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The Heart of the World: A Journey to the Last Secret Place

4.07  ·  Rating details ·  627 ratings  ·  67 reviews
The myth of Shangri-la originates in Tibetan Buddhist beliefs in beyul, or hidden lands, sacred sanctuaries that reveal themselves to devout pilgrims and in times of crisis. The more remote and inaccessible the beyul, the vaster its reputed qualities. Ancient Tibetan prophecies declare that the greatest of all hidden lands lies at the heart of the forbidding Tsangpo Gorge, ...more
Hardcover, 511 pages
Published November 4th 2004 by Penguin Press (first published 2000)
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Apr 19, 2010 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
My favorite literary genre! Spiritual-autobiography-adventure-travelogue. The kind of book I buy and treasure. My illusory and high expectations, thus and of course, a bit disappointed. Baker is a practicing Buddhist, knows the languages and cultures and is a great student of Tibetan religion and tantric lore. But he also comes across as a bit of swashbuckler, Indiana Jones type. He is obviously captivated by the more exotic and exoteric side of Tibetan tantra, emphasizing the visionary "wisdom" ...more
Dec 07, 2010 rated it liked it
In the Tantric tradition, the ideal of pilgrimage is not simply to visit sacred sites, but to facilitate an inner transformation at places that challenge conventional ways of seeing. In this sense, the more destabilizing the surroundings the better.

With that thought in mind Ian Baker, an American adventurer and student of Tantric Buddhism, made a series of pilgrimages to one of the harshest environments on earth, Tibet's Tsangpo gorge region, known for its suicidal white water, three-mile deep
Nov 23, 2010 rated it liked it
Shelves: travel
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
I really enjoyed this travelogue adventure but found it, at times, to be slow and redundant.

The region that Baker explored is so remote that it wasn't even explored by white man until the late 20th Century. Baker possesses a great deal of enthusiasm for discovering Buddhist beyuls; places in nature where the prepared student may come closer to enlightenment than any other place. The beyul that he seeks in this book is called pemako and is reported to be the heart of the world. The adventure in
Sep 07, 2009 rated it really liked it
I am giving this four stars because of the message of the book. Ian Baker is an American Buddhist scholar living in Nepal who takes a series of journeys to Tibet to explore the Tsangpo Gorge, the deepest in the world. In great detail, almost too much detail, he describes four treks into this hard to reach and inhospitable place. He goes again and again for two reasons. One, journeying into the gorge is type of Buddhist pilgrimage. By putting up with the physical hardships of the journey into the ...more
Sep 06, 2012 rated it liked it
Mr. Baker's account of several trips to the Tsangpo Gorge, a remote region of Tibet, was at times entertaining, at times educating, but sadly, often slow and convoluted. Plot and character development took a back seat to PLACE, which I'm sure was a conscious decision by Mr. Baker, but unfortunately the book as a whole suffered for it. Most of the people in the book are little more than names and ethnicities. We get a sense of Mr. Baker (which is not altogether favorable) and his friend, Hamid, ...more
Ben Boocker
Jan 21, 2015 rated it it was amazing
This fantastic work is indeed difficult to classify. It could be called a travel narrative, but beyond this it contains a seemingly comprehensive review of Tibetan Buddhist practices in the Pemako region as well as a bit of the history surrounding Tibetan/Chinese international relations. Ian Baker and his hodgepodge of companions (who all seem to have far more interesting lives than I ever will) embark on several ventures to explore various landmarks in a particularly tumultuous region of Tibet ...more
Jul 10, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: spirituality
ok, now i'm about half way done. the book is still interesting because i like books about exploration, hardship and determination, but i'm beginning to really dislike the author. i find him to be a bit of an elitist and he doesn't even seem to really realize that he is opening up a sacred space to western ecotourism. not someone i'd care to dine with.

