albert lin

Albert Lin and Juan Santillan (far left) get ready to climb the Cholon waterfalls in Peru

National Geographic for Disney/Alejandra Velez
albert lin

Lost Cities Revealed with Albert Lin is now available on Hulu and Disney+

National Geographic for Disney/Alejandra Velez
albert lin

Albert Lin prepares to climb Peru's Cholon waterfalls on a quest to find the lost city of the Chachapoyas

National Geographic for Disney/Alejandra Velez
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Fill 1
May 15, 2024
Online Originals

That Time NatGeo's Albert Lin Played Tomb Raider in Real Life

The host of Lost Cities Revealed explains why he once went searching for Genghis Khan.

National Geographic's Albert Lin explores what he calls "the human frontier," diving into some of the world's most remote places to better understand history's forgotten stories for NatGeo's curious viewers.

Lin — who is an engineer, inventor and scientist — takes a high-tech approach to expeditions, using tools like satellite imagery, drones and ground-penetrating radar. His unique treks have resulted in several TV series, including Lost Treasures of the Maya, Buried Secrets of the Bible and Lost Cities with Albert Lin. An avid outdoorsman, Lin lost part of his right leg in 2016 after surviving a four-wheel drive vehicle crash. Equipped with a high-tech prosthetic, he continues to go on physically demanding explorations while also advocating for advancements in prosthetics. His latest show, Lost Cities Revealed with Albert Lin, will air with new content for Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month on Hulu, Disney+, National Geographic and Nat Geo WILD.

Lin recently spoke with the Television Academy about his passion for exploration and the lessons he's learned along the way.

What made you decide to become an explorer?

Albert Lin: We're all born with the explorer bug. The curiosity within any kid is the same as in any explorer who's running around the world. It's that belief that there's something out there to be found. I did a lot of school [Lin earned a Ph.D. in mechanical and aerospace engineering from the University of California, San Diego], and was surrounded by inspiring people. I thought, "There's a whole multi-disciplinary way of seeing things that we can use to see the world."

So, right out of grad school, I sold everything I had, moved into my car, and gave myself one year to raise funds to try to launch a high-tech expedition to northern Mongolia in search of a tomb that I thought might reconcile some questions I had about my own roots. Six months later, I got my first grant from National Geographic, and took off for Mongolia with all my engineering friends. We used satellites, drones and radar to look for the tomb of Genghis Khan without destroying anything.

What questions did you have about your heritage?

I grew up in California and Europe, and you learn a lot about European history, with Alexander the Great, Napoleon and Joan of Arc. But where were the great charismatic people from Asia? My grandfather said we came from the north [in China], so as a grad student, I went backpacking and wanted to live with nomads. Traveling in Mongolia, I learned about the roots of our humanity and history from the perspective of the Mongols. Genghis Khan was a hero to them, yet there was nothing written about him other than portraying him as a bloodthirsty barbarian. That first project for National Geographic led to travels around the world, and what you see today is Lost Cities, which is the continuation of that journey.

What have your travels taught you?

All that has happened over time is embedded in our cultural, human memory. It explains a little of who we are, why we see things the way we do. Each trip is a true expedition into myself, and all of us. Who are we? What is the human journey? There's more that connects us through that understanding than divides us. How do you choose your research topics? What is your process there? It's a team effort. I have a solid community of storytellers, and with Lost Cities, I work with the best of the best in production and research. The stories we looked for in this last season reflect our human essence. In Oman, we talked about imagination because these people thousands of years ago figured out how to create the first oases. In the jungles of Mexico, I was able to communicate and be led by a community of living Maya, descended from those who built the ancient pyramids in Mexico and Guatemala. They're still there, sharing the oral knowledge and traditions, stories and belief systems of the very temples we were going out and finding.

How dangerous is your work?

