Skip to Content

In search of Shangri-La

Travel Writing

This article was first published in the Times Online, on May 7, 2007

Our literary traveller, Sarah Anderson, packed her books again and travels to Tibet

Does Shangri-la really exist? Certainly there has long been the appeal of a mythical land where no one ever got old, but it was only in the 1990s when some Westerners arrived in Zhongdian (Xianggelila) in northern Yunnan, Southwest China, and said that the valley with its monastery reminded them of Shangri-la, that the Chinese realised that here was somewhere that could possibly be marketed as that fabled paradise. They are not doing too badly: ten years ago there were 15,000 tourists; today there are 2.6 million.

Where did the Western myth originate? “[George] Bogle’s valedictory image of Tibet as a mountain stronghold of innocent happiness would prove of lasting appeal. It was the earliest expression of the most enduring of Western fantasies of Tibet. Once it had made its way into print, Bogle’s letter would pave the way for the later myth of Shangri-La” (Kate Teltscher, The High Road to China).

But with the publication of James Hilton’s book Lost Horizon in 1933 followed by Frank Capra’s 1937 film starring Ronald Colman, the legend became firmly established: “Hilton’s Shangri-La was a place where wisdom and knowledge were preserved from the ravages of the madding world by an elite gang of old men, led by a Capuchin monk named Father Perrault, in the Valley of the Blue Moon, somewhere inside Tibet” (Patrick French, Tibet, Tibet).

Driving round a bend in the hazardous mountain road one first sees the golden-roofed Gedan Songzanlin Monastery perched on a hill above a green valley: “The floor of the valley, hazily distant, welcomed the eye with greenness; sheltered from winds, and surveyed rather than dominated by the lamasery, it looked to Conway a delightfully favoured place” (Lost Horizon). This is before one has seen the effects of those millions of tourists.

We were driving along the Szechuan-Tibet Highway from Chengdu (“which retains something of the grandeur of a lesser Beijing” Colin Thubron, Behind the Wall) in Szechuan to Lhasa which, with our detour to Shangri-la, was a 17-day trip. We were in a bus for the first four days before transferring to four-wheel drives: I frequently had to close my eyes as we hurtled along precipitous roads and many of the entries in my diary read ‘This is the most terrifying trip of my life – what am I doing here?’

But of course the beauty of the landscape was staggering and the views as one wound up and down the Yangtze, Mekong and Salween river valleys was spectacular. Worryingly: “Over the past thirty years, China has built more dams than the rest of the world combined, and 31 large hydroelectric projects are currently planned along the Yangtze and its tributaries, the Mekong, the Salween, and the Tsangpo ? [These dams] jeopardize agriculture and increase flood risks in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam” (Ian Baker, The Heart of the World).

Our drivers were from Kham, eastern Tibet, a people renowned for their fierce horsemanship – transfer this ferocity behind the wheel of a car and the pleasure in overtaking on blind corners becomes explicable. We drove over 3,000 kilometres in total, regularly ascending passes of more than 4,000 metres (the highest being the Mila Pass at 5,151 metres).

The altitude made me breathless and I had a constant underlying headache; at the first high pass our Tibetan guide rushed up to me and told me to be careful as my lips had turned blue. I wasn’t sure what to do with this information: “A familiar ache was throbbing along my sinuses. I was resting more and more often. Why, I wondered, did people have to undertake these blood-pounding assaults on the sublime” (Colin Thubron, Behind the Wall).

Our destination was Lhasa: “Under the blue luminous sky and the powerful sun of central Asia the intensified colours of the yellow and red procession, the variegated bright hues of the crowd’s dresses, the distant hills shining white, and Lhasa lying on the plain at the foot of the huge Potala capped with glittering gold – all these seemed filled with light and ready to burst into flames.

Unforgettable spectacle which alone repays me for my every fatigue and the myriad dangers that I had faced to behold it” (Alexandra David-Neel, My Journey to Lhasa). David-Neel became a lama and was the first Western woman to be granted an audience with the Dalai Lama – she lived in the shadow of the Potala Palace for two months without being detected, before worrying that her disguise would be sussed. Sadly today Lhasa has become a predominately Chinese city with neon lights and a massive amount of new buildings.

We only spent one night in Lhasa before travelling on to Shigatse, official residence of the Panchen Lama. “At Tashilhunpo, where there had been violent suppression in 1995 after the monks opposed the selection of this fake Panchen, I found an atmosphere of fear” (Patrick French, Tibet, Tibet) – I didn’t pick up on the fear – indeed although our visit to the monastery was preceded by a hail storm the monks seemed plentiful and busy. We also chanced on a wonderful ceremony of monks doing a slow bardo [an intermediate state between life and death] dance accompanied by several musical instruments including the long copper rag-dung trumpets which can be up to 20 feet long.

The hailstorm of the previous day had evidently been widespread – our trip back to Lhasa was much delayed by having to negotiate our way past around twenty landslides but by now I had lost much of my western impatience and was happy to agree with Proust that “The real journey of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes”.

The journey was arranged in London by: The Meridian Society –