This 2003 documentary takes us along with explorer Frédérique Darragon to the region straddling the Tibet Autonomous Region and Sichuan Province in China to explore the mysterious towers built there. The builders had no written language and no machines. Carbon dating tests that she had done have confirmed that these were built 500 to 1,800 years ago. It is amazing that these towers have survived so many centuries in this earthquake-prone land. It’s believed that the towers’ hardiness is due to their star-shaped design and to an anti-seismic construction method specific to this part of China, which intersperses masonry with wood planks or beams. This method is still employed in the construction of traditional homes in the region today.
Frédérique visits the local Qiang people, an ethnic minority officially recognized by the People’s Republic of China and numbering 200,000. The colorfully-dressed Qiang are pantheistic, matrilineal and polyandrous and have no system of writing, therefore no records of who built the towers.
The more one looks at these towers over this large area, the more mysterious they become. The Mandarin Chinese word for these towers means “beacon”. If this were their function, why would their be several of them to a tiny village? Why would the entrances be 30 feet off the ground? The interiors of these thick-walled structures are often very narrow, so they would not have been of much use as granaries, let alone to shelter villagers from invaders.
There’s great footage of anthropological interest here of different isolated Himalayan ethnic groups, going about their daily chores, singing songs as they have for centuries, preceding the spread of Buddhism and other religions. Near the end of the film, an ancient Tibetan “Sky Burial” is done, where the body of the deceased is cut up for the vultures to squabble over (no explicit scenes are shown). Arable land is scarce and wood fuel is scarce and this method wastes neither. Frédérique remarks, “I would like to be disposed in such a way. I’d rather be eaten by vultures than eaten by worms…they take you away in the sky. It’s very poetic.”