“Meditation is not a matter of trying to achieve ecstasy, spiritual bliss or tranquility, nor is it attempting to be a better person. It is simply the creation of space in which we are able to expose and undo our neurotic games, our self-deception, our hidden fears and hopes.”
My intention was set – “I was going to Tibet!”. One week later this article appeared on the front page of Section C of our Arizona Republic newspaper. The feature stated: “Tucson resident Richard D. Fisher is looking for people to join his 21-day expedition in May to Tibet, where a team will explore the Namche Barwa Canyon.”
Landing in Hong Kong.
Left to Right: Jerry Dixon, Troy Gillenwater and Chris Grace.
Chairman Mao welcomes us to the bustling Chinese city of Chengdu.
Flying over the Himalayas.
Coming from the deserts of Arizona we were all thinking, “What the hell are we getting ourselves into?”
Our 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.
Readying 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.
Documentary 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.
Soon we begin “lining” the raft through the more difficult sections.
Portaging rapids in the Upper Granite Gorge of the Yarlung Tsangpo - the world’s highest river. These water formations are simply gravity-driven liquid 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. Pictured right to left: Troy Gillenwater, Eric Manthey & Rick Fisher.)
Gil Gillenwater holds human mandible. “We’d been rafting with a bunch of sinners.”
These recirculating hydraulic holes, or “keepers”, were to be avoided at all cost.
Portaging rapids in the Upper Granite Gorge of the Yarlung Tsangpo - the world’s highest river (Right to Left: Troy Gillenwater, Eric Manthey & Rick Fisher). In many places the river was simply un-runnable. We came to accept that we were essentially powerless on the “Mt. Everest of Rivers”.
Abandoning 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 would later regret leaving our life jackets.
Though the hiking was difficult in river sandals - Troy and I never regretted being off the river.
Many times we had to swim around river bank obstacles.
A not so subtle lesson in impermanence.
Rick takes a break. Altitude sickness and lack of food were depleting all his energy.
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.
Multi-colored Buddhist prayer flags guide us to civilization. Standing on the roof, Troy and Rick peer into the courtyard. There must be food!
Their minds - unadulterated by modernization and technology - welcomed us as family.
Rick and I revel in outside human contact. I could feel my energy return as I choked down the tsampa and gulped the high-fat, yak butter tea.
Though from opposite sides of the planet and cultural strangers – the human connection prevails.
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.
The stacked stone homes in the enchanted hamlet of Dabucun reminded us of those we’d seen on the Hopi Mesas in Arizona.
There was a peace here I had never found before or since.
Troy says goodbye to the village of Dabucun as we hike an ancient cliff side pilgrimage trail.
The Tibetan people we passed on our hike out always seemed to be smiling.
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.
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.
The drive to Pelung was rife with obstacles. The days seemed endless.
The food at the roadside lunch houses was a challenge. Rick was still angry with Eric.
The Chinese invasion took a tremendous toll on Tibet.
On our long drive we experienced a traditional Tibet that is fast disappearing. Note: The Tibetans we encountered in rural areas were always smiling.
Nomadic herders and their Yak hair tents.
Gil & Troy at their first Monastery – the Buchusergila Khang Temple (Buchu Monastery).
Troy stands atop the 15,300 foot Dakmo Serkyim La Pass surrounded by hundreds of Prayer Flags and Mani stones.
Tumbatse was the 1924 operating base for the British botanist explorers Francis Kingdon-Ward and Lord Cawdor.
Troy deep in a game of Khampa Billiards.
“The Monpa Mafia”
Direct decedents of the warring Mishimi and Abor tribes, our local porters were an interesting lot. Their load carrying strength was matched only by their nefarious behavior.
We were continually amazed at the agility and durability of our porters. They were truly “people of the earth”.
Gil winds his way through a combination of thick jungled vegetation and hulking old growth forest.
Left to Right: Gil Gillenwater, Bill Bacon, Jerry Dixon, Eric Manthey and Chris Grace take a much needed break at the top of a small pass. Prayer flags denote the crest. For Gil, Jerry, Chris and Troy this was “buzzed hiking”.
