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A man who heeded the call of Shangri-La

Times Staff Writer

Suddenly, you can buy his books at Costco.

Back then, he was just Ian, as in, “Ian’s been upstairs in his room meditating for the last six hours and we can’t seem to rouse him,” or, “Ian’s just fallen off a mountain in Norway and cracked his head open. Again.”

But now, Ian Baker’s new book, “The Heart of the World: A Journey to the Last Secret Place,” is just his latest in a string of works about Tibet: “The Tibetan Art of Healing,” “Celestial Gallery,” “The Dalai Lama’s Secret Temple: Tantric Wall Paintings From Tibet” and “Tibet: Reflections From the Wheel of Life.”

For the last 25 years, while the rest of us in a loose confederation of friends at Middlebury College in Vermont (for a while we all lived in the same house and shared meals) pursued more standard paths through adulthood, Baker studied Buddhism at Oxford and Columbia but mostly in Tibet. He kept an apartment in Katmandu, studied Sanskrit, Nepalese and Tibetan; led trips and expeditions through the Himalayas; studied Tantra; collected Tibetan art; meditated for months at a time in remote caves; and pursued whispers and rumors of secret valleys where the ordinary laws of biology and physics are suspended. Searched, in his heart and on foot, for Shangri-La.

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In a crowded teahouse in Venice, Baker talks about the years leading up to his latest book, the story of his search for paradise. He looks almost exactly the same, perhaps even younger, than when I last saw him 20 years ago.

“There are places on the planet where nature has different laws,” he says, rushing and tripping over words in an effort to explain the preliminaries quickly. “Like the human body, which also has places that are more vital than others.”

These beyul, or hidden lands, believed to be pockets of paradise of longevity-promoting herbs, exotic flowers, secret waterfalls and ancient spirits, are protected by steep ravines, craggy mountains, strange weather patterns and all manner of off-putting creatures, including leeches and pit vipers. The mother of them all lay, supposedly, in the eastern Himalayas in Tibet, in Tsangpo Gorge, the deepest gorge on Earth. At the heart of this gorge, according to stories passed monk to monk through centuries, is an enormous waterfall.

The myth of the valley and its hidden waterfall inspired pilgrims and explorers, novelists and filmmakers, including James Hilton’s “Lost Horizon” and Frank Capra’s 1937 film of the same name. A 1924 Royal Geographic Society expedition tried to locate the falls, failed, and concluded that the Falls of Tsangpo were a “romance of geography.”

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“The Heart of the World” tells the story of Baker’s search for the waterfall, through Tantric texts and Western maps. It began in 1977, when he first became fascinated by Tibetan scrolls and Victorian accounts of expeditions to hidden valleys. Like many of us in the group, he spent a semester abroad in Katmandu. After college, Baker received a grant from the New York Explorer’s Club to pursue his interest in “Tibet’s sacred geography.” At that point Tibet forbade visitors, so he began his research in Sikkim, India, southeast of the Tibet region of China.

In 1983, Baker postponed his work on a master’s degree from Oxford to direct an American college study-abroad program in Katmandu, Nepal. One day, in an antique shop, he came across a Tibetan scroll painting of the Tantric god Padmasambhava surrounded by waterfalls and mountains. When he asked the shopkeeper about it, he was directed to a lama named Chatral Rinpoche in an area translated as “Hidden Land Screened by Snow Mountains.” The lama encouraged Baker to meditate for a month in a cave there before beginning his search for the beyul.

Baker says Chatral Rinpoche described the “inner level” of Baker’s search as yangsang, the “ultimate goal of Tibetan pilgrims,” “a paradisiacal or unitary dimension revealed through an auspicious conjunction of person, place and time.” Yansang, he was told, was not “merely a metaphor for the enlightened state, but an ever-present, if hidden, reality.” If one could find the place -- also called Pemako -- the legend went, one would “live to be a thousand years old.”

Baker searched in monasteries and private collections for the scrolls describing Pemako in the Tsangpo region. He applied to the Chinese authorities for permission to enter Tibet. He was refused. But he eventually found the Pemako scrolls in the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in India. These, together with records and maps of British expeditions beginning in the mid-1800s and continuing into the early 20th century, gave him a better idea of where to look for the waterfall.

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In June of 1986, Baker decided to continue to Tsangpo without permission from the Chinese. Several attempts failed. Slightly discouraged and feeling, like Henry James, that he had “spent too long in foreign parts,” Baker applied and was accepted at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Religion to study with Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman, the program’s chair.

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.

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“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!”

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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.

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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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Studying Wordsworth’s poetry at Middlebury and Oxford, Baker had been fascinated with the idea of a “vestige of Eden,” a place where one’s vision was transformed and perceptions changed.

But after living the life of a nomad, does he feel lonely? Surely he looks at friends with spouses and children and thinks he missed something?

“I don’t feel anything missing in my life,” he says. “I never set anything up. I didn’t set out to write this. I’m not looking to meet anyone. Searching for the hidden land was like searching for the female embodiment of the goddess.”

Old age doesn’t scare him either. “I could leave the world, walk into the forest. The body leaves us. My greatest goal is to be aligned with greater currents,” he says.

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Baker practices Dzogchen Buddhism, which goes beyond meditation that works within everyday experience to achieve an understanding of reality. He’s off next to Mongolia on a scouting trip for certain plants, but he’ll keep looking for these “Bermuda Triangles,” these warps in time and space. He’ll follow geographical clues left by previous explorers and others found in texts of various animistic traditions. It’s what he does best.

And those of us who stay behind can read about it. We don’t have to go any farther than the local Costco.


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