Deep in the snowy mountains of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, legend recalls, is a blessed valley in the shape of an eight-petal lotus. Spectacular snowcapped mountains, steep gorges and alpine meadows sprinkled with wildflowers are found here. It is Shangri-La in Yunnan province’s Di-qing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture.
Diqing, or Deqen, sits in the transitional zone between the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau and the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. Its ancient history, distinctive landforms, mysterious religions and diverse ethnic groups lend a great appeal to this faraway land.
The Gedeng Neolithic Site in Weixi County attests to human habitation as early as 7,000 years ago. And inscribed slates unearthed in the region reveal a thriving civilization dating back 2,400 years.
Located on the ancient Tea-Horse Trail, also known as the Southern Silk Road, Diqing is an intersection of exchanges between China’s east and west, north and south. In addition to Tibetans, who account for one third of the local population, it is home to 25 other ethnic communities, including the Lisu, Naxi and Bai. They all live in concord with each other, while retaining their respective cultures, which have converged and co-developed over the past generations.
The Ganden Songtsen Ling Monastery, Dondrup Ling Monastery and the Dongba pictographs are among the most iconic manifestations of Diqing’s diverse and mysterious folk traditions, which add brilliance to the region’s scenic panorama.
Diqing remained unknown to the outside world until 1933, when English writer James Hilton wrote Lost Horizon, which describes an isolated but pleasurable valley called Shangri-La whose residents of different ethnic backgrounds enjoyed peace and longevity. The novel was made into a film in 1937, and the theme song “Beautiful Shangri-La” then spread across the world.
The book was thought to present Shangri-La as an imaginary place. The exact location could not be identified, though a number of countries around the world have claimed it is on their territory. Now 60 years of research provide sufficient evidence that Diqing is none other than Shangri-La.
The English “Shangri-La” sounds like it originates in the Tibetan dialect spoken in Zhongdian, capital of Diqing. In the Tibetan language, the word means “moon in one’s heart.” Moreover, the folklore and natural environment depicted in the novel bear a strong resemblance to Zhongdian. In 2001, the region officially changed its name to Shangri-La.
Diqing boasts a wide diversity of landforms – mountains, lakes, glaciers, karsts, meadows – and climate zones, owing to its peculiar geographic location, complex geological structures and sharp altitudinal differences. What’s more, the region is rich in biodiversity. Almost all plants that usually grow in the tropical, temperate and frigid zones of the northern hemisphere can be found here. The region is thus treasured as a botanical gene bank.