BROWSING in a Katmandu antique shop one day in 1982, Ian Baker overheard a conversation about a Tibetan sage who had found a hidden paradise between vaulting cliffs in a little-explored corner of Tibet. Baker was curious. He had heard about Tibet's "hidden lands" -- sacred places that Tibetans believe can be found only by a devout pilgrim who can endure both physical and spiritual challenges. An accomplished climber and a determined student of Tibetan culture, Baker resolved to discover one of these places.
He trekked into the mountains outside Katmandu and found the sage, an old man with a long white beard, sitting on a goatskin in a small cabin. Baker asked for guidance on how to conduct his quest, and the sage told him about a cave where he should first go and meditate alone for a month. Baker complied, even staying an extra week.
Back in Katmandu, Baker studied Tibetan and Western texts about searches for the hidden lands. He zeroed in on a mysterious section of the Tsangpo River that for centuries had tantalized explorers seeking a mythic waterfall. No one had yet been able to find it, and Baker decided to try. Battling rough terrain and political obstacles (Chinese officials often blocked his access), he made repeated journeys over the next 15 years into Tibet, a forbidding land of mountainous desert and daunting Himalayan peaks. Each voyage was an ordeal, yet each brought Baker a little closer to his prized goal, the never-seen waterfall.
In "The Heart of the World," Baker tells the story of his uncompromising pursuit of hidden lands and the spiritual adventures he had along the way. It is a remarkable tale, lyrical and full of the magic of wilderness travel. "The cobalt-blue flash of a monal pheasant lured me down a steep track that soon dissipated into dense forest," he writes. "Garlands of moss swayed sensuously from ancient oaks and broad-leafed rhododendrons."
Tibetan Buddhism is the richly colored tapestry that forms the background of the narrative, and Baker weaves it with firm authority, describing myriad \o7dakinis \f7(female spirits) and bodhisattvas in the Tibetan pantheon. He also delivers detailed historical asides about British and Indian explorers from centuries past who struggled through the same terrain. Attractive photographs, many taken by Baker, appear throughout -- although, oddly, Baker and his publisher have chosen to relegate their captions to the back of the book, as if too many facts might intrude on the telling of a good story.
The trials of travel into the Tsangpo Gorge become frighteningly clear. Baker and various accomplices brave sheer cliffs, hike and camp in violent downpours and venture through jungle so thick that only at day's end do they find that 40 or more leeches have burrowed under their clothing to suck their blood.
Hardly a Garden of Eden. Baker's sage had warned him at the outset that the paradise of secret lands described in ancient Tibetan writings was not all that heavenly; rather, the lands were "paradises for Buddhist practice, with multiple dimensions corresponding to increasingly subtle levels of perception."
In other words, it's all in the mind. And an open mind can be richer than most of us know. Baker works hard to straddle the physical, mental and spiritual aspects of his search. He is aiming for the upper realms of consciousness, yet we can feel his earthly determination to achieve the distinction that comes with discovering a secret place in Tibet -- a feat that exhaustive preparation has put within his reach.
But Baker does not ponder, much less explain, just what it is that drives him, over and over, to take on the near impossible. His writing is both majestic and scholarly, but it lacks a self-reflective depth that might have given his story more humanity. The descriptions of many of his personal encounters -- including one with the gorgeous daughter of the Tibetan sage and another with an Indian woman at a Buddhist retreat with whom he investigates the finer points of Tantric sex -- are poetic but somewhat stilted.
After defying the odds and finding the waterfall, Baker allows one of his sponsors, National Geographic, to announce the discovery in a news release and thereby wins a few fleeting moments of fame. He is soon roundly criticized by fellow wilderness travelers, however, who ridicule the notion that he has "discovered" anything at all in a region populated by Tibetan hunters. Baker attempts to downplay this controversy, musing thoughtfully instead on the pointlessness of geographical discovery. ("It's just another place, isn't it?" a Tibetan monk observes.)
Regardless of his status as Tibetan explorer, Baker has given us a compelling tale of the timeless search for spiritual fulfillment and of finding it in an exotic locale where the limits of topography and human possibility meet. *