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Pakistan – The Road to Shangri-La

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Text and photography by David Adams

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In the late 1930’s a small plane fled from the ravages of war-torn Afghanistan over the Himalayas. Before crash landing, crew and passengers fixed on a tantalizing landmark from the window of their doomed plane – the vast frozen pyramid of Nanga Parbat. Here begins one of the greatest tales of the 20th Century and the beginning of one of its most enduring mysteries.

The account of the disaster, records that after the crash the survivors managed to haul themselves from the wreckage. Though the odds of survival were slim at best, in every direction lay impossibly deep snows, bottomless crevasses, treacherous glaciers and the likelihood of avalanches all in the rarefied atmosphere of altitudes above 6,000 meters. All seemed lost.

Then out of the snows came salvation and, frozen and starving, they were taken to a remote Buddhist monastery in a valley that to this day appears on no map. Untouched by modern civilization, it was a place where supernatural forces and ancient mysteries controlled people’s lives. A place so perfect, so harmonious, that it brought health, long life and enlightenment to all who lived there – it was a place called Shangri-La.



Written in the 1930s by James Hilton as an escapist fantasy, the story – Lost Horizons – captured the imagination of the world and quickly became a best seller. Hilton himself claimed Shangri-La to be a fictional place, but, with the Western world on the brink of World War II, people wanted to ‘believe’ and the legend began. Then as today many believe that Hilton was writing of a real place, a valley that he’d visited or heard tell about, lying somewhere out between the impenetrable peaks. Needing little encouragement to explore the wilds of Northern Pakistan, I set out to discover what, if anything, lies behind the legend of Shangri-La.

Aptly named “The Roof of the World” by Marco Polo – trekking over the same ice-bound passes more than five hundred years before me – this is without doubt one of the most inhospitable realms on earth, with some of the most intimidating high mountain peaks on earth.

That last minute view of Nanga Parbat by passengers and crew is the only clue Hilton gives us as to the location of the hidden valley, and it’s where I intend to concentrate my exploration. However I’m by no means the first to do so, people have been coming here for centuries – looking for their own definition of a Shangri-La. The first recorded was Alexander the Great. Two and a half thousand years ago, his armies came in search of ‘the fountain of youth’ and his quest started where mine starts; in the Bombaret Valley, a remote corner of Pakistan on the border of Afghanistan and the home of a remote mountain tribe, called the Kalash.

However before my Kalash guide, Jinah, takes me to meet the living Kalash, he first gets me to see the dead. We cross a clear stream in a mountain picture-postcard over to the graveyard; a ransacked field of bones and broken coffins scattered by grave robbers and vandals. The reason? Pakistan is today an all-Muslim country, and the Kalash are one of the last surviving non-Muslim minorities. For a thousand years their Muslim overlords have called them “Kaffirs” – the non-believers. As a result, they’re an oppressed people, their desecrated graveyard just one example of their persecution. Once 80,000 of them lived in the Bombaret; today there are barely two and a half thousand.

If anything, the Kalash look more European than Pakistani. There’s an amazing prevalence of blue eyes and blond hair amongst them – and there may be a good reason why. They say that, even if Alexander the Great didn’t find his Shangri-La, some of his soldiers did. They stayed on and intermarried with the Kalash, who still carry their genes.

They’re remarkably hospitable despite their troubles – every visitor to the valley is offered tea and a chat. I ask an elder about Shangri-La. “Yes,” he says, “the name I know. Shangri-La is a good place that people say is wonderful.” I ask if he thinks it’s possible to find? “So long,” he says, “it is very, very far from here” – well it’s a start.

Jinah is heading south as there’s an event on that he wants me to see. But there’s also another, more compelling, reason to keep moving. As the great snow-covered peaks glow in the afternoon light, they send out a chilling warning. Winter is approaching. My search for Shangri-La will be a race against time, as the early snows of the Himalayas threaten to cut me off and imprison me, as they do the inhabitants every year in this remote corner of the Hindu Kush.

Every autumn, the tribal horsemen of northwest Pakistan put their strength, courage and horsemanship to the test in a game. It’s called buzkashi and its pretty much like rugby on horse back – lots of gouging, punching etc. Oh yes, and instead of a ball, they have a headless, legless goat.

