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Fabled Tibetan Waterfalls Finally Discovered

Hidden Falls [WTN-L   World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 99/01/07 Compiled by Nima Dorjee]

Thursday, January 7, 1999

WASHINGTON January 6, 1999 (AP) -- The legendary great falls on Tibet's Tsangpo River, subject of myth and folklore for more than a century, have finally been reached by Western explorers.

"It was an enchanting moment. ... We were all stunned and excited," Ken Storm Jr. said of the moment, November 8, when the team of explorers,  sponsored by the National Geographic Society, sighted the giant falls.

Tucked tightly between the rising cliffs of the Tsangpo gorge, the falls are in shadow most of the time and are hidden from view in a hairpin turn.

The explorers named the cataract, 99-116 feet (30-35 meters) high, Hidden Falls.

"It's just a great wonder," Storm said. "The fact that we're here, in the late 20th century, and a large waterfall on a major river of the world has yet to be recorded is a wonder in itself."

Stories of the giant falls told by Tibetan hunters and Buddhist monks were a popular topic in Victorian drawing rooms.

Last discovery effort ended in 1924

Those romantic tales sparked several unsuccessful expeditions in search of the falls, Storm said in a telephone interview from his office in Minneapolis.

The last effort, in 1924, came within a quarter-mile of the falls before the explorers gave up and concluded that they didn't exist. That ended Western exploration for nearly three-quarters of a century.

The Tsangpo gorge in southeastern Tibet is a rugged wilderness unlike the high desert of the rest of that region. It is called Pemako, one of the hidden lands held sacred in Tibetan Buddhism, known only to local hunters and to religious pilgrims.

Weather from the south pours through a gap in the mountains, carrying rain for a jungle at lower levels, fir forests as the land rises and snowcapped peaks above, explained Storm.

When the Chinese began allowing Western visitors to Tibet in 1993, Storm said, explorations were begun by members of the group that finally located the falls. That group included Storm; Ian Baker, who lives in New York and Nepal; and Hamid Sarder of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Hidden Falls is "in a dramatic spot, deep in this gorge, beyond the point where earlier explorers were able to reach," Storm explained.

After the 1924 expedition, a gap of about 5 miles (8 kilometers) was left unexplored, because the men couldn't work their way into the area where the river disappears into a knot of mountains before reappearing -- 93 miles  (150 km) farther on and about 8,910 feet (2,700 meters) lower -- as the Brahmaputra.

The 1924 explorers found a waterfall they estimated at 43 feet (13 meters)  high and called Rainbow Falls, but they couldn't work their way past that point because of the steep walls on each side of the river, Storm explained.'The thrill was amazing'

"We were kind of victims of these explorers," Storm said. "We believed their accounts that there probably wasn't a great waterfall in there."

"Only in the last year were we able to realize from monks and hunters," that the falls were there, he said.

Baker and Sarder are fluent in Tibetan, Storm noted, and are Buddhist scholars who were able to develop an understanding with local people.

"As we came down into the gorge we could look upstream and can see Rainbow Falls," Storm said, and they were able to determine that the falls were almost 83 feet (25 meters) high, about twice what had been previously reported.

"We also realized as we were going down the gorge that in a narrow, tight hairpin turn, hidden ... was another waterfall," he said.

"The thrill was amazing," he said. "The river of 100 yards (100 meters)  narrowed to 60 to 70 feet (20 to 23 meters) and the water poured over this,  thundering, the full volume of the Tsangpo which collects water from (the)  whole Himalayan region."

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