It felt wonderful being out of the squalid government compounds and sleeping in a clean tent. It rained a couple of times that night but dawned clear. We had an early breakfast and were soon on the trail. After another bridge crossing we continued following the course of the river.
Soon our trail began ascending off the valley floor and up a mountain. Evidently this was the Mondrong trail that had yet to be traveled by Westerners. It was steep - very steep. We crossed over several landslide areas. This was always nerve racking. The soil was menacingly loose and many times your step simply gave way - cascading tumbling dirt and rocks. Traveling these landslide corridors required intense concentration. Conversation ceased and foot placement was all consuming. If you slipped the angle of repose was too steep to stop.
It was a hot day. The elevation gain and unconsolidated footing took its toll. We continued climbing the interminable switchbacks. After gaining a vertical half mile in elevation our quads were screaming and our lungs were on fire. We finally topped out. It was a jungled area full of prayer flags flapping lethargically in the breeze. We followed the flags and they led us over a ridge and down to a small elfin hamlet called Mondrong (Mondrong means village of Monpas).
It was late afternoon when we arrived. The village elder offered us a one room log hut. We all piled in. Mr. Luo found some potatoes and onions and a couple of other vegetables we didn’t recognize. He cooked up soup on an open fire in the center of the room. All tribal homes are built this way. The cook fire is in the main room and open. The smoke hovers in the house and eventually finds its way through the roof’s wooden shingles. The concept of a chimney was yet to take hold.
Before turning in Troy and I went for water. The village had a communal aqueduct system which consisted of huge bamboo shoots cut in half and lashed together. The streaming water looked good. We skipped the filtering and filled our bottles. We then sat on a log and absorbed our surroundings. Troy and I always seemed to make time for these reflective moments. The endless night was above. The dancing orange glow of cook fires silhouetted the tiny village, so removed from the bustle of our regular lives. Unintelligible conversations were bracketed by jungle sounds and punctuated by occasional bursts of laughter. This was a moment in time that would never be duplicated. So exotic and so very far from home. This was adventure. We had survived the river. We were grateful.
Suddenly we heard the most sonorous singing. Turning around there were three tribal girls serenading us. They were young. One had a baby in a shawl on her back. They were precious. They were pretty. Their sing-song harmony was icing on the evening. I recorded three of their songs. I will occasionally listen to them and float back to that delicious moment in time. Returning to the smoky cabin, Troy and I opted to sleep on the porch.
Taking off my boots I noticed my left sock was soaked in blood. A leech! This was the first of hundreds that would attach and plague us in this parasite infested jungle.
Waking early, Rick, Troy, Eric, Jerry and I were soon hiking up another steep trail. We had three porters carrying Rick’s pack and two other day packs with food and water. Rick had studied the area extensively. This was his fourth time into the Great Bend. He was convinced if we could get to this one certain ridge-line and follow it down to its spur we would have a direct view into the final four unexplored miles of the inner gorge. And with this view held promise of finding the fabled “Lost Falls of the Brahmaputra.”
Continuing upwards we soon passed through a sister hillside village called Sengchen. The term “village” in this context is misleading. Two or more houses constitute a village. These were hamlets - small collections of log houses. The architecture had a “Swiss Family Robinson” feel with hand-hewn logs and bamboo water pipes. The homes had small yards with tea and barley gardens. The animals - mostly pigs, chickens and yaks - were corralled under the stilted houses. We noticed many of the children were deformed - a result of inbreeding.
Hiking up in a westerly direction, we finally gained the ridge. Here the trail continued over and down the other side. Rick wanted to follow the ridge-line southeast towards the inner gorge. But the porters indicated we should stay on the main trail. We thought this odd. Rick found a game trail that tracked the ridge and we headed in that direction. We noticed the porters’ behavior changed. They were talking excitedly and kept slowing down. Something was up. About a half mile down the ridge line the porters bolted off to the left. “Catch them!” Rick screamed.
Unbeknownst to us, Rick had the trip’s cash ($10,000.00) hidden in his backpack that was now racing down the mountain. It didn’t take us long to coral the deserters and Rick grabbed the porter with his pack and slapped him around. He didn’t hurt him but he got his attention.
We were to later learn that the inner gorge of the Yarlung Tsangpo was a most sacred place to these tribal people. They feared taking Westerners into their revered sanctuary would anger the protector spirits. Retribution would include landslides, brutal storms, damaged crops, barren women, disease and general bad fortune.
