PASSPORT: MICHEL PEISSEL: 'I try to go to places where no one has been'
Sunday 15 November 1998
When I was 18, I bought a book on Tibetan grammar in Paris almost by accident. This started me off on the language, and when I first went to the Himalayas in 1959, knowing a little of the language, the people seemed very pleased to meet me. In those days, I was one of the first people to go on an expedition from Kathmandu to Everest. There were just two of us, myself and an anthropologist, and about 17 porters. I have now been to Tibet a total of 28 times and it has become a second home.
One of the things that fascinates me about the region is the resilience of the Tibetan people. They have been occupied for 40 years and yet they have still managed to keep a strong cultural identity. The contrasts in Tibet are striking. In the villages you can find cybercafes (which is where I discovered the Internet), and yet 1,000 metres up the mountain there are people still living in the Stone Age.
On my trip to the mouth of the Mekong we came across nomads living above 5,000 metres, where the temperature is below freezing for 280 days a year. These people live in small family units, with just a few sheep, and only go down to the villages when they need to swap salt for some grain.
I was struck by the level of sophistication in what we would call primitive surroundings. There are people there who can read and write but who have never seen a car or a telephone. They even hunt with 16th-century matchlock guns. You have to light the gunpowder with a smouldering wick, and if it rains, you cannot shoot.
In this sense, the Tibetans remind me of the Mayans, who also combine great learning with simple living conditions. I have found that the peoples who have not been touched by western civilisation tend to be kinder and more trusting. They have their hearts in their hands and are generous and hospitable.
My first expedition was to Mexico in 1958, when I travelled down the coast of the Yucatan, mapping out the Mayan sites. The trip happened by accident. I was supposed to go straight to Belize, but the boat dropped us off near Tulum, so that it could go off and help a woman who was ill. At that time, Cancun did not exist and not even the Mexican government knew what ruins existed. I wrote the first book on the region called The Lost World of Quintana Roo. I had a house in Mexico for a few years and used it as a base for my expeditions to Tibet.
It is not my intention to promote mass tourism to remote areas. I try to go to places where no one has been, or to regions that are restricted to the general public. I seem to spend all my time negotiating to get special permits.
I am really interested in the human side of any exploration - the people are as important to me as the place - although the Tibetan Plain does have a rich and fascinating wildlife, similar to that of the Serengeti. My aim is to record the local culture before it disappears. There are plenty of places in our world that have not yet been explored. There is still so much to be done, take parts of Siberia for instance.
It is when I get back home to Paris that the real hard work starts: writing books, doing tours and promotions. But it is really nice to have the chance to catch up with my family.
Michel Peissel's latest book, 'The Last Barbarians: The Discovery of the Source of the Mekong in Tibet', is published by Souvenir Press (price pounds 18.99).
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