Todd & Gil on the streets of Hong Kong with their new friend and fellow expedition member - Christiaan Kuypers.
Gil, Todd, Troy & Christiaan having a gay old time in the, “Top Gun” bar. This did wonders for our jet-lag.
Buddha eyes on the Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu.
Watching bodies burn at the Pashupatinath Temple funeral pyres in Kathmandu on the edge of the Bagmati River.
Oy Kanjanavanit, Christiaan Kuypers, Troy Gillenwater, Todd Gillenwater, Gil Gillenwater
Bhakha Tulku appeases the Himalayan mountain gods with a two hour Puja Ceremony.
Photo taken in Tucson, Arizona of the Dalai Lama in front of a saguaro cactus. I had 100 copies laminated and smuggled them into Tibet.
Todd Gillenwater, Christiaan Kuypers & Oy Kanjanavanit. On our way to Lhasa, Tibet. Little did we know what lay in store.
Hamid Sardar pretending to eat a chicken foot while Ian searches for the elusive chicken breast.
Following a military convoy in the rain, the muddy road led us deeper and deeper into the land of Vajrayogini.
Slogging through the logging town of Tumbatse, not much had changed in 13 months.
Passing Pelung (Leaping Rat Lodge) the road conditions deteriorated.
95-A #13, 14, 15
“Landslide Alley” a lottery of luck. Some made it. Some didn’t.
Arriving at the 800 year old Bhakha Monastery we entered another dimension.
At the Bhakha Monastery, Ian Baker and our Chinese travel liaison - Geng Quanru - (AKA Mr. Gunn) negotiate with the monks and local Monpa tribal people to serve as porters on our pilgrimage. A few females were a must to balance the male energy.
At the Bhakha Monastery the local Monpa tribal people weave their own backpacks.
At the Bhakha Monastery. Left to Right: Todd Gillenwater, Christiaan Kuypers, Mr. Zang (seated in army camouflage), Mr. Gunn, Troy Gillenwater & Oy Kanjanavanit. Note nobody is swallowing the rancid Yak butter tea.
A lukewarm dinner at the “Carnage Cafe”. When we got back to our dumpy room Troy asked Todd, “Did that dinner taste a little weird to you?”
“Surreal” is the only way to describe a roller skating rink in the squalid frontier town of Pome.
The Communist Chinese forbade the Bhakha Buddhist monks to travel with us. Ian Baker counts the group’s cash. Certainly a bribe will change their minds.
The head Lama of the Taksham Monastery bore a remarkable resemblance to Yoda.
At the Taksham Monastery (the, “Tiger Skin Monastery”) we found a most unusual mural depicting five tigers devouring a corpse.
Conducting a divination ceremony known as a "prasena" the Buddhist monks manifested a rainbow to guide us to our trailhead. An elderly Ani (Nun) looks on in knowing devotion.
The Rainbow of “Divine Guidance”.
Driving out of Pome we passed this sign claiming the Communist Chinese as the protectors of the Himalayas.
The Himalayan scenery from our 1st camp was other-worldly.
Seemingly out of nowhere a Lama - Kaba Tulku (pronounced Kawa) - and his small entourage arrive. What a gift!
The enigmatic Kaba Tulku (the “Cloud Lama” ) with his tell-tale Red Hat. This represents his adherence to the Nyingma or “Old School” sect of Tibetan Buddhism. The ethereal Lama was to become an integral part of our pilgrimage and the mystery of our journey.
We were surrounded by massive Himalayan glaciers.
Double loads equal double pay. Here our “Gentle Giant” carries over 120 pounds.
Finally we were hiking! Our group moved as a multi-legged centipede wending its way along and across the glacial spillway.
Soon the climbing began. At first I felt bad – me carrying 25 pounds and the porters carrying from 60 pounds to double that. I soon got over it. That is what they are trained and paid to do.
It was a dream come true. Hiking the Himalayan “Hidden Lands” with the 2 people I could count on the most – my brothers Troy & Todd.
Camping at the base of the Dashing La Pass. At an elevation of 12,850 feet, we had half a mile of vertical climbing to reach the Pass. Then we would descend into the depths of Pemako’s “Hidden Lands”.
Following a dip in the glacial stream, Gil and his “Buddha Eyes” survey the Dashing Valley.
Finding a dead bear incurred no negative karma. Our food shortage was solved. We would eat like Kings! Kaba Tulku guided the bear’s soul to a better rebirth.
Gutting the bear in search of the prized gallbladder. Soon we would have meat aplenty.
Roasting the meat took all night. We had over 200 pounds of bear steaks.
The butchering and tribal incantations went on for hours. The Guardian Spirits were pleased. They’d given us this gift. The porters chanted their gratefulness.
The porters played with the bear’s head throughout the night hoping to embody its spirit. They kept the head for several days.
