Asia: Temples, Palaces / Rongzhag Danba

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PHOTO: ardenne 3051'6.89" 10156'2.60"

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Often the search for something rare yields not that sought, but something else just as elusive. Late last century, Frederique Darragon combed West China’s “Tribal Corridor” for the snow leopard, but kept happening upon massive, well-crafted, ancient towers, all the more curious for the fact that the tribesmen living about them knew nothing of their origins. Giving up leopards for towers, she has spent her life since trying to piece together these puzzles in plain sight.

 

An eight-pointed, star shaped tower fifty meters high, higher than a 15-story building. Twin towers in Remede, stoney prototypes of the Petronas towers in Kuala Lumpur. For months at a time, Darragon combed western Sichuan, northern Yunnan, southern Qinghai and Tibet, gathering clues. A lot of bumping on horseback revealed that the star shaped towers only existed in ancestral lands of little-known ancient kingdoms: those of the Qiang, the Minyag along the Yalong River, the 18 kingdoms of the Gyalrong, and the all-but-forgotten Eastern Queen Kingdom.

 

What little we know of them fascinates, however tenuous their connection to the towers. Various Chinese annals during the Sui and Tang dynasties, a stretch of time encompassing the late 6th through early 10th centuries, describe a land where women ruled, and men served a submissive role. According to the annals, the queen lived in a nine-story tower filled with gold, and the commoners in six-story ones. What is left of that culture is most commonly identified with the Sumpi tribe.