“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.
The drive to Pelung took us over several Himalayan passes.
Tibetan pilgrims consecrate these sacred sites with prayer flags & mani stones.
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).
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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
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 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.
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.