Since James Hilton imagined Shangri-La in his bestselling 1933 novel Lost Horizon, a host of Himalayan areas have laid claim to this earthly Eden.
But only one place—Zhongdian in China’s southwestern Yunnan Province—has officially gone by the name Shangri-La County since 2001.
The region covers a stunning land of snowcapped peaks and plunging parallel gorges carved by three of Asia’s mightiest rivers. UNESCO recognized Three Parallel Riversas a World Heritage site and called it “the epicenter of Chinese biodiversity.”
Despite throngs of Chinese tourists, “the area is vast, so it’s easy to get away,” says Sarah Ferguson of Kensington Tours, who recommends a hike in one of the national parks where rare birds such as the black-necked crane live. Another must, massive Songzanlin Monastery, is “a mini Potala Palace, with hundreds of Tibetan Buddhist monks from the Yellow Hat sect,” she says.
Chris Dunham of Asia Transpacific Journeys plans visits during the late summer Khampa Horse Festival, three days of celebration, song, and equestrian shows. Most travelers stay in and around Shangri-La’s main city, Diqing, a former hub on the ancient tea trade route.
A clutch of new hotels slated to open in the next two years includes a low-rise city resort from— you guessed it—the Shangri-La Hotel group.
This piece, written by Ceil Miller Bouchet, appeared in the August/September 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler.