So we made it off the river and out of the Upper Granite Gorge. Four years later, in 1998, a Chinese team rafted the Yarlung Tsangpo River approximately 1000 miles across Tibet to the village of Pei (just before the large elevation drops of the Great Bend). However, the rafters were forced to portage the Upper Granite Gorge citing the fifty mile stretch of Class 5 whitewater as un-runnable.
In Peter Winn’s “First Descents of the Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibet” (http://www.shangri-la-river-expeditions.com/1stdes/yarlung/yarlung.html) he states the following:
History of the Gyatse Gorge (a.k.a. the Upper Granite Gorge) of the Yarlung Tsangpo River in SE Tibet.
The Gyatse Gorge is a fifty mile stretch of Class 5 whitewater located between Sangri and Gyatse.
In 1994, Troy and Gil Gillenwater, Rick Fisher and Eric Manthey completed the first descent of the upper 15 miles of this 50 mile roadless canyon, from near Sangri (29.251N, 92.027E) to Sangzhuling (29.252N, 92.219E), using a paddle raft. After portaging several rapids, they abandoned their raft and hiked 35 miles to their planned takeout at Gyatse.
In 2007, a team organized by Windhorse Adventures (Willy Kern, Jed & Peter Weingarten and Tracey Bowerman) completed the first descent of last 35 miles of this 50 mile roadless canyon (the Gyatse Gorge a.k.a. the Upper Granite Gorge) from near Sangzhuling (29.252N, 92.219E) to Gyatse 29.140N, 92.601E), using kayaks.
They had to portage so many rapids that Gyatse Gorge is not a good repeat run.
We were lucky to get off the river and out of the gorge alive. Since our first descent rafting attempt the Yarlung Tsangpo has claimed the lives of several world class river runners. Most notable was Doug Gordon, a former U.S. Whitewater Kayak Slalom Team member who died on the river in 1998. Neither his kayak nor his body were ever found. (We cover this tragedy in the book.)
In this Blog Post we stray from the narrative and provide some background on the area. To better understand the Blog Posts that follow the stories need to be told in context of the geography and history of this last unexplored place on earth.
Today the inner gorge of the Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo is once again closed to outside travel. The Communist Chinese have three massive hydro-electric damns planned for the gorge. All the local Monpa, Lopa and Khampa tribesmen have been relocated out of their homeland. Paved roads now lead to such outposts as Medog. And tourist hotels now stand on sites where we pitched our tent. Ours was a time and a place now lost forever. We were so fortunate to have had these raw experiences. And we feel fortunate to be able to share them with you here.
We will begin this account just before we left off in the March 14, 2018, Blog Post:
Rick reached out and shook each of our hands and said, “How does it feel to be the first to raft the world’s highest river?”
Troy and I looked at each other knowingly. It was a little more adventure than either of us had bargained for. Yet, having survived, it was priceless.
“It feels great Rick… fantastically great!”
Soon we were ready for the second stage of our trip - finding the “Lost Falls of the Brahmaputra”. This would be Troy’s and my first journey into what was being called the “Hidden Lands of the Blossoming Lotus” or simply the “Hidden Lands”.
We knew so little about Tibet when we decided to go there. We’d never heard of the Hidden Lands or Pemako or even the world’s highest river. I knew that two of my favorite teachers were born there, Chögyam Trungpa and His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama. Besides that we had this vague notion of a primitive land somehow forgotten by time. We were aware that foreign travel had been restricted for decades but that in the early 1990’s it was beginning to loosen.
The mystery of the place held its own allure. We were to later learn that, historically, Tibet’s geographic location as the “Rooftop of the World” was the primary reason people didn’t go there. But we also learned that a large part of Tibet’s isolation was self-induced. Tibetan officials simply forbade what they saw as foreign interlopers. Politically they had no desire to be colonized by Britain or Russia - two big players in the nineteenth century’s “Great Game” of expansionism. This "isolationist" governmental policy coupled with the rugged and virtually impassable frozen boundaries served to politically and geographically "close" the country to outside travel.
Consequently, in the nineteenth century almost nothing was known about the “Land of the Snows”. In 1858 the British colonized India. The success of this grab fostered an eager financial interest in knowing what lay just to the north - in Tibet. To penetrate this “closed” territory, in 1863 Britain began training surveyor-spies to work undercover disguised as Buddhist pilgrims. These explorer-spies were charged with secretly mapping the forbidden frontiers as part of the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India.
