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Originally published Friday, January 10, 2014 at 11:33 PM

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Fire destroys homes, shops in ancient Tibetan tourist town

Chinese television news reported that the fire hit Dukezong in Shangri-La county, Yunnan province, an area that has cast itself as the inspiration for mythic Shangri-La.


The New York Times

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HONG KONG — Fire blazed through an ancient Tibetan town in southwest China on Saturday, destroying hundreds of wooden homes and shops that have drawn tourists to an area that has cast itself as the inspiration for mythic Shangri-La.

Chinese television news reported that the fire in Dukezong in Shangri-La county, Yunnan province, began early Saturday and that hundreds of firefighters, soldiers and volunteers had largely extinguished the blaze by late morning. There were no immediate reports of deaths or serious injuries. Yet even without deaths, the fire will deal a heavy blow to a community that has sought to protect its traditions while attracting growing crowds.

Dukezong is an ancient Tibetan neighborhood of two- and three-story wooden buildings on narrow, cobbled streets. With some 3,000 permanent residents, it lies next to a much larger, modern town, also called Shangri-La, which is dominated by Han Chinese residents and drab modern buildings. The broader area is called Gyaitang Zong in Tibetan. The Shangri-La area is called Gyalthang.

“After the fire broke out, even though many rushed to help at the first instant, the dry conditions and the speed of the blaze allowed it to spread rapidly in all directions,” said a report on the news website of the Yunnan government, citing county officials.

The initial reports gave only a sketchy estimate of damage. Xinhua, the state-run news agency, said hundreds of dwellings were apparently destroyed. Pictures on Chinese news websites and social-media services showed the fire tearing through the town, flames reaching into the sky, and an aftermath of smoky ruins and collapsed homes. About 100 homes burned down, wrote one user of a popular microblog, who said she was in the area.

Jeff Fuchs, a writer and trekking guide who has a home in the ancient town, said by email that he was away from the area but feared his home had been destroyed.

“Just devastating damage to structures,” wrote Fuchs. “My home is finished I think, and because of the wooden structures, the place went up in no time.”

Shangri-La County lies in a high corner of Yunnan near the official Tibetan Autonomous Region. Previously called Zhongdian, it adopted the name in 2001, claiming to be an inspiration for the paradise featured in James Hilton’s novel “Lost Horizon.” (Several other Tibetan parts of China have jostled to claim the same.) The area also has a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, which lies on a hill some way from the ancient Dukezong quarter.

In recent months, several monasteries in Tibetan areas of China have caught fire, including one in Sichuan province this week, according to Chinese news reports. The largely wooden buildings can be especially vulnerable in dry winter months, when candles and wood-fired heaters are used.

In recent years, growing numbers of Chinese and foreign tourists have traveled to the Shangri-La area. But numbers are typically down in January, when the air can be bitingly cold and thin in the mountainous area, which is more than 9,800 feet above sea level.

Officials were still investigating the cause of the fire, said the Yunnan government’s news website.



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