Rafting and kayaking in beautiful Tibet is the stuff of high adventure, writes Ralf Buckley
E launch two rafts and three kayaks below the small town of Biru in eastern Tibet. We are happy to be afloat at last, after negotiating mountain passes, bonejarring dirt roads, howling packs of mangy dogs and a five-hour delay as someone tries to mend a broken truck axle in the middle of the road.
Day by day, as we sink deeper into the river gorge, the forest grows more dense and the cleared fields rare. The kayakers have been drifting ahead, late on this dark and wet day, looking for a camp site. Instead, we find ourselves on the brink of a potentially un-runnable rapid with steep banks of boulders where carrying gear would be risky to life and limb.
Luckily there is a giant rock overhang not far upstream where we can camp. Next morning our leader puts us to shame by rowing both rafts impeccably past death-defying rocks and white water. Not to be outdone, his son runs the rapid in a kayak. Twice. The rest of us scramble down the rocks and climb back in at the bottom.
Around the next bend is another rapid, less lethal but even more impressive. The entire river crashes through a Z-shaped slot between two huge rocks. Our experts make it look easy while the rest of us take photos and hang on to safety ropes.
Afterwards, we argue what to name it. Two red-robed monks appear silently out of nowhere. ‘‘ Into the Om,’’ one of our group suggests, and the name sticks.
We are in a remote part of Tibet where some of the monasteries have survived destruction. Downstream, where our beach camp sites are more accessible, villagers and young shavenheaded monks crowd around our makeshift kitchens.
I don’t have much hair myself and the monks signal me to come and pray with them. I have no idea of protocol, so I decline politely. An official roars up on a motorbike to check our permits.
Back on the river we find an abandoned house with half-fallen stone walls, a watermill hut and a log-hauling trolley made of old bicycle wheels. Watermills are widespread in remote parts of Tibet and the Himalayas. They have two hand-hewn granite grindstones in a hut built over a creek. The lower stone is driven by a paddlewheel, grain trickles into the upper one through a central hole and flour collects in a wooden tray. am told. Perhaps I will go back and see it one day.
Tibet is boom town in China. Drawn by tax breaks, Han Chinese arrive by the trainload every day, swelling the population of Lhasa with innumerable stores and hair salons. How can there be so many hairdressers? It does say massage in the small print.
There are still only two banks and Air China is as inscrutable and expensive as anywhere else in the country. But there is a coffee shop, a bakery and an internet cafe, and Lhasa today is a little like Kathmandu was in the 1970s. Package tourists in busloads visit the Potala palace. We go instead to the Jokhang, an ancient religious building visited daily by Tibetan pilgrims.
Further from Lhasa the countryside is very rural, and beautiful. A short walk from any of the high passes brings one to an uncluttered carpet of close-cropped grass riddled with pika burrows. Pikas are exceptionally cute little creatures that live only in high mountains and are likely to be one of the early victims of climate change. They look a little like fat, grey guinea pigs with bright eyes and round ears, but the description doesn’t really do them justice.
In the deep river gorges there are bear and otter tracks on the beaches. There are birch and fir forests on the slopes, green pastures and bright yellow crops in the villages high on the hillsides.
It’s mountain weather, burning sun alternating with icy sleet, so bring stormproof clothing.
Be prepared for driving along narrow hairpin tracks washed away at every sidestream; drivers pass vehicles travelling the other way with only millimetres of clearance, each moving carefully around the other. Sometimes even the best drivers get stuck. Ours bogs a gearladen truck on a steep slope.
We tow it out using two four-wheeldrive vehicles, three languages and innumerable altercations.
A snapped tow rope springs straight at my head. Luckily I see it coming and duck, arms crossed over my face. Climbing into the modern and comfortable 4WDs— very different from China a decade or two ago — we are safely on our way again.
The Himalayas are famous for mountaineering, trekking and river rafting. Until the political hiatus a few years ago, most Western tourists went to Nepal. At the height of the country’s Maoist insurgency, however, tour operators had to look elsewhere. Companies that used to operate only in Nepal now take their clients to Bhutan, to the Indian provinces of Himachal and Arunachal Pradesh, to Yunnan in western China and, increasingly, to Tibet.
At present, access is still infuriatingly indirect. To cross from Lhasa to Kathmandu is apparently straightforward but to go in the other direction is much more difficult. Most tourists who want to see Tibet as well as India or Nepal must first fly far to the east to enter China, then travel westwards by train or plane to reach Tibet.
China is building roads to Tibet’s southern border but it is by no means clear what they will be used for. Perhaps one day there will be a giant transboundary national park along the entire Himalayan chain, linking roadless areas of southern Tibet with the national parks of Nepal, Bhutan and northern India. The tourism marketing potential would be enormous, especially as it could almost certainly be declared a World Heritage area and could give China an internationally recognised destination to complement the northern ascent of Mt Everest.
But at the moment that is just a conservationist’s dream. Meanwhile, if you want to see the more remote parts of the Tibetan plateau, a river trip is a wonderful way to connect to a timeless land of herds and horses, waterwheels and grindstones, Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and red-robed lamas.
On a sunlit terrace of lawn-like grass, with a freezing freshwater creek to drink from, a wide beach for the rafts, steep forests behind, eagles wheeling overhead, I make some strong coffee, chill it in the creek and add a vanilla-flavoured milk preparation we have for breakfast. Soon everyone wants one. We rest in the shade amid carpets of flowers. There’s no trace of humans except charcoal from last year’s hunters. What more could travellers desire? Let’s hope it lasts. Ralf Buckley is director of the International Centre for Ecotourism Research at Queensland’s Griffith University.
Independent travel in Tibet is difficult except on main tourist routes. To get to a remote river or mountain you need a special permit and only a local tour company can obtain this with any confidence that it will be accepted by police. A local guide and driver are also essential. More: www.shangri-lariver-expeditions.com.