Of particular interest was the actual route of one of Asia’s major waterways - the Yarlung Tsangpo River. It was well known that the river traveled eastward across the southern Tibetan plateau paralleling the Himalayas at an average elevation of 13,000 feet. But that was it. The West knew nothing of unexplored eastern Tibet and could only speculate as to the course of the river. Did it continue east to become the Irrawaddy River? Did it flow into the Yangtze, Mekong or Salween rivers? Or, unfathomably still, could it travel through the Himalayas and plunge off the Tibetan plateau to become the Brahmaputra River? This last option was spell binding. The Brahmaputra flowed west across the hills and plains of Assam at an average elevation of only 1,000 feet above sea level. For the Tsangpo to become the Brahmaputra would require a drop of more than 12,000 feet. Should this be the case, there had to be a hidden waterfall to rival all waterfalls. Explorers’ minds reeled with the possibility of discovering another Niagara Falls or even Victoria Falls. This conundrum was known as the “Riddle of the Yarlung Tsangpo”.
In 1878, Britain’s Survey of India sent two undercover surveyor-spies, Nem Singh, a lama from Darjeeling, and his assistant, a Mongolian lama named Kinthup, to solve this last great mapping mystery. Their efforts uncovered 300 more miles of the Yarlung Tsangpo River. As it turned out, Kinthup pushed on another 40 miles further to just below Pemakochung where the gorge became almost impassable. Undaunted, he continued but was turned back by the warring Abhor tribal people. But not before purportedly seeing a distant waterfall he estimated at 150 feet high. Following Kinthup’s return from the Tsangpo gorges, “The Falls of the Sangpo” as they were then labeled, were placed on the Survey map. This story fueled the legend of a monstrous waterfall. The possibility of an undiscovered cataract spurred the outside world’s interest in exploring the Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo. While Kinthup didn’t definitively solve the river riddle, he paved the way for others to do so.
It’s a fascinating account and Troy and I knew nothing of it until our forays into Tibet.
By the beginning of the twentieth century fewer than a handful of Westerners had managed to visit Tibet’s capital Lhasa, known as the "Forbidden City". This "seclusion” of Tibet from the rest of the world gave it an aura of intrigue. This was further fueled by fantastical tales of Shangri La and Shambhala - lost paradises of sanctuary and enlightenment.
Unfortunately, this isolationist attitude prevented Tibet from fostering outside allies. With practically all of its resources going into maintaining its religion (one out of three Tibetans was a socially dependent monk), the country was supported by feudal serfdom and had no military. This left Tibet ripe for invasion by Britain in the early 1900’s and again by the Communist Chinese in the mid - 1900’s.
In 1904, a British invasionary force led by Lieutenant Colonel Francis Younghusband reached Lhasa. Under the pretense of preventing Russia’s expansion into Central Asia, Younghusband’s troops attacked. Well trained and armed with state-of-the-art Maxim guns (machine guns) and Enfield rifles (repeating rifles) they confronted hundreds of disorganized monks wielding farm implements, swords and antiquated flintlocks. It was an unnecessary bloodbath. An estimated 5,000 Tibetans were killed during the campaign. Five British soldiers were reported killed.
The British awarded themselves a “war medal” and imposed a treaty - the heart of which reads below - and then they withdrew.
Without British consent, no Tibetan territory to be ceded, leased, etc. to be given, and no Tibetan revenues to be pledged to a Foreign Power or to any of its subjects. No such Power to be permitted to intervene in Tibetan affairs, or to send Agents to Tibet.*
*Charles, Bell (1992). Tibet Past and Present. CUP Motilal Banarsidass Publ. p. 68. ISBN 81-208-1048-1.
Younghusband returned to Britain with such regret that he devoted the remainder of his life to spiritual pursuits.
The British invasion further strengthen Tibet’s resolve to isolate itself from evil outside influences. Upon their invader’s exit the “Forbidden City” became forbidden once more.
Yet the die had been cast. In this “Age of Exploration” the draw to solve the “Riddle of the Yarlung Tsangpo” was magnetic and this area of Tibet became the central focus. But, in addition to the country’s “closed” policy, would-be-explorers faced three additional and formidable obstacles.
Tibet is geographically isolated due to the 1,500 mile long Himalayan mountain range as its front door and the desolate 15,000 foot high, one million square mile, frozen Tibetan Plateau as its back door.
In addition, southeastern Tibet is one of the wettest places on earth. Constant rain and floods were effective repellents to even the hardiest explorers.
The other effective repellent was Tribal. For hundreds of years aboriginal Abor (Hill People) and Mishimi (Not Civilized) tribes straddled the southeastern frontier of Tibet. Fiercely territorial, these tribes attacked all who attempted to enter the Hidden Lands. In addition, their descendants, the indigenous Monpas of the upper gorge and the Lopas of the lower gorge, possessed the same xenophobic and aggressive attitude. “Poison Cults” flourished. Several early explorers were murdered and three British military incursions were defeated and chased out of the country, further isolating the area.
