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South China Morning Post (Hong Kong)
April 22, 2000
Section: Talkabout; Pg. 2
Length: 1066 words
Byline: Victoria Finlay

Spiritual Grazing Ground

It must have been a curious sight. A young Hong Kong particle physicist, with hair down to his shoulders, a trimmed goatee beard, dressed in a black Moroccan suit, meeting the Dalai Lama in his base in the Indian Himalayas.

"The Dalai Lama was not used to seeing people who looked like me: he couldn't believe this apparition and he giggled," Victor Chan fondly remembers of his first meeting with the reincarnate head of the Tibetan government in exile—which, in the early 1970s, was apparently the Dalai Lama's first meeting with an ethnic Chinese traveller.

That meeting—which had its genesis in a chance kidnapping in Afghanistan, but more of that later—turned Chan's life around.

From someone who had been dangerously anxious to try every experience available—and there were many on offer in the early 70s for somebody with US dollars and a sense of adventure—he now found himself wanting to focus on Tibet.

Nearly 30 years later, goatee gone long ago, Chan is better known as the author of the Tibet Handbook—a massive pilgrimage guide to central Tibet's holy places.

He was the first person to mountain-bike (on trails, not roads, and with a posse of female porters to carry the panniers) from Kathmandu to Lhasa, and, in his hometown of Vancouver his is a household name as a writer and broadcaster.

He had grown up in Hong Kong "but I was always the black sheep" and at the age of 20 he left to study physics in Canada.

His first job, as the anti-war movement roared in the mid-1960s, was in hallowed laboratories of the Enrico Fermi Institute in Chicago. Fermi was the first person to split the atom, but Chan's fascination had nothing to do with the destructive potential of that research "but of the elegance and beauty of particle physics".

Later, Chan says, he would realise that some of the theories of reality being propounded by scientists were very similar to those propounded by Buddhists—in brief, that the world around us is made up of waves and movements. But the 60s became the 70s, teachers such as Ram Das were promoting mantras like "be here now, be now here", and Chan seized the day and bought a camper van and a map of Europe, Iran, Afghanistan and India.

That fateful meeting with the Dalai Lama started with a cup of tea in Kabul. Chan was sitting in his guesthouse, and started talking to two women.

They were joined by two Afghan men who invited them to dinner. Their acceptance started a chain of events that led to a terrible drive in the mountains when they were threatened with rape and murder, a three-day "kidnap" in a remote village, a relationship ("it was actually quite romantic up there, when you forgot about the threats") with one of the women, and a plan to go with her to Dharamsala where she had an invitation to meet the Tibetan leader.

"So it was a pretty good thing in the end," Chan says. He first visited Tibet in 1984, when it opened briefly to tourists, and his visit to the holy Mount Kailas—"terribly hard: I got a lift in one of those Beijing trucks where the driver was warm as toast in his cabin and I was dying of cold outside"—was detailed in Peter Snelling's book The Sacred Mountain.

There were so many extraordinary places in Tibet, Chan discovered. He got a contract with Moon Publications to write a book. And so began a five-year journey of pilgrimages around the mountains ("so many damn passes"), often walking without guides, exploring the remote ruins left by the Cultural Revolution.

His journeys made him think deeply about China's history. "Spiritually, China could have been a model for the rest of the world, although it is leaving that behind."

In many ways, he says, although he had left Hong Kong's life ethics far behind when he gave up his work to write and wander, his childhood here had given him the romanticism he needed to plug into when he was shivering with cold or vomiting with frequency on those high passes. "I'd grown up with stories about Xuan Zang who was the pilgrim monk in the seventh century who had travelled west to India to find the Buddhist sutras, and the martial-arts adventure books by Jun Yong.

"It's fantastic stuff and from time to time he made references to the power of Tibetan lamas which captured my imagination as a kid." Did he see any of those mystical practices that earlier travellers like Alexandra David-Neel in the 1920s described—practices that involve monks sitting in the snow covered by a wet sheet and drying it with their body heat, or levitating, or running for hundreds of kilometres at a speed Olympians would envy? And as a scientist, does he believe them?

"I'm sceptical," he says, "but I'm open". He hasn't seen it, but the practice of snow meditation is "well documented—there have been a lot of scientific demonstrations".

The only thing of that nature he saw—and he couldn't really be sure of that—was when he was at Mount Kailas that first time. "As I was making a circuit I seemed to see someone moving very fast in the distance. But when I looked again he was gone."

Since publishing the book he has married an East German landscape designer, Susanne Martin, whom he met in Capri just after the Berlin Wall fell, and who has recently written a Baedeker guide to Nepal, had two children and based himself in Vancouver.

Chan is currently writing another book about Tibet, this time trying to look at "the Tibetan mind and the Chinese mind and how they might understand each other, to promote an honourable and peaceful resolution".

When the Tibet Handbook was first published in 1994 I remember being in Lhasa and hearing some old Tibet hands talking about it in Tashi's dark little restaurant and complaining—not because it had too much wrong information, but because it was too interesting.

"Imagine you're in a bookstore in Los Angeles," one person said, "and you see the words 'secret cave' leaping out at you from the page. Everyone will go and everything will be spoiled."

Is that what has happened? I ask Chan. Have hundreds trekked to these nearly forgotten sacred places?

"That's not what I hear at all," he laughs. "There are so many wonderful places to visit but almost everyone still just goes to Everest."

Meet the Chinese black sheep whose wanderings have produced perhaps the definitive book on travel in Tibet.

GRAPHIC: (Photo: Edmond So); Spiritual journey . . . physicist, guidebook writer and former hippie-style traveller Victor Chan relaxes in Hong Kong.