Paradise found

The Tsangpo river cuts into the Himalayas to form the world's deepest chasm. At its heart, according to Buddhist texts, lies the fabled land of Shangri-La. Ian Baker was the first (and possibly last) westerner to explore this hidden realm, and to discover its extraordinary secret
Click to follow
The Independent Online

For Tibetans, paradise was never lost, just well hidden. Scrolls attributed to an 8th-century Buddhist sage describe remote sanctuaries called beyul, secret or hidden lands, deep in the Himalayas where animals and plants are credited with miraculous powers, aging is slowed, and enlightenment can easily be attained. The greatest of these beyul, which inspired these antecedents to the myth of Shangri-La, is said to lie in the heart of Tibet's Tsangpo Gorge, near the bottom of the earth's deepest chasm.

For Tibetans, paradise was never lost, just well hidden. Scrolls attributed to an 8th-century Buddhist sage describe remote sanctuaries called beyul, secret or hidden lands, deep in the Himalayas where animals and plants are credited with miraculous powers, aging is slowed, and enlightenment can easily be attained. The greatest of these beyul, which inspired these antecedents to the myth of Shangri-La, is said to lie in the heart of Tibet's Tsangpo Gorge, near the bottom of the earth's deepest chasm.

The innermost reaches of the Tsangpo Gorge have remained an enigma for centuries. Despite concerted efforts during the British Raj to penetrate its depths, no expedition had ever succeeded, and the area remained as one British field officer had described it, "one of the earth's last secret places".

Having lived in Kathmandu, Nepal, since the early 1980s, the stories of the beyul, and the Tsangpo Gorge in particular, had captured my imagination. The area had been sealed to the outside world since the Chinese invasion of Tibet during the 1950s but, in 1993, I obtained a permit through a Chinese geological institute to visit the outer edges of the region. Following accounts of earlier explorers, as well as the coded descriptions in the scrolls that I found in the libraries of Tibetan monasteries, I attempted to travel beyond the limits reached by earlier expeditions. But despite my efforts, and rock-climbing experience, the inner depths remained as impenetrable as they had been to the British in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1998, * after a series of attempts to reach the unexplored sections of the Gorge, America's National Geographic Society sponsored my eighth expedition in which - along with my teammates Ken Storm and Hamid Sardar - we finally reached the area that Tibetans hold to be the portal to their earthly paradise.

Even in strict geographical terms the Tsangpo Gorge is unique. The Tsangpo river flows across the length of the Tibetan plateau until it plunges suddenly into a tangled knot of mountains and gorges at the eastern edge of the Himalayan range, forming a chasm three times the depth of the Grand Canyon. After turning a great arc around a spur of the 25,436ft summit of Namcha Barwa mountain, the river cuts through subtropical jungles and reemerges in northern India as the Brahmaputra, having lost an astonishing 11,000ft in altitude in a mere 50 miles. Nineteenth-century geographers connected to the British Raj's Survey of India accounted for the drop by imagining a colossal waterfall that they hoped would rival the newly discovered Victoria Falls in Africa, or even Niagara in America. But all efforts to penetrate and map the Tsangpo's inner gorge met with failure - including forays by spies dispatched to Tibet in the guise of Buddhist pilgrims, with surveying instruments hidden in their prayer wheels.

The last people to search for the legendary waterfall were an English plant-collector named Frank Kingdon Ward and his primary sponsor, a 24-year-old Scottish lord, who ventured into the Gorge in 1924, the same year that George Mallory disappeared into the mists near the summit of Mount Everest. As the Earl of Cawdor wrote in his journal near the end of their expedition: "How the old chap who invented these infernal falls must chuckle in his grave when mugs like us go looking for them! And what a number of people have had a miserable time looking for this mythical marvel!"

Kingdon Ward and Lord Cawdor had followed earlier accounts of a 100ft sacred waterfall deep in the Gorge and depicted by a Tibetan artist in 1895 in the journal of the Royal Geographical Society. Once in the field, a Tibetan lama told the two explorers of Buddhist texts that described no less than 75 waterfalls in the section of the Gorge where, as Kingdon Ward wrote, towering cliffs "so close together that it seemed one could almost leap from crag to crag" had barred further progress. They returned to London and declared at the Royal Geographical Society that the legendary "falls of the Tsangpo" were no more than a "religious myth".

Religious myth or not, nearly 10 miles of the Tsangpo's innermost chasms remained unknown to the outside world, and the possibility of a waterfall "of a 100ft or more", as Kingdon Ward had described it, did not seem altogether impossible. I sought out the texts that Kingdon Ward had referred to, but villagers at the threshold of the Gorge told me that, in the years following the Chinese invasion in 1959, People's Liberation Army troops had forced them to throw them into the Tsangpo. But the knowledge continued in oral memory, and an elderly lama, since deceased, told me of three waterfalls in the depths of the Gorge, the middle one of which, he said, was the door to the promised land at the heart of Beyul Pemako, the "Hidden Land Arrayed Like A Lotus".

In 1924, the same year that Kingdon Ward and Lord Cawdor had dismissed the falls as a religious fantasy, a novelist and ex-ivory poacher named Talbot Mundy drew on Tibetan legends and described the waterfall in a work of fiction. Drawing from accounts in the Buddhist scrolls, he wrote of how the fabled "falls of the Tsangpo" concealed a tunnel to a paradisiacal realm where an ancient monastery preserving treasures of East and West clung to "a sheer wall of crags, whose edges pierced the sky". Mundy's novel, Om: The Secret of the Abor Valley, was clearly the primary source for James Hilton's Lost Horizon, which introduced the word "Shangri-La" into the English language when it was published less than a decade later, in 1933. Disguising the coordinates of the hidden sanctuary along with his sources, Hilton relocated Shangri-La to Tibet's far northwestern frontier. But its literary origins lay firmly in the depths of the Tsangpo Gorge, a place the Guinness Book of Records currently lists as the world's deepest.

