A book review of A Step Away from Paradise by Thomas K. Shor
Hundreds of books have been written about the world’s highest mountain, Everest, and dozens about its second highest, K2. There have not been so many about the third highest, Kangchenjunga.
Some of the best known (in the English language at least) were written by the great mountaineers who were involved in those expeditions, a subject that sometimes provokes debate. Pete Boardman, Joe Tasker and Doug Scott all wrote books about their 1979 expedition to Kangchenjunga, but which one to read? Well, IMO Pete Boardman was a better writer than his two famous climbing partners, but not everyone will agree.
Some of the best books about mountaineering were written by people who weren’t actually mountaineers. If you’re looking for a good history of Kangchenjunga, then IMO Mick Conefrey’s The Last Great Mountain was better than any of these.
While we can talk endlessly about what’s the best book about Kangchenjunga, there can be less debate about what is the weirdest book about Kangchenjunga. I think I’ve just read it: A Step Away from Paradise by Thomas K. Shor. I first learned about the book through Philip Battley, who narrated the audiobook versions of my travelogues Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest and Feet and Wheels to Chimborazo. Philip also narrated the audiobook of A Step Away from Paradise and this was one of the reasons he decided to audition to narrate my book (because it shared a mountain theme, I should add, not because it’s a weird book).
When I say A Step Away from Paradise is a weird book, I don’t mean this in a bad way. I really enjoyed it. It’s been meticulously researched. Thomas carried out dozens of interviews with Tibetan, Sikkimese and Himachali villagers over many years. It’s beautifully crafted, with a plot that flits from past to present and back again in a rush of twists and turns that kept me turning the pages, eager to find out what happened next.
I mean weird in the strangeness of the tale it tells, supposedly a true one, though we can never really be sure (and much of it clearly stretches credibility).
It describes the story of Tulshuk Lingpa, a Tibetan yogi and mystic who took hundreds of followers on an expedition to Kangchenjunga in the 1960s to open a gateway to a hidden land called Demoshong, a place with eternal life (known as a beyul in the Tibetan language).
Now, I know what some of you are thinking. A gateway to a hidden land? A true story? This isn’t Narnia. It’s clearly nonsense.
Perhaps you’re right. Some of the incidents described in the book obviously can’t have happened in a literal sense. But many events could have happened, including the expedition itself, as dozens of witnesses were willing to testify. It makes for a fascinating read.
Tulshuk Lingpa was identified as a lingpa (a lama with a special gift for finding hidden treasures) by his teacher Dorje Dechen Lingpa while he was still a boy monk. The story goes that Dorje Dechen took a classroom of boys to a cave in the mountains, where he turned some grains of rice into daggers that hovered in the air. While the rest of his class gasped in amazement, Tulshuk Lingpa reached out and grabbed one of the daggers in his hand.
Later on in the story, Tulshuk Lingpa cures a village of leprosy by chanting for ten days in front of a statue of a serpent god. He is then invited to become the lama of their monastery. Gradually, as his reputation grows, a rumour starts to spread that he is the monk who it has been prophesied will open the gateway to Demoshong.
As he travels from his home in Lahaul near Ladakh in the west of India, to Sikkim in the east, the news spreads, and hundreds of believers sell everything they own and leave their lives behind to follow him into the unknown.
Alongside the tales of magic, the book has a colourful cast of characters. One of these is Geshipa, one of Tulshuk Lingpa’s most trusted followers. He is busy making a potion of invisibility in an old hut guarded by a pack of black dogs when Thomas goes to interview him.
At the other end of the reality scale is Saul Mullard, an Oxford academic, who explains to Thomas that Demoshong isn’t a parallel world entered through a crack in the earth, but an actual location in the Himalayas, hidden by a ring of mountains. Several people have been there and come back again, but because it’s hard to find, it’s precise location isn’t known. He goes on to explain that he himself has been there and so has Thomas, but neither of them knew they had because they didn’t have the right realisation. Demoshong’s otherworldly qualities are dependent on a state of mind that only a few practitioners possess.
The book also contains conflict. This comes in the form of the King of Sikkim and his courtiers, who are sceptical about Tulshuk Lingpas’s authenticity and at pains to prevent his mission. Tulshuk Lingpa is asked to prove his powers by performing a miracle. He does this by staging a ceremony at Tashiding Monastery where he leaves his footprint embedded in a rock. There are many witnesses, including members of the King’s court, but because the official representative who is supposed to testify that the miracle happened doesn’t arrive on time, Tulshuk is taken for an imposter.
The flow of the story demands that we take Tulshuk Lingpa to be its hero and the King’s court its villains, but there is another interpretation that Thomas alludes to from time to time. What if Tulshuk Lingpa is the villain – the cult leader who tricks the gullible into giving up their possessions and following him to heaven knows where? In this scenario, the King of Sikkim is only doing what any good leader should and ensuring that his subjects aren’t victims of a hoax.
The climax of the story takes place near Tseram in Nepal, a village on the Kangchenjunga Base Camp trail. I can confirm that this is an actual place, as I went there myself in 2018 while trekking in the Kangchenjunga region. It was home to a single, very busy teahouse. Dozens of mountaineers travelling with the expedition operators Seven Summit Treks and Asian Trekking were camped in its garden, on their way to attempt Kangchenjunga.
In the book The History of Sikkim, written in 1908 by the King of Sikkim, Chogyal Thutob Namgyal, there is a story about Lhatsun Chenpo, one of the founders of Sikkim, opening the gate to Demoshong in the 17th century. Lhatsun Chenpo and his followers reached some rocky cliffs at the foot of a mountain called Kabru, just south of Kangchenjunga, and could go no further. Or could they? Lhatsun Chenpo used his magic powers to fly over the top of Kabru and into the clouds. He was gone for over a week. Thinking that he’d perished, his followers were in the process of building a stupa in his honour when they heard a loud blast on his thighbone trumpet and he reappeared, having opened the gate to Demoshong.
The British explorer Douglas Freshfield repeated this story in his book Round Kangchenjunga (another book that I read and reviewed a few years ago). Freshfield believed that he found the actual cliffs that Lhatsun Chenpo flew over (though if Lhatsun Chenpo actually flew over them then a parcel of pigs must have followed).
Eventually, Tulshuk Lingpa and his hundreds of followers congregate in Tseram, and he leaves with a small party of his most devout believers to venture into the mountains and open the gate.
Anyway, I don’t want to give the game away. Thomas assembles the jigsaw puzzle piece by piece as he tracks down survivors from the expedition and interviews them. But as I turned the pages, there remained a lurking question at the back of my mind (besides ‘is this story bollocks?’) What happened to Tulshuk Lingpa? Is Thomas going to interview him too? Is he still alive or did he escape to Demoshong?
Thomas does find him in the end, but not in the way that you expect. Weird and unbelievable as the story is, in some ways I found the ending quite uplifting.
There are many tales of Tibetan magic. One of the most famous books on the subject is Magic and Mystery in Tibet by Alexandra David-Neel, a French explorer who travelled extensively across Tibet in the 1920s. As its title implies, her book is specifically about some of the more supernatural aspects of Tibetan Buddhism. Its many strange tales include monks who travel rapidly by levitating across rocky terrain, and ones who keep warm in freezing winter by creating some sort of inner fire to heat their bodies.
A Step Away from Paradise is rooted firmly in this tradition. If you’re willing to suspend disbelief for a few short hours, then it’s a book that opens a window into another world.
And if you think this book review is actually an April Fool’s Day post that I wrote after a night of heavy drinking and have decided to publish six months early, then you can go to Amazon (or your favourite online bookstore) and check it out for yourself.