Places of Our Dreams
Historians have argued for centuries over who discovered countries and continents, gadgets and games. Such is the interest in "who came first" that arguments rage over places that may never have existed and are being sought out still. Below, two legendary examples:
It was a mythical paradise--a monastery tucked into the snowy Himalayas, where people played Chopin on grand pianos, read great books, and never aged. It was a haven of peace in a world plagued by greed and war. In theory, the sanctuary of "Shangri-La" was discovered by an Oxford-educated Briton named Hugh Conway, the lead character in James Hilton's bestselling Lost Horizon. In the book, Conway crash-lands on the Tibetan plateau and discovers utopia in the shadow of Mount Karakal, "the loveliest mountain on Earth." It is populated by genteel Chinese who speak perfect English and use flush toilets.
For a while after the book was published, the only person to lay claim to Shangri-La was President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who bestowed the name upon his presidential retreat in the Maryland woods (later renamed Camp David).
But there is trouble in paradise. Two--or more--Chinese cities have been warring for the title of Shangri-La, and the millions of tourist dollars that come with it.
Back in 1998, officials in a town in Yunnan province, Zhongdian, claimed that their city had inspired Hilton's book. Local scholar Xuan Ke (who has his own issues of authenticity, having given himself an honorary doctorate from Oxford) said his father was a friend of the Austrian-American botanist who documented the region in the 1920s and '30s and whose National Geographic articles most likely inspired Hilton. The mythical Mount Karakal, Xuan said, could have been based on Mount Jambeyang, photographed by the botanist Joseph Rock in 1928.
At the time, at least two other Chinese counties were in the running for the title. Deqin, an even more remote place in the same region, explained that it must be the real Shangri-La because it housed a Roman Catholic church with the region's only flush toilets.
Sensing a marketing opportunity, China's State Council ruled in 2001 that the town's name should be officially changed to "Xianggelila," meaning Shangri-La. It built a new airport and allocated $6.27 billion for development. The number of visitors increased from 20,000 the year before the name change to 2.6 million last year.
But that wasn't the end of it. Xuan, miffed at not being given enough credit for the discovery, later decided he had erred and placed the utopia in the town of Lijiang, 120 miles to the south of Zhongdian. The Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, he said, was the real inspiration for Karakal. The matter was further confused when an American expedition, led by Peter Klika and Ted Vaill, claimed they had discovered "22 elements of proof" that Shangri-La was actually located in the Kham region of Sichuan province.
The Chinese government hopes to end the controversy by sharing the wealth. In an official news release, Beijing officials announce, "the real Shangri-La covers 60 counties in three western Chinese provinces." Whether there's enough paradise to go around is another story. -Bay Fang
Did Juan Ponce de LeÃÂÃÂ³n discover Florida while searching for the fountain of youth? Probably not. Most historians agree that the explorer was searching for land and riches, not immortality, when he left Puerto Rico in 1513. But that doesn't keep the crowds from drinking from the spring at St. Augustine's Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park. Says general manager John Fraser, "It's an iconic place."
The fountain of youth was not associated with de LeÃÂÃÂ³n until Hernando de Escalante Fontaneda connected the two in his 1575 memoir. But accounts of a river of youth were nothing new to men of the time. The Alexander Romance, a collection of stories about the mythical exploits of Alexander the Great, from the third century, has the conqueror looking for a river of immortality in India. And The Voyage and Travels of Sir John Mandeville, Knight, written in the 14th century, includes a description of the fountain of youth.
When Caribbean natives spoke of an island called Bimini, where there was said to be a river of curative waters, some of the Spanish explorers believed them. Pietro Martire de Anghiera, an Italian historian, discounted the story but wrote Pope Leo X in 1513 with his concerns that "all the people ... think it to be true." -Brian Sopp
This story appears in the August 14, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.