In search of Shangri-La

In search of Shangri-La

An award-winning photographer focused his camera on Tibet - and tea - during work on his new book

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Michael Yamashita at work in Tibet.
Michael Yamashita at work in Tibet.
All photos: Michael Yamashita
Michael Yamashita was once an amateur photographer. But because of his obsession with taking pictures, he landed a dream job about 30 years ago with National Geographic magazine, renowned for its articles on world culture, history and science and archaeology.

The award-winning, third-generation Japanese-American photographer and filmmaker - an Asian history graduate - says he specialises in the region.

"I am interested in Asia because of my roots," he says. "I grew up as an American, with an Asian face. And I wanted to know what it was like in Asia, and how I would fit in."

Last week, he visited Hong Kong to launch his book Shangri-La: Along the Tea Road to Lhasa, at Kelly & Walsh bookstore in Pacific Place. He will discuss the book at the Asia Society on October 25.

This latest project led him on a quest to find "Shangri-La", a fictional haven in British author James Hilton's novel, Lost Horizon. In the modern-day context, the word refers to a part of the northern autonomous region of China - Tibet - where the book was set.

Yamashita's research led him to meet Tibetan nomads who live in tents, pickers of a highly prized medicinal fungus, called yartsa gunbu - found only in remote grassland plateaus - and workers at tea factories along Tea Horse Road, a tea trade route connecting China with India.

To help take "natural" photos of people, Yamashita tried to ease himself into the lives of his Tibetan subjects, so they almost forget he was there. He asked a nomadic family to let him stay in their tent overnight so they got used to him.

"You have to be a good diplomat, and a friendly, unthreatening person," he says. "Through your gestures and the words you choose, you can befriend people."

Sometimes he was prevented from taking pictures, but he used his experience and natural skills to overcome obstacles. He was banned from taking photos inside a tea factory because it was considered too sensitive for a foreign journalist to be there. So he persuaded another film crew, who happened to be there, to let him join them, so he could sneak inside to take photos.

"Sometimes you gotta do what you have to do," he says.

Journalists and photographers working for magazines, such as National Geographic, often give the impression that they are spontaneous, like free spirits. But it's not true, Yamashita says. "What we do is well-researched. We have no time to mess around."

When working on his Shangri-La book, for example, he knew where to find the nomads he wanted to photograph before he arrived. Language barriers mean he usually arranges for a "fixer" - a person who knows the place well and can speak both languages - to lead the way.

Yamashita's work has also led him to follow in the footsteps of 13th-century Venetian traveller Marco Polo and his 24-year Asian expedition, and visit the Korean Demilitarised Zone - a strip of land separating North and South Korea.

Yamashita, who is a volunteer fireman at home in New Jersey, says he would love to have been a rock star if he had not become a successful photographer; both roles require interaction with people.

Yet he says he is happy being a photographer. "It's a lifestyle, not a job," he says. "It's not something you start and stop. It's something you are constantly thinking of doing."

Michael Yamashita will discuss his new book at the Asia Society, in Admiralty, on October 25, from 6.30pm to 8pm. For details, visit their website.

And here are some of the best pictures from his book, Shangri-La: Along the Tea Road to Lhasa.


The lakeside Potala Palace in Lhasa was once home to the Dalai Lamas, Tibet's spiritual leaders.


Monks eat their evening meal at Ganze, one of the most important monasteries in the Kham area, on the Tea Horse Road. About 50 years ago, it was home to more than 1,000 monks, but now it holds only 370. Many have fled to India.


Two Tibetan women put on make-up before attending the Nakchu Horse Festival, a huge annual horse-racing event. Last year's festival was cancelled owing to unrest in Tibet. The festival also features dance shows and horsemanship.


Workers pick tea leaves at one of the three largest tea farms in the Yaan.

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