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Science And Nature

Ancient Himalayan towers keep their secrets on a walk through southwest China

Amid Sichuans Hengduan Mountains, mysterious stone towers built jut a lot more than 100 feet in to the sky. No-one is sure why.

Published September 16, 2022

14 min read

Writer and National Geographic Society Explorer Paul Salopeks Out of Eden Walk is really a 24,000-mile storytelling odyssey around the world in the footsteps of our human forebears. He sends this dispatch from Sichuan Province, in China.

Pengbuxi, Sichuan Province, ChinaThe stone towers of Pengbuxi, a hamlet of yak herders and barley farmers that pools within an 11,000-foot-high valley in the Hengduan Mountains of southwestern China, jut in to the sky like colossal exclamation marks.

These towersfour survive, though villagers say there was previously moreare a marvel of ancient engineering. Their spires rise as high as 100 feet above the encompassing fields: an extraordinary stature for just about any freestanding structure built yourself, from gray, unworked rocks. They’re eight-sided, star-shape in cross-section. They taper elegantly toward their tops. How old are they? That which was their purpose? Why are they even here? Chinese historians still debate these questions. Individuals who erected them remain largely unknown and left few written records.

Earlier this season, a teacher friend named Yang Wendou and I hiked over the Hengduan Mountains from south to north. We climbed through forests of fir, spruce, and Yunnan pine. We skidded down snowy passes within sight of Tibet. We breathed razor-cold air at 15,000 feet. We yo-yoed among ice peaks for 220 miles. We saw many wonders. Ours was possibly the first foot traverse of the vast mountain range, an eastern extension of the Himalaya, undertaken in generations. But I could let you know this:

We discovered nothing new concerning the strange towers of Pengbuxi.

The colossal pillars stand mute sentinel over a remote alpine wilderness. Enigmas from another world. Dreamlike megaliths. They still hold all of the power of a kept secret.

You can find more than four towers.

During the past, scattered over the corrugated highlands of western China, there actually might have been hundreds. Just a few survive today in a variety of states of preservation or decay. Some are reduced to mere piles of rubble. Once the Austro-American explorer Joseph Rock passed through the Hengduan Mountains in 1929, for instance, he observed a conglomeration of tall leaning towers near a vintage trading outpost called Jiulong. When Yang and I trekked through Jiulong, these were gone.

There is, however, a fresh highway tunnel.

The tunnel cored out almost two miles of solid rock close to the summit of a 15,000-foot pass. The highway was closed due to heavy snows. The tunnel caretaker was named Shen Hao.

Shen Hao was from the ethnic Yi minority, a middle-aged father of three school-age girls, who spent weeks living alone, marooned in a smoke-blackened hut close to the tunnel generators. He cooked on a woodstove, carried icy creek water in plastic buckets, and hung garish hanks of yak meat from the ladder in the cold. He previously the immobile face of a guy who enjoyed solitude. He previously married in to the third richest family in Chengdu, he said. His sister-in-law was enrolled at Harvard. His father-in-law sometimes wired Shen Hao large sums of cash via the WeChat phone app. This paternal generosity was guaranteed because Shen Hao never once asked for this. He refused to work with family.

I’ve everything I want. Things with prices? You cannot take them with you once you die, Shen Hao said, clouding his hut with woodsmoke as he prepared us butter tea and noodles. Things without prices, like love and friendship, maybe those it is possible to take.

The tunnel was just like a tower laid on its side: An extended, dark, frozen tube that we emerged, blinking, right into a winter landscape so bright it momentarily made me weightless, lifted me, just like a snow crystal, off the bottom.

Maybe in the event that you burned diamonds youd get light like this.

The Hengduan Mountains sprawl 560 miles long and 250 miles wide.

Something of the colliding Indian and Asian tectonic plates, the wild range knuckles up in parallel white scarps, each carved by plunging river valleys coursing north-south. (The ridges of the western Himalaya, in comparison, run east-west.) For this reason, the region sticks out among the most biodiverse landscapes on the planet earth. Elevation and latitude crosscut to create mazes of high-altitude grasslands, chilly black-green conifer forests, temperate rhododendron thickets, and subtropical lowland savannas. The human picture is hardly less scrambled.

