In 1945 Australian war correspondent and later novelist George Johnston undertook a journey on the Tibetan Plateau with fellow American correspondent James Burke. Johnston later wrote about this adventure in his memoir Journey Through Tomorrow (1947) as part of a wider account of his travels in Asia during the Second World War. This article considers the Tibetan section of his narrative with a focus on the influence of English novelist James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, with its depiction of a Tibetan utopia in the form of the lamasery of Shangri-La. In doing so the article considers Johnston’s text as an example of the challenge faced by travel writers in negotiating the territory between myth and reality in representing the ‘truth’ of their experience, and as a narrative that avoids the worst of the orientalizing traits of many other travelers’ accounts of Tibet.
Myth and Reality in Shangri-La
Paul Genoni and Tanya Dalziell
Memory is a curious thing, as we all know. Revisiting the past even physically, in my case especially physically, can have unexpected results. For me, it has often been a question of 'shrinkage' for want of a better word. Places that seemed in one's youth vast, impressive, overwhelming seem so much smaller. Revisiting Oxford in the 1980s for example, after a period of perhaps fifteen years absence, I was so struck, not only by the 'Disneyland' that the town had become (ten times worse since then), but by how far less physically impressive the vast Shangri-la of my youthful imagination had become to me: beautiful, yes – but no Rome or Versailles. Living in Paris – a majestic city – whatever its other drawbacks and travelling fairly widely in the world had no doubt - unconsciously – put the 'dreaming spires' of my memory into architectural perspective.