Hell or High Water: Surviving Tibet’s Tsangpo River
Peter Heller
New York: Rodale Books, 2004
336 pp.; $24.95 (cloth)

The Heart of the World: A Journey to the Last Secret Place
Ian Baker
New York: The Penguin Press, 2004
511 pp.; $27.95 (cloth)

In my thirty years as a Buddhist, I’ve meditated a lot, and I’ve studied, and I’ve chopped carrots. But I haven’t done much travel. Only twice have I gone to Asia, to the Buddhist lands, and only once on a real pilgrimage.

It was 1992. The great Dilgo Khyentse, Rinpoche—active head of the Nyingma lineage and the teacher of my teacher, Chögyam Trungpa—was being cremated in Bhutan, high in the Himalayas. Bhutan! I couldn’t wait—for good reason, it turned out. Billed as the last Buddhist kingdom, Bhutan was thrilling. Its mountainous landscapes soared. Its people were attractive and cheerful. There were temples and super-sized Buddhist sculptures. Even the humblest little shop selling stale Indian cookies had knots of eternity decorating the doorways.

At the cremation, the Westerners gathered with King Jigme Wangchuk, hundreds of monks, and fifty thousand Bhutanese, all decked out in their finest robes, in the valley below Taktsang—Tiger’s Nest, the ancient hermitage site, set impossibly on a sheer towering cliff. Twelve hundred years before, Padmasambhava, the Indian master who introduced Buddhism to Tibet, had flown there on the back of a tiger’s skin. Much more recently, Trungpa Rinpoche, while on retreat at Taktsang, wrote The Embodiment of All the Siddhas, his seminal Mahamudra teaching. The ceremony lasted all day. Monks chanted and played horns. The air seemed golden with blessings.

However, upon returning home my life was upended. I was back for less than a half hour—freshly arrived at the airport—when my suitcase, containing my Buddhist practice materials, was stolen. In short order, my job was cut and I learned that I had breast cancer. Within a month I was packed and out of Florida, where I had been stuck, afraid to leave a good job, and I was back in New York, my real home. My cancer treatment ended a year later. My new life began.

Maybe it was a coincidence that all that uproar came on the heels of my Bhutan trip. Who knows? But whether it was a coincidence or not, a pilgrimage can be life-changing. Making a long and arduous journey is a time-honored way of seeking blessings and teachings. Marpa, the Tibetan farmer and translator, trekked to India three times to acquire Vajrayana teachings. Ultimate Journey by Richard Bernstein tells of Hsuang Tsang, a seventh-century Chinese monk who walked five thousand miles to study Buddhism in India.

A pilgrimage continues on after the journey ends. It’s an active kind of meditation, a way to change your life. I was thinking of this while reading two new books, Hell or High Water: Surviving Tibet’s Tsangpo River and The Heart of the World: A Journey to the Last Sacred Place, about separate expeditions into the Tsangpo River gorge in Tibet. It is the world’s deepest gorge, three times steeper and eight times deeper than the Grand Canyon. It runs from the heights of the Himalayas down to the plains of India, where it becomes the placid Brahmaputra River, dropping two miles along the way. It is legendary—one of the wildest and most inaccessible places on earth. Both authors are writing about their own arduous journeys. Both describe barely passable jungles, recalcitrant porters, near-starvation, and lots and lots of leeches. Both reached their destinations. But one of the books is an adventure story and the other describes a pilgrimage. The paths are similar, but the stories are entirely different.

Hell or High Water, the adventure, is by Peter Heller, who writes for Outdoors magazine, which sponsored the trip. Heller accompanied an expedition of world-class kayakers to the unexplored heart of the Tsangpo River. He is definite about his goal—to write a best seller like Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. Well, who can blame him?

