“Were we Poisoned?”
The Original Warriors of S/E Tibet’s “Hidden Lands”
At the time of our 1994, 1995 & 1997 expeditions into S/E Tibet’s “Hidden Lands” it was one of the least known and last unexplored places on the planet. In addition to housing the world’s deepest gorge (almost 4 miles deep), the geologic instability and average rainfall of over 25 feet per year, coupled with its politically “off limits” status enforced by the Communist Chinese, were all effective repellents to even the hardiest explorers.
The other effective repellent was tribal. For hundreds of years the aboriginal Abor (Hill People) and Mishimi (Not Civilized) tribes straddled the southeastern frontier of Tibet. Fiercely territorial, these warring tribes attacked all who attempted to enter the Hidden Lands. They effectively thwarted Europe’s colonial expansion efforts of the mid-1800’s.
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.
Tibetan Buddhism believes the more hostile the environment, the more sacred the landscape and the faster the journey to realization. Accordingly, these Hidden Lands are referred to as, “Beyul Pemako” meaning the “Hidden Land of the Blossoming Lotus". Tibetan Buddhist philosophy extols sacred landscapes as hidden places (beyuls) where pilgrims can greatly accelerate their paths to enlightenment. As the deepest, wettest, most geologically unstable and biologically diverse areas on the planet, the Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo River is Tibet’s most revered “Hidden Land”.
Ancient prophecies foretold a time when:
Men will lose sight of truth and religion and will turn to warfare and the pursuit of power for it’s own sake. Dishonesty, greed, and cunning will prevail; an ideology of brutal materialism will spread over the earth.*
*Bernbaum, Edwin. The Way to Shambhala: A Search for the Mythical Kingdom Beyond the Himalayas, (1980) St. Martin’s Press, New York
With the projected inevitability of worldwide destruction, Buddhist texts described pilgrimage routes into Pemako where those with pure karma could retreat. Here they would find Shangri La - a land with no disease or poverty, where sacred waters ensured longevity and food would grow without work. Here they would be liberated from the bondage of time. There would be no toil and inhabitants were free to master the highest science of them all, the science of the mind. Great lamas would teach true wisdom and all would accelerate their spiritual progress. This Shambhala would be a heaven on earth.
Following the annihilation of the outside world, Shambhala residents would emerge to repopulate the earth with an enlightened society.
However, the prophecies were clear - Pemako could only be reached with enormous hardship and pure intention. Those with ulterior motives or negative karma were certain to encounter failure or death.
To many Tibetans, the Communist Chinese invasion of the 1950’s was the prophesied destruction of their world. They fled their oppressors seeking refuge in the “Hidden Lands" or “Shambhala” of the “Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo”. However, despite tremendous efforts the promised paradise failed to materialize. What the pilgrims found instead were devastating landslides, incessant rains, warring tribes, vipers, jungle diseases, blood sucking leeches, tigers, hordes of insects, dense vegetation….. in short, hell on earth.
Thousands of these paradise seekers died while some survivors made it on to resettlement camps in India, Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan.
At the time of our mid-1990’s explorations into the Hidden Lands, Buddhism and the indigenous superstitions walked a thin line. There were Monpa poison witches who practiced black magic. They were called Dugmas. It was a cult and their superstition held that if they killed you, all your positive physical and mental attributes would flow into them. But, a strict protocol had to be followed. A Monpa sorceress would make a “poison vow”. But this could only be executed on a full moon. On that night she would paint half her face black and braid the hair on one side of her head. Once committed, the Dugma was obligated to poison someone within 30 days. In the event she missed the deadline she was bound to poison herself or a family member.
Passing strangers were favorite victims, especially if they seemed strong since the purpose was to gain control over the victim's spirit and energy. The victim died after ingesting a slow-acting lethal concoction of mushroom, snake and frog toxins. The poison could be secreted in food or drink. Dugmas were also known to put the poison under their fingernails and scratch your neck while you were sleeping. Many times concerned locals would warn us not to accept offers of food in certain villages. Our porters were equally as leery and would steer clear of “poison villages”.
In 1995, Troy, Todd and I were offered peaches by a local Monpa. Though tempted, we respectfully declined. He responded with a wry smile saying, “Don’t worry… it’s not the right phase of the moon to poison you!”
