Secrets of Shangri-La

Secrets of Shangri-La

Wed, 11/18/2009 - 8:00pm

Pictured: Inside the caves, the team discovered a rare library of ancient Tibetan texts, thousands of hand-inked folios in dust-laden piles.


Credit: Kris Erickson ©2009 National Geographic

A team of climbers and scholars set out to reach the most remote kingdom in the world.

High in the Himalaya, in the most remote kingdom in the world, explorers have found thousands of mysterious caves. Their dark portals beckon with the promise of a glimpse into a lost world. On Wednesday, November 18, beginning at 8 p.m. on WXXI-TV (DT21.1/cable1011/cable11), a team of climbers and scholars sets out to reach them and give viewers a glimpse into the forbidden kingdom of Mustang and the unseen treasures these lost caves contain. Secrets of Shangri-La airs at 8 p.m., followed by Lost Cave Temples of the Himalaya at 9 p.m. A third program, Mustang – Journey of Transformation, airing at 10 p.m., tells the compelling story of efforts to rescue ancient Tibetan monasteries on the brink of extinction. Richard Gere narrates.

The kingdom of Mustang lies on a windswept plateau between Nepal and Tibet. Isolated both by geography and politics, Mustang is culturally and ethnically Tibetan, but politically part of Nepal. The area was completely off limits to westerners for 50 years.

In an attempt to unravel a mystery, seven-time Everest summiter Pete Athans and a team of internationally renowned climbers and explorers journeyed to Mustang, joining forces with archaeologists, anthropologists and art historians. Secrets of Shangri-La follows their excursion to enter long-hidden caves and rescue rare Tibetan texts from crumbling landscape before looters get to them. The texts are adorned with beautiful “illuminations,” small paintings worth tens of thousands of dollars on the international art market.

As they prepare to climb into the caves, the Lo Manthang Youth Club, a political group from a nearby village, tries to stop them. What ensues is an intriguing set of events involving the King of Mustang, the highest lama of the land and even the divinities that are believed to inhabit the area.

“These caves are probably the most reliable indicator of the continuous history of this area,” said Oxford University anthropologist Charles Ramble, who has studied this culture for 28 years and has lived among the Mustang people. “The kinds of things we find in there, from the archaeological record to perhaps the richest literary repository we’ve found, means that these really are the places on which we need to focus if we want to establish as full as possible a picture of the history and culture of the Himalaya.”

In April 2007, a team of climbers and scientists had climbed inside these long-hidden chambers for the first time in modern history. In Lost Cave Temples of the Himalaya, viewers follow the story, told by filmmaker Liesl Clark, as Athans, Clark’s husband, and big-wall climber Renan Ozturk take on the dangerous job of climbing into the crumbling caves. Their goals are to get inside the inaccessible cave cities, unoccupied for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, to document what’s inside and to search for nine legendary cave temples called “kabum.” What they find goes far beyond their expectations, rocking the Himalayan world and rewriting the history of this remote and mystical region. The treasures include a 55-panel painted mural and piles of old Tibetan manuscript folios, some printed in silver and gold. Each vertical move into a cave opening is a step into the unknown.

Mustang – Journey of Transformation, narrated by Richard Gere, presents the remarkable story of a Tibetan culture pulled back from the brink of extinction through the restoration of its most sacred sites. At a time when Tibetan culture in Tibet is in danger of disappearing under Chinese occupation, Mustang remains uniquely preserved. In 1991, when Nepal opened Mustang’s border to the outside world, the first visitors were shocked by what they found — the old monasteries were on the verge of collapse and the Buddhist wall paintings were disintegrating. The impoverished people needed health care, education and jobs, yet the raja of Mustang’s first plea to outsiders who offered help was to save the monasteries. He understood … saving the art would save the people, for cultural identity is paramount. Mustang – Journey of Transformation is a tale of hope and rebirth told by those who helped save the forbidden kingdom. The film features an interview with the Dalai Lama. The program also examines the dynamic between the early Dutch settlers and the indigenous Peoples of Mannahatta as they established trade relations – first in beaver pelts, then in the famous purchase of the Island itself for $24.