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Monk Chants

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

53b 1995 GTT Before Trip

87b 1995 G T T Chokyi Rinpoche Atop Jokhang

Dear Friends –
It has been seven months since my last Blog post. In the interim I have been consumed with raising the money for, and the actual construction of, a new Rancho Feliz volunteer dormitory in Agua Prieta, Sonora, MX.

CLICK HERE to view an article about this project. You can also see our actual construction progress by clicking on this 2½ minute video link: https://youtu.be/XiYHh5SGJvo

But the Tibet book is finally completed.

It is a surprising 700 pages long (to be edited in half).

I have to tell you that it was five times the amount of work I originally anticipated.

In addition to myself – we have nine other expedition members contributing to the narrative.

Two of the contributors are Sherpas and their perspectives of transpired events are quite different than ours. Their realities existed in a sub-context of benevolent and monovalent spirits and a conscious, living, breathing landscape. Theirs is a rare and fascinating view.

The book is full of hardship, magic and intrigue - sprinkled with understandable Buddhist philosophy. As the last unexplored place on the planet – traveled before the benefit of mobile phones and GPS – it’s a story that can never be replicated.

No less than ten books have been written about the uncovering of this fabled landscape. Now – a quarter of a century later – our story will be told.

We are currently polishing it with one final review, inserting chapters, footnotes, etc. Once we have that completed we will find a good agent/adventure editor to cut the book down to a marketable size for the general public. We will then locate a publisher and produce our book.

As our three separate journeys through the Himalayan Hidden Lands were arduous – so too was the challenge of compiling and condensing mountains of notes and recorded conversations, allocating the time and sitting at a desk - typing for hours and days on end.

I would like to thank each of you for your encouragement and support of this consuming effort.

I promise you a story like no other.

But I enjoyed posting the Blog stories and would like to continue. If you will remember, the last post brought our 1994 expedition to a close.

Our rafting and exploration trip with Rick Fisher had been an adventure dream come true. But it lacked spiritual significance. The mystery of this secret land was what I was after. The Tibetan Buddhism that produced outrageous people like Chögyam Trungpa and the Dalai Lama. The possibilities of hidden lands such as Shangri-La and Shambhala. Furthering my understanding of meditation and the mind’s role in our interior and exterior circumstances.

This was the Tibet I wanted to see.

So let’s go back to our 1994 exit from Tibet.

May 29, 1994 – Tibet’s Capital City, Lhasa:
We had time to call home and let everyone know we were safe. Back then there was only one set of phones available to us in Lhasa and there was always a wait. The minimum cost for each call home was $18. After finally getting through and telling of our wild adventures, two Westerners approached and introduced themselves as Ian Baker and his cohort - Hamid Sardar.

“Excuse me.” Ian said. “I didn’t mean to eavesdrop but it sounds like you guys had a remarkable adventure.” And the conversation continued from there.

Ian and Hamid had been in the inner gorge at the same time we had. They were part of the American team Rick had been so worried about.

As we were exchanging pleasantries and sizing each other up it was discovered that Ian had a sister - Jennifer - who lived near us in Scottsdale, Arizona. “What are the odds of that?” we said in unison.

It soon became apparent that Ian and Hamid knew what they were talking about. Astute in their diction and studied in their content, Troy and I were impressed. They had just returned from their own trip into the Hidden Lands they called Pemako. Both Ian and Hamid had a keen interest in Tibetan Buddhism and this sacred landscape. Ian explained that its energy was essentially female.

He went on to tell us about his quest to find a fabled mountain - Kundu Dorsempotrang. However, upon his reaching the Chinese military outpost of Medog, (on the banks of the Yarlung Tsangpo River near India) the local authorities forbade his group to proceed. Ian explained that Tibetan Buddhism views the Hidden Lands as Beyul Pemako, the “Hidden Land of the Blossoming Lotus”. This was a secret land of a sacred goddess. Her name was Vajrayogini and she was a meditational deity or image. In other words, she wasn’t an externally existing goddess, rather her practice dealt with meditative visualization as a self-determined path to alter one’s reality.

Evidently Pemako was her sacred landscape and she was represented geographically spread out over the region. He mentioned that he was planning another attempt to reach Kundu Dorsempotrang the following year. As he described the adventure it would be, “A spiritual pilgrimage to the luminous mountain - heart chakra of Pemako’s patron goddess.”

“Might you be interested in going?” he asked.

Troy and I were hooked.


The Heart of the Goddess

Going Back to Tibet

The primary cause of disorder in ourselves is the seeking of reality promised by another.
Jiddu Krishnamurti

Our senses perceive the way they do because a specific feature of our awareness forces them to do so... because we learn what to perceive.
Carlos Castaneda

Most people don’t inhabit a living reality, but a conceptualized one.
Eckhart Tolle

Once we overcome habitual patterns we will begin to be individual masters of our world.
Chögyam Trungpa


   Via Letter

   August 24, 1994

   Ian Baker
   7901 XXXXXX Road
   Philadelphia, Pa. 19118

   Dear Ian,
   The day after we all got together Troy and I were talking about what a unique coincidence it was that we ran into you in Lhasa. Not to mention the fact that you have a sister who lives here in Arizona just a short distance from us. It's these types of coincidences that should not be ignored. With this in mind I would like to reiterate our interest in joining you on your next trek into southeastern Tibet. The area that you were talking about sounds absolutely fascinating. Equally important to both Troy and me would be the opportunity to see this magical place with you and to share your knowledge of the language, people and religion…

   …As discussed, we believe that there is a fast closing “window of opportunity” to experience this remote region of the world in its undiscovered and pristine state. I don't think any of us should let this chance pass us by…

   …One last thing. If it would be possible to structure the trip in a way as to include travel on some of Trungpa’s escape route I would greatly appreciate it. I am such a student and admirer of his that to walk in his footsteps would be a very special experience for me.

   That's it for now Ian. Again, it was good seeing you and I do hope we can work out this trip together. Something tells me it would be an unforgettable adventure!
   Tu Gran Amigo,
   Gil Gillenwater


   Via Facsimile: 011-977-XXX-3617

   March 22, 1995

   To: Gil Gillenwater
   From: Ian Baker

   Dear Gil,
   My apologies for not responding before now to your letter last August…

   …The expedition I spoke with you about last summer – into the heart of the Pemako region (south-east of the confluence of the Tsangpo and the Po-Tsangpo rivers) is definitely on for this August. It was very tentative for a while as that area we want to explore is right on the Tibet–India border. Only last week was permission from the Chinese Military official granted.

   As we spoke about, this trip would be an expedition into the region that Tibetans consider to be an earthly paradise, despite the fact that it's cut off from the outside world for all but two or three months in the year. (We’d hoped to enter this area last May, but the snow on the high passes was still too deep.) Essentially the trip will last about three weeks, beginning in the first week of August. We’ll drive to Pome and cross first the range of snow peaks by truck, beginning the trek somewhere to the north of Medok. We'll be passing through villages similar to the ones you visited last year, but a significant part of this expedition will be in virgin wilderness. Setting out from the Monastery of Rinchenpung which lies – it’s said – in the naval chakra of the goddess Vajrayogini, we’ll follow the pilgrims’ route to the sacred mountain that rises at her heart center. This route descends into lush rainforest but also climbs over steep glacier covered passes. No westerners have ever been into this region and the expedition will be exploration and pilgrimage in equal measure. From the holy mountain – Dosempotrang – we’ll enter into the area that Tibetans have envisioned for centuries as a hidden paradise.

   I've been collecting Tibetan texts describing this mysterious region for years as well as pilgrims’ accounts of their experiences there. There's no doubt that the journey will be a tough one; rain, leeches etc. are guaranteed, but the descriptions that pilgrims bring back of an exotic realm of mists and waterfalls – will – I’m sure – more than compensate for all adversities. So far there are three of us going. Hamid, my friend who was on the last trip, who's a Tibetan scholar and practicing Buddhist and two other people you haven't met. I would welcome you and Troy to join us as I think you would make the team all the more stronger and I know from our meeting that your view of the journey would be in accord with ours. I'll write more details when I’ve heard back from you.
   All for now.


   Via Facsimile: 602-949-7969

   March 24, 1995

   To: Ian Baker
   From: Gil Gillenwater

   Dear Ian,
   Troy & I never argue with destiny. We're on! Please provide details A.S.A.P. as we have a lot of planning ahead of us. Especially interested in the pilgrimage & spiritual aspects of the expedition. Also think you have put together a good team. Please confirm your receipt of this FAX & looking forward to seeing you again in August.
   Tu Gran Amigo,
   Gil Gillenwater


   Via Facsimile: 011-977-XXX-3617

   April 30, 1995

   To: Gil Gillenwater
   From: Ian Baker

   Dear Gil,
   Sorry about the delay in providing details about the trip. I was waiting for further clarification from the Chinese regarding costs, then had to leave suddenly to India for a magazine assignment. The trip is still very much on, in fact it's becoming increasingly apparent that this is the right time to go. I met last week with the tulkus (reincarnations) of the two 17th century llamas who established the first monasteries in Pemako. We'll be bringing letters and photographs from them which will do much to secure the cooperation of the local people in our journey to Pemako’s hidden center. One of them stands about 6’3” with long black hair and the white robes of the Tantric initiate. It's too bad they can't come with us.

   According to the tulkus the most auspicious time to arrive at the mountain at the heart of Pemako would be the full moon in August (according to the Tibetan calendar, August 10th). This region is meant to be extremely unusual, a glaciated peak rising out of thick subtropical jungle. This circumambulation route around the mountain passes by several small lakes, each of different colors and endowed – according to the texts – with magical powers. To reach the mountain - Kundu Dorsempotrang - at the optimal time means leaving Lhasa by July 30th…
   All for now.


