Shangri-La

The extravagances of love and fear of the finality of death are the theme of Lost Horizon, a novel by the British author James Hilton. It is a tale of four travellers crash-landing in a beautiful mountain utopia, the harmonious Buddhist kingdom of 'Shangri-La' where man lives to twice the normal age. (The name Shangri-La probably comes from Shambhala, a mystic Buddhist paradise).

All indications are that the setting for this tale is in the mountains in the Eastern Tibet or Kham, where Yunnan, Sichuan and Tibet meet. The book describes a beautiful fertile valley below the snow-capped peak of 'Mt. Karakal', where travellers reached by going "southwest from Peking for many months...where Chinese coolies from Yunnan transfer their loads of tea to the Tibetans". For centuries the brick tea of Yunnan was transported through these mountains by coolies along the ancient trade route from Yunnan to Lhasa.

All that 'Shangri-La' has come to mean can be experienced here ---- the magnificence of snow capped peaks and towering mountain ranges plunging down to deep gorges, along with turquoise rivers tumbling out of the snows of Tibet. Here the vast high grasslands of the nomads are carpeted in flowers throughout the summer. Remote umber coloured monasteries are perched on hillsides, their golden roofs reflecting the sunshine in crystal clear air. Lamas counsel their people to respect all aspects of life. Considered to be holy, the mountains and rivers remain pristine, and the whole area has a rich variety of flora ranging from rare alpine plants to semi-tropical ones.

In spite of the extremes of temperature, a simple diet of tsampa (roasted barley flour) and salt-butter tea provides enough nutrition for the Khampa people who are tall with a strong physique. Harshness and simplicity are central to this traditional Tibetan way of life. Highland people live in villages of enormous fortress-like houses built of rammed earth whilst the nomads roaming the grasslands live in black yak-hair tents, tending their huge herds of yak, ponies and sheep. The Khampas are a proud and high-spirited people with a great sense of humor and a love of singing and dancing. Women adorn their heavily plaited hair with ornaments and precious stones while the handsome Khampa men have a red silk tassel wound into their braided hair, with their chubas worn carelessly over one shoulder, and a silver sword in their belt. Equestrian skills are learnt from an early age and are put to the test at the annual Horse Festivals when the Khampa horses are decorated with bells and colourful ribbons, whilst their owners parade in gorgeous costumes appropriate to their region.

Buddhism and its disciplines cannot be seen as merely a religion. They are the core of existence to these people who strive to live harmoniously, in tune with their surroundings, always reaching for purity in their lives and the blissful state of Nirvana.