The Geography of Shangri-La with Ian Baker

19 April, 2017

Anthropologist and author Ian Baker was named one of National Geographic Society’s seven “Explorers for the Millennium.” He came to our library to recount his riveting journey through the world’s deepest gorge in Tibet, where he discovered the literary origins of Shangri-La. Here, he recounts a brief history of the myths about this storied place — and gives us a peek at his travels to the legendary Himalayan paradise.

“Shangri-La” is a completely fictional word coined by the British novelist, James Hilton, in his 1933 book, “Lost Horizon.” It appeared during The Great Depression, between the first and second World Wars, and provided a vision of hope — a Utopian dream — at a time when all of Western civilization seemed to be under threat. Immensely popular, it was the first book to be published in paperback, and continues to be one of the best-selling books of all time. “Shangri-La” entered into the English language as the equivalent of an earthly paradise. Unlike the Western myth of a lost paradise, this was a place that existed, but was simply hard to find.

Four years after Hilton's book came out, Frank Capra proposed that Capitol Pictures make a film of it. In the film, a group of Americans and Europeans whose plane crashes in an unidentified area of northwestern Tibet are rescued by a mission coming from a place called Shangri-La, a magical valley that they, with great difficulty, enter into with their hosts, where they’re kept in a kind of benign captivity.

The idea of Shangri-La has had a very strong cultural influence even beyond film. Bugs Bunny points out a place called Shangri-Lo tucked away in forbidden mountains. There was a pinball machine called “Shangri-La.” Franklin D. Roosevelt renamed what we now call Camp David, Shangri-La. Shangri-La became synonymous with finding happiness, and goes back to the whole origins of Western mythology: the idea of an earthly paradise as painted by Hieronymus Bosch. The Vatican believed the original earthly paradise could be found somewhere within the Himalayan zone, and several missions were sent out to look for this place.

To the Tibetan people, Shangri-La is a waterfall, representing a portal into the treasure of eternal happiness. In 1924, when the last British expedition went in search of this waterfall and returned to make its historic presentation at the Royal Geographical Society in London, they said this waterfall was a religious myth. It doesn't exist. After that, the quest for this waterfall was put to rest.

But what happens to the Tsangpo River after it disappears into a terra incognito that has never yet been penetrated? Not even the Tibetans themselves know what becomes of the river after it turns southward and enters a tract of country absolutely unexplored, peopled by fierce savage tribes who've successfully resisted all entry of strangers into their country.

The area I’m talking about is the great bend of the Tsangpo River, where it suddenly makes an arc around the eastern terminus of the Himalayan Range and begins to flow southward into India. This state of Arunachal Pradesh, the Land of the Dawn, was ceded to the British government of India. Because the British weren’t able to travel upriver, they trained Tibetans as Kinthup, or surveyor spies. They were issued prayer wheels with secret surveying instruments inside them, and prayer beads with a requisite 108 beads on them, so they learned how to count their steps to measure distances. One Kinthup in the early 1880s reported that there was a great waterfall with a deity behind it. This became an obsession for the British, more talked about than Mount Everest at the end of the 19th century.

As one explorer, a plant collector named Frank Kingdon-Ward, wrote, “there remained a gap of 50 miles about which nothing was known. Was it possible that hidden away in the depths of this unknown gorge there was a great waterfall? Such a thing was quite possible, and it was this question that we were resolved to answer. We would, if possible, go right through the gorge and tear this last secret from its heart.” By his own account, "the mountains spired steeper. The great river was plunging down, down, boring ever more deeply into the bowels of the earth. The snow peaks enclosed us in a ring of ice. Dense jungles surged over the cliffs." They continued on and reached a point, finally, where they had no choice but to turn back. As John Whitehead has noted, "the search for the falls of the Tsangpo can be characterized as one of the great romances of geography and also one of the most obsessive wild goose chases of modern times."

Living in Kathmandu for a very long time, I’d heard these stories and became fascinated that there was still an area on the planet that no one had ever gone into, and seemingly this great mythic quest. I became obsessed with finding the texts that described this other world and the ways in which one could enter it.

