The Search for Shangri-La
It was the year 1975. My uncle, a biochemist at Armed Forces Medical College, Pune presented my mother this book, a book which has been his favorite since its publication.

Lost Horizon written by James Hilton was published in 1933. After reading the book; I had asked my uncle, the reasons for it being so special. He looked into my eyes and said ‘I believe in Shangri – La, It does exist.’

It struck me so strange because I harbor the same feelings till today. He retired as a Principal Defense Scientist and his specialty in High Altitude Physiology and Medicine took him to remote Himalayan areas, only to be mystified by a sheath of preservation, a place that stood the test of reckless time.

As with the other utopias, Lost Horizon is perhaps not a pure invention. It may be based on traditions long current in the Far East of a hidden paradise. Early Buddhist writings call it Chang Shambhala and describe it as a source of ancient wisdom. Belief in it was once wide-spread—in China, the Kun Lun Mountains were rumored to contain a valley where immortals live in perfect harmony, while in Indian tradition there was a place called Kalapa, north of the Himalayas, where lived "perfect people."

In Russia, it was said that if the path of the Tartar hordes was followed all the way back to Mongolia, Belovodye would be found, where holy men lived apart from the world in the land of the White Waters. Shambhala, another name for Shangri-La, was reputed to lie in or north of Tibet, where seemingly impassable mountains enclosed secret valleys that were both fertile and verdurous.

The Russian-born traveler Nicholas Roerich records in his Shambhala (1930) several visits to Tibet. In 1928 he asked a lama whether Shambhala was a real place. The lama answered: "It is the mighty heavenly domain. It has nothing to do with our earth . . . " The question still remains: Did this hidden paradise actually exist or was its reality wholly spiritual?

monastery-citadelUntil being overtaken by the Chinese in 1950, the high plateau of Tibet could claim to be the remotest place on earth. This circumstance helped foster a highly spiritual society ruled from the monastery-citadel Potala at Lhasa by the Dalai Lama. Especially after the closure of Lhasa, which became "the forbidden city" to the Europeans in the 19th century, Tibet also nurtured among Westerners a climate of belief in which they would readily accept miracles.

Buddhist lamas and mystics were credited with extraordinary powers, and many a Western traveler has come back with reports of having personally witnessed unexplainable phenomena. One such report of lung-gom, a training that allowed adepts to overcome gravity and reduce their body weight, so enabling them to move at astonishing speeds, was written by the British theosophist Alexandra David-Neel. She spent 14 years in Tibet in the early part of this century, and observed one of these "runners" bounding along like a ball. "The man did not run," she wrote. "He seemed to lift himself from the ground; proceeding by leaps . . . His steps had the regularity of a pendulum." David-Neel's mystic masters fit the description of a spiritual utopia; should Shangri-La be sought in and around Tibet?

Wherever Shangri-La may be or may have been, it is most curious that the profane "barbarians" foretold by the lama in Lost Horizon should themselves seek to harness the secret utopia where holy men live in peace and harmony.

James Hilton wrote this book with such clarity as if the details of Shangri – la was known to him. Sitting in England in 1930s he could conjure such a remarkable story, that after reading it a couple of times, one finds the geographic locations are still very relevant to the closeness of such a place. James father John Hilton was a school master and his other book ‘Goodbye Mr. Chips’ 1934 was based on real life experiences of school environment.

Though most often remembered for its depiction of the mythical paradise of Shangra-La, Lost Horizon can perhaps most fruitfully be read as a probing character study and a fascinating contrast of eastern and western cultures. The novel tells the story of Hugh Conway, a brilliant, talented, and immensely complex man. Often misunderstood, even by those who most admire him, Conway is seen variously as a hero, a coward, a slacker, a wise man, and a madman. As the novel opens, an unnamed narrator is having drinks with a novelist, Rutherford, and an embassy secretary, Wyland. Conversation moves to the hijacking of a British military plane in India and the disappearance of a mutual acquaintance, "Glory" Conway. Rutherford later reveals he has encountered Conway in China and received from him an unforgettable tale, which he has written down and passes on in manuscript form to the narrator. It is this text, with its extraordinary account of Conway and his experiences at a mysterious Tibetan Lamasery, Shangra-La, which forms the center of Lost Horizon.

