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Hilton is said to have taken his inspiration for Shangri-La in part from the writings of the eccentric botanist Joseph Rock, whose tales of exploration and adventure in remote Yunnan, Tibet, and elsewhere appeared in this magazine from 1922 to 1935. The irascible Rock led expeditions in search of exotic plants and unknown cultures. He wrote of sliding over the Mekong on a bamboo zip line, of attacks by brigands, of mysterious rituals and meetings with kings. Rock's flair for the flamboyant must have captivated Hilton, a British romantic who wrote 22 novels, including Good-bye, Mr. Chips.

Hilton also drew from another source, one much older than the writings of Joseph Rock. Shangri-La sounds like—and almost certainly is—a thin disguise for Shambhala, the earthly paradise in Tibetan Buddhism where there is no war and no suffering, and where people live in peace and harmony through meditation and self-discipline. In Buddhist texts Shambhala is said to reside beyond the Himalaya at the base of a crystal mountain, its inhabitants untouched by the venality and avariciousness of the outside world. For Hilton, born in 1900 and witness to the devastation of World War I and the Depression, this alluring Eastern legend would have had powerful appeal.

Mix a novelist's imagination with Tibetan mythology, add a dash of Joseph Rock and a generous helping of longing, and you get a nice recipe for Lost Horizon. Although the novel is rarely read today, the word Shangri-La and what it symbolizes—a faraway place of beauty, spiritual replenishment, and supernatural longevity —have long been part of world pop culture.

Of course the problem with the book is the problem with all utopian narratives: It downplays the negative but no less natural afflictions of humankind, such as jealousy, lust, greed, and ambition. In the end, this makes both the book and its unifying theme, Shangri-La, seem simplistic—precisely the opposite of the modern-day city of Shangri-La, a place that could hardly be more complicated or confounding.

In its previous incarnation, Shangri-La was Zhongdian, a 10,000-foot-high trade-route town located just east of some of the deepest and most dramatic gorges in the world. Three great rivers—the Yangtze, the Mekong, and the Salween, separated by towering mountain ranges and known hereabouts as the Jinsha, the Lancang, and the Nu—all sweep east of the Himalaya, then drop due south in tight parallel formation before pouring off in different directions. This was the remote region that Rock explored in the 1920s and '30s.

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