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Shangri-La assets lost after town blaze

This picture taken on Jan. 12 shows rescuers sifting through the wreckage of damaged houses in the ancient Tibetan town of Gyalthang, in Shangri-La, Yunnan province, China, after a fire flattened two-thirds of the town’s old center. (AFP-Yonhap)
This picture taken on Jan. 12 shows rescuers sifting through the wreckage of damaged houses in the ancient Tibetan town of Gyalthang, in Shangri-La, Yunnan province, China, after a fire flattened two-thirds of the town’s old center. (AFP-Yonhap)

Irreparable damage to ancient architecture and traditional culture was caused by a fire that raged in an ancient Tibetan town in Yunnan province on the weekend, according to experts.

The blaze in Dukezong, founded 1,300 years ago and a noted tourist attraction, destroyed 343 of the 1,084 houses in a town known for its cobbled streets and well-preserved wooden houses.

The Shangri-La county government said the fire started when a hotel owner accidentally set curtains alight. Investigations are continuing.

Although there were no reports of casualties, more than 2,600 people were evacuated from their homes.

More than 2,000 firefighters, soldiers, police and volunteers were involved in the rescue operation as firefighters fought for more than 10 hours to bring the blaze under control.

Although the Diqing Tibetan autonomous prefecture Red Army Long March Museum and Diqing Museum survived, at least half of Dukezong was destroyed in the blaze.

Cultural loss

One of the best-preserved old houses, a provincial-level key cultural heritage site and a major tourist attraction, was reduced to ashes and a number of other ancient sites were also destroyed. In addition, the blaze consumed important cultural relics, precious Tibetan thangka and other pieces of ethnic art.

“The value of Dukezong lies in its architecture and functional integrity. The fire destroyed the pattern of the town that was laid down in ancient times and has dealt a fatal blow to research in the region and to traditional culture,” said Li Gang, the director of the Diqing Tibetan autonomous prefecture historical relics preservation agency.

Li, born and raised in Dukezong, visited the town. The scene reduced him to tears.

“Everything was in a pitiful state. There was nothing left except broken, blackened walls. The once-prosperous town center is totally ruined and almost unrecognizable. Nothing remains of the magnificent buildings. The water that had been used to extinguish the flames lay frozen on the ground. I could see smoke coming from collapsed houses. The town looked as though it had been the target of an air raid,” he said.

Residents said firefighters arrived at the scene quickly, but there was little they could do because the narrow streets prevented access for the fire engines.

Li said changes made to the original infrastructure to accommodate the vast numbers of tourists the town attracts and insufficient fire safety procedures and equipment were among the root causes of the devastation. For example, the town’s only water tank has a capacity of just 800 metric tons, far from sufficient to tackle a fire of such intensity.

From a distance, Dukezong looks like an amazing ancient town, but seen up close it’s a business area that sports bars, nightclubs, hotels and small shops. Electric cables hang everywhere.

Tourism has been a double-edged sword for this ancient settlement. The influx of visitors has raised the local standard of living, but the town has also seen many changes in recent years and some locals said they hardly recognize it.

“Our memories of a simple, relaxed life are gone forever. In traditional Tibetan architecture, the roof isn’t nailed onto the supports, so if a fire breaks out, it can be removed quickly and easily and the fire-affected section can be cut out. But the new buildings don’t follow that rule. In one sense that accelerated the spread of the fire,” said Li.

The town was designed to minimize the danger posed by fire, according to Li. The original architects ensured that there were wide spaces between the buildings and they also incorporated a firebreak that kept stockpiles of fertilizer and firewood isolated from the main buildings in the event of fire.

However, recent construction work has reduced the size of the “safe area” and the crowded buildings and narrow streets have become hazardous, he said.

Cao Baoming, vice president of the Chinese Folk Literature and Art Society was also critical of the recent changes. “The over-exploitation of business potential isn’t just a problem in Dukezong, but also in many other ancient towns and villages, such as Dali and Lijiang. Because the traditional buildings are made of wood, this fire has rung alarm bells about the safety of ancient architecture nationwide,” he said.

Many experts are of the opinion that having residents living and working inside the old settlements is the best way to keep towns and villages alive in the modern age, but it should all be contained within a certain range, because the cultural heritage is unique and can’t be replicated. Once destroyed, it is lost irretrievably, he said.

Time to rebuild

Dukezong resident Song Yunfeng was devastated to see the town reduced to rubble. “Before the fire, if the weather permitted, people came out to dance in the square every evening. I hope the town can be rebuilt soon and we can resume a normal life,” she said.

Huo Yaozhong, a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts at Shanxi University who has researched the protection of ancient architecture for many years, said the search for profits was unbalanced. He noted that some local entrepreneurs have altered original structures to meet the demands of their businesses, destroying the original facades in the process.

The problem of local governments attaching great importance to the exploitation of ancient architecture and cultures, but paying scant attention to their protection is a nationwide problem, said Huo.

Opening ancient towns to tourism and providing visitors with the opportunity to learn about the culture and charm of traditional settlements is a good way of protecting the heritage, but proper planning is essential, he added.

Li said rebuilding Dukezong will present the local government and architectural experts with huge challenges. “Although ancient architecture should preferably be rebuilt using materials as close to the originals as possible, I would prefer to see modern fireproof materials used in Dukezong. As long as the town is a hotspot for tourists, fires and other safety concerns will always exist. Fireproof materials would be the wisest choice,” he said.

Cao stressed that the repair work should be carefully planned. “I don’t think the rebuilding process should start immediately; on the contrary, a comprehensive plan should be formulated before any work begins. It should be based on cultural research, local history and the regional environment.”

By He Na and Yang Yang

(China Daily)