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Yunnan Province, 651km (390 miles) NW of Kunming, 198km (119 miles) NW of Lijiang

To its majority Tibetan residents, the capital of the Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, a small town on the road between Lijiang and Tibet, is known as Gyalthang. To the town's smaller Han population, it's still called Zhongdian. To tourist authorities, hotel owners, and tour operators around the country, the town is now the earthly paradise of Xianggelila (that's Shangri-La to you). A rose never had it so difficult, and we'll continue to refer to the destination as "Zhongdian" in practical information.

Though Zhongdian was officially renamed Xianggelila in May 2002, you'll be sorely disappointed if you arrive here expecting paradise. Tourist authorities are working hard to build new hotels and roads, but for now this is still a small, dusty town (elev. 3,380m/11,092 ft.) to be visited mostly for its rebuilt Tibetan monastery if you aren't going to make it to Tibet.

Paradise Found?

In 1933, the word Shangri-La was introduced into the world's lexicon by novelist James Hilton, who wrote in Lost Horizon of four Westerners stranded by a plane crash in an idyllic mountain paradise in the Himalayas called Shangri-La. In this earthly Eden, peace and harmony prevailed. Hilton, who never set foot in China, later hinted that the inspiration for his mythical paradise may well have derived from Joseph Rock's many National Geographic articles about northwest China in the 1920s and 1930s. By then, this "magical place" with the lush valley, a monastery, a village, and Mount Karakal, "an almost perfect cone of snow," had stirred the soul of many an explorer, Chinese and Western alike, and the search for the "real" Shangri-La was on.

For the last 70 years, countries like Nepal and Bhutan have laid claim to the title. Within China, some have posited that Lijiang, after all Rock's hometown for 27 years, was the real Shangri-La, while Sichuan Province claimed that its Yading Nature Reserve in the Konkaling Mountains was the true site. Then, in 1997, the Yunnan government declared that they had, with "certainty," found Shangri-La -- the Diqing Plateau, 100km (60 miles) north of Lijiang. Citing many similarities to Hilton's description, Zhongdian County, the capital of the Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, officially changed its name to Xianggelila (Shangri-La) in 2002. Was paradise found after all? Zhongdian may have the official imprimatur, but several rebel experts believe that the real inspiration for Shangri-La can actually be found some 320km (200 miles) to the southeast in the ancient kingdom of Muli, an area the size of Wales between Daocheng, Zhongdian, and Jiulong.