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Monday, 20 February 2012

Mystery Monday: Shangri-la

In an attempt to make life more difficult for myself, I'm going to try for themed days on the blog. Yes, it's not enough to come up with five articles a week, I'm now going to constrain myself to set themes on certain days. Let's see how long it takes me to crack. Today is, ugh... Mystery Monday - I should offer a prize for a better name.
A mystical lost mountain kingdom yesterday
Back in 1933, James Hilton wrote a novel named Lost Horizon. British diplomat Hugh Conway survives a plane crash in the Himalayas. He wanders through a snowstorm and is guided to the monastery of Shangri-la hidden in the peaks. The monastery itself is quite odd, having central heating, modern bathtubs, a grand piano, a large library and all kinds of other luxury items. Conway is shown the surprisingly snow-free valley below from where their food comes. It all gets a bit weird after that when Conway is told that the monks barely age and the High Lama reveals that he is dying and would like Conway to take his place. Obviously, Conway does leave and the whole story is actually told in retrospect whilst Conway is recovering in a Chinese hospital. He then buggers off, presumably to return to Shangri-la.

Oddly, the book didn't become successful until Hilton wrote Goodbye, Mr. Chips the following year, which was an instant hit. Odder still is just how many people took the idea of Shangri-la literally. Not long before the book was written, a number of accounts of travel in Tibet had been published in National Geographic magazine and many of the places featured bore a resemblance to the fictional Shangri-la of the book.

A lot of the other places mentioned in Lost Horizon are real enough. Muli, Kunlun and Chongqing all exist. Since the book became popular, Zhongdian in Yunan Province, China has now been renamed Xianggalila (Shangri-la) to attract tourists. It's funny that, in contrast to other mythical places, Shangri-la actually does exist.
It's all jolly pretty and a lot more accessible than Atlantis
Within Buddhist traditions there are mentions of the kingdom of Shambhala, a Pure Land (pretty much a Buddhist equivalent of Heaven). The concepts of Shambhala and Shangri-la are often thought to be one and the same. It's probably adapted from a Hindu myth (like so much of Buddhism) which  is part of the Kalachakra tradition. It's all a bit complicated, so feel free to look it up some time if you fancy a lot of tortuous reading.

The Shambhala/Shangri-la myth came to the West via Catholic missionaries in the 17th century, but it wasn't until the 19th century that interest really picked up. Hungarian scholar Sándor Kőrösi Csoma (yeah, every name in this article is unpronounceable) who travelled extensively in the region, wrote of Shambhala and even gave a geographical location: "a fabulous country in the north...situated between 45' and 50' north latitude." Following his description leads to the eastern region of Kazakhstan, which is characterized by green hills, low mountains and lakes in stark contrast to the barren mountainous terrain of Tibet and Yunan. Hmm.
Hard to believe that this waterfall could contain the essence of uber-nazis and
super-communists, but a surprisingly high number of people thought so
Theosophist Madam Blavatsky claimed to be in contact with Himalayan ascended masters (enlightened beings) and regularly mentioned Shambhala and Shangri-la, introducing them to a wider audience. Lost Horizon appeared at the time that the Theosophical Society's ideas had most currency with the public and at a time when Nazi Germany was rather interested in using German and Eastern mythology to promote the idea of a master race. In 1938, Heinrich Himmler sent an SS mission to Tibet (under Ernst Schäfer) to investigate Asian mysticism and try to find the truth of Shambhala and Shangri-la.

Whilst the German mission to Tibet is relatively well-known, few have heard of the similar Soviet mission. Senior intelligence officer and chief cryptographer Gleb Bokii (no, really) was fascinated by the teachings of the Theosophists and met with several Mongolian lamas. He gained a fascination with Shambhala and Shangri-la and organised an expedition to Inner Asia with his writer friend, Alexander Barchenko. They wanted to prove a link between Kalachakra-tantra and the tenets of Soviet Communism. Although their mission didn't go ahead, Bokii and Barchenko founded a laboratory (under the auspices of the secret police) to experiment with Buddhist techniques in order to try to create perfect communists. Crikey. They weren't the only Soviets interested in Shambhala and the the Soviet Foreign Commissariat did later send an expedition to Tibet. I don't know if they managed to make a super-Soviet-Buddhist-ubermensch, but I presume I'd have heard if they had.

Nicholas Roerich, Song of Shambhala: Thang-La (1943)
Today, you can visit Shangri-la for yourself on any number of package holidays. It's maybe not at its best right now though. Whilst making his 2005 film Wu Ji (The Promise), Chen Kaige and his crew built massive sets in Shangri-la and they got into trouble a bit afterwards for messing the place up. The Chinese government got a bit shirty after Chen and his boys cut down quite a few trees, destroying an entire local eco-system and then left behind massive sets, many of them made with concrete.

It was like that when we got here
A big boy did it and ran away
So there you go: Shangri-la is real and Shambhala might be. But if you want to find a mystical mountain kingdom, don't bother going to see Hitler or Stalin, just hire a Chinese film crew, but remember to tidy up after yourselves. What's especially annoyingly is that The Promise is a bit of a shit film. Ah well...

1 comment:

  1. I've been to Zhongdian, which I remember as being rather dusty, not exactly a verdant oasis. Other people on our tour were also unaccountably excited by finding a restaurant specialising in dog...