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70% of Ancient Tibetan Town Destroyed by Fire

A screenshot of a CCTV report on the fire in Dukezong (Shangri-La) posted on the South China Morning Post website. (via scmp.com)
Screenshot of a CCTV report on the fire in Dukezong (Shangri-La) posted on the South China Morning Post website. (via scmp.com)

Nearly 300 houses were destroyed or dismantled in a fire that destroyed the majority of Dukezong in Shangri-La county, China, on Saturday, January 11. The 1,300-year-old city is a popular tourist destination in the southwest Yunnan province, renowned for its ancient Tibetan town of mostly wooden houses with colored decorations and traditional architecture. No one was harmed in the fire that started at 1:37am local time at the Ruyi Inn, but 2,600 residents were evacuated. The fire lasted 10 hours.

The location of Shangri-La in Yunan province, China. (graphic by Hyperallergic)
The location of Shangri-La in Yunan province, China (graphic by Hyperallergic)

Built during the Tang dynasty (618–907 ACE), Dukezong, which means “town of the moon” in Tibetan, was a landmark on the southern Silk Road, also known as the Ancient Tea Horse Road. BBC is reporting that the town had a fire prevention system installed three years ago, but it was turned off at the time of the blaze to “prevent pipes from bursting in below-freezing temperatures.” China’s Xinhua news service reported that over 1,000 firefighters were battling the flames.

A view of the ancient Tibetan town from April 2013. The area was devastated by fire last Saturday. (photo from Matt Wakeman's Flickrstream and used with permission)
A view of the ancient Tibetan town from April 2013. The area was devastated by fire last Saturday. (all photos from Matt Wakeman’s Flickrstream, used with permission)
One of the beautiful square in Dukezong's old Tibetan town before the fire. (Matt Wakeman's Flickstream)
One of the beautiful squares in Dukezong’s old Tibetan town before the fire (flickr.com/mwiththeat)

The South China Morning Post says that the government does not suspect arson in the fire, which destroyed 70% of the town, although there have been questions about the speed of the response of emergency services:

A 30-year-old woman, who gave her surname as Wang, said that when she arrived at the scene of the blaze at 3am on Saturday, more than an hour after the fire had started, there were only two fire engines in the area. They had not begun spraying water on the flames, she said.

Other residents said firefighters arrived 30 minutes after the blaze broke out.

Chen Tianchang, a fire captain, told Xinhua that firefighters were at the scene in five minutes but that there were delays in tackling the blaze.

Another view of the ancient Tibetan town at Dukezong in the country of Shangri-La, China. (Matt Wakeman's Flickrstream)
Another view of the ancient Tibetan town at Dukezong in the country of Shangri-La, China (flickr.com/mwiththeat)

The Tibet Post reports that a town treasures, one of the world’s largest Tibetan prayer wheels, was saved mainly because it is made of metal. Other prominent features of the Dukezong, including the central Sifang Street and a white Tibetan prayer tower, were destroyed by the fire.

Shanghaiist has images of the fire’s aftermath.

Some of the stunning architectural details that were once prevalent in Dukezong. (Matt Wakeman's Flickrstream)
Some of the stunning architectural details that were once prevalent in Dukezong. (Matt flickr.com/mwiththeat)
It's funny to know that even in this ancient Tibetan town there were some fans of the TV series Friends. (Matt Wakeman's Flickstream)
Even in this ancient Tibetan town the tentacles of American pop culture, including this reference to the TV series “Friends,” can be found. (flickr.com/mwiththeat)

In what appears to be a startling coincidence, last Thursday another fire, this one in Sichuan province, raged through the Serthar, or Larung Gar, Institute, one of the largest Tibetan Buddhist institutes in the world and home to 10,000 monks and nuns. Radio Free Asia reported that a hundred homes were destroyed in that fire, and two nuns were slightly injured.

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