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The Heart of the World: A Journey To The Last Secret Place    by Ian Baker order for
Heart of the World
by Ian Baker
Order:  USA  Can
Penguin, 2004 (2004)

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

In The Heart of the World, Ian Baker combines classic travel literature - journeys into Pemako, the 'Bermuda triangle of Tibet', in search of a legendary waterfall rumored to be in the Tsangpo's innermost gorge - with an exploration of mind and spirit, via Buddhist philosophy and mysticism. To put the exploration in perspective, the Tsangpo gorge is three times the depth of the Grand Canyon. Baker tells us that his book 'celebrates those who have journeyed into the gorges, not to extract trophies or make dubious claims, but in the deepest spirit of adventure, attentive to the hidden voices of this mythic world.'

In his Preface, the author speaks of being lured by 'the perennial call of unknown, secret places', those Tibetans call the beyul. Interspersed with accounts of his own journeys of inner and outer exploration, he discusses the history of travel to Pemako, from ancient Tibetans fleeing Mongol invasions to covert CIA operations in the 1960s, and often quotes earlier explorers' commentary on this region and its unique ecosystem. We learn of hostile tribes, who successfully fought off the British Raj with poisoned arrows, of the Pundits celebrated in Kipling's Kim, especially the indomitable Kinthup, whose supposed description of a waterfall started the legend. Later on, Baker quotes Talbot Mundy (whose Tros of Samothrace series I enjoyed as a child) as immortalizing the Tsangpo Falls in his book, Om: The Secret of Ahbor Valley.

Baker had long waits for permits to enter the region and, once in, could be turned back at Chinese checkpoints, where officials sometimes ignored travel documents. In addition to the day-to-day challenges of survival in an area 'crawling with ticks and leeches' (including four inch long tiger leeches!) and jungles infested with poisonous snakes and tigers, there were no trails, frequently panicking porters, and unproven guides. The travelers hear horrific tales of local cannibals, tribes who 'in the absence of ready victims during their marriage ceremonies, kill and eat the mothers of the brides' (so much for family harmony). More legends come to life in accounts of Monpa witches, members of a pre-Buddhist cult who employ the 'proverbial poisoned apple' (shades of Snow White!)

In addition to the elusive waterfall, pilgrims to Pemako have sought Yangsang Né, which, is either perceived as a lost Eden or 'the innermost reaches of the human heart'. Baker discusses the ideal of Tibetan pilgrimage, 'to facilitate an inner transformation at places that challenge conventional ways of seeing.' A quote of 14th century meditation master Longchenpa is especially apt: 'Go to mountain tops, charnel grounds, islets and fairgrounds ... / Places that make the mind waver, / And let the body dance, the voice sing'. This is what Baker and his companions undertook on different expeditions spread across years. Waterfalls, in particular, signify 'the transitory nature of all phenomena', in Buddhist tradition. There are also accounts of numerous uncatalogued species, including 'five miraculous plants'.

Finally, in a film-making mission sponsored by National Geographic, Baker and his companions 'reached a place where a Victorian dream of a legendary waterfall converged with the Tibetan quest for a paradisical sanctuary.' The author writes lyrically, as in 'The trees beyond our sea of ferns were silhouetted like brush strokes against descending mist.' Baker quotes Beldon Lane, 'There is an unaccountable solace that fierce landscapes offer to the soul', and concludes with his own words on the subject - 'wilderness conveys both awe and threat, alluring mystery and a sublimity that reconnects us to our source.' The Heart of the World is the best of travel literature, not to be missed by anyone intrigued by the wild places of the world, or by Buddhism.

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