It was on this trip that Troy and I realized the striking differences between our cultural reality and that of the Monpas and Lopas. 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. We had to keep reminding ourselves of this fact.
Taking our three packs and sending the porters on their way, we headed back up to the ridge and continued to follow its course. Scrambling another two miles along the on-again, off-again nettle infested trail we came to a meadow. It afforded us a line of sight into the gorge. Reminiscent of Eric’s scouting of the Upper Granite Gorge, the steepness prevented us from seeing much of the river itself. However, Rick was hoping to catch a glimpse of a waterfall. As he explained it, the drop was so great that the water would be spewing forth as though blown from a giant fire hose.
By this time Troy and I were getting bored. We didn’t share in Rick’s enthusiasm for firsts. And we couldn’t understand the hoopla over seeing a distant waterfall. We followed Rick down the ridge a little farther but the thickening forest obstructed our group’s view of anything but the immediate area.
Rick was discouraged. Turning around we headed back to Mondrong. This was spectacular countryside. Troy, Jerry and I lagged behind taking photographs of Sengchen and the magnificent mist-filled Great Bend below us. And though we knew the mountain peaks of Namcha Barwa and Gyala Pelri loomed somewhere above, they were shy and continued to hide behind cloaks of ominous clouds. They stayed shrouded for most of our trip.
It was strange being this close to the inner gorge. Every now and then a distinct rumbling would blast down the valley. Sounding more like clapping thunder than a landslide, these terrestrial rumblings were constant reminders of the geologic instability of the Great Bend.
We later learned that we were seventy years late from being the first westerners to hike to Mondrong. And we weren’t the first to come up with this ridge-line approach to finding the Lost Falls of the Brahmaputra. According to Captain Francis Kingdon Ward’s book, “The Riddle of the Tsangpo Gorges”, in 1924 the British botanist-explorer visited both Mondrong and Sengchen in search of the falls. He wrote:
Next we ascended one story from the terrace on which Pingso (Mondrong) is built to a village called Sengchen on a spur; and then the fun began.
We had only one object in coming here – to explore that part of the gorge which had been hidden from us, between the rainbow fall and the Po-Tsangpo confluence, where the river turns back on itself to flow north-west-wards round the long jagged spur of Gyala Pelri. Here if anywhere were the ‘Falls of the Brahmaputra’ which has been a geographical mystery for half a century; and the final solution – falls? or no falls? - was now within our grasp. Our excitement may be imagined; and the fact that the river between the rainbow fall and the confluence dropped 1,851 feet was favorable to the theory of a hundred–foot waterfall somewhere. *
*Ward, Captain F. Kingdon. The Riddle of the Tsangpo Gorges. London: Edward Arnold, 1926. Pp. 234-235.
And chances are good the one room log cabin offered to us was the same one described by Kingdon Ward in the same passage, …we were all across and safely lodged in a one-roomed Monba (Monpa) hut, placed at our disposal by the villagers of Pingso (Mondrong).
Kingdon Ward’s 1924 experience with the Monpa hunter-porters and climbing the ridge for a view into the inner gorge was remarkably similar to ours. He described it in a paper he read to the Royal Geographical Society on May 25, 1925. Here are the relevant excerpts:
Retracing our steps up the steep ridge, we crossed the Po Tsangpo some 3 miles above the confluence (Yarlung Tsangpo & Po Tsangpo rivers) to a Monba village called Sengchen…
The local villagers obviously did not want Westerners in their sacrosanct inner gorge.
*In a book Ken Storm co-authored, “Frank Kingdon Ward’s Riddle of The Tsangpo Gorges”, he mistakenly claims, “In the spring of 1996 we followed the same trail - the first outsiders to return since that winter of 1924.” (Pg. 225) Unbeknownst to Storm, our group hiked that same trail in 1994.
Zachu and Death on the River
The next morning Mr. Luo prepared a hearty breakfast of rice and eggs. We then hiked east, all the way down to the Po Tsangpo River. We were on our way to the bluff-top hamlet of Zachu. When we got to the river there was no bridge. We followed the porters up river some ways and came to a 150 yard cable stretching to the other side. “Seriously” we thought. “We’re going to get ourselves and all our gear across this river on that little cable?”
Well, that was the plan and our new friend Jerry was the first to go. Two porters wrapped a leather thong around him three times and attached it to a rusty pulley. Then a porter pulled the bolt out of the pulley bracket and placed the wheel on the cable. At this point Chris Grace leaned over to me and whispered, “That’s the porter Rick slapped around yesterday!” Then the porter shoved the bolt back in.