In spite of these life threatening dangers, man’s lust for exploration continued. In the early 1900’s there were three additional clandestine ventures into the Hidden Lands that deserve mention.
In 1913, Frederick Bailey and Henry Morshead, both British and former members of the Survey of India’s, Abor Expedition, left for an unsanctioned six month search for the “Lost Falls of the Brahmaputra”. Their plan was to retrace the footsteps of Kinthup. In a conversation Bailey had with the Nyerpa (local headsman) from Pome (near the start of our 1995 and 1997 expeditions), he tells of his ambition:
“Then I told him of the curiosity of our people in whether there were great falls on the Tsangpo… ”*
*Bailey, Frederick No Passport to Tibet, pg. 91.
Bailey and Morshead’s eventful gallivant included documenting both the Gyala Peri and Namcha Barwa peaks and adding an additional two hundred miles of the Yarlung Tsangpo River onto the map. Having pushed some ten miles farther downriver than Kinthup, this left only fifty miles of the elusive inner gorge unexplored. However, their greatest contribution was proving once and for all that the Yarlung Tsangpo and the Brahmaputra were, indeed, the same river.
In 1924 two more Englishmen ventured into the gorge. This was an exploratory-botanical mission undertaken by Francis Kingdon-Ward and Lord Jack Cawdor, the Fifth Earl of Cawdor. Their plan was two fold; to botanize and collect rare plant seeds, and to discover the “Lost Falls of the Brahmaputra”. Kingdon-Ward wrote a spell binding recount, “The Riddle of the Tsangpo Gorges”. In the book he tells, “There remained a gap of fifty miles more or less, about which absolutely nothing was known.” Kingdon-Ward and Jack Cawdor’s 1924 expedition discovered the forty foot high “Rainbow Falls” and narrowed this gap down to about five miles. However, the “Lost Falls of the Brahmaputra” eluded them.
In 1947 two more British botanists, George Ludlow and Colonel Henry Elliot made a dash into the gorge to below Gyala on a seed collecting venture. Dazzled by the diversity and raw beauty of the area, they vowed to further explore the gorge the following year. However, when that time came, Lhasa officials were worried about the impending Communist Chinese “liberation” of Tibet and refused Ludlow a visa. Shortly thereafter, in 1950, Tibet fell behind Chairman Mao’s Bamboo Curtain. For foreign travel, Tibet once again became the “Forbidden Kingdom”.*
*McRae, Michael. The Siege of Shangri-La ~ The Quest for Tibet’s Sacred Hidden Paradise. Pg. 70. New York: Broadway Books, 2002.
The “Riddle of the Tsangpo Gorge” would remain unsolved. It would be almost a half a century before foreign travel found its way back into the gorge.
Due to its proximity to the disputed border with India, the Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo was designated by the Communist Chinese as a “special military region” and foreign travel was strictly prohibited. The Chinese military did not want outsiders wandering around this strategic area of southeast Tibet. All permit requests to explore these mysterious “Hidden Lands" were either rejected on security grounds or were met with demands of million dollar permit fees as reported by mountain climber David Breashears and river rafter Rick Fisher.
In 1992 the political climate in China began to moderate. With economic pressures building, the Chinese relaxed their fees and the long coveted "Great Bend" region of the Yarlung Tsangpo River gorge was grudgingly opened to exploration by a fortunate few. Primarily those who had the requisite government contacts and the funds available to afford the reduced, though still costly, permit fees. We were among the fortunate few.
For early Western explorers, the charting of the Yarlung Tsangpo and the discovery of its hidden waterfall were driven by physical geography and in some instances abundant plant life.
But the Hidden Lands were known to the Tibetans as Beyul Pemako - “Hidden Land of the Blossoming Lotus” or “Secret Country of the Opening Lotus”. This sacred landscape held a completely different meaning. For many of the 1990’s explorers the spiritual lure of uncharted lands was every bit as strong as the geographic lure. That was certainly the case for our 1995 and 1997 expeditions.
I often say that life is like driving down a freeway at 85 miles per hour with only the rear view mirror to navigate. I wish we had taken the time to study these great explorers prior to our three expeditions. With a twenty five year look-back I can see that we encountered many of the same challenges, walked many of the same trails, slept in the same camps and undoubtedly worked with decedents of their tribal porters. Unknown when we were there, with today’s real-time internet maps we can now recognize the places discussed in their historic accounts. And our three adventures took us to many such as: Lugu, Tsebum, Pemakochung, Rinchenpung, Kyikar, Pe, Zachu, Longleb, Gogden and Kundu Dorsempotrang to name a few.
In our next Blog Post we will jump back into the narrative: Entering the Inner Gorge of the Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo and attempting to solve the “Riddle of the Tsangpo Gorge”.
Was the mythical waterfall fact or fiction?