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Feb 22, 2004
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A Kingdom In the Clouds: A Ü-Tsang AAR

Tibetan Empire 767.jpg

The Tibetan Empire in 769 AD.

'They grow no rice but have black oats, red pulse, barley, and buckwheat. The principal domestic animals are the yak, pig, dog, sheep, and horse. There are flying squirrels, resembling in shape those of our own country, but as large as cats, the fur of which is used for clothes. They have abundance of gold, silver, copper, and tin. The natives generally follow their flocks to pasture and have no fixed dwelling-place. They have, however, some walled cities. The capital of the state is called the city of Lohsieh. The houses are all flat-roofed and often reach to the height of several tens of feet. The men of rank live in large felt tents, which are called fulu. The rooms in which they live are filthily dirty, and they never comb their hair nor wash. They join their hands to hold wine, and make plates of felt, and knead dough into cups, which they fill with broth and cream and eat the whole together.'

- The Old Book of the Tang

'The men and horses all wear chain mail armor. Its workmanship is extremely fine. It envelops them completely, leaving openings only for the two eyes. Thus, strong bows and sharp swords cannot injure them. When they do battle, they must dismount and array themselves in ranks. When one dies, another takes his place. To the end, they are not willing to retreat. Their lances are longer and thinner than those in China. Their archery is weak but their armor is strong. The men always use swords; when they are not at war they still go about carrying swords.'

— Du You, the Tongdian

Tibet 867.jpg

Tibet in 867 AD.

Rulers of Ü-Tsang

  • Gyalpo Purgyal Yumtän I (867 to 877 AD)
  • Gyalpo Purgyal Palkhorre 'the Brute' (877 to 920 AD)
  • Gyalpo Purgyal Yumtän II 'the Festive' (920 to 947 AD)
  • Queen Mother Zhang Que (947 to 961 AD)*
  • Gyalpo Purgyal Yumtän III (961 to 985 AD)
  • Gyelmo Purgyal Torma I (985 to 987 AD)
  • Regency Council (987 to 1003 AD)
Rulers of Ü-Tsang and Kamarupa

  • Gyalpo Purgyal Dharmapala 'the Glorious' (1003 to 1032 AD)
  • Lama Namzhungsten (1032 to 1041 AD)*
  • Gyalpo Purgyal Sumnang (1041 to 1063 AD)
  • Gyelmo Purgyal Torma II 'the Philosopher' (1063 to 1110 AD)
  • Gyalpo Purgyal Daktri 'the Merry' (1110 to 1114 AD)
Rulers of Ü-Tsang, Guge and Kamarupa
  • Gyelmo Purgyal Pelmo 'the Scholar' (1114 to 1158 AD)
  • Gyalpo Purgyal Selbar I 'the Merry' (1158 to 1179 AD)
  • Gyalpo Purgyal Selbar II 'the Cruel' (1179 to 1186 AD)
Rulers of the Tibetan Empire
  • Tsenpo Purgyal Selbar 'the Cruel' (1186 to 1198 AD)

* As regent.
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Greetings all to this new AAR. I shall be playing as the Tibetan petty kingdom of Ü-Tsang in the 867 start with the aim of re-establishing a thriving Tibetan Empire.

I have to admit I'm a little nervous about this AAR. Not only am I a little rusty at CKII, much though I love the game I've never tried a serious AAR about a non-European culture (not counting my Stellaris AAR about space peafowl.) From what I have read the Tibetan Empire seems to have been absolutely fascinating but as a historian I am out of my depth here and will appreciate any suggestions and advice anyone has to give.

Anyway, on with the show and I hope you enjoy this as much as I'll enjoy playing and writing! :)
In on the ground floor of a RossN work! Sweet! :)

Good luck, sir.
Wow, quite the unique choice for your AAR. Eagerly looking forward to learning more about the Tibetan Empire and what a story you'll craft! :)
Glad to see you at it again, mate!
Prologue: The rise and fall of the First Tibetan Empire (618–842)

The standard of Songtsen Gampo, first Emperor of Tibet. The animal depicted is the mythical snow lion.

Prologue: The rise and fall of the First Tibetan Empire (618–842)

Tibet as we know her was born in the shadow of another power. While the Tibetan people had always lived in the centre and east of the great plateau the heartland of the Kingdom of Zhangzhung lay to the west in a place of lakes and highlands where the influence of far off India was strong and the people spoke a strange and outlandish dialect and worshipped mysterious gods. Zhangzhung was an ancient state indeed, its past stretching deep into the mists of history. In the early Seventh Century it sprawled across the Tibetan plateau like a sleeping snow leopard.