They were preparing to shove Jerry off over the river. Thankfully he was paying attention. He noticed there was no end nut to hold the bolt in place. He demanded the nut be secured. The recalcitrant porter pulled it out of his pocket and screwed it on.
“Did they do that on purpose…?” we wondered in light of the prior day’s porter problems. There was definitely a new found tension within the ranks. Would a Westerner’s death appease the guardian spirits for our intrusion into their hallowed inner gorge? It wasn’t out of the question. What we wrote-off as superstition could be very real to them. I reminded myself that they were living in a culturally inculcated reality very different than ours. If anything, my study of the mind taught me that “reality” was a uniquely subjective experience. And nobody had a corner on the market.
We went on hyper-alert.
Jerry zipped and pulled safely to the opposite bank.
There was another thin rope tied to the pulley so that it could be retrieved after each crossing. It was explained to us that while moving you keep your hands off the cable at all cost. But this was harder than it sounded. The weight of the 150 yard metal cable had it sagging. So once you pushed off, gravity raced you to the middle. Traveling fast the pulley made a buzzing noise. Looking down you could see the thundering river 80 feet below and you instinctively wanted to grab the cable. If you did the pulley would run over your fingers. According to the porters, this happened to a local the year before. He lost several fingers and he fell to his certain death.
Once you attained the cable’s halfway equilibrium your momentum stopped. Then you reached and grabbed the cable and pulled yourself up the other side. With our crew of twenty eight and all our baggage it took several hours to complete the crossing.
Then we had a magnificent climb. It started up a slash and burn banana and bamboo field. New growth ferns were sprouting from the charred soil. I passed one with a green Tibetan bamboo pit viper* coiled and camouflaged on its broad leaf. The porters went crazy. These venomous snakes are deadly and greatly feared by the locals. Still, as with leeches and all other living creatures, their Buddhist faith doesn’t allow killing. The porters gave the viper a wide berth. That evening they burnt juniper and tsampa offerings to its spirit and its kindness for not striking.
*Trimeresurus tibetanus AKA: Tibetan bamboo pit viper - is a venomous pit viper species found only in Tibet.
Hiking on, the ascent got steeper. There was no recognizable trail so we just scrambled up the slope. I looked over at Bill Bacon. This guy was incredible. Not only was he carrying his day pack, but he was also lugging his 18mm movie camera. It had to weigh another 20 pounds. At 67 years old Bill was an inspiration to us all.
Then I noticed a blotch of blood on my sleeve. Opening my shirt I found a swollen three-inch-long tiger leech. It had released from my arm and was caught in the material. It was writhing in gluttonous ecstasy. Blood continued to stream down my bicep. “How can something this repulsive and this large bite me and draw blood and I don’t even feel it?” I wondered out loud. The others walked up to take a look and were equally revolted. It took every ounce of self-control I could muster not to stomp it under the heel of my boot. But I was beginning to pay attention to this idea of guardian spirits. I placed it back in the foliage. It could live a year on what it just drained out of me.
With leeches on our minds we hit the ridge line that would take us to the collection of shacks known as Zachu. The clouds were starting to move. All of a sudden we could see the 23,733 foot Gyala Pelri on the Asian continent. And then we could see the 25,531 foot Namcha Barwa on the Indian continent. The distance between the two is only thirteen and a half miles. As Rick originally deduced, this creates the deepest canyon in the world. And rushing between the two giants was the powerful Yarlung Tsangpo River nearing the apex of its great bend. This panorama was truly a sight to behold.
Zachu, with its white fluttering prayer flags, is located on a grassy knoll high above the confluence of the Po Tsangpo and the Yarlung Tsangpo rivers. This cat-bird seat affords the most expansive view of the northern course of the Great Bend.
Upon entering the Buddhist enclave we saw a row of brightly colored and very orderly high-tech tents. They looked so out of place in this primitive settlement. For weeks now we had been traveling in earth tones. These sudden bright bursts of color assaulted our eyes. It’s interesting how proprietary we become in our travels. The tents meant we would have to share our Shangri La with others from the outside world. Our Zachu experience would somehow be compromised.
