hiked 35 miles to their planned takeout at Gyatse.

In 2007, a team organized by Windhorse Adventures (Willy Kern, Jed & Peter Weingarten and Tracey Bowerman) completed the first descent of last 35 miles of this 50 mile roadless canyon (the Gyatse Gorge a.k.a. the Upper Granite Gorge) from near Sangzhuling (29.252N, 92.219E) to Gyatse 29.140N, 92.601E), using kayaks.

They had to portage so many rapids that Gyatse Gorge is not a good repeat run.

We were lucky to get off the river and out of the gorge alive. Since our first descent rafting attempt the Yarlung Tsangpo has claimed the lives of several world class river runners. Most notable was Doug Gordon, a former U.S. Whitewater Kayak Slalom Team member who died on the river in 1998. Neither his kayak nor his body were ever found. (We cover this tragedy in the book.)

Note:

In this Blog Post we stray from the narrative and provide some background on the area. To better understand the Blog Posts that follow the stories need to be told in context of the geography and history of this last unexplored place on earth.

Today the inner gorge of the Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo is once again closed to outside travel. The Communist Chinese have three massive hydro-electric damns planned for the gorge. All the local Monpa, Lopa and Khampa tribesmen have been relocated out of their homeland. Paved roads now lead to such outposts as Medog. And tourist hotels now stand on sites where we pitched our tent. Ours was a time and a place now lost forever. We were so fortunate to have had these raw experiences. And we feel fortunate to be able to share them with you here.

5 122a 1994 Gil Troy Monk

We will begin this account just before we left off in the March 14, 2018, Blog Post:

Rick reached out and shook each of our hands and said, “How does it feel to be the first to raft the world’s highest river?” 

Troy and I looked at each other knowingly. It was a little more adventure than either of us had bargained for. Yet, having survived, it was priceless.

“It feels great Rick… fantastically great!”

Soon we were ready for the second stage of our trip - finding the “Lost Falls of the Brahmaputra”. This would be Troy’s and my first journey into what was being called the “Hidden Lands of the Blossoming Lotus” or simply the “Hidden Lands”.

We knew so little about Tibet when we decided to go there. We’d never heard of the Hidden Lands or Pemako or even the world’s highest river. I knew that two of my favorite teachers were born there, Chögyam Trungpa and His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama. Besides that we had this vague notion of a primitive land somehow forgotten by time. We were aware that foreign travel had been restricted for decades but that in the early 1990’s it was beginning to loosen. 

The mystery of the place held its own allure. We were to later learn that, historically, Tibet’s geographic location as the “Rooftop of the World” was the primary reason people didn’t go there. But we also learned that a large part of Tibet’s isolation was self-induced. Tibetan officials simply forbade what they saw as foreign interlopers. Politically they had no desire to be colonized by Britain or Russia - two big players in the nineteenth century’s “Great Game” of expansionism. This "isolationist" governmental policy coupled with the rugged and virtually impassable frozen boundaries served to politically and geographically "close" the country to outside travel.

Consequently, in the nineteenth century almost nothing was known about the “Land of the Snows”. In 1858 the British colonized India. The success of this grab fostered an eager financial interest in knowing what lay just to the north - in Tibet. To penetrate this “closed” territory, in 1863 Britain began training surveyor-spies to work undercover disguised as Buddhist pilgrims. These explorer-spies were charged with secretly mapping the forbidden frontiers as part of the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India.

Of particular interest was the actual route of one of Asia’s major waterways - the Yarlung Tsangpo River. It was well known that the river traveled eastward across the southern Tibetan plateau paralleling the Himalayas at an average elevation of 13,000 feet. But that was it. The West knew nothing of unexplored eastern Tibet and could only speculate as to the course of the river. Did it continue east to become the Irrawaddy River? Did it flow into the Yangtze, Mekong or Salween rivers? Or, unfathomably still, could it travel through the Himalayas and plunge off the Tibetan plateau to become the Brahmaputra River? This last option was spell binding. The Brahmaputra flowed west across the hills and plains of Assam at an average elevation of only 1,000 feet above sea level. For the Tsangpo to become the Brahmaputra would require a drop of more than 12,000 feet. Should this be the case, there had to be a hidden waterfall to rival all waterfalls. Explorers’ minds reeled with the possibility of discovering another Niagara Falls or even Victoria Falls. This conundrum was known as the “Riddle of the Yarlung Tsangpo”.

In 1878, Britain’s Survey of India sent two undercover surveyor-spies, Nem Singh, a lama from Darjeeling, and his assistant, a Mongolian lama named Kinthup, to solve this last great mapping mystery. Their efforts uncovered 300 more miles of the Yarlung Tsangpo River. As it turned out, Kinthup pushed on another 40 miles further to just below Pemakochung where the gorge became almost impassable. Undaunted, he continued but was turned back by the warring Abhor tribal people. But not before purportedly seeing a distant waterfall he estimated at 150 feet high. Following Kinthup’s return from the Tsangpo gorges, “The Falls of the Sangpo” as they were then labeled, were placed on the Survey map. This story fueled the legend of a monstrous waterfall. The possibility of an undiscovered cataract spurred the outside world’s interest in exploring the Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo. While Kinthup didn’t definitively solve the river riddle, he paved the way for others to do so. 