Many of these places got eaten up by the jungle. You can be 20 or 50 feet from a massive pyramid, and you would not be able to see it. There's such a veil of life, and everything in the jungle is trying to kill you in some way. You've got the deadliest snakes and scorpions. There's a beetle that, when it bites you, it poops in its bite, and then you die. It's the real deal. It's a very intense place to go exploring. But then you sit there surrounded by the spiritual mindset of the living Maya, amongst these ancient ruins, and there's this deep understanding of a connection to the jungle, to Nature, that is so fundamentally profound. The Mayans describe everything as having a soul — the tree, the rock, the river has a soul — and we coexist with all these souls. It changed the way I looked at the forest. You see things differently when you see through other perspectives.

What's the hardest part of making these shows?

We don't know what we're going to find. It's a dangerous endeavor; a risky adventure. But the rewards are awesome in terms of the insights that can be gained. This last series, to me, is the high-water mark in storytelling. In the past, there were all these ways of merging technology and archaeology to make these discoveries. But now, in this last season, we were able to tap into, and connect with, indigenous voices on the ground.

In Peru, I was able to spend time with this woman named Mama Rossa. She holds in her memory some of the last words of the Chachapoya, cloud warriors who ruled for nearly a thousand years before being conquered by the Inca. Based off her words, we were able to identify certain places, and from there, with LiDAR [laser mapping with drones], we were able to reveal a world that was barely holding on through the fragments of memory in a nearly lost language.

Viewers seem fascinated by your journeys. How have your interactions been with them?

One of the things I love the most is when [viewers] say they feel like they're right there with us. When I'm in the field, or filming, I often say to myself, "I'm just a conduit for everybody's curiosity." When I think about the power of these stories, they're not just stories of adventure. They're ancient stories that have been lost in time and are now emerging again. It's like unlocking another memory that shapes how we see the world. I feel such a responsibility to these communities — like the ancient Chachapoya, or in Sudan, with the ancient Cushites — to tell the best story I can of what we find.

To make the films is such an adventure. In Peru, for example, we lost a raft on the headwaters of the Amazon that had all our cameras and everything [in it]. Two guys went deep into the river and almost drowned. We barely got out of there. Yet, three months later, we all flew back into the jungle — back into the headwaters — and tried again.

Your shows are also inspiring because viewers see you, an amputee, doing all these difficult things.

The decision to amputate was really a decision to go with the unknown. I decided to tap into the innovation of engineering. Months after coming out of the hospital, I got a phone call from my buddies in Guatemala and Nat Geo, saying: "The big LiDAR collection has come in and there's a map of a whole jungle now. And it shows all these discoveries that look like lost cities. Do you want to go?" I grabbed a hiking stick, my first prosthetic leg and we just went into the jungle. I went in, uncertain, and came out of the jungle free of any doubt that the future of exploration was still completely intact.

I think about what these shows mean to people, for viewers who see me with a prosthetic leg climbing a mountain or dropping into a cave. It shifts the narrative about what's possible. I feel so grateful to be able to pay forward what was given to me. You don't get to choose what comes at you in life, but you do get to choose how you respond.

How many prosthetics have you had?

A lot. I'm kind of like a test subject now. I just came back from Iceland where we were trying out a prototype of a new foot that they made in response to my craziness, because I break everything.

I got crushed under a boulder in Israel last season when I was climbing up the side of a cliff looking for an ancient watchtower of the Canaanites. The side of a massive boulder that I was climbing on started opening up and peeling off the face of the cliff. I jumped out as far as I could away from its path. I looked down, and was only bleeding a little bit, but the boulder had crushed my prosthetic foot. They were able to mail me a spare foot within days, and I was back up on that cliff again. With every single step, I remember how lucky I am, how grateful I am, for the ability to stand up and go wherever I want.

What do you love most about your adventures?

My passion is about experiencing humanity's incredible diversity across the planet and across time, and finding stories. Stories that tell us who we are and where we came from. When you know your roots, you can imagine the future. The more we know about what we're working with, the better the chances of creating a better future for all of us. The world of discovery is wide open. It's always the next adventure that makes me wake up in the mornings.

Lost Cities Revealed with Albert Lin is now streaming on Hulu and Disney+.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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