Since time unremembered, throughout history and cultures, there have always been tales of mystical, magical places lying lost out over the horizon. We as a species seem to innately love such lore, that idea of some lost civilization or wondrous city hidden away from us beyond the fringes of what we know, and such stories appear in the legends of cultures across geographical divides. One such story that has persisted for millennia is that of a fantastical city hidden away within the Himalaya Mountains, thought to be an exquisite realm of beauty and magic, and long said to be unreachable by all but the most worthy.
There have been tales of the mysterious mystical realm called Shambhala going back to since time unremembered. The name “Shambhala” itself comes from the Sanskrit word meaning “place of peace” or “place of silence,” although it has gone by countless other names over the centuries, including being called the Forbidden Land, the Land of White Waters, the Pure Land, the Land of Radiant Spirits, the Land of Wonders, and many, many others, and it has been a part of the fabric of the local lore of the mountainous wilds of Tibet for thousands of years. The city, which is said to exist somewhere between the Himalaya Mountains and the Gobi Desert, is typically described as a sort of Heaven on Earth, a wondrous place of eternal peace, love, and happiness. Here there is no war, no poverty or sickness or hunger, there is perpetual harmony and no sadness, anger, or pain. It is a place of plentitude and majestic beauty, where everyone is forever youthful and healthy, the lair of the enlightened speaking their own sacred language, a realm where it never grows cold or dark, and where its denizens exist eternally in a state of utter bliss. In short, it is the embodiment of Tibetan Buddhist earthly perfection. The city is often said to lie within a mysterious lost place called the “Valley of the Blue Moon,” and James Hilton’s 1933 book Lost Horizon would describe of this valley:
For the valley was nothing less than an enclosed paradise of amazing fertility, in which the vertical difference of a few thousand feet spanned the whole gulf between temperate and tropical. Crops of unusual diversity grew in profusion and contiguity, with not an inch of ground untended. The whole cultivated area stretched for perhaps a dozen miles, varying in width from one to five, and though narrow, it had the luck to take sunlight at the hottest part of the day. The atmosphere, indeed, was pleasantly warm even out of the sun, though the little rivulets that watered the soil were ice-cold from the snows. Conway felt again, as he gazed up at the stupendous mountain wall, that there was a superb and exquisite peril in the scene; but for some chance-placed barrier, the whole valley would clearly have been a lake, nourished continually from the glacial heights around it. Instead of which, a few streams dribbled through to fill reservoirs and irrigate fields and plantations with a disciplined conscientiousness worthy of a sanitary engineer. The whole design was almost uncannily fortunate, so long as the structure of the frame remained unmoved by earthquake or landslide.
There are also many prophecies written of in ancient texts orbiting Shambhala, often mentioning it as the location in which there will one day be a final battle between darkness and light, from which the light will prevail and usher in a golden age of benevolence and enlightenment upon the world. Another alternate version of this tale is that the world will one day be destroyed through terrible cataclysmic war and violence, with only Shambhala spared, a sanctuary amid the destruction, and after this was there will be an enlightened king who will venture forth and shine light upon the world once more. One Shambhala scholar in the 1920s by the name of Edwin Bernbaum would say of this:
For centuries the people of Tibet and Mongolia have believed in the existence of Shambhala where a line of enlightened kings is said to be guarding the highest wisdom for a time when all spiritual values in the world outside will be lost in war and destruction. Then, according to prophecy, a great king will come out of this sanctuary to defeat the forces of evil and establish a golden age.