It’s a fascinating account and Troy and I knew nothing of it until our forays into Tibet. 

By the beginning of the twentieth century fewer than a handful of Westerners had managed to visit Tibet’s capital Lhasa, known as the "Forbidden City". This "seclusion” of Tibet from the rest of the world gave it an aura of intrigue. This was further fueled by fantastical tales of Shangri La and Shambhala - lost paradises of sanctuary and enlightenment. 

Unfortunately, this isolationist attitude prevented Tibet from fostering outside allies. With practically all of its resources going into maintaining its religion (one out of three Tibetans was a socially dependent monk), the country was supported by feudal serfdom and had no military. This left Tibet ripe for invasion by Britain in the early 1900’s and again by the Communist Chinese in the mid - 1900’s.

In 1904, a British invasionary force led by Lieutenant Colonel Francis Younghusband reached Lhasa. Under the pretense of preventing Russia’s expansion into Central Asia, Younghusband’s troops attacked. Well trained and armed with state-of-the-art Maxim guns (machine guns) and Enfield rifles (repeating rifles) they confronted hundreds of disorganized monks wielding farm implements, swords and antiquated flintlocks. It was an unnecessary bloodbath. An estimated 5,000 Tibetans were killed during the campaign. Five British soldiers were reported killed.

The British awarded themselves a “war medal” and imposed a treaty - the heart of which reads below - and then they withdrew. 

    Without British consent, no Tibetan territory to be ceded, leased, etc. to be given, and no Tibetan revenues to be pledged to a Foreign Power or to any of its subjects. No such Power to be permitted to intervene in Tibetan affairs, or to send Agents to Tibet.*

    *Charles, Bell (1992). Tibet Past and Present. CUP Motilal Banarsidass Publ. p. 68. ISBN 81-208-1048-1.

Younghusband returned to Britain with such regret that he devoted the remainder of his life to spiritual pursuits.

The British invasion further strengthen Tibet’s resolve to isolate itself from evil outside influences. Upon their invader’s exit the “Forbidden City” became forbidden once more.

Yet the die had been cast. In this “Age of Exploration” the draw to solve the “Riddle of the Yarlung Tsangpo” was magnetic and this area of Tibet became the central focus. But, in addition to the country’s “closed” policy, would-be-explorers faced three additional and formidable obstacles.

2 113 1994 Himalayan Fly Over

Tibet is geographically isolated due to the 1,500 mile long Himalayan mountain range as its front door and the desolate 15,000 foot high, one million square mile, frozen Tibetan Plateau as its back door. 

In addition, southeastern Tibet is one of the wettest places on earth. Constant rain and floods were effective repellents to even the hardiest explorers. 

The other effective repellent was Tribal. For hundreds of years aboriginal Abor (Hill People) and Mishimi (Not Civilized) tribes straddled the southeastern frontier of Tibet. Fiercely territorial, these tribes attacked all who attempted to enter the Hidden Lands. In addition, their descendants, the indigenous Monpas of the upper gorge and the Lopas of the lower gorge, possessed the same xenophobic and aggressive attitude. “Poison Cults” flourished. Several early explorers were murdered and three British military incursions were defeated and chased out of the country, further isolating the area.

In spite of these life threatening dangers, man’s lust for exploration continued. In the early 1900’s there were three additional clandestine ventures into the Hidden Lands that deserve mention.

In 1913, Frederick Bailey and Henry Morshead, both British and former members of the Survey of India’s, Abor Expedition, left for an unsanctioned six month search for the “Lost Falls of the Brahmaputra”. Their plan was to retrace the footsteps of Kinthup. In a conversation Bailey had with the Nyerpa (local headsman) from Pome (near the start of our 1995 and 1997 expeditions), he tells of his ambition:

“Then I told him of the curiosity of our people in whether there were great falls on the Tsangpo… ”*

    *Bailey, Frederick No Passport to Tibet, pg. 91.

Bailey and Morshead’s eventful gallivant included documenting both the Gyala Peri and Namcha Barwa peaks and adding an additional two hundred miles of the Yarlung Tsangpo River onto the map. Having pushed some ten miles farther downriver than Kinthup, this left only fifty miles of the elusive inner gorge unexplored. However, their greatest contribution was proving once and for all that the Yarlung Tsangpo and the Brahmaputra were, indeed, the same river.