At 14,000 feet in elevation, climbing up and out of the Dashing Valley was a formidable task.
95-B #7 & #8
The Sherpas and porters were super-human.
95-B #9 & #10
Stopping to soak in the scenery. At times it was overwhelming.
Hiking the ice fields was treacherous. Especially with a 100 pound load.
One final look back into the Dashing Valley.
Todd reaches the Dashing La Pass.
Troy and Pasang Sherpa reach the Dashing La Pass.
A pony caravan emerges from the roiling Pemako abyss.
With Mr. Zang well ahead I offer Dalai Lama photographs.
Dropping off the Dashing La Pass and negotiating the ice fields at the head of the Chimdro Valley.
Waterfalls have special significance in Pemako. Hundreds were cascading into the Chimdro Valley.
Staring into the throat of the Chimdro Valley.
A steep descent off the Dashiing La Pass and into the Chimdro Valley.
This cabin had wall to wall porters chomping on putrefied bear meat.
Pemako was a Fairy Land.
Pemako weather vacillates from pounding rain to scorching sun several times a day. Here Todd crosses a cantilevered bridge.
The ground was so saturated with water our tent felt like a waterbed.
Our dropping elevation took us deep into leech country.
I love this photo. Here our Lama rests in meditative peace. Next to him, exhausted, is our Communist Chinese military escort – Mr. Zang. Mr. Zang was conflicted. He couldn’t square the spiritual magic of Pemako, he witnessed thru the Lama, with his atheistic Communist beliefs.
The Crazy Nun.
Poison witches in Pemako have tattooed tongues. Therefore, local etiquette requires the sticking out of tongues for all female introductions. Here the Crazy Nun is proving to us she is not a poison witch.
Two different rivers - 30 feet apart - flowing in opposite directions?
Troy won the “worst place to find a leech” contest.
Leech bites became common occurrences.
95-B #32 & #33
The hot and tangled Rhododendron forests became oppressive.
Troy and porters hope they’re on the right trail.
The tunneled bamboo thickets were very disorienting. Knowing the area’s large tiger population didn’t help.
With Mr. Zang in Ghutan trying to secure our permits, I had free license to hand out Dalai Lama photographs in the village of Samdrup. This man lost the sight in his left eye due to a leech bite.
95-B #37 & #38
The tribal people’s love for the Dalai Lama knew no bounds.
The local children would stare at us for hours. Inbreeding was taking a toll in these isolated villages.
95-B #40 & 41
Porters setting the lines for our cable crossing over the tumultuous Chimdro chu River.
The odds of surviving a plunge into the river were not good.
95-B #43, #44, & 45
Todd makes it safely across and promptly takes a nap. Next to the river was the only place we could escape the relentless heat.
95-B #46 & #47
Ian makes it across the raging river.
Hamid gets tied in.
Gil pulls himself across.
Once across the river, the trail to the PungPung La pass is almost non-existent.
Our trail steepened as we left the bamboo and rhododendron thickets on our wet climb up to the 15,150 foot high PungPung La pass.
Taking a break on the trail. “Was this our trail?”, we wondered as it disappeared into the clouds above. Nobody knew for sure.
We began to lose our light as the group got separated. The higher we went the more landslides we encountered. The earth was alive.
Finally daylight! Troy stands next to the makeshift camp. Todd, Gil, Troy, Christiaan, Oy, & Hamid spent the longest, wettest, most leech infested night of their lives under this crude shelter.
Pemba Sherpa could start a fire in an aquarium. These guys were the ultimate outdoorsmen. Right to Left - Christiaan Kuypers, Hamid Sardar, Troy Gillenwater & Oy Kanjanavanit. Pemba Sherpa is on the far left.
One misstep on the slippery log and it was “game over”.
Lobsong and his wife found dinner. Suspicious not to look at the camera, Lobsong carried his “Gau” with him at all times. (A Gau is a portable Buddhist shrine worn as a protection amulet).
Pemba Sherpa (far right) sliced the mushroom into the pot. Chombi Sherpa (far left) checks on its progress.
This was Beyul Pemako, “Hidden Land of the Blossoming Lotus”.
Left to Right: Todd and Troy pose with our senior porter – Puntsok. We had another 1,000 feet to climb to gain the PungPung La pass.
Dropping off the PungPung La pass. Todd is not looking real thrilled about the steep, wet descent ahead.
Troy & Todd resting with three of our porters. It was an uncharacteristically clear day for Pemako.
Carrying 2 loads, our “Gentle Giant” porter is enjoying the drier weather and firmer trails.
Todd negotiates a moss covered log.
The “Jolly Lama” was imperturbable.
The young, married, porter couple examine bear tracks on the banks of the animal spirit lake.
Our “Jolly Lama” often sat by himself in deep thought. This Vajrayogini pilgrimage in the “Year of the Pig” was his life-long dream come true.