   Via Facsimile: 215–XXX- 5641

   July 5, 1995

   TO: Gil, Troy, and Todd Gillenwater
   Hamid Sardar

   FROM: Ian Baker

   RE: Packing and equipment for Pemako expedition

   …At least as important as these outer preparations for the journey is an inner readying. Pemako, as I think everyone knows, is a land uniquely sacred to the Tibetan people – a place they described as the ultimate place of pilgrimage and “a celestial realm on earth". At the same time this remote border region is one of the least known parts of the planet, and our focal point – a luminous peak rising out of subtropical jungle – has never to this day been visited by anyone other than devout Tibetan Buddhist pilgrims who envisioned the mountain as the heart center of the Tantric goddess Vajrayogini.

   It is important that we, too, travel through this region in the spirit pilgrimage: attentive to the unknown and unexpected. As one llama described his journey through Pemako: “If you have faith that this is truly a secret and magical land, Pemako can reveal many wonders. If you doubt, however, it can seem like hell… Ultimately you must recognize that you are in no way separate from the landscape through which you walk."
   All for now.

We were going back to Tibet.

Yes… we were going back to Tibet. I was beyond myself. All my study of the mind was manifesting in a trip to Tibetan Buddhism’s heart center - the “Hidden Land of the Blossoming Lotus” - Beyul Pemako.

In Tibetan Buddhism, Pemako is thought to be an earthly paradise - a Shangri La or Shambhala (Sanskrit for “the Source of Happiness”). This mystical refuge was purportedly an idyllic sanctuary originally revealed by the eighth-century Buddhist guru - Padmasambhava as the “Supreme Hidden Land”.

Pemako remained remote and secluded from the “civilized” world into the mid-1990’s. As some of the first foreigners to gain entrance, we found the Hidden Lands pristine in their isolation. In this rarified condition we learned from the “unaltered”, non-conceptualized minds of those who lived there. See Pemako Footnote. It was a fortuitous and rapidly disappearing opportunity. A mere four years after our 1995 expedition the Communist Chinese again closed Pemako to foreign travel.

For this expedition, Troy and I convinced our younger brother - Todd - to join us. Todd was 30 years old, 6’2” in height and strong. He was smart and fun and a good athlete. He would be a great addition to our trip.

A month before we were leaving Todd tore the meniscus in his right knee playing basketball. It was a painful injury and the prognosis wasn’t good. Three independent Orthopedics’ insisted surgery was mandatory. With a three month recovery, this would preclude Todd from joining us. He opted out of surgery. He was going. Troy and I were encouraged by his decision but not without trepidation. We knew Pemako. We knew the wet, slippery, unstable conditions with its steep ups and downs. Hell, these were the Himalayas.

On July 25, 1995 the three of us boarded a plane for Tibet.


Pemako Footnote

Shangri La - Shambhala

Beyul Pemako is a region in southeastern Tibet roughly defined by the Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo River.

The name Beyul Pemako translates as follows:

Be - hidden or secret
Yul - land or country
Pema - lotus flower
Ko - blossoming or opening

Accordingly, Beyul Pemako means “Hidden Land of the Blossoming Lotus" or “Secret Country of the Opening Lotus”. Tibetan Buddhist philosophy extols sacred landscapes as hidden places (beyuls) where pilgrims can greatly accelerate their paths to enlightenment. The more hostile the environment, the more sacred the landscape and the faster the journey to realization. As the deepest, wettest, most geologically unstable and biologically diverse areas on the planet, the Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo River is Tibet’s most revered “Hidden Land”.

Pemako is home to the oldest Tibetan Buddhist tradition called Nyingma. Padmasambhava introduced this tradition over 1300 years ago. In Pemako he subdued aggressive demons, endowed the landscape with his magical powers and secreted Buddhist teachings to be rediscovered by future generations. Pemako’s extreme environment provides a compelling location for Nyingma tantric practice.

Ancient prophecies foretold a time when, “Men will lose sight of truth and religion and will turn to warfare and the pursuit of power for its own sake. Dishonesty, greed, and cunning will prevail; an ideology of brutal materialism will spread over the earth.”*

*Bernbaum, Edwin. The Way to Shambhala: A Search for the Mythical Kingdom Beyond the Himalayas, (1980) St. Martin’s Press, New York

With the projected inevitability of worldwide destruction, Buddhist texts told of pilgrimage routes into Pemako where those with pure karma could retreat. Here they would find Shangri La - a land with no disease or poverty, where sacred waters ensured longevity and food would grow without work. Here they would be liberated from the bondage of time. There would be no toil and inhabitants were free to master the highest science of them all, the science of the mind. Great lamas would teach true wisdom and all would accelerate their spiritual progress. This Shambhala would be a heaven on earth.

Following the annihilation of the outside world, Shambhala residents would emerge to repopulate the earth with an enlightened society.

However, the prophesies were clear - Pemako could only be reached with enormous hardship and pure intention. Those with ulterior motives or negative karma were certain to encounter failure or death.

To many Tibetans, the Communist Chinese invasion of the 1950’s was the prophesied destruction of their world. They fled their oppressors seeking refuge in the “Hidden Lands" or “Shambhala” of the “Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo”. However, despite tremendous efforts, the promised paradise failed to materialize. What the pilgrims found instead were devastating landslides, incessant rains, warring tribes, vipers, jungle diseases, blood sucking leeches, tigers, hordes of insects, nettle forests hidden in dense vegetation….. in short, hell on earth.

Thousands of these paradise seekers died while some survivors made it on to resettlement camps in India, Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan.

For the spiritual pilgrim, the paradise of Pemako is hidden more by habits of perception than by features of the landscape.


“Back to Lhasa”

1 1994 TG Gil w Monpa Family in Zachu copy
We stayed with a young Monpa family in Zachu.

We spent two nights in Zachu with a young Monpa family. They were a delight and it elevated their community status to have us in their home. The husband stood around 5’2”. The soup bowl cut of his black hair framed an oval face with delicate tribal features. He was thin. There were no fat Monpas, Lopas or Khampas in the Hidden Lands. He wore a stained dress shirt, frayed gray trousers and the ubiquitous Chairman Mao tennis shoes. His hands and forearms were thick from work.

His wife was smaller with rounder features. Her soft skin gave her an angelic countenance. Her lips were full. She was pretty. There was a Chinese scarf balanced on her head. She sported hoop earrings and no less than ten brightly colored hoop bracelets on her left wrist. She wore a long sleeved light blue blouse and a dark full-length skirt. She, likewise, had on Chairman Mao tennis shoes.

Their two small boys were dressed in home sewn jackets and shorts. Neither wore shoes. They had colored yarn bracelets and each had a small photograph of the Dalai Lama worn on a string necklace. We noticed the matriarchal family dynamic and the children had the run of the roost. Not once did we see the mischievous boys disciplined.

Our presence was a major curiosity for those two days and a gaggle of children followed us everywhere. Troy and I had brought some “glow in the dark” florescent pens to hand out and they were a resounding success. This idea of distributing modern gifts wasn’t shared by all in our group.

Expedition Member Chris Grace’s 1994 journal notes:

I am never sure that contact with these remote, isolated peoples is beneficial to them, though undoubtedly inevitable. I can already discern some impact we have had by exposing them to a way of life so unlike the one they have had virtually for a thousand years. There is little here that would not have been available at the time of Christ. But now you can see glimmers of envy, the children, now familiar with us are far more aggressive with us and each other. Though my practice is not shared by others in the group, I try to stay somewhat aloof and never give things to them. I want there to be no more fascination with us than necessary.

2 1994 Troy Kid Zachu copy
Troy showing his camera and zoom lens to a young Monpa boy above the village of Zachu.

3 1994 TG Zachu Boy w Dalai Lama Necklace copy
Another Monpa boy from Zachu.
Note the Dalai Lama portrait on a string around his neck.
Even in the Hidden Lands they love their God King.

Our final night sticks in my mind. We cooked dinner in the log home where we were staying. The family gave us some home-grown chili sauce that was nuclear hot. It went well with our rice and noodles. I relished this exotic meal. Looking around the room from my seat on the floor I saw Buddhist prayer flags and white khatas* mixed with the animistic masks of the Bön religion. “Soak it in, Gil” I told myself. Soon we were ready for bed and we climbed a creaky ladder up to the loft. There was a straw mattress and Troy, Jerry, Chris and I laid out our sleeping bags.

*The khata is a traditional ceremonial scarf. Over the centuries it has become an indispensable part of Tibetan life. Usually made of silk, it is white in color symbolizing purity and compassion. To present a khata, you first fold it in half length-wise. This represents the interdependence of the giver and receiver. Taking it in both hands you lift it up over the recipient’s head and with a bow place it gently around his or her neck.

This would be our final night in the Hidden Lands and I was enjoying the cacophony of native noises. The rain was pattering on the wood-shingled roof above, the young family was speaking their sing-song tongue below, and the yaks were lowing from their pen under the stilted home. It was a patch-work of sounds that felt like a warm quilt comforting me as I drifted to sleep.

An hour later I was awakened by a tremendous gust of wind. It blew straw and dust all over us. The rain had increased ten-fold, streaming through the roof cracks. Flashes of dazzled lightning were chased by explosions of thunder. The straw mattress had itching fleas. Monpa relatives had dropped by with chang (barley beer) and rice wine and both children and adults were singing, screaming and laughing at the top of their lungs. Not to be outdone, the yaks were mooing constantly, now accompanied by crowing roosters, bawling goats, and snorting pigs. And this went on for hours.

The next morning I recorded the following thoughts. They speak to one’s choice of perception in creating reality:

It was just a miserable night. But it’s funny because you’re so excited to be here. I am. I’m so excited to be in Tibet that even the miserable times aren’t miserable to me. I enjoy them. It’s like I’m totally energized all the time. In fact, I’m sitting here right now looking up into these Himalayan Mountains, at the blue sky and the big white clouds and the jagged snow-covered peaks. And this beautiful green valley with the yaks grazing and the stupa on the end of town and the little pigs. And the Tibetans are walking by staring at me like they’ve never seen anything like me before. What an adventure!

Our twenty mile hike back to Pelung was relatively uneventful but for one incident. Troy, Jerry and I hiked together. Two thirds of the way up the long hot trail we crossed a bubbling stream. The setting was idyllic. We called a rest stop and slung our packs to the ground, splashed cool water on our faces and sat on a nearby log in the protective shade of a Rhododendron tree. What happened next was right out of a horror film.

