- The Washington Times - Friday, November 4, 2005

Until I was 17, I traveled only in the mind. Dreams of distant lands came from the pages of books or the grainy black-and-white films we were shown in the school hall.

It’s hard to imagine now, when we all go jetting across the globe at the drop of a hat, but back then, in drab ‘50s Britain — before the age of tourism — our horizons stopped at North Wales or the Lancashire coast. It was from books that we learned about other cultures and discovered that there were places in the world where living links still existed with the deep past.

My father, who was a pharmacist in a corner drugstore, had spent some time in Sri Lanka at the end of World War II and had gotten interested in Buddhism. He had books about the East and even knew about the sacred Mount Kailash, but back then, that was beyond the outer limits of travel, and it would be a lifetime before I would get there.

So it was only in my teens that I began to travel, a late ‘60s student hitching around Europe. The first goal was Greece — impoverished in those days, still recovering from occupation and civil war. I’ll never forget the first arrival: trundling in the dawn on the slow train from Salonika past Thermopylae, opening the window to feel the hot gusts from herb-scented hillsides and to see that transforming light (memorably described by Henry Miller in his book “Colossus of Maroussi”).

Visiting Mycenae, Knossos or Olympia for my generation was like stepping onto sacred ground. Say what you will about us, but the generation of 1968 was not jaded or cynical: The world was not a dangerous place to us, but a house of wonders, and we were open to it all. I hitched to Greece a few times over the next few years: island hopping, sleeping out on hillsides and beaches.

In my rucksack I carried that great C.P. Cavafy poem in which the journey to Ithaca is a metaphor for life. Just “hope the journey is long and full of instruction,” he says, and if in the end you find Ithaca poor, don’t be deceived — the journey was the point.

The most memorable times were often the most down-to-earth: sitting in a cafe with the old sailors waiting for the wind to change; joining in an outdoor feast at a Greek country wedding; standing at the deathbed of an old lady who spoke the archaic Greek of the Mani; eating Persephone’s pomegranate seeds with the kolyva prepared for her funeral.

It all impressed me in ways I have never forgotten: the growing realization that history is not dead, but here in the present in what one might call the “giveness” of the past, in what the ancestors have handed down to us. You can read books, but the real residue of history lies in the living (in us).

That lesson stayed with me after university, when I started making films. We had some thrilling journeys in southern Africa during the liberation wars of the late ‘70s. In the early ‘80s, I twice went up the River Congo on local transportation, a journey I’m not sure I would risk now, and certainly not as a lone traveler.

One night, camped on the riverbank somewhere between Ubundu and Kindu, we were held up at gunpoint, and as I stood there, stark naked, with cool gunmetal prodding my very white skin, I remember thinking that no one at home knew where we were to within a couple of hundred miles.

Over that time, our films were evolving gradually into what I call history-travel-adventure: no actors or costumes, but journeys in real places, real cultures. The films were about history, but their key element was travel: making the connection between people, their landscape and their past.


Of course, we were lucky to travel then. The pace of change has accelerated dramatically in the past 30 years, and for good or ill, the global culture is everywhere. Still, I often found myself wishing I had been able to see it earlier. I envied such real explorers as Wilfred Thesiger, whom I met doing a film on what, even then, was the Iraq tragedy.

His face was like a world map, fissured and sun-beaten. In his eyes was the faraway look of a child-man who has seen things the rest of us have never imagined. Even in old age, he was still in thrall to the beauty of the Earth and the wild and exotic spectacle of old humanity.

Mr. Thesiger told me the story of how, as a 6-year-old boy in Ethiopia, he had seen the barbaric splendor of the royal army returning from war, lion-mane headdresses tossing, ululating over the severed heads of their defeated foes. That was the moment when he decided his life’s path would be to reject modernity and explore the world that even then was ceasing to be.

That was in 1916 — not so long ago — but that world is gone already. The globe is so well-traveled and mapped that it seems hardly a landscape remains untrodden and hardly a tale remains untold by Lonely Planet guides and TV documentaries.

Extreme-adventure tour companies offer journeys to places that a century ago were at the farthest reaches of exploration. Now we all know about the cost — to ice caps, oceans and rain forests — but also to what I call the “rain forests of the spirit.” By that I mean the natural resources of humanity itself, what UNESCO (late in the day) is calling our “intangible heritage.”

That is all humanity’s wonderful and creative ways of thinking and doing, encoded memories built up over thousands of years that are being rubbed away thoughtlessly in front of our eyes over a few generations.

From the late ‘80s, our film journeys got more ambitious. We climbed sacred Chinese mountains and stayed with the Marsh Arabs; we followed the conquistadors down the Amazon to the lost city of the Incas at Vilcabamba and onto the glaciers of Qoyllur Riti, where we saw the splendor of the old Andean world hanging on at the remotest edge.

Above all, there was the journey in the footsteps of Alexander the Great, which took us from Greece to India, through Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia. On gray days in London, I still have only to look at the map on the wall to see vivid images from that journey: the Great Sand Sea, where dunes hundreds of feet high turn from gold to molten red in the setting sun; the emerald forests by the Caspian Sea; the wild beauty of the Indus gorges, looking across to 26,000-foot peaks of the Himalayas.


We took a battered Russian ambulance from Samarkand into the Tajik mountains; we slept on Indus river boats and breakfasted with Afghan gunmen in the Hindu Kush on hot coarse bitter bread and green tea flavored with cardamom. Days of heaven — a window of time before September 11 and then the war in Iraq made it more dangerous for any Westerner, but especially we Britons and Americans, to travel off the beaten track in those marvelous lands between the Silk Route and the Khyber Pass.

