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<-Back to WTN Archives Tibetan Huts May Descend From Long-Lost Kingdom
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World Tibet Network News

Sunday, January 18, 1998

1. Tibetan Huts May Descend From Long-Lost Kingdom

By Dana Thomas
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, January 12, 1998; Page A03

PARIS-On the world's highest plain, in theouter reaches of Tibet, French
explorer Michel Peissel was tracing ancient trading routes when he
stumbled upon a cluster of curious-looking dome-shaped structures made
of mud and brick.

Though they were unusual, Peissel, an ethnologist and anthropologist,
didn't think much of the igloo-looking huts at first, dismissing them as
many have before him as chortens, a type of Buddhist monument.

But when Peissel took a closer look, he found that the structures were
actually living quarters, which could make them the world's highest

Moreover, the structures, which Peissel dubbed "beehive houses," could
be the remains of the long-lost pre-Buddhist kingdom of Shang Shung.

"These houses could be remnants of that ancient mysterious kingdom,"
said Peissel during a recent interview over a cup of tea in his Left
Bank apartment.

For more than a century, explorers have been searching to no avail for
the remains of Shang Shung. The kingdom was ruled for centuries by the
Bon shamans, an ancient pre-Buddhist religion, until it was conquered in
645 by the Songtsen Gampo, the unifier of Tibet and the first great
Tibetan king. Shang Shung generally is thought by Tibetan specialists to
have been located in the Changthang region.

The archaic mud-brick houses, which today shelter Tibet's most northern
nomads in the winter, are round and dome-shaped, with the top lopped off
for a chimney. It's the unique shape that suggests a strong Persian
influence, Peissel said.

"Shang Shung had links to the West -- it was known to have contact with
Persia -- which could be where the dome comes from," Peissel said. "The
vault and dome are unknown in Tibet. It's a very archaic form that comes
from the West -- from the days when Persia went up to the border of
Tibet and before the days of Alexander the Great."

The buildings indicate that Tibet's earliest emigres may have been from
the West.

"They may well be connected with structures west of Tibet," said
Heather Stoddard, a Tibet scholar and professor at the National
Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations in Paris, "and
probably come from the Middle East -- Syria, Persia, and maybe
Afghanistan. There's a whole architectural zone across that goes from
Middle East straight through to Tibet."

She added that the houses were probably overlooked by previous explorers
because "from a distance, they resemble other nomad structures. Nomads
pile up all sorts of yak dung to make structures that look like this."
However, even yak dung shelters were never found so far north on the
Changthang plain.

Peissel believes the discovery of the beehive houses, which was
confirmed last month during an International Symposium on Tibetan
Architecture, may solve some of the mysteries of Tibetan history and

Each summer, the Tibetan nomads trek to the center of the Changthang,
the 16,500-foot-high desolate plain in the northern part of the country,
to collect salt along the banks of the region's aqua blue saline lakes.
The salt is loaded in 20-pound sacks and strapped onto the backs of
sheep, which the nomads herd south to market. There the nomads trade the
salt for grain, for nourishment. "These neolithic salt routes are still
traveled today," said Peissel. "This trade has been going on for

Peissel had set out in early October with his colleague, English
explorer Sebastian Guinness (of the brewing family) on a 2,000-mile
journey to retrace these salt routes when he happened upon the adobe

It was long thought that no one could survive the winter in the barren
wasteland of the Changthang, a remote region the size of Texas that is
perhaps the world's last virgin ecological zone and home for exotic and
endangered animals such as wild equids, blue sheep, seven-foot-tall
Tibetan yaks, black neck cranes, snow leopards and herds of zebra-size
kiang -- the Tibetan wild ass -- which run for miles and miles across
the tundra at the foot of the snow-covered mountains.

Yet two tribes of nomads -- the Sengo of the Gertse-Oma region, and the
Sumpa -- inhabit the Changthang, where it freezes 280 days a year. "The
secret of their survival at such altitudes in the winter has now been
revealed as both tribes build variations of these oven-like domed
shelters on their winter grazing lands," Peissel said.

The Sengo nomads call their variation of these mud igloos "Mongo Phu,"
which means Mongol caves. The Sumpa dubbed theirs "Bug-ri," or hollow
hills. The nomads weather the blistering cold winters on the plain in
these dwellings, heated by fires fueled by yak and sheep dung. "Inside,"
said Peissel, "it's just like a kiln -- a human furnace."

In the summer, the nomads live in yak hair tents, which they pack up and
move as they roam the land looking for adequate pasture for their yaks
and horned sheep.

Peissel, author of "The Last Barbarians," a book published this month
about his 1994 discovery of the source of the Mekong River in Tibet, has
been traveling for 38 years to the Himalayan country that China has
occupied since 1950. In 1964, Peissel claims to have found the lost
kingdom of Mustang.

Two years ago, while crossing an isolated Tibetan valley near the
Chinese border, Peissel came across the little Riwoche horse, an archaic
breed similar to the ponies painted on cave walls by the first Homo
sapiens during the Upper Paleolithic period.

As always, Peissel's trip to Tibet in October -- his 26th -- was a
perilous journey. At the furthest point from their starting point in
Lhasa, and not far from the Pakistani border, the Range Rover carrying
all of the fuel their entire journey veered off the road and tumbled 300
feet down a ravine. The cook and the driver were injured and the fuel
was lost. The team was stuck for days waiting for a new truck with
supplies to reach them so they could continue the voyage. "It was quite
an adventure," Peissel said with a laugh.

Indeed. "There are not so many people who go to Tibet and not so many
people who go on adventures like Michel Peissel," said Stoddard. "Few
people go where he goes."

Articles in this Issue:
  1. Tibetan Huts May Descend From Long-Lost Kingdom
  2. Two books on Tibetan monks

Other articles this month - WTN Index - Mail the WTN-Editors

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