Expedition Member Jerry Dixon:

The hike out of the lower canyon was hot and humid. I was in the lead followed by Troy and Gil. We were all aware of the leeches that were everywhere and we watched for blood stains on our companions. About an hour into the hike I stopped to dip my bandana into a pool of water. When I put it back on my head I thought a lump of mud got on my eye. When I could not remove it I asked Troy to take a look. He cried out "Oh my God it’s a leech!”. Gil ran up and with his Harley Davidson bandana and twisted the leech off before it could suck all the optical fluid out of my eye. It left a small dent next to the pupil but I was able to see OK. I asked Gil if I could keep the Harley Davidson bandana after I thanked him for saving my eye.

4 1994 TG Gil Jerry on Side of Stream copy
Gil & Jerry above the stream where Jerry had a leech attach to his eye.

I remember gagging as Jerry held his eye open and I saw a squirming leech. “We have a major malfunction here…” I told Jerry. The greasy leech had attached to his cornea and was squirming to and fro securing its bite.

I tried to think of what to do. I couldn’t use a match that close to his eye. And pulling it off would leave the head lodged in his eyeball - guaranteeing infection. Then I remembered the “enlightened” circular technique the Monpas had shown me. I pulled off my bandana and began rotating the leech - in the Buddhist clockwise direction. 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 eyeball.

Sure enough, it finally plopped off. In Buddhist style, we placed it gently back into the jungle. Jerry’s vision was somewhat blurred for a while but it eventually healed. He asked me for the bandana. He said he wanted to frame it and hang it on a wall at home.

5 1994 Troy Monpas copy

6 1994 TG Troy Tribal Porters copy
Troy makes some new friends on our hike back to Pelung.

7 1994 TG Gil Bill Bacon w Monpa Porters copy
Gil & Bill Bacon give the porters a break on the hike back to the Leaping Rat Lodge.

Arriving at the Leaping Rat Lodge in Pelung, we bade our porters goodbye and jumped in the waiting vehicles. It was a long three day drive back to Lhasa.

8 1994 Gil Jerry Troy Pylung copy
Gil, Jerry & Troy finish the trek and pose at the Leaping Rat Lodge.

Just outside Bayi one of the land cruisers broke down. We got to watch the driver - in his cheap suit and tie - rebuild the carburetor on the side of the road.

Taking the shorter northern return route (the bumpy dirt roads were equally deplorable), we drove up an exquisite canyon and stopped for the evening in a small Tibetan village called Kading. Here we had dinner. It was the best meal we’d had on the entire trip. Afterwards Rick, Eric and Jerry decided to drive on towards Lhasa. Jerry was having post-leech vision problems and Rick told us he had some marital issues to address. Eric wanted to go with Rick. But Mr. Luo was adamant that the rest of us stay to visit a sacred lake the next day.

We said our goodbyes and Troy, Chris and I decided to take an evening walk. It was almost a full moon. At 12,600 feet, the forested canyon and surrounding snow-clad peaks appeared ghostly. We followed a meandering track out of town. Clouds overhead raced by, latticed with the glowing moonlight. The evening took on a heavenly air. We turned off our flashlights and continued walking.

“Did you hear that?” Chris whispered.

Stopping to listen we weren’t sure. We continued our walk. And then, as if on cue, we heard the faint drifting melody of a female voice. The further we walked the louder it became. It was hauntingly beautiful - both angelic and operatic. As we continued the voice grew louder. Soon we were within fifty feet. The funneling moonlight washed the valley, illuminating a female form. Advancing, the voice began to screech. We backed off and it softened.

Retreating another 100 feet into a thicket we stood and listened. The pure elegance of the lilting melody is hard to describe. Like the sirens of Greek mythology, this alluring voice was enchantingly hypnotic. Enraptured, we stood motionless for an hour. Finally leaving, the voice floated into silence.

“I bet she was a simple herder,” Troy said, “and that was her protection song to keep us at bay.”

I have never heard such a sonorous voice before or after this Himalayan angel.

Returning to our lodge we were shocked to find relatively clean rooms. Following a bottomless night’s rest and three different kinds of deep fried dumplings for breakfast, we were on our way to the picturesque Basong Tso Lake.

9 1994 Island Monestary copy
Tashi Island and its Tsozong Gongba Monastery appear to float as the crown jewel
on the emerald Basong Tso Lake.
Built in 1400 A.D., Tsozong means “castle in the lake”.

10 1994 TG Wooden Raft to Magic Island copy
Here we boarded a hand-pulled log ferry for the short crossing.
Troy, Chris and I each receive a special blessing from the head Lama in the monastery’s inner sanctum.

Here we boarded a hand-pulled log ferry for the short crossing to the enchanted Tashi Island. We wanted to visit the Nyingma, Tsozong Gongba Monastery. Built in 1400 A.D., Tsozong means “castle in the lake”. It was truly a marvel on the emerald water. Here we participated in a Buddhist blessing ceremony. When the head lama learned I had met the Dalai Lama he insisted Troy, Chris and I follow him into the monastery’s inner sanctum. He gave us each a special blessing and placed sacred khatas around our necks. As he draped the scarves we would touch foreheads.

We later learned that this touching of foreheads held special significance. In Buddhism the “all seeing” third eye is symbolically located on the forehead. This represents the sixth chakra of expanding intuition, wisdom and spiritual insight. By touching foreheads the lama was transferring awareness and forming a mutual and lasting bond. We thought of it as a “spiritual download”.

Ferrying back to the mainland we were immediately surrounded by a throng of Tibetans in traditional dress. The men were distinguished and the women elegant. Both were garnished in glacial turquoise. Children raced like dressed-up dolls and the Khampas tucked their curved daggers neatly in their bright red sashes. An expansive white tent with colored Buddhist motifs had been erected. There was quite a celebration underway.

11 1994 Tibetan Ceremony Tent copy

12 1994 Blessing Ceremony in Tent copy
A Buddhist ceremonial tent had been erected next to the lake.
Horns were blown and blessings bestowed.
Troy, Chris and I jumped in line for a 2nd set of blessings.

Many were tipsy on chang and they offered us glass after glass. Not to appear unsocial - we enthusiastically accepted and soon we were as lubricated as they were. The smiles and slaps on the back were infectious. In the grand tent attendants in brocade blew long brass horns and a row of monks sat cross-legged along a low table. They offered blessings to a continuous line of pilgrims. Trusting our inebriated state would not dilute a blessing’s power - we jumped in line and were duly anointed.

13 1994 Troy Chris Drinking Chang copy
Not to be rude, Troy, Chris and I got just as drunk on chang as the locals.

Sooner than we wanted Mr. Luo announced it was time to go. We gathered a brightly clad group of locals on the ferry landing for a parting photograph. To this day it remains one of my favorites.

14 1994 Monestary Island Group Photo copy
Truly a day to remember.

“First Trip into Tibet’s Hidden Lands”
Looking for the Hidden Falls 2

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.

1 1994 TG Gil Chris Bill Mr Low Cooking
The hike to Mondrong was brutal. The village elder offered us a one room log hut.
Mr. Luo cooked up soup on an open fire.
From Left to Right: Gil Gillenwater, Jerry Dixon, Chris Grace, Mr. Luo & Bill Bacon.

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.”

2 1994 Group Looking for Hidden Falls
Rick Fisher was obsessed with finding the fabled “Lost Falls of the Brahmaputra”.
Left to Right: 2 Porters, Rick Fisher, Eric Manthey, Troy Gillenwater, Porter & Jerry Dixon

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.

3 1994 TG Gil Jerry Dixon in Jungle
Here Gil, Jerry & the others continue down a ridgeline.
Rick believes this approach will afford a view into the sacred Inner Gorge
and its hidden jewel – the legendary “Lost falls of the Brahmaputra”.

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.

4 1994 TG Gil Troy Jerry
Gil Gillenwater, Troy Gillenwater & Jerry Dixon in Sengchen.

5 1997 TG Sengchen Village
The Village of Sengchen.
The term “village” is misleading. Two or more houses constitute a village.
These were hamlets - small collections of log houses.

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…
     Our best, indeed our only, hope seemed to be to reach the crest of that spur, when we might see the river beyond….
     Returning to Sengchen, I climbed to the top of a grassy alp behind the village to seek a theodolite station, and noticed a good path going up the ridge…
     Next day (December 11, 1924) Cawdor explored the path up the ridge, and on his return reported a good place for a bivouac high up; the path he said, continued. The hunters, in the face of accumulating evidence, unblushingly admitted that they had lied; it was possible to reach the crest of the spur, and from there we should see the Tsangpo….

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.

5a 1994 Gil Cable Crossing PoTsangPo
Gil readies for the original “Zip Line” river cxrossing.

6 1994 TG Cable Crossing Po Tsangpo
Gravity will take you half way on a cable river crossing -
but you must pull yourself up to the other side.
Here Troy starts his long pull over the rushing Po Tsangpo River.

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.

7 1994 gil w Huge Leech
A Tiger Leech full of Gil’s blood.

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.

8 1994 TG View from Zachu
The hamlet of Zachu has the cat-bird seat
at the apex of the Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo River.
Here the Himalayan views are endless.

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.

In a panic, Tadano bailed out of his kayak and was swept by the raging current into the maelstrom of the main Yarlung Tsangpo River. Miraculously the force of the colliding Po Tsangpo River spit him to the opposite bank where he found purchase and crawled to safety. Takei wasn’t so lucky. Despite numerous searches, neither his kayak nor his body were ever found. Takei was twenty four years old.

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.”


“First Trip into Tibet’s Hidden Lands”
The Drive to Pelung & Looking for the Hidden Falls

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.

1 1994 TG Troy on Mountain Pass Drive In
The drive to Pelung took us over several Himalayan passes.
Tibetan pilgrims consecrate these sacred sites with prayer flags & mani stones.

2 1994 TG Gil w Om Rock
Om Mani Padme Hum means the “jewel in the lotus”.
This is the revered chant of Chenrezig – the Buddha of Compassion.

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).

