Nestled in the western end of the Kunlun Mountains lies a mystical, harmonious valley that has captured the imaginations of travelers for decades. Welcome to Shangri-La, a fictional place described in James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon. Although fictional, the idea of Shangri-La has become synonymous with an earthly paradise, a mythical Himalayan utopia – an enduringly happy land, isolated from the world.

In the novel, the people who live in Shangri-La are almost immortal, living hundreds of years beyond the normal lifespan and only very slowly aging in appearance. Ancient Tibetan scriptures mention the existence of seven such places, including Khembalung, one of several Utopia beyuls (hidden lands similar to Shangri-La) established in the 9th century CE as idyllic, sacred places of refuge for Buddhists during times of strife.

While the exact location of Shangri-La remains unknown, several places claim to be the inspiration for Hilton’s mythical paradise. The Hunza Valley, located in Gilgit−Baltistan close to the China–Pakistan border, closely matches the physical description in the novel. Parts of southern Kham in northwestern Yunnan province, including the tourist destinations of Lijiang and Zhongdian, also claim the title. In fact, Zhongdian County in northwestern Yunnan officially renamed itself Shangri-La County in 2001.

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. However, recent searches and documentaries suggest 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.

Today, visitors to modern-day Shangri-La County in Yunnan Province can experience the enchanting scenery and local culture that inspired Hilton’s mythical paradise. The town, frequented by both Han and Tibetan locals, offers arts and crafts shops, local farmers harvesting crops, and mouth-watering cuisine. Visitors can also explore the stunning natural landscapes of the region, including the Meili Snow Mountain range, the Songzanlin Monastery, and the Pudacuo National Park.

Shangri-La may be a mythical place, but its influence has spread far and wide. Join us as we explore the real-life locations that continue to inspire travelers in their search for utopia in the Himalayas.

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