Towers To The Heavens

French explorer Michel Peissel was touring Tibet in 1982 when he first stumbled upon a series of tall, mysterious, star-shaped stone towers dotting the Himalayan valleys along the Chinese border. "I was blown away by them," he remembers. But during the adventure, Peissel--who has traveled extensively in Tibet and is credited with discovering the source of the Mekong River as well as the archaic Riwoche horse--broke both legs and was unable to follow up on his find. Then, in 1998, Peissel's friend Frederique Darragon--a top polo player and the sometime girlfriend of Ted Turner--went to Tibet to research snow leopards. Peissel told her to be sure to check out the towers. She did, and was so captivated by them that she abandoned the snow-leopard project to focus solely on the towers. Her goal: to chart all the towers in the region and find out as much about their history as possible.

In the riveting documentary "Secret Towers of the Himalayas," directed and narrated by Peissel and scheduled to premiere this week on the Discovery Channel, Darragon shares what she unearthed. The towers, as stunning for their architecture as for their unexpected appearance on the landscape, stand as tall as 60 meters and date back as far as 1,000 years. Some are clustered in peasant villages; others fleck the sweeping, 3,000-meter mountains. A few now serve as stables for yaks and ponies, but most are empty, their wooden steps and stories long since collapsed or carted away. How many towers are there, who built them and what was their purpose?

At first, Peissel and Darragon found the answers to such questions elusive. Until recently there were no roads in the region, which is plagued by heavy rains and mudslides in the summer and snow and avalanches in the winter; at times Darragon traveled by horseback and yak. The towers dot four regions--Qiangtang, rGyalrong, Miniak and Kongpo--that cover an area roughly the size of Texas. But the tribes who have lived there for centuries speak different dialects and do not have written languages. "Even from one valley to the next, the locals couldn't speak to each other," Darragon says.

She turned to local Buddhist monasteries for help, but the monks found no mention of the towers in their ancient texts. Chinese scholars late in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) wrote about some of the towers in various kingdoms that no longer exist. British explorer Isabella Bird mentioned them in one of her books, but gave no explanation. "No one has ever studied them," Peissel concludes in the film. "Their stories are lost in time."

As Darragon continued her research, she made several surprising discoveries. By carbon-dating bits of wood she sawed off beams of the towers, she confirmed that the structures are 600 to 1,000 years old. She learned that the towers--some of which are as tall as modern 15-story buildings and contain very little mortar--were able to withstand centuries of violent earthquakes because of their star-shaped corners, an antiseismic device that villagers also use in constructing their homes. Darragon found that many of the villages where the towers are located bear the same names as 18 kingdoms described previously only in legends.

The purpose of the towers differs from valley to valley. In Miniak, for example, she believes that many were watchtowers: they were built on rich agricultural plains where trade routes met, often situated on a ridge and the entrances are several stories above ground. "Obviously bigger was considered better," Darragon concludes, "and very tall towers were supposed to both impress the brigands who thought of attacking them and discourage the traders from asking for bargains."

In Kongpo and Damba, the towers seem to be primarily symbols of wealth and pride. One tale states that the towers were built by locals who grew rich by trading with Mongol-ruled China. According to another legend in Damba, the base of the tower was built when a son was born and a new story was added with each birthday. They are "far too tall to be watchtowers," says Peissel. "It was more about outdoing your neighbors."

Darragon, with the help of Turner, has started a foundation in China to study the towers. She is also currently working on getting them onto UNESCO's World Heritage List. "The towers are the only proof of the existence of sophisticated cultures in these very remote lands and are bound to become tourism destinations," she says. "But we need to protect them so it is the locals who profit." And so the towers might still be standing 1,000 years from now.