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The Heart of the World: A Journey to the Last Secret Place
by Ian Baker
Penguin Press 
Reviewed by Corrie, 6/24/2005

In his recent book, The Heart of the World: A Journey to the Last Secret Place, Buddhist seeker and explorer Ian Baker delivers 500+ pages of well-researched background and detailed travelogues recounting his quest for Shangri-La. We follow Baker and his companions on three separate journeys into Pemako, a perilous and isolated region of Tibet. Baker’s major geographical discovery in the depths of Pemako’s Tsangpo Gorge, the deepest gorge on Earth, made headlines worldwide.

Baker is fascinated by the prophesized Tibetan beyul, mystical lands hidden deep in the Himalayas where enlightenment is easily attained, animals and plants have miraculous powers, and people can live hundreds of years. The beyul are said to be actual places, “albeit not strictly geographical” – their accessibility (or lack thereof) corresponds to levels of initiation in Tantric Buddhism.

The greatest of the beyul, Yangsang (the Hidden Land Shaped Like a Lotus), inspired the myth of Shangri-La. It is said to lie in the heart of the Tsangpo Gorge, a chasm three times deeper than the Grand Canyon. There is no record of anyone exploring the inner reaches of the Gorge, despite concerted efforts by Tibet’s successive colonists, the British and the Chinese. A British officer described it as “one of the earth’s last secret places”. Even satellite photographs are unable to show details of the area, which is perpetually covered in mist and shadowed by immense mountains. Adding to the mystery is Pemako’s legal status – much of it lies in disputed territory between China and India. The Chinese labeled it a special military region in the early 1980s, when the rest of Tibet was opened to tourism. No permits had ever before been issued, and the maps of Pemako that Baker’s team found were covered with blank areas marked simply, “unexplored”.

But Baker and his team managed to trek, climb, rappel, and ford their way into the unknown portion of the Gorge, known as “the Gap”. They discovered a waterfall on the Tsangpo River that had been only a myth for a hundred years. It was measured with a laser range finder at 108 feet (an auspicious number in Buddhist numerology). The “Hidden Falls of the Tsangpo” are now known to be one of the highest waterfalls in Asia.

Baker had hoped that the Hidden Falls would conceal a cave behind the water akin to Niagara Fall’s Cave of the Winds, which may lead to Yangsang. None was visible, though a team member noticed script-like swirls of lichen on the opposite wall of the Gorge. Binoculars showed a strange, perfectly oval opening nearby, with a passageway veering off into the mountain. Baker recalls a Tantric text that refers to a door in a wall of rock, and a tunnel behind that leads to a paradisiacal realm. Huge waves crashed out of the Tsangpo directly below the oval opening, however, and there was no way to reach it.

As Baker’s team climbed out of the Gorge, he mused that though he hadn’t found Yangsang, “there is no paradise beyond that which is already present, even if still hidden from our view… the portals are everywhere”.

Another tantalizing legend detailed by Baker is the five magical herbs of the Hidden-Land of Pemako. Baker’s team member Hamid wonders if the plants offer a “missing ingredient in how we perceive reality, something that bridges the gap” to allow Yangsang to be revealed. These psychoactive plants are believed to increase happiness, show past lives, bestow immortality, allow one to fly, and speed enlightenment. Tibetan texts explain, “As one ingests their inner essences, the plants’ innate blessing power is actualized and one experiences the co-emergence of bliss and emptiness.”

There were rumors of the plants among local people, but Baker found only psilocybe cubensis (which he shares with an isolated Tibetan meditator, who asks him for more after sampling them). Baker reflects on Terence McKenna’s theory that early Tibetan art was influenced by a combination of psilocybin mushrooms and Syrian rue, noting that both have been found in Pemako. Does it really take a Bodhisattva to find the magical plants, as one ancient text claims? Or does it just take a Bodhisattva to find paradise once he’s ingested it?

Baker is no doubt someone who wants to find out. He combines spiritual and exploratory journeys, attempting to bridge the inner and outer worlds and locate the connection between them. One of the only frustrating things about The Heart of the World is that Baker flits around the edges of revealing exactly what he experienced internally in Pemako. Did he find any of the enlightenment promised in the prophecies, any inner hint of the beyul at the bottom of the Gorge? Did he experience any breakthroughs in his meditation while traveling through the most sacred land of Tibetan Buddhism? The omission of personal detail may be deliberate. Baker seems to appreciate, or at least accept, that truth is not necessarily supposed to be revealed all at once. As he quotes the author who popularized the idea of Shangri-La, in 1924:

That which men have uncovered and explained, they despise. But that which they discern, although its underlying essence is concealed from them, they wonder at and worship.


  1. Ian Baker’s writing in this book is very powerful. He succeeds in showing how a receptive mind leads to the discovery of the presence of the sacred right in front of our noses. Reading how he progresses closer to his goal of finding the hidden waterfall is like reading a guidebook on pure vision. If you can foster a similar attitude you will start to have all kinds of beautiful discoveries, wherever you are.

    Comment by andrew cooper — 10/17/2006 @ 10:56 am

  2. I wondered if Mr. Baker has read the 5 volume set of the “Masters of the Far East”, by Baird Spaulding?

    Comment by Marcia Hay — 9/10/2007 @ 7:02 am

  3. It is an incredible journey, if Ian Baker was not on psilocybe cubensis, when it was written.

    Comment by towkay — 2/1/2008 @ 12:58 pm

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