3 1994 TG Lumber Town Tumbatse
Ramshackle Chinese logging towns punctuated our route.

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. 

4 1994 Troy Playing Pool on Drive In
Troy takes aim in a local game of pool.

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”.

5 1994 Tibetan Mafia
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.

6 1994 Porter Who Stole Ricks Pack
Our porters were an interesting lot.
Their load carrying strength was matched only by their nefarious behavior.

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.

7 1994 TG Gil Bill Jerry Eric Chris
From Left to Right: Gil Gillenwater, Bill Bacon, Jerry Dixon, Eric Manthey & Chris Grace.
Waiting for the porters to show up. Note Jerry’s turquoise shirt.

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.

8 1994 TG Gil Hiking to Pelung
Hiking through a combination of thick jungled vegetation and hulking old growth forest.

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”.

9 Bridge Crossing
Our 20 mile hike from Pelung to the confluence of the Po Tsangpo River and the mighty Yarlung Tsangpo River would place us at the apex of its “Great Bend”. Full concentration was required to traverse this dilapidated cliff-hanging bridge.

10 1994 Gil Cliff Hike PoTsangPo
Here Gil follows the riverside trail.
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

Prayer Flags
Throughout Tibet brightly colored flags are flown on roof-tops, mountain passes, above rivers and streams, over bridges, monasteries - virtually everywhere. The Buddhists believe that everything can - and should - be utilized toward the path to enlightenment. This concept even applies to the wind. They believe that as breezes pass over the flags’ printed prayers the air is blessed. The wind then transports the blessings worldwide for the benefit of all of us. In keeping with the Buddhist views on the reality of constant change, the cloth flags are purposely designed to fade and disintegrate over time. Just as all life fades and disintegrates and is replaced by new life, so pilgrims continually replace the old flags with new ones. The ubiquitous prayer flags are another graphic reminder of our own impermanence.

Mani Stones
Mani stones are rocks with the intricately carved mantra, “Om Mani Padme Hum” on them. This is the revered chant of Chenrezig – the Buddha of Compassion. Mantras are “power-syllables”. When repeated they calm the mind allowing specific energies to concentrate and induce their presence both inwardly and outwardly. Om Mani Padme Hum means the “jewel in the lotus.” The lotus flower is an iconic Buddhist symbol representing purity and our ability to transcend our origins. Just as the lotus grows forth from the mud and scum of the swamp bottom - blooming beautifully - unsullied by the faults of the slime, so we have the potential to arise above our instinctual reactions and programmed thinking and gain lasting happiness through an understanding of the workings of our minds. There is great merit earned by the stone carvers as well as the practitioners reciting the mantra.

Footnote: Leeches & Stinging Nettles

The Tibetan Buddhist “paradisiacal” Hidden Lands are infested, literally overrun, with famished blood sucking leeches. Tibetan leeches are terrestrial annelid worms with suckers on both ends. They are blood-guzzling parasites that target vertebrates (with humans at the top of the list). In one assault a leech can suck five times its body weight in blood.

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.

Stinging Nettles
The stinging nettle plant found in the Hidden Lands is lush green ranging in height from three to six feet. It blends in well with surrounding trailside foliage. The leaves and stems are covered with stinging hairs. When you brush against a stinging nettle plant the hair tips stab into your skin like hypodermic needles. The tips stay lodged in your skin injecting chemical compounds that cause a painful sting and a lingering burning or “pins and needles” sensation.

Many times the affected area goes numb and can stay that way for hours. If not cleaned correctly, the contact areas often become infected.

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

1 1994 TG Troy Gil front of Monastery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You earned your trips to the Hidden Lands.

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

See Footnote: “China’s Invasion of Tibet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See Footnote: “Bön & Buddhism in Tibet”

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

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

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

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

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

Troy Gillenwater’s 1994 journal notes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

They just weren’t happy places.

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

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


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.

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

Overview Map copy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

5 122a 1994 Gil Troy Monk

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

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

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

“It feels great Rick… fantastically great!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 113 1994 Himalayan Fly Over

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 10a 1995 Pemako Chimdro Vajrayogini Waterfall

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

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

4 134a 1994 Tibet Atrocities Sign in Varanasi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was the mythical waterfall fact or fiction?

“The Long Hike Out”

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

Expedition Member, Chris Grace’s 1994 journal notes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Expedition Member, Chris Grace’s 1994 journal notes:

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

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

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

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

“It feels great Rick… fantastically great!”

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

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

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

Hidden Lands

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


"The Long Hike Out"

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Expedition Member, Chris Grace's 1994 journal notes:

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

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

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

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


"The Long Hike Out"

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

And then the strangest thing happened.

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

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

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

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

And then in a small clearing I saw it.

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

No answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But where was Eric?

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

Expedition Member, Chris Grace's 1994 journal notes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Expedition Member, Chris Grace's 1994 journal notes:

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

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

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

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

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

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



"The Long Hike Out"

In 11 hours we rafted 15 miles. We were to soon learn that we had 35 more miles to go - not 15 as we had been told.

At this time I'd like to introduce six fellow expedition members:

Troy Gillenwater - At 33 years of age, my younger brother Troy and I shared an affinity for the outdoors. I remember hiking him around the desert when he was five. Our father's love of hunting and fishing transformed into our love for long outdoor adventures. We hiked the length of Washington and were the first to hike the length of Arizona. We rafted the Green River from Flaming Gorge, Wyoming into Lake Powell, Arizona. Troy was tough and dependable. It seems as though our shared adventures prepared us for - and led us inexorably to - Tibet.

Rick Fisher - At 41 years of age, Rick was an enigma. He was short and scrappy with piercing eyes. He was most often seen wearing a signature bandana holding down his scraggly long hair. He was persistent, tenacious and focused. Coming from humble Tucson, Arizona beginnings, Rick was a self-promoter. He had to be. He carved a niche for himself as an adventure canyoneer locating and documenting canyons throughout Arizona and the world. For all Rick's successful canyoneering qualities, he also had a dark side. You were always on pins and needles around him. One wrong word could set him off on an Attila the Hun rage. This unfortunate trait would haunt him on our trip and for years to come.

Eric Manthey - We had never met Eric before. He was in his early 40's and a travel friend of Rick's. With his shoulder length brown hair, bushy beard and strapping frame, Eric reminded me of a Daniel Boone. He was one tough guy with a bit of a Neanderthal, low-brow look. He didn't talk much and was prone to "spacing out".

Chris Grace - Chris was 45 years old and in good shape. He stood around 5'10" and had one of those sturdy frames. The fact that he was a Vietnam vet may have explained his balding head. He's the only guy I've met who said Vietnam wasn't that bad. It turns out his arena was strategic and tactical intelligence. He played the game well but he hated the war. Chris was introspective with a dry and ironic sense of humor.

Jerry Dixon - At 53, Jerry was interesting and interested. He was a successful developer and well-traveled. I've always said, there are two types of people in this world. It's a simple test. In a phone conversation - when you hang up do you feel better or worse? With Jerry you always felt better. He stood just under six feet tall and took good care of himself. A rancher at heart, he always wore the coolest clothes.

William "Bill" W. Bacon III - Bill was a documentary filmmaker from Anchorage, Alaska. He was engaging and immediately likable. Tall with rugged good looks, he could have been a body double for the protagonist in, "The Bridges of Madison County." Bill sensed our foray into the uncharted "Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo" was an historic event. He wanted to film as much as possible with his bulky 18mm movie camera. At 67 years old Bill was an inspiration to us all.

15 1994 TG Gil Troy Jerry
Left to Right: Gil Gillenwater, Troy Gillenwater & Jerry Dixon.

Attachment 1
Left to Right: Gil Gillenwater, Eric Manthey & Rick Fisher.

12 1994 TG Chris Bill Gil
Left to Right: Chris Grace, Bill Bacon & Gil Gillenwater.

Our story continues…

"Let's get off this god-damned river," I said to Troy.

With solid ground beneath me, unlimited potentiality above me, and my brother Troy beside me, I could hike out of anywhere - even the Himalayas - even in Teva sandals.

A great weight had been lifted.

We hiked back up to report to Rick. With what appeared to be constant rapids ahead and not being able to see what we would be rafting into, we all knew the first descent, river-running chapter of this trip was over. Looking up the gorge's steep walls we also well understood that our extraction challenges were just beginning. At least it would be on solid ground. We'd worry about that in the morning.

Since down river right was completely blocked by cliffs, we'd have to cross the current to the opposite bank to climb out of the canyon. And we'd have to do this without getting swept into the falls. We knew we could never fight the on-coming current. We'd have to line the raft back up river right to give us enough room to cross the sweeping waters.

The problem was the bouldered bank had an impassable cliff about 150 feet up. This gave our crossing no room for error.

We were spent. We'd been on the river for eleven hours. Depleted and cold, we began lining. What had been a mere effort that morning was now an exhaustive strain. Tugging up-river, the bowline cut into our freezing hands. We shook uncontrollably trying to keep the raft off the rocks while slipping, scraping and falling amongst the wet boulders. Hypothermia muddled our minds. Every foot was toil as we labored the raft up stream.

Upon reaching the impasse we tied the raft off and collapsed. But the cold afforded no rest and forced us to continue. We calculated our crossing. With the strong flow, our most efficient line was a forty five degree downriver angle. This felt counter intuitive. We instinctively wanted to paddle straight across, not on angle towards the falls. But we knew this river's power all too well. We'd have to work with it to avoid the crushing hydraulics.

Little was said as we climbed back into the raft. We all felt the gravity. For this last crossing we each became river captains. Screaming our own indignant commands, we dug our paddles deep. The river's velocity surged as it rushed us into the swallowing gorge. It seemed like we were being sucked ten feet down river for every one foot across. Was our angle of efficiency correct? We hadn't time to adjust and only seconds to find out.

Hearing the rumble of the rapids and seeing a seething curtain of spray I wanted to panic. I impulsively wanted to paddle straight across. It's like a beginning mountain climber hugging the cliff face when only pushing away from the rock will provide purchase angle to the feet.

Somehow, we all stuck to our plan.

