Standing on the bank of the Yarlung Tsangpo, scouting the first of several large drops in a previously untouched section of the river, I considered the events that brought the group to this point. Our group of ten, nine students and one instructor, from Thompson Rivers University, had made it to the roof of the world. All members of the Adventure Studies Program, we had set out after months of planning, fundraising, finding sponsors, and working out the logistics of travel to learn what we could only imagine in the classroom. And here we were, running a first descent in Tibet, chalking up an experience we’d never get from looking at a chalkboard.
After fourteen hours in the air we landed in Beijing, our textbooks far behind us. It didn’t take much time to realize just how different this place was from home—the customs, culture and language were all completely new. For the most part communication was accomplished through crude hand gestures, and when it came to ordering food we could only hope that the dish received would be edible. We quickly learned to eat first and ask questions afterwards.
Soon we were back in the air on our way to Tibet. Lhasa’s 12,000-foot elevation shocked our lungs and we spent five days acclimating to the ten-fold increase in altitude from our home in Kamloops, BC, Canada.
One highlight came early: taking a group of blind Tibetan children from the Braille Without Borders School rafting down the local river. It began with a tour of their school, a simple small boarding school with few luxuries but plenty of smiles. These kids shared their learning with us, reading to us in English, Chinese and Tibetan. Here, despite the challenges of blindness, they learn skills that will help them throughout their lives. We were eager to introduce them to the river. After helping the children into wetsuits, PFDs and helmets, we loaded them into our rafts and set out down the river that runs through Lhasa. Although a mere float trip to us, the expressions of joy on their faces made it the float of a lifetime. Water fights, jokes, songs and swimming are snapshots of what we shared, and only hint at the emotions evoked in the experience.
After saying our goodbyes we loaded up our vehicles to begin the search for big whitewater. After a warm-up on the Yarlung Tsangpo we moved on to more challenging endeavors, taking on big haystacks, monster holes and wave trains fifteen feet high. All around us was a beautiful and ever-changing landscape, which one day would be barren desert and the next a beautiful forest or deep jungle.
The Yarlung Tsangpo offered a section for a multi-day, self-supported trip, so we packed our rafts and again took to the river. Despite long stretches of flats, the four days of big water and a first-descent down Lang Canyon made it one of the most exciting runs of the trip. The first descent included big drops, steep rapids and burly waves through a winding canyon surrounded by big boulders and waterfalls.
After paddling the Parlung Tsangpo and the SamDzom Cha, many of our party were ready for a rest day, but a small group of us went out to paddle the Jepu–a river run previously by Chris Jones, a graduate of Thompson Rivers, but at much lower level. Choked with water, what was Class III was now IV-V. Big, fast, frigid whitewater and a yak track bushwhacking portage made it an unforgettable part of the trip.
With the big water behind us, it was time for some fun boating on the Kong Po. This small shallow creek is full of great lines, boof rocks, and super fun paddling, and we stayed two days before returning to Lhasa.
There our group split up after our last dinner; some continued traveling while others returned home to work. Regardless of what each of us did, this trip was an amazing experience that infused all of our lives with the spirit of this beautiful region—and of what can come when you trade a classroom for Class III-V whitewater.
– Greg Simmonds