Rapids in Lang Canyon, west of Lhasa. Photo by Steve Swann.
The source of the Yarlung Tsangpo is a glacial lake at an elevation of 18,000’ near Mt. Kailash in western Tibet. The sources of the Indus, the Sutlej, and the Ganges are also located near this sacred mountain. The Tsangpo, which means South River, is about 1800 miles long, has a gradient of about 15 feet per mile and flows through open valleys characteristic of the Tibetan Plateau for most of its length. At the eastern end of the Himalayas, it plunges into the deepest canyon on earth – over 15,000 feet, and makes a huge bend to the north and then the south before becoming the Bramaputra in India. In the Great Bend it drops at a rate of 50 to 200 feet per mile for about 50 miles, flowing over two major waterfalls. This section has been called the Everest of Rivers.
In 1986, Arlene Burns and Dan Dixon took their kayaks on a bus from Nepal to Tibet, hitchhiked to Mt. Kailash and tried to run the entire Tsangpo. Unfortunately, Arlene got high altitude sickness while kayaking on Lake Manasarova at the foot of Kailash, so they hitchhiked to a lower elevation and only boated the middle stretch of the Tsangpo, from Lhatze to Lhasa.
In July 1998, a Chinese team put-in at the source of the Tsangpo and spent the next three months floating to the town of Pei near the entrance to the Great Bend. This was the first major all-Chinese river expedition after the Yangtze and Yellow river disasters in the mid 1980’s, and it was widely promoted as a great success. 1998 was a record flood water year, yet all of the boaters survived. The team included ecologists and geographers who took thousands of photos to document the effects of overgrazing and the resulting erosion of the fragile desert landscape. They also hiked the Great Bend to document the locations of Rainbow and Hidden falls.
The Chinese team portaged the Class 5 to 6 rapids in Kanglai Gorge, Lang Canyon and Gyatze Gorge. In 2007, a team of expert kayakers organized by Chris Jones of Wind Horse Adventures, including Willie Kern and Jed Weingarten, completed first descents of Lang Canyon and Gyatze Gorge. Unlike the Tsangpo in the lower Great Bend, the ten mile long Kanglai Gorge is probably runnable at low flows.
In 2002 Shangri La River Expeditions, a division of Earth Science Expeditions, attempted to run the Raka Tsangpo, a large tributary to the Yarlung in central Tibet, but had to change their plan due to drought. Fortunately, they were able to run first descent of a 30 mile section of the Raka headwaters in 2005. The Shangri La team was able to convince their Chinese host, Liu Li and their Tibetan interpreter, Chong Dak, to let them run Renqinding Gorge of the Yarlung Tsangpo instead of the Raka Tsangpo. Liu Li knew Feng Chun, who had led the first descent during the 1998 flood. Chong Dak had been a tour guide for English speaking bus, jeep and trekking tours for seven years, but this was his first river trip. He entertained the team with so many funny stories about tourists that they decided he could probably get a job in the US as a standup comedian.
Due to the lower water level in 2002, the Shangri La team was able to camp near the Gonga Tashi monastery and visit both the monastery and the village which had built it, marking the first time that foreigners had visited them. Most of the villagers were out herding sheep and goats on the steep canyon walls or tending irrigated barley fields on terraces below the village, but a few older women were home cooking or weaving. The village had nine families, with about 10 per extended family, and each family owned about 120 goats and sheep. The children walk two days to a boarding school for two months each year. The villagers visited the river camp later that day and quickly learned to win at ammo box tug-of-war, where each contestant balances on a box in the sand and the first one to cause the other to loose his balance or drop the rope wins. They also found the kayak clowns to be very entertaining – for them, the river is a hazard and a graveyard, not a place for recreation.
In 2002 Shangri La River Expeditions also did a first descent of the upper Kyi Chu, a major tributary to the Tsangpo which flows through Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. Like most rivers on the Tibetan Plateau, for most of its length the Kyi Chu flows over gravels deposited at the end of the last ice age. In 2003 and 2004, Chris Jones of Wind Horse Adventures completed first descents of the remaining sections of the Kyi Chu and its major tributaries. Many of these have cut canyons in bedrock and have some challenging whitewater sections.
