Ever since the beginning of time, people have dreamt about a place better than the place where they were-a place that we call a utopia. These utopian destinations are places without the problems and plights of the present. As you read this column, I will be in quest of finding one such utopia-Shangri-La. My search had its genesis years ago when I first read James Hilton's novel, "Lost Horizon." The story takes place in Asia exactly a decade before I was born. His story of Shangri-La involves four British subjects skyjacked on a supposed flight out of war-torn China. Instead of flying out of China, the plane flew deeper into Asia-deep into the Himalayan Mountains of Tibet.
There the hostages experienced their first introduction to peace and harmony in the Valley of Blue Moons deep in Shangri-La. Hugh Conway is the leader of the transplanted sojourners. Years before, he had been emotionally scared by WWI. Therefore, he was open to the allure of this mysterious and magical mountainous utopia far removed from all the pressures and stress of his modern society.
While in Shangri-La, Conway receives instructions in the ways of this paradise from the High Lama. The High Lama was a former priest, Father Perrault, who had come to Shangri-La hundreds of year ago. The High Lama tells Conway that he "foresaw a time when men, exultant in the technique of homicide, would rage so hotly over the world that every precious thing would be in danger, every book and picture and harmony, every treasure garnered through two millenniums..." His prediction predated WWII and all the death and destruction since then. The High Lama's apocalyptic version of the future was similar to St. John's vision of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The world has not paid heed to either prediction, and it finds itself even closer to the realization of the High Lama's prophecy. Indeed, Tibet itself has suffered grievous the rages of war even as the host of Shangri-La.
It took over sixty years since Hilton's novel was published for some who claimed that they had discovered the location of Shangri-La. In 1994, the Chinese government confirmed that Shangri-La had been located not far from Deqen in the Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Yunnan. With this announcement, the Chinese have once again fueled the fires about whether Shangri-La actually existed or not. Some believe that Shangri-La isn't really a physical place but rather a spiritual place of emotional tranquility. However, others argue that Hilton's Shangri-La does exist. If it does, then the question is where is it located? If the Chinese assertion isn't correct, where is Shangri-La? Some believe that Hilton used a mountain pass near Mt. Everest, Changri La ("La" is Tibetan for pass) as merely a model for his novel's setting. It could be there or perhaps the Chinese are correct. I don't know whether Shangri-La is a physical or psychological place or whether it is fact or fiction, however, the controversy still swirls around this question.
Perhaps, on my trip to the Roof of the World, I'll find Shangri-La either the actual physical place or at least how to find the emotional tranquility of that Asian utopia. Above all, I hope that the Tibetan people also rediscover it. After all, it was their paradise long before the West went in quest for the holy grail of Shangri-La. Time will tell whether any of my hopes are realized. Perchance, Shangri-La isn't in Tibet. Other places around the world claim to be utopian locations like Shangri-La. When I first read "Lost Horizon," I was also introduced to Nordhoff and Hall's novel, "Mutiny on the Bounty." Fletcher Christian looked for his paradise-first in Tahiti and finally on Pitcairn Island deep in the South Pacific. Having caught the Shangri-La bug, I was highly susceptible to fever of retracing Mr. Christian's voyage to find his Shangri-La away from the British Navy. While still in the final stages of preparing for my trip to Asia, I have begun researching for next summer's trip to Micronesia. In the meantime, each of us needs to try to discover some little piece of Shangri-La in our mundane and often conflicted lives. We must wait to discover where an actual place exists, we can through love discover our little part of paradise.
This article appeared in the Dixon Telegraph on 9/7/01.