In Lost Horizon, the author James Hilton depicts a mythical, harmonious Himalayan valley, a permanently happy land isolated from the outside world. Nobody really knows exactly where he meant, including Hilton himself. He finished his world-famous novel in April 1933, having never set foot in Tibet or the Himalayas.
He joked that he had “cribbed” all his Tibetan history, religion, customs and travelogues from the British Museum Library. But Hilton’s oriental utopia immediately captured the imagination of millions of readers disillusioned by violent world events and materialistic narcissism. Hilton wrote of a people who were almost immortal, living years beyond the normal human lifespan and only slowly aging in appearance.
To the proud eastern Tibetan Kham nomads and traders, Hilton’s exotic Shangri-La is simply where they congregate and compete in horse skills. Situated on the Tea and Horse Trail, Shangri-La is one of the final valleys before the massive mountains stretch off to Tibet and western Sichuan.
Ride a horse to the nearby untouched village. Full of snapping prayer flags in high-altitude sunlight, the village is always active and, depending on the season, there may be butter making, yogurt making or textile weaving to see. Simply stepping inside and breaking bread in an ordinary Tibetan home can be one of the most authentic, rewarding and yes, mystical, experiences for even the most seasoned traveler.