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.
Well I would estimate the book is 70% down on paper. It’s been a wild ride laced with good, bad and sometimes uncomfortable memories. Fortunately, Troy, Todd and I kept copious notes. Otherwise a lot of the events and details would have forever drifted into forgotten. The exercise itself has forced me into a routine. I’ve never cared for routines and I’m not thrilled about this one.
Today I have copied three excerpts on the rigors of just getting to the trailhead. It could take up to 10 days. Quick background: The Himalayan Mountains are the result of the Indian tectonic plate crashing into the Asian tectonic plate:
“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 drift is warped by compounding lateral tensions. These counter tortions 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 the map 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.
Equally challenging were the occasional mud bogs. We were driving east into one of the wettest regions on the planet. Every now and then when negotiating a puddle the land cruisers would sink to their axels. Hopelessly stuck, we would all have to pile out, lock the hubs into four wheel drive, and push the truck out of the mire. Invariably, when it started to move and gain some purchase the driver would gun it spackling each of us with mud from head to toe."
"From Pelung east it was all new territory for us.
A little further down the road we entered “landslide alley”. This five mile stretch was notorious for its unpredictable mountain slides. Here the rain soaked soil was just too heavy to support itself. The sloughing scarification looked like gigantic open sores. The winding road inched along 600 feet above the rushing currents of the Parlung Tsangpo. Stories were legion of trucks and busses being swept into the churning waters below. Several wreckages remained - crumpled and half submerged.
With this type of visible ground movement I started to understand the local people’s strong belief in earth spirits. It wasn’t uncommon for an entire village to slough off the side of a mountain. Keeping passable roads and trails was virtually impossible. This geologic shifting could be felt and heard constantly. It was to become a major consideration when setting our camps. And the unceasing earth fissuring put the danger of hiking Pemako hillsides on par with dodging glacial crevasses in the Antarctic. These yawning gaps would open at a moment’s notice.
I remember crossing one dangerous zone in particular. My brothers and I were crammed in the back seat. Todd was on the hillside, I was in the middle and Troy was cliff side. As the land cruiser crawled along the near vertical incline a Volkswagen-sized bolder suddenly came crashing down the landslide chute. It was headed in our general direction and both Troy and I screamed and pointed. Todd looked over, saw it, and frantically began rolling up his window. The boulder missed us by a good thirty feet and we all three burst into laughter. “Thanks a lot Todd!” Troy and I said in unison. His rolling up the window to protect us from a hurdling three ton boulder was like zipping up your tent door so the bear doesn’t get in.
After that we got out and walked the more exposed stretches. I felt bad for the driver. But even walking was a risk. In addition to never knowing when the hillside would collapse - smaller stones and baseball sized rocks whizzed by from heights you couldn’t see. You had to pay attention. It was obvious some of the landslides had just occurred. The soil was lose and disheveled with freshly fallen rocks all over. Where some of the recent slides blocked the road you could see where prior drivers shoveled an angled track. There were two narrow places in particular where I don’t know how we could have cut it any closer.
Once thorough, we all thanked Buddha and Pemako’s benevolent Padmasambhava and continued on our way."
More to follow!
Yours in reclusion,
For The Love of A Leech…
After viewing my December 13, 2016 Blog post several people contacted me asking, “Why were you bleeding…. had you been shot?”
Well, not quite, but almost. Nobody told us that the Buddhist “Paradise” of Pemako, (The Hidden Land of the Blossoming Lotus) was infested, literally overrun with famished blood sucking leeches.
Just in case you don’t know, Tibetan leeches are terrestrial annelid worms with suckers at both ends. They are blood-guzzling parasites that target vertebrates (with humans at the top of the list). A leech can suck 5 times its body weight in blood.
To feed, a leech first attaches itself to the host (usually me) using the suckers. One of these suckers surrounds the leech's mouth, which contains three sets of jaws that bite into the host's flesh, making a Y-shaped incision. As the leech begins to feed, its saliva releases chemicals that dilate blood vessels, thin the blood and deaden the pain of the bite. In other words, it first injects you with an anesthetic so you don’t know you’re being bitten and then it injects you with an anticoagulant so that your blood flows freely.
