Interview with Michael Buckley: Searching for Shangri-La
Travel Interviews: Frank Bures talks to the author of a guide to a place that may or may not exist
01.15.09 | 9:09 AM ET
Few places have gripped the world’s imagination like Shangri-La, the setting of James Hilton’s 1933 novel, Lost Horizon. The book’s hero, Hugh Conway, survives a plane crash in the Himalayas and ends up in a strange and far off land, where people don’t age, the library has 30,000 books, spiritual harmony abounds and everyone has bathtubs from Akron, Ohio. Since the book’s publication, travelers and writers have been trying to figure out if Shangri-La or the inspiration for Shangri-La really exists, or if we just want it to exist.
Now, Michael Buckley has written a guide not just to the region where Shangri-La may or may not be, but also to the novel, the myth and the ongoing quest for a paradise that remains pure and beautiful and good. “Shangri-La: A Travel Guide to the Himalayan Dream,” also serves as a first-rate guide to the places in Bhutan, Nepal, Tibet, India and China considered possible locations that inspired Shangri-La. I asked Buckley via email about mythomania, the lure of the mountain paradise and what we’re really looking for when we look for Shangri-La.
World Hum: Apart from the satires, I’ve never seen a guidebook about a place that doesn’t exist. What prompted you to write this one?
Michael Buckley: There are a number of guidebooks to realms that may or may not exist—all the way from Dante’s “Inferno” to recent guidebooks to the “Da Vinci Code.” I mention those two because they have spiritual angles. Spiritual guidebooks you might call them. In Tibetan literature there are a number of guidebooks to Shambhala. I think the Shangri-La guidebook fits into this genre. There are a number of reasons for writing this guidebook—as a new way of looking at Tibetan culture in the Himalayas, and to examine the various claims made about discovery of the real Shangri-La.
You quote André Malraux as saying, “Every adventurer starts out as a mythomanic.” What does he mean by that?
We develop romantic visions about certain travel destinations based on stories that may or may not be true. If I say the word “Tahiti,” doesn’t that bring up “Mutiny on the Bounty” and all the imagery that goes with it? And for the sailors on the Bounty, Tahiti was paradise. Based on a true story, too, though details were fictionalized. Movies and books about certain places inspire us, drive our dreams, turn destinations into passions. That’s what Malraux is saying. James Hilton’s “Lost Horizon” has inspired scores of people to go and visit the Himalayas (myself among them), and yet the author never set foot in Tibet (he never set foot in Asia).
Why do you think the myth of Shangri-La has had such a grip on the Western imagination?
The legend of Shangri-La came out in 1933—a period of great unrest. The world was in the aftermath of the Great Depression, which saw the Wall Street crash that bankrupted many. The clouds of war were hanging over Europe and Asia—Germany saw the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party, while the military power of Japan was running amok in China. These were highly turbulent times. And I venture to suggest that the situation today is not greatly different: we have worldwide economic chaos happening, we have clouds of war hanging over Afghanistan, Iraq and a number of other hot spots.
Shangri-La is the ultimate escape from all this—it presents a place where peace and harmony reign, where spiritualism and contentment abound. We want to believe there is a place where all this is possible. Humans are utopia-seekers, and Shangri-La presents a crystal vision of a Himalayan utopia.