A 10-hour inferno has destroyed the ancient Tibetan town which, according to the Chinese government, was the earthly incarnation of the lost paradise of Shangri-la.
The blaze, which began in the early hours of yesterday morning, swept through the narrow alleys of Duzekong -- a 1,300-year-old village high up in the mountains of Tibet that was once a stop on the southern Silk Road.
Thousands of firefighters, soldiers and police were mobilised to fight the blaze, but were unable to save hundreds of the traditional wooden buildings that helped create a boom in tourism since 2001, when China officially renamed Duzekong -- and the modern Chinese town that has sprung up around it -- as Shangri-la.
"The fire was huge, the wind was blowing hard and the air was dry," said He Yu, one of the town's 3,000 or so residents.
"It kept burning and the firefighters were there but there was little they could do because they could not get their fire engines into the narrow streets."
Investigators said the fire began at the Ruyi Inn, and that it was unlikely to be arson. One tourist who visited in 2012 said that electrical wires in the old town were a chaotic tangle and that a shop had caught fire during her visit, causing a mini-blackout.
Officials also said there had been no casualties. While the area is often swamped with tourists during the spring and summer, the temperature yesterday dipped to -8C.
Shangri-la was coined by the novelist James Hilton in his 1933 book Lost Horizon to describe a mystical valley in the western end of the Kunlun mountains, guided by monks who live for hundreds of years.
The lost paradise has a "dream-like texture" where the air has a "deep anaesthetising tranquillity", wrote Hilton.