Where Is Shangri-La?

A Himalayan meadow. Is this what Shangri-La looks like?
Is this what Shangri-La looks like in your imagination?. joSon / Getty Images


Shangri-La is a fictional land of perpetual youth, peace and good governance, set somewhere in the mountains of Tibet. It was created by the British author James Hilton, in his 1933 novel Lost Horizon, about a group of Europeans on their way to Peshawar (now in Pakistan), who live through an airplane crash high in the Himalayas. They find themselves in what Hilton describes as the "valley of the blue moon," where Tibetan Buddhist lamas rule the land in wisdom and peace, and their subjects never grow old.

Lost Horizon is an exemplar of European fascination with the "mysteries of the Orient." Many westerners at the time (and still to this day) felt drawn to the calm, the composure, and the otherworldliness of Himalayan religion and culture.

Hilton's description of this earthly paradise may have been inspired by his visit to the Hunza Valley, in what is now northern Pakistan. Other regions in Tibet, as well as the western Chinese provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan, all claim to be the "real Shangri-La" for the benefit of tourists.

The name "Shangri-la" probably is derived from the Tibetan phrase meaning "Pass in the Shang Mountains." Hilton may have been inspired also by the name of the Tibetan Buddhist paradise, Shamballa or Shambhala, in naming his own high mountain utopia.

Due to the popularity of the novel from its publication, and the richly evocative descriptions of the valley in the book, the name "Shangri-la" has come to mean any exotic paradise or utopia, in the English language, with overtones of peace and tranquility.

The term often appears in descriptions of real countries in Asia, including not only Tibet but also Nepal, Bhutan, and even non-Himalayan nations like Mongolia and Tannu-Tuva. "Shangri-La" even serves as the name of a particular chain of resort hotels based in Hong Kong.

Pronunciation: "shang-grih-LAH"

Also Known As: Eden, paradise, Shamballa, Xanadu

Examples: "Franklin D. Roosevelt called the presidential vacation home at Camp David "Shangri-La" during his tenure in the White House."