Hundreds of waterfalls dot the Himalayan mountains of eastern Tibet in India, but none holds more romantic lure than the Hidden Falls of the Tsangpo Gorge, discovered by a National Geographic expedition led by American explorers Ian Baker and Ken Storm Jr. in 1998. A real-life Shangri-La, the Hidden Falls are steeped in legend, promising immortality and spiritual rebirth.
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The Hidden Falls
The Hidden Falls lies in the eastern Himalayas in Tibet deep within the largest gorge in the world. It measures 108 feet, putting to rest rumours that its size rivals Niagara or Victoria Falls. The enormity of its discovery lies not in its size, but in its remoteness and the legendary stories of its existence and mystical powers. Finding the falls required days of trekking over "seasonal" trails through a wet rainforest that boasts a dense population of Bengal tigers and is "full of leeches and pit vipers," according to explorer Baker.
Legends of the Falls
Buddhists have long considered the Tsangpo Gorges a sacred land that contains several entrances to earthly paradise, as well as the promise of immortality for those of pure heart and mind. If you could find Pemako, according to legend, you'd live to be 1,000. The waterfall lies within an area called Beyul Pemako, or "hidden land shaped like the lotus." Some ancient texts say the gorge will be the last refuge of Buddhism at the end of the world. According to one Buddhist text: "Just taking seven steps toward Pemako with pure intention...one will certainly be reborn there." Legend also holds that Pemako is home to Tibetan goddess Dorje Pagmo. Each feature of the landscape --- the gorge, surrounding peaks, caves and river --- represent features of her body.
1998 National Geographic Expedition
Led by Baker and Storm Jr., the National Geographic Expedition Team included American scholar Hamid Sardar, two Tibetan hunters, a Sherpa guide and eight porters. The Americans were the only team members to make the descent into the gorge. The expedition set off toward the Pemako in the fall of 1998. The 17-day journey culminated with a 4,000-foot descent into the gorge and the discovery the Hidden Falls on Nov. 8, 1998.
The last explorers to seek out the mythic falls, prior to the 1998 discovery, were British botanist Francis Kingdon-Ward and British nobleman Jack Cawdor in 1924. After abandoning their search for the legendary falls, Kingdon-Ward declared that the falls did not exist, and the 1924 Royal Geographic Society expedition called the falls a "romance of geography." Two other expeditions ended tragically. In 1993, a Japanese kayaker perished in the Tsangpo River while journeying toward the falls. In 1998, a second National Geographic Society expedition attempted to reach the falls by kayak. Led by American Wickliffe Walker, the team made it 27 miles before a team member and seasoned kayaker drowned in the rapids.
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