Not for the fainthearted, this ancient Afghan game is as old as Central Asia itself. The game started as a practice for warriors to pick their wounded comrades from the field of battle, and new heroes are still created with every game. Once a horseman has the goat, the opposition does everything in its power to get it from him, which means a melee of grabbing, struggling horsemen, until someone makes a break. There are few rules and anything goes. Jinah tells me a lot of old scores are settled on the buzkashi field and it’s common to have a tally of broken limbs as well as goals. Which, by the way, are scored when one horseman has covered two lengths of the field and the goat, a little the worse for wear, is dropped in the centre of a circle.

The first autumn snows are already falling and there’s only one road out of the valley and I hitch a ride up the 2,800-meter Lowry Pass that marks the divide between the Hindu Kush and the Himalayas proper. For about four or five months of the year, several metres of snow cut off the Pass, separating one valley from the other. This natural isolation is why the cultures are so different. Not surprisingly, travel on ‘the roof of the world’ is something of a problem. Because of the snow, the road is too narrow for passing, and since there’s no regulation of traffic up here vehicles going up come face-to-face with vehicles going down, and there they stop and argue in the blizzard – sometimes for days. Eventually, someone comes to their senses and digs away some snow and they inch past each other – Jinah tells me that it’s the same every autumn.

By rights the Swat Valley has a claim to being the inspiration for Shangri-La as it’s the birthplace of Tantric Buddhism. Once there were over 1400 Buddhist monasteries in the Swat alone. Though today Islam holds sway, and the relics of its Buddhist past have suffered accordingly. Islam forbids the portrayal of a deity, and so, in one of the sad realities of this part of the world, they stone them. At the base of a barely recognizable Buddha are piles of stones, each fundamental blow having slowly chipped away the peaceful Buddhist face.

So how did James Hilton envisage Shangri-La? He wrote: “Shangri-La was touched with mystery. Listening intently, he could hear gongs and trumpets and also the masked wail of voices. He found the traditions, both Buddhist and Christian, very reassuring. The whole atmosphere was more of wisdom than of learning. The high lama had skill in telepathy and powers of healing…The monks had discovered the key to longevity, to semi-immortality.”

Thirty years or so after Hilton wrote those words, another group of people searching for Shangri-La flocked to the Swat – hippies. Northern Pakistan was one of the stopping-off points on the ‘hippie trail’, leading from San Francisco to Kathmandu. In fact, the Swat’s always been something of a haven for foreigners. A hundred years ago, the British came seeking respite from the hot, bustling towns of the plains. In these beautiful valleys, they created a little corner of England at the edge of empire – even stocking the rivers with trout.

Nearby his boarding house I throw a line in with Mohambar Khan. In the ‘Sixties his hostel catered exclusively to hippies – even if he didn’t always approve of them. “If woman legs is showing,” he tells me in short, sharp, vilifying bursts, “this is bad in Islam. Legs,” pointing at my legs, “this is bad in Islam. And when the woman here looking,” pointing to my chest, “this also bad in Islam. If you put on short trouser, and when you walk now out, so the people see you, they stone you. All say, ‘Look, this stupid man’.”

I ask him: “So if I were wearing short pants, would they throw stones at me?” He replies, “Yes. And they’re thinking why you are a bad man. Because like you, like anyone, no understand. Go in the street and no clothes.” I took Mohambar’s comments to be a little on the extremist side of the Mosque, though my shorts did stay safely packed in my bag.

The hippies are long gone. Free love and Islam were never going to mix and nor were the guns. Two valleys east of the Swat, lies the town of Besham, where no one bats an eyelid when gunfire echoes through the streets. Here guns are a way of life and blood feuds are an institution. Inter-family, inter-tribal battles cause thousands of deaths every year. The penalties of the ancient system, magnified a thousand times by the killing power of modern weapons – machine guns, rifles, shot guns, pistols, all made right here, despite what the labels say, as most are proudly marked “Made in Italy”. It’s estimated that 60 percent of all Pakistani men own a gun. In fact, more children will learn to use a gun here than will finish school. It occurs to me that a valley that makes so many deadly weapons is hardly a place to seek harmony and boundless peace. Like the hippies, I move on.

