Aaron Schachter: A massive fire has destroyed an ancient Tibetan village known as Shangri-La. The historic village also known as Dukezong has been renamed by Chinese authorities to attract tourists, and they succeeded. But now the village is mostly gone, consumed by a blaze over the weekend that lasted 10 hours and destroyed more than 200 houses. David Fundingsland, who's in charge of educational travels for the tour group Wild China, says that Dukezong used to be a stop on the ancient silk road.
David Fundingsland: The town itself was an important stop on the tea and horse caravan road, so this was a caravan route where tea from the south part of Yunnan, southern China, was sent by a horse caravan into Tibet. In exchange for the tea, they would give war horses and other valuable goods that they were getting from India and beyond. The majority of the old towns, some of the old buildings, probably go back 600 years. There's also a few of the old trader homes, so people who traded tea on the caravan routes, as well as many other tibetan homes and small temples.
Schachter: This sounds like a tragic loss of a historical place. What are you hearing from on the ground?
Fundingsland: So far there hasn't been any official report about what the cause of the fire was. That still seems to be unknown. From what we know, the fire started around 1 AM in the morning, and I've heard as much as 2/3rd's of the old town was destroyed. There were some high winds - this part of China in the winter is very dry, and much of the homes have wood shingles on the roofs. Some of the homes and guest houses used wood stoves to heat in the winter, so that could very well be a cause, or just cooking stoves, etc. So they're very susceptible to fire.
Schachter: Do you know if anyone's been displaced at this point?
Fundingsland: They've relocated a number of people, as many as 2,000 people have been relocated. Some to the new city in Shangri-La, others further south in a town called Li-Jung.
Schachter: I just want to ask about this nickname of Shangri-La. Was this an idyllic place?
Fundingsland: There was a lot of development in recent years, but at the same time, it's one of the most beautiful places in China. One of the most memorable experiences I had in the region was just south of Shangri-La. It's part of an old pilgrimage trail. It's only accessible by foot or horseback, but you can hike up into the mountains and it's quite beautiful. There's still nomadic herdsmen in the area, so during the summer months they move out of the town and herd their yak around the woods and forests around Shangri-La.
Schachter: This does sound like a magical place and a real loss.
Fundingsland: Absolutely. The area had already been coming under a lot of pressure for development, so there was a lot of talk and discussion and preserving traditional values vs. developing the economy vs. protecting the culture, and I think that for some this may be a bit of a game changer. It's hard to see if people will come back once the town is rebuilt. If some of the tibetans, the local people that had been living there - if they'll move onto other areas, away from the old town or if they'll return.
Schachter: David Fundingsland leads educational tours at Wild China, a travel company based in Beijing. Thank you for speaking with us.
Fundingsland: You're very welcome.