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The Siege of Shangri-La: The Quest for Tibet's Sacred Hidden Paradise Hardcover – December 24, 2002

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

A contributing editor at National Geographic Adventure and correspondent for Outside magazine, McRae wonderfully documents the history of exploration, both geographical and spiritual, in Tibet's Tsangpo River Gorge, an acknowledged "power place" in Tibetan Buddhism and believed for centuries to be the gateway to nirvana. McRae begins in the 1920s and focuses on the work of naturalist Francis Kingdon-Ward, an Englishman bent on unraveling the mystery behind the Tsangpo's precipitous drop in elevation. (He thought it was caused by a hidden waterfall.) McRae then looks at contemporary tourism in the region. In the 1990s the Chinese government opened southeastern Tibet to foreigners for the first time since the 1959 takeover, and since then, it's become a hot spot for modern-day explorers. McRae's leading men include a low profile wilderness guide from Tucson, Ariz., who got the attention of the Guinness Book of World Records when he claimed that, by his calculations, the gorge was the world's deepest canyon; Ian Baker and Hamid Sardar, American expatriates living in Kathmandu; and Arizona land developers Gill and Troy Gillenwater, who became violently ill after bathing in a sacred spring and returned to America to write about their exploits for an outdoor clothing catalogue. In his previous offering, an essay collection called Continental Drifter, McRae opined that the Chinese were turning Tibet into a religious theme park. He elaborates, though with reporting that sometimes feels detached, on that lament here, exposing Western bravado against the backdrop of one of the East's most mysterious-and beautiful-places.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

The Tsangpo River Gorge, in southeastern Tibet, is a fascinating place. Threaded by a torrential river, walled in by lofty peaks, plagued by foul weather and earthquakes, its beauty nonetheless casts a spell on both Eastern and Western imaginations. Revered by Buddhists as a sacred place, it was reimagined and dubbed Shangri-La by James Hilton in his 1933 novel Lost Horizon and has been the site of repeated incursions by Westerners, whether botanists, budding Buddhists, or adventurers. McRae, an experienced travel and outdoors writer, has expanded two previously published articles into a broad overview. Only 80 years ago a 10-mile stretch of the Tsangpo was still unexplored; at present, China plans to build resorts and draw hordes of tourists to this pristine place. But while McRae does a fine job of recounting the various expeditions to paradise and placing them in social context--and has an eye for the unfortunate human habit of despoiling places-- some readers may tire of his only somewhat credulous and fairly lengthy descriptions of the region's sacred geography. Keir Graff
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Broadway; 1 edition (December 24, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0767904850
  • ISBN-13: 978-0767904858
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 0.8 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,572,189 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