Lig-myi-rhya, who was then King of Zhangzhung was married to a Tibetan woman by the name of Sämakar. It was a political union and not a love match but even by those standards the coupling was ill-starred. The King had other wives and yielding to the will of his principle spouse he had refused to share a bed with Sämakar and shied away from the ill treatment visited upon his Tibetan bride by his court. This was to be his undoing for Sämakar was the sister of Songtsen Gampo, a clever and ambitious king who with sword and diplomacy would unite the tiny kingdoms and tribes and forge a great and powerful state that swept aside Lig-myi-rhya and his kingdom. Betrayed by his spurned wife Lig-myi-rhya died and Zhangzhung would be swallowed up by an expanded Tibet - bod chen po or "Great Tibet" or the "Tibetan Empire".

The unifier of this new state was not merely an offended brother, though he was that too. Songtsen Gampo was willing and able to deal with the great power of the world. In an audacious move he demanded and eventually won the hand of a princess of the vast Tang Empire. For China the marriage would bring peace with this troublesome upstart empire in Central Asia but for Tibet the consquences would be profound. The emperor's wife Princess Wencheng would help introduce both elements of Chinese culture and a new faith to Tibet: Buddhism. For centuries to come the story of Tibet and Buddhism would be woven together.


Emperor Taizong of China receiving the Tibetan envoy (standing, centre-left) of Emperor Songtsen Gampo.

The traditional religion of the Tibetans was the Bön faith. Bön combined the worship of gods and ancestors with shades of animism and shamanism. To its Chinese inspired critics, many learned in the intellectual world of philosophies Bön was as much superstition and peasant belief as anything, the domain of the sorcerer and the spirit. Yet Tibetan Buddhism would in turn draw much from the older beliefs of the people and, for a time at least both, the traditionalists and the converts to Buddhism were able to live together.

Tibet flourished under the rule of Songtsen Gampo and his descendants. Ruling in Lhasa the emperors contested control of a wide slice of Asia beyond even the formidable natural fortress of the Tibetan plateau. Clashes with the Tang were frequent and though the wars frequently favoured the Dragon over the Snow Lion the Tibetans proved themselves able warriors. Under the emperor Trisong Detsän the Tibetans even sacked the Chinese capital of Chang'an (modern Xian) in late 763. Early in the following century the Tibet fringe would reach as far as Kabul in the west where the imperials soldiers faced another great power in the Abbasid Caliphate.

The Tibetan armies were powerful but far from invincible. What truly made the Tibetan Empire such a force was its location. Few enemy armies could survive well in the mountains and especially to the troops of the Tang Dynasty Tibet was a place of frost and fear. Even the greatest Chinese successes had melted away like snow in the morning as the harsh grip of the land reasserted itself. The locals of course only added to this reputation with lurid rumors about the barbarism and magic of these savage madman at the distant corner of the world.

The truth was at once more prosaic and more interesting. Great warriors or no the Tibetans were an advanced and wealthy society with bustling marketplaces and a wide view of the world. Aide from Bön and a form of Buddhism that had become a force of its own the empire was home to people as varied as Nestorian Christians and Muslims. Under the great emperors branches of the Silk Road passed through Lhasa, creating great prosperity and for all their reputation as sword wielding raiders the Tibetans found the merchant life (and tax collecting) just as profitable.

silk road.jpg

The Silk Road ran through Tibet, bringing with it much wealth and a surprisingly level of contact with the outside world.

At her height the Tibetan Empire covered a dizzying variety of landscapes and peoples from the edges of the deserts to the shades of the jungle. This very success would prove its undoing. The central authority of the imperial government was slowly weakening yet also becoming an ever more tempting target for those who desired the throne.

In 838 the emperor Ralpacan was assassinated by two of his ministers. The late emperor had taken Tibetan power to its peak but his main interest had been in promoting Buddhism and he founded many new monasteries and laws reflecting the priesthood. For some in Tibet who followed Bön the old ways seemed to be under constant siege, the tolerance and syncretism of emperors giving way to Buddhism as state religion. In an anti-Buddhist coup d'état the Bön faction brought Ralpacan's brother Langdarma to the throne. The new emperor at once reversed the efforts of his deceased sibling and cracked down on Buddists. Monasteries were, monks exiles and scriptures consigned to the fires.

Most Tibetans were not Buddhist, and many who were practiced the faith in combination with Bön or other spiritual beliefs. Still, Langdarma's persecutions rattled the Tibetan Empire and the bitterness unleashed did nothing to bind the state together.

Emperor Langdarma's reign would not last long. In 841 he too would fall victim to an assassin when he was slain by an arrow to the heart. A certain monk by the name of Lhalung Pelgyi Dorje who had once been a soldier in the wars against the Chinese sought to kill the emperor. Pelgyi Dorje was a mysterious figure who according to legend could pass through solid stone and fly from ledge to ledge in the mountain valleys where he lived. His motives were not only to save Buddhism in Tibet but also the emperor himself - for by killing Langdarma he saved the man from the fearful karma of destroying Buddhism. This strange figure successfully eluded capture and left an empire in chaos.

