cover image THE SIEGE OF SHANGRI-LA: The Quest for Tibet's Legendary Hidden Paradise

THE SIEGE OF SHANGRI-LA: The Quest for Tibet's Legendary Hidden Paradise

Michael J. McRae, . . Broadway, $25 (240pp) ISBN 978-0-7679-0485-8

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. (Dec.)