The Heart of the World, by Ian Baker, an explorer and scholar of Tibetan Buddhism, is about the author’s fascination with beyul, sacred places in Tibetan Buddhism
For two hundred years, British explorers tried to reach Pemako by foot and paddle, but never succeeded. Heller and Baker both describe failed expeditions and disappointed explorers. The most amazing tale, related in both books, is about Kinthup, an illiterate nineteenth-century tailor from Sikkim. The British Survey of India, intent on mapping Tibet despite its unwelcoming inhabitants, hired Kinthup to explore it secretly. He was gone for four years. Sold into slavery, he escaped, pushed on into Pemako, and finally completed the mission’s main goal: to launch marked logs into the Tsangpo by a given date. The plan was for British geographers, stationed by the Brahmaputra, to watch for them, and thus prove that the two rivers were really one. But the British had forgotten about Kinthup. Nobody saw the logs float by. When he finally returned to India, most British geologists doubted his reports.

Baker and Heller and their respective parties faced other obstacles. Kayakers plied extraordinary rapids and rappelled over gorges. They portaged up near-vertical, boulder-strewn mountainsides. They grappled with disapproving Chinese bureaucrats and the porters’ near-mutinies.
heller_0 is a brisk and entertaining read, a breezy account of super-macho kayakers on a super-extreme expedition. Heller tells about their squabbles and power plays, their exhaustion, exertions, extraordinary athleticism, and occasional forays into gorgeous areas.

Spiritual this book isn’t. Heller knows next to nothing about the Tibetan Buddhism he encounters through the local people and landscape. He sounds surprised when he sees the way the Chinese have destroyed the Tibetan culture in Lhasa. His references to Buddhism are pretty clunky, but funny as well. (One kayaker, after making an offering to a Buddhist deity, is shown disconsolately removing ticks from his pants and complaining: “Hey, I asked to be a chick magnet!”)

The Heart of the World, on the other hand, is a dense compilation of Tibetan and Buddhist lore, snippets on Mahayana and tantra, anecdotes of lamas, and curious asides: The whole Pemako region, it seems, is a vast geographical map of Dorje Phagmo, the queen of Tibetan Buddhist deities: the mountain peaks are her head and breasts, the sulfur springs are her urine, the river is her life force, and the waterfalls are her heart. Esoteric tidbits range from a description of Tibetan mushrooms said to produce bliss, to stories of a Tibetan tribal cult that slips deadly toxins under a fingernail to stir an interloper’s cup of chang, or barley beer.

It is rich. It is learned. It’s a compelling journey—but it’s too dense for comfortable reading. Baker shoehorns in learned references and quotes like a college student trying to cadge extra points from a philosophy professor. When he writes of his party’s discovering the hidden falls, of being the first Westerners ever to do so, is he moved, thrilled? He doesn’t really say. Instead, he steps back and discourses on Wittgenstein, Jung, and poststructuralist theory.

Many of Baker’s adventures fall similarly flat because he tends to write at an emotional distance. The strenuous climbs, the perilous rappels down cliffs and across gorges must have been exciting and scary and harrowing. But the way he recounts them, it’s like he’s trying to damp down those messy, vivid feelings. At one point, for instance, Baker and his companions were lost in the wilds and out of food and matches. “By this time, we were all shivering,” he writes. “A night out without fire or warm clothing would have meant certain hypothermia. We had no choice but to continue on as fast as possible. Words came to my mind from Padmasambhava: ‘The time has come to recognize that negative circumstances can be transformed into spiritual power and attainment… Utilize adversities and obstacles as the path.’” Maybe Baker really did face the prospect of death through exposure with that much dispassion. But even so, his readers would be better served if he let some raw feelings leak through.

Do the authors wind up renewed or changed from all their adventuring? Hard to say. Heller writes that he offered the other kayakers ten percent of any profits made by his book. Maybe that’s Dorje Phagmo working on him unseen—or maybe it’s just his feelings that what’s fair is fair. Baker says that he still thinks a lot about Dorje Phagmo, and he concludes with references to Thomas Cole, Thoreau, Emerson, Wallace Stevens, Goethe, and Emily Dickinson. But the one most affected by the pilgrimage, it seems, will be the hidden falls itself. Hard on the heels of Baker’s team was a massive 500-person Chinese expedition, raising the specter of a hydroelectric dam on Dorje Phagmo’s sacred map—and maybe a Shangri-la resort as well.

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