Todd admires one of the many waterfalls cascading into the sacred lake.
Little could we have known the dangers that lay in wait in this idyllic spot.
Gil, Troy & Todd marvel over the paradisiacal landscape. Who made this place?
Gil walks through a scene from Hobbit Land.
Clouds begin to gather in Paradise.
The cantilevered bridges were primitive engineering masterpieces.
A sure footed porter crosses the cantilevered bridge.
The skies become foreboding as Gil says good bye to Paradise.
The forest was cold and wet as we slogged into a ferocious storm.
Todd deathly ill in the middle. Malevolent water spirits or food poisoning? At his point Todd didn’t care. He just wanted to die. It was an excruciatingly long night.
Ghastly ill, Todd somehow manages the 1,100 foot, rain drenched climb to the dreaded Adrothang swamp.
In a super-human effort Todd continues to move forward. But in his sickened condition we fall further and further behind.
As brothers we felt horrible for Todd but there was little we could do but try and encourage him onward. Waiting for him was difficult in the glacial cold and rain. We became chilled to the bone and could feel the insidious onset of hypothermia tighten its lethal grip.
Looking off the lip of Adrothang into the swirling abyss.
This photograph was taken at lower elevation of Chimed Gompo, the "Deathless Lord”. We are convinced he saved our lives.
Todd started feeling a little better. Gil didn’t.
Todd waits patiently as Troy continues to vomit. The high elevation exacerbated the symptoms of our illness.
The climbing continues. Far above timer-line, we knew the SangMen La Pass (14,200 feet) had to be close.
Chimed Gompo is carrying 2 of our packs at once. Our destination, Kundu Dorsempotrang Mountain, the “All Gathering Home of the Vajrasattva Mind”, (Vajrayogini’s heart chakra) reigns prominently on the distant horizon. We had a long way to go.
Kundu Dorsempotrang Mountain.
Chombi Sherpa sent 2 Sherpas back to us with hot water and noodles. Now we had 3 Sherpas to carry our packs and help us down to the day’s camp on the banks of another glacial lake.
Dropping off of the SangMen La Pass, we could see part of our group approaching the glacial lake.
As the others surge on, Gil looks for camp near the lake. “What was the hurry?” the Gillenwater’s wondered.
Close examination shows our vanguard porters, like ants, on the ridgeline in the middle left of the photograph. The ice caped peak on the right is the 25,531 foot Namcha Barwa.
Steep climbs up and steep climbs down. This is hiking in the Himalayas.
With her keen interest in botany, Oy was forever examining trailside plants. We felt that she, Christiaan, Chombi & Chimed Gompo were the only expedition members who had our well-being at heart. It was becoming increasingly obvious that Ian & Hamid had a different agenda that didn’t include us and that they weren’t sharing.
Guru Shugstrethang Lake. An extremely revered pilgrimage site.
To the porters, theirs was a living landscape.
Kundu Dorsempotrang Mountain (Vajrayogini’s heart chakra) was easily recognizable by the anvil shaped stone on its summit. We were getting close.
The climb up to our Kundu Dorsempotrang base camp was severe. Here our lagging
group inches its way up to the holy mountain.
Kundu Lha Tsho Lake, “The All Gathering Soul Lake". Photo by: Christiaan Kuypers
Vajrayogini’s essence manifests as sacred lakes dotting the landscape. Photo by: Christiaan Kuypers
The porters stare at the cliff face in veneration. Photo by: Christiaan Kuypers
The Jolly Lama and his young attendant join Scarface at a holy boulder. Photo by: Christiaan Kuypers
Kundu Dorsempotrang offers us one final view as the porters labor below.
Ongel, the old Sherpa with his cheap rubber boots, was a stabilizing influence and a wonderful companion.
Matuk (on far right) and his companions are stunned at the manifestation of the, “Deities from the sky”.
The Gillenwater brothers can’t shake their dogged illness as evidenced in Troy’s expression.
We finally found a fallen log where we could inch our way across the rushing waters.
Back in leech country.
The Rinchenpung Monastery translates to "Mound of Jewels”. It was a welcome sight.
The Rinchenpung Monastery. Vajrayogini’s naval chakra is arguably Pemako’s most revered pilgrimage site. Meditation in this power spot generates compounding benefits.
Troy shares photos from home with an older lama. His left hand and all his fingers had been severed by Mao's "Red Guard".
Rang Rig Gyapo the "King of Self-Awareness” is a rare wrathful emanation of Padmasambhava.
A Garuda, representing the consciously awakened mind, hovers above the "King of Self-Awareness”.
The Old School of Tibetan Buddhism ingeniously incorporated many animistic traditions of the indigenous Bön religion seamlessly into its theology.
With our military escort, Mr. Zang, gone we could freely hand out our coveted Dalai Lama photographs. Here Gil hands several out to the porters.