Conway’s vision from the airplane windows gives us an extraordinary picture of the Tibetan desolates which are true to this day –

"The surrounding sky had cleared completely, and in the light of late afternoon there came to him a vision which, for the instant, snatched the remaining breath out of his lungs. Far away, at the very limit of distance, lay range upon range of snow peaks, festooned with glaciers, and floating, in appearance, upon vast levels of cloud. They compassed the whole arc of the circle, merging towards the west in a horizon that was fierce, almost garish in coloring, like an impressionist backcloth done by some half mad genius. And meanwhile the plane, on that stupendous stage, was droning over an abyss in face of a sheer white wall that seemed part of the sky itself until the sun caught it. Then like a dozen piled – up Jungfraus seen from Murren, it flamed into superb and dazzling incandescence."

What happened at Baskul?

James Hilton starts the tale from a conversation in an Officer’s Mess about an incident in Baskul. Hugh Conway (37) was a Consul at Baskul appointed by His Majesty’s Diplomatic Corps. An aircraft belonging to the Maharaja of Chandipur was being used to evacuate Conway and three other people from Baskul to Peshawur owing to the revolution. A pilot hijacked the craft from Baskul with its passengers and brought them instead to a remote destination in the Himalayan Mountains.

The present day maps and geography doesn’t show the place, Baskul. It seems to be a major town with a Consulate, airport and other amenities available during the thirties. Hilton hints in his book, ‘Fact is, an Afghan or an Afridi or somebody ran off with one of our buses…….It seems that Baskul should have been in Afghanistan and the flight probably originated from Kabul and was supposed to reach Peshawar in Pakistan.

The flight –

They had been flying east for several hours, too high to see much, but probably the course had been along some river valley – one stretching roughly east and west.” I wish I hadn’t to rely on memory, but my impression is that the valley of the upper Indus fits in well enough.”
“Well, no – I have never been anywhere near here before, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that mountain is Nanga Parbat – the one Mummery lost his life on.”
mapNanga Parbat , peak, 26,660 ft (8,126 m) high, in the W Himalayas, located in Pakistan-held Azad Kashmir; 7th highest peak in the world. Six expeditions—almost all ending disastrously—were sent to climb it. James Hilton mentioned about Mummery’s death while climbing Nanga Parbat. Albert Frederick Mummery (1855–1895), was a highly respected British mountaineer. In 1895, Collie, Hastings and Mummery headed off for the Alps for the world's first attempt at a Himalayan 8000m peak, Nanga Parbat. They were years ahead of the time, and the mountain claimed the first of its many victims: Mummery and two Ghurkas, Ragobir and Goman Singh were killed by an avalanche and never seen again. The story of this disastrous expedition is told in Collie's book "From the Himalaya to Skye".

The icy rampart of the Karakorams was now more striking than ever against the northern sky, which had become mouse – colored and sinister; the peaks had a chill gleam; utterly majestic and remote, their very namelessness had dignity. “It’s not easy to judge, but probably some part of Tibet. If these are the Karakorams, Tibet lies beyond. One of the crests, by the way, must be K2, which is generally counted the second highest mountain in the world.”

Karakorum or Karakoram mountain range, extending 480 km, between the Indus and Yarkant rivers, N Kashmir, S Central Asia; SE extension of the Hindu Kush. It covers disputed territory, held by China on the north, India on the east, and Pakistan on the west. Karakorum's main range has some of the world's highest peaks, including K2 (Mt. Godwin-Austen) (28,250 ft/8,611 m), the second highest peak in the world. Karakorum also has several of the world's largest glaciers. Its southern slopes are the watershed for many tributaries of the Indus River. The mountains, the greatest barrier between India and Central Asia, are crossed above the perpetual snow line by two natural routes. Karakorum Pass. (alt. 18,290 ft/5,575 m), the chief pass, is on the main Kashmir-China route. Another important pass, Khunjerab (Kunjirap) Pass (alt. 15,420 ft/4,700 m), is on the Pakistan-China route.

The landing –

Conway guessed that the flight had progressed far beyond the western range of the Himalaya towards the less known heights of the Kuen – Lun. In that event they would by now have reached the loftiest and least hospitable part of the earth’s surface – the Tibetan plateau, two miles high even in its lowest valleys – a vast, uninhabited, and largely unexplored region of wind – swept upland.