22 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Joyce Middlebrook on April 1, 2003
Format: Hardcover
McRae recreates the journeys of several adventurers seeking an undiscovered waterfall in Tibet. Old notebooks, rumors, sacred writings, and guides from remote villages lure these explorers into an exquisite landscape of dense rhododendrons and ferns, steep rock canyons, and snowy peaks, all framing an elusive river that became impossible to map. The physical challenge is overwhelming, sometimes leading to despair and even death. Rainstorms, clouds of insects, waist-deep mud, impassable vegetation, leeches, steep and slippery rock walls, and even a tribe of women known to poison visitors, all demand constant mindfulness. A chance meeting with a Lama, the sudden appearance of a rainbow, the discovery of refuge in a hidden temple, a gift of food and the guidance from a native are intermittent rewards for the constant struggle. 
Motives for the search were diverse, with some seeking ego-less spiritual enlightenment, while others lusted for recognition and glory.
McRae brings to life a world totally foreign to me in engaging prose, full of facts and well-researched details. I appreciate glimpsing the exotic, strange land McRae presents in his fascinating account of travels into this magical place.
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19 of 19 people found the following review helpful By doomsdayer520 HALL OF FAME on August 3, 2003
Format: Hardcover
This is not just a book about exploring remote places, but the spirituality of exploration itself. The Tsangpo River's gorge through the Himalayas in southern Tibet was probably the last place on Earth to be explored and mapped. This was not completed, at least by Westerners, until 1998. This is due to the area's extreme remoteness and isolation, and its impossible terrain. Add to that the West's not entirely accurate glorification of Tibetan geography and culture. Here McRae covers both the Western explorers who tried to "conquer" the gorge, and the native attitudes toward surrendering to it. "Classical" explorers made many attempts until the 1950's when China "liberated" Tibet and closed it off, followed by extreme sports adventurers in the 1990's. Also in the 90's, two expatriates named Ian Baker and Hamid Sardar became adepts at Buddhist/Tibetan spirituality and explored the gorge from a completely different standpoint - that of a pilgrimage to Tibet's spiritual centers. Theirs is the most interesting story of the book, as the Tibetans believe that any landscape can only be truly discovered if one surrenders to it (the Eastern way) rather than trying to conquer it (the Western way). Sadly, all the hubbub in the pro-conquest Western press of recent years will probably ruin the gorge's extreme beauty and isolation. But with this book's great coverage of the cultural and spiritual dimensions of Tibetan exploration, we know that this paradise will continue to confound conquerors but offer rich rewards for surrenderers. [~doomsdayer520~]
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By John L Murphy TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on November 16, 2012
Format: Hardcover
This preceded Ian Baker's 2004 first-person account (see my Oct. 2005 review) "The Heart of the World: A Journey to the Last Secret Place", but I did not know about McRae's work until I stumbled across it, the lone Himalayan-themed title in my local urban library. McRae provides a deftly drawn depiction of Baker, and his colleagues and rivals. In the 1990s, they seek in what becomes an unseemly fashion to rush to be the first to "discover" (as opposed to more correctly "document, as Baker wishes) the last five-mile gap with its "hidden falls" of the Tsongpo Gorge that will flow into the mighty Brahmaputra river.

McRae, as a National Geographic editor, does not play favorites in his telling of the quest, even if his magazine sponsored one of two competing, as it turned out, teams. Furthermore, the Chinese massed to rush into the competition, and the conclusion shows them eager to exploit the prospect of a national park for eco-tourism and all the natural and cultural destruction in the name of profit that designation entails.

This account, preceded by an equally worthy narrative of how earlier British explorers had struggled to penetrate this blank spot on their maps, emphasizes in pithier and more naturally detached form than does Baker's longer book the research he and his partner Hamid Sardar conducted of Pemako's "inner and outer geography." For, these scholars and Buddhist practitioners reasoned that "the canyon's crumpled topography concealed a sacred landscape visible only to those of adequate spiritual preparation, and that the path to this holy realm of peace and plenty would lead them, as Baker explains, 'beyond geography.
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Format: Hardcover
In The Siege of Shangri-La: The Quest for Tibet's Sacred Hidden Paradise, Michael McRae - a journalist for prestigious publications such as National Geographic Adventure, National Geographic, Outside, Audubon, Life, Men's Journal, and more discusses one of the last known unexplored areas in the world and the history surrounding it.

The Siege of Shangri-La is divided into three parts: the historical side, which discusses and details the various expeditions to the area of Tibet along the Tsangpo River and specifically into the Tsangpo River Gorge by the British over a hundred years ago; the second part details the different perceptions of paradise, specifically of certain Buddhist peoples and tribes and several Westerners; the third part is about the various reasons for traveling there for the Buddhists and the most recent expeditions once China re-opened Tibet.

McRae offers an exciting narrative about the gorge - the deepest in the world, and situated very near the tallest mountain peak in the world. He covers the expeditions from the last two hundred years, and the trials and tribulations the explorers faced in one of the most peculiar landscapes in the world. The romance of the Gorge leads back to initial exploration and reports of the area, where explorers revealed that the Tsangpo connected to various rivers in India - but the altitude the river dropped in such a short distance posed a mystery. The first few explorers conjectured a waterfall, grander than one hundred feet, as on of the reasons for the amazing altitude change of the river. However, all but a five mile gap of the river - a gap that was nearly impossible to reach - was explored until 1993. "The Lost Waterfalls" were then declared a romanticized vision, and believed not to exist.
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