In 1924 two more Englishmen ventured into the gorge. This was an exploratory-botanical mission undertaken by Francis Kingdon-Ward and Lord Jack Cawdor, the Fifth Earl of Cawdor. Their plan was two fold; to botanize and collect rare plant seeds, and to discover the “Lost Falls of the Brahmaputra”. Kingdon-Ward wrote a spell binding recount, “The Riddle of the Tsangpo Gorges”. In the book he tells, “There remained a gap of fifty miles more or less, about which absolutely nothing was known.” Kingdon-Ward and Jack Cawdor’s 1924 expedition discovered the forty foot high “Rainbow Falls” and narrowed this gap down to about five miles. However, the “Lost Falls of the Brahmaputra” eluded them.

3 10a 1995 Pemako Chimdro Vajrayogini Waterfall

In 1947 two more British botanists, George Ludlow and Colonel Henry Elliot made a dash into the gorge to below Gyala on a seed collecting venture. Dazzled by the diversity and raw beauty of the area, they vowed to further explore the gorge the following year. However, when that time came, Lhasa officials were worried about the impending Communist Chinese “liberation” of Tibet and refused Ludlow a visa. Shortly thereafter, in 1950, Tibet fell behind Chairman Mao’s Bamboo Curtain. For foreign travel, Tibet once again became the “Forbidden Kingdom”.*

    *McRae, Michael. The Siege of Shangri-La ~ The Quest for Tibet’s Sacred Hidden Paradise. Pg. 70. New York: Broadway Books, 2002.

4 134a 1994 Tibet Atrocities Sign in Varanasi

The “Riddle of the Tsangpo Gorge” would remain unsolved. It would be almost a half a century before foreign travel found its way back into the gorge.

Due to its proximity to the disputed border with India, the Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo was designated by the Communist Chinese as a “special military region” and foreign travel was strictly prohibited. The Chinese military did not want outsiders wandering around this strategic area of southeast Tibet. All permit requests to explore these mysterious “Hidden Lands" were either rejected on security grounds or were met with demands of million dollar permit fees as reported by mountain climber David Breashears and river rafter Rick Fisher.

In 1992 the political climate in China began to moderate. With economic pressures building, the Chinese relaxed their fees and the long coveted "Great Bend" region of the Yarlung Tsangpo River gorge was grudgingly opened to exploration by a fortunate few. Primarily those who had the requisite government contacts and the funds available to afford the reduced, though still costly, permit fees. We were among the fortunate few.

For early Western explorers, the charting of the Yarlung Tsangpo and the discovery of its hidden waterfall were driven by physical geography and in some instances abundant plant life. 

But the Hidden Lands were known to the Tibetans as Beyul Pemako - “Hidden Land of the Blossoming Lotus” or “Secret Country of the Opening Lotus”. This sacred landscape held a completely different meaning. For many of the 1990’s explorers the spiritual lure of uncharted lands was every bit as strong as the geographic lure. That was certainly the case for our 1995 and 1997 expeditions.

I often say that life is like driving down a freeway at 85 miles per hour with only the rear view mirror to navigate. I wish we had taken the time to study these great explorers prior to our three expeditions. With a twenty five year look-back I can see that we encountered many of the same challenges, walked many of the same trails, slept in the same camps and undoubtedly worked with decedents of their tribal porters. Unknown when we were there, with today’s real-time internet maps we can now recognize the places discussed in their historic accounts. And our three adventures took us to many such as: Lugu, Tsebum, Pemakochung, Rinchenpung, Kyikar, Pe, Zachu, Longleb, Gogden and Kundu Dorsempotrang to name a few.

In our next Blog Post we will jump back into the narrative: Entering the Inner Gorge of the Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo and attempting to solve the “Riddle of the Tsangpo Gorge”.

Was the mythical waterfall fact or fiction?

1994
"The Long Hike Out"
continued…

When I first heard Rick speak of the "Yosemite of Tibet" I thought for sure he was exaggerating. Yet now, I believed his claims were understated. Troy and I would stop and marvel at the cobalt blue, cloud-speckled skies, the jagged snow-capped peaks skirted with lush green forests which blended into the bouldered canyon below and finally punctuated by the foaming Yarlung Tsangpo. It was truly spectacular. Somehow we drew energy from this landscape.

And then off in the distance, I think Troy sighted it first, was a Buddhist prayer flag flapping lazily in the breeze.

Civilization!

Photo 1
A Buddhist prayer flag - our first sign of living civilization.
On the roof, Rick & Troy peer into the courtyard. There must be food!

In anticipation of the ubiquitous snarling mastiffs, we all picked up sticks and rocks and approached the stone structure. Our route took us onto the roof. We then descended a ladder into a courtyard. Soon a small Tibetan child peeked from a doorway. Then another above him and then two more - each a little taller. When the mother and father appeared it looked like a Tibetan totem pole peering from the gap of the open door.

We suddenly realized we were standing there armed with sticks and rocks. We put them down and in unison clasped our hands, bowed our heads and offered an enthusiastic, "Tashi delek!" Starring at us disbelievingly, they came out into the courtyard offering their own, "Tashi delek's" They were stunned.