But it was to the head of the valley that his eyes were led irresistibly, for there, soaring into the gap, and magnificent in the full shimmer of moonlight, appeared what he took to be the loveliest mountain on earth. It was an almost perfect cone of snow, simple in outline as if a child had drawn it, and impossible to classify as to size, height, or nearness. It was so radiant, so serenely poised, that he wondered for a moment if it were real at all. Then, while he gazed, a tiny puff clouded the edge of the pyramid, giving life to the vision before the faint rumble of the avalanche confirmed it.

Conway and his friends have reached the Shangri-la.

Where can be Shangri-La?

Kuen-Lun, or Kwen-Lun, a term used to designate generally the mountain ranges which run along the northern edge of the great Tibetan plateau in Central Asia. In a wider application it means the succession of ranges which extend from the Pamirs, until it strikes against or merges in the steep escarpments of the South East flank of the Mongolian plateau. In the narrower acceptation it applies only to those ranges which part the desert of Takia-makan on the North from the Tibetan plateau on the South between the Pamirs and the transverse glen of the Kara-muren, that is, nearly to the longitude of the town of Cherchen.

Kuen – Len is considered the backbone of the Himalayas. There are mountain ranges still undiscovered, people staying are nomads depending on the weather and mountain passes for trading in salt and leather from India, Bhutan, Pakistan and China.

The border trading posts would be the ideal place for exchanging any news from either side. Suspicion, language barrier and army intelligence, all make it nearly impossible to track people and places in the Himalayan region.

James Hilton writes “They looked just like a white frieze on the horizon that was all. At Yarkand and Kashgar I questioned everyone I met about them, but it was extraordinary how little I could discover. I should think they must be the least explored range in the world. I had the luck to meet an American traveler who had once tried to cross them, but he had been unable to find a pass. There are passes, he said, but they are terrifically high and unmapped. I asked him if he thought it possible for a valley to exist of the kind Conway described, and he said he wouldn’t call it impossible, but he thought it not very likely – on geological grounds, at any rate. Then I asked if he had ever heard of a cone-shaped mountain almost as high as the highest of the Himalayas, and his answer to that was rather intriguing. There was a legend, he said, about such a mountain, but he thought himself there could be no foundation for it. There were even rumors, he added, about mountains actually higher than Everest, but he didn’t himself give credit to them.
My belief in Shangri-la took me to the borders of Bhutan with China, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim in India and China, Nepal and China. Many a times I went illegally into China with the help of tribals and army outposts to gather any such story about such a lamasery. I was ridiculed but in the process I met some very nice people and witnessed some extraordinary events that changed my outlook towards life. 

lama-genchen (Picture left): With His Holiness Lama Genchen, Tibetan Medicine Healer and a Spiritual Thinker


Bhutan – Land of the Golden Dragon

Bhutan and Sikkim and its adjacent Himalayan ranges crossing into Tibet is the ideal place for trading for Tibetan tribals since decades who cross into each others borders without much restriction. His Holiness, the Dalai Lama as a child crossed into Sikkim with his caravan, years back. The Sunday flea market at Thimphu is one such place where for years I met different people, conversing in broken Dzongkha and Tibetan and enjoying the confidence after a couple of glasses of local wine. I found caravans coming from Lhasa and further remote areas of Xainza and Tomra. Tsunthan and Lachung in Sikkim had similar trading posts and I was in touch with them all. I crossed into the Chinese territory next to Ha in Bhutan and enjoyed the warm welcome of Lamasery there. I heard tales which were not authenticated about places deep in Kuen-Lun which had Lamaseries and the lamas who depended on a chain of caravan routes for their necessities from the outside world.

Some Lamas had extraordinary healing powers and showed deep insight in philosophy and spirituality without attaining any formal western education. Most of them disappeared without a trace, traveling on the Kuen-Lun Passes to unknown destinations.  

A strange incident occurred that further restored my belief on Shangri – La; please click here to read the story..!

James Hilton’s last paragraph in Lost Horizon –

"We sat for a long time in silence, and then talked again of Conway as I remembered him, boyish and gifted and full of charm, and of the war that had altered him, and of so many mysteries of time and age and of the mind, and of the little Manchu who had been ‘most old’ and of the strange ultimate dream of Blue Moon."

Shangri – La exists and so does Glory Conway.

February 19, 2006