Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Jim Eagles: Pilgrims pursuing a vision

Increasing numbers of New Zealanders are walking across Europe on the medieval Way of St James, for instance, or travelling to India in search of ancient wisdom.

The books reviewed here are all about pilgrimages of one sort or another, involving travel into difficult places in pursuit of a vision.

All are interesting travel stories in their own right, but they're also a source of inspiration to anyone who thinks of at least once stepping outside the ordinary to pursue a dream.

You Must Die Once
by Ian D. Robinson

HarperCollins, $29.99

Ian D. Robinson is an old-fashioned adventurer who knows how to tell a rattling good yarn. His first book, Gantsara, described riding alone through the wilds of Mongolia back in 1992, when the place was even more lawless and unfriendly than it is today.

The latest exploit by this part-time English teacher from Auckland is a pilgrimage across Tibet in defiance of the Chinese authorities. It's not quite Marco Polo, Lewis and Clark or Roald Amundsen, but it's pretty darn daring and definitely dangerous.

Robinson's quest is ostensibly the result of a vow to take the ashes of his Tibetan Buddhist teacher to the sacred peak of Mount Kailas.

But in truth it seems to be more a mix of his love of adventure and the hope that making the pilgrimage to the mountain might - as tradition suggests - help him to advance on the Buddhist path.

Either way it was no easy task he set himself. For one thing, the Chinese authorities have closed much of Tibet to foreigners and travelling without the required permits was to risk arrest, imprisonment and expulsion.

For another, his route on horseback across Tibet, steering clear of towns in order to avoid the authorities, took him through some of the most inhospitable places in the world, where the air is thin, the climate bitter, and food and shelter are short supply. He risked hypothermia, hunger, sickness and even death.

Most of those bad things did indeed happen, and midway through his journey he was arrested and expelled. But he returned two years later as part of a tour group, abandoned the tour and finished his ride. Along the way he was often cold, hungry, sick, miserable and close to despair.

But he also had some marvellous experiences, enjoying extraordinary hospitality from monks, villagers and nomads, riding through majestic scenery and visiting ancient platforms, shrines and temples which have been holy for hundreds of years.

Furthermore, against all the odds, he did complete his pilgrimage to Kailas, one of the most revered places on earth, being sacred to Tibetan Buddhists, Hindus, Jains and Asian Shamans, as well as the source of four of Asia's greatest rivers, the Indus, Karnali, Brahmaputra and Sutlej.

For Robinson, the journey does indeed seem to have been a life-changing experience. One of his Tibetan friends commented when he returned to Lhasa, "I think your journey was good for you, Ian, you seem like a different person now."

For readers, the book provides an insight into what life is like in a part of the world few of us will ever see, and a taste of what a real pilgrimage can be.

Mantras and Misdemeanours
by Vanessa Walker

Allen & Unwin, $29.99

Vanessa Walker is another New Zealander to find fulfilment in the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism, but her pilgrimage was to the Indian town of McLeod Ganj, where the religion's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, lives in exile.

Her aim was to write a book about how Tibetans and their unique form of Buddhism are coping away from the land in which the roots of both lie.

But she also found herself becoming increasingly involved with the Tibetan community, even falling in love with and marrying a derobed monk.

The resultant story is a mix of interviews with leading Tibetan figures, her observations about life in the McLeod Ganj community, and the saga of her romance, marriage and efforts to find somewhere safe to have their baby (Walker, her Tibetan husband, and their baby now live on the North Shore).

As a book it's something of a mixed bag, but it does paint a marvellous picture of life in McLeod Ganj, a much broader one than is seen by the huge numbers of tourists attracted by the romantic image of the Dalai Lama.

This is a place where a Miss Tibet contest and ancient religious ceremonies, mass meditation and gross materialism, can exist side by side.

If you can't go yourself, Walker's book offers as good a picture as you're likely to get of the reality of life in McLeod Ganj.

Why Walk When You Can Ride? How to Find and Lose a Horse in Ecuador
by Tania Krupitza

Cayambe Press (cayambe -, $27

Ecuadorian people coined the phrase "gringas locas" (the crazy women) when they heard that three young veterinarians - two Kiwis and a South African - planned to ride on horseback around their beautiful but sometimes inhospitable country.

But once a Kiwi girl gets the bit between her teeth there is no going back, even when there are no horses to ride and the plan of action is fluid.

In Why Walk When You Can Ride? author Tania Krupitza and her friend Lauren decide that Ecuador will let them indulge their love of horses and riding in a major way because the country is small, has great scenery, few cars and tracks which pass for roads. It is also cheap.

They rope in Bridget from South Africa, another vet, and arrive in Quito, the capital.

Where to begin? Well, let's buy the horses first. Yes.

Half way through the book the trio still haven't bought any horses, but they have made lots of friends, luckily for them mostly wealthy, influential men, who let them ride lots of horses they own, and who seem to help out one way or another every time there is a problem.

And problems the girls do have aplenty, including the macho Ecuadorian who thinks women should be at home, not riding around the countryside.

But that's all part of the adventure, and when finally horses are purchased, a route is mapped and the expedition sets out.

It is a brave journey, often fraught with bad weather, dreadful tracks and frequent advice from locals that the horses will never survive in the foothills of the Andes.

The rewards, however, are huge: magnificent views, lost Indians, cantering across plains and soaking in steaming hot pools.

This self-published story is an entertaining read, but it would have been improved by a little background on the author and her companions, and it is badly let down by the quality of the photos.


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