The birthplace of Zen, settled between the mountain ranges in the world, providing 45% of the worlds fresh water and shrouded in culture and mystery. Tibet is quite simply a place like no other.
It was also the location a team travelled to in the first kayaking film that I ever watched, aged nine. I have been dreaming of kayaking in Tibet ever since. Sixteen years later, I finally got the opportunity to go.
There are a lot of moving parts to putting together a trip to Tibet. Between dealing with permits, visas and in-country logistics it honestly adds up to a level of adulting that I am not capable of. I was exceedingly grateful to be invited on Thilo Wietzke’s trip and that he did such a great job of organising.
Our crew was a conglomeration of Olympic slalom racers, big waterfall senders and everything in between.
For visa reasons, we started our trip in Nepal before driving across the border and heading to the capital city of Lhasa. Despite adding an additional three days of driving, I personally think it was worth it just to have the opportunity to visit the monkey temple. Who doesn’t like monkeys?
Kathmandu, Nepal is not that far away from the Tibetan border. What makes reaching such a long journey is the bumpy, mountain road. The max speed we reached on this portion of the drive was 25 mph.
Being small definitely has it’s advantages when travelling. Although if you’re tall, you just have to get creative.
There’s a lot of political and historical negativity between Tibet and China. With the Tibetans largely not being a fan of China or its people. I am not nearly knowledgeable enough on the topic to make a comment but what I will say after twenty-eight hours of bumpy, dirt track is that China makes a bloody nice road.
Three days later we made it to Lhasa. I can make it around three days without kayaking before I start to get twitchy and after all the time spent cramped up in vehicles it was a relief to get out on the water.
As beautiful as Lhasa is, I was stoked to head out of the city and into the mountains.
The first rapid we found was a monster. It is so rare to find whitewater that stays this powerful for this long. I was stoked the crew let me go first and I had the line I wanted!
Unfortunately things don’t always go to plan when dropping class V. Thilo got destroyed by this rapid. He battled it out for as long as he could but eventually ended up bailing out of his kayak and swimming. With the high elevation and type of rapid, I was really worried that Thilo would flush drown. Fortunately the safety team did a great job of getting him out of the water and on the bank, he was knackered, in shock and bleeding. Thankfully his injuries turned out to be minor and Thilo was able to continue with the trip.
Thilo’s crash was brutal to watch but it provided some important lessons about kayaking in Tibet.
- The water is so powerful here it surges and crashes like an ocean.
- Kayaking at elevation is no joke. You will gas out at 4,000 metres real quick.
- Things can get serious, really quickly here.
The whitewater further down the river looked amazing but unfortunately we were chased out of the valley by the police.
The river squeezed itself through a canyon downstream and the whitewater formed here blew my mind. This one in particular is the biggest rapid I have ever seen and threw my rule book of how water behaves firmly out of the window.
With less water, some training and new safety devices. I think it would be possible. I hope to come back to this rapid one day.
The river below mellowed out from impossibly crazy to some of the best big water class VI that I have ever kayaked on. It was good to get the whole crew out on the water and having a good time after Thilo’s crash.
Considering it’s Monsoon season it doesn’t actually rain that much, eh?
You just had to say it didn’t you?
The rain brought down a series of landslides and we had to put some serious work in to clear the roads and make a route that the cars could pass on. It honestly reminded me of my old job back home as a labourer on a building site. Except I wasn’t shouted at as much and there were considerably fewer tea breaks.
Continuing down the valley, we came across the second biggest rapid I had ever seen. Only this time there was a line down it!
It sounds cocky to say but I rarely get nervous in my kayak these days. I am honestly so sure that things are going to go exactly as I planned them to in my head that there isn’t much room left to be scared. I think fear largely comes from the unknown. That being said, with Thilo’s swim fresh in my mind, I was nervous for this rapid. Knowing that making a mistake would leave me in a very similar situation, just on a bigger rapid and with no safety at the bottom.
Fortunately I had the line of my life down this thing!
All of the photographers missed me and the only external media I have of this rapid is an iPhone snap one of the boys took of me. Further supporting the age-old claim that the best moments are never on camera.
It would be impossible to fit all of the moments from this trip into a blog. One of our crew will focus on the days spent in the car travelling and the numerous times we where chased out of valleys by over-bearing policeman but I choose to remember that it all happened in the most beautiful country I have ever been to and that in amidst the adversity, I got to kayak down the biggest, most powerful whitewater that I have ever seen. Much love to all the people that helped me come on this trip and especially to @thilo_wietzke for the invite and Ram and his company @adventurehubnepal for dealing with permits, police checks and various other dramas!
See you on the water,
All photos by myself, Olaf Obsommer and Jochen Lettman