Just how strongly this image is embedded in Western culture and the power it can exert can be seen in the following examples. During
the Second World War Papua New Guinea was occupied by the Japanese. After the Americans took the coastal areas, an aerial survey of the region was ordered.
During the survey, carried out by a Myron Grimes, a beautiful green valley was discovered which motivated him to pass on the story of an “undiscovered
The idea quickly fired the imagination of two war correspondents who obtained permission to overfly the area and make low-level photographs,
which they did. The published story had two effects. One was that military headquarters in Washington was inundated with requests to emigrate to Shangri-La
(despite the fact that no-one from the West had ever set foot there). The second was the formation of a Shangri-La Club. Membership was restricted to
those who had flown over the valley. In May 1945 a group of 24 soldiers, including 8 women, organised an excursion. The plane crashed with three survivors.
In fact, contrary to projection that the area was inhabited by “noble savages” à la J. J. Rousseau, the inhabitants, a Dani group,
lived in an almost constant state of war with their neighbours and were cannibals. The
survivors were eventually rescued.
The second example is from Austria. The period after the First World War was marked by economic depression and a resulting high level
of unemployment, hardship and outright poverty. Tales of opportunities and wealth in far-off lands found open ears. Such was the case with “Project
Ethiopia.” In 1928 a large number of unemployed set off on foot many without passports and most with little or no pecuniary means. Heading towards
Trieste where they intended to board ship bound for Abyssinia they were held up on the border, accused of being “vagabonds” and of illegal
fled in panic. Ironically, at the same time (and up to the early 1960’s) the Maria Theresa silver thaler was one of the most widely accepted
means of payment in the country to which they hoped to emigrate.
Comparing these examples to the original Shangri-La, it can be seen that the boundaries between imagination and reality, fact and fiction,
are completely fluid.