Clues to real Shangri-La point in China
Imagine an earthly paradise high in the mountains where men and women live amid spectacular scenery and never grow old.
In this utopian setting some wise monks safeguard the finest aspects of the world's culture while renouncing its violence and materialism. This is the Shangri-La that writer James Hilton conceived in his novel "Lost Horizon," in 1933.
At that time, he was writing for a world that had just gone through the senseless slaughter of World War I and was experiencing economic collapse and mass unemployment following the Wall Street crash of 1929.
It was also a time of the emerging dictators and rising militarism of Hitler and Mussolini, with the prospect of an even greater war on the horizon. No wonder audiences took so readily to an escapist fantasy about a lost world of peace, civilisation and beauty.
"Lost Horizon" became an instant bestseller and was turned into a successful movie by the legendary director Frank Capra. The appeal of Shangri-La was so strong that even the US president, Roosevelt, used the name for his country retreat, subsequently renamed Camp David.
Since then the appeal of Shangri-La has endured. There is now a hotel chain of the same name, the movie has been remade and the book remains in print.
In the last decade there has also been a growing interest in tracking down the "real" Shangri-La.
Citing extracts from Hilton's book, some areas of China, such as the scenic town of Lijiang, in Southwest China's Yunnan Province, now claim they were the inspiration for the Shangri-La. The neighbouring county of Zhongdian in Yunnan has gone so far as to officially rename itself as Xianggelila (Shangri-La).
But Hilton is vague about the actual location of his Shangri-La. In his book, the protagonist Hugh Conway and his companions are flying from somewhere in India when a mysterious Mongolian pilot hijacks their plane.
Instead of flying to Peshawar, the pilot flies "in the wrong direction" to somewhere in the Himalayas, where the plane crash-lands in the mountains, presumably somewhere in or near Tibet.
Hilton then describes how his characters are taken to a fertile valley, cut off from the outside world by high mountains, and with what appears to be a lamasery that practises a mixture of Lamaism and Christianity.
This valley of Shangri-La is dominated by a mountain peak, Karakal.
These names already give some clues as to the inspiration for Shangri-La. Many have already suggested that the name is a variation on Shambala, an earthly paradise mentioned in early Buddhist writings from India.
And Karakal may be a place on Karakoram, the mountainous eastern Himalayan area that was just opening up to western explorers in the 1930s.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s Tibet was still an almost mythical place for most Westerners. Very few people had ever visited the "roof of the world," and its borders with India and Nepal were only just being explored by the expeditions trying to conquer Mount Qomolongma.
Many people still believed that Tibetan lamas had supernatural powers, could levitate and read the minds of others or act as oracles to predict the future. Was it so far fetched to believe that a hidden valley in this area might hold a group of such people who could live to the age of 200?
Yading, a possible candidate
However, for the main source of inspiration for Shangri-la, we should turn to the writings of the Austrian-American explorer, Joseph Rock. At the time when Hilton was writing "Lost Horizon," this eccentric and scholarly botanist had just published a series of fantastic accounts of his travels in Southwest China, in the National Geographic magazine published in the United States.
Using a village outside Lijiang as his base, Rock made lengthy expeditions to far-flung corners of Yunnan and Sichuan, spending months at a time collecting plants, taking photographs, map making and recording the lifestyles of the many different ethnic minorities living in these remote highlands.
His accounts of his travels made him a minor celebrity in the West, and Hilton is said to have based his writing of "Lost Horizon" on Joseph Rock's articles.
Take the sacred mountain of Karakal, for example. In "Lost Horizon," Hilton describes it in terms similar to those used by Joseph Rock for his first sight of the Konkaling mountain of Jambeyang, now part of the Yading National Nature Reserve northeast of Zhongdian in Sichuan Province.
"There, soaring into the gap, and magnificent in the full shimmer of moonlight, appeared what he took to be the loveliest mountain on earth (Karakal). It was an almost perfect cone of snow, simple in outline as if a child had drawn it. It was so radiant, so serenely poised, that he wondered for a moment if it were real at all.
And Rock described:
"In a cloudless sky before me rose the peerless pyramid of Jambeyang, the finest mountain my eyes ever beheld. The sky was greenish black. The snowy pyramid was grey, but the apexes of both it and Shenrezig suddenly turned a golden yellow as the sunrise kissed them."
Interestingly, in his account of the Konkaling area Joseph Rock also mentions a remote monastery that is cut off from the outside world. However, the reason had less to do with its physical isolation than the local bandits, who despite being pious worshippers at the temple would murder anyone who dared set foot on their territory.
