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Originally published Saturday, January 11, 2014 at 6:58 PM

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Fire ravages ancient Tibetan town in China

Witnesses and state media said fire engines were unable to get onto the Tibetan quarter of Dukezong’s ancient, narrow streets.

The New York Times

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HONG KONG — A fire that raged for nearly 10 hours Saturday razed an ancient Tibetan town in southwest China, destroying hundreds of homes and shops that have drawn tourists to an area that has cast itself as the inspiration for mythic Shangri-La.

Witnesses and state media said fire engines were unable to get onto the narrow streets.

There was no immediate report of any deaths or serious injuries. State media, citing local authorities, said the blaze started in a guesthouse and was ruled accidental.

The fire began about 1:30 a.m. in the ancient Tibetan quarter of Dukezong, which dates back more than 1,000 years and is part of scenic Shangri-La county in Deqen prefecture.

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 buildings on narrow, cobble-stoned streets. With about 3,000 permanent residents, it lies on the edge of a modern town, 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 fire destroyed 242 houses — almost a quarter of the 1,084 houses in the old town — according to Xinhua, the state-run news agency. Chinese news websites and social-media services showed the fire tearing through the area, flames reaching into the sky, and an aftermath of smoky ruins and collapsed homes. An initial investigation ruled out arson but did not identify the cause of the fire, said Xinhua.

He Yu, a resident, said she woke to loud, explosion-like sounds and saw the old town on fire.

“The fire was huge,” she said. “The wind was blowing hard, and the air was dry. I was scared because my home is a little distance away from the ancient town. It kept burning, and the firefighters were there, but there was little they could do because they could not get the fire engines onto the old town’s narrow streets.”

With fire engines kept out, local residents lined up to pass buckets of water to combat the fire, the Deqen prefecture government said.

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,” Fuchs wrote. “My home is finished I think, and because of the 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.)

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 area, which is more than 9,800 feet above sea level, can be bitingly cold.

Tibetan parts of China have experienced volatile tensions in recent years, and many Tibetans resent the presence and economic dominance of Han Chinese. But around Shangri-La, Tibetans, Han Chinese and other ethnic groups have long lived close to one another, and the tensions have been less acute than in other parts of China.

Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.

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