Soon a stout looking Japanese fellow walked up and introduced himself. His name was Susumu Nakamura. He was one of Japan’s most venerated explorers having summited Mt. Everest as well as skiing to both the North and South Poles. As he explained it, he had been hired by a Japanese industrialist - Heihachi Takei - in a desperate attempt to locate his missing son Yoshitaka.
The year before, in 1993, Yoshitaka was part of a China-Japan exploratory team that secured the first permit to kayak the Yarlung Tsangpo River. They purportedly paid the $1 million permit fee that we so brazenly avoided. Their launch site was to be at the confluence directly below Zachu. In anticipation of their maiden voyage, Yoshitaka and his teammate Yasushi Tadano opted for a practice run on the merging Po Tsangpo River. Just as Tadano paddled into the current he was engulfed in a massive recirculating whirlpool and capsized. Seeing his friend in trouble, Takei plowed into the river to rescue him. He was immediately sucked into the same hydraulic and also capsized.
The explorer, Susumu, told us they were conducting a ceremony for the lost kayaker and invited us to join. He led us over to his group and introduced us to the father - Heihachi Takei. It was a somber eulogy but the sublime beauty of the setting was unparalleled. Aging prayer flags rippled in the breeze escorting juniper “puja” smoke into the atmosphere for the benefit of all sentient beings.
Not willing to give up completely, the elder Takei would fire off a small cannon at regular intervals. And brightly colored kites were flown on the outside chance his son might still be alive and see them - recuperating somewhere down in the canyon.
Following the ceremony they invited us to tea. These were fine men and we shared in their loss. Years later I was saddened to learn that in 2008, Susumu Nakamura and two Japanese climbing partners were killed in an avalanche on Mt. Kula Kangri (24,730 feet) in south central Tibet.
Leaving the Japanese camp for our own, I admonished myself for my negativity. Meeting the Japanese had enhanced my experience, not diminished it as I was so quick to project upon first seeing their tents.
“If I could just put a little space between me and my thoughts.” I said to myself. “I guess that’s what meditation is all about.”
The next morning we began our long zig-zagged grind up the Bönri massif to the 14,300 foot Dakmo Serkyim La pass. This would be our gateway into the lush Pome district. Our eventual arrival found the crest deep in snow. Like all passes in Tibet, this one sported numerous stacked mani stones and a profusion of prayer flags both old and new. See Footnote: Prayer Flags & Mani Stones.
Stopping to photograph the flags and the swallowing Himalayan scenery, I couldn’t help but again think how the Tibetan’s Buddhist faith was inseparable from their daily lives. Evidence of this deep-rooted conviction is seen everywhere - even on the lofty mountain passes.
Our long and steep free fall off the pass delivered us into the verdant Rong-chu valley. We had officially left central Tibet and were now driving into a jungled forest of constant rain. The Rong-chu valley is located at the western terminus of the world’s greatest vapor tunnel - the Yarlung Tsangpo gorge.
Here’s how it works. A thousand miles south in the Bay of Bengal tropical moisture forms gigantic monsoon clouds. Lumbering over India they plow into the eastern flanks of the towering Himalayas. Unable to advance, the humid air masses are diverted along the mountain range until they find a gap - the Yarlung Tsangpo River gorge. This cavernous passage funnels torrents of rain and violent storms into the world’s deepest canyon. Annual precipitation of over 25 feet has been recorded making this one of the wettest places on earth. It is uniquely inhospitable to travel. For years the perpetual cloud cover also prevented aerial photography and mapping.
Forty miles from Bayi we arrived at a small Chinese logging outpost called Tumbatse. Tumbatse was the 1924 operating base for the British botanist explorers Francis Kingdon-Ward and Lord Cawdor. Years later we would learn that from Tumbatse one can travel south over the Nyima La pass and down to the hamlet of Pe. Pe is located on the south bank of the Yarlung Tsangpo River. It is the entrance into the Tsangpo’s savage inner gorge. It would also be our 1995 exit point from Tibet’s mystical “Beyul Pemako” region (the, Hidden Land of the Blossoming Lotus).
We continued through Tumbatse on a nice downhill incline when I noticed a red light on the dash-board. Asking the driver what the problem was he said, “No stops. No stops.”
That meant our brakes were out.
“Well, it’s a good thing we didn’t have ‘No Stops’ twenty minutes ago plunging down the 4,800 foot vertical drop from the Dakmo Serkyim La pass,” I said to no one in particular. It’s like driving through the Hidden Lands’ landslide areas we had ahead of us; when traveling in Tibet you just have to trust that it’s not your time to die. Otherwise you’d be a continuous nervous wreck.
