Shooting Shangri-La

Back in Shangri-La, working with ten talented photographers from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and the USA at the first-ever Black Box International Photo Workshop.  One of the most brilliant marketing moves in China’s brief modern history is the 2001 renaming of the town of Zhongdian in northern Yunnan to its present designation — Shangri-La — after the fictional mountain paradise imagined by novelist James Hilton in his celebrated novel, Lost Horizon. After all, the town is high up on the Tibetan Plateau (3000 km), and if you come from the north, you do have to cross several mountain ranges to get there.  The climate is generally ideal, and the mostly Tibetan inhabitants are friendly.  And, Zhongdian also has the requisite photogenic monastery, located in a setting worthy of Lost Horizon’s movie version.

Written in 1937, Hilton’s book was inspired in part by the work of the legendary National Geographic explorer/photographer, Joseph Rock, who once lived nearby in the town of Lijiang.  Between 1922 and 1935, Rock wrote and photographed ten 50+-page articles on the region for the Geographic.  He was also an old friend of mine, of sorts, since it was Rock, or at least his work, that introduced me to the Tibetan world.  In preparation for my National Geographic story on him (“Our Man in China”, NGM, January 1997), I immersed myself in his writing and photography about Tibet, and on my first trip to Zhongdian/Shangri-La in 1997, I photographed the same monastery, little changed since Rock described it more than 50 years before.

Rock was a formidable explorer, who spoke ten languages, including Tibetan, as well as seven aboriginal dialects of Chinese, and traveled on horseback with an entourage of up to 200 men and muleteers. His meals were served on a table with fine china, complete with linen tablecloth and silver cutlery. The Austrian-born Rock dined on Viennese cuisine cooked by a Chinese chef he trained himself. He even bathed daily in a portable bathtub from Abercrombie and Fitch, while listening to Italian opera played on a battery-operated phonograph.  I’ve always admired the man’s style and envied his expense account.

It’s a fitting tribute, then, to be back following in the footsteps of Rock as I lead my workshop students on a search for their own “lost horizons” in today’s real Shangri-La/Zhongdian.  Here are a few frames from my new book, Shangri-La [along the tea road to Lhasa] , signed copies now available through my website. Welcome to paradise.

©Michael Yamashita

Shangri-La: Along the Tea Road to Lhasa

©Michael Yamashita

Kawagebo, the highest peak in Yunnan, lords over the mist-shrouded Meili Snow Mountains around it.

©Michael Yamashita

Sumzanling Monastery in today's Shangri-La (formerly Zhongdian): In words that could describe it today, James Hilton wrote, "(The valley was) surveyed, rather than dominated by the lamasery...a delightfully favored place."

©Michael Yamashita

A craftsman polishes the nose of a gigantic copper Buddha at a monastery workshop in Shangri-La.

@Michael Yamashita

A steaming cauldron of yak butter tea will serve 800 monks at Shechen Monastery.

©Michael Yamashita

Locals, who have been invited to Garthar Monastery during a festival, engage in the various stages of the highly ritualized practice of prostration called Chak Tsal, which means "to sweep clean."

©Michael Yamashita

Segyagu, the faithful doing Kora and turning prayer wheels at this meditation center with it's huge mani stone monument nearby Lhagong monastery.

©Micahael Yamashita

The hillside above the Segyagu Meditation Center is obscured by thousands of flags, which send prayers to the winds to disperse blessings throughout the land.

©Michael Yamashita

Pilgrims proceed at a snail's pace performing the Chak Tsal, the Tibetan name for ritual prostration. Their journey from Qinghai will take six months, along the northern branch of the Tea Horse Road to the sacred city of Lhasa.

©Michael Yamashita

The early snowstorm veils a herd of yaks grazing along the Yalong River.

©Michael Yamashita

Silhouetted against the morning sunrise, a nomad encampment is situated along Route 109, near Namtso Lake.



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10 Responses to Shooting Shangri-La

  1. Apratim Saha says:

    This is really a great post with some extraordinary images and excellent writing.

  2. Ben says:

    I admired your work!

    • admin says:

      Thanks Ben.

    • Nada says:

      Funnily enough I’ve been to Zhongdian and it is raehtr nice. Some very tasty fried potatoes with a fiery chilli dip bought from a street vendor really sticks in my mind. Stunning monastry too, but I regret to report it is no shangri-la the hostel we stayed in was still a bit dicey. In the end though, the frightening bus journey when we left certainly did give me a couple of grey hairs, so maybe there is something to it?

      • admin says:

        The beauty of Zhongdian for me is in the photographic possibilities. Next time you should try staying at Songtsam Lodges.

  3. Harvey Chin says:

    Love this post on Zhongdian. Had a chance to visit a few years back on our way to Tibet. Beautiful country. Wish I had known of this workshop. We missed you back in 2003 when we signed up for TPW workshop in Tuscany that you were scheduled to host but taken over by Bob Sacha. We went anyway and loved it. Were can I see your schedule of workshops. I would like to see if we can make one of them. Thanks.

  4. Claire says:

    Your photos are absolutely amazing. In the summer of 2012 my husband and I traveled to Shangri-la to visit my daughter ( she taught English for two years to Tibetan youth in a job-training program). From there the three of us pursued some of the tea road, through Lugu Lake to Kangding, where we saw the amazing sculptures of tea road history. People we met there considered Kangding “Tibet,” and we appreciated that it was probably the closest we were ever going to get – but then we were somehow able to get closer. Despite pronouncements that all towns in the prefecture (save Kangding” were “closed to foreigners,” we spent three days in the nearby town of Tagong. There we stayed in the only guesthouse that was allowed to accept foreigners, and even then our host refused to take our names or record our passports. (A sort of “plausible deniability?”) During our stay the entire internet service to the town was shut down. In Tagong the temple is said to be equivalent to the Potola Palace; in case you can’t go there, a pilgrimage to Tagong would suffice. Again, we appreciated the opportunity to get as close to Tibet as we might ever get. like you, we saw the lengths to which the country has taken over, and were saddened by it. Thank you for the amazing photographs, and I’m going to try to get your book.

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