The Enigmatic Lost City of Shangri-La: A Deep Dive

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Shangri-La is a mythical location nestled in the Kunlun Mountains of Tibet, first introduced in James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon. Hilton depicts Shangri-La as a serene and mystical valley, overseen by a lamasery and hidden within the western part of the Kunlun Mountains. This enchanting place has since become a symbol of an earthly paradise, representing an ideal Himalayan utopia—a place of lasting happiness, secluded from the rest of the world. In Hilton’s narrative, the inhabitants of Shangri-La are nearly immortal, living for centuries with minimal signs of aging.

According to ancient Tibetan texts, there are seven such paradisiacal locations known as Nghe-Beyul Khembalung. Khembalung is one of these hidden utopian lands, akin to Shangri-La, which Tibetan Buddhists believe were established by Padmasambhava in the 9th century CE. These sanctuaries were created as sacred havens for Buddhists during periods of turmoil.

Possible sources for Hilton

In a 1936 interview with The New York Times, James Hilton revealed that he drew on “Tibetan material” from the British Museum to craft the cultural and spiritual backdrop of Shangri-La. Among his sources was the travelogue of two French priests, Évariste Régis Huc and Joseph Gabet. These priests journeyed between Beijing and Lhasa from 1844 to 1846, taking a path that lay over 250 kilometers (160 miles) north of Yunnan. Their renowned travelogue, initially published in French in 1850, saw numerous editions and translations across various languages. A popular “condensed translation” of their work was released in the United Kingdom in 1928.

Current claimants

James Hilton visited the Hunza Valley in Gilgit-Baltistan, near the China-Pakistan border, a few years before Lost Horizon was published. This isolated green valley, surrounded by mountains and situated at the western end of the Himalayas, closely resembles the novel’s depiction of Shangri-La and is thought to have inspired Hilton’s description.

Today, several locations claim to be the true Shangri-La. Among these are areas in southern Kham in northwestern Yunnan province, including the tourist destination of Zhongdian County. In 2001, Zhongdian County in Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, northwestern Yunnan province, officially renamed itself Shangri-La. It is known as “香格里拉” (Xiānggélǐlā) in Chinese, “སེམས་ཀྱི་ཉི་ཟླ།” in Tibetan, and “ज्ञानगंज” (Gyanganj) in India.

Searches and documentaries

In 1999, American explorers Ted Vaill and Peter Klika visited the Muli area of southern Sichuan Province. They claimed that the Muli monastery inspired James Hilton’s Shangri-La, believing Hilton had read about this region in articles by Austrian-American explorer Joseph Rock, published in National Geographic in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Vaill later completed a film based on their research, “Finding Shangri-La,” which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007. However, Michael McRae discovered a little-known James Hilton interview in a New York Times gossip column, where Hilton indicated that his cultural inspiration for Shangri-La, if it existed, was more than 250 km north of Muli, on the route traveled by Huc and Gabet.

Between 2002 and 2004, author and filmmaker Laurence Brahm led expeditions in western China. His research suggested that the mythical Shangri-La in Hilton’s Lost Horizon was based on references to southern Yunnan Province from articles by National Geographic’s first resident explorer, Joseph Rock.

On December 2, 2010, OPB aired an episode of Martin Yan’s Hidden China titled “Life in Shangri-La.” In it, Yan stated that Shangri-La is the name of an actual town in southwestern Yunnan Province, popular with both Han and Tibetan locals. Yan visited local arts and crafts shops, farmers harvesting crops, and sampled their cuisine. However, this town was originally named Zhongdian and was renamed Shangri-La in 2001 to boost tourism.

In the “Shangri-La” episode of the BBC documentary series In Search of Myths and Heroes, television presenter and historian Michael Wood suggested that the legendary Shangri-La might be the abandoned city of Tsaparang. He proposed that its two great temples were once home to the kings of Guge in modern Tibet.

In 2016, the Travel Channel aired two episodes of Expedition Unknown, where host Josh Gates explored Lo Manthang, Nepal, and its surrounding areas, including the sky caves, in search of Shangri-La. His findings offered no proof that Shangri-La is or was real.

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