Unabashedly, Rick started bringing his hand to his mouth gesturing food. Without hesitation the wife brought us tsampa and yak butter tea.

Tsampa is ground barley. Since barley is one of the few grains that grows at high elevations, it's a staple of the Tibetan diet. Tsampa is often mixed with yak butter tea to form edible dough balls. The greasy texture of the butter helps bind the barley flour. With no refrigeration, the yak butter soon turns rancid. Though the Tibetans love it, most westerners find the heavy rancid smell and taste unpalatable. I know we did. But out of courtesy we usually choked it down or discretely passed it off to a nearby dog.

As hungry as I was the tsampa still tasted like sawdust. But I ate it nonetheless. And I could feel my energy return as I gulped the high-fat, yak butter tea. Soon the shock of our unannounced arrival evaporated and everyone was smiling.

Photo 2
Rick and I revel in outside human contact.
I could feel my energy return as I gulped the high-fat, yak butter tea.

I found it curious. Though surprised, there was no hesitation with these people - there was no mistrust. Their minds - unadulterated by technology - welcomed us as family. "Try this in Scottsdale." I whispered to Troy, "We'd be locked up."

Photo 3
Their minds - unadulterated by modernization and technology - welcomed us as family.

This was a herder family with a few pigs, chickens, goats and yaks scattered everywhere. They even had a small pet monkey who was equally astonished at our appearance. We felt a need to explain our arrival. But no matter how hard we mimicked we couldn't get them to understand that we had floated down the river. The absurdity of that act was beyond them.

The father invited us into their home. I noted that everything in the small cabin was handmade. The beds, blankets, chairs, everything. The home and its inhabitants held a smell that we would get to know all too well in our Tibet travels. It was that gamy, smoky, earthy odor of sweat, cooking fires and rancid yak butter. The pungent aroma attaches to everything. It takes some getting used to. We never quite did.

The father beckoned us into a small side room and proudly pulled back a tattered curtain. There were five thangkas (Buddhist cloth paintings). I recognized Buddha, White Tara and Padmasambhava. The remaining two I didn't know.

(Little could I imagine that in three years White Tara would appear to a Buddhist/Bön shaman in a dream granting us unprecedented access into the Inner Gorge of the Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo.)

Rick saw some eggs. He mimicked boiling them over the open fire and the wife gladly obliged. They were delicious.

Then they broke out the homemade rice wine and the party began. They poured the concoction from a rusted kerosene can and in pure Tibetan style - the second you took a sip they would refill your glass. In other words, you never finished your drink. "Khampe!" was shouted with each new sip. Soon we were all laughing and pantomiming like long-lost friends.

I had a high-tech river knife. It could slice through an entangled bow line in one swipe. I gave it to the father. He was astonished. Of real use to him - I thought he was going to cry as he cradled it in his hands.

Photo 4
I gave my river knife to the father. He was ecstatic.
Here Troy shows him how to remove it from the plastic scabbard.
His boys look on in wonder.

It started to get late. Exhaustion was enveloping the three of us. We readied to set camp. And then the most unexpected thing happened. They insisted we sleep in their home on their bench beds. They insisted! Too tired to argue, I climbed under the thick yak skin blanket. It was heavenly. Drifting off to the dwindling flames of the cook fire, I remember the wife coming in and tucking the blanket under my chin. She did the same for Troy and Rick. "The human family." I thought as a deep sleep washed over me.

The next morning we woke feeling much better. The husband and boys had left. They were herding in the highlands. The wife packed us some eggs and tsampa.

Standing in the courtyard, we marveled at this family's magnificent view of the snow-covered peaks. It was like the Alps. We'd never seen a more picturesque setting for a home.

We said our goodbyes and walked out to the trail - an actual trail! About a hundred yards down I remembered I left my water bottle on the table. I ran back and grabbed it. As I was leaving the wife followed me to the gate. Thanking her again I headed down the path. I walked about twenty feet when something told me to stop. I turned around. She was still standing by the gate. She waved at me. I waved back. Our eyes locked. It was one of those moments when time stands still. I knew her somehow. And she knew me. We just stared. "Perhaps in another lifetime." I said to myself. Then I turned and walked away.

That day's hiking was steep and hot - quite hot. But at least we had a trail.

Around 4:00pm we came across an enchanted hamlet they called Dabucun. This was one of the most extraordinary and serene places we had ever seen - completely lost in time. Tucked on a hillside, the twenty or so primitive homes were made of stone and beams. They were stacked up the hill like we'd see on the Hopi Mesas in Arizona.

Photo 5
The hamlet of Dabucun reminded Troy and me of the Hopi Mesas in Arizona.

They all had prayer flags and bright, decorative painting around the window sills. There were goats and sheep and pigs and chickens and yaks. And all of this was surrounded by emerald green fields of barley. A couple of well placed stupas* were the candles on this fairytale cake. It was truly bucolic.

