Explorers say area discovered in Tibet is lush with life and glorious waterfalls

Chicago Tribune, Sunday, January 10, 1999 (San Jose Mercury News)

WASHINGTON -- Explorers have finally found Shangri-la.

It may not be quite the storied, verdant, utopian Himalayan paradise of
James Hilton's 1933 novel ``Lost Horizon'' and subsequent movie of the
same name. But it is verdant, it is a kind of paradise and it is hidden
deep within Tibet's Himalayan Mountains in a monstrously steep gorge
within a gorge.

There is no record of any human visiting, or even seeing, the area
before, though it's impossible to know whether anyone has seen it.

Tucked beneath a mountain spur at a sharp bend of the Zangbo River,
where the cliffsides are only 75 yards apart and cast perpetual shadows,
the place failed to show up even on satellite surveillance photographs
of the area.

``If there is a Shangri-la, this is it,'' said Rebecca Martin, director
of the National Geographic Society's Expeditions Board, which sponsored
the trek. ``This is a pretty startling discovery -- especially in a time
when many people are saying, `What's left to discover?' ''

Tentatively named by the explorers the ``Hidden Falls of the Tsangpo''
(an alternate spelling of Zangbo) and located in a forbidding region
called Pemako that Tibetans consider highly sacred, the elusive site was
reached by American explorers Ian Baker, Ken Storm Jr. and Brian Harvey
late last year, though the society did not make its confirmation of
their success official until Thursday.

In addition to a spectacular 100-foot-high waterfall -- long rumored,
but until now undocumented -- they found a subtropical garden between a
23,000-foot and a 26,000-foot mountain, at the bottom of a
4,000-foot-high cliff.

According to Martin, it's the world's deepest mountain gorge.

``It's a place teeming with life,'' Storm said in a telephone interview
from his office in the Minneapolis suburb of Burnsville. ``It's a
terribly wild river, with many small waterfalls, heavy rapids and a
tremendous current surging through. Yet there are all kinds of flora:
subtropical pine, rhododendrons, craggy fir and hemlock and spruce on
the hillsides. It's lush. Just a tremendous wild garden landscape.''

The animals there include a rare horned creature called the takin,
sacred to Tibetan Buddhists.

Difficult as the gorge was to reach, Storm said one of the hardest
aspects of the expedition was returning to civilization.

``The last we saw of it was looking down . . . with clouds sealing the
gorge and side-stream waterfalls jetting out into the river. It's
probably the most romantic landscape I'd ever seen.''

This was the seventh expedition that Baker, a Tibet scholar living in
Kathmandu, had led into the Himalayas in search of the mythic falls.
In addition to Storm, a book and game dealer turned explorer, and
Harvey, a National Geographic photographer, the team included another
scholar, Hamid Sardar of Cambridge, Mass.; two Tibetan hunters; a Sherpa
guide; and eight porters -- though Baker, Storm and Harvey were the only
ones to make the demanding descent to the gorge and falls.

Among other things, their discovery proves that two great rivers of Asia
-- the Zangbo, which runs completely across Tibet, and the mighty
Brahmaputra, which runs through the Indian state of Assam and Bangladesh
to the Bay of Bengal -- are connected.

Reminiscent of the fabled ``source of the Nile'' that English explorers
Richard Burton and John Speke raced to find in the middle of the 19th
century -- both making claims to have found it first -- the Zangbo falls
and gorge proved so far beyond explorers' reach that they had been
declared non-existent.

The southern approach up the Brahmaputra posed the most obstacles.

``It's tremendously difficult terrain of jungles and insects and
tigers,'' Storm said. ``The lower gorge area was protected by Abhors and
Mishmi, Burmese tribal groups. They protected that area pretty fiercely,
and early British attempts to penetrate were frustrated.''

In 1911, two British explorers were able to locate all but 30 to 40
miles of the river connection. A local guide named Kintup was later
hired to continue into the inner gorge and try to find the sacred place,
traveling as a Buddhist pilgrim.

He claimed to have found connection between the two rivers, but said the
only high waterfall was not on the Zangbo but up a smaller tributary.

In 1924, British botanist Francis Kingdon-Ward advanced to a point that
narrowed the unknown stretch of the river to three or four miles. He
found a waterfall as well, but measured it at only 30 feet. Finding
further penetration impossible because of the steepness and narrowness
of the gorge and bad weather, he turned back, declaring the long-sought
high falls non-existent.

Though the Zangbo River starts at 7,000 feet above sea level, it
descends rapidly and cuts through the Tibet plateau by way of the only
gap in the Himalayas open to the heavy weather of the Indian plains and
wetlands below.

Lasting 17 days, Baker's expedition approached the Zangbo from the
north, following animal trails and the advice of their Tibetan hunters
and descending some 4,000 feet. Using mountaineers' ropes to get down
the last 80 feet of the cliff, they found themselves at the ``great
falls,'' which they measured with laser range-finders -- a Shangri-la
just a quarter of a mile from where Kingdon-Ward turned back.

``It's a powerful sight to experience,'' said Storm, who said he plans
to return. ``It's a rather humbling feeling just to have taken part.''