did i like it, did i REALLY like it? was it just ok?? i read it because it brought back my glory days in India and the Himalayas. there is some
Apr 11, 2010 rated it it was ok
I love reading about adventure, history, of course I thought I'd really enjoy this book. I appreciate the sacrifices and hardships members of this expedition had to go through, however I stopped reading the book about half the way through. I felt it was slow and somewhat redundant. Despite the research, time, and effort obviously put into this book, it doesn't seem to capture the excitement that was, no doubt, ingrained in the expedition. Maybe I'll try it again another day, and ...more
Aug 03, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Fascinating. How a group of people survived several attempts at finding this incredible mystical place is beyond belief. The bugs, terrain, weather, strange animals and people, makes your skin crawl. This was on National Geographic some time recently. It's an epic journey of where no one has been before.
Louise Chambers
Mar 09, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Is the Earth a Goddess? Can geography inform sacred belief? Follow this amazing tale of the search for the deepest gorge in Tibet and the source of the Ganges.
C.E. Case
Sep 19, 2018 rated it really liked it
What's remarkable about this book is that it seems to be unparalleled. There aren't better pictures, there's not better scope, there's not better insight. This is the pinnacle of a Westerner's journey into Tibet. Fans of exploration into the Brazilian rainforest should like this just as much. Just as many leeches!

The writing is both self-absorbed and dispassionate, and lacks a human intimacy in itself, even though the land and the people living there come alive.

But it's either read this or
Nov 04, 2018 rated it it was ok
I found this book to be way too confusing. Nothing is in chronological order (except near the end) yet there's no clear indications in text as to when we switch timelines, which was quite often. In the same way, I was never sure of what location they were at. The message of the book might be good but it was such a chore to slog through that any benefit was lost.
Meredith Smith
Jan 26, 2018 rated it liked it
I'm not sure why I picked this one up, but I was pleasantly surprised by the end. Ian Baker does a great job rolling out the story and while somewhat dry at points, he had me interested until the end and I learned a lot more about Tibetan culture than I knew when I started.
Feb 17, 2019 rated it really liked it
Several years ago I read this. Now reading a peter heller bk that refers to Ian Baker. What I remember most was the hair raising trek, the reviewed history of past explorers, the flora and history, (rhododendrons!), just the pure daring adventurous spirit.
Chase Mills
Feb 03, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Fantastic account of one of the last great explorations and the Tibetan Buddhist culture.
Jul 01, 2017 rated it it was ok
A path that has been walked far more effectively by Peter Mathiesen in the "Snow Leopard".
Jan 26, 2018 rated it it was ok
Confession: at a certain point, skimmed until the end. Too digressive and long, though interesting in parts. 2.5
Mark Koester
Aug 03, 2018 rated it it was amazing
In "The Heart of the World,” author Ian Baker takes us on a journey to find fabled Falls of the Tsangpo in Pemako, a remote area of Tibet. It’s a journey both of physical distance and of personal, spiritual discovery. The writing, quotes and personal reflections throughout the book take us well beyond a typical mountaineering adventure and delve into a constant questioning of the relationship between a self and a world.

Following "the accounts of Tibetan pilgrims, as well as those of Victorian
Sep 15, 2007 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, travel
I admit to knowing absolutely nothing about Tibet or Buddhism, which may require some further reading before I understand the practices described in this book. What amazes (and amuses me) about the book so far is the matter-of-fact way in which Baker tells about his travels. He blithely climbs mountains and sits alone in caves for months at a time eating barley which, to me, definitely suggests some state of mind apart from the normal (whether its an elevated one is for you to decide). I wish he ...more
Santanu Dutta
Sep 28, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: favorites
The book starts with a word "Beyul". Soon on making us understand the author takes us in a lad of fairy tales. According to Tibetan Buddhism It is a place of eternal happiness and can only be attained through a couple of levels of meditation after one has reached a special state of mind and faith. One such "Fairy" land was long known in Tibetan Buddhism and sacred of all sacred places for the Buddhists.The land was surrounded by slow clad mountains and steep terrains and cliffs in Eastern ...more
Daniel Simmons
Apr 28, 2016 rated it liked it
"Hamid had contoured lower down on the mountain, and I hadn't seen him for the last hour. When I called out there was no response, only muffled echoes off the walls of mist. I climbed higher to the top of a large boulder and called again. Like elsewhere in Pemako, the slightest deviation from the marginal paths -- even here where there were no trees -- could mean disappearing altogether. Had the siren calls of dakinis led him to other realms?" (p. 282). To this book's credit, that final question ...more
Rick Harrington
Apr 25, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Not exactly sure when I read this book, but the why was clear enough. My rock climbing brother-in-law was turning his pinwheel inward, toward the feminine bush and away from manly abstraction. I didn't expect a lot, having become long-since jaded by new age aspirations for some renewed wilderness. What I found was and remains, indeed, not simply worth reading, but profoundly important at this moment of inflection - so called by, of all dialed-in people, Tom Friedman, who is as far from this book ...more
Jun 28, 2016 rated it liked it
This is not normally a book I would read.
I'm a fantasy/sci-fi reader mostly.
But I found this book for $1 and figured it couldn't hurt to diversify my reading a bit.
I was pleasantly surprised with this book.
I thought I'd quit reading after a couple chapters but that wasn't the case.
I wouldn't read it again, but it was definitely worth reading the one time.
The author really did a great job of conveying the spiritual aspects of his journey as well as the physical.
Most of the time I read this I
Mar 21, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Quite possibly the best book I've ever read. Or will read.