Soon we rolled into another makeshift logging town - Lunang. Located at an elevation of 9,500 feet, the Lunang forest is the largest in Tibet. The makeshift settlement itself was rough. It looked like a scene out of a spaghetti-western. The main street was a foot-deep in mud, forcing vehicles to drive around the town. And its plank board sidewalks seemed to single-handedly hold up most of the ramshackle buildings. There was an unfriendly atmosphere as the town’s laggards gave us evil looks and “just keep driving” stares.
Undaunted, we needed to get the brakes fixed so we slogged up to a shack that held some resemblance to a garage. The driver got to work and we went to explore the town. Soon we came to a group of locals standing around an open air pool table. There was an awkward silence. Troy walked up to the alpha Khampa*, shook his hand and challenged him to a game. The Khampa wryly agreed and they racked up the balls - minus two that were obviously lost. The pool table itself looked like an obstacle course with the torn felt taped and peeling, blotchy chang (barley beer) stains, and other impediments to a smooth roll. But this just seemed to add another element of skill to the game.
*Natives of the Kham region, Khampas are known as the warrior class of Tibet.
We have found in our out of the way travels that the best way to handle these tense situations is to walk in with and air of confidence and a certain amount of joking bravado. First of all, most had never seen big tall white guys in relatively clean clothes. And secondly, it’s hard to get angry with someone who looks you in the eye, holds out his hand and is obviously enjoying the encounter. A small crowd gathered as Troy and his new Khampa friend had a raucous game of pool. This afforded me the opportunity to snap some great photographs.
One picture in particular stands out. It was a group of tough guys I convinced to lean up against an old wall and look mean. I got my point across by gritting my teeth and growling. They liked that. They were in their traditional garb and I titled the photo, “The Monpa Mafia”.
One other thing about photographing indigenous people, and this is just my personal code of conduct, I always ask first. Many cultures have strong beliefs about photographs - ranging from soul stealing to casting spells. And I also compensate them. My logic is, I am “taking” their photograph. To restore the balance of reciprocity in the transaction they should be compensated. And almost always a few coins will do the trick.
Troy gave the Khampa a run for his money. But the “home table” advantage was too great. The Khampa sank the eight-ball to resounding cheers from the crowd. Laughing and shaking hands all around we boarded the land cruisers for the remaining forty punishing miles to Pelung. After Lunang we again began shedding big chunks of elevation. Our road followed the turbulent Rong-chu River, and with each mile the air got warmer and wetter and the forests trans-genderd to jungle.
As we drove the abysmal road we were astonished at the number of logging trucks that passed. An equal number of military transport trucks also bounced by. The Chinese were busy taking out the lumber and bringing in the military. The Chinese call Tibet - Xizang - which means “Western Treasury”. Since their 1950 invasion they have plundered Tibet’s old growth forests and stripped its earth of copper, uranium, gold, and other precious metals.
Eventually we arrived at a collection of shacks called Pelung. This would be our trailhead and we were all ready to get out and move.
Pelung is located at the confluence - or collision - of the Rong-chu River flowing northeast and the Po Tsangpo River flowing southwest. The combined waters then flow southeast as the Po Tsangpo River and merge twenty miles below into the mighty Yarlung Tsangpo River at the apex of its “Great Bend”. From here the Yarlung Tsangpo curves south and flows into India as the Dihang River some eighty miles below. It then turns back west onto the Assamese plains as the venerated Brahmaputra River.
Only here, at the thrust pivot point of two grinding continents, can you find geography twisted enough to confuse rivers into head-on collisions.
Located at 6,700 feet, the grubby town only had a few crumbling buildings. They were moss covered and the jungle seemed to be absorbing them back into its bowels. It was late in the day and we only had time for a short walk. We had a quick dinner of greasy noodles with the Chinese couple that owned the village’s dilapidated “guest house”.
Ready for bed, Chris Grace, Jerry Dixon, Troy and I were crammed into a single filthy room. It was pounding rain outside, the roof was leaking and there was smelly human feces running down one wall. The feces held our conversation for a while, “How can a person shit five feet up on a wall?” There were some creative hypothesis but we soon tired of the subject and turned off our flashlights for bed.
