Shangri-La is a fictional place described in the 1933 novel Lost Horizon by British author James Hilton.
Hilton describes Shangri-La as a mystical, harmonious valley, gently guided from a lamasery, enclosed in the western end of the Kunlun Mountains.
Shangri-La has become synonymous with any earthly paradise, particularly a mythical Himalayan utopia – a permanently happy land, isolated from the world. In the novel, the people who live at Shangri-La are almost immortal, living hundreds of years beyond the normal lifespan and only very slowly aging in appearance. The name also evokes the imagery of the exoticism of the Orient.
In the ancient Tibetan scriptures, the existence of seven such places is mentioned as Nghe-Beyul Khembalung. Khembalung is one of several beyuls (hidden lands similar to Shangri-La) believed to have been created by Padmasambhava in the 9th century as idyllic, sacred places of refuge for Buddhists during times of strife (Reinhard, 1978).
Shangri-La is often used in a context similar to “Garden of Eden,” to represent a paradise hidden from modern man.
It is sometimes used as an analogy for a lifelong quest or something elusive but much sought; for a man who spends his life obsessively looking for a cure to a disease, such a cure could be said to be that man’s “Shangri-La.”
It also might be used to represent a sought-for perfection in the form of love, happiness, or Utopian ideals. It may be used in this context alongside other mythical and famous examples of similar metaphors such as El Dorado, The Fountain of Youth, and The Holy Grail.
Academic scholars believe they have debunked the myth of Shangri-La and argued that this has less to do with an unexplored place and is more connected to a fantasy of the Western world.
Ancient sources with similar descriptions
In China, the poet Tao Yuanming of the Jin Dynasty (265–420 CE) described a kind of Shangri-La in his work The Tale of the Peach Blossom Spring.
The story goes that there was a fisherman from Wuling, who came across a beautiful peach grove, and he discovered happy and content people who lived completely cut off from the troubles in the outside world since the Qin Dynasty (221–207 BCE).
Shambhala is a core concept in Tibetan Buddhism that describes a realm of harmony between man and nature that is also connected with the Kalachakra or “wheel of time“.
The Shambhala ideal is described in detail in the Shambhala Sutra, a historical text written by the Sixth Panchen Lama (1737–1780) which describes some of the Shambhala locations as being in Ngari, the western prefecture of Tibet.
Folklore from the Altai Mountains describes Belukha Mountain as a gateway to Shambhala. The Kun Lun Mountains offer another possible place for valleys like the Shangri-La since Hilton specifically described the “Kuen-Lun” mountains as its likely location in the book, however, Hilton is not known to have visited or studied the area. Parts of the Kunlun Mountains lie within Ngari, mentioned in the Shambhala Sutra.
Possible sources for Hilton
In a New York Times interview in 1936, Hilton states that he used “Tibetan material” from the British Museum, particularly the travelogue of two French priests, Evariste Regis Huc and Joseph Gabet, to provide the Tibetan cultural and Buddhist spiritual inspiration for Shangri-La.
Huc and Gabet traveled a round trip between Beijing and Lhasa in 1844–1846 on a route more than 250 kilometers (160 mi) north of Yunnan. Their famous travelogue, first published in French in 1850, went through many editions in many languages.
A popular “condensed translation” was published in England in 1928, at the time that Hilton would have been gathering inspiration for – or perhaps writing – Lost Horizon.
Today various places, such as parts of southern Kham in northwestern Yunnan province, including the tourist destinations of Lijiang and Zhongdian, claim the title.
Hilton visited the Hunza Valley in northern Pakistan Kashmir, close to the Chinese border, a few years before Lost Horizon was published; hence it is a popularly believed inspiration for Hilton’s physical description of Shangri-La.
Being an isolated green valley surrounded by mountains, enclosed on the western end of the Himalayas, it closely matches the description in the novel; also, in an ironic reversal on the story, due to increased exposure to ultraviolet radiation, inhabitants of the high-altitude parts of the valley appear to age quickly.
Places like Sichuan and Tibet also lay claim to the real Shangri-La. In 2001, the Tibet Autonomous Region put forward a proposal that the three regions optimize all Shangri-La tourism resources and promote them as one.
After failed attempts to establish a China Shangri-la Ecological Tourism Zone in 2002 and 2003, government representatives of Sichuan and Yunnan provinces and Tibet Autonomous Region signed a declaration of co-operation in 2004. Also in 2001, Zhongdian County in northwestern Yunnan officially renamed itself Shangri-La County.
Recent searches and documentaries
American explorers Ted Vaill and Peter Klika visited the Muli area of southern Sichuan Province in 1999 and claimed that the Muli monastery in this remote region was the model for James Hilton’s Shangri-La, which they thought Hilton learned about from articles on this area in several National Geographic magazines in the late 1920s and early 1930s written by Austrian-American explorer Joseph Rock.
Vaill completed a film based on their research, “Finding Shangri-La“, which debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007. However, Michael McRae unearthed an obscure James Hilton interview from a New York Times gossip column in which he reveals that his cultural inspiration for Shangri-La if it is any place, is more than 250 km north of Muli on the route traveled by Huc and Gabet.
Between 2002–2004 a series of expeditions were led by author and filmmaker Laurence Brahm in western China which determined that the Shangri-La mythical location in Hilton’s book Lost Horizon was based on references to northern Yunnan Province from articles published by National Geographic’s first resident explorer Joseph Rock.
On 2 December 2010, OPB televised one of Martin Yan’s Hidden China episodes, “Life in Shangri-La“, in which Yan said that “Shangri-La” is the actual name of a real town in the hilly and mountainous region in northwestern Yunnan Province, frequented by both Han and Tibetan locals. Martin Yan visited arts and craft shops and local farmers as they harvested crops, and sampled their cuisine.
Television presenter and historian Michael Wood, in the “Shangri-La” episode of the BBC documentary series In Search of Myths and Heroes, suggests that the legendary Shangri-La is the abandoned city of Tsaparang in upper Satluj valley and that its two great temples were once home to the kings of Guge in modern Tibet.
The Travel Channel in 2016 aired two episodes of Expedition Unknown that followed host Josh Gates to Nepal and its surrounding areas, including the sky caves found there, in search of Shangri-La. His findings offer no proof that Shangri-La is or was real.