[edit] - Despite my lengthy review (above) you may still be searching for more. In short, this is the author's tale of his search for a mythical 'hidden land' (origin of the Shangri-La story) along a 5-mile stretch of river in the Tsangpo Gorge in Tibet. Several European expeditions pursuing the same hidden land myth in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had explored all but the inaccessible 5-mile section of the river, and it's to
Mar 31, 2012 rated it really liked it
I liked this book for its view into a spiritual and physical landscape so completely foreign and exotic to me. The author's quest is largely an adventure story: to follow a river's path through impossibly challenging and uncharted terrain to reach the secret hidden lands, revered by Buddhist monks. The maps are centuries-old spiritual texts. Challenging to read, the book covers at least 3 trips to the region, and much more of Tibetan Buddhist teachings that I could possible digest in one read. I ...more
Oct 23, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: travel, essay
A journey to the heart of the world, a hidden land where everything makes sense, and inner and outer world finally coincide. An exploration through forests and mountains in the depths of the Tsangpo gorge to find the legendary waterfalls that symbolize the force of nature and the impermanence of life. A journey –or a pilgrimage – may reveal a new way of seeing, and its geographical destination is just a mean to disclose a new vision. A very interesting book that takes you through the Tibetan ...more
Mar 17, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
While I've always been interested in someday traveling to the monasteries in Nepal and Tibet, I knew very little about the actual places and the depths of spirituality linked with their environment and wild animals. This book felt like being on my own adventure to these remote areas and made me realize I'm not cut out for a journey into the leech infested bogs of "paradise". But, I loved hearing about someone else's physical and spiritual journey into these virtually unknown places to anyone ...more
Oct 20, 2007 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Sonya
Shelves: travel-writing
I picked this book up on a whim while window shopping in Georgetown, zipped through it in just over a weekend, and enjoyed every minute of it. The author introduces the region of Pemako, long held sacred by Tibetan Buddhists, the inspiration for the fictional Shangri-La. Interweaving legend and history, his own spiritual and physical journey, visas, leeches, and lamas, the author takes the reader on a quest into a sacred, secret place closely guarded by natural and spiritual obstacles - one of ...more
John Mattson
Jan 04, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Ian Baker's perseverance against incredible odds creates a story that is spiritual and truly fascinating. He totally dedicates a huge portion of his life both mentally and physically in order to travel into a hidden kingdom that is protected by the Chinese, an Ancient culture, and a horrendous climate that funnels the tropical waters of the lower Brahma Putra into the high Himalayas through one of the deepest canyons in the world. This is a truly classic adventure that combines ancient Buddhist ...more
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“A form of consciousness beyond the veils of discursive thought, a space forever present for those who seek it, not in some far-off wilderness, but in our inner most hearts. When that realization dawns in the depths of one's being, the world effortlessly transforms into that which was sought.” 1 likes
“Our minds have no real or absolute boundaries; on the contrary, we are part of an infinite field of intelligence that extends beyond space and time into realities we have yet to comprehend. The beyul and their dakini emissaries are traces of the original world, inviting us to open to the abiding mystery at the heart of all experience, the inseparability that infuses every action, thought, and intention.” 0 likes
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