Because of the saliva's effects, a person bitten by a leech usually isn’t aware of it until afterwards when he or she sees the incision and the streaming of blood that stains their clothes and is difficult to stop (hence my photo on the prior Blog post).
Leeches are heat seeking. At night we’d place a candle in the jungle and watch as 1000’s inched their ways toward the flame. The jungle floor would come alive with an undulating tide of advancing leeches. At night in your tent you could look up and see countless slimy silhouettes writhing to get in.
They are elastic and expandable by nature. You just can’t keep them out. They can go skinny and climb thru the eyelets of your boots and weasel thru two pairs of socks only to reconstitute on your feet leaving you hiking in squishy pools of your own blood. It was also important to have a very good friend (in my case my brothers Troy or Todd and visa-versa) who could give you a full body inspection before you got in the tent. I handled the reciprocity of these inspections with some indignation but it was better than going to bed with leeches on you. (It happened on more than one occasion when I would awake only to find a blood engorged leech or two clinging to the ceiling of our tent and blood soaking my sleeping bag.)
My personal record was 22 of the little bastards sucking on me at one time. And while they carry no diseases, they can leave infections if removed incorrectly by simply pulling them off.
We found there were two ways to effectively remove a leech - a cigarette or lit match, or by a generous sprinkle of salt. Of course the Buddhist pathfinders and porters would not kill them and they showed me how to skillfully rotate the leech in a clockwise direction (with the Buddha) and pretty soon the leech would simply release its death grip and fall off.
This “enlightened” technique came in very handy in 1994 when my fellow expedition member and friend, Jerry Dixon, found he had a leech on his eyeball. I gagged as he held his eye open asking me to remove it. It had attached below his pupil and was wiggling to and fro securing its bite.
“We have a major malfunction here…” I told Jerry as I tried to think of what to do. Then I remembered the Buddhist circular technique, pulled off my bandana and began rotating the leech. I was worried about scraping off Jerry’s pupil but what the hell – this thing had to come off before it sucked all the juice out of his eye.
Sure enough, it finally plopped off and we placed it gently back into the jungle. Jerry’s vision was somewhat blurred for a while but I believe it eventually healed. I do know that he asked me for the bandana and has it framed on his wall.
And there was another leech incident that stands out. On our 1995 expedition a group of us had gotten ahead of the porters. It was raining hard and night was falling. We had no option but to bivouac for the night. It was cold and wet as the 6 of us snuggled together under a single plastic sheet trying to stay warm. Somewhere in the night I was awakened by horrific screams, “Get it out! Get it out!” A leech had climbed into Hamid Sardar’s mouth and attached to his throat. As I peered down his gullet I was sickened to see a blood fattened leech squirming in full-fed ecstasy.
We had some wooden matches but they were wet, like everything else, and wouldn’t light. Finally a flame held but I burned Hamid’s teeth and top of his mouth in a desperate attempt to get the god-damned leech out of his throat. When this didn’t work my brother Todd suggested lighting the match and then blowing it out and touching the leech with the still hot match head. Brilliant. It worked! The leech released but then started sucking on Hamid’s lip before we got rid of it all together.
When asked how he knew he had a leech in his mouth Hamid explained, “I was kind of asleep you know….. and I thought I was dreaming. I was running my tongue around my mouth and wondering why the hell part of my mouth was a different temperature that the rest of my mouth. And then I could kind of taste it and I woke up.”
Needless to say, none of us got any sleep the rest of that night.
So, if you have plans to visit the Shangri La of Pemako make sure you start smoking and take lots of salt.
Ethan Bindelglas, Troy, & Gil in Bangkok Buddhist Temple
Gil & Troy in a Rickshaw. The Tibet expeditions were major undertakings. Pemako is so remote that it usually took us a full 10 days of travel just to get to the trailhead. But we always had a good time along the way.
Hola Amigos y Amigas!