Chinese ethnographers often make reference to the mountains of southwestern China as a tribal corridor, a crossroads of antique migrations dating back to to the Stone Age. Pastoralists such as for example eastern Tibetans (called Khampas) live there. So do members of minority groups like the Yi and Pumi. And the descendants of Mongols and Han Chinese settlers. Human diversity muddies research in to the origins of the Himalayan towers.

Chinese experts consider that the towers have all been built by Qiang ren (Qiang tribes) that once inhabited the fringes of the Tibetan Plateau, writes Frederique Darragon, a French cultural preservationist who carbon-dated wooden beams from several towers, producing age estimates spanning 1,200 to 800 yrs . old. There are various legends concerning the towers, do not require shedding much light on the possible raison detre.

Darragon believes defense was the likeliest reason for the extraordinary towers looming over Pengbuxi and elsewhere in the eastern Himalaya. (Firing slits for archers are carved into a few of the structures.) But others hypothesize food storage, monuments marking male births, status symbols of the rich.

Are you aware that Khampas prodding groaning yaks round the four giant pillars at Pengbuxi, they simply shrug and amble on.

Yang and I climbed to fairylands of snow-laden spruce and fir. We crossed yak pastures raked by winds. We burned under a devastating white sun.

Close to the watery blue shadows of Mount Gongga, at 24,760 feet the tallest peak in Sichuan, we sheltered in the house of Sonam Zeren.

Like other ethnic Tibetan women of her generation in the Hengduan, Sonam Zeren had never set foot in a classroom. She could neither read nor write. Herding yaks at altitude, she and her husband had saved for many years to catapult their two boys into university. She still worked from sunup in her village, renting rooms in her house to traveling teachers and medics. It had been hard to obtain a fix on Sonam Zeren. Her head came and then my shoulder. She was a tireless and cheerful blur. During our three days of recovery from exhaustion, mostly spent at her dining room table, Yang and I rarely saw her sit back. Whenever we finally lay out on a bracing 12,000-foot morning, she sternly zipped my coat around my chin. She packed us lunch.

Recently, an earthquake cracked Sonam Zerens mountain.

Neither folks speaks Mandarin. I texted her a sad-face emoji. Within minutes, three circular hand signals pinged back confidently: OK OK OK.

Hieroglyphics fit the Hengduan. Mutually incomprehensible languages pool in adjacent valleys. The number emanates rivulets of dialects. Its ridgelines divide accents.

The mountains certainly are a tower. And their name could possibly be Babel.

Professor Luo Xin, a specialist in medieval Chinese history at Peking University in Beijing, will not understand specifically why the baffling stone towers of the Himalaya were built.

Luo suspects their purpose could have changed across geography and time. But he informs me: You could find them not only in the Hengduan Mountains however in Beijing.

A Qing emperor built replicas of the remote Sichuanese towers in his capital, Luo says, to teach his troops on siege techniques. This is in the 18th century.

Several remain there, he says, laughing. Nobody really talks about them twice.

We bunked down with four yak herders. Ice crystals blasted the medial side of these tin hut with a melancholic sigh. Outside, a bull lay frozen to the bone in the snow.

How did shepherds track their individual animals through the immense cosmos of the Hengduan Mountains?

Oh, we realize their faces, Sonam Badeng explained. We recognize them.

Yang and I tottered over a snow pass where mineralized springs gushed water bright as arterial blood. We hit the initial lowland roads near Jiagenbaxiang, and the houses of the settled Tibetans were like stone mansions. Wed missed the era of the final black tents by at the very least 15 years. An agreeable pighogs ranged freely in numbers in the Hengduan Mountainstrotted around have its ears scratched. It toppled onto its back, blissfully asleep, after significantly less than one minute. At Pengbuxi, the towers stood like obelisks dropped from the ceramic blue sky.

They built them to warn of bandit attacks, said an area businessman named Dengzhu Zhaxi, who was simply taking his young daughter on a tour of the remote site. Fire by night, and through the days smoke. Notice how all of the towers are type of sight.

Days later, limping next to the highway between Lhasa and Shanghai, I realized that wasnt right.

The towers of Pengbuxi are styluses: These were scratching out the stories of our lives on the grand disc of sky that revolves, eternally, above the Hengduan Mountains of Sichuan.

The National Geographic Society, focused on illuminating and protecting the sweetness of the world, has funded Explorer Paul Salopek and the Out of Eden Walk project since 2013. Explore the project here.

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