The British author James Hilton published a small novel in 1933. He was no doubt shocked at the widespread repute the location of his fictional sacred Utopian kingdom would achieve, and the misuse that would subsequently occur.
Las Vegas to Shanghai, luxury hotels, and the no-tell motel in the seedy underbelly of thousands of towns, have expropriated his fiction. Shangri-la is the idea of a magical place where people live long happy lives in perfect bliss. All of these places, even the most plush, fall short of the dream.
Whole countries have laid claim to the title, and all but one are fabrications. James Hilton’s Shangri-La is not in Bhutan, Nepal, or Myanmar, but in China; in Yunnan province of the Tibetan cultural region of the eastern most ranges of the Himalayas. Here the great rivers of Southeast Asia begin with trickles, explode into violent torrent, gather into the mighty forces of nature to embrace one of the most dense populations on Earth, and to eventually braid out across huge fertile deltas from Shanghai to Myanmar.
Amazingly, Hilton was not a traveler. He got his inspiration from the National Geographic which published the explorations of the botanist, philologist, Joseph F. Rock, who spent years in northern Yunnan. The collection of plants was Rock’s primary mission, but he also documented the local Tibetan cultures. Rock’s plant collections are said to have sparked the, now ubiquitous, exotic garden craze in the United Kingdom and beyond. Hilton grazed from this material the fictional beautiful and perfect place.
Shangri-la, and surrounding mountains, hold most of the minorities of China, and are one of the last holdouts from complete domination by the Han majority.
The unique southerly curve of the Himalayan range at the east end, allows the valleys to funnel warm wet monsoon clouds to extremely high elevations. This makes for a fecundity of plant and animal life found nowhere else in the great stretch of the Himalayan range all the way to Central Asia.
Claire and I crossed the Tien Shan mountains of far western China on our Silk Road Crossing. They are the western ending of the Himalayan range in Central Asia. This trip we hope to cross the far eastern part of the Himalayan range, in our search for the real Shagri-la.
What will we find? Well, as with the Silk Road, fantasy and reality are not the same, but in Asia, reality is always fascinating and alive, always challenging and rewarding.
From Yunnan we plan to ride into Laos, then Vietnam, where Claire was born, Cambodia and end our journey in Thailand, after about four months.
We hope you will come along with us, here on our New Bohemians site as we begin in Chengdu, Sichuan, where the great earthquake devastated the region and killed thousands. From what we know of will and energy of the Chinese, the people are recovering. We hope so. We’ll visit some pandas of course, along with our Lucky, and then attempt the mountains, monsoon snows, and vagaries of Chinese Communist bureaucracy allowing us to make the trip. Wish us well and then bookmark and follow us on our unusual, and no doubt enlightening, quest documented on this site.