Well, the writing is going well. I’m over 40,000 words and it’s been astounding revisiting these adventures. Troy, Todd and I have such fantastic documentation. Two decades ago Pemako (the “Hidden Lands” of S/E Tibet) was one of the last unexplored Eden’s on the planet. It was exotic. It was mystical. There was a sense of a unique place in time - a time that could never be recaptured.
This was on the cusp of the internet and the world was shrinking by the day. Tibet was deluged with Han Chinese. Large bonuses were paid for them to relocate. Tibetans would soon be a minority in their own country and their ancient culture was under siege. As the planet’s last frontier we understood that each step we took into Pemako was historic.
One other bit of good news. Troy just flew up and visited. He will be co-authoring the book with me. It only makes sense. Troy was on all three expeditions and he is a fantastic writer. I am really excited about his involvement. Our brother Todd will also be contributing stories on the 1995 expedition.
Through offering different perspectives we hope to keep the book lively, fast paced and most importantly - interesting.
I have included a small story from one of our trips through Bangkok on our way to Tibet. I hope you enjoy it.
Changing planes in Osaka, we had a day layover in Bangkok. It just so happened that a grade school friend of Troy’s - Ethan Bindelglas - was traveling in Burma and he made the short hop down to Bangkok to visit. We landed at 9:30 in the morning and he was there. It was great to see him. It’s always fun to see home town friends half way around the world. We loaded our mountains of gear in two taxis and headed into the city. It was sweltering and the gridlock was the worst we’d seen. I noticed billboards selling “pee bottles” for drivers sentenced to endless rush hours. On a portion of our crawl I saw this guy on crutches on the sidewalk next to us. For a couple of miles we were neck and neck. The long sleepless flight coupled with the swirl of colors, the darting of tuk tuks, over-loaded bicycles, the ceaseless honking, the endless congestion, and the acidic smell of pollution made me light headed. Sensory overload - that’s Bangkok.
Troy and Ethan had another grade school friend - Reid Bracken - who lived in Bangkok. Oddly and with no explanation, one day he sold his business in Phoenix and moved to Bangkok. It was a gutsy move - one that prompted endless speculation on our part. Reid had reserved rooms for us at the Stable Lodge on Sukhumvit Road. Touting itself as, “A Tropical Garden with Swimming Pool” it was perfect.
After Troy and I checked into our room and showered off twenty hours of travel, the four of us jumped in a taxi and headed to the Chao Praya River. This sluggish waterway flows through the city. Traveling it in long boats is one of our favorite Bangkok pastimes. The city was extremely crowded and all the homes clustered on the river banks only had three walls. So careening through the s-turns we had a bird’s eye view into these people’s lives. Some waved - some just went about their business. With a twinge of voyeurism – it was a great way to spend the afternoon. Another added feature was the small “beer boats” that saddled up next to us selling local brews. It was a glorious way to unwind.
As the sun was setting the light turned splendid against the city’s high rises. Swinging wide we headed back for dinner.
“Ugh, here we go again.” I thought as we sat gridlocked with the taxi’s air-conditioning blasting. We were captives under a blanket of mushrooming fumes. I was leaning against the widow in mindless thought. I noticed there was an old gray bus stopped next to us. It was crammed with people - so crammed that many were standing. I don’t think they could have squeezed one more soul in there. It was un-airconditioned and obviously lugging exhausted laborers home from a long day of whatever they did. And then the strangest thing happened. My vision shifted. The entire scene became a sepia brown - except for one girl on the bus. She was in technicolor. With an ocean of tired humanity pressed around her - she had her face, likewise, leaning against the window. She was pretty in a plain way. Our eyes locked and time stopped.
I’ve had these experiences before in other third world countries. And it’s not a sexual thing as it’s happened with old and young, male and female. I think about it a lot. Perhaps it’s some kind of psychic connection - or interconnection as the Buddhists would say. I believe it’s a recognition of our shared human experience and a blatant reminder of the inequities of our world. I’m looking forward to a great dinner and then getting on an airplane for the trip of a lifetime. She’s caught in a grinding life of survival. We’re both human beings. We both laugh and cry and love and get out of bed in the morning. Yet by virtue of birth she is held prisoner in a cycle of struggle and despair while I dance with the world.
