Where is Shangri-La?

Publish Time: 2019-05-12 Author: Simon Chapman and D J Clark From: China Daily

The geographic and cultural locations in James Hilton's iconic novel may have remained a mystery for one simple reason

Shangri-La, something people know but can't define. Is it an earthly paradise? A hotel chain? A Chinese city or town? A Tibetan Utopia?

The word first appears in the 1933 novel Lost Horizon, written by English author James Hilton. It is described as some hidden valley with a lamasery overlooking it and a perfect snow-coned peak rising above, whose inhabitants have learned the secret of inner peace and extraordinary long life.

In the book, star English diplomat Hugh Conway and three others are kidnapped in a stolen airliner that takes them from Kabul to a crash landing in the Kunlun Mountains in Xinjiang of western China. Conway and his companions are rescued and taken to Shangri-La where each finds contentment though they are not free to leave.

Nyorophu Island in Lugu Lake where Austrian American botanist Jospeh Rock used to stay on his way to Muli. [PHOTO BY JACK YAO/FOR CHINA DAILY]

Lost Horizon was a best-seller. It became the first book to be mass produced in paperback. The story was soon made into an Oscar winning Hollywood movie with Frank Capra directing and Hollywood's most bankable actor, Ronald Colman, in the lead role. People were convinced that James Hilton had based Shangri-La on a real place and expeditions (including one in 1938, sent by the Nazi regime in Germany) have gone to look for it.

If you ask Chinese people, "Where is Shangri-La?" they won't point to Xinjiang but more likely to northern Yunnan, 2,000 kilometers away and that's because of Joseph Rock, an Austrian-American botanist who explored the area in the 1920s and 1930s. From his base in Lijiang he ventured out on plant-hunting expeditions in Yunnan and Sichuan provinces, publishing the stories of his travels in National Geographic magazine. It is these articles that many now believe James Hilton may have borrowed from to describe Shangri-La.

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