Approaching the opposite bank at a downriver speed of around eight feet per second, I dove on to the rocks with the bowline and pulled for all I was worth. Our partially deflated raft groaned as it pendulumed into the bouldered bank below. Here the rest of the crew was able to jump out and help me pull the soggy raft up to a small inlet.

We'd made it. We were off the river. Following a round of high-fives we looked over at the massive hydraulics. No one said a word. It's a vision I will never forget.

Looking up-river we spotted a house-sized boulder with a sand-floored overhang. A perfect shelter. We hauled our gear a hundred yards up the strangled shore line to the campsite. The water was calmer here. It was a peaceful setting. We hurriedly got into dry clothes. Our shivering slowed down and we slumped to the ground. The sand felt luxurious imitating vestiges of the day's heat. In seconds we were all fast asleep.

Awaking to blackness, I knew we had to eat. I made bean burritos as the others set camp.

Searching for firewood, Troy found a small cave with an ancient wall built in front. Somebody had obviously occupied this shelter. There was old soot on the ceiling and ceramic pottery shards on the floor. And there was yet another human jawbone in the corner. Who had lived there and why? This was the topic of conversation as the four of us finished dinner and hunkered into our sleeping bags. Soon I was lolling in my "Movies of the Mind". It was a fitful but relieved night's sleep.

The next morning we deflated the raft and stashed it under the boulder along with the paddles, our wetsuits, our life jackets and the pump. Troy and I later regretted leaving our life jackets. Impassable shorelines would force us to swim portions of the river. Fortunately, our dry bags had shoulder straps and would serve as adequate backpacks. Footwear was another story. All we had were our Teva sandals.

145a 1994 Abandoning Gear on Hike Out copyAbandoning the "First Descent" portion of our trip - we stashed our raft and all our river gear under a house-sized boulder.
It's probably there to this day. Troy and I regretted leaving our life jackets

We weren't the first westerners to be stopped by the inhospitable Upper Granite Gorge of the Yarlung Tsangpo River. Both military explorers Frederick M. Bailey and Henry T. Morshead in 1913 and botanists Francis Kingdon-Ward and his side-kick Lord Cawdor in 1924 had to find alternate routes around the abyss. Here Kingdon-Ward describes it in a paper he read to the Royal Geographical Society on May 25, 1925:

"In the first place the river below Trap (located below Sangri) flows for 30 or 40 miles in an impossible gorge, descending several hundred feet. To avoid this gorge, Bailey and Morshead crossed a pass over 16,000 feet high to the south, while we crossed one about the same height to the north."

Expedition Member, Chris Grace's 1994 journal notes:

We launched the boat this morning with Eric, Rick, Gil and Troy. We should connect up with them by midday tomorrow. Tonight we are camping in a small village (Gyatsa) on the Tsangpo. I tossed out my bedroll on straw in what looks like to have been a manger. The village could have been lifted whole from the 12th-century. Mud block walls and corrals for goats made of thorn bushes. Several families, perhaps 75 people living in an interconnected structure. Perhaps a clan of sorts. As I am writing six elderly women stand staring at me, spinning bobbins of wool yarn and cackling amongst themselves. They are an exuberant, proud people with a willingness to smile I have never seen equal. In the dark, a circle of faces surrounds me as I fall to sleep.

Thankful to be off the river, when I awoke the next morning my head felt better and I could feel my energy returning. Unfortunately, for Troy and Rick the effects of high altitude were just kicking in. They both had the signature pounding headaches and low energy.

Rick cooked up some muffins for breakfast and we broke camp and loaded up the gear. All Troy and I had for clothes were a pair of shorts, a t-shirt and a pair of sandals each. We packed our sleeping bags, bivy sacks, water purifier and tent. Rick packed his bag and Eric packed his, offering to carry the food. Soon we were loaded up and ready to go. As a gesture of exploration, I stuck a paddle up high on a cliff with a red life jacket tied to it. My hope was that one day it might catch some wanderer's attention and they could find all the river gear.

We felt certain we had covered at least fifteen miles the day before. This left us with fifteen to go. Even in this rough terrain we figured we could get to the others in two days. Plus, Eric assured us we would find a primitive settlement within a mile or so.

(We were to later learn that Rick had grossly miscalculated the distance of the gorge. It was fifty miles long, not thirty. We had thirty five miles to go and it would take four grueling days to hike out. In Rick's defense, this was the early 1990's. There simply were no reliable maps or information on the area. In addition, the first primitive hamlet we would encounter was over fifteen miles further into the gorge - not one mile as Eric had concluded from his ill-executed scout.)

We had brought food for our estimated day and a half float so, though a bit thin, we felt sufficiently provisioned for the trek out. Plus, we could supplement food from the collection of crude houses Eric said was just ahead.

As we were readying to leave Rick called a quick meeting. "Listen you guys," he said, "We are now in a survival situation. One misstep, one sprained ankle or broken bone will be disastrous. Pay attention to every move. Don't jeopardize the group with a careless step or grab. And be sure to stick together. We are stronger that way. We cannot afford to get separated."

His little talk brought the gravity of our situation front and center. Rick was right and we appreciated his leadership.

We had some huge downriver cliffs to get over so we immediately started climbing. It was tough going but compared to the gnawing fear and uncertainty of the prior day's river debacle this was a walk in the park. It was the type of cross country bushwhacking Troy and I did almost every weekend back in Arizona.

71a 1994 Gil Troy Above River Hike Out
Though the hiking was difficult - Troy and I never regretted being off the river.

It was a beautiful day and we were climbing, real steep climbs. The sandals were a challenge. We'd scramble up to get over a cliff and then snake down to the river and hop the boulders until we'd come to another cliff and we'd have to hike up and over it - and so it went. Every now and then we'd come to a riverside cliff that we couldn't get over. For these we'd have to get in the river and swim ourselves and our gear around. The currents were complex and the glacial water was numbing.

Many times we had to swim around river bank obstacles.

Fortunately, I brought some red nylon cord. This came in handy hauling dry bags up cliffs. With a stick looped through the cord, it even gave us something to hang onto as we negotiated up and down steep areas.

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

And then the strangest thing happened.


“Into the Mouth of the Tiger”

29 1997 Gil Near Rapid
Scouting rapids was a must. Going in blind was suicide.

In Tibet, when you died, if you had a good life your body was cut up and fed to the vultures. But if you led a wanton life your body was cut up and thrown in a river. We were to later learn that our launch site was the location of the ancient Sangri Bön (pre-Buddhist) Monastery.

We’d been rafting with a bunch of sinners.

“How about this for a Buddhist lesson in impermanence.” I thought to myself. There was an aspect of being surrounded by human bones that seemed to accentuate our risk. Also, over the years I have noticed this about river running - especially in very cold water. As long as the sun is out everything seems ok. The environment is friendly and attitudes are good. But as soon as it clouds up, or the sun goes behind a canyon wall, the air becomes cold and the landscape becomes hostile - more sinister somehow. Attitudes have a tendency to turn negative.

157 1994 Troy Gil Eric Lining Rapid
Rafting rivers is easier bathed in sunlight.
(From right to left: Troy Gillenwater, Gil Gillenwater & Eric Manthey.)

After about nine miles we lost our sun to the gorge. We stopped for a quick lunch and that helped. And then we pushed on with Eric’s constant assurance that, “It gets better a little further down.” The raft still leaked air and we had to pump it up about every half hour.

I do have to say that the scenery was other-worldly. Rick’s calling this Upper Granite Gorge of the Yarlung Tsangpo the “Yosemite of Tibet” was spot on. And while the river landscape was barren - jagged, snow capped peaks began materializing thousands of feet above - lording over us.

The gorge itself was close to two miles deep. As we rafted further into the abyss the river got tighter and the rapids got bigger. We had one portage where we carried the raft and our gear - hopping and clawing from rock to rock - for a quarter of a mile around some huge falls. But we kept going. I’m guessing it was around four in the afternoon when we were able to run a few class three and four rapids. We encountered a couple of class fives that we really didn’t want to test - so we lined them.

The problem wasn’t always with the hydraulics themselves. Often our decisions not to run a rapid had more to do with the turbulence down river. One false move on a runnable class three or four rapid and you would be devoured by the blender below.

In one class four we came dangerously close to being swallowed by a huge hole. They call these “keepers” because once in - the recirculating water will hold you indefinitely. We were all paddling furiously through an obstacle course of surging caldrons when the water unexpectedly gaped open right next to us. It was unnerving looking over and seeing the savage whirl of the unforgiving reversal.

Suddenly our forward motion stopped. Time dilated. The raft literally stopped. Then it began shaking - almost vibrating. We started moving backwards. We were being sucked upriver into the hungry maw. “Paddle! Paddle! Paddle!” we were each giving it every ounce of energy we had. Suddenly the shifting waters gave us a cross current that caught the back of the raft and swung us around 180 degrees. We were now facing upriver. But at least we were moving downriver and away from the inhaling hydraulic.

Regaining our composure we each realized that in these untamed waters we were essentially powerless. Our strength - our will - meant nothing. Our journey and our lives were subject to the capricious whims of the river.

It was a good lesson to learn. Our Himalayan travels would teach us time and again to let go. Any sense of control in these savage environs was simply an illusion. The only thing we could control was how we chose to perceive and interpret our experiences. The control was in our own minds. We had to give up what Chögyam Trungpa referred to as the, “Trap of Hope”. We had to deal with things as they were - not forcing to make them the way we wanted them to be.

Soon we came upon two mid-river islands. Our paddling coordination was getting better and we were able to snake through and beach on the left island. From there we could scout another quarter of a mile. It didn’t look good.

It seemed to be just getting worse and worse. The sense of dread that followed me into the raft when we launched was strangling me. My confidence was in a nose-dive. I couldn’t tell if my rapid breathing was from exertion or hyperventilating fear.

Panic is a killer. I knew that. I looked for the only stable thing I had - Troy.

Troy was my voice of reason. He was more conservative. Over the years I’d learned to trust his judgment.

