End of Shangri-La?

My own experiences with earthquakes, only realised since living here – see my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/06/24/i-feel-the-earth-move-under-my-feet/ , increases my awareness of how much the people of Nepal must be suffering right now as a result of two devastating seismic shocks reaching almost point 8 on the Richter scale.

I once compared the Indian sub-continent to a geographically giant version of Italy (or was it the other way round, did I compare Italy to a miniature version of India?): the folded Triassic mountains of the Himalayas, taking the place of the Alps, the alluvial Ganges plain the Po valley and the Ghats the Apennines. What I should have realised is that both parts of the world are similarly subject to tectonic plate clashing within their boundaries. Italy’s nearest equivalent, both in scale and geographical location, of the horrors  Nepal is now experiencing would have been the catastrophic Friuli earthquake of 1976 (Richter scale 6.4) when almost a thousand people died.

Where would I find a miniature equivalent of Nepal in Italy? Livigno or the Valtellina are a poor choice, yet they do have several features in common. Surrounded by the highest mountains in each respective continent, they contain a broad central valley and very picturesque towns and villages.

I should know about this since in Sergeant Pepper year I’d hitch-hiked with a friend all the way from Catford, London to Kathmandu, Nepal. I stayed for around a month in the mountain kingdom’s capital and hired a push-bike to visit towns in the broad valley, including Bhaktapur and Lalitpur. I was surprised by the often close similarity of Nepalese temples with their ornate wood carvings to the rural baroque of alpine Italy and Austria.

What was fascinating about Nepal was its religious syncretism and variety. Local gods were fused with classical Hindu deities, refuges from Tibet had also added their own brand of Buddhism and, no doubt, American missionaries were at work too.

Staying in a hostel whose walls were papered with old newspapers I met up with other travellers including seven-finger Eddy, and two others who I was to meet later when I returned to the UK, somewhat changed in attitudes and ideas, to pursue my first uni year.

Strangely, I find I have been living in another mountain valley in India’s miniature version, Italy, for close on ten years now. Is it because I have been infected by Hiltonism? (James Hilton, the author of that classic book about the search for an inaccessible earthly paradise called Shangri-La – Tibetan for “mountain pass to the valley of Shang”).


Whatever this may be, as hippy dreams have faded away to be replaced by brutal realities, as the Nepalese are counting their dead and as Unesco is measuring the destruction of the country’s unique world heritage sites I have only some very faded photographs, all technically unwittingly underexposed, to describe one of the great experiences in my life.

Let us hope that the technique of anastylosis, whereby every fallen piece of a fallen historical palace or temple is collected, numbered and, like a jigsaw, returned to its original location in the building, is used in Nepal. Then Kathmandu might return to its original glory, like Gemona (which we passed on our way to Vienna with the Lucca Philharmonic Orchestra last December) where tourists can enjoy the Friulian town’s historic centre with only the odd number on some of its stones to remind one that just over forty years they had been reduced to a pile of rubble.

Sadly, however, no technique can bring back to life the thousands of earthquake victims, both from Nepal and from abroad, that lie scattered in that beautiful mountain state.


4 thoughts on “End of Shangri-La?

  1. I loved seeing these old images of Nepal. I also went as a young hippy, with two young children, staying in Swayanbunath with a friend for two months and doing all the usual short hiking trips as well as days in Bhaktapur. My images looked similar to yours all my photos went in the bushfire of 2009 here ) It was a magic time and has left an indelible print on my being. I grieve for the Nepalese: and I hope that the buildings may be restored correctly too.
    I travel to Italy often, and have stayed for a length of time around your way, and I have never seen the similarity between these two countries. Maybe I see culture and people more than valleys and hills.

      • And my dear friend, who escaped from the Australian draft for the Vietnamese war,lived there for years. He was also a Francis! Then after a few years, he vanished…..

  2. It’s strange how people vanish. Even now with social media and the rest of it there are some people one would sorely love to meet again and chat who are nowhere to be found. Surely they can’t have left this planet already?

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