Even if you have no idea where the term comes from, chances are you’re familiar with the idea of Shangri-La: A legendary earthly paradise, inaccessible to all except the chosen few, where the inhabitants never grow old, nature is lush and life is blissful.
OK, so that might sound a bit like Beverly Hills, but the phrase has stuck. And if you travel the world looking for the real Shangri-La, you can usually stay in a Hotel Shangri-La anywhere you go.
“Every few years, someone pops up with a claim of finding Shangri-La,” says Peter Klika. “It’s like the Holy Grail.”
Or Atlantis, or Eden, or Avalon, or Brigadoon. In the West, there are plenty of mythical Never-Never-Lands to choose from.
But Shangri-La – according to Peter Klika – is a real place.
Shangri-La is different. For one thing, it’s supposedly an Eastern paradise, not a Western one, located high in the Himalayas. For another, it’s a fairly recent myth, originating in the 1933 novel Lost Horizon.
Penned by James Hilton, Lost Horizon follows four Westerners as their plane is hijacked and crash-lands in the Himalayas. A band of monks, who seem to be expecting the aircraft’s arrival, give the dazed passengers a warm welcome and escort them to a palatial lamasery.
Far below is a fertile valley; far above looms a spiky mountain known as Karakal, or Blue Moon. The air is rarefied and so is the company, which is dominated by very wise, very enigmatic monks of uncertain age. Life is pleasant in Shangri-La, almost mystically so. But returning to the outside world eventually proves as difficult as getting in.
In 1981, when Peter Klika made his first journey to Tibet, getting in was even more difficult.
But Klika, then a law student, had just quit a diplomatic career in the Foreign Service. So he used contacts he’d made in the service, along with his ability to speak Chinese, to pull a lot of strings.
“After 1981, I went to Tibet almost every year,” he says. “Before it was fashionable, before (actors) Richard Gere and Steven Segal came along and made it cool.”
Klika, who read Hilton’s novel as a kid, adds that he’s always been fascinated by Tibet. One day, after his second or third trip to Tibet, he found himself in “a dusty bookshop” in L.A. flipping through an old issue of National Geographic. Pictures of Tibetans in colorful costumes caught his eye.
“It didn’t dawn on me that this was maybe the inspiration for Hilton’s book,” Klika says. “I just wanted to go to the places I saw in the article.”
The article – “Konka Risumgongba, Holy Mountain of the Outlaws” – was one of seven written between the World Wars for National Geographic by Joseph F. Rock, an Austrian-American explorer.
“He was a self-taught botanist who immigrated to the U.S., but lived half his life in China,” says Klika. “He went to Tibet in the early 1920s, looking for an herbal cure for leprosy, and looking in general for unclassified species of plant life. He’s credited with discovering a whole number of species of rhododendron.”
Rock’s articles for National Geographic are filled with spectacular photos he took himself, mostly of local people, plants and mountainscapes. Unlike Hilton’s books, the articles do nothing to encourage a beatific view of the region; Rock writes of one monastery, for example, where “there was nothing beautiful whatever, only filth and evil smells.”
But then, Hilton had never visited Tibet before writing Lost Horizon. (He remains best known for a later book, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, a sentimental novel eulogizing a British public-school teacher.) Hilton’s lack of practical experience didn’t matter; the adventure story and mythical tone of Lost Horizon made the book a hit on both sides of the Atlantic.
A 1937 Frank Capra film of the book raised its profile further. By the time World War II rolled around, “Shangri-La” had become popular knowledge. A U.S. aircraft carrier, for example, was christened the Shangri-La. A retreat where Franklin D. Roosevelt liked to stay was also called Shangri-La. And British pilots, ordered to fly supplies from India into China over the Himalayas, kept an eye out for the “real” Shangri-La.
“A lot of those planes crashed in the mountains, or disappeared mysteriously,” says Klika. “Tales started coming out of airmen wandering down out of the mountains, saying they’d been in this incredible valley. People tied the stories together with Hilton’s story of a plane crash.”
But it wasn’t until 1989 – when he finally received permission to travel to the locations shown in that original 1931 article – that Klika put Hilton together with Rock.