*Stupa is Sanskrit for heap. The stupa is to Buddhism as the cross is to Christianity. Though the stupa predates Buddhism, it is an important form of Buddhist architecture. The shrine is shaped like a bell. It has come to represent the seated Buddha when he achieved enlightenment. A stupa is generally a place of burial and a depository for religious objects. The worshiper does not enter the stupa - it is a solid object. Rather, as a meditational practice he or she walks around it in a clockwise direction focusing on the Buddha's teachings.

Photo 6
There was a peace here I had never found before or since.

If ever there was a Shangri La, this was it. As we approached we were met with the same shock and instinctive hospitality that we'd experienced the night before. The locals offered us tsampa, yak butter tea and hard boiled eggs. That night we slept in an enchanted garden.

As we were laying out our sleeping bags Troy said, "Look at this, on the log, it's a carved message from Eric!"

It read, "5/13 Waited for a while. Moving on."

"That was this morning!" exclaimed Rick, exacerbated. "What in the hell is this guy thinking? He knows he has our food. I specifically told him we had to all stay together. This is inexcusable."

We could feel Rick's boiling frustration. Eric's desertion really was a bone-head move. There was no logic to it whatsoever.

Prior to the trip Rick touted his friend as the ultimate outdoorsman. Troy and I knew the two of them were close. Out of respect for Rick we'd held off maligning him. But this message was the last straw. For the next hour the three of us would extol his stupidity. We concluded that he just grossly underestimated the distance out. But that still didn't explain his absconding with our food.

Expedition Member, Chris Grace's 1994 journal notes:

Eric showed up about 5 PM. They abandoned the raft and some equipment at a big falls in the upper third of the river. Soon after they separated. Eric elected to follow the river and they apparently attempted to climb higher to find a trail. Eric is a little unclear on the details. He has a way that almost makes him appear stoned. When you ask him questions his eyes look distant and he smiles or laughs without saying anything. When he saw the cook he swam across the river and followed the trail back to the village.

The cook returned later this afternoon. He is a hardy man knowledgeable of the country. He traveled past where Mr. Luo and I turned back. He crossed the river at the second village where there is a boat. There was no word on the remainder of the rafting party and he travel on about half way to the first village. At that point the trail heads up the mountain some 3000 feet and he elected to turn back.

We had considerable debate over our next course of action. Most of the group wanted to split up, sending one jeep back to Sangri under the assumption that the boating group had elected to return west, the shorter distance. The rest of us would then continue on to the confluence, where supposedly we would all be rejoined. There are two problems with this approach. First the rafting group may not be there at Sangri and if they are we may have difficulty finding each other at the confluence.

Bill Bacon prevailed with better judgment and we remained another night. Our fourth, while sending one vehicle back with a driver, Mr. Luo and Eric. I cannot help but have some concerns about Eric's story. His account of abandoning the boat and the manner in which he became separated is troubling. For an experienced group to have allowed themselves to be split up in that situation seems unthinkable to me. The other fact that I find confusing is that Eric is very vague on their plans upon abandoning the boat. It would seem to me that they would have discussed a game plan extensively. We do know that they abandoned their wetsuits, all their rafting gear and the metal camera box. While they had adequate gear to walk out it was not ideal, particularly their footwear. Eric stated that he thought they had headed up the mountain instead of following him along the river course. If they went back Mr. Luo should be able to pick them up at Sangri and return here by early afternoon.

 

1994
“The Long Hike Out”
continued…

Photo 1
Hiking out of the Upper Granite Gorge of the Yarlung Tsangpo River following our
aborted rafting attempt became significantly easier when we had an actual trail.

Expedition Member, Chris Grace’s 1994 journal notes:

I cannot help but have some concerns about Eric's story. His account of abandoning the boat and the manner in which he became separated is troubling. For an experienced group to have allowed themselves to be split up in that situation seems unthinkable to me. The other fact that I find confusing is that Eric is very vague on their plans upon abandoning the boat. It would seem to me that they would have discussed a game plan extensively. We do know that they abandoned their wetsuits, all their rafting gear and the metal camera box. While they had adequate gear to walk out it was not ideal, particularly their footwear. Eric stated that he thought they had headed up the mountain instead of following him along the river course. If they went back Mr. Luo should be able to pick them up at Sangri and return here by early afternoon.

The next morning we were still light headed. While helpful, the tsampa and hard boiled eggs hadn’t completely solved our nutrition problem. With the steep trail and the hot, high-altitude sun we were growing weaker by the hour. We knew the others had to be worried. We were three days overdue. Time was critical. With this in mind - and now that we were back in semi-civilization - we had hoped to find a couple of porters to carry our packs the rest of the way to our rendezvous in Gyatsa. But there was a noticeable lack of young people in this village. We found an old man who spoke broken English. He told us the Chinese had taken the children from their families and deported them to boarding schools in China. There they would be indoctrinated into the Chinese culture. Most would never return. It was sad. But Troy and I reflected - a hundred years prior we had a similar policy for the native Americans in our own country.

