Fosco or Go East Young Woman, by Jane Coon

My life-long friend Marilyn once told me that a book had changed her life.

In Secret Tibet, published in 1951, Fosco Maraini wrote a classic travel book

that was also something of a primer on Tibetan Buddhism and art. He drew on

two trips to Tibet as photographer for the great Italian Tibetologist, Giuseppe

Tucci, the first before World War II and the second in 1948. From the time she

read Fosco’s book, Marilyn looked East.

I recently reread Secret Tibet, curious about the powerful pull of that

Tibetan magnet, attracting Marilyn like a loose iron filing. Reveling in the clarity

of light, Fosco evokes the high desert landscape, the immensity of Tibetan

skies, the vastness of this great plateau ringed by mountains and sprinkled with

glacier-fed lakes. He photographs undocumented iconography in remote

monasteries while Professor Tucci deciphers the ancient inscriptions. Was

Marilyn lured by Fosco’s description and explication of Tantric Buddhism of Tibet

and ancient Tibetan beliefs?

Fosco’s Tibet is no Shangri-La; it’s real and often uncomfortable. One day

he partakes of yaks’ milk and hard cheese with nomad herders and on the next

he dines with an arrogant feudal lord, all the while expanding his grasp of the

Tibetan language. At monasteries Fosco meets Buddhist lamas in all shapes and

sizes — dull, conniving, learned, inebriated and, very occasionally, saintly. He

attends an all-day village theatrical performance on a religious theme, where the

audience is very drunk--Fosco included. The smell of rancid yak butter almost

rises from the pages of the book--the butter that permeates all of Tibet, burned

in lamps, rubbed on hair, drunk with tea, and carved into offerings on temple


Rancid butter did not discourage Marilyn. Fosco’s Tibet was real--distant

and inaccessible but not just a mysterious castle--or Potala--in the air. Marilyn

began her move east, physically and also spiritually. In 1959 she came to India.

There she established her reputation as a leading photojournalist by getting the

first pictures of the young Dalai Lama when he crossed the Indian border fleeing

from the Chinese. During the ensuing years, Marilyn covered the Indian

subcontinent, its wars, elections, riots and famines. Her photographs appeared

on the cover of Time, in Life magazine and countless European journals. But

ever so gradually she was drawn into the world of Tibetan Buddhism.

Rereading Fosco’s description of Tibetan Buddhism revived my

wonderment at Marilyn’s commitment to a faith I found difficult to comprehend.

She eventually became an ordained Buddhist nun, living out her life in the

Buddhist monasteries of Nepal and Bhutan. She adhered to the Nymapa sect,

the old believers, who cleave most closely to Tantric imagery and occult ritual.

Like Fosco, Marilyn was a serious student, an accomplished linguist and, of

course, a great photographer. But her religious pilgrimages to Tibet and her

embrace of Tibetan Buddhism would go far beyond Fosco who was not a

practitioner but a sympathetic observer -- as am I.

* * * * *

Why, you may ask, do I use the first name of this Italian traveler and

author? Fosco helped open a small window on another world for me, too,

although perhaps not in such a life-changing way. I had already moved east

when I met him in Karachi. (Marilyn was always a bit jealous that I knew her


The pull of the east in my case was no less passionate, although it

necessarily (my daughters would say, characteristically) had a practical edge.

For as long as I can remember I have been hungry for adventure, to explore

other countries and cultures, to wolf down the whole world. So fresh out of

college, I joined the State Department which only fueled my appetite for travel.

In a crowded Foggy Bottom elevator, someone seeing an old friend, would say,

“Joe, how are you? Haven’t seen you since the Mogadiscio evacuation.” Or

Surabaya. Or Kabul. Or Bombay. The elevator doors would open, those lucky

Jasons would depart, leaving me gasping for a whiff of that exotic oxygen, a

glimpse of the golden fleece.

At last, despite the objections of the Embassy to a woman, I was

assigned as a junior political officer to our mission in Karachi, then Pakistan’s

capital. I had worked hard in Washington to get this posting, immersing myself

in the region’s history and politics. I had done research and analysis on south

Asia and I was more than ready to plunge into the real thing. Initially, however,

the Embassy didn’t quite know what to do with its first and unwelcome woman

officer. They gave me odd jobs like organizing biographic files or doing press

summaries. And I proudly assumed the mantle of Embassy mountaineering

liaison officer, responsible for assisting the very, very infrequent American

expedition which might need a permit to climb in the Pakistani Karakorum.

