Upon first meeting the slim and healthy 55-year-old Frenchwoman, Frederique Darragon, with her long, curly golden-red hair, glistening eyes and vibrant and resounding voice, one quickly realizes that here is a person full of passion and strength.
On a day in 1996, while studying the conditions and behaviors of snow leopards near the border of Sichuan Province and the Tibet Autonomous Region, Darragon found herself engulfed in a heavy rainstorm. Seeking shelter from the blinding rains, on a nearby mountain slope she came across a stone structure reaching far into the sky. Captivated by this grand construction, on the spot she became determined to discover its origins.
In the following days, Darragon found more such structures in the area, identical to the first upon which she stumbled. What could they be, and when and why were they built? These questions would remain with her while she was for the next two years outside of China. In 1998 she returned to the nation, this time to dedicate herself to the complete exploration of the structures.
And today Darragon continues to explore the mysteries of those ancient watchtowers. For seven years she has traversed the rural areas of China's southwestern region, researching the old structures and compiling a wide-ranging and impressive body of work.
Since 1998, Darragon has devoted most of her time and energy around the border area between Sichuan and Tibet. Employing various methods and technologies, including simple written logs and video cameras, she has explored nearly every watchtower in the region, completed 13 successive field investigations, and located and documented more than 150 of the structures.
In the course of her work, Darragon collected 60 samples of wood from 47 watchtowers, four houses and one monastery. Carbon dating testing performed on the materials in the United States revealed that the ages of the sampled structures range from 500 to 1,200 years.
While the carbon dating procedure was underway, Darragon returned to France where she spent countless hours scouring that nation's libraries, seeking out any information related to the watchtowers. And her research was to take her to other countries in pursuit of the knowledge. "Many people, especially in France, have conducted research on the Tribal Corridor of Tibet and Sichuan. Although the towers were very rarely mentioned in their books, the many ancient tribes who could have built the towers have been well documented," she explained. "I was very excited each time I obtained another lead from these books."
In 2001 Darragon founded the Unicorn Foundation and, in 2004, in cooperation with Chinese researchers and Sichuan University, Darragon co-founded the Sichuan University Unicorn Heritage Institute. To raise public awareness of the fascinating ancient structures, she has organized photo exhibitions at the United Nations General Headquarters, the Explorers' Club in New York and at the Sichuan University Museum in Chengdu. And in the fall of 2005, a photo exhibition entitled Mysterious Ancient Watchtowers of the Himalayas was held in Beijing. Most of these photos, which included images of the watchtowers and of the local ethnic people and culture of southwestern China, were taken by Darragon.
The highly resourceful Darragon also produced a documentary on her specialized subject of historic study, which continues to be broadcast around the world by the Discovery Channel. All profits derived from the documentary were given over to the watchtower protection project.
Darragon also submitted an application to the World Monuments Fund for the preservation of China's ancient watchtowers. Thanks to her efforts, the fund agreed in June 2005 to include the structures in its "List of World Heritage Sites in Danger." Thus funds can now be officially raised for the protection of the towers.
Since September 2005, employing GPS data, local and provincial governments have been surveying and mapping out the already discovered watchtowers, while also establishing detailed budgets for restoration of the most endangered towers. In cooperation with Darragon a plan to preserve the ancient watchtowers by order of priority is being prepared. Soon experts from China and other nations, assisted by Darragon and her Foundation, will finalize the restoration plan. The provincial governments are formulating the legal provisions to ensure the adequate management and protection of the towers.
Eventually, the products of Darragon's watchtower research will be offered to the Chinese government.
Frederique Darragon passionately hopes that one day the ancient watchtowers will have the position she believes is due to them: Official designation on the list of World Heritage Sites of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. In addition, she says she would very much like to see an increase in the living standards of those local people that reside around the ancient watchtowers, and she hopes that they might be encouraged to better preserve the ancient structures so near their homes.
(China Pictorial January 25, 2006)