Tibets last mystery uncovered


Text and photos: Bruno Baumann
Accompaying persons: Jan Bernotat, Karl Rösler, Carsten Bombis
Travel place: Sutley-Canyon
 GRABNER Outside

June 15, 2004. A European expedition led by the Austrian explorer, Bruno Baumann, has discovered evidence of an ancient pre-Buddhist civilization that once flourished in the remote and isolated wilds of Sutlej Canyon in western Tibet.

Hidden deep within the vast labyrinth of canyons and gorges carved out by the great Sutlej River, the remains of the lost Kingdom of Shang-Shung had eluded modern researchers and explorers for centuries, leading experts to believe until only recently that Shang-Shung was more legendary than real.

Using whitewater rafts, the team penetrated previously unexplored regions of Sutlej Canyon, discovering both structural and cultural remains of the ancient Kingdom, which vanished without a trace more than a thousand years ago. Baumann maintains that Shang-Shung was the original inspiration for the Tibetan Buddhist legend of the lost paradise of Shambala, popularly known in the west as "Shangri-La".

Just a few miles into the boat trip, still at the canyon entrance, Bauman and his team (Jan Bernotat, Karl Rösler and Carsten Bombis) came upon the stone foundations of an outpost of Shang-Shung, and ancient burial grounds. Further downriver, they discovered the ruins of a mountain fortress and a shrine containing a life-sized statue of a Shang-Shung prince. The shrine was evidently a site of worship for the monks inhabiting the nearby monastery who were practitioners of the ancient pre-Buddhist religion of Bon.

As the team penetrated deeper into the canyon interior, the gorge became increasing narrow. After reaching a pass marked by hot springs and white sinter terraces, the terrain unexpectedly opened onto a broad valley, showing evidence of what once were gardens and manmade irrigation systems. Skyscraper-high sandstone walls honeycombed with manmade caves and eroded into bizarre shapes and forms created a natural fortress which the natives called KYUNGLUNG NGULKAR KARPO. The expedition had discovered the legendary "Silver Castle of the Garuda", the original capital city of the Kingdom of Shang-Shung.

The area was covered with building remains indicating that the entire complex had been converted into a Buddhist monastery after the violent overthrow of Shang-Shung by the Tibetan Kings of the Yarlung Dynasty.

The Buddhist Kingdom of Gug-e ("Land of Caves") was later built on top of the ruins of the Bon Kingdom of Shang-Shung. The expedition found several other cave settlements of the former Shang-Shung, as well as Bon monasteries which were later incorporated into the Kingdom of Gug-e.

As expected, the first descent of this section of the Sutlej River into the inaccessible central part of Sutlej Canyon was extremely difficult. The expedition reached a key point at a passage where the river was pinched into a stream just a few yards across and flanked by sheer rock walls stretching up over 1300 feet, making it impossible to scout an access route along the river itself. Heading so deep into the canyon interior without first conducting a scout was too risky, because if the team were to encounter rockslides, waterfalls or cataracts, it would have been trapped with no means of escape. As it was, the expedition came close to finding itself in just such a "no-return zone", with no way forward and no way back. Luckily, Bruno Baumann and Karl Rösler (the team?s whitewater expert) were able to paddle their boot against the current and find a passable route out of the canyon and up to the ledge 1300 feet above the river course, where they were then able to portage a stretch and continue the boot trip as planned.

The river run through the narrowest part of canyon offered some of the most spectacular scenery of the entire trip, as the turquoise-green Sutlej River squeezed its way through the canyon?s rocky corset, past moss-covered springs and cascading waterfalls. Then the canyon widened again, and with the exception of a few spots where the team had to portage the boots, the river was relatively runnable.

Finally, the expedition came upon the Valley of Toling and the temples of the Kingdom of Gug-e, known for its magnificent frescoes and statues as "Tibet?s greatest wonder."

The trip and the findings of the expedition were meticulously documented by Bruno Baumann and Jan Bernotat. The photo and video material will be the basis of an international television project to be developed together with major production firms and broadcasters. The film is expected to air in 2006.