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Tantalizing Find on Tibet's Highest Plain

Exploration: Discovery of a cluster of ancient huts at an elevation of 16,500 feet may shed light on the long-lost kingdom of pre-Buddhist Shang Shung.


PARIS — On the world's highest plain, in the outer 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 living quarters, which could make them the world's highest dwellings.

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 in his Left Bank apartment.

For more than a century, explorers have searched 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 Song-tsen 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 Chang Thang 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.

"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."

"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."

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 Chang Thang plain.

Peissel believes discovery of the beehive houses, confirmed last year during the International Symposium on Tibetan Architecture, might solve some of the mysteries of Tibetan history and culture.

Each summer, the Tibetan nomads trek to the center of the Chang Thang, the desolate, 16,500-foot-high plain in the northern part of the country, to collect salt along the banks of the region's 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. "This trade has been going on for millenniums," Peissel said.

He 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 igloos.

It was long thought that no one could survive the winter in the barren wasteland of the Chang Thang. The remote region the size of Texas is perhaps the world's last virgin ecological zone, and home to exotic and endangered animals such as wild horses, blue sheep, 7-foot-tall Tibetan yaks, black-neck cranes, snow leopards and herds of zebra-sized kiang--the Tibetan wild ass.

Yet two tribes of nomads--the Sengo of the Gertse-Oma region and the Sumpa--inhabit the Chang Thang, 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 yaks and horned sheep.

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