Shouldering our packs, we had a hard time finding the trail out of the hamlet. The path dwindled into a treacherous cliff-side hike above a sixteen foot high Yarlung Tsangpo waterfall. We knew this couldn’t be right so we backtracked to the village and found an old lady. She showed us the way. It was a pilgrimage route - an enchanted passage that seemingly breached a parallel dimension. The trail appeared ancient. We were walking on the sides of precipices with little handholds and footholds etched out of the rock. We’d traverse bridges made of notched logs and marvel through fern laced grottos. On the steep cliff face sections patches of sod had been planted. Evidently the roots grew into the stone enabling us to negotiate the spindly path 200 to 300 feet above the rushing river. It was a dramatic day of hiking.

Photo 2
Troy says goodbye to the village of Dabucun as we hike an ancient cliff side pilgrimage trail.

Towards late afternoon the trail ran into an enormous slab of vertical stone. We had to zigzag straight up for over 1,000 feet to get around it. The hot climb was grueling so late in the day. Dropping back down we ended up in another riverside settlement. From here the locals told us it was less than fifteen kilometers to Gyatsa.

We spent the night on a wooden deck. The curious villagers huddled around and stared. Our every move was mimicked with cackling laughter. They kept pulling the hair on our arms in wonder. A wizened woman bedecked in turquoise supplemented our tsampa with walnuts.

The next morning Rick was able to secure two porters. They charged us $100 yuan apiece (about $12 dollars each) to carry Rick’s pack and one of ours. This was twice the going rate. But we were desperate. We had another long hot climb out of the village. Troy and I rotated carrying our remaining river bag.

At a cliffed-out bend we took a $2 yuan (.24¢) ferry ride across the river in a traditional yak skinned coracle. This experience reminded me of Chögyam Trungpa’s coracle ride across the Yarlung Tsangpo in his legendary 1959 escape into India.

Photo 3
Photograph by Rick Fisher. Here Troy and Gil cross Tibet’s Yarlung Tsangpo River in a traditional yak skinned coracle.
The RailRiders© outdoor clothing company included this photograph on the cover of its Summer catalogue and ran an article on
the Gillenwater's Tibet adventures.

Towards the end of the hike we came across a man carrying a log. He was thin and the log was huge. We estimated it weighing around 200 pounds. He had it on his back with a tumpline strap over his head. We offered him our last $10 yuan to carry the remaining pack the rest of the way to Gyatsa. We figured he could always come back and get the log. He agreed. But much to our amazement he threw the bag up on top of the log and staggered on down the trail.

As we continued along the river bank towards Gyatsa, Troy and I could never have fathomed that a year later we would be hiking along this same river - 300 miles downstream - at an elevation of 2,000 feet as it flowed into the jungles of India. Nor could we imagine that we would have three machine guns pointed at us and be placed under arrest while an angry, drunken Communist Chinese, PSB (Public Security Bureau) officer demanded confiscation of our film.

We stumbled out of the gorge and into Gyatsa on the afternoon of Sunday, May 15th. Rounding a bend we heard a screaming chorus of, “They’re here! They’re here!” as Jerry, Chris and Bill raced to greet us. We felt like prodigal sons. Each gave us a clenching bear hug. They were hungry to know what happened and insisted we leave nothing out. We could tell they’d been worried. Not being able to get a straight answer out of Eric, they were suspicious something really bad had happened.

It was a delicious homecoming. To get into the village, see our friends, eat real food and throw back a couple of iced beers was heavenly. What had started as an average day and a half river float degenerated into a daylong nightmare down an abyss of fear – punctuated by a four day survival hike.

Expedition Member, Chris Grace’s 1994 journal notes:

At 3 o'clock Rick, Gil and Troy appear with three porters. They are exhausted and rather shocked from their experiences. They had little food and the trip was mostly cross country, with Gil and Troy in sandals. The vehicle we had sent to Sangri returned about 4 PM – thankfully deciding not to retrace the trail east.
The unfortunate aspect of this episode is that it didn't have to happen and bad judgment could have easily resulted in the loss of life. In fact some of the traverses were extremely hazardous and at several points they found human bones including the skull of an unfortunate who didn't make it. They, for whatever reasons, became separated almost immediately after abandoning the boat 15 miles into the canyon and Eric proceeded on with all the food. Additionally they were not acclimatized and most importantly Eric’s scouting of the river was wholly inaccurate.

Finally we heard a land cruiser drive up and Eric sheepishly appeared in the door way. With three sets of eyes boring holes in him he just shrugged his shoulders and gave us a blinking look like he just woke up.

Rick went apoplectic. Troy and I pulled him outside and calmed him down. The three of us had been through a lot together. I think Rick realized this. He reached out and shook each of our hands and said, “How does it feel to be the first to raft the world’s highest river?”

Troy and I looked at each other knowingly. It was a little more adventure than either of us had bargained for. Yet, having lived to tell, it was priceless.

