A 1,300-year-old town I visited last summer in southwestern China’s Yunnan province was razed by a fire on Saturday.
According to CNN, the fire raged for more than 10 hours, destroying two-thirds of the 240 houses in the town of Dukezong. No casualties were reported.
The narrow, cobblestone streets that gave the ancient Tibetan town part of its charm made it difficult for firetrucks to maneuver. Arson has been ruled out, according to the report, but an investigation into the fire is ongoing.
The town’s well-preserved wooden houses are the latest in a long line of historically significant Chinese structures to disappear, many at the hands of man.
In Beijing, where I live, a 45-foot-high wall that surrounded the city for more than 500 years was torn down in 1965 to make room for a major thoroughfare and subway line. A year later, Mao Zedong launched the Cultural Revolution, and one of the goals of the social movement was to destroy the “Four Olds” — Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits and Old Ideas. Religious sites were ransacked, and many ancient temples were destroyed.
Rapid development since China’s economic reforms in the 1980s has led to the destruction of tens of thousands of historic sites, according to The Guardian. An official with a cultural protection center in Beijing told the newspaper that the destruction of cultural heritage sites over the last 20 years was “even worse than in the Cultural Revolution,” which ended in 1976.
When I traveled to Dukezong last summer, I spent my days getting lost on the hilly streets that wound around the popular tourist destination. Many old buildings had been converted into souvenir shops, where women dressed in colorful ethnic attire hawked handmade jewelry, plastic prayer wheels and other cheap knickknacks.
At nightfall, the streets mostly emptied, but in the town square music boomed from loudspeakers as locals danced in a circle. When the festivities ended and the handful of nightclubs in Dukezong closed, the town grew eerily quiet.
The hotel I stayed at, Kersang’s Relay Station, was run by a friendly Tibetan man, who greeted me each morning with a steaming pot of Tibetan butter tea on a second-floor balcony.
I tried to reach the owner, but he didn’t answer his cellphone. Given the widespread damage caused by the fire, I fear the hotel, like so many of China’s historically significant buildings, may be gone.