“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.
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.”
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.
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.
Gil Gillenwater, Troy Gillenwater & Jerry Dixon in Sengchen.
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.
Gil readies for the original “Zip Line” river cxrossing.
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.
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.
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.”