Rapid progress

Raft­ing and kayak­ing in beau­ti­ful Ti­bet is the stuff of high ad­ven­ture, writes Ralf Buck­ley

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

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.

Check­list

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.

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