While the Chinese team hiked the Great Bend in November of 1998, Wick Walker arrived at Pei with four top-notch US kayakers sponsored by the National Geographic Society. The summer flood was rapidly subsiding, but the kayakers, Tom and Jamie McEwan, Roger Zbel and Doug Gordon, had no way of getting information about the actual flow because the only gauge on the river had been washed away in August at 400,000 cfs. They estimated the flow to be forty to fifty thousand cfs, which is extremely high for the 50 to 200 foot per mile gradient in the Great Bend. The Walker team boated about 35 miles before Doug Gordon, their most experienced big water kayaker, drowned in a huge pourover. The remaining three kayakers and the land support team hiked the entire canyon looking for him, without success.
Steve Currey, owner of The Expedition Company, brought Scott Lindgren and Charlie Munsey to Tibet to run the Great Bend of the Tsangpo in 1998. They arrived at about the same time as the Walker team, but decided not to attempt it due to the high water. Lindgren, hoping for a more successful run of the Great Bend, arrived at Pei in February 2002 with an international team of kayakers sponsored by Outside Magazine and Chevy Avalanche: Johnnie Kern, Allan Ellard, Mike Abbott, Willie Kern, Dustin Knapp and Steve Fisher. With a land crew consisting of 80 Tibetan and Nepali porters, they had lighter kayaks than the Walker team. At a flow estimated at 15,000 cfs they were able to run many of the rapids that the Walker team had portaged in 1998, plus many of the rapids over the next 17 miles. The expedition is perhaps better described as “kayak packing ” – they carried their boats much further than they paddled them. When they finally reached a point where they couldn’t paddle or portage, they climbed 3,000 feet to reach a path around the gorge. They managed to climb down to the 110 foot high Hidden Falls, which had been discovered by Tibetans centuries ago but was only publicized in the West in the late 1990’s. They had originally planned to continue down the Yarlung Tsangpo below its confluence with the Po, a large tributary which drains into the northern most curve of the Great Bend. However, in 2000, a huge landslide which had dammed the Yigong Tsangpo, a large tributary to the Po, failed, and the resulting flood scoured the main river channel, leaving sheer cliffs with no possibility of scouting or portaging.
Lindgren and Munsey had also tried to kayak the Po Tsangpo in 1998 but after boating about ten of the forty miles to the confluence with the Tsangpo, they gave up due to the high water level. In 2002, after running the section of the Tsangpo in the Great Bend in February at low water, the Lindgren team successfully boated the Po down to its confluence with the Tsangpo, finishing the run he and Munsey had aborted four years earlier due to high water. A Japanese kayaker, Yoshitaka Takei, drowned near the confluence in 1993, shortly after putting in to run this section of the Yarlung Tsangpo in the Great Bend.
In 1999, Steve Currey of The Expedition Company organized a first descent of the Parlung Tsangpo, the other main tributary to the Po. The 50 mile trip was a lot like the Middle Fork of the Salmon in Idaho - a Class 4 river flowing through pine forests with spectacular views of the mountain scenery. They were also welcomed by local monks, which are in short supply in Idaho. In 2003 and 2004, Chris Jones of Wind Horse Adventures led first descent expeditions on the Yigong and its larger tributaries. Jones also ran a first descent of the upper Parlung in 2004 with Clive Williamson and a group of kayakers from England.
As of 2004, most of the runnable stretches of the Yarlung Tsangpo and its major tributaries have been explored.
The Chinese have announced that they plan to dam the Yarlung Tsangpo in the Great Bend and are moving all of the villagers out of the area. They also plan to establish a wildlife preserve in the Mount Namchibarwa area within the Great Bend. In a decade or so, motorized ferry boats carrying tourists and wildlife photographers will float high above Hidden Falls and the Everest of Rivers on their way to Chinese resorts on the new reservoir.