“It feels great Rick… fantastically great!”

A year later, in 1995, Rick published a book titled, “Earth’s Mystical Grand Canyons”. The book contains a chapter chronicling our 1994 expedition. In the acknowledgements Rick wrote:

“Powell “Gil” and Troy Gillenwater provided incredible strength after our aborted attempt to raft the Upper Granite Gorge of the Yarlung Tsangpo. I believe they actually saved my life in a situation in which I had very little personal power left.”

Soon we were ready for the second stage of our trip - finding the “Lost Falls of the Brahmaputra”. This would be Troy’s and my first journey into what was being called the “Hidden Lands of the Blossoming Lotus” or simply the “Hidden Lands”.

Hidden Lands

Unaware of its spiritual significance, we assumed the Hidden Lands were hidden due solely to their remote and inhospitable location. We knew the Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo River was the deepest, wettest, most geologically unstable and biologically diverse place on the planet. We also knew it had been politically sequestered off limits by the Communist Chinese for decades and that the nearly constant cloud cover had prevented any dependable mapping. As of 1994 these factors had rendered the heart of the Hidden Lands un-explorable. We were excited at Rick’s proposal to be the first westerners to see what he was calling the hidden “Inner Gorge” and locate its crown jewel - the elusive waterfall.

 

1994
"The Long Hike Out"
continued…

We hiked and hiked and hiked that day. We filtered river water to stay hydrated. At one point we climbed up into a grassy area and tried to find a trail. There wasn't one. But we did locate some little footholds notched out of the cliff where we could walk. Who were these people? It reminded Troy and me of the prehistoric cliff dwellings we explore in southeast Utah.

And then the strangest thing happened.

To this day it makes no sense. We came to a place where we had to cross a steeply sloping cliff face. It was a drop of 300 feet to the rocks below. Eric went first. Rick didn't think it was a good idea to cross with our bulky packs. The angle of repose was too steep. As we stood there it became clear to both Troy and me that Rick had an innate fear of heights. This was an odd characteristic for a world-class canyoneer. But in this situation discretion ruled and we appreciated his decision. The three of us started looking for an alternate route. We couldn't find one. So we took our packs off and lashed them together. Troy took one end of the cord and inched his way across the rock face. It was hard for me to watch. Once he reached a flatter surface we passed the packs through with the cord belay and all three of us made the traverse.

But once on the other side we couldn't find Eric. Earlier Troy had seen him far below but when we got down there we couldn't find him. We yelled for him for about ten minutes. We then rested under a big cottonwood-like tree on the river's edge and waited for him. But he never showed up. So we continued on.

We hit a cliff where there was no way around. Nor was there a way up unless we hiked all the way back to where we'd been. This would mean another mile around and another 400 foot scramble up through the thick brush. We just didn't have the energy. So I said I'd swim the river. I swam around the cliff and climbed up the other side. Dropping the thin nylon cord I hauled the three packs up. And then, Troy and Rick climbed up with the help of the flimsy cord. Once on top of the cliff we continued.

We soon came to a similar cliff face. But this one was hike-able below near the river.

And then in a small clearing I saw it.

"It's a human skeleton!" I shouted.

No answer.

"It's a human skeleton!" I shouted louder.

Troy was only ten feet behind me but he couldn't hear. The pounding river was all consuming. Exploding waves and slamming holes echoed endlessly off the walls of the two-mile deep gorge. Normal conversation was reduced to yelling.

"This one is different." Troy shouted as he saddled up next to me. "It's pretty much intact. And look here…" he said as he pointed out a shattered femur. "And here…" he said pointing to a small fire ring.

We both looked to the cliff above. It appeared even steeper from below. It was obvious this poor soul had fallen, broken his leg and kept warm by a small fire until he died.

The faded bones and the skull's grinning smile brought forth our own vulnerability - our own impermanence. As we stood in thought the din of the river faded. Our self-significance soon followed. That's the thing about nature. Its sheer grandeur bullies you into perspective.

"It makes you feel pretty small - doesn't it?" Troy said as we both looked up the towering canyon walls and craggy Himalayan peaks far above. "Just think of the hundreds of thousands of years it took to carve this gorge. And I've been here for thirty-three of them."

Nature is an ego killer. Here immensity crushes the mind's self-important chatter. This creates a vacuum - or space. Suddenly we have room for intuitive wisdom to be heard. It's no coincidence that Jesus, Muhammad, and Buddha all attained their enlightenment in the wilderness.

I picked up the skull and cradled it in my hands. "Imagine the parent's joy when this guy was born; his first steps, his love for his brothers and sisters, his first hunt, his hopes, his disappointments, his revelations, how he made sense of the world around him and his place in it during the microscopically small amount of time he was here."

1 159b 1994 Gil Skull
It was obvious this poor soul had fallen off the cliff above, broken his leg and kept warm by a small fire until he died.

