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Shangri-la (shàng´grî-lä´) noun
1. An imaginary, remote paradise on earth; internal linkutopia.
2. A distant and secluded hideaway, usually of great beauty and peacefulness.
[After Shangri-La, the imaginary land in the novel Lost Horizon by James Hilton.]

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internal linkTIBET DISCOVERY A

By Michael Kilian
Washington Bureau
January 8, 1999

WASHINGTON -- Explorers have finally  found Shangri-La.

It may not be quite the storied, verdant,internal linkutopian Himalayan paradise of James  Hilton's 1933 novel "Lost Horizon" and  subsequent 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  cliffsides 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," saidRebecca Martin, director of the internal linkNational 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 the Hidden Falls of the  Tsangpo by the explorers 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  Thursday.

In addition to a spectacular 100-foot-highinternal linkwaterfall--long rumored but until now   undocumented--they found a subtropical  garden, between 23,000-foot and 26,000-foot  mountains, at the bottom of a 4,000-foot-high  cliff.

According to Martin, it's the world's deepest  mountain gorge.

"It's a place teeming with life," said Storm in internal linktelephone interview from his office in the
Minneapolis suburb of Burnsville. "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 andspruce on the hillsides--it's lush. Just a  tremendous wild garden landscape."

The animals there include a rare, horned  creature called the takin, sacred to Tibetan  Buddhists.

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 another scholar, Hamid Sardar, of  Cambridge, Mass.; two Tibetan hunters; a  Sherpa guide; and internal linkeight 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 fabled "source of the  Nile" that English explorers Richard Burton  and John Speke raced each other to find in  the middle of the 19th Century--both making  controversial claims to have found it  first--the Tsangpo falls and gorge proved so  far beyond explorers' reach they were declared non-existent.

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 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  3 or 4 miles. He found a waterfall as well but  measured it at only 30 feet. Finding further  penetration impossible because of the  steepness and narrowness of the gorge and bad weather, he turned back, declaring the  high falls non-existent.

Though the Tsangpo River starts at 7,000  feet above sea level, it rapidly descends and  cuts through the Tibet 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," Storm said. "You can go weeks if not months with clouds and rains and snow at the higher internal linkelevation. You have a river  literally eating its way through these mountains in this great gorge."

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," which they  measured with laser range-finders--a  Shangri-La just a quarter of a 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."

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