Mountaineering was definitely my bag. Not literally; this was 20 years

before Arlene Blum led a women’s team to the top of Annapurna. I climbed

Himalayan peaks with mountaineering books. Leigh Mallory and Irvine, who

disappeared on Everest in the 1920s, were my lost idols who put in a ghostly

appearance in every Himalayan epic. In Annapurna, Maurice Herzog, with French

flair, trumpeted the heroic, first ascent of an 8000 meter peak. Sir John Hunt’s

The Conquest of Everest described a disciplined assault on the world’s highest

mountain. Splendid team work and organization, he made clear, put Ed Hillary

and Tensing on top. My virtual knowledge of mountaineering almost matched

my book knowledge of south Asia.

Alas, alas, the only American expedition that year to the Pakistani

Karakorum didn’t need my help. They quite handily got their permit for Hidden

Peak (Gasherbrum I), beating out the Italian Alpine Club for the privilege, and

left Karachi without my laying eyes on them.

A week or so later Fosco Maraini appeared in my office to inquire about

the American expedition’s plans. Here was my first live mountain climber and

one who exuded Italian charm and worldliness. Fosco, in his early 40s, lean and

very fit, balanced on the balls of his feet as if ready to climb the Matterhorn.

His high check bones, olive skin and flat features suggested some lingering

Mongol genes brought home, no doubt, by Marco Polo. I was entranced. Fosco

described himself as interpreter, official photographer and liaison for an Italian

expedition. He was applying for a new permit to climb in the Karakorum, this

time Gasherbrum IV, a peak of over 26,000 feet near Hidden Peak.

I certainly wished him well and passed on what little knowledge I had

about Pakistani bureaucracy. While he waited for the permit and for the

expedition’s equipment to come, I was happy to show him around Karachi and

we shared a bottle or two of wine that he caged from the Italian Ambassador.

The expedition members finally arrived and with Fosco quickly headed north to

the towering Karakoram.

Many weeks later the Italian expedition returned triumphant, having

reached the summit of Gasherbrum IV. Fosco dropped by my office, his face

dark and blistered, his lips cracked from exposure, his thoughts still deep in the

expedition. We had drinks or dinner a couple of times and I remember an

evening when we walked along a sandy beach near Clifton, Fosco talking,

talking, still sorting out his experience on the mountain.

His torrent of words uncapped the mountaineering world and let me

glimpse its intensity, conflict and pain: rebellious porters; an infuriating Pakistani

liaison officer; avalanche-induced terror fused with fatalism; exhaustion matched

by tenacity on the oxygen-starved heights; the painful crawl out of a warm

sleeping bag; and the rare moments of exhilaration. He described how tension

built as older, more experienced climbers were forced to give way to younger

men for the summit team and the furious frustration of one veteran Alpine

guide whose recurrent diarrhea confined him to base camp. Fosco, an “old

man” in the expedition, proudly reached Camp V at 23,000 feet.

Fosco buried my romantic notions of mountaineering under an avalanche

of gritty reality. Mountain climbing was revealed as far more painful, messy,

complicated-- and alluring-- than all my literary fantasies had conjured up.

Was it perhaps a little like my golden fleece of south Asia itself, which I

had so long studied and imagined? Now in Karachi I was beginning to explore

the messy, complicated-- and alluring--reality of Pakistan; its zamindars and

exploited peasants, its Muslim sufis and secular intellectuals, its corrupt

politicians and poets, its professional women and their burqa-clad sisters. Yes,

like Tibet for Marilyn, Pakistan was opening up the many-layered world of south

Asia, my golden fleece, which would take a life time to explore.

The next year Fosco came back briefly for some follow-up work with

the Pakistan Government. He brought me a photograph of the Gasherbrum

massif that I still have in my study. Taken from under an ice overhang on the

“Italian mountain”, the photo frames the soaring pyramid of Hidden Peak, the

“American mountain”. In the foreground, the small figure of a mountaineer

leans on his ice ax, looking up at the heights above.

Jane Coon




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