And in contrast to the ageless inhabitants of Hilton's Shangri-La, Joseph Rock described the local people as looking old before their time. A nun who he presumed to be in her 70s was actually only in her 40s. Perhaps Hilton reversed this observation to make a 200-year old monk appear to look 70?
So is Yading the real Shangri-La? Possibly, it is physically similar but not the utopia that Hilton described.
Other mountains have also been suggested as the model for Karakal, including the now famous Mt Kailash in the western part of Tibet Autonomous Region.
Another possibility is Mount Kawakarpo, whose name may have inspired that of Karakal. This mountain in northwest Yunnan is now also known as Meili Snow Mountain, and was also mentioned in one of Joseph Rock's expedition reports. The area around Kawakarpo also contains another essential component of the "Lost Horizon" story: French priests.
In Shangri-La, the lamasery is presided over by a high lama who turns out to be a 200-year-old former French cleric, Pere Perrault. This missionary is said to have stumbled across the isolated community and decided to stay because of his fears of a coming catastrophic world war.
In his article on Kawakarpo, Joseph Rock describes how he met a French priest in the remote hamlet of Cizhong in Yunnan, below Mount Kawakarpo.
In another echo of "Lost Horizon," the real life Pere David settled in the remote mountain village after witnessing the sickening slaughter of World War I. And somewhat like the monks of Shangri-La who ate berries to maintain health and stay young, the French clerics of Cizhong planted grapes and made wine. The vineyard is still there today, and still producing wine!
There are many other parallels between Rock's factual descriptions and Hilton's fictional prose.
On a journey across the Yalong River canyon in Jiulong County, Sichuan, Rock described the sheer overpowering sense of isolation he felt when travelling through some remote communities:
"No outlook in any direction!" he wrote in his National Geographic article of 1929.
"Here people live and die without the slightest knowledge of the outside world! How oppressive to be buried alive in these vast canyon systems! Or are they happier for it?"
"The scenery hereabouts is overwhelming grand. Probably its like cannot be found elsewhere in the world for centuries it may remain a closed land, save to such privileged few as care to crawl like ants through its canyons of tropical heat and up its glaciers and passes in blinding snowstorms, carrying their food with them..."
Likely ambience in Muli
But for me, the place that sums up the atmosphere, if not the physical appearance of Shangri-La, is Muli, in Sichuan.
Rock visited the monastery town of Muli several times in the 1920s and 30s, when it was the de facto capital of an isolated theocratic kingdom.
A walled town of Buddhist temples housing about 700 lamas, this community sits high up on the side of the Litang river valley. The surrounding area now Muli County was presided over by a serene hereditary Tibetan regent, who was at that time regarded as both local king and high lama.
Rock became good friends with the ruler of Muli, Chote Chaba, and was bemused by the eccentricities of this wily character.
In his conversations with Rock, the king admitted knowing little of the outside world. He asked whether he could ride on his horse to Washington DC and believed it might be possible to fly to the moon. The king thought that binoculars could see through mountains, and that thunder was caused by dragons roaring in the clouds.
Did Hilton get some inspiration from Rock's description of Muli? Rock found it to be a peaceful place in the midst of the anarchy and banditry that then existed in western China. The king had done deals with neighbouring bandits, allowing them sanctuary and to pass across his territory unmolested in return for refraining from molesting the citizens of Muli.
And like Shangri-La, Muli was also a place where you could arrive and never be allowed to leave. Rock described how the king of Muli had a rule that an outsider who stayed in his kingdom for more than a year automatically became a citizen and was no longer allowed to leave the kingdom.
The Muli king had also preserved some examples of Western culture that had found their way to Muli. He had a room full of unused photographic equipment, and showed Rock some picture postcards of nursery rhyme scenes, and asked him if there were really animals in the West that could sit at tables and talk.
Today, the Muli Monastery is still there, and its atmosphere of isolation persists. There is only one major road that runs through the county from north to south.
It is rarely visited by outsiders because there are no major scenic attractions in the form of mountains or lakes.
And yet for me, it is still the nearest to Shangri-La in spirit. Not a place where you will live to a ripe old age, nor find a repository of civilization. But with areas like Yading, Deqen and Gongga Mountains now seeing more outside visitors, Muli remains the one place that remains a world apart.
So when it comes to the question of where to find the "real" Shangri-La, I can only say that there are many places in China that bear some resemblance to this lost utopia. But the real Shangri-La only ever existed in James Hilton's head.
(China Daily 09/24/2005 page9)
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