Klika’s magazine-inspired destination was in the Chinese province of Sichuan, on the border between China and Tibet. When Rock was there, it was called the Kingdom of Muli, and the area – still largely Tibetan in its cultural makeup today – was the Kham province of Tibet.
“It’s a forbidden area to all,” says Klika. “It’s on the border, so it has military significance. The region also has a lot of gold, and there’s a lot of fighting among ethnic tribes.”
After planes, trains and a three-day Jeep ride over logging roads, Klika and two friends arrived in the town of Muli.
“They had a big banquet that night to celebrate the arrival of the Americans!” laughs Klika.
He showed his hosts the photos in his worn copy of National Geographic, but they all shook their heads. Finally a local man took him aside and whispered, “There really is a monastery, but it’s two days away.”
Eighty miles further on, Klika found what he had been looking for. Not just the monastery from the magazine, but also a gorgeous, Y-shaped valley called the Duron, protected by three sacred mountains. The most impressive one was a knife-shaped peak called Mount Jambeyang, soaring high above the valley floor.
“This was my personal Shangri-La,” says Klika. “From my very first trip in 1981, I’d been looking for one, for a place where I could be totally in the present. For whatever reason, when I got there, I wasn’t worried or concerned about what was going to happen, in the next 10 days or 10 minutes.”
Gradually it dawned on Klika just how similar the Duron Valley was to the location described in Hilton’s novel.
“Hilton would take a Tibetan name and change just a few consonants,” Klika points out. “In the book, the last Chinese town before visiting Shangri-La is ‘Tatsien-Fu.’ On Rock’s map, the town is Tatsienlu.”
The most obvious change, Klika continues, was that of Shangri-La itself: it’s a version of the Tibetan word shambala.
“In Tibet, Shambala is a mythical land,” explains Klika. “Kind of a metaphysical utopia. There are seven sacred valleys in Tibet, and one of them is the entrance to Shambala. But there’s no cave, for example, that serves as an ‘entrance’ to Shambala. It’s more that the valley helps you put your mind in the right place.
“Shambala is a place you achieve mentally, through meditation.”
Eventually, Klika says, he found 22 references to Rock’s articles in Lost Horizon, as well as numerous name changes.
“It’s hard not to believe that Hilton took most of his descriptions from Rock,” he says. “But the clincher is the dates: 1931 for the article, 1933 for the novel.”
Klika has made a total of six visits to the Duron Valley. On his most recent trip, in October of last year, he was a guide and translator for National Geographic; the resultant documentary, about mountain-climbing and Joseph Rock, is due to appear on the CNBC channel in May. He’s also helping a friend put together a documentary about the history and influence of Hilton’s mythical paradise.
“The Chinese government is building a road in to exploit the gold in the area,” Klika warns. In 1998, he adds, a group of Chinese and Tibetan scholars published their opinion that, indeed, Lost Horizon was influenced heavily by Rock’s work. So the Duron region is under threat from both government and tourism.
“The people there will be exploited, for better or for worse,” sighs Klika. “Me, too – I’ve brought film crews in there. The question is whether the area is preserved or developed tastefully or not.
“I mean, it’s got everything! Gold, rare animals and plants, sacred unclimbed mountains, friendly, beautiful people. It’s an explorer’s paradise.”
The valley also has a fountain of youth. “It comes out of nowhere, out of the side of a cliff,” Klika says. “It’s probably just an underground river.”
However, he adds, people there do seem to live for many, many years. “There are no birth certificates, and people aren’t always sure how old they are,” he says.
In the Muli monastery, Klika recalls, he once overheard a monk referring to another monk as “Daystar.” When Klika asked why, the monk responded, “Because I was born on an auspicious day, when you could see a star so bright, you could see it in the daytime.”
Klika was skeptical, but the Tibetans, he says, aren’t prone to telling tall tales. On the assumption that the only thing the monk could have seen during the day was Halley’s Comet, he went back and asked the monk to describe the star. But the monk corrected him, saying he had seen it himself twice.
“Which, if you do the math, makes him 154 years old,” says Klika.
So Klika went back to try to pin the monk down again. This time, he was told, the monk couldn’t see him because he was “attending to spiritual matters.”
“Who knows?” shrugs Klika. “Maybe, maybe not.”