The Myth of Shangri-La

Nepal and Tibet are now hugely popular destinations for trekking holidays (with the Annapurna Circuit and the Everest Base Camp trek reckoned as two of the best treks in the world) but it wasn’t always so.
The Himalaya, for a long time, remained the last blank on the map, an uncharted and unexplored land. Nepal, Tibet and the other Himalayan nations were closed to outsiders for centuries (most until well into the twentieth century), their lands and people a mystery. Myths clung to the mountains, and none more so than the myth of Shangri-La.

Shangri-La in the West
In 1933, James Hilton published Lost Horizon, perhaps inspired by a combination of Buddhist myth and the Everest trekking expeditions of the time. Set in the aftermath of a plane crash in the Himalaya, the British and American survivors find themselves at the hidden Buddhist monastery of Shangri-La, a utopian “heaven on earth” where the inhabitants enjoy a prolonged life of near immortality.
Just like any other myth, the popularity of the myth Shangri-La was inevitably affected by the state of the world at any time. With a world economy wracked by the great depression, and the great powers sliding towards fascism, communism, and eventual world war, the idea of an escape in the mountains held an understandable appeal.
In a strange twist of fate, the myth found an unusually receptive audience with the Nazis. Fascinated by the occult and the concept of the master race, the regime was understandably drawn to the idea of a perfect place where eternal life was possible. In 1938 they tried to find it – a Nazi expedition went trekking around Everest and the Himalaya in search of the mythical place.
Shangri-La in the East
Lost Horizon was the book that sparked western imagination, but the idea of a paradise hidden in the Himalaya originated centuries before James Hilton set his typewriter in motion, or any westerner went trekking to Everest and the Himalaya. Known as Shambala, the Buddhist myths of the Himalaya speak of a hidden kingdom of the enlightened, governed according to the highest precepts of Buddhism.
Like every Buddhist myth, Shambala has both an “outer” interpretation (that it refers to an actual hidden kingdom) and an “inner” one (that it refers to a state of being or a place of spiritual contentment.)
The Final Word?
Today, Tibet and Nepal have both been thoroughly explored. The world’s highest mountain has been conquered a thousand times over, and Everest Base Camp treks are massively popular amongst more adventurous travellers. The idea of an actual kingdom of Shangri-La hidden away in the mountains may only be entertained by the most wild conspiracy theorists, but the myth lingers on. With almost no part of the earth left unexplored, except for the deepest parts of the ocean, there will always be a part of us that craves the mystery that Shangri-La offers.
The Dali Lama, when asked about Buddhism’s most popular myth, had this to say:
“Nowadays, no one knows where Shambala is. Although it is said to exist, people cannot see it, or communicate with it in an ordinary way. Some people say it is located in another world, others that it is an ideal land, a place of the imagination. Some say it was a real place, which cannot now be found. Some believe there are openings into that world which may be accessed from this one. Whatever the truth of that, the search for Shambala traditionally begins as an outer journey that becomes a journey of inner exploration and discovery.”

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