"That's exactly why we're here." Troy said. “We can’t take a single second for granted.”

I thought back on the Buddhist view of the human experience. It contends that with all the living creatures on this planet, the odds of a human birth are the same as if you took a donut sized float and threw it in the vast ocean and a blind turtle just happened to surface through the hole. It's that impossibly rare.

And with the lottery fortune of a precious human birth comes the responsibility to make every second count.

Troy and I both resonate with Leo Tolstoy's statement in The Death of Ivan Ilyich: "A life most simple and most ordinary is therefore most terrible."

I gently replaced the skull. Not only had our skeleton friend been a reminder of impermanence - but equally a reminder to pay attention. We still had a way to go.

Offering our final respects, we shouldered our packs and continued picking our way down the slopes and boulders of the constricting canyon.

We expected to find a settlement around every bend. But we weren't that concerned because we still had a fair amount of food. Or at least Eric had the food.

But where was Eric?

He had vanished. We never saw him again for the rest of the hike.

Expedition Member, Chris Grace's 1994 journal notes:

The next morning we walked along a goat path above the river to set Bill's camera. Rick expected to be through the gorge by 10 AM. We waited laying in the sun for thirty minutes, until Mr. Luo* and I decided to walk further up the canyon in the hope of spotting them. The trail is difficult weaving over rocks and sand banks formed by the river. We walked for several hours, perhaps 6 miles or more without a sign of the raft. The trail ended and we dozed for an hour to no avail. Finally we returned. Mr. Luo is worried but I am confident the trip took more time than expected due to portages and scouting.

*Due to the Hidden Land's strategic location abutting India, it was designated a "special military region" and foreign travel was strictly prohibited. Recognizing the economy of tourism, in the early 1990's China relaxed its iron grip on the "Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo" area and issued its first travel permits. Incredibly, Rick was able to secure one of these early permits for us. In addition to passports and Chinese visas, certain other travel permits were required from China's Bureau of Foreign Affairs, the Military High Command in Beijing, the China National Tourism Administration also in Beijing, and Lhasa's Public Security Bureau (PSB). The documents could fill a book. Certain areas remained off-limits and for the others you were required to have a Chinese travel agent accompany you. Ours was Mr. Changxun Luo. Thin and of normal height, Mr. Luo (pronounced "Low") had a wispy mustache and always wore a ball cap. He was a pleasant man who took his job seriously. He had our interests in mind and over the weeks we became quite good friends.

On the second day of hiking Troy and I were getting a little concerned about Rick. Altitude sickness was still dogging him. This coupled with the trail's huge climbs and the lack of food was depleting all his energy. Though he would lag behind at times, he always caught up. Rick was one tough and determined guy.

2 144a 1994 Rick over TsangPo on Hike Out
Rick takes a break. Altitude sickness and lack of food was depleting all his energy.

As we continued up and down the walls of the gorge the vegetation increased. Switchbacking to higher elevations the trail would meander through aspen-like forests, traversing lush meadows with ancient ruins. Old pecan trees and wild peach trees guarded foundations of tumbling monasteries. The ruins held grudgingly to rock outcroppings. We spent hours speculating their existence.

By now, with every step through the gorge Rick grew increasingly irate with Eric. His disappearing with all our food placed the three of us in severe jeopardy. It was bad enough that his river scouting had been bungled, but then to abandon us? We just couldn't imagine his motive.

Expedition Member, Chris Grace's 1994 journal notes:

Mr. Luo is very concerned that we have not heard from the raft group and has dispatched our Chinese cook and a porter to follow the path he and I took yesterday. I think it is a waste of time but he feels he must do something. 

Mostly now we find ourselves waiting. The raft group is now long overdue and while few words are discussed, there is a serious concern. Even if they had some difficulty merely delaying them, the rest of the trip could be jeopardized. We have limited fuel and time.

We had to feed our long days of climbing at high elevation. Our bodies screamed for fat and carbohydrates. We were reduced to foraging wild peaches and nuts. As our energy waned our packs felt heavier. The dry bags had no waist straps so all the weight was borne on the shoulders. And it was rough terrain to be hiking in sandals. But the majestic scenery compensated somehow.

3 101a 1994 Troy River View Hiking Out
Troy (on left in the shadow) scouts our next climb. Where was the hamlet Eric promised was just ahead? Where was Eric?
Our energy was waning and our packs felt heavier.

When I first heard Rick speak of the "Yosemite of Tibet" I thought for sure he was exaggerating. Yet now, I believed his claims were understated. Troy and I would stop and marvel at the cobalt blue, cloud-speckled skies, the jagged snow-capped peaks skirted with lush green forests which blended into the bouldered canyon below and finally punctuated by the foaming Yarlung Tsangpo. It was truly spectacular. Somehow we drew energy from this landscape.

And then off in the distance, I think Troy sighted it first, there was a Buddhist prayer flag flapping lazily in the breeze.

Civilization!

 

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