Just seeing him was reassuring. We’d had so many adventures together. I walked over. He was standing on a boulder calculating our next few moves. I hopped up next to him. Looking down river I asked as nonchalantly as I could, “We’re going to be ok - right?”

He thought for a while. “Yes, we’re going to be alright,” he said. “As long as we follow our instincts and don’t get pressured into doing anything stupid.”

There was a pause. We both burst out laughing. “Anything more stupid that what we’re already doing,” he clarified.

His assurance and the laugh calmed me down. My breathing slowed and we got back into the raft and shoved off. This section of the river was wider and the rapids spaced in such a way that we could weave around them. We paddled maybe a quarter of a mile before we had to portage. In this manner we leap-frogged down the river.

Three hours later we were in a predicament. There was a succession of huge rapids. The water was very fast and powerful. We started lining on river right because river left was sheer cliffs. (River right and river left are always determined by the flow as you look downstream.)

That time of year it didn’t get dark until around 9:00pm. We were moving much slower than anticipated. With an estimated fifteen miles under our belt we knew we were only half way (or so we thought at the time) and we’d have to keep pushing if we were to reach the next day’s destination and reunite with our group. We ran two more class four rapids. And then we were stopped cold by a gigantic hydraulic.

55a 1994 Huge Hole in TsangPoOne of the recirculating hydraulic holes (“keepers”) we encountered towards the end of the day on our first descent attempt of the
Yarlung Tsangpo River:
“The Mt. Everest of Whitewater”

There is something mesmerizing about huge rapids or waterfalls that draws you in. They have a forbidding beauty. It’s like standing on a high bridge with that odd urge to jump. This was a monster. The hole itself was over twenty feet across. The raw power of the recirculating wave coupled with the sucking sound of the swallowing vortex sent shivers up our spines. I was fairly certain that, if harnessed, the energy of this watered rage could power all of New York City and Chicago combined.

I always marvel at these water formations. It’s really no mystery. Gravity-driven liquid is simply negotiating different terrains in a perpetual effort to seek its own level. With a river this size and a drop this severe, that can only be achieved by racing to the most level place on earth - the ocean two vertical miles below.

This rapid was located on a sharp left bend. It looked like we could run it further down on river right. Then Troy said, “We can’t see the whole thing. I’m going to look around the corner.” So, he went on down a 100 feet or so. He came back shaking his head. The rapid cascaded over a ledge between two huge vertical cliffs. There was no way around on river right or river left. In river parlance, we had “cliffed-out”.

We were trapped.

It became obvious by the depth of the gorge that there was no way Eric scouted the river. From 4,000 feet, the walls were too steep to catch anything but an occasional glimpse of the water below. The scouting we depended on hadn’t happened.

I wasn’t thinking clearly. My oxygen starved brain was entertaining running this rapid. If we could just make it through we were bound to find the smoother water Eric promised. It was a dangerous risk and that strange metallic taste returned to my mouth.

Troy asked me to sit down on a nearby rock. He sat across from me. He put his hands on his knees. He then leaned forward and said, “Gil, look at me. Listen to what I’m telling you. If we continue we are going to die.”

It was a simple statement. And I knew he was right. I mindlessly bent down and picked up some rounded river stones lying near my feet. Nervously jiggling them in my hand, I tried to think of a way out. We were so far from home. Darkness was consuming us. We were exhausted from the day’s efforts. At 12,000 feet the night’s chill had me shivering. And we were trapped in a two mile deep canyon on some god-forsaken river with a leaky raft.

Lost in thought I looked at the stones in my hand. They were polished by the river’s timeless flow. Suddenly they grabbed my attention. They were exactly like the ones I’d pick up on our rafting runs down the upper Salt River in Arizona. This realization jolted me back to one of Trungpa’s teachings. The solidity of the earth and the potentiality of the sky.

Yes, I was 8,000 miles away on the other side of the planet. But these river stones in my hand were the same ones I find at home. It was the same earth. According to Trungpa there is a stability and trustworthiness of the earth. How often do we take this for granted? The fact is that no matter what else is going on in our lives at any given moment the earth is always - without exception - solidly beneath us. It never lets us down. We are never going to just fly off the face of the earth. Trungpa asks us to take a moment, touch the earth with our hand and feel the strength in this knowledge of “grounded-ness”. (Buddha is most often depicted sitting in the lotus position with his right hand touching the earth.)

My mind and my panic began to calm. I was at home. I was at home on my planet earth.

Trungpa’s teaching further asks us to realize the immense and incalculable vastness of the heavens, or outer space as we call it. As he explained, it is just that - space. Space is such a necessary component of action, change and newness. With no space, nothing can occur. With a little space, a little can occur. But, with the unlimited space of the very sky above us, anything can occur. Anything. The point being - we are never trapped. Nothing is hopeless for we have incalculable potentiality right above us. It’s there for us.

The memory liberated me. “Let’s get off this god-damned river,” I said to Troy.

With solid ground beneath me, unlimited potentiality above me, and my brother Troy beside me, I could hike out of anywhere - even the Himalayas - even in Teva sandals.

A great weight had been lifted.

POST NOTE: I kept one of the enlightening river stones as a talisman for the remainder of the trip. I use it to this day.

Next Blog: “The Long Hike Out”


“Getting to the World’s Highest River”

57a 1994 Bacon Filming Put InDocumentary film producer - Bill Bacon - records the departure on our unpermitted first descent attempt of the Upper Granite Gorge on the world’s highest river – the Yarlung Tsangpo. Here the Himalayan river surges over two miles above sea level. Pictured left to right:
Rick Fisher, Gil Gillenwater, Troy Gillenwater & Eric Manthey.

For centuries the country of Tibet had been politically closed to outside travel. Initially to halt colonial expansionism followed by the strangling security of the Communist Chinese occupation. In the mid-1980’s China discovered the economy of tourism and relaxed it’s grip by allowing organized “group” tours to Tibet’s three major cities. However, due to its proximity to the disputed Indian border, the zone around the Hidden Lands remained off-limits to outsiders. In the early 1990’s China grudgingly opened the area to exploration by a fortunate few. We were among the fortunate few.

However, there was a glitch in Rick’s rafting plan. The permit price quoted by the Communist Chinese for boating the untamed Yarlung Tsangpo River was $1 million. We opted to smuggle a raft onto the river. In hindsight it seems extremely naive. But at the time it all made perfect sense.

Our May 8, 1994 departure date had finally arrived. Troy and I were on our way to Tibet. We had six bags between us. Five were the old style army canvas duffle bags and one was a huge clothes bag that harbored Rick’s well-worn 12 foot inflatable raft, four wetsuits and four paddles. We were a bit apprehensive about the big bag. With it we were 130 kilos (286 pounds) overweight at check-in. But that wasn’t the problem, it was the conspicuousness of our illegal raft bag with four recognizable paddle handles sticking out the top.

At that time there was still brutal Chinese suppression in Tibet. In fact, six days prior to our leaving the U.S. State Department issued a travel warning that read:

“Chinese troops in Tibet have abruptly been placed on red alert and warned of political protests leading up to the July birthday of the region’s god-king, the Dalai Lama, Army sources said Monday. The Chengdu Military Region last week ordered all soldiers to return from home leave, cancel all entertainment and directed everyone to sleep in uniform under the terms of a ‘first-level preparation for battle’ the sources said. Army traffic has increased on the road from the Chinese hinterland into the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, foreign travelers reported over the weekend, as military commanders beef up the already heavy military presence in the territory by an estimated 30,000 men. ‘The ‘first-level preparation for battle’ means there is a serious threat of political or social unrest in Tibet’ said another source close to the Chengdu Military Region military command, which is responsible for the entire southeast quarter of the country.”

This was exactly where we were going and here we were trying to smuggle a contraband paddle raft into the country for a first descent attempt on the word’s highest river.

We did have one of the more inauspicious arrivals in Hong Kong. Waiting at the circular baggage claim, we had retrieved our raft bag and four of our duffle bags. We were one bag short and it happened to be Troy’s. Our anxiety grew as we waited. Suddenly out the conveyer belt came one of Troy’s boots. And then a water bottle appeared and then a rain jacket and pretty soon all Troy’s personal belongs were being regurgitated one-by-one down the conveyer belt. We couldn’t believe it. We gathered his stuff and a quick inventory told us that the only thing missing was one glove. Not bad considering the circumstances.

So our big challenge was to get the raft bag into Chengdu, China and on to Lhasa, Tibet. In Hong Kong we were charged an overweight fee of $460 that we were able to negotiate down to $300. It was smooth sailing after that. We were surprised.

Once in Chengdu Rick called us all into his hotel room for a meeting. He seemed jumpy - distracted somehow. He reiterated our group’s goals: four of us would spend a day and a half rafting the thirty mile Upper Granite Gorge of the Yarlung Tsangpo river. The balance of the team would drive around and wait for us at the take-out (our landing spot). After this we would all drive along the river some 300 miles to the “Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo” where we would explore the inner gorge. He told us we’d be looking for a hidden waterfall that had eluded explorers for years.

Landing in Gongkar, forty miles south of Lhasa, was fascinating. At the time it was the world’s highest airport at 12,000 feet. Coming from Chengdu’s 1,200 foot elevation, we could feel the altitude immediately. And it was a bit unnerving to see all the Communist Chinese flags waving and the large military presence. But mostly it was the sheer vastness of the countryside that captured our attention. We were on the “Rooftop of the World” and it felt like it.

With our raft secured we piled into the land cruisers and began our bumpy journey east. In 1994, there was only one paved road in Tibet - the main street in downtown Lhasa. Our 800 miles of round-trip driving would all be on dirt roads in various stages of disrepair.

The initial route would roughly follow the Yarlung Tsangpo River. This river has an average altitude of 13,000 feet. It flows easterly across southern Tibet for 750 miles and then grinds its way through the Himalayas creating massive gorges. Tumbling thousands of feet in elevation, the river hooks around (hence the “Great Bend") the eastern Himalaya’s highest peak - Namcha Barwa. It then snakes south to the border of India where it is known as the Dihang River. From there it turns back on itself and travels westerly in the opposite direction through Assam where the river is renamed the Brahmaputra.