At first, other than the steady rain, it was quiet. I was looking forward to a decent night’s rest. But then we heard them - the pitter-patter scurry of rats - lots of rats. Suddenly Chris Grace let out a terrifying scream. Our lights came back on and Chris was sitting bolt upright on his cot. He was visibly shaken. Eyes wide he told us a rat - a big rat (holding his hands the size of a football) - with blood red eyes and jagged teeth had jumped onto his face. Not knowing whether to laugh or cry, we turned off our lights, pulled our sleeping bags over our heads and tried to go to sleep. Of course this experience emboldened the rats but we eventually tuned out their cross-cot scuttles. The next morning we discovered one had gnawed its way into our food bag - no small feat - and devoured a good portion of our oatmeal. Ever since that eternal night we have referred to Pelung as the, “Leaping Rat Lodge”.
The next morning we learned that the majority of our porters had been forced into some kind of Chinese military training and wouldn’t be available until 2:00pm. With our extra time we hiked down along the river for a couple of miles to a rickety suspension bridge. We could see the trail continue on the opposite bank. The river was huge and full of rapids. Troy and I shuddered. We took a few pictures and then returned to Pelung to outfit our packs and ready for the trek.
Following lunch and with our gear in order, we still had a couple of hours before the porters were expected. Miraculously we found a shack that sold warm liters of beer. Troy, Chris, Jerry and I pulled up some crates for chairs and declared a Happy Hour. Soon the four of us were laughing and joking like long lost friends.
Looking for the Hidden Falls
About 2:30 in the afternoon our porters began drifting in. They were an interesting lot. Direct decedents of the warring Mishimi and Abor tribes, they were small in stature but huge in stamina. Well studied in the art of trekking, their sure-footedness was a marvel. Their choice of clothing was green fatigues, Red-Chinese army-issued pants and jackets with well-worn dress shirts. Some wore caps sporting the red star of the People’s Liberation Army. Most had tattered sweat pants under their trousers and lengths of cloth wound around their calves and ankles to ward off ever-present leeches. All carried metal-scabbard belt knives. The coolest of the troupe paraded around in knock-off sunglasses.
What fascinated us most was their footwear. While we had high-tech, ankle-lacing waterproof boots, they negotiated the Himalayan terrain in cheap Chairman Mao tennis shoes - most of the time lacking both socks and shoelaces. And for rain gear they each carried a torn piece of plastic.
They were people of the earth. They lived blending into their landscape - not hiding from it as we did with our fancy GORE-TEX® clothing, state-of-the-art tents, and other amenities designed to separate us from our surroundings.
They lived in a cash-starved environment. We learned that the average wage for the Great Bend area fluctuated between $150 and $250 per year. With a porter pay rate of between $5 and $7 per day, these human mules were income-equivalent to our culture’s brain surgeons.
But there was a downside. Local porters were notorious for their nefarious behavior. Stealing, desertion and porter strikes were experienced by outside expeditions as far back as the mid-1800’s. A favorite ploy was to wait until the expedition was deep into the hinterlands and then stage a strike demanding double wages. Expeditions had little leverage in these unbalanced situations.
It was well-known practice that you never shared with the porters. To do so would open Pandora’s Box - inviting an incessant barrage of begging. The best way to prevent bad-behavior was to padlock all bags and maintain a relatively aloof and authoritative demeanor.
Rick masterfully negotiated the daily wage and soon our entourage of nine westerners, our required Chinese liaison - Mr. Luo - and eighteen porters were hiking back to the bridge and on down the Po Tsangpo River gorge.
For Troy, Jerry, Chris and me this was “buzzed hiking”. We had each consumed two liters of warm beer during our makeshift Happy Hour. With every step we could feel it sloshing in our stomachs.
I was hiking next to Rick. As we wound our way through a combination of thick jungled vegetation and hulking old growth forest he told me that we would be the first westerners to travel an upcoming trail to the camp of Mondrong. As previously discussed, Rick was into “firsts”. He said he expected three “firsts” from this trip; the first to traverse the Yarlung Tsangpo River’s Upper Granite Gorge (which we had just completed), the first to negotiate the Mondrong trail and the first to see the legendary Lost Falls of the Brahmaputra.
One of the things I like about hiking is it gives me time to think. As we continued I reflected on what Rick had said. It was quite remarkable that towards the end of the twentieth century there was still a place where no Western explorer had yet set foot. And while the Himalayan mountains, earthquakes, avalanches, perpetual rain and hostile tribes were all formidable opponents, it was Tibet’s historic isolationist policy followed by the Communist Chinese invasion and complete closure of the area that had been the biggest impediment to exploration.
