Burning with shame

Ancient city destroyed after guesthouse fire

Shangrila w

Before the blaze, and after: Dukezong

“A strange and half-incredible sight” is how Shangri-La is described in James Hilton’s classic novel Lost Horizon. The Shangri-La in question is a monastery that leaves the book’s protagonist Hugh Conway dazed with wonder. He describes his first sight of it thus: “A group of coloured pavilions clung to the mountainside with none of the grim deliberation of a Rhineland castle, but rather with the chance delicacy of flower petals impaled upon a crag. It was superb and exquisite. An austere emotion carried the eye upwards from milk-blue roofs to the grey rock bastion above, tremendous as the Wetterhorn above Grindelwald.”

This fictional Shangri-La was also a place where occupants aged slowly and gracefully; none more so than the High Lama who Conway discovers to be 300 years-old.

Hilton’s 1933 novel created such fascination with the idea of such a mountain idyll that a hotel group borrowed the monastery’s name forty years later (there are now 95 Shangri-La hotels and resorts worldwide, with 48 in China, and one of the newest in London’s Shard building).

Indeed, such is the extent of the branding opportunity that the provincial government of Yunnan couldn’t resist it too, renaming Zhongdian county as Shangri-La in 1997.

Within the county is the town of Dukezong, a settlement dating back 1,300 years and now a noted tourist attraction. But this particular patch of Shangri-La was lost forever this month, after a blaze tragically burned through the town on the night of January 11.

The fire began at a small guesthouse at 1am. It raged throughout the night and was only put out at noon the next day, after 2,000 firefighters were deployed. According to the Beijing News, the devastation was colossal. Almost 350 buildings were razed as the fire ravaged an area of one square kilometre. “That means two thirds of the ancient town burned,” the newspaper commented.

When Li Gang saw the scene he is said to have burst into tears. The director of the Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture Historical Relics Preservation Agency told state media: “There was nothing left except broken, blackened walls. The once-prosperous town centre is totally ruined and almost unrecognisable. Nothing remains of the magnificent buildings. The town looks as though it had been the target of an air raid.”

The National Business Daily says Dukezong possessed some of China’s best-preserved Tibetan-style buildings. But they were mostly built from wood and clay, which helps to explain why the fire spread so ruinously fast.

Xinhua reports that the fire brigade also saw the town as an accident-waiting-to happen. But the chances of putting out the blaze would have been much higher if it hadn’t been a winter one. Because of the low temperatures, the town’s firefighting system was practically disabled.

National Business Daily notes that fire hydrants were without water, as the authorities felt water in exposed pipes would lead them to crack.

Nor did the arrival of fire engines help much, since they couldn’t navigate the town’s narrow cobbled streets.

But a lack of local spending on firefighting readiness wasn’t the only reason the inferno proved so devastating. Also to blame: rising numbers of tourists (about 7.5 million visited Shangri-La county in 2012, the most recent date for which data is available). With them, came too haphazard development.

Li of the Relics Preservation Agency said that the original layout of the town had deliberately included wide spaces between buildings to act as firebreaks. That was a wise strategy by the town planners who saw the risk of a fire in Dukezong more than a millennia ago. But to cater to the increasing demands of tourists, recent construction work had reduced these “safe areas” and made the streets more exposed to sudden blazes, Li said.

The unique historical nature of Dukezong means that the price of the damage is incalculable. But at a more tangible level, 2,600 residents have lost their homes and businesses. The county’s economy will struggle to recover too (tourism revenue is estimated at about Rmb1 billion annually, or $165 million). Who will visit when its prized asset is in ashes?

The China Daily does offer some consolation, reporting that the Red Army Long March Museum survived the blaze.

Not that this will be much comfort, you might imagine, for the owner of the inn where the fire is said to have started. Tang Ying has been detained by the authorities and is the object of local fury after she allegedly forgot to turn off a heater that set her curtains alight.

To be fair, the innkeeper isn’t the only person to have razed swathes of ancient architecture to the ground. In fact, normally it’s not even an accident.

China has wiped most of its older buildings off the face of the earth in the past 50 years, initially for ideological reasons (thank you Chairman Mao) but more recently as property developers and corrupt cadres chase personal profit.

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