Michel Peissel (1937-2011)

I Started to Dream in Tibetan

Rasoul Sorkhabi

Michel Georges Francois Peissel (pronounced Peyssel), a renowned French ethnologist, explorer, artist and author of numerous books on the Himalaya - Tibetan region, died of a heart attack on 7 October 2011, at his home in Paris. He was 74.

Michel Peissel (photo by Alfredo Merino first published in Elmundo)

Michel Peissel (photo by Alfredo Merino first published in

Peissel was born on 11 February 1937 in Paris. Son of a French diplomat, the young Michel lived for several years in London where his father was posted. Peissel was thus a native speaker of both English and French, languages in which he later wrote his travel books. He went to schools in England and France. As a young boy, his heroes were explorers like Captain Robert Falcon Scott and Alexander von Humboldt. At age 18, upon reading Fosco Maraini’s Secret Tibet, Peissel was fascinated by Tibet and studied Charles Bell’s Grammar of Colloquial Tibetan. He first attended classes at Harvard Business School. However, in 1958, after an adventurous solo-trekking along the coast of Yucatan (Quintana Roo) in Mexico, where he found a number of Mayan archeological sites, Peissel left the business school, studied for a while at the Institute of Social Anthropology at Oxford and finally transferred to the Sorbonne where he eventually obtained a doctorate in Tibetan anthropology. Peissel’s first book, The Lost World of Quintana Roo (1964), recounting his Yucatan travel, became a best- seller, won the US National Book Award (1965), and triggered international interest in the coastal Mayan sites. Peissel revisited this subject in the late 1980s.

Throughout his life, Peissel raised funds and organised close to 40 expeditions, mostly to the remote parts of the Himalaya and Tibet where few foreigners travelled; these pioneering explorations are documented in his 20 books as well as 22 documentary films he helped produce. His books (many of which are out of print and have been translated into other languages) were often illustrated by his superb photographs of landscape, local people and cultural features. Peissel won several awards for his books and expeditions, but preferred to keep a low profile.

In 1959, Peissel made his first visit to the Himalaya – to Sikkim with the hope of crossing into Bhutan but he could not get a permit for that country. Instead he journeyed the Sherpa region of Solu-Khumbu, south of Everest (Tiger for Breakfast, 1966). In the summer of 1964, dressed in a Tibetan sheepskin coat and with the help of local guides, Peissel trekked the little known Buddhist kingdom of Mustang in northern Nepal. He revisited Mustang in 1966-67. The first-hand information he collected about Mustang’s culture and history constituted research materials for his doctorate thesis; he also wrote a feature article on Mustang for the National Geographic magazine (October 1965). His travel book Mustang (1967) became an instant bestseller both in English and French, and was translated into several other languages; it also won the Louis Castex Prize of the French Academy in 1971.

In 1968 the Bhutanese government gave an entry permit to Peissel; his pioneering journey through Bhutan is narrated in Lords and Lamas (1970). In 1972, Peissel published Cavaliers of Kham, based on his observations and interviews in Mustang in the 1960s. The book detailed the activities of Tibetan Khampa guerrillas, who, supported by the USA, Taiwan, India and Nepal, launched attacks against the Chinese Red Army for over two decades. The widely-read exposé of China’s destruction of Tibetan culture and the resistance of Tibetan militants got Peissel into trouble with all the involved governments including the Chinese who did not permit him to visit China for years. In 1974, the Khampa guerrillas were killed or captured by Nepalese forces under Chinese pressure after China and the USA decided to mend their conflicts. Mustang remained closed to foreigners till 1992. Peissel wrote two novels in French about the Tibetan situation and the rise and fall of the Tibetan Khampa fighters: La Tibétaine (1987) and La Khamba (1996).

In 1972, Peissel with two friends navigated the Kali Gandaki river on a small hovercraft for 1900 km including the gorge between the 8000 m summits of Annapurna and Dhaulagiri (The Great Himalayan Passage, 1974). In 1980, Peissel navigated the Ganges by hovercraft.