I went off on my quest. A very kindly librarian at a remote monastery brought out texts describing what are called hidden lands. They're very unusual texts, going back to the 8th century. Padmasambhava is said to have authored them, writing “those who contemplate journeying to the hidden lands will fall prey to their doubts and lack the requisite courage, while those who are overly pious lack the means to open the way to the secret places, for all those who lack the auspicious circumstances to enter the hidden lands, they will remain as imaginary paradises, or imagined paradises. They will not manifest simply through idle talk.“

This was, for me, an extraordinary insight into geography and the way in which we see the world. I was very fortunate during this time to be able to meet with His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, who wrote about the search for the waterfall in his introduction to my book, “The Heart of the World.” He said, "hidden lands… are not places to escape the world, but to enter it more deeply.” This wasn’t geography as we were taught it in schools. This is a kind of visionary world, in which geography, imagination, and spirituality become interfused.

It's still very much a living tradition today, with treasure revealers who live in caves very high up in the Himalayas. One I met would hold his robes up like a great bird. Wonderful figure. Long-haired. This is all a wild yogic tradition that was outside of the monastic life, and practiced both by householders and great adventurers and explorers. This is still a very active place for spiritual practice, where this figure, Padmasambhava, who composed these hidden texts, is said to have spent seven years with his consort, Yeshe Tsogyal. So you still have a lot of these female practitioners, following a nonmonastic ordination, where they wear red and white robes rather than the traditional maroon robes of the monastic tradition.

I came across extraordinary Tibetan accounts as I was beginning my journeys there. In 1729, Lelung Shepe Dorje was an extraordinary lama who wrote a travelogue called “The Delightful True Stories of the Hidden Land of Pemako,” saying “There's a constant menace here of poisonous snakes, leeches, flies, clawed and long-snouted animals with fangs, dangerous wild men and vicious savages. Those without courage or those with lingering doubts, too many mental conceptions, or who are strongly attached to conventional appearances, or who out of ignorance, fall into accepting and rejecting, such people will have difficulty reaching this land and getting through unscathed.”

There are other obstacles described in the texts and oral tradition, like a great tradition of poisoning. Female initiates take snake venom, turn it into powder, put it under their thumb, and then serve you fermented alcohol in gourds. When I've traveled to this area, everyone says, "Please have, it's not poisoned," and they'll take a sip first to prove it. All of our porters were very, very wary. They say, "Well, it's all sleight of hand." As soon as they do that, then they have the powder under their fingernail, and they just flick it in, and then they give it to you. You won't die immediately. Sometimes it takes a couple weeks, so you can never really be sure where it happened, but the view of this cult is that all your luck and your fortune, when you do die, goes to the person who poisoned you. The higher your status, if you're coming from the outside world and relatively well off compared with them, you're a prime target. When we were camping in some of these areas, our porters kept a vigil. Somebody did not sleep all night to make sure. I said, "Well, nobody's going to be drinking. We're all sleeping." They said, "Yes, but if they can't slip it to you in your drink, they will scratch you while you're sleeping, and it will still go under your skin and you'll die." Anyway, it was a rather colorful story (and the snakes were rather vicious).

These are fascinating accounts to me. When you think of how an 18th-century Tibetan explorer thought of these landscapes, when what they were actually seeking was not the conventional western model of exploration, of putting your name on a place and staking claim, but a transformational journey, so that somehow the challenges of the exploration brought about a change in consciousness.

In researching how one could get to these places, you have to look at the geography. The peaks of Namcha Barwa are over 25,000 feet, and Gyaphelri are almost 24,000. The distance between them is only 11 miles from summit to summit, and it's in the “Guinness Book of World Records” now as the world's deepest gorge. Because of the great vertical zonation in between, it goes down to about 5,000 feet, and you get an incredible range of climate and vegetation. It goes from ice to forest very quickly, and then you're really in subtropical region by the time you're at the base. It sometimes looks more like Kauai, with palm trees and tropical features. It’s configured as a mandala, with paradise hidden within protective ranges of mountains and rivers to keep out the uninvited. It’s held that through meditation, these inner realms are revealed. In the words of a 19th-century Tibetan poet: "just thinking of this place, I become joyful. Crystal glaciers adorn the sky. Rain falls like nectar from the gods, and rainbows fill the valleys, walled round by snow peaks, cliffs and jungle… a place where fortunate beings can find enlightenment."

Words by The Editors and Ian Baker.

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