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Style & Culture

A man who heeded the call of Shangri-La

Author Ian Baker has written about his trip into Tibet in search of a fabled gorge.

January 07, 2005|Susan Salter Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

But after all that he had been through, the life of an academic was impossible. After a few months, Baker was back in Nepal working on a book on the Tibetan life cycle and dreaming of the waterfall. He again applied to Chinese officials to enter a region called Kundu Dorsempotrang, which appeared on his U.S. defense chart as a long white section along the border between India and Tibet emblazoned with the word "unexplored."

Soon after another failed search for the gorge in 1995, Outside magazine became interested in Baker, and the founder and director of the Film Study Center at Harvard offered to finance a documentary on future ventures. Three years later, the National Geographic Society in New York offered $500,000 to fund an expedition to find and measure the waterfall and to explore the entirety of what earlier Western expeditions dubbed the Five Mile Gap, considered the last possible refuge of the fabled Falls of Tsangpo. On Oct. 8, 1998 the team set out.

"This was the most beautiful part of the planet I've ever seen, like a piece of the original world," Baker says, and you could swear he was talking about a woman he had fallen profoundly in love with. It was not an easy journey. Several of the expedition's members did not make it all the way to the falls, stopped by heavy rains, cold and general loss of faith.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday January 18, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Tibet exploration -- An article in the Jan. 7 Calendar section about explorer Ian Baker said the National Geographic Society offered $500,000 to fund an expedition and measurement of the fabled Falls of Tsangpo in Tibet. National Geographic offered $40,000 to fund the team.

"Much of the time," Baker writes in "The Heart of the World," of the descent to the falls, "we slid our way down and we often doubled back when our line of descent ended in sheer drop-offs or impenetrable thickets."

On Nov. 8, they heard and then came upon the falls: "The air buzzed with ions," he writes, "a massive curtain of foam and light hurtling between sheer granite walls. To gaze into the waters was to stare into the face of impermanence, waves and particles blurring by one after the other, beyond what the mind or eye could register."

The waterfall was between 105 and 115 feet. "We had descended," Baker writes, "deeper into the Tsangpo Gorge than any human to our knowledge had ever gone."

Early in January 1999, a National Geographic Society press release described the discovery of the Hidden Falls of Dorje Pagmo. "If there is a Shangri-La," the council told reporters, "this is it!"

And while the falls "may not have been the rival of Victoria Falls and Niagara that some geographers dreamed of," Baker writes, " ... it put the centuries-old question of its existence to rest."

But what of its being a gateway to a paradisiacal sanctuary of health and eternal youth? Baker will never know for certain. The team spotted a perfect oval in the granite near the base of the falls and what appeared, from their vantage point across the river, to be a passageway veering off into the heart of the mountain. But it couldn't be reached.

"The waters of the Tsangpo surged up against the cliffs in a fluvial chaos that could never be crossed," he writes. "It would take some arcane methodology -- far beyond our current means -- to ever enter that mysterious passageway. And if one did penetrate the granite veil, unless one's mind's eye was honed to an almost exquisite sensitivity, any hidden world might pass unnoticed."

"The Heart of the World" has an Old World feel to it; the search for the falls is told more as a quest, something passed on through some invisible DNA. Unlike modern-day tales of "adventures" carried out with sponsorships and fancy gear, the search for the Tsangpo falls has the effect of transforming ordinary life, as though one foot placed in a different direction might unlock another life lurking beneath ours.

This day on a book tour in Southern California, he credits various teachers with showing him the possibilities of wedding the experimental with the intellectual; teachers like Lawrence Rockefeller at Middlebury and more important, his mother, who exposed him as a teenager to Celtic mythology and thinkers like Joseph Campbell, and his stepfather, a Norwegian, who showed him how to climb.

As he sips his tea, he credits years in Katmandu, a kind of expatriate's Paris where some succumbed to seductions and splendors, and others were driven by them to accomplish more. He talks of a kind of Lost Generation post-1960s, destitute in Katmandu, and the difficulties of making a life there based on pure passion.

He describes summers spent teaching climbing in northern Norway, the Adirondacks or in the mountains of New Hampshire, of falling 70 feet in Norway when he was 22 and having amnesia for a week. Doctors told him he would not climb again. Two years of depression followed, then he returned to Katmandu and found the scrolls in the antique shop. The idea of an "obsessive wild goose chase" did not seem so wild, he says at the teahouse.

The Western approach, like trophy-bagging a blank spot on the map, did not appeal to him. "I was looking," he says, "for something beyond geography." And there was the appeal of tapping into whatever energies lived in these spots that were "more vital than others."

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