Searching for Shangri-La

Searching for Shangri-La

In 2001 the old Tibetan town of Gyalthang, a prominent staging post on the Tea Horse Road, better known in Chinese as Zhongdian, was re-named Shangri-La. After all, no other town in the world had claimed this evocative title, and it certainly hits all the right romantic buttons. It was some seventy years earlier, in 1933, when the British writer James Hilton, coined the name for a hidden paradise located somewhere in the high Himalayas, and made it the setting for his book Lost Horizons. While not a great work of literature, it was immensely popular, became the world’s first paperback, was made into an Oscar-winning movie with Hollywood heartthrob Ronald Coleman in the lead rôle, and made Hilton wealthy. The idea of a spiritual Utopian retreat caught the public imagination at a time when the world was descending into conflict, but from all of this, it was the name Shangri-La that stuck. Hilton made it up using Tibetan words—it means roughly ‘The Mountain Pass of Shang’—but it became a descriptive word in its own right. Since then, there have been endless efforts to find the origin of the ‘real’ Shangri-La, against all common sense, but these simply underline its evocative power. Hilton, who spent a lot of time researching the background at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, knew much about Tibet, and while he had in mind the area of western Tibet close to Mount Kailash, there is indeed an inspiration for Shangri-La—the ancient popular Tibetan belief in hidden refuges in the Himalayas called ‘beyul’. They were made invisible by Guru Rinpoche, who brought Buddhism from India to Tibet.