I thought about how lucky we were to know Rick Fisher. He was the first Westerner to successfully crack the Chinese permitting code for Tibet’s, Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo - also known as the “Hidden Lands”. And I again reflected on the incalculable number of fortuitous circumstances that had to line up perfectly to have Troy and me there hiking next to him. While I’m not religious, there was a force at play far greater than chance. In my life-long study of the mind I was beginning to believe this force was within each of us. And there was a way to harness it - thereby influencing our realities. This is what intrigued me about Tibetan Buddhism. The trajectory of our lives was not in the capricious hands of another - of an exterior existing god. This would require “dualism” - a principle Buddhism categorically rejects. We - ourselves - were the commanders of coincidence. Little did I know how critical this force would become in our future expeditions into Tibet’s Hidden Lands.
The riverside trail was spectacular. We were hiking beneath gigantic rhododendron trees - each seemingly possessed its own soul. At one point we came to an 800 foot sheer cliff. The trail continued 50 feet above the churning river on a dilapidated, loosely planked, cat-walk hanging precariously from the canyon wall. At another cliff the footpath had been gouged out of the rock. The porters called these hand carved sections the “Tiger’s Mouth”.
The trail from Pelung to the confluence was known as “Nettle Alley”. Along this stretch we were introduced to two scoundrels who would haunt us on this expedition and all future ones - the Hidden Land’s leeches and stinging nettles. See Footnote: Leeches & Stinging Nettles.
While we found several leeches on us, none had time to attach before we brushed them away. The nettles were another story. Camouflaged with thick trailside vegetation, they were almost impossible to detect. It was only after you brushed by the plants that the effects kicked in. It was like someone threw a saucepan of boiling water on you. The initial pain was intense and the automatic reaction was to rub the contacted area. This only ground the thousands of dislodged microscopic hypodermic needles further into your skin. Following a minute of excruciating agony the pain would dial down to a hot burn and then fade into a numbness that could last for hours.
Out of necessity we became somewhat proficient at identifying the plants. In these thick sections you didn’t walk too close to the person in front of you. Their passing could snap the stalk back slapping you on the arms, legs - or worse - on the face. Clothing was a weak deterrent.
Troy and I had gotten ahead of the group and came to another suspension bridge. Here the trail split. One branch continued on river right and the other crossed the bridge and continued on river left. Not certain of the route, we waited for the porters. Across the bridge it was and down the trail on river left. Our day’s late start had us now looking for a suitable camp. Soon the porters found a lush meadow next to a stream and we assembled our tents.
After an icy stream bath Troy and I were drying off on a big flat rock. Suddenly movement caught my eye. It was high on the ridge across the river. I pointed it out to Troy. It was a tiny turquoise speck. We watched it inching along and then it dawned on us, “That’s Jerry!” Still tipsy when he came to the bridge crossing, he missed the turn and was well on his way to Bhutan. “Jerry!” we screamed in unison. About the fifth scream the speck stopped. We kept yelling and finally the speck started going back the other way.
Right before dark Jerry - in his turquoise shirt - staggered into camp. At fifty three, he was the second oldest member of our group. He was exhausted. Collapsing on the rock next to us he looked over and said, “Great way to start a hike, eh?”
Footnote: Prayer Flags & Mani Stones
Footnote: Leeches & Stinging Nettles
To feed, a leech first attaches itself to the host 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 suckle, 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 your blood flows freely.
Because of the saliva's effects, we usually weren’t aware we’d been bitten until after the leech released. Then we’d see the incision and the streaming of blood that stained our clothes and was difficult to stop.
Leeches are heat seeking. At night we’d place a candle in the jungle and watch as hundreds inched their ways toward the flame. The jungle floor would come alive with an undulating carpet of advancing leeches. At night in your tent you could look up and see countless slimy silhouettes wiggling 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 is 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 alien leeches in your sleeping quarters. (On more than one occasion I would wake up 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 twenty two 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. (Pulling off the leech leaves the head inside your flesh rendering the bite site susceptible to infection.) We found there were three 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 us how to skillfully rotate the leech in a clockwise direction (traveling with the Buddha) and pretty soon the leech would simply release its death grip and fall off.
Many times the affected area goes numb and can stay that way for hours. If not cleaned correctly, the contact areas often become infected.
Foreign Travel in Tibet
Exploration of Tibet's "Hidden Lands”
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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