One of Peissel’s best-known works is his exploration of Zanskar in the late 1970s documented in his 1979 book Zanskar: The Hidden Kingdom1 as well as in a four-part film for BBC ‘Zanskar: The Last Place on Earth’ (1980).

Peissel was intrigued by the account of gold-digging ants somewhere up in the Himalaya in Herodotus’ Histories. After years of research and travel, Peissel suggested the Dansar plain in the upper Indus as the source of the famous Greek fable. Peissel argued that burrowing marmots threw up the gold-bearing sand (The Ant’s Gold: Discovering the Greek Eldorado, 1984). The isolated Dansar plain near the India- Pakistan border is also home to the Minaro (Dard) people who speak the Shina language and are ethnically Aryans (not Tibetans). Peissel researched their culture and language too.

In 1986, Peissel journeyed the remote pilgrimage area of Tsari along the great bend of the Brahmaptura (Tsangpo) river in northeastern corner of the Himalaya. In 1994, Peissel and his team explored the source of the Mekong river, Asia’s third longest river originating in eastern Tibet. Peissel followed the more difficult and historical DzaNak (Black Mekong) branch of the river reaching the homeland of nomadic tribes whom the Chinese sometimes sarcastically call ‘the last barbarians’ (The Last Barbarians: The Discovery of the Source of the Mekong, 1997)2. A decade later, however, a Japanese-Chinese team demonstrated that the White Mekong (DzaKar) was 4.18 km longer and was thus the primary source. Nevertheless, Peissel’s work contributed to our knowledge of the little known landscape and tribal cultures of upper Mekong as featured in a documentary film (Source of the Mekong, A&E, 1998) sponsored by the Smithsonian Institute.

Michel Peissel

Michel Peissel

From 1994 - 1999, Peissel spent several seasons in Tibet, investigating the Tibetan breeds of pony-sized horses (including the rare Nangchen horse and Riwoche horse), mapping caves and salt routes, and filming wildlife on Changthang plateau in western Tibet. In his final trip to Tibet in 2000, Peissel visited the Amdo region in northeast Tibet to document the 50 m tall dry stone towers which have survived earthquakes for centuries and whose origin and builders remain a complete mystery.

In one of his last books, Tibet: The Secret Continent (2003), Peissel summed up his life- long explorations of the world’s highest plateau. Throughout his life, Peissel showed great fond and friendship toward Tibetan people and culture, and criticised the Chinese take-over and destruction of Tibetan civilisation and historical legacy during the so-called Cultural Revolution. He once said to the journalist Michael Buckley that as he observed and learned more about Tibet, ‘I even started to dream in Tibetan’.

As a young boy, Peissel liked to draw prehistoric animals. In his expeditions he drew sketches and created watercolour paintings, some of which were exhibited in Paris and New York. During the last decade of his life, as his travels reduced, Peissel produced more paintings. He published nearly one hundred of his watercolours of Tibetan monasteries and cliff-top buildings in Tibetan Pilgrimage (2005). Before his death, he had just completed his first children’s illustrated book about Tibet. ‘On the day he died,’ his wife Roselyne told The New York Times, ‘he had tickets to travel to the Book Fair in Frankfurt to sell his latest book.’

In a 2007 interview with The New York Times, Peissel said, ‘You can call me an adventurer, a man with a lot of curiosity.’ Peissel was a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society of London and a member of the Explorers’ Club of New York. He married three times: (1) Marie-Clare de Montaignac, with whom he had two sons (Olivier and Jocyelyn); (2) Mildred ‘Missy’ Allen, with whom he had a son (Morgan) and a daughter (Octavia); and (3) Roselyne LeBris, with whom he had another son (Valentin).

When the Rolex Award for Enterprise in 2000 was given to Peissel, it was stated of him as ‘one of the last true explorers of our time [who] has spent the last four decades investigating remote areas and chronicling traditional societies.’

Biographical Sources: The New York Times (Obituary, 16 October 2011); The Daily Telegraph, London (Obituary, 11 November 2011); Eccentric Explorers (Chapter 11: Cavalier of Curiosity) by Michael Buckley (Crazyhorse Press, 2008).

