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)

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. (all photos from Matt Wakeman’s Flickrstream, used with permission)

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 (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 flickr.com/mwiththeat)

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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Hrag Vartanian

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic. You can follow him at @hragv.

6 replies on “70% of Ancient Tibetan Town Destroyed by Fire”

    1. Actually, this town was reasonably authentic- many of those buildings had been standing in more-or-less that state for hundreds of years.

      I agree, the phenomenon of ‘replica neighborhoods’ is heinous and arguably insidious, but Dukezong was not one of those places.

      Though I will admit it had lost a good deal of it’s authenticity in the last decade as it transitioned from being a traditional pastoral- and monastic-centric community towards catering to the influx of tourists. But, frankly, as far as Chinese tourist towns go, it really wasn’t that bad; I’ve been to some that were as manufactured as Disneyland.

  1. Honestly, I wasn’t sure if the town would be part of the traditional area we call Tibet. It seemed a little outside the borders but I could be wrong. I erred on the side of caution trying to figure out what to label it.

    1. That area is definitely a part of what for thousands of years was considered ‘traditional Tibet’.

      It’s a far-flung border region, so its culture is more frontier-like, and Buddhist institutions are less important than the ancient nomadic and Bon (Animist) traditions.

      But ethnically and culturally it’s as Tibetan as it gets. Before the Communist Era and its agenda of state-subsidized immigration, Han-Chinese would have been almost non-existent in the region. Even today ethnic Tibetans are the vast majority in these areas.

      Actually, in many ways, many experts see the mountains of Eastern Tibet to be a thriving hotbed of Tibetan identity. The central region of the Tibetan Plateau, popularly characterized by its large Buddhist cities like Lhasa, has experienced much-documented repression in recent decades. These border regions, however, because of their remoteness and lack of local identification with ‘political Buddhism’, have seen more leniency, which has allowed Tibetan culture to continue there as a very real lived community and lifestyle.

  2. China killed 1.5 million TIBETANS (Not Chinese!) and burnt down 6000 monasteries leaving only 8 left. Does China think everyone is stupid? You are deliberately destroying Tibet. This was planned. A fire doesn’t just start for no reason in one of the coldest places on Earth. I hope the Chinese Communist Party burns in hell.

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