The Heart of the World is not the type of book I usually read. I picked it up on a whim off a friend’s shelf, in part because hard copy books are a little hard to come by around here.
It’s a story of a remarkable adventure, and the writing isn’t as bad as I thought it might be. Ian Baker, even in his own understated retelling, sounds like an intriguing character who’s lived for years in Tibet, spent a long time studying Tibetan Buddhism, and traveled far off the beaten track. His trips centre on efforts to find a fabled waterfall, a geographic landmark that’s fascinated explorers for centuries, as well as being a fabled paradise in Tibetan Buddhism.
One of the reasons I was predisposed not to like the book has to do with my own dislike for religious experiences that defines themselves in terms of being unclear, or not conceptually comprehensible. Ian Baker is guilty in multiple cases of just flat-out abusing the words ‘quantum physics’.
Quantum physicists have long recognized that we see only a portion of the world around us. The most intellectually rigorous and accurate model of the physical universe produced by Western science, quantum physics offers a paradoxical world of shifting perspectives and possible probabilities and – like Buddhism – fully acknowledges the role of consciousness in shaping reality.
I don’t know anything about quantum physics, but I’m pretty sure you should not be abusing the term to fit your own theories without at least knowing what you’re talking about. That’s a particular point, but it represents a theme that I found annoyingly distracting throughout the book – Baker’s attempts to link his physical adventures to the religious experience, with a particularly mystical bent, that he finds in Tibetan Buddhism. I think meditation can be a remarkable experience, and it’s something I want to explore more – but Baker presents a faux wisdom, something that comes across as frustratingly vapid, and doesn’t really convey much of his own experience with meditation. He seems to flicker between believing in the existence of separate realities and the importance of the rituals he undergoes, and then back to seeing them as simply exercises that have none of the power ascribed to them by believers.
The thing that I did enjoy about the book was the remarkable story Baker tells. Remarkable not because of how he writes (he’s mediocre, with a penchant for dreamy imagery and laden imagery, and not a real grasp on spinning a narrative), but because of what he does. He travels through some truly intriguing places, casually describes encounters that for most people would be a lifetime’s worth of stories, and has seen some amazing things. So even for the travel description, the account of the places he’s visited, the book is worth it as a light read.
The other thing that I genuinely liked about the book is that Baker is willing to own some of his own challenges and conundrums. Writing of a Chinese expedition that was competing with his to be first to the waterfall, he writes:
Nima, our Tibetan guide from Wind Horse Adventure, informed us that Chinese Central Television was broadcasting three-minute dispatches every night documenting their progress. I could only hope that they had no awareness that our small team of three Americans was headed directly for the Five-Mile Gap. The innate lure of the missing link was undeniable, but the highly publicized Chinese expedition had become something of a dark mirror in which we caught glimpses of less noble motivations.
As someone who’s spent years studying in Tibet and Nepal, and speaks Tibetan (apparently quite well), Ian has some credentials. When he’s first told that a guide will take him to the falls, he hears:
Tsering said that until now they’d never told any outsiders, Chinese or otherwise, that there was a way down into the innermost gorge. Hamid and I had returned year after year, he said, we spoke their language, knew their ritual practices, and most of all, we had undertaken the ne-kor, or pilgrimage to Kundu Dorsempotrang. He said that the people of Pemako had accepted us now as nangpa, or Buddhist insiders.
I appreciated that Baker grappled, at least to some extent, with his own role as an outsider. He recognised that he wasn’t discovering the falls, simply exposing them to the outside world – and he was glad when a subsequent flood made them inaccessible, hiding them from the ecotourism he feared.
The book isn’t amazing, but it’s reasonably well written account of a truly remarkable journey.