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.
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
“Gil…. You have to write a book!”
"Spirit reveals itself to those with a higher purpose."
Oh how I would love to be an atheist!
*On our 1995 expedition, Troy, Todd and I followed Trungpa’s arduous 1959 escape route from Tibet to India over the Doshung-La Pass.
According to Trungpa, Drala is a quality of “vividness” where our phenomenal world actually comes alive to speak to us. This is the “living” quality of the natural world.
Post Note: I’m a left-brained guy – a real pragmatist. I recoil at the philosophical platitudes so bantered around these days: “Just live in the moment, Everything is energy”, blah, blah, blah and so on ad nauseam. Yet what you will read on this Blog and in my book actually happened. These were our experiences – backed by photographs, journal entries and recordings. I can’t begin to explain them other than in the context of the Dralas I describe above. Though grounded in Buddhism, the lessons I learned and will convey in my book are not esoteric gobbledygook. They are practical realities that can be implemented in our own lives to help each of us on our individual journeys.
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