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Recovering the roots of ancient towers

Alongside the mysterious, mostly star-shaped stone skyscrapers which stretch as high as the surrounding mountains in the remote Himalayan valleys, are images of inhabitants near their homes at the foot of the ancient towers. Another snapshot captures a close-up of the ebullient faces of three rosy-cheeked children clad in brightly-coloured ethnic head pieces and giant beads.

Not counting the ruins, more than 200 stone towers are still standing today in Southwest China, surviving yearly earthquakes and tremors, in northwestern areas of Sichuan inhabited by the Qiangsand Jiarong Tibetans, and one area of southeasten Tibet Autonomous Region. The uniquely-shaped constructions, possibly dating back to 1,200 years, are as tall as 15-storey buildings. Most towers appear to be found along four ancient silk, tea, and salt roads.

Frederique Darragon founder and president of the Unicorn Foundation, a US non-profit organization mainly dedicated to building schools is drawing attention to the beauty of the ancient monuments and the need to preserve and restore them with her photo exhibit, currently showing at the French Cultural Centre in Beijing until Friday .

The French philanthropist is also trying to protect the local culture and foster the well-being of the people who have been living among the towers for centuries. The towers made it to the World Monuments Fund 2006 Watch List of the 100 Most Endangered Sites in June. She said she hopes they will eventually be declared protected sites, along with the houses and wildlife in the area.

"Most of the tower sites are cultural landscapes where the ancient monuments are intertwined with agricultural lands and dwellings," Darragon said, in an e-mail to China Daily from Kangding, a county in the Sichuan Garze Tibet Autonomous Prefecture where she was working on restoration and sustainable tourism plans for the Garze region.

"My campaign is about finding ways to bring more well-being to the local inhabitants while boosting their cultural self-esteem. That is to say to protect not only the tangible cultural heritage, but also the intangible one."

Until now, she mainly has been spending her personal funds for the project. Since September, she has started efforts to try to raise money for the restoration of about 120 to 140 towers. The World Monuments Fund is also working on raising funds.

The only way to uncover the region's rich history, Darragon said, is to protect and study these stone towers. She said she believes that it is also the only way to give back the identity, pride and roots to the impoverished minority people residing around the towers.

Promoting sustainable tourism is one of the goals, so she is working with local populations and governments to maximize the financial benefits for the local population while minimizing the potential damage from tourism. She noted her goal of allowing the local people, through micro-credits, to create small tourist-related enterprises.

"People appreciate what she's done to have it (Darragon's campaign) integrated into the local economy where people locally would be empowered to take advantage of it and will benefit from new small-scale business opportunities (associated with microfinance facilities) to improve the quality of their life," said Olivier Allais. Allais is a Beijing-based senior advisor for PlaNet Finance (www.planetfinance.org), an international NGO headquartered in Paris working to develop microfinance worldwide to help alleviate poverty.

Darragon a top polo player, artist and sailboat racer turned amateur archaeologist said that when she first saw the towers up close in Tibet in 1998, no one had yet dated them, or even mapped them. But today, Darragon is helping to undertake that task.

"When I found out that nobody knew when, why and by whom these towers had been built, I was just fascinated with the idea of solving this 'riddle in full sight,'" she said.

"Then I became aware that the local people had lost their history, and that they felt they were nobody when, in fact, they were the descendants of builders of exception. So I realized that if I was to help preserve the towers and reconstruct their history that would give back the pride to the local inhabitants."

Darragon's stone towers have earned some fame in recent years. She had a photo exhibit at the United Nations last year and a film documentary called "Secret towers of the Himalayas" shown worldwide on the United States' Discovery Channel in 2003. She also has published the first book on the towers. It is expected to hit bookshelves soon.

Culture-Link, a Hong Kong-based film company, is currently filming a documentary about her work and her life in China.

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