Every year up here they hold a competition to see who’s got the most beautifully painted truck. Trucking is a (male) family affair, and each family takes pride in making its vehicle more gaudy and highly decorated than the next. But there’s a religious side to it tool: the paintings are spiritual, symbols that will hopefully protect their trucks from the dangers of the road, and it’s in one of these mobile art galleries that I hitch a lift up the Karakoram Highway. The highway winds deep into the Karakoram ranges, following the valley of the Indus – a part of the Himalayas, which boasts some of the world’s highest peaks. In Lost Horizons, Shangri-La was supposed to be somewhere near the source of this great river.

The Karakorams soar above a deeply superstitious world. In a roadside village I’m invite to witness a travelling shaman at work. In the shadows of a cramped little room full of his family; a man lies on a bed. According to the truck driver, he’s not responding to conventional doctor’s treatment, he’s feverish and his body’s racked with pain. The shaman, a kindly schoolteacher type, inhales smoke from the smouldering leaves of a juniper bush (deeply inhaling juniper smoke induces a trance). He cries out, making a high-pitched yelping noise that seems almost theatrical. However no one seems to doubt him. Most of Pakistan is Islamic in the extreme, but up here the villagers still follow many of the ‘old ways’ – often communing with the supernatural with a faith so unshakeable that those who believe themselves to be cursed, do often really die.

All of a sudden the shaman runs outside. At the base of the steps he begins to dig. I watch carefully. How does he know where to dig? Obviously, he’s convinced there’s something buried beneath the step that’s caused the old man’s illness. At first I suspect a trick, but the ground was undisturbed. And then he finds it, a soiled dirty bundle; it’s a piece of human skull wrapped in a rag – an evil spell placed by an enemy – a curse. But the trance isn’t over. He continues his communion with the spirit world until, totally exhausted, he faints. I was told that a few days later, the sick old man began to show signs of recovery.

News of the shaman’s ‘exorcism’ has drawn out the village, and the shaman is urged to use his powers to find out what the mountain spirits have in store for the village. Once more, the juniper smoke does its work, inducing a deep trance in the shaman. Hallucinating, he begins to translate the spirit’s prophecy. One of the village elders slaughters a goat, and the shaman grabs the head and smears the entrails over his face – the blood of a goat’s head is said to be fairy milk. Then the trance lifts and the shaman collapses back into reality, totally exhausted. His party may be over, but it’s only just starting for the villagers. As he slowly washes the blood from his face, they celebrate the spirit’s message – he foretold a good season and a prosperous year for the farmers of the valley.

Far up the Karakoram Highway, close to the Chinese border, Gilgit is a town little known outside Pakistan. However to the locals, it’s known as the home of a game that has become associated throughout the world with the rich and famous – polo. However you don’t have to be rich to play ‘their game’ in Gilgit, you just have to be a good rider – or so they tell me. Polo had its earliest origins in Persia, but it was Gilgit that gave it its name. Polo means ‘ball’ in Pashtan, though I discovered that ‘hitting a polo’ isn’t as easy as it looks. Back in the days of the British Raj, British cavalry officers were captivated by the game and took the sport back to England and then on to the rest of the world. In a game of great skill and spectacular plays, I manage to ‘almost’ hit the ball once. After the game, some of the players, mostly Pakistan Army, asked why I was in Gilgit and, hearing of my quest, told me that they new of a crashed plane near a town called Skardu – Eureka.

According to Hilton’s novel, Shangri-La was supposed to be near the source of the Indus River, and Skardu is also not far from Nanga Parbat. However the high desert valley plains, complete with sand dunes, look hardly like paradise on earth – the upper Indus Valley is one of the most barren places on earth. It’s also Kashmir, disputed territory – land claimed by both India and Pakistan. Now the edge of war zone is perhaps an unlikely setting for Shangri-La.

But to my astonishment, it’s there all right. A big sign heralds it with the words ‘Shangri-La 2kms ahead on right’. I enter through high gates to be greeted by a waiter in a red tunic who welcomes me to the 1970s theme hotel, ‘Shangri-La Mountain Resort’ – great.

Conveniently and neatly crashed close to the reception is the plane the polo players told me about – a DC10 transformed into a (now) disused and rather cramped cafe. The buildings do have a Buddhist air about them, but it’s clear my journey is far from over. An out of season tourist facility cashing in on the Lost Horizon myth might be someone’s idea of Shangri-La, but it’s not mine. Perhaps that’s a little unfair, the light up here is incredible, and the mountains reflected in the resort’s man-made lake do lend a certain air of peace after ten days on the road.