It is well known that Daku Norgay - the wife of Tenzing Norgay, Sir Edmund Hillary’s companion on the 1953 first ascent of Everest, had been poisoned in 1992 by a Dugma while on pilgrimage in Pemako. Even the Dalai Lama issued warnings to those considering pilgrimage in Pemako.
Many of our porters were direct descendants of these warring tribal people. In 1995, it was rumored that Troy, Todd and I had been poisoned by a Dugma for swimming in sacred waters. I do know that the three of us fell deathly ill and almost didn’t make it out. We go into great detail about this in our book.
During our three forays into this hostile environment we formed strong friendships with several of our Monpa, Lopa and Khampa porters. It was on these trips that we realized the striking differences between our cultural reality and theirs. We never could get them to understand the concept of a map. Their directions were all in their heads - trails traveled since birth. And chronologic time escaped them. “We’ll meet you there at 3:00pm” meant nothing.
Their lives were lived in a sub-context of malevolent spirits and guardian protectors as real to them as maps and time were to us. The reality gaps were considerable and we had to keep reminding ourselves of this fact.
Unfortunately, the Chinese targeted this area for several hydro-electric damns and most of the locals have been relocated. This culture is now forever lost. We feel extremely fortunate to have experienced it when we did.
For this Blog post I have included a collection of photographs above of Pemako’s local inhabitants. I hope you find them as interesting as we did.
It Can’t be Real?
I haven’t thought about the book since I left Whidbey Island.
Every author I’ve spoken to says that once the first draft is complete you should step away and forget about it for three months. After that you can re-engage with a clear mind and begin the editing process.
Well, I’m now thoroughly enmeshed in my day-to-day life and the thought of wading back into over 500 pages and carving it down to 300–350 pages is daunting at best. It gives me a headache.
But the story is there. Rock solid. And my brother Troy and author Claire Scobie (who was on our 1997 expedition) have promised to help.
In the meantime, the four months of solid writing have left me in a mental cul-de-sac. I have no creativity to even pen a simple Blog post. So I’m going to feature a 1995 journal entry written by my brother Todd. I hope you enjoy it, and the accompanying photograph, as much as I do.
Note: Todd’s excerpt references Dugmas and poison cults. These are real. They will be discussed in greater detail in future posts and in the book.
Todd Gillenwater’s notes:
Sunday - August 6, 1995
We’ve been hiking for about three hours today, and it is a glorious day. Scattered clouds, sunshine - probably the nicest day so far. It’s day four or thereabouts on our expedition through Pemako - the sacred lands of Tibetan Buddhism. This is a place where Heaven and Hell converge, where monks can fly and poison witches with backwards feet try to lure you into eating something and gaining access to your soul.
I’m a pretty pragmatic American, so I go along with it from a curiosity standpoint more than one of belief. I don’t buy into the mystical stuff - but it's fun to listen to those that really believe it.
Then again… there was that lady I saw with her feet on backwards who stared directly at me through the dirt-smeared rear window of our land cruiser as we drove past. When I asked the guys about it, they said, “Oh, she’s a Dugma, a poison witch, they all have their feet on backwards. Don’t eat anything she gives you.” Oh, well, that’s fine - just a poison witch staring at me. What on Earth does that mean?!
Now, aside from that, I’ve seen nothing mystical, magical or Heaven meets Hell-like, just mountains and forests. It is an incredibly beautiful, wild and remote place, no doubt.
Gil and I are hiking together now, through a forested valley and along the banks of a river. It’s maybe 40’ across with fast moving greenish water. Looks like a New Zealand river, actually. We are chatting and having a wonderful hike on this beautiful day.
After some time, the trail leads us near the river’s edge and we stop for a breather - something is not right here. The river that was on our right all morning is now on our left, and we hadn’t crossed it. Hold on here - it’s not greenish, it's distinctly chalky in color from snowmelt. And it’s half the size it was five minutes ago. And it’s flowing in the opposite direction. We look at each other in confusion and disbelief - had we walked into a side-canyon and just not realized it? The valley is broad here, and there aren't any side canyons. We turn to look back down the trail and there is the green river, flowing big and trail-left just like we thought. And here we stand next to another river, of a different color, flowing the other way and clearly they are different rivers. We are on a strand of land that’s at the most 30’ wide between two different rivers flowing in opposite directions. It isn’t a hairpin, oxbow or meander in one river - it’s TWO DIFFERENT RIVERS!