Langdarma left two young sons: Yumtän and Ösrung, of similar age but different mothers. With no obvious single heir the empire disintegrated into civil war as the boy princes (or more accurately their supporters and guardians) struggled for the throne. As the great nobles took advantage of the chaos to push their own agendas areas distant from the capital fell away to foreign powers or as independent warlord states. Peasants, angered by the turmoil of the nobles rebelled in many villages, allowing yet more local strongmen to come to the fore. Within a matter of months the mighty Tibetan Empire had irreparably fractured.

Over the next two decades Yumtän and Ösrung and the squabbling petty warlords carved out their own domains. The large western territories that had once been home to the Kingdom of Zhangzhung became the Kingdom of Guge ruled over by Ösrung as 'Gyapol' ('King'). Yumtän also took the title of Gyapol and consolidated his power over Central Tibet in the old province of Ü-Tsang. Yumtän held the old imperial capital of Lhasa but his seat of power was Taktsé Castle to the south west. Before Songtsen Gampo had moved his throne to Lhasa he and all the kings of Old Tibet before him had ruled in Taktsé and for Yumtän it provided him with an air of legitimacy. Lurid rumours spread by his enemies had it that Yumtän was the true child of a beggar woman, purchased by Langdarma's wife - though the tales told in Ü-Tsang surrounding Gyapol Ösrung were at least as unflattering or concerned by the truth.

By 867 AD Tibet remained fractured into two major kingdoms and a half a dozen lesser states of various powers. Most were Bön, the two imperial princes included but Buddhism maintained a shadowy presence here and there. The Chinese had established authority over territory in the north east though the civil war in the Tang Empire proper had robbed them of an easy chance of conquering the disunited Tibetans. Whether this situation would last remained to be seen...

Songsten Gampo.jpg

Songtsen Gampo, 'Tsenpo' ('Emperor') of Tibet and ancestor of Gyapol Yumtän of Ü-Tsang.

coz1: Thank you that is very kind of you to say! :)

Andrzej I:
Thanks and yes I suppose it is a bit different! :) As I said I'm learning about medieval Tibet as I go along which seems to have been a fascinating place and for a while a great military power.

Nikolai: Thanks, good to be back! :)

Ol' Johnny: Wow thank you, I'll try not to disappoint! :)
A fascinating place, indeed! The story of Lhalung Pelgyi Dorje is quite the intriguing tale, an assassin managing to sneak in and put an arrow through an emperor's heart, all without being captured!
Quite the fall from Grace...to be reversed!
Glad to see you back in action, Ross :) I have to admit, I'm not all that familiar with Tibetan history beyond the broadest brushstrokes myself, so I'll be looking forward to learning quite a bit about them as we go forward.
I'm always glad to read your AARs.
Syracuse's loss is Tibet's gain, looking forward to learning and enjoying.
Very happy to see a new AAR, and very intrigued by the game and the chosen location :)
Part One: Gyalpo Purgyal Yumtän (867 to 877 AD)

Purgyal Yumtän, Gyalpo ('King') of Ü-Tsang in 867 AD.

Part One: Gyalpo Purgyal Yumtän (867 to 877 AD)

In his late thirties Purgyal Yumtän was a tall man, bearded in the fashion of Tibetan nobility. In his younger days as a martial prince he had frequently worn chain armour and though the comparatively peaceful days of his reign and seen him don the furs and ornate robes of a king he still carried the broad build of a man who knew how to wield a sabre and ride a horse. His voice was strong and rich, the most attractive feature of a man otherwise given to strong rather than handsome appearance and glares colder than the mountain snows.

Yumtän may not have won his rightful inheritance but he was not without resources. In 867 he was, with his brother, the most powerful man in the Tibetan plateau. As a king - and as a man - he was a strange brew of virtues and vices. The Gyalpo had a temper like an avalanche; sudden and devastating especially to those unfamiliar with it. Experienced courtiers knew to recognise the warning signs in a slight hardening of the lines around his dark eyes, in a certain characteristic intake of breath, even in the manner in which his pose grew rigid, for in normal conversation the monarch was a man of expressive gesture. Married to this sudden temper was a streak of cruelty. Mostly this was reserved for unlucky servants or concubines who brought disappointing news or moved a shade too slowly when Yumtän was in a hurry but even those spared the jab or rap of his hardwood staff might suffer from his often caustic tongue.