"You won't find paradise by doubting it exists", wrote the poet Byron and, following his dictum, our search for the geographical sources of Shangri-La led us into a vertiginous world of eroding landslides and precipitous subtropical jungles, a place that the plant-collector Kingdon Ward had described disparagingly as "the bowels of the earth".

After weeks of thrashing through pathless forests and across vegetated cliffs, we neared the depths of the Gorge and the largest of the waterfalls that the lama had described to us. We abseiled with climbing ropes down a moss-drenched precipice and finally reached the object of our desire: a waterfall that had eluded the best efforts of the British Raj.

Part of the remit of our expedition was to measure the waterfall as precisely as possible, and the average reading from several vantage points, both above and below, revealed it to be 108 feet: an auspicious figure in Buddhist numerology and surpassing the hopes of turn-of-the-century British geographers. To measure water, though, seemed a futile task; as Heraclitus had said, it all just flows away.

Standing on a sloping ledge at the base of the falls, swirling mists and vegetated cliffs rising into the clouds, we found ourselves at the threshold of the Tibetans' own Shangri-La. If not a passage to other worlds, we had hoped to find something akin to the Cave of the Winds behind Niagara. But a disciple of the aged lama who had directed us to the falls pointed to something equally compelling: an oval passageway leading into the overhanging cliff across from the waterfall. "That's the door," he said authoritatively. But several hundred feet of seething white water lay between the opening and where we stood. Sheer rock walls lined the far side of the river. "How do you get there?" I asked, and received the inevitable answer: "You don't".

On my journeys in the Tsangpo Gorge, such Buddhist paradoxes had become familiar refrains. Just because there's a door doesn't mean you can necessarily go through it, at least by conventional means. According to our Tibetan guide, only elaborate Tantric rites performed by an accomplished lama could secure access to the realms beyond the granite portal; he, himself, was content just knowing that such a realm exists. The waterfall that we had measured was the highest ever recorded on any of Asia's major rivers but, like the Tibetans, we too were happy to leave the enigma of the oval door intact.

Over the next several days, we traversed deeper into the unknown section of the Tsangpo Gorge - an area that, in geographical circles, had become known as "the Gap". Towering cliffs sealed us off from the outer world. We feasted on wild mushrooms and drank from crystalline springs. Russet-coloured macaques screeched at us from moss-laden trees. The oval passage leading into the walls of the Gorge would certainly have shed light on further mysteries - among them geological evidence of the collision between the two prehistoric landmasses whose tectonic pressure gave rise to the Himalayas - but the realm to which we had been admitted was paradise enough: a pristine ecosystem that seemed one of the last vestiges of Eden.

In the year following our return from the Tsangpo Gorge, the Chinese authorities closed the region to all outsiders. The Tibetan Forestry Bureau mapped out a 9,168km sq area and declared it an "ecological reserve". Within months, Beijing upgraded it to national status and designated the area as the Yarlung Tsangpo Great Canyon National Reserve. Ranging in altitude from less than 1,000m along the border with India right up to the 7,782m high massif of Namcha Barwa to the west, the reserve contains a wealth of medicinal plants, as well as Tibet's last remaining tigers and other rare mammals including black muntjacs and capped leaf monkeys.

Other reports from China indicate less ecologically oriented intentions: a proposed hydroelectric facility in the great bend of the Tsangpo to begin after the completion of the controversial Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze river in 2009. According to China's official Xinhua news agency, the proposed 38m-kilowatt power station on the Tsangpo would form part of a national strategy to divert water from Tibet to more than 600 cities in northern China that suffer from chronic water shortages. As a consequence, the Tsangpo Gorge's unique environment would be destroyed, and untold species would vanish beneath the rising waters of an artificial reservoir.

Communism promised the peoples of China and Tibet a practicable earthly paradise. Yet railways, oil and gas pipelines, petrochemical complexes, hydroelectric dams, military bases, and new cities for migrants from mainland China have had a negative impact on much of Tibet's environment and culture. A dam in the heart of the Tsangpo Gorge would destroy an ecosystem that inspired one of the world's most enduring legends - the "wild dream of Shangri-La" described in James Hilton's novel and anticipated in ancient Tibetan scrolls that, like the papyrus texts of the Gnostic Christians, had been secreted away in clay urns and caverns. The dream is all the more poignant as the nations of the world strengthen - as Hilton wrote - "not in wisdom, but in vulgar passions and the will to destroy".

Ultimately, it matters little whether the legendary paradise in the heart of the Tsangpo Gorge exists physically, or whether it's a metaphor for the perfection of the human spirit. On the path from ignorance to illumination, the journey is more critical than the destination, and the Buddhist legend of the hidden lands urges us to embrace our highest potential - which must include the preservation of the earth's last remaining pristine habitats, arguably the only Eden we will ever know. As the novelist Henry Miller wrote; "If we have not found heaven within, it is a certainty we will not find it without." For the coordinates of paradise lie less in the external landscape than in hidden regions of the heart.

Ian Baker's account of his expedition, 'The Heart of the World: A Journey to the Last Secret Place', is published by Penguin Press (US), and is available from, priced £13.44