But this isn’t guilt. I trace it back to my meditation practice. Meditation changes us. It changes our brains. It changes the way we think and relate to our world. It wasn’t a girl I was looking at on that bus. It was me. I saw myself in her. And with that fundamental recognition flows the most amazing realization - I must help her, for in doing so I am helping myself. Her survival - her well being - her happiness - are my own.
At Rancho Feliz we call this, “enlightened self interest”. Loosely defined, it means that the most selfish thing we can do for ourselves is to help others - those not born into our same fortunate circumstances. And we do this, not by providing welfare, but through the redistribution of opportunity. To me the words “opportunity” and “freedom” are synonymous. Without opportunity we are victims held in the bondage of ignorance - as with the girl on the bus. But with opportunity we can become creators. We can exercise free will and chart the courses of our lives.
But there is a cruel paradox for the present human condition. Acts of giving are counter intuitive to our habitual thought patterns of self identification and its grasping and attachment. The Buddhists call this a “false view”. The idea of an independent self cannot withstand the scrutiny of reasoning and logic. This simple concept is at the very core of Tibetan Buddhism and will be examined in greater detail in the book.
Suddenly I’m jolted back into reality as our lane opens and we move forward. I hold her gaze for as long as I can. But then she’s gone - swallowed in the sea of her own destiny.
“Perhaps she saw a part of herself in me.” I wondered.
I’ll never know.
The “Paradise” of Beyul Pemako (The Hidden Land of the Blossoming Lotus)
It can be heaven or it can be hell…
Either way, be prepared to lose 25 pounds and be under constant siege of blood sucking leeches.
Well, the countdown is on…. I leave on January 2nd to escape to my generously donated beach cottage on Whidbey Island to begin my book. Over the last few months I have been busy gathering notes, digitizing slides and phone conversations, and reading the wealth of information that has been written on the “Hidden Lands of the Blossoming Lotus” and its exploration since our trips in 1994, 1995 & 1997. In fact, the “Gillenwater Brothers” and our expeditions are discussed in each of the nine subsequent books listed below.
I find it interesting that each book has its own agenda and many times, self-serving claims. I’m starting to understand that this is the nature of exploration and its concomitant rewards. And it is the grasping nature of the human mind - a flaw endlessly addressed in the Tibetan Buddhist teachings. What an odd paradox for this most sacred landscape!
On the other hand, on our journeys we weren’t seeking fame or financial gain or a place to conquer. We had only one agenda. As one of the most spiritual and last unexplored places on the planet, our expeditions were motivated by a life-long interest in Tibetan Buddhism and a lust for the adventure and magic of the natural world. And I believe it was traveling with this intention that compelled the “Hidden Lands” to uniquely reveal themselves to us.
After 20 years it’s our turn to tell our story.
And what a story it is!
Earth’s Mystical Grand Canyons
The Last River: The Tragic Race for Shangri-la
Courting the Diamond Sow: A Whitewater Expedition on Tibet’s Forbidden River
Frank Kingdon Ward’s Riddle of The Tsangpo Gorges: Retracing the Epic Journey of 1924-25
The Siege of Shangri~La: The Quest for Tibet’s Legendary Hidden Paradise
Hell or High Water: Surviving Tibet's Tsangpo River
The Heart of the World: A Journey to Tibet's Lost Paradise
Last Seen in Lhasa: The story of an extraordinary friendship in modern Tibet
Tibet Wild: A Naturalist’s Journeys to the Roof of the World
In addition to many articles, the following books and films provide updated information on the area.
Namche Barwa Grand Canyon: Revealing the Secrets of a Green Canyon
Secrets of the Tsangpo Gorge - A National Geographic Special for National Geographic TV
Into the Tsangpo Gorge: The epic first descent of the Everest of rivers…
The Yarlung Tsangpo Great Canyon: The Last Secret World
Water: Asia's New Battleground
© 2017 Tibet Hidden Falls. All Rights Reserved