Impossible, yet here it is, we are seeing it, we are photographing it, but it is impossible. My brain keeps telling me this can't be real. Then I recall the look on the face of the Dugma as she leered at me when we drove past - backwards feet weren’t possible either...
Eating Dead Bear
Blessed Morning from Whidbey Island!
The “Hidden Land” of southeastern Tibet (Pemako) is the heart of Vajrayana Buddhism – the “Old School”. The severe landscape pushes one to experience the ultimate nature of mind and phenomena, beyond all divisions and conceptually constrained perceptions. Pemako plays havoc with Western-trained, logic-based thinking.
The meditational deity “Vajrayogini” is the patron Goddess of Pemako. She is represented geographically spread out over the region.
It was 1995 and we were going into Pemako on a pilgrimage to circumambulate her heart chakra - a mystical mountain called Kundu Dorsempotrang (“All Gathering Home of the Vajrasattva Mind”). The problem was, nobody knew if the mountain existed. It was purportedly located in a disputed border area with India and there were no maps. Pemako was one of the last uncharted regions in the world.
Our only guides would be local Buddhist monks and ancient texts researched by Ian Baker.
A day before we were to begin, Communist Chinese soldiers confiscated our monk porters. They were cruel landlords at this stage of their Tibet occupation. Their suppression of Buddhism was brutal. We had to scramble to find local Monpa tribal replacements and we came up short.
With not enough porters we had to sell a large portion of our rice. This was of grave concern heading into a remote region on a month-long expedition. Plus, the monks were to be our guides – without them nobody knew where the trail began.
Vajrayogini’s left arm chakra is the Taksham Monastery located high on a hill. We went there seeking guidance. The abbot agreed to conduct a form of divination known as a "prasena". In a large monk-filled hall, mantras were repeated, drums were beat, symbols clashed, long horns were blown and potions in a human skull cup were sprinkled.
After an hour the ceremony abruptly stopped. The abbot motioned us outside. Here we saw a most magnificent rainbow. It arched electrically across the sky and disappeared behind the third forested ridge on the horizon. The abbot smiled and nodded. That was the beginning of our hike - the Dashing Valley.
The next morning our group of 7 Westerners and 20 porters began the trek. Just then a jeep drove up. A high lama (an incarnate) got out. His name was Kaba Tulku and he just arrived from Kham – 300 miles north. He was going on the same pilgrimage and offered to guide us.
My brothers Troy and Todd and I just couldn’t get our minds around these seemingly random coincidences.
We explained to the Lama our concern for having to sell a large portion of the expedition’s rice. He just smiled and said through a translator, “Don’t worry – you are in Pemako.”
“What the hell did that mean?” we thought.
Two days later expedition member - Christiaan Kuypers - found an Asian Black Bear frozen in a glacier. We stood there in astonishment as Kaba Tulku performed a “Powa” ceremony, sending the bear’s soul to a better rebirth.
When he finished he looked at my brothers and me and smiled as if to say, “A lack of food problem…. What problem?”
That evening was savage. As we all crammed into a hand-hewn cabin the rain returned with a vengeance. The Monpa porters had a fire going - its orange flames danced frantically on the rough stone walls. They were all chanting in unison as they butchered the bear with their daggers and began roasting the meat on the open fire.
They played with the bear’s bloody head. Holding it menacingly, they attacked each other growling and clawing. The rain, the chants, the flames, the knives, the smoke and the foul stench of roasting rotten flesh was intoxicating. It was rich. It was medieval. It was something my brothers and I will never forget.
We took several rolls of film to insure our memories. And we had 50 kilos of roasted bear meat to replace our lack of rice.
INSERT: Pemako was stilling the velocity of my disconnected thoughts. Like a slowing bird losing lift - certain ideas began to fall - landing in a more orderly sequence. Pemako was expanding the boundaries of my conceptual thinking.
Had we not experienced more than our share of coincidences? How does one explain this? Could our minds not only be the perception of experiences - but also the experiences themselves? Could our minds actually extend beyond our physical selves? In other words - could our subjective view of the world influence outcomes?