Over that time, our children were born, and I was inducted into the material world of middle-class London. Of course, we wanted our children to get to know other worlds and to respect and love other cultures. We have taken them to the Amazonian rain forest and the Peruvian Andes, and they have traveled in India.

In 2001, we took them out of school (much to the consternation of their teachers and grandparents) to go with Tamil friends to the Kumbh Mela, where 24 million people gathered on one night to bathe in the Ganges river — the biggest event ever on Earth.

In our tent, the girls played playground clapping games with the Indian children; they even took a dip with the local youngsters in the sacred river.

Only this summer, I returned with our 15-year-old to see our friends in the south of India. She’s a typical London teenager, into MTV and her mobile phone, but she came away with a deep affection for small-town India — for family rituals, lamp-lit Friday worship in the temple — and also for the challenging ideas of India itself. It, like all great civilizations, has had the power to regenerate itself several times over its long history (and is poised to do so again as a giant of the 21st century).

The journeys we made last year for our new TV series took us to more extraordinary places: Ethiopia, Eritrea, Yemen, Georgia in the Caucasus. Yet one place was especially resonant for me because it also took me back to my childhood.

Years ago, back in his corner shop in rainy Manchester, my father on his lunch hour used to read about Tibetan Buddhism. Among the books he loved was Lama Anagarika Govinda’s “Way of the White Clouds,” perhaps the most haunting of all Tibetan travel books — a last glimpse of a lost world before the Chinese invasion brought an end to old Tibet.

“When we set eyes on the ancient city of Tsaparang,” Lama Govinda wrote, “we gasped with wonder and could hardly believe our eyes. In the great solitude of the abandoned city, the spiritual experiences and achievements of countless generations seemed to be projected into the magic forms of images. The temples seemed to be lifted out of the stream of time.”

If ever a description of a place made you want to go there, that was it. Finally, last year, I was able to go. This is no ordinary journey, though. For many of the people of East Asia, the journey to western Tibet, to Mount Kailash and beyond, is the greatest pilgrimage that it is possible to make on Earth.


Its allure is made even greater by its association with ancient Indian and Tibetan legends of a Himalayan paradise, tales that inspired James Hilton’s 1933 novel “Lost Horizon” — the story of Shangri-La, the story of a secret valley behind the Himalayas where the wisdom of humanity is saved for the future of the planet.

That was the reason for our journey: to explore the myth. Like all the best journeys, it turned out to be illuminating in more ways than one.

The tale of Shangri-La recycles one of the most ancient myths of humanity: the tale of an earthly paradise, a place untouched by time, where the ancient knowledge has survived and where aggression, greed and materialism do not exist.

The myth has been with us since the beginning of civilization, and no doubt it resonates the universal yearning for the unchanging in the face of inevitable change. But it also points to one of the great issues of modernity: the cost of progress, material and spiritual.

Our journey took us on foot through western Nepal, by truck to Mount Kailash, and then on a 250-mile drive westward on dirt roads behind the Himalayas to the lost city. On the way, we had one of those moments of revelation that sometimes hit a traveler.

In the late afternoon, we climbed a 16,000-foot ridge and found ourselves staring at a staggering vista: the back of the Himalayas stretching from Humla in Nepal to the east, to Zanskar and Ladakh in the west — a 400-mile panorama. Directly in front of us were Nanda Devi and the Indian holy peaks around the sources of the Ganges, with the yellowed grasslands of the Tibetan plateau reaching right up to the foot of the glaciers.

On the other side of the mountains, just 200 miles away, were the teeming plains of India, where a billion people were going about their lives, yet not a human soul was to be seen in this austere frozen wilderness. Between us from this viewpoint, the “eternal snows” appeared to be no more than a narrow belt of snow and ice.

As the bitter wind buffeted us, I had the uncanny sensation that I was looking down on the Himalayas, and I got the uncomfortable feeling, more disturbing than reassuring, of how fragile this wonderful landscape will turn out to be in the next few decades if global warming continues at its present rate.

So that, I guess, is this traveler’s tale, my report from the edge. That day in Tibet, the story of Shangri-La became for me a parable of the need for all of us to protect our life on this planet.

The Tibetan lamas still believe that the core idea of the tale is true: that we all can live in Shangri-La if only we can conquer the restless need that drives us to dream of paradises in worlds other than our own.

James Hilton imagined Shangri-La in Tibet. After more than half a lifetime of traveling, it seems to me that Shangri-Las can be found all over this Earth. But only on this Earth. And it is in our hands whether we save them or destroy them.

• • •

British historian-adventurer-filmmaker Michael Wood reflects on his vagabond life, its lessons and the experiences that inspire him to pack up his crew and head out in search of history.

In his latest documentary, “In Search of Myths & Heroes,” Mr. Wood seeks the historical roots behind four enduring myths: the Queen of Sheba, King Arthur, Shangri-La, and Jason and the Golden Fleece. The four-hour film will be aired Nov. 16 and 23 on WETA-TV and other PBS affiliates.

“Myths & Heroes” took Mr. Wood to Africa, the Middle East, the Caucasus, South Asia and the ancient world of the Celts.

Mr. Wood’s previous films include “In Search of Troy,” “In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great,” “Conquistadors,” and “In Search of Shakespeare.”

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