China's Brand-New, Centuries-Old Shangri-La

A fire has destroyed two-thirds of the Tibetan town.
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A fire engulfed the Chinese town of Shangri-La, destroying over 65 percent of the homes and businesses there. (Reuters)

Early Saturday morning, a fire erupted in the Chinese town of Dukezong and, despite the effort of firefighters, destroyed more than 65 percent of the town's buildings. Remarkably, no one died—but the blaze ruined many residences and businesses and left over 2,600 people homeless. Officials are investigating the cause of the fire, but have already ruled out arson.

Any fire that destroys so much is tragic, but Dukezong seems especially worth mourning. Located in a remote corner of Yunnan, a mountainous province in southwest China, the town is an ancient Tibetan settlement of cobblestone streets and traditional, wooden houses, and a place that has attracted both domestic and international tourists. The town's forbidding environment (at just under 10,000 feet in altitude) made it difficult to contain the blaze. According to the Associated Press, Dukezong possesses an expensive fire prevention system, but due to the cold temperatures, officials had shut its water flow to prevent pipes from freezing. The extreme cold also reduced water pressure in firefighters' hoses, and the town's narrow streets made it difficult for vehicles to maneuver well. Rebuilding will cost millions.

But this story is more complicated than the tale of an ancient town burned to the ground.

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While much of China's Tibetan population resides in the Orwellian-named "Tibet Autonomous Region," a vast swathe of territory in the country's southwest, historical Tibet encompasses an even larger area including part of Yunnan, Sichuan, Qinghai, and Gansu provinces. For foreign visitors, who must obtain a special permit to visit the TAR (when they are allowed in at all), settlements in the region's periphery provide them with a hassle-free way to experience Tibetan culture.

But foreigners comprise only a small percentage of China's tourist population. Three and a half decades of continuous economic growth has caused a boom in domestic travel in China, where improvements in transportation infrastructure have made it easier for people living on the coast to visit the country's vast interior. In Yunnan, home to nearly half of China's 55 officially recognized ethnic minorities, Han Chinese travelers arrive in droves during state holidays, spilling out of tour buses while wearing matching yellow hats. The tourists are keen to experience the local flavor—in the form of traditional costume and dance—but they stop short of going native: Popular destinations feature modern hotel facilities, equipped with Chinese restaurants for those unwilling to sample the local cuisine.

Located just 110 miles from Lijiang, a UNESCO World Heritage site, Dukezong (known as "Zhongdian" in Chinese) has obvious tourist appeal: Its gorgeous mountain setting, Tibetan heritage, and Ganden Sumtseling Monastery offer an antidote to the polluted Han cities dotting China's landscape. And so in 2001 the government re-named Dukezong "Shangri-La," a nod to the mythical land described in the 1933 James Hilton novel Lost Horizon

In the years since, Dukezong's transformation has been more than just in name. Visiting in 2007, I was struck by how many of the buildings, designed to look traditional, were actually brand new: clearly a result of government spending. The shops and restaurants I found in Dukezong's narrow streets were charming—until I realized that they were identical to shops and restaurants I'd seen in many other Chinese tourist towns. Locals I met told me that tourism and investment had robbed Dukezong of its identity, and to find the genuine article I had to wander away from the town and into the surrounding villages, where Tibetan and Naxi people lived in basic, shabby homes. 

Though Dukezong isn't in Tibet proper, its transformation serves as an example of forces at play throughout the region. From Beijing's perspective, investment in Shangri-La's tourist infrastructure has brought wealth into one of China's poorest corners and provided the local population with economic opportunity. After all, most tourists don't want to sleep in ramshackle homes lacking running water and heat in the winter, so to a degree modernization is necessary. 

But the trade-off is steep. Rather than visiting an authentic, 1,000-year-old village, Dukezong's visitors instead see, in the words of author and journalist Chris Taylor, a "commoditized, state-sanctioned face of Tibet"—a place that, for all its charm, is effectively younger than the tourists themselves.

For the purposes of cultural preservation, much of the damage has already been done—and not just in greater Tibet. The old town of Kashgar, China's western-most city and a center of Uighur heritage, was largely torn down in the last decade as part of an "economic development" scheme. And at the Labrang monastery in Gansu, a Buddhist pilgrimage site re-purposed for mass tourism, monks complained to The New York Times of widespread government interference.

Unlike the mythical Shangri-La, Taylor believes the "real" one will rise again.

"To imagine Shangri-la has mostly been destroyed is horrifying, but it’s worth bearing in mind that it was still being built when the fire struck," he wrote. "The likelihood is that Shangri-la will bounce back, perhaps even more 'ancient' than before—and this time more fireproof."

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Matt Schiavenza is a former associate editor at The Atlantic

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