Due to the river’s easterly flow through Tibet and its opposing westerly flow through India and the extreme elevation difference between the two, for years it was thought to be two different rivers.

In 1913 it was discovered that the river entering the “Upper Granite Gorge” on the north at 12,000 feet was the same river that emerged onto the plains of Assam on the south at an elevation of only 1,000 feet. For the Tsangpo to become the Brahmaputra required a drop of more than 11,000 feet. This discovery prompted excited speculation - 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 “Lost Falls of the Brahmaputra” and would captivate exploration for the next eighty-four years.

To put the ferocity of the Yarlung Tsangpo River in perspective, it helped when Rick compared it to the southwestern United State’s Colorado River as it flows through the Grand Canyon. The Tsangpo’s inner gorge has a river drop over 10 times that of the Colorado. This violent plunge produces horrendous rapids whose savage waters rush through the swallowing gorges at forty feet per second* - almost thirty miles per hour.

          *Jimin, Zhang, The Yarlung Tsangpo Great Canyon: The Last Secret World, Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, China, 2006. Pg. 6

Its dangerously unique features earned the Yarlung Tsangpo the dubious distinction as the “Mt. Everest of Rivers”.

As we jostled along in the land cruisers Rick recounted his plan. Four of us were going to raft the Yarlung Tsangpo’s, Upper Granite Gorge. According to Rick, this “Yosemite of Tibet” was 10,000 feet deep, twelve miles wide, thirty miles long and stunningly beautiful. As a world class “canyoneer” Rick knew what he was talking about – or so we thought at the time. Hearing him wax on and on about the majesty of this canyon filled Troy and me with anticipation.

The four rafters would include Troy, Rick and a friend of Rick’s - Eric Manthey and me. The logistics included dropping us off at an access point on the river called Sangri just above the gorge. The rest of the group would drive the long, mountainous road around the gorge and wait for us thirty miles downstream at a riverside cluster of shacks called Gyatsa.

According to Rick, Manthey had scouted our rafting route and deemed it challenging but runnable. He reported there were quite a few rapids and we’d have a few portages. But he assured us there was shoreline the whole way. We wouldn’t have to worry about entrapment. What Eric didn’t tell us was that his supposed “scouting” was conducted through binoculars from a distance of about three miles away and 4,000 feet above the river.*

          *McRae, Michael. “Race to the Lost Horizon” - Men’s Journal. September 1994.

Rick allocated a day and a half for us to complete the thirty mile white-water journey. Rick was into “firsts”. This first descent of the Yarlung Tsangpo’s Upper Granite Gorge followed by our locating the Lost Falls of the Brahmaputra would be two big feathers in his canyoneering cap.

On our approach to Sangri we drove up and over a 16,000 foot pass. Around this time several of us started feeling bad. It was undoubtably altitude sickness. My swelling brain made my head feel like an ax was buried in it. The pain made me nauseous. Once at the river we took a mule-pulled ferry across to our Sangri launch site. This was our first up-close view of the river’s current. Back in Tucson, Rick told us that we could expect a volume of around 5,000 CFS (cubic feet per second). This was the size of the rivers we were used to running in Arizona and New Mexico. However, with spring runoffs, the river flow pulsing under the ferry we estimated at over 20,000 CFS.

114b 1994 Scouting Yarlung Put InOur first up-close look at the river. Troy and I were told to expect a flow of around 5,000 CFS (cubic feet per second). What we found was a river surging at over 20,000 CFS. Pictured left to right: Chris Grace, Mr. Changxun Luo (our Chinese liaison), Rick Fisher, Troy Gillenwater (looking up-river), Jerry Dixon (looking up river) & Eric Manthey.

Troy and I looked at each other. Our years of white water rafting told us this was going to be a whole different ball game. Once across the channel we needed to shake down our equipment and set camp. My ripping headache made this an almost impossible effort. We would inflate the raft after dark so as not to draw attention. In the meantime Troy and I put up our tent. I crawled in, adopted the fetal position, tried to get some sleep, and groaned until dawn.

We got up early. It was Wednesday, May 11th 1994. I forced myself to have a bowl of rice and an egg. We out-fitted the raft down at the beach and donned our wetsuits. There was a documentary filmmaker from Anchorage, Alaska with us. His name was William “Bill” W. Bacon III. He was 67 years old, engaging and immediately likable. Tall with rugged good looks, he could have been a body double for the protagonist in, “The Bridges of Madison County.” He set his large 18mm camera up on a tripod and took some departing footage.

My head was absolutely killing me and I was still nauseous. I had no strength. “Great way to start a river trip.” I thought. We said our brief goodbyes. It was 9:00am and Rick told them to start looking for us to arrive around 10:00am the next day. With no further ado, we jumped in the raft and shoved off.

146a 1994 Rafting Put InReady to launch. In hindsight, attempting an illegal first descent of Tibet’s, Yarlung Tsangpo River (the “Mt. Everest of Rivers”) in a smuggled 12 foot paddle raft seems extremely naive. But at the time it all made perfect sense.


“Into the Mouth of the Tiger”… to be continued.


“Into the Mouth of the Tiger”

Blog 1Portaging rapids in the Upper Granite Gorge of the Yarlung Tsangpo - the world’s highest river (right to left: Troy Gillenwater, Eric Manthey & Rick Fisher). I always marvel at these water formations. It’s really no mystery. Gravity-driven liquid is simply negotiating different terrains in a perpetual effort to seek its own level. With a river this size and a drop this sever, that can only be achieved by racing to the most level place on earth - the ocean two vertical miles below.

We’d floated a hundred yards or so when we passed a small Tibetan encampment on the right bank. It’s probably safe to say that this was the first time they’d seen an inflatable raft with four guys in brightly colored wet suits paddle by. They stared in wonder and waved continuously.

We were now heading towards the main current. This was a twelve foot paddle raft - small for this river. I was in the front left with Troy next to me. Rick was behind me and Eric was behind Troy. Our gear was in the middle. As absurd as this may sound, Troy and I had very little experience in a paddle raft. Our raft in Arizona was a fourteen foot oar raft. On an oar raft there is one rower who sits in the middle and operates both oars. Passengers sit in front and behind.

In a paddle raft each member has his or her own paddle that is operated independently. The key to paddle rafting is having a good captain. This individual sits in the back and is in charge of reading the river and issuing commands to the crew such as: hard forward paddle! or easy back paddle or right forward paddle, left back paddle and so on. In this way the crew works together as a team to propel the raft in the correct direction.

Good paddle raft teams practice for years perfecting their mobility skills and techniques. And here we were, looking like the Keystone Cops, zigzagging into the jaws of the world’s highest and most violent river. We had about another hundred yards to practice before we rounded the bend and disappeared into the mists below. Rick was barking orders but the raft wasn’t responding. “I said left back paddle!” he would scream and frantically dig his own paddle in the water trying to straighten the raft’s erratic behavior.

Part of the problem was the din of the river. We were entering a gorge that rumbled like an oncoming locomotive. Rick’s voice couldn’t compete and we couldn’t hear what he was yelling. This would frustrate him and his screams would go up an octave or two rendering his orders completely unintelligible. And then we’d hit a small wave and Troy and I would get drenched with bone-chilling Himalayan snow melt.

If I hadn’t felt so rotten it would have been funny. Actually, I wasn’t all that concerned with the river. In Rick’s Chengdu hotel room he’d told the group that Eric had gone ahead with two porters and was scouting the river. Rick said he didn’t think it would be too bad. I remember Troy and I let out an audible sigh of relief. “Low flow and not much drop.” We thought, “That will make for a fun float.” He went on to say we’d be off the river in a couple of days and then we’d go explore the uncharted four mile segment of the Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo and see if we could find the long-sought “Lost Falls of the Brahmaputra”.

When we met up with Eric in Sangri he reiterated that the river was definitely runnable and those few portions that weren’t had portagable banks on one or both sides. Well, with the river charging down the valley at a volume four times greater than we’d been told to expect, we were starting to question our intel. But higher water often makes for a smoother ride so we still weren’t that worried.

Floating further down the river we crossed the eddy line and merged with the main current. Troy and I were startled. It was like we’d been jerked into the flow. We were flying. And there was something going on with the water. Small waves had huge power, easily tossing us off course.

I have since researched this strange water behavior. Four principles were at play. First, our altitude was just under 12,000 feet. Thinner air means denser water (the reason water takes longer to boil at altitude). Secondly, the river drop - our angle of descent (not to be confused with volume or CFS) - was five times steeper than we were expecting. Thirdly, the Yarlung Tsangpo was the catch-basin for the Himalayas. This was glacial water hovering a few degrees above freezing. Water reaches its densest point at thirty nine degrees Fahrenheit. And fourthly, there is a hydrologic event called the “venturi effect”. This principle states than when a flow rate is compressed due to upstream pressure - as in squeezing a high volume river into a gorge - the velocity of the water must increase.

Well, the dense water, the steepened fall angle and the accelerated flow rate had us bobbing around like a wayward cork. Every paddle stroke was an eighth of a second behind. Between not being able to hear and the crazy action of the water, we were always playing catch-up. We never got ahead of the rapids. This is every river runner’s nightmare. It’s like the bad dream where you are running in slow motion. No matter how hard you try you’re always behind.

It was about this time that the river turned and we got our first view into the roiling maelstrom below. It was terrifying. A strange metallic taste invaded my mouth. It was the taste of raw fear.

“Right paddle… right paddle… right paddle… harder… harder…” Rick screamed. We had to get to over to the left bank and take a look at what we were getting into. But the water was just too strong. We got sucked into the drops.

My memories are clouded here. I do recall paddling as hard as I could. And I remember the noise. It wasn’t the roar of tumbling water. It was the wind-sucking compression that comes with tons of water slamming shut in the many hydrologic holes around us. You could feel it reverberate in your chest. I remember lateral waves swallowing our raft. I remember seeing Troy on my right paddling maniacally. I remember bursting water so aerated my paddle flailed. And I remember Rick’s gurgled commands and the river coming at us from all angles. They call big rapids “Maytags” as in the washing machines. This is exactly what it felt like. I couldn’t tell what direction we were headed or even which way was up. It was just a swirling, turbulent explosion of gushing ice water, unbridled momentum and sound.

