Homeless Lack Winter Clothing After Fire in Tibetan Town

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Houses damaged by a fire which flattened two thirds of Gyalthang's old town centre in the popular Chinese tourist area of Shangri-La, Jan. 12, 2014.
Houses damaged by a fire which flattened two thirds of Gyalthang's old town centre in the popular Chinese tourist area of Shangri-La, Jan. 12, 2014.

Residents of an ancient Tibetan town whose cobbled winding streets and traditional wooden houses have become a favorite with tourists say they have been left in freezing temperatures without relief supplies after a fire that raged for 10 hours left more than 2,500 people homeless.

The fire ripped through the 1,300-year-old Tibetan village of Gyalthang, an area of China's Yunnan province believed to be the inspiration for James Hilton's mythical Shangri-La, on Saturday, destroying around two thirds of the town center, official Chinese media reported.

Just over 240 houses were burned down in the fire in Gyalthang (in Chinese, Shangri-la) county in the Dechen (Diqing) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture.

Dozens more were demolished by firefighters in a bid to contain the blaze, which broke out at around 1.30 a.m.

Local officials told the Yunnan Net news service: "The damage is extremely heavy."

An employee who answered the phone at the local ancient town management committee said the fire had been followed by heavy snow, and those left homeless had little to cover themselves with.

"After the fire was put out, we had two heavy snowfalls," the employee said. "We desperately need [winter clothing]."

"The civil affairs ministry has set up emergency accommodation for [the victims] in hotels," he added. "But there is definitely a shortage [of clothes and bedding]. They are setting up collection points right now."

'Belongings destroyed'

An ethnic minority Naxi woman surnamed He said all her belongings had been destroyed in the fire.

"Our clothes were all burned," she said. "I don't even have shoes to wear, and it's freezing cold and snowing."

Asked if the government had sent clothing for those made homeless, she said: "They sent some."

She said her family had been woken by warning shouts after the fire spread to the house next door.

"We had already gone to sleep," she said. "We were right next to a house that was burning down, and we only woke up when we heard them shouting, and we saw that the house next door had been burned down."

The ancient town management committee employee said major tourist attraction Turtle Hill Park was spared in the blaze.

"That is our biggest cultural site, and the fire was extinguished right on the edge of it," he said.

"We will need experts to come and assess [the damage and the reconstruction costs]," the employee added.

Local authorities had designated the area Shangri-La after a mystical lost paradise in Hilton's 1933 novel The Lost Horizon in a bid to boost tourist numbers to the region.

Access blocked

Local firefighters rushed to the scene, but a U.S.$1.3 million fire prevention system failed to save the town because of freezing pipes, and fire engines found it hard to get close to the blaze in the narrow cobbled streets of the town, known as Dukezong in Chinese.

Investigators traced the start of the fire to a local guesthouse, the Ruyi Inn, where a faulty electrical outlet set a curtain on fire.

No casualties had been reported by Monday.

The fire came just days after a massive blaze destroyed around 100 houses of nuns studying at a prominent Buddhist academy in a Tibetan area of Sichuan province, also in southwestern China.

The cause of the fire at the Larung Gar Buddhist Academy in Kardze (in Chinese, Ganzi) prefecture’s Serthar (Seda) county is still unknown, with some sources saying it could have been triggered by a butter lamp in a nun’s residence or by a faulty power line.

Thousands of Tibetans and Chinese study at the Larung Gar Academy, which comprises a sprawling settlement resting between two adjacent hills in the Tibetan area of Kham, located more than 4,000 meters (13,000 feet) above sea level and hundreds of miles from the nearest city.

The institute was founded in 1980, following China’s turbulent Cultural Revolution, by the late religious teacher Khenpo Jigme Phuntsog and is one of the world’s largest and most important centers of Tibetan Buddhism.

Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.





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