According to the Tibetan scriptures, somewhere there are hidden worlds, either on Earth or in other dimensions that are the gateways to Shambala, the promise land and paradisiacal refuges for Buddhists during strife. In the 1933, novel Lost Horizon, British writer James Hilton created a mythical world around this belief, calling it Shangri La. Although his book is fictional, it is based on the research and stories of travelers who alleged to have come close to finding this unexplored, sacred place, returning with tales of wonder and amazement. This has never been proven, and scholars call it a fantastical construct, but many still believe in its existence. In 2001, in an attempt to attract more tourism to the area, the little city of Zhongdian, that sits on the border of Yunnan, China and Tibet in the Himalayas, was renamed Shangri La after Hilton’s book. I knew this modern-day Shangri La was not the secret place the worshippers sought, but I wanted to go none the less. At the time, the Tibetan border was closed to visitors and Shangri La, although in China, was the closest I was going to get. Its cobblestone streets, often moving with tourists, with shops full of silver jewelry, colorful prayer flags, beads and other Buddhist style paraphernalia, is occupied almost entirely by Tibetans who had not fled to India, but had stayed in the region.
When first arriving, we spent a few days acclimatizing to the high altitudes in town before our excursion on the mountain. We perused the shops, and ate local food at the cafes, tried yak meat and butter teas, and finally went to the Buddhist Ganden Sumtsenling Monastery where child monks ran and squealed through its small, narrow little streetways. The large wooden doors opened to bright, cheerful painted scenes and tapestries, with hand whittled prayer beads hanging from hooks and in displays. I was surprised that we were the only visitors, as just down the hill the town was full of activity. It occurred to me that perhaps it was only open to the public during special events. Still, an inquisitive monk came up to assist us, and graciously led us around the temple instead of ushering us out of the solace. Upon leaving, I was drawn to a string of wooden prayer beads and was pleased when he allowed me to purchase them for a donation. We headed back to our small hotel, and thoughts of the trek through the great mountainous beasts that was to happen the next day, led us into slumber.
The first few hours into the hike were a bit harrowing, as it was overcast, and just a day earlier an American couple had fallen off the side and met their demise on the same trail, most likely due to poor visibility. We made sure to keep tight to the far right of the path, avoiding the temptation to move to the edge to peer further in hopes of catching a scene. Despite some initial concern, anticipation and adventure soon replaced our fear and we kept going with purpose. After a day on the trail, in cloudy and damp conditions, that had hidden the majestic beauty behind a shroud, we came around a final bend that crawled down a narrow path towards a very small village. A Tibetan monk stood on a hill against the greyness of the sky, his gold and red robes expanding out with the wind, looking at us as if he had been waiting for our arrival. We had not seen another soul except for at a small shack near the beginning of our journey where a man had stopped us to offer us some yak butter tea. He led us to a wooden lodge and offered us a place to stay. We put our things in a small, well-kept room that had only a futon style, bed with windows that looked directly towards the Meili Snow Mountain peaks. The air rushed across the horizon, and filled our lungs with a freshness that only the Himalayas could offer. However, Meili would still not come out to greet us that late afternoon. The woman responsible for cooking the meals told us that it had been a few months since the clouds had lifted. We tried not to feel disappointed, as we were lucky enough to even be there. We retired to our room for a rest until the thin, but well-muscled and agile master, with his brown, rosy skin and flowing robes, climbed the stairs to beckon us to dinner. It had been many hours since we had left the cobblestone streets of Shangri La on foot, and we had eaten only a little that day, losing our appetites because of nerves, and an eagerness to reach our destination. Our bones creaked with the kind of hunger that comes with long hauls of exercise in unpredictable, challenging landscapes. The local meal of wild delicacies was moving through the cells with such goodness. And after a bit more chatting around the fire with our hosts, our bodies finally surrendered to the day’s end, until we floated into a deep sleep inside the valley of the snowcapped peaks.
The next day, an infinite, billowing arm reached across the silver tops, touching the tip of Meili with its extended figure, nature’s astounding rendition of the Sistine Chapel in cloud form, in the bright, morning sky. The fields below were illuminated by the early morning rays of the sun, and the scene opened up to reveal a vastness that had been only a rumor to us up until that point. “We have not seen the great mountain for weeks!” exclaimed our keeper at breakfast. “You are indeed very lucky and blessed!” And we certainly felt so.
We set out on a day hike to the sacred waterfall that lived on Meili’s cliffside. We were met with twirling, unabashed butterflies who followed us up the trail. As we got further away from the locals bending in the fields, planting and harvesting, the flowers and tall green grasses turned into patches of glacier snow. We were the only ones on that route, and were surprised when we came across a little, brightly colored house in the middle of nowhere. A tall, slender young man, with long dark hair and a face full of such health, walked out, also quite surprised to see us, “Hello, Americans?” He spoke at least a few words of English seemed. (He later told us, he had been given a book in Shangri La a few years earlier by a tourist, and had been studying it). “Canadian, actually,” I replied, “My friend is from Germany.” He coaxed us in his house where his father offered us tea, both of them so pleased to have such strange visitors it seemed. It was painted and decorated like many traditional Tibetan homes, and had many artifacts on shelves and hanging on walls, almost like a mini museum. My eye fell on a very beautiful, embellished sword. “You like it? “He asked, as he took it down from the shelf. “A prayer sword, 500 years old.” He placed it in my hands. “You can have it.” At first, I refused but he insisted, so I finally agreed if he would take some money from me. I wondered why he would be so generous to foreigners he had just met, but I could see that he was somehow so astonished that we had found them, perhaps he thought it was a sign. I could only speculate. This Shangri La, mythical or not, was shaping up to be a place of true wonder and mysticism.
We said our goodbyes, my treasure carefully stowed in my pack and began our last journey to the waterfall where so many Tibetans made pilgrimages to be blessed. The scene was of typical Himalayan nobleness, with towering crags sweeping up against the canvas of the sky, and surrounding us as we made our way to the water. As we got closer to the falls, the powerful rushing sounds intensified and the ordinary grey stones that had marked the route for most of the way up, began to shimmer more. And when picking them up to inspect, they looked like precious, silver and diamond jewels, with shiny flecks throughout them. Of course, there is a geological explanation for this phenomenon, but one could not help be taken by the otherworldly experience as our footsteps treaded upon the gleaming path. And, when we stood under the sprays of the waterfall that was tipping over the edges, in streams of sunlit water from some unseen source, it became very clear why so many devout Tibetans pilgrimage to pay homage to their Buddha in this ethereal terrain. My rational mind knew this was not really one of the seven sacred hidden lands that the Tibetans believe exist somewhere. However, despite this, I could not help believe that I had entered a gateway into an inter dimensional world to take a glimpse, an infinite gaze- even for just one moment in time, into the arcane land of Shambala and the Lost Paradise, just the same.
In Search of Shangri La
The rushing tempest of Meili Snow Mountain's sacred waterfall cascades down from above.
A collection of glimmering stones and wild rose buds collected on pathway up towards the falls.
After a few months under a shroud, the clouds lift to reveal a bright, valley and mountain view.
Meeting locals on the cobblestone streets of Shangri La.
Local musician in deep contemplation.
Paying homage to the great peaks at a shrine at beginning of journey.
A curious yak decides to join us on our hike.
A Tibetan monk and his friend chat inside the Meili Snow Mountain Valley.