Balancing out all this the Gyalpo was diligent in all matters from religious ritual to calligraphy to hunting. Faced with a task he had yet to master he stubbornly continued. He was a follower of the Bön religion and though his personal faith was one of familial devotion rather than deep spiritual feeling he had doggedly pursued his studies of the sacred stories, that contrasted with the barely concealed cynicism of his brother. Yumtän retained a special hatred of Buddhist monks born of the death of his father. While the holy men of foreign lands would find scant welcome in the Kingdom of Ü-Tsang only a Buddhist monk would pay the ultimate price when he came to preach in Taktsé.

In January 867 one Bhikkhu Sadhanika of Gaya travelled from the court of the Maharaja of Pala to the Gyalpo of Ü-Tsang. A Bengali merchant who had come late to the monastic life Bhikkhu Sadhanika was a man of strong if narrow theological conviction and an equally stern attachment to the truth, which perhaps explained his poor success at his first profession and compared with his second. He had been born in the opening year of the century and his travel to Tibet in the middle of Winter was an impressive feat in itself. Had Bhikkhu Sadhanika restricted his efforts to preaching to peasants in the highland villages or even the petty nobles who lived lives not so grandly removed from the peasants themselves he might have survived unscathed flitting from village to village in a moonlit existence. Instead he made a nuisance of himself, publicly railing against the superstitions of the locals who 'saw demons at work in every shadow' and railing against the state Tibet had fallen to since the enlightened days of the noble Emperor Ralpacan. Even in this foolishness he was not so mad as to utter the name 'Lhalung Pelgyi Dorje' but it was the only common sense he showed.

Preacher arrested.jpg

The Bengali monk Bhikkhu Sadhanika is arrested, January 867 AD.

The would be missionary perhaps assumed that his link to Maharaja Narayanapala would save protect him. If so it was an unwise judgement; Yumtän had the confidence of a king ruling a near impregnable mountain stronghold and feared nothing from the sun drenched realms to the south. Bhikkhu Sadhanika found himself dragged before the Tibetan monarch in the cold stone hall of Taktsé. There his robes were torn from him to the jeers of the assembled court and he was escorted naked as a mindless animal to the castle's dungeon to persist on yaks milk and rough bread til such time as
Yumtän tired of him and ordered the monk strangled.
Amazingly the monk of Gaya was not the last missionary to arrive in Ü-Tsang in the last decade of Yumtän's rule. In 868 a Hindu holy man from the court of Maharaja Balavarman III of the Mlechchha Kingdom appeared in Taktsé. His reception was no more welcoming, but his fate was kinder with Yumtän ransoming him back to his master. A similar outcome faced a Nepalese monk later the same year, prompting the wry comment in some quarters that the wealth of Ü-Tsang would in future rely less on yaks or furs or iron or silver or even on taxes on the silk trade but on the ransom of 'foreign holy men with hearts full of devotion and heads full of fog.'

As much as the Gyalpo despised Buddhist monks his views towards lay Buddhists were more complex and pragmatic. There were some of the faithful in his own court. By far the most significant was the woman he married in 867, Yasaman Resanduda. She was the twenty two year old sister of Shah Dharma of Kashgar, a petty kingdom to the northwest of Tibet and in the circumstances the closest thing to a princess for Yumtän to marry. It was not an ideal match for Yasaman was vocal about her religion and much else besides. Her Buddhist devotion was in no way a limitation on her fascination with all things military. Had Yasaman been born a man she would either have been a great general or a feared bandit king.

The wedding between Yumtän and Yasman was an affair of great ritual and prestige, incense and ornate robes and the banging of gongs and the incanting of spells to drive away evil spirits. Even with this magnificence it did not get off to a wonderful start when the bride (and queen) to be broke the nose of the presiding Bön shaman during a personal disagreement. That said some old courtiers quietly noted what seemed like a glimmer of respect and understanding in the monarch's eyes at his wife's attitude. In the event she would bear him two sons to join his eldest from a previous marriage.


Yasaman Kasyar, Gyelmo ('Queen') of Ü-Tsang in 867 AD.

Likewise Yumtän's decisions to go to war against the tiny Buddhist principalities of Bumthang and Paro [1] in 867 and 872 respectively were motivated less by their status as strongholds of a despised faith as by their location on the strategic road into India. The two states lay in the deep valleys of the southern slopes of the eastern Himalayas, their rivers and trails winding down towards the southern plains. Both had also been part of the old Tibetan Empire and to Yumtän's view that made them part of his patrimony by right.

Neither war would prove a challenge for the army of Ü-Tsang, more than four thousand strong. The core of Yumtän's forces were made up of relentless heavy infrantry, tough swordsmen with will and armour of iron. The enemy resisted both on the field and behind their walls to little avail. The best that could be said for them was that Yumtän's conquest proved