BEIJING (Reuters) - The otherworldly paradise known as Shangri-la was such a enigma, according to novelist James Hilton, that its path could not be retraced, its location not found on any map.
Zhongdian County, in China's southwest province of Yunnan, will rename itself Shangri-la for the land immortalised in Hilton's 1933 adventure Lost Horizon after gaining approval from the State Council, China's cabinet, an official said on Monday.
"The State Council approved a proposal by the Yunnan provincial government last month to officially give the name to Zhongdian County," Sun Xiudong, an official from the Ministry of Civil Affairs in Beijing, told Reuters.
The decision was unlikely to end decades of hype among a handful of pristine locales in the sub-Himalayan region, where Yunnan and Sichuan provinces border Tibet, all of which have laid claim to the title as a means to entice tourists.
The other communities would be allowed to go on using the name for promotional purposes, said Sun.
"These places are roughly in the same tourism area and we will not oppose them using Shangri-la in tourism from now on," he said.
But Zhongdian won government approval after the Yunnan government made a careful search for the area whose terrain best fit Hilton's description of a verdant valley crowned by a Tibetan Buddhist lamasery and encompassed by snow-capped peaks.
"Zhongdian is widely recognised by tourists as most resembling the description in James Hilton's novel," Sun said.
VALLEY OF THE BLUE MOON
In Hilton's novel, adapted for the silver screen by Frank Capra in 1937, a group of Britons led by idealist adventurer Robert Conway crash-land in a fertile mountain pass brooded over by a mountain called Karakal, or Blue Moon.
In utopian Shangri-la, where the ageing process is dramatically slowed, Conway is hosted by the Buddhist High Lama and falls for the Manchu royal Lo-Tsen, a 68-year-old nymph who looks 18.
Hilton himself never ventured to China. He is thought to have plucked the setting for his tale from an article in National Geographic magazine about the Austrian-American Joseph Rock, who explored the region for 27 years.
Rock was based 100 kilometres (60 miles) south of Zhongdian in Lijiang, a centuries old hamlet and backpacker haven, which also made a bid for the mythical title. Quaint, misty Lijiang has grown exponentially in recent years from a windfall of tourism.
But the dusty town of Zhongdian remains underdeveloped, despite having built an airport to facilitate visits to placid sites such as the White Water Terrace, a limestone plateau carved from a hillside by trickling azure pools.
The Zhongdian government also has held talks with Hong Kong's Shangri-La hotel group and agreed both sides could use the name, Sun said.
But only one county would officially take the name of the land which, in Hilton's words, was "touched with the mystery that lies at the core of all loveliness".