The Heart of the World by Ian Baker

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The Independent Culture

A long time ago my cousin and I divided the world into two. He would explore Southern Asia, and I would do the rest. It was only a family joke, but years on he has written I don't know how many books on matters Oriental - one of my favourites is A Mountain in Tibet - and I have written rather less (ten) on my journeys through Amazonia, the Arctic and the like.

Ostensibly then, Charles Allen is the man to review this book - which concerns someone's search for the mystical paradise that we have come to know as "Shangri La". Except that I have written a lot on the strange mindset of the explorer and also happen to keep a file on the enduring human quest after the perfect state. The Heart of the World concerns both of these subjects, ones that embrace an area far greater than even Asia.

As you might have guessed, locating any place of earthly and heavenly perfection is not as easy as all that. Fortunately, Ian Baker has lived in Nepal for over 20 years, and dedicated much of that time to Tibetan Buddhism. He understands the teaching - that to gain access to paradise one must seek out the beyuls, or hidden-away lands. The more inaccessible the beyul, the more illuminating the paradise it conceals. And it seems that at the eastern end of the Himalayas, obscured by a vast waterfall in the remote Tsangpo Gorge, lies one of the greatest of all such sanctuaries. After much time spent interviewing lamas and leafing through obscure Tantric texts, the author at last located the bottom of the forbidding gorge - and so discovered, he tells us, the legendary grail of both Western explorers and Tibetan seekers. Thus he completed a journey begun more than a hundred years earlier.

The author dedicatedly plots this, our long-standing fascination with the idea of a Himalayan sanctuary. We are reminded how the Pundits of the latish 19th century penetrated many hidden corners for the British, how these explorer-spies gave way to vaulting geographers such as Frank Kingdon Ward - "we would, if possible, go right through the gorge and tear this last secret from its heart." Then came along James Hilton and his 1933 Lost Horizon - establishing his "wild dream" of a Shangri La in the popular imagination. And now enter the author, better spiritually prepared than most other foreigners - he knew that he must go with what Tibetans call danang, or "pure vision".

There is a great deal in this book to enjoy - even to admire. Thankfully, this isn't just one more lost Western soul looking for meaning amongst all the heady mythology of the Buddha. As if ever aware that he might lose the more-sceptical reader, Baker continuously "grounds" his experience with practical detail. "I met with David Breashears at Lily's Restaurant in the Roger Smith Hotel on Lexington Avenue in New York" is a sentence you feel might happily be pruned to just five words. He even takes us through the grant application process at National Geographic. But the author values the integrity of the object he seeks, and that does count for a lot - especially so as the quest reaches its climax, and his danang is imperilled by his allowing a TV cameraman along. I could have warned him! Oddly, notwithstanding all his sessions with Tibetan gurus, here he loses sight of the overriding truth - that however pure our own intentions, by exposing Paradise to the impure world we destroy it.

There are other threats. In the tradition of the Great Game, the author finds himself rival to another expedition - one with only worldly motives. It's a huge and ghastly Chinese endeavour, full of imperialist intent, which marches ever onward to the very same goal. It litters the mountainscape with pot noodle wrappers, while Tibetans along the way fervently pray to Padmasambhava that "the veils to their promised land would remain firmly drawn" and the invaders not penetrate this last sanctuary with their "multi-pronged siege" of the gorge. Fat hope of that: the Chinese are presently drawing up plans to flood the Tsangpo - one of their notorious hydro-electric schemes.

But there is satisfaction to be had from the author getting there first. And although his very ambition to define so precisely this sacred hideaway surely stems from an alien, rationalising, perhaps Christian, cultural tradition, Baker does understand the greatest duty of the pilgrim which is be honest with himself.

Personally, I'd have placed captions alongside the excellent but sometimes whimsical contemporary and historical photos - and definitely I'd have cut out any endorsement on the dust jacket by Richard Gere - but it's an absorbing, thoughtful read and hey, any encounter with perfection does, in the end, remain impossible here on earth.