It all sounds like a pretty nice place to be, but the catch is that one of the most prevalent legends surrounding Shambhala is that it is not a place that just anyone can go to. According to the lore, it is said that the valley and its city are hidden from the world of most mortals, reclusive and impossible to reach by any material means that we possess. Indeed, it is said to exist on earth, but outside of the physical plane beyond our eyes, somewhere between this world and the next, only reachable through great purity of heart, meditation, spiritual advancement, extremely good karma, or enlightenment, otherwise one cannot actually ever arrive there. In other words, only the worthy may enter, and the lore says a physical journey there would be fruitless and futile, with the valley and its city only attainable through a spiritual quest rather than a physical one, and only then is it experienced as a physical place that can be seen and touched. Despite this deep belief that Shambhala cannot be reached by physical journey alone, this has not stopped people from trying, and there are various stories of people even succeeding. One such story was written of by the anthropologist Helen Valborg from a chapter of her book titled Symbols of the Eternal Doctrine: From Shamballa to Paradise, in which she describes a hunter who found it by chance, and of which she says:
Wandering in a hidden valley beneath the snow-wrapped shoulders of the Dhaulagiri massif, a lone hunter from the region of Dolpo hearkened to the echo of lamas chanting and the beating of drums. Tibetans tell the story of how this simple transient followed the sound of the music towards its source, which brought him to a doorway in a great cliff. Passing through it, he found himself in a beautiful valley adorned with verdant rice fields, villages and a gracious monastery. The people who lived in this valley were peaceful and happy, and they extended to the hunter a warm welcome, urging him to stay. He was delighted with their blissful existence but soon became anxious to go back to his own family and bring them to enjoy the beautiful valley. The residents there warned him that he would not be able to find the way back, but he was determined to leave. As he made his way out through the cliff door, he took the precaution of hanging his gun and his shoes beside the entrance to mark it. Confidently he went to fetch his wife and children, but when he returned to the hidden valley, he found the gun and shoes hanging in the middle of a blank rock wall.
Westerners also have often sought to reach this mythical, fabled land. In 1833 the Hungarian scholar Sándor Kőrösi Csoma claimed to have found a “a fabulous country in the north…situated between 45′ and 50′ north latitude,” widely said to be referring to the lost city. In the late 19th century, it was a major goal of the Theosophy movement, with the famous psychic and Theosophical Society co-founder Helena Blavatsky claiming to have actually been there and studied various esoteric beliefs and gained amazing abilities there. In the 1920s, the explorer Nicolas Roerich travelled through Tibet and the Himalayas on a 5-year excursion, ostensibly to just study the area, but rumored to be a concerted effort to find Shambhala. During his travels, Roerich would travel deep into territory that no other Westerner had ever seen at the time, entering a world that had long been isolated from the rest of civilization. It was here in this cold, faraway realm that he would allegedly find a series of ancient books or scrolls sequestered within remote monasteries that would supposedly point the way to the mystical city, and he followed every lead or rumor he could of anything to do with Shambhala. They believed that they had found that Belukha Mountain in the Altai Mountains was an entrance to Shambhala, but it is not known if he ever really did find it.
Another notable expedition in search of Shambhala was carried out in the 1920s by a man named Gleb Bokii, the chief Bolshevik cryptographer and one of the bosses of the Soviet secret police, along with his writer friend Alexander Barchenko, who hoped to find the city in an effort to find the way to perfect communism. They hoped that the secret wisdom of the lost city would allow them to somehow find the secret to “perfect communist beings,” but the expedition was fruitless, and another planned follow-up never did get off the ground, instead leading to a failed mission by the Soviet Foreign Commissariat in 1924. There have been other expeditions in search of Shambhala as well, notable those allegedly carried out by the Nazis during World War II, but as far as anyone knows, none of these efforts have ever actually managed to find it, and Shambhala, if it ever existed in any real sense at all, still manages to elude those who have not made the required spiritual journey. Despite claims of people having reached it, no one has ever been able to provide evidence of its existence, nor even be able to pinpoint its exact position on a map. In fact, the location of where it is supposed to be has been debated for centuries, with even ancient texts unable to come to a consensus on its general earthly location. In the end, the lost land of Shambhala remains just as enigmatic and unreachable as it always has, and perhaps always will be.