WASHINGTON -- Explorers have finally found Shangri-La.
It may not be quite the storied, verdant, utopian Himalayan paradise of James Hilton's 1933 novel "Lost Horizon" and the movies of the same name.
But it is verdant, it is a kind of paradise and it is hidden deep within Tibet's Himalayan Mountains in a monstrously steep gorge within a gorge. There is no record of any human visiting, or even seeing, the area before.
Tucked beneath a mountain spur at a sharp bend of the Tsangpo River, where the cliff sides are only 75 yards apart and cast perpetual shadows, the place failed to show up even on satellite surveillance photographs of the area.
"If there is a Shangri-La, this is it," said Rebecca Martin, director of the National Geographic Society's Expeditions Board, which sponsored the trek. "This is a pretty startling discovery -- especially in a time when many people are saying, 'What's left to discover?' "
Tentatively named by the explorers the "Hidden Falls of the Tsangpo" and located in a forbidding region called Pemako that Tibetans consider highly sacred, the elusive site was reached by American explorers Ian Baker, Ken Storm Jr. and Brian Harvey late last year, though the society did not make its confirmation of their success official until yesterday.
In addition to a spectacular 900-foot-high waterfall -- long rumored, but until now undocumented -- they found a subtropical garden between a 23,000-foot and a 26,000-foot mountain, at the bottom of a 4,000-foot cliff.
According to Martin, it's the world's deepest mountain gorge.
"It's a place teeming with life," said Storm in a telephone interview from his office near Minneapolis. "It's a terribly wild river, with many small waterfalls, heavy rapids and a tremendous current surging through.
"Yet there are all kinds of flora -- subtropical pine, rhododendrons, craggy fir and hemlock and spruce on the hillsides -- it's lush. Just a tremendous wild garden landscape."
Difficult as the gorge was to reach, Storm said one of the hardest aspects of the expedition was leaving to return to civilization.
"The last we saw of it was looking down with clouds sealing the gorge and sidestream waterfalls jetting out into the river. It's probably the most romantic landscape I'd ever seen."
This was the seventh expedition that Baker, a Tibet scholar living in Katmandu, led into the Himalayas in search of the falls.
In addition to Storm, a book and game dealer turned explorer, and Harvey, a National Geographic photographer, the team included scholar Hamid Sardar of Cambridge, Mass.; two Tibetan hunters; a Sherpa guide; and eight porters -- though Baker, Storm and Harvey were the only ones to make the demanding descent to the gorge and falls.
Among other things, their discovery proves that two great rivers of Asia -- the Tsangpo that runs completely across Tibet and the mighty Brahmaputra that runs through the Indian state of Assam and Bangladesh to the Bay of Bengal -- are connected.
Reminiscent of the "source of the Nile" that English explorers Richard Burton and John Speke raced each other to find in the middle of the 19th century, the Tsangpo falls and gorge proved so far beyond explorers' reach that they were declared nonexistent.
The southern approach up the Brahmaputra posed the most obstacles.
"It's tremendously difficult terrain of jungles and insects and tigers," Storm said. "The lower gorge area was protected by Abhors and Mishmi, Burmese tribal groups. They protected that area pretty fiercely and early British attempts to penetrate were frustrated."
In 1911, two British explorers were able to locate all but 30 to 40 miles of the river connection. A local guide named Kintup was later hired to continue into the inner gorge and try to find the sacred place traveling as a Buddhist pilgrim.
He claimed to have found a connection between the two rivers, but said the only high waterfall was not on the Tsangpo but up a smaller tributary.
In 1924, British botanist Francis Kingdon-Ward advanced to a point that narrowed the unknown stretch of the river to three or four miles.
He found a waterfall as well, but measured it at only 30 feet. Because of the steepness and narrowness of the gorge and bad weather, he turned back, declaring the high falls nonexistent.
Though the Tsangpo River starts at 7,000 feet above sea level, it rapidly descends and cuts through the Tibetan plateau by way of the only gap in the Himalayas open to the heavy weather of the Indian plains and wetlands below.
"The weather pours up from Assam, which is one of the wettest places on Earth, and you have notoriously terrible weather in there," said Storm. "You can go weeks if not months with clouds and rains and snow at the higher elevation."
Lasting 17 days, Baker's expedition approached the Tsangpo from the north, following animal trails and the advice of their Tibetan hunters and descending some 4,000 feet.
Using mountaineers' ropes to get down the last 80 feet of the cliff, they found themselves at the "great falls" -- just a quarter-mile from where Kingdon-Ward turned back.
"It's a powerful sight to experience," said Storm, who said he plans to return. "It's a rather humbling feeling just to have taken part."
Pub Date: 1/08/99