I was beginning to understand that the mind is not just brain activity. It has a significant relationship with our outside experience.
Our lives seemed obviously entangled with our circumstances. What was the force that compelled a rainbow to appear leading exactly to our trailhead – at the very same time the monks were conducting its divination?
What was the force that compelled Kaba Tulku to get in his jeep and drive several hundred miles to the trailhead - and cause us to fly and drive half way around the world so that we could each arrive at the same remote location - at the same exact time?
What was the force that delivered 100 pounds of bear meat to us when we found ourselves low on food?
And not understanding – we call these coincidences?
Pemako was speaking to me.
Again – this is the condensed version.
Wait until you read the book!
Goodbye Whidbey Island!
Goodbye Whidbey Island!
A blink of the eye and my 4-month writing sabbatical is over. The timing was perfect. I penned my final word a day before I was scheduled to leave.
It was a daunting task. I started my writing every morning at 4:30am and often continued into the evening. I left Whidbey having written over 122,000 words (408 pages).
Troy will be adding an additional 100 pages for the 1997 portion – so we will be over 500 pages.
Our task now is to weed it back down to around 300 pages.
We will find a good editor to help us. Of course I’m biased, but with the photos we have as a compliment, I believe we have one hell of a book.
As a final tribute to the effort – on my long drive home to Scottsdale I went by Ketchum, Idaho. Here I located Earnest Hemingway’s grave and shared a smoke and a beer in his memory.
A year ago I said to myself, “I’m going to take the first 4 months of 2017 and write a book about our 3 Tibet expeditions. I want to write in a cold climate in a cottage on the sea.”
I had no notions of where or even on what continent.
Well I’ll be damned if soon thereafter I didn’t receive an email from life-long friend Craig Hannay that said, “Mom and Dad told me you were looking for a place on the ocean to write a book. Carrie and I would like to offer our beach cottage on Whidbey Island.”
As you can see by the photographs, it was perfect. It was inspirational. It was magnificent. It was a vision come true.
I will forever be indebted to the Hannay’s for their generosity and I will attribute any successes of the book in a large part to this magical setting.
And here’s the icing on the cake – as a final gift – on my last day I was presented with a splendid rainbow arching majestically over Hat Island. Even the locals had never seen anything like it. Rainbows play a significant role in the Hidden Lands of Tibet. They also play a significant role in the book. Was Pemako telling me goodbye?
In my last Blog post I talked about finding and eating a dead bear. I had several people contact me asking, “I thought Buddhists were vegetarian?”
I address this paradox in the book as follows:
We stood there in astonishment as Kaba Tulku performed a “Powa” ceremony, sending the bear’s soul to a better rebirth. When he finished he looked at my brothers and me and smiled as if to say, “A lack of food problem…. What problem?”
As we followed the group back to the cabin I asked Ian, “I thought Buddhists didn’t eat meat?”
“A lot of people think that.” He answered. “But it’s not true. Even the Dalai Lama will eat meat on rare occasions. You see Gil, Buddhists live by the law of karma. Karma is the Buddhist’s “Golden Rule”. And killing incurs the worst karma of all. It has nothing to do with eating meat.
Look at our Monpa porters. They’re drunk with anticipation of a big, fat, juicy bear steak. They realize the bear is a precious gift from the guardian spirits of Pemako. They can feast until their heart’s content and incur zero negative karma because they had nothing to do with its death. You see, the further removed from the actual act of killing the less negative karma you contract.”
And so ends this Blog post. It is my full intention to continue monthly Blogs up and through the publishing of the book. I appreciate your readership and your joining me on this remarkable journey.
Don’t Look Down!
Good Moring from Whidbey Island!
I have been up here now for 3 months and I have 1 month to go. I’m about three-quarters finished with the book so the timing is good.
Today I’d like to talk about how we crossed rivers and streams in Tibet’s mystical “Hidden Lands”.
Tibet is the source of 6 of Asia’s major rivers; the Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Irrawaddy, Salween and Mekong. An incredible 46% of the world’s population depends upon rivers originating in Tibet
In addition, the Himalayas are the third largest producer of glaciers in the world.
There is water everywhere.