The raft wasn’t self-bailing and I think that’s what saved us. We had swamped. It was filled with water - making it hard to control but equally hard to flip. We lumbered out of one rapid and barely made it to shore before the next set. Looking downriver the rapids appeared endless.

There was no river bank to speak of. It was just a jumble of large boulders. Troy jumped for one with the bowline and pulled the raft into an eddy. Tying it off, we each sought our own boulder and collapsed. At 12,000 feet every hard-bargained breath contained only 60% of the oxygen we were used to. The boulders were warm and felt good. Something solid felt good. Being alive felt good.

Catching our breaths and gaining a semblance of clarity, Troy and I looked at Eric, “What the hell? You said you scouted this river.” He just shrugged his shoulders and gave us a blinking look like he just woke up.

“It gets better a little further down.” He offered. Eric would be asked this same question fifty more times during the day and we always received the same spaced-out response - shrugged shoulders, a quizzically confused stare and the assurance that, “It gets better a little further down.”

Rick was also miffed by Eric’s response. As we bailed out the raft we noticed it had a leak. We brought a pump and were able to top it off. Though unpracticed paddle rafters, Troy and I had quite a bit of river experience in oar rafts. This helped as we charted our course moving forward. There were some “cheats” on the side (shallower water where we could avoid big rapids), a few places we could guide the empty raft next to the bank with a bow line and a stern line (this is called “lining”) and a couple of places we’d simply have to portage (unload the raft, pull it out of the water and carry it and our gear around the hazard). With the gorge’s steep sides, the river was essentially a rock garden of swirling waters and car-sized boulders.

I remember feeling so bad from altitude sickness that I really didn’t care if I lived or died. Curiously, this attitude removed some of the debilitating pressure of fear. I could focus more on the moment and not worry about the dangers that lay in wait.

Other than the continuous rapids, our most formidable obstacles were the river banks. There was no shoreline. We had entered a mammoth gorge whose steep walls and high gradient only allowed for rock falls. And the river-edge boulders had no consistency in size or placement. When the rapids were too big we’d have to get out. Here we had two options - to line the raft or to portage. Both were slow going as we had to either hop, climb or descend from rock to rock.

It was about two miles into the canyon that we started noticing the human bones. Troy was holding the bowline while we were guiding the raft around the rocks to avoid a particularly deep hydraulic. He looked down and there was a perfectly intact human jaw bone. Some of the teeth were still in place. And then I found a femur, a scapula and a couple of ribs. There were human bones everywhere.

In Tibet, when you died, if you had a good life your body was cut up and fed to the vultures. But if you led a wanton life your body was cut up and thrown in a river. We were to later learn that our launch site was the location of the ancient Sangri Bön (pre-Buddhist) Monastery.

We’d been rafting with a bunch of sinners.

Blog 2


“Exploding Realities”

BYU 1972 Schedule

Quick Update on the Book: I spent the first four months of this year on Whidbey Island immersed in writing my book. Then I put the book aside for seven months. I intentionally haven’t thought about it since. This January & February I will dive back in determined to finish it. I must confess, it’s a lot more work than I ever thought.

My brother Troy will be co-authoring the book with me. His notes and writing are excellent. We have eight additional contributors including fellow expedition members and a unique perspective offered by one of our Sherpa’s – Dawa Lama.

As I plunge back into writing I have decided to increase my Blog posts to one every two weeks. With my posts now following the book’s narrative, I don’t want the story line getting lost in month-long gaps. So here we go!

“Exploding Realities”

Following my last post several people asked me if I was a Buddhist. My answer is patently “no”. I don’t believe in labels and the divisions they innately encourage. Once you put a label on yourself – you define everything you’re not. (I cover the fine human art of conceptualization in the book.)

I am a student of Buddhism. But I don’t see Buddhism as a religion. To me it is a science of the mind. Not only does it show us that our unhappiness is largely self-induced, but it provides pragmatic remedies. It’s important to remember that, “In the arena of the mind, what we believe to be true – is.”

Nor am I a Mormon – as I am often accused and the story below might indicate. I attended Brigham Young University in 1972 & 1973 on football scholarships. And while I have many Mormon friends, I myself am not of that faith.

In my last Blog I discussed my lifelong obsession with understanding the human mind as the path that led to our Tibet adventures. As a boy I was fascinated by people’s different perceptions of reality. But more than that, I was intrigued by the prospects of manipulating realities.

“I found strong evidence of this in both practical jokes and hypnosis.” In the book I footnote this statement as follows:

Footnote 1

Practical Jokes

Since I can remember I have been fascinated by the mind, perception and the idea of reality. Though an object or situation could be the same, how could people’s beliefs, points of views, and experiences with it be so different?

As a young boy I realized I could alter realities through the medium of practical jokes. By finding people’s blind spots, vulnerabilities and limits of perception it’s easy to construct a false set of circumstances. This becomes their reality and they believe and act accordingly. Magicians do this all the time.

I observed that the subconscious mind would filter out all evidence that didn’t reinforce the current belief and only allow supporting evidence to find its way into consciousness.

The “joke” came when the “victim” realized his or her mental construct of reality didn’t correspond with actual reality. The collision of the two belief systems and its resulting confusion could be hysterical. To me, the implications were much more than a joke.

A Separate Reality

BLOG WARNING: The account below is meant for mature audiences only. Discretion is advised.

Case in point. In 1973 I was a sophomore at Brigham Young University My roommate, Bill, and I harbored a young man in our apartment. I will call him Jake (we called him the Butler). Jake had gone AWOL from the Army. In exchange for hiding out, he provided us cooking and light house cleaning. It worked for Bill and me.

One bored afternoon we came up with the novel idea to dress Jake up as a wayward coed. This was no small task as Jake was a fairly large guy. Our plan was to get him all dolled up and then call over a fellow student named Chuck (not his real name for reasons soon obvious). Chuck was a tackle on our football team. He weighed no less than 260 pounds. We’d tell him we had a girl for him.

Chuck had just come off a two-year church mission in Guatemala. He was still a virgin and this tortured him. He brought it up several times and frankly we were tired of hearing it. So we went to work on Jake. We had a neighbor named Lilly. She was in her mid-20’s and familiar with our practical jokes. She was full on board for this one. We borrowed a bra and panties. Jake’s thick torso blew out the panties. But with rubber bands we could hold the bra in place. We returned the shredded panties to Lilly and exchanged them to for a lacy slip. It wasn’t perfect but it was the best we could do. Lilly had an old wig and we asked her to bring it over with some makeup. We stuffed the bra with gym socks, attached the auburn wig and Lilly artfully applied the deep red lipstick, rouge and eyeliner. This was punctuated by a quick spray of cheap perfume. Done.

We stood back to admire our Venus. Lilly burst out laughing. Jake looked like a hermaphrodite Hulk Hogan. The call was made and in the blink of a loved starved eye there was a timid knock on the door. Inside, last minute instructions were whispered and the lights turned down.

I opened the door. “Hey Chuck…. come on in.” I said. “Listen, before we get going I have to tell you a couple of things. First of all, Vanessa is quite shy. Secondly, please be gentle.”

The stage was set.

Chuck walked in blinking for his eyes to adjust. And there she was in the corner on the couch, legs crossed, our Madonna.

“Well this gig is up.” I said to myself. “There’s no way Chuck is going to believe that monstrosity is a female.”

The Butler had a five o’clock shadow, hairy legs, broad shoulders and huge knuckled hands and feet. But subconsciously Chuck didn’t want to see those things. All he wanted to see - and all his subconscious mind allowed himself to see - was the object of his deflowerment. The Butler had been well coached. He wasn’t to open his big mouth but rather to giggle furtively, bat his eyes and occasionally flip back his wig hair.

That’s all it took. It was like watching a train wreck. Everything slowed way down. It was a joke gone terribly bad and I wanted to stop it. But that devil on my left shoulder the Mormons warned me about kept my protests at bay. The lurid side of me wanted to see where this was going.

Chuck sauntered over rather stiffly and sat. The couch quivered under his weight. He was a lineman. The Butler giggled three octaves too low and almost knocked his wig off with a flip of his hand. Repositioning the hairpiece he giggled again.

“You know, he’s not that bad.” I thought to myself.

Then it happened, without so much as a word Chuck slid his hand under the slip and up the Butler’s leg to his crotch. However, with suprising foresight the Butler had shoved his privates down between his crossed legs. This was hard to watch as Chuck’s searching hand, his heavy breathing and the lump in his trousers could only mean one thing. In his mind, in his reality, our Butler was going to be his first lay.

I think this dawned on the Butler at the same time. With no intention whatsoever of being the love cushion of BYU’s starting tackle, he stood up in disgust, his pecker flopped out, and he marched into the bathroom admonishing Chuck as a pervert.

Chuck’s reality exploded. He stood there in a daze, his mind racing to make sense of it all. By the time he gained some manner of conscious equilibrium Bill had vanished and I was on a dead run fifty yards down the street.

1973 Gil vs Oregon State


In high school a few of us went to see a hypnotist perform in the school’s auditorium. It was fun to watch students under hypnosis play pretend musical instruments or race around the room like they were cars.

But the final act was truly provocative. The hypnotist asked for a volunteer. A friend of mine raised his hand and was called on stage. He was hypnotized. And then the strangest thing happened.

Taking a large yellow pencil, the hypnotist told my friend it was a lit cigarette. He began puffing on it. Suddenly he took the pencil from his mouth and acted like he was putting it out on my friend’s arm. My buddy screamed and jerked away looking at the hypnotist in disbelief.

“What the hell did you do that for?” he asked.

Well, that was strange. But what happened next was profound. A blister formed. I was astounded. I thought to myself, “You mean the mind is so strong that by belief alone it can change the molecular cell structure of the skin?”

The implications were staggering. If I could harness my mind, I could influence my reality and the quality of my experience.

This single realization set me on a lifelong quest to understand the workings of the human brain.


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