The love and reverence they have for “His Holiness” is difficult to describe.
Our distribution of the Dalai Lama photos gained us great status at Rinchenpung. They truly were “spiritual currency” in this remote frontier - forgotten by time.
As Todd looks on, Troy presents our foam football to the caretaker’s sons.
The caretaker family at the Rinchenpung Monestary. Note the brother’s foam football and ball point pen.
By this time, the leeches didn’t seem to bother us that much. We learned that in Pemako it was just a way of life.
It was difficult for us to say goodbye to Kaba Tulku – our “Jolly Lama”. He was such a presence and living example of clear thought. It’s doubtful we could have ever located the magic mountain - Kundu Dorsempotrang - without his knowledge and intuition.
Visiting with the local villagers as we were leaving the Rinchenpung Monestary was fun. Their homes are perpetually filled with smoke.
Trading beads are a big part of the villagers’ lives.
The day’s hike to Medog began with an unexpected 600 foot climb.
It was a hot and muggy 4,000 foot descent into the military outpost of Medog.
At these lower elevations leeches were everywhere.
Medog. What a disappointment.
Even in this military pigsty with its Mad Max characters - the Dalai Lama photographs carried a huge significance.
Troy relaxes in our Medog luxury suite.
The Medog General Store. Todd purchases snacks for us and beers for our life-saving Sherpas.
Though beer and high doses of Flagyl don’t mix – we couldn’t resist. (Flagyl was our drug of choice for treating parasitic infections and amebic dysentery. We were popping the pills like M&M’s.)
At just over 2,000 feet in elevation the jungle heat was stifling. Bepuk lies in the background. Close examination of the photo shows the Doshong River flowing aqua green into the muddy Yarlung Tsangpo. We would cross the Yarlung Tsangpo and follow the Doshong Valley up to the 15,300 foot high Doshong La Pass – our gateway out of Pemako and on to the village of Pei.
Early outside of Bepuk we encountered a local Lopa tribal woman carrying ferns.
Close examination shows the “Liberation Bridge” and its shadow cast on the river in the left of the photo. The aqua green Doshong River flows in from the right.
The Doshong River.
Our trail virtually “tunneled” up the side of the canyon.
Close examination of this photo shows Troy on the trail in the far distance with his arms raised high.
Our well traveled trail led us by a few Lopa homes. There was a simplicity in their primitiveness we found alluring.
Little by little our climbing took us above and out of the stifling heat.
Pemako is a magic place.
Troy looks up the Doshong Valley. Our pass out of Pemako was a half mile above us.
Setting camp for our last night in Pemako.
Wet and cold at the “Doshong La Base-Camp”, we were ready to leave Pemako.
Here the climbing to the Doshong La Pass began in earnest.
Todd moves on ahead.
Todd filters water as we climb higher into the mists.
Chombi (shirtless) and fellow Sherpa climb on by. These guys were tough!
95-D #46 & #47
Our porters were unfathomably strong.
Porters inching their way up the Doshong La Pass.
Gil & Todd working their way up to the Doshong La Pass.
There was too much water in the streams to be close to the Pass?
Visibility was difficult as Todd disappeared into the clouds.
Precarious hiking in the ice fields.
The porters push on. It was near here that we saw the dead man.
Troy poses for a quick picture on the Doshong La Pass.
Leaving Pemako was just as dramatic as entering it three weeks earlier.
The road! Todd & Troy relish in the moment.
The end of the Pemako trail.
Todd, Gil & Troy. The outpost of Pei. Finally civilization!
In the village of Pei, Chombi Sherpa (right) had the thankless job of calculating porter wages. When nobody was around, Troy, Todd & I gave Chimed Gompa (middle) a large tip. He literally saved our lives.
As we ready for the long drive back to Lhasa, Christiaan has a celebratory smoke and entertains the residents of Pei with a juggling act.
Gil can’t stop smiling. “We made it. We made it. We’re finally out of Pemako!”
High on a hill just outside the town of Tsethang, sits Tibet’s oldest fortress/castle - Yumbulakhar.
95-D #63, #64, #65
Some of the interesting Tibetans we passed on our long drive back to Lhasa.
Left: Raktayamari & Vajravetali - Yab (father)-Yum (mother), Middle: (to follow), Right: White Tara
Eating in an actual restaurant. We were all smiles.
Known for serving American style food, we dreamed of eating at Mike’s for a month. Our breakfast lasted for two hours and ended with hot fudge brownie sundaes.
Still not feeling that well, Todd gets some fresh air atop our Hotel Marshyangdi overlooking Kathmandu. Later that evening he would have a severe intestinal relapse.
Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche and an unforgettable lesson in Buddhist Dependent Origination & Emptiness.
95-D #71 & #72
A final fun night in Kathmandu.
Three very strong shots of tequila were in order upon landing at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. We were home!