Spectacular and remote, Skardu is a Mecca for climbers heading for K2 and Nanga Parbat. In the gaggle of market stalls a huge range of second-hand adventure gear awaits the aspiring climber. Ropes, boots, carabinas and helmets are cheap as chips, though the prospect of climbing some of the world’s highest mountains with second-hand gear doesn’t exactly inspire me to set out for the nearest glacier. I opt instead for a slightly more leisurely pursuit – an innings or two of cricket with the local kids. This very British game has penetrated even the remotest corners of the old British empire and Pakistanis are absolutely mad about it. Even at this knock-about level they easily bowl out an Australian twice their size.

Back in the days when the British army ruled India and what’s now Pakistan, this was literally the ends of the earth, or at least the earth as the British knew it. Below the walls of Skadu’s fort was the known world, towns, order, and civilization – a last bastion. Beyond them, was the great unknown. When James Hilton wrote his book in the 1930s, it was eminently possible that a place like Shangri-La could exist because no one knew what lay beyond. So, if I’m to find the place that provided James Hilton’s inspiration, I must enter this great beyond and the next valley – the Hunza.

As I enter the valley, I immediately get a sense of timelessness and tick another box on the Shangri-La checklist – the Hunza is legendary for its healthy, old population. It’s said that, up here, people regularly live well past 100 years of age, if not older. But if this is the valley of Shangri-La, there must be a Buddhist monastery.

At the head of the valley sits a building with a distinctly Buddhist look that fits the description of Shangri-La better than any I’ve seen anywhere in the Himalayas: “Seeing it first it was indeed a strange and half incredible sight. A group of pavilions clung to the mountainside with the chance delicacy of flower petals impaled upon a crag. An austere emotion carried the eye upward to the grey rock bastion above.”

Under the pavilion-like features of this ancient building, I enter, unsure as to what I’ll find. Is this a place of enlightenment? Could it be a place that, once entered, you never want to leave? I sense I’m alone and, then again, I’m not sure. As I travel through the narrow corridors and catch a glimpse of vistas that show the spectacular valley, I feel that it may well be the place that inspired Shangri-La.

In Lost Horizons, the travellers who are brought to Shangri-La always had a sense they were being watched and that the monks and other residents never had more than a faint, physical presence. As I wander the corridors and rooms of this strange deserted building, I too get a faint sense of the people whom once lived here. Built in the 15th Century for the marriage of a favoured daughter by the ruling family of the valley, craftsmen came from Tibet to create the beautiful building seen today. So perhaps this explains a building that appears more monastery than fort, but the question remains, was this building and valley the inspiration for James Hilton’s fantasy called Shangri-La?

As I read through my notes on the terrace above the valley, Vijaz, the custodian of the fort, seems to appear from nowhere like the High Lama in Shangri-La. He’s lived in the Hunza all his life, so if anyone knows of its links to the Shangri-La myth, surely he does. He explains that before the arrival of British, the Hunza was an independent kingdom.

During the ‘Great Game’, the battle of spies and intrigue between Britain and Russia, the British feared that the Russians would annex the kingdom and pour down through its valleys to take India. “That’s why we had a battle with British troops in December 1891,” he says. “From that time we were under the British, so it would have been easy for someone like Hilton to reach the valley.“

“Do you think he came here?” I ask. He is cautious: “I suppose he came here.” I press him: “So this building could have been his inspiration for Shangri-La, and the inspiration for writing his famous novel?” “Yes,” he says slowly with a smile and without great conviction – hardly conclusive evidence.

Vijaz disappears much as he materialized, and I’m left to look out over the valley. Rambling roofs march down towards the gorge of river, each village separated by terraces of random green of late crops and the burnt-brown husks of harvested grain. Behind me the immense wall of the range supports and shelters the valley, across its expanse another barrier, dusted white by the first flurries of winter snows, rises into the clouds.

It is idyllic, a place apart that is perhaps as close to Hilton’s utopia as anywhere in our world. Though the Hunza is changing, with roads replacing ancient trails and trade burgeoning with the Chinese across the boarder, it still weaves its spell. I set out on this journey knowing that Shangri-La was the invention of a master storyteller, although it does no harm to believe that a little bit of heaven could exist on earth. James Hilton believed each of us needed a place like Shangri-La to escape to and believe in, a place of hope, a safe haven from the rigours of the world. Perhaps it is best left in the realm of imagination.