In Quest of Shangri-La
-- Newsweek International, May 31, 1999
In every culture, there is this dream of some sanctuary where the best
of civilization can be preserved.Ian Baker
Shangri-La, the legendary paradise of the 1933 novel "Lost Horizon," is
based on Tibetan Buddhist legends of mystical sanctuaries, called
beyuls, hidden within secluded Himalayan valleys. Using directions
deciphered from eighth-century Tibetan Buddhist texts, American explorer
Ian Baker, 41, searched five years to find a route into the beyul of
Pemako, in a wilderness region of eastern Tibet. On Nov. 8, 1998, he and
two other Americans in his 10-man expedition reached a previously
uncharted waterfall on Tibet's Tsangpo River. (The National Geographic
Society, which sponsored the expedition, subsequently named Baker one of
its six "Explorers for the Millennium.") A rock portal there leads into
a mysterious valley, but Baker and the others were unable to enter it,
and since then China has closed the area to further foreign exploration.
In Katmandu, Baker talked about his quest for Shangri-La with NEWSWEEK's
Patricia Roberts. Excerpts:
ROBERTS: Why does the myth of Shangri-La endure?
BAKER: I think in every culture, there is this millennial dream of some
kind of sanctuary where the best of civilization on every level can be
preserved. That's what Shangri-La was. It was the "Valley of the Blue
Moon," a place where time no longer existed in the way we think of it,
where we could live for hundreds of years. The concept of Shangri-La had
an impact, whether consciously or unconsciously, on a whole generation.
The book came out between the two world wars, a time when civilization
as it was known was suddenly in question.
Is the fictional Shangri-La based on an actual place?
The references for the book ["Lost Horizon"] came very clearly from
reports made by explorers in the Tsangpo Gorge.
What motivated you to explore that particular area?
I was intrigued because I was approaching it more from the Tibetan
literary and oral tradition than a purely geographical one. Tibetan
texts, even though they're wildly visionary, are always based on
something concrete. There is a description of three waterfalls, the
middle one being described as a doorway, a portal into the inner, secret
Pemako. It seemed to me that if this waterfall were so strong a feature
of the landscape that they could envision it as a gateway to a hidden
paradise, then this was a waterfall worth trying to find.
Actually, how do you get there?
You drive about three days east of Lhasa to a point halfway between the
eastern border of Bhutan and the western border of Burma, right where
the Tsangpo River makes a great bend and flows south into the jungles of
Arunachal Pradesh. From there you walk days and days through any number
of different passes that lead you over the eastern ramparts of the
Himalayan range, down into this subtropical region off the Tibetan
What are the major obstacles?
It's an extremely wet rain forest, full of leeches and pit vipers. The
trails are seasonal; they often disappear. Camping is very difficult.
Often we excavated for hours to make a place to put up a single tent.
Some areas of Pemako have the densest population of Bengal tigers left
in the world. There is one valley where yetis [Abominable Snowmen] are
believed to be, and the people believe they're dangerous.
Is the area inhabited?
The local people are Lobas, fierce animistic warriors who were converted
to Buddhism by early lamas. They live in little villages perched on high
terraces above the Tsangpo. Poison cults [women who poison people in
order to acquire their good fortune] are believed to be quite prolific
in the area.
Your discovery has been challenged by other explorers. Are you certain
you were the first?
When we reached the falls we were aware that the Chinese were in the
upper gorge, several miles upriver from us, and were going to attempt to
go through this area. At the end of January an article came out in the
China Daily titled "Chinese Explorers Reach Waterfall First." They may
have seen this waterfall after us, but there's absolutely no question
that they were not there before us.
The Chinese government closed the area after your expedition. Why?
The area had suddenly become known, and was being promoted as the "Mount
Everest of Gorges." But a Chinese expedition reported in mid-December
the area is full of incredible botanical riches and species that are
unknown, and tourism could be disastrous for the environment.
If the area is opened again, will you return?
Absolutely. Apparently there are several routes into the inner paradise.
The openings will only appear to the right person at the right time. The
texts talk about periods of declining environmental conditions, many new
diseases suddenly appearing and more crime and fighting. The forces of
ignorance, greed and aggression will be magnified at a time when a
sanctuary such as Pemako would be the essential support for a spiritual
or contemplative life. So in many ways the time definitely seems to be
right. And a lot of lamas have supported that. They say this is the dark
age. It's when times are darkest that these hidden lands will be opened.