Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Michael J. McRae's "The Siege of Shangri-La": Book Review

This preceded Ian Baker's 2004 first-person account (see my Oct. 2005 review)  "The Heart of the World: A Journey to the Last Secret Place", but I did not know about McRae's work until I stumbled across it, the lone Himalayan-themed title in my local urban library. McRae provides a deftly drawn depiction of Baker, and his colleagues and rivals. In the 1990s, they seek in what becomes an unseemly fashion to rush to be the first to "discover" (as opposed to more correctly "document, as Baker wishes) the last five-mile gap with its "hidden falls" of the Tsongpo Gorge that will flow into the mighty Brahmaputra river.

McRae, as a National Geographic editor, does not play favorites in his telling of the quest, even if his magazine sponsored one of two competing, as it turned out, teams. Furthermore, the Chinese massed to rush into the competition, and the conclusion shows them eager to exploit the prospect of a national park for eco-tourism and all the natural and cultural destruction in the name of profit that designation entails.

This account, preceded by an equally worthy narrative of how earlier British explorers had struggled to penetrate this blank spot on their maps, emphasizes in pithier and more naturally detached form than does Baker's longer book the research he and his partner Hamid Sardar conducted of Pemako's "inner and outer geography." For, these scholars and Buddhist practitioners reasoned that "the canyon's crumpled topography concealed a sacred landscape visible only to those of adequate spiritual preparation, and that the path to this holy realm of peace and plenty would lead them, as Baker explains, 'beyond geography.'" (87)

While they experienced in their quest a "creative regression" as they gave up fighting the elements, more skeptical adventurers, in the pursuit of "canyoneering" that McRae conveys vividly, shrugged and saw the purported "beyul" or entrance into a sacred hidden realm as merely a "hydrologic event." McRae notes how the same terrain might enchant one adept but leave another, more secular, nonplussed. This "Shangri-La" may be more a product of clever marketing than tangible grasping.

Those who enter must be pure of intent and possess sufficient merit, for "all others will find only empty mountains, blinding storms, landslides, floods, and perhaps even death." (50) The predecessors Bailey, Kingdon-Ward and Lord Cawdor, among others, struggled mightily and repeatedly to find the waterfalls that nested unseen but sensed and rumored within the gorge. McRae compares this stretch to "scaling the pleats of some giant accordion, then rappelling down the other side, only to begin again." (35)

I will not reveal what the author himself finds when he travels to the region near the millennium. Part of the appeal of this accessible, detailed, but also open-ended account lies in the dogged physical exertion those determined to enter this elusive gap expend. Another part, which expands as the narrative continues, delves into heir mental and spiritual motivations, or lack of such. One wonders if any of the modern tourists who may soon flock here will possess the necessary insight that the Tibetans taught was a prerequisite to understand this domain. The wild will be tamed, dammed, and damned, perhaps, but a hint remains that even when destruction dominates the world, a portal to a better land will persist here, maybe within the waterfall, to beckon those able to discern its presence.

McRae in his sobering study of what's driven men and women for nearly a century into this remote and difficult landscape leaves the reader only wanting more. This short book took quite a while to read, and I slowed as it demanded a different frame of mind as the expected travel narrative hinted at more profound concepts. I wish he provided more photos, and that his map was even more detailed, but perhaps he intends to leave part of the sketch open to interpretation, on more than one level. (Amazon US 11-16-12)

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