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Chinese Cities Claim to be Inspiration for 'Shangri-La'

  • Amy Katz

British author James Hilton wrote a novel called "Lost Horizon" in the 1930s. In it, he described a mythical paradise, isolated from the rest of the world. He called the city Shangri-La -- and it was thought to be hidden in the snowed capped Himalayan Mountains. For the seventy years since the book came out -- tourists and explorers have been looking for the real city that was the model for Shangri-La. Amy Katz reports that with millions of tourist dollars at stake, two Chinese cities are now claiming to be the inspiration for the paradise.

In Zhongdian, a city in the Yunnan Province of China, authorities say it is their city that James Hilton wrote about in "Lost Horizon." He Liping is a Zhongdian Foreign Affairs officer.

"There are many similarities between the novel and this region. First, the snow mountain that looks like a pyramid. Actually, we have more than 470 such mountains here," says He Liping.

Sun Nou Pei Cu, a farmer says, "This has to be Shangri-La. There are so many different people living here together in harmony."

It was not until local scholar Xuan Ke came across the "Lost Horizon" that the connection was made. He says the book is based on the work of Joseph Rock -- an old friend of his father's. Mr. Rock was an American botanist who worked in the region for many years, and wrote about it in a series of articles in National Geographic magazine.

While there is no real proof that Joseph Rock's articles inspired Hilton's novel, the similarities are strong. So the Yunnan government assembled a team of experts, who agreed the impoverished area really was Shangri-La. It has become a popular tourist destination. More than 400,000 tourists have arrived at the new airport, and restaurants, bars and hotels have opened to accommodate the visitors. Last year the tourists brought 60-million dollars in business, very good news for the local economy. But for this tourist from Guangzhou, Zhongdian did not seem so special.

"Yes it's very beautiful here. But it has been commercialized. I feel as though I am back in Guangzhou. This city is not much different than other cities in China," says a tourist.

Despite that, local officials are trying to expand. Meanwhile, the man who discovered the connection between Zhongdian and Lost Horizon, now says he has changed his mind. The model for Shangri-La is Lijiang -- he now says. Another Chinese city of mountains and breathtaking views, Lijiang quickly embraced its status as the new Shangri-La. Now, the two cities have become rivals, and the competition between them could intensify -- a bit of irony -- because James Hilton described his city as a refuge from a world plagued by war and greed.

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