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.