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
I understand the Chinese actually renamed an area “Shangri-La County” in 2002?
Yes, Shangri-La County is shown on a map in the guidebook, and that’s what got this guidebook started—the fact that Chinese authorities laid claim to the real location for Shangri-La. The claim is spurious at best. I wanted to present a wider range of candidates across the Himalayas.
You come down hard on a lot of writers for their faux quests for Shangri-La. What’s the problem with that?
Poor research, in a nutshell. There are some very flaky accounts out there where the research is all scrambled up. The Chinese authorities, for instance, base their claims on the writings of American botanist Joseph Rock for National Geographic. But Joseph Rock never wrote up the regions of Zhongdian or Deqin in National Geographic stories before “Lost Horizon” appeared (1933). He wrote about those places in a voluminous and obscure book that appeared in 1947. Ian Baker and Michael McCrae advance very strange claims to try and link the jungle region of Pemako to Shangri-La, and McCrae even informs us that there is an abyss of contradictions between the two. This is all packaging: Shangri-La is a well-known name, while Pemako is not. If they were presenting all this in a fictional work, that would be fine, but they are harping on this in a work of exploration, which doesn’t jibe.
What are people really looking for when they look for Shangri-La?
I think they are looking for exactly what the protagonist of “Lost Horizon” was looking for. Conway, the key character, is burned out after fighting in WWI. At Shangri-La he discovers what he has been longing for all his life: a philosophy, a spiritual dimension, a chance to pursue his interests without a time limit. This is an altered vision of time—and one that is supremely seductive: the fact that time moves slowly there, without physical decay.
You say you’ve spent over 20 years exploring the Himalayan region where Hilton set his book. What has been the allure of the place for you?
Speaking about the passage of time, 20 years is a long time!
I live in B.C., Canada. We have great coastal mountains here with great snow. But when you go to the Himalayas, the scale is entirely different. The sheer scale of the peaks of the Himalayas is breathtaking—being in the presence of the highest peaks on Earth is something special. But there’s more: those mountains inspire spirituality, with Tibetans being among the most devout people on the planet. What keeps me going back is the special nature of the Tibetans—who appear near-mythical to me because their logic appears to run counter to everything in the West. They are not so interested in money, for instance. They are more keen on spiritual objectives.
So how do we know you haven’t secretly found Shangri-La and are just covering your tracks with a guidebook?
Ah, but I have found it! Or let’s call that traces of Shangri-La. You can find, in the Himalayas, the key elements of Shangri-La: majestic snowcaps, majestic monasteries, High Lamas and deep spirituality. It’s just that you won’t find all these elements in the one place. The High Lamas of Tibet are in exile, mostly living in India. Spirituality is the key to Shangri-La. James Hilton put everything in one place—the big snow-capped peak, fertile valley of the Blue Moon, the High Lama, the special community of Shangri-La and the lamasery of Shangri-La. There are definite “Shangri-La moments” while traveling in the Himalayas—in Nepal, Tibet or Bhutan. That’s more what I would define it as—Shangri-La moments, fleeting glimpses of the Himalayan utopia.