Michel Peissel’s Books:
The Lost World of Quintana Roo (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1962; London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1964); French edition: Le Royaume perdu du Quintana-Roo (Paris: Plon, 1965)

Tiger for Breakfast: The Story of Boris of Katmandu (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1966; London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1967)

Mustang, The Forbidden Kingdom: Exploring a Lost Himalayan Land (New York: E.P. Dutton 1967); Mustang: A Lost Tibetan Kingdom (London: Collins-Harvill, 1968); French edition: Mustang: Royaume Tibétain interdit (Paris: Arthaud, 1969).

Lords and Lamas: A Solitary Expedition across the Secret Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan (London: William Heinemann, 1970; New York: Doubleday and Page, 1970); French edition: Bhoutan inconnu, royaume d’Asie (Paris: Arthaud, 1971)

Michel Peissel

The Cavaliers of Kham: The Secret War in Tibet (London: Heinemann 1972; Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1973); French edition: Les Cavaliers du Kham: Guerre Secrete au Tibet (Paris: Robert Laffont, 1972)

The Great Himalayan Passage: Across the Himalayas by hovercraft (London: Collins 1974); American edition: The Great Himalayan Passage: The Story of an Extraordinary Adventure on the Roof of the World (Boston: Little, Brown& Co., 1975); French edition Le Grand Passage de l’Himalaya (Paris: Robert Laffont, 1976)

Himalaya, Continent Secret (Paris: Flammarion, 1977)

Les Portes de l’Or (Paris: Robert Laffont, 1978)

Zanskar: The Hidden Kingdom (New York: E.P. Dutton 1979; London: Collins-Harvill, 1980); French edition Zanskar, royaume oublié aux confins du Tibet (Paris: Robert Laffont, 1979)

The Ant’s Gold:Discovering the Greek Eldorado (London: Collins- Harvill, 1984); French edition: L’or des fourmis: La decouverte de l’Eldoradogrec au Tibet (Paris: R. Laffont, 1984)

Royaumes de l’Himalaya (Paris: Pierre Bordas et Fils, 1986)

La Tibétaine [novel] (Paris: Robert Laffont, 1987)

Michel Peissel

Itza, le mystere du Naufrage Maya (Paris: Robert Laffont, 1989)

La Route De L’ambre - De La Baltique À La Mer Noire Dans Le Sillage Des Vikings (Paris: Robert Laffont, 1992)

L’Or des fourmis (Paris: Robert Laffont, 1992)

La Khamba [novel] (Paris: Anne Carrière, 1996)

The Last Barbarians: The Discovery of the Source of the Mekong (New York: Henry Holt, 1997; London: Souvenir Press, 1998); French edition: Unbarbare au Tibet. A la découverte des sources du Mékong (Paris: Seuil, 1998).

Le Dernier Horizo, à la découverte du Tibet inconnu (Paris: Robert Laffont, 2001)

Tibet: The Secret Continent (London: Cassell Illustrated, 2002; New York: St Martin’s Press, 2003)

Tibetan Pilgrimage (New York: Henry N. Abrams, 2005); French edition: Tibet, le pèlerinage impossible (Paris: La Martinière, 2005)

With his second wife, Missy Allen, Michel Peissel co-authored several books in the series ‘Encyclopedia of Danger’ including Dangerous Plants and Mushroom, Dangerous Reptilian Creatures, Dangerous Mammals, Dangerous Insects, Dangerous Flora, Dangerous Professions, Dangerous Natural Phenomena, and Dangerous Environments, all published by Chelsea House in New York during 1992-95.

A tribute to the eminent French explorer, anthropologist and author Michel Peissel (1937-2011) whose expeditions, books, essays and films documented the little-known places and people of the Himalaya- Tibetan region and contributed to our knowledge of these historical and fascinating parts of our world. A definite volume on Peissel’s biography and contributions deserves to be written.


  1. HJ Vol. 37, p. 220.
  2. HJ Vol. 55, p. 287.

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