On our mid-1990’s explorations into the “Hidden Lands” there were only 2 ways to cross rivers and streams: logs or cables. I have copied excerpts below that deal with both:
Tuesday - August 8, 1995 - dawned rainy and glum. Inclement weather always makes rivers seem more sinister. We experienced that the year before surviving our first-descent attempt on the highest river in the world - the Yarlung Tsangpo.
And this rickety cable crossing made the prior year’s pulley crossing of the PoTsangpo river look like a light rail system. This was going to be daunting. There were actually two cables stretched across the river: one with its high point on the north bank and the other with its high point on the south. With no pulleys, this design employed gravity’s help - on each side - in pulling the wooden yoke over the cable.
The crossing looked to be around 200 feet. Ian pulled out a climbing rope as a means to retrieve the yoke after each run. But it was too short and we had to tie additional lengths of hemp and leather straps to make it reach. Noticing the sagging rope catching the swift current, the Sherpas made hoops of bamboo around the cable and threaded the rope through to keep it out of the water.
The cables themselves were old and sagging. I questioned their ability to keep us out of the fierce current. It was decided the porters and Sherpas would go first. The size of our group and mounds of gear made this an all-day effort. Our Sherpa cook - Pemba - was the guinea pig. It was awkward but he made it.
Sitting next to Christiaan, we watched the porters - monkey like - haul themselves and our baggage over the thousands of gallons of turbulent water. Raising his voice above the river roar Christiaan said, “Just look at all this water. It’s an avalanche of rapids with no placid stretches. All this liquid will end up in the Yarlung Tsangpo, drop off the plateau and flow as the Brahmaputra into the Bay of Bengal.”
The river’s volume compared with the flow Troy and I battled the year before on the Yarlung Tsangpo. As river runners we had done the math. I told Christiaan, “I estimate this river is flowing around 20,000 cubic feet per second. That means 150,000 gallons of water are passing us every second. That’s close to a million a minute. And this is a tiny tributary. I guess that’s why Tibet is known as the ‘Water Tower of Asia’.”
Suddenly one of the porter loads broke and the bag fell - slow motion - into the surge below. Unweighted the cable snapped up and the porter held on for all he was worth. Wrapping his legs around the line he froze in fear. It took several minutes for Pemba to coax him across.
Next it was my turn. Climbing the rotten stairs I watched closely as the porters wrapped the leather thong around me and the yoke-like piece of rhododendron. Remembering Jerry’s close call the year before, I inspected every wrap and knot. It all appeared solid. I jumped. Again, in the “Hidden Lands” of Pemako if it’s your time - it’s your time. There’s really no sense in thinking about it. I was concerned about the sag in the line. I could see the waves lapping up at me just a few feet below. Soon - too soon - my momentum petered out and I swung myself around upside down and grabbed the cable and began to pull. It was harder than I expected. Soon enough I was safely across. My arms felt like lead. I was able to get some great photographs of Troy and Todd’s crossings. Even the Crazy Nun made it across.
Thursday - August 10, 1995 - It was a long wet day. The rain never relented. As we climbed higher and higher the canyon got steeper. The large stream we were following became a furious torrent. At one point we had to cross. Long ago two trees - on opposite banks - had been felled to span the rushing waters. Their top trunks crossed mid-stream requiring gingerly stepping from one to the other. Pilgrims had gone before. We could see where notches had been carved. But the logs were covered with the same slimy moss that coated everything green. Broken handrails offered little.
This was our most dangerous obstacle yet. To fall in the rushing current… I couldn’t think about it. Nor could I watch as Todd inched his way across. Same with Troy. I just couldn’t watch.
Next it was my turn. I unfastened my pack belt as had the others. The last thing you’d want on your back falling into this current was a waterlogged pack. Never had my concentration been so intense. We all knew better than to shout encouragement or make a sudden move - anything that might distract the crosser. Reminding myself to breath - I had to fight the urge to straddle and hug the log. That would never work. I shut out the roar of the rapids and calculated each foot placement. Once my boot was set, I’d slowly shift my weight to test its purchase. In this manner I traversed the log and stepped safely onto the far bank. What seemed like an hour probably took only seven or eight minutes.
It was a lot of risk and a lot of effort to penetrate the “Hidden Lands”. But when you read what - by miracle – awaited us, it will all make sense.
Thank you for sharing this remarkable journey with me. Next month we’ll talk about eating a dead bear.
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