A false step on the hanging bridge would deliver one to the raging maelstrom below.
Gil hikes the hand gouged trail. Locals call these carved out sections the “Tiger’s Mouth”.
Troy & Jerry take a break at a mani stone shrine. Jerry’s turquoise shirt may have saved him wandering into Bhutan!
Tibetan tough guys.
Cresting the ridge, it was a short hike down to Mondrong.
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.
Troy and I were serenaded by the sing-song harmony of three Monpan nightingales.
A leech! These repulsive creatures would torment us day and night.
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
The Village of Sengchen. The term “village” is misleading. Two or more houses constitute a village. These were hamlets - small collections of log houses.
Gil Gillenwater & Jerry Dixon lead the group down the ridgeline in hopes of fulfilling Rick Fisher’s dream – a glimpse of the “Lost Falls of the Brahmaputra”.
Gil Gillenwater, Troy Gillenwater & Jerry Dixon in Sengchen.
Gil and the others hike the same Mondrong to Sengchen trail that Captain Francis Kingdon Ward and Lord Cawdor first explored 70 years earlier – in 1924.
A porter sets the line for our river cable crossing.
Troy offers a last minute prayer before placing his life in the hands of our porters.
Troy grins as he’s lashed to the pulley.
Troy midway over the Po Tsangpo River. He must now pull himself up to our group waiting on the other side.
Gil readies for his cable crossing.
Tibetan bamboo pit viper coiled and camouflaged on a broad leaf. The porters call them “Nagas”.
A Tiger Leech full of Gil’s blood.
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.
A Monpa boy from Zachu. In addition to their ubiquitous daggers, note the Dalai Lama portrait on a string around his neck. Even in the Hidden Lands they love their God King.
We stayed with a young Monpa family in Zachu.
Troy showing his camera and zoom lens to a young Monpa boy above the village of Zachu. Introducing outside technology is tricky business.
A typical Monpan kitchen. That night we were to sleep in the smoky attic above.
Gil & Jerry above the stream where Jerry had a leech attach to his eye.
Troy mingling with the locals on our hike back to Pelung (Leaping Rat Lodge). We were as curious to them as they were to us.
Gil & Bill Bacon give the porters a break on the hike back to the Pelung (Leaping Rat Lodge).
Jerry Dixon & Troy Gillenwater take a rest on one of the swinging bridges over the Po Tsangpo River.
Troy Gillenwater, Jerry Dixon & Gil Gillenwater. Happy to be safely back at the infamous Leaping Rat Lodge.
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”.
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.
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.
Not to be rude, Troy, Chris and I got just as drunk on chang as the locals.
Truly a day to remember.
The Potala (the Dalai Lama’s palace) is a 13-storied building containing over 1,000 rooms, 10,000 shrines and 200,000 statues. Situated on top of Marpo Ri, the "Red Hill", at 384 feet in height it has a commanding view over the Lhasa valley. The year we were there – 1994 – it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
94-B #52 & 94-B #53
Built in AD 652, the Jokhang Temple is Tibet’s most revered sanctuary and the "spiritual heart” of Lhasa. In 2000, the Jokhang became a UNESCO World Heritage Site as an extension of the Potala Palace.
The Barkhor’s public square with the Potala Palace hovering on the top right. The two large incense burners (sangkangs) are fed juniper boughs constantly to please the gods protecting the Jokhang.
Gil and young “Monks in Training” at the Sara Monastery.
It was a long dusty 600 mile drive from Lhasa, Tibet to Kathmandu, Nepal. But the view of Mt. Everest from the north made it all worthwhile.
The ruins of the ancient Shelkar Dorje dzong (fort) snake up the mountain above New Tingri. This fortress was constructed in 1266 to protect the Kagyu monastery.
The climb up to the Shelkar Dorje dzong afforded spectacular views.
Skulking through town to avoid detection, we followed a centuries worn pilgrimage path up to a saddle. Troy stands amongst 800 years of devotional mani stones and prayer flags crowding the pass. Now the real climbing was about to begin.
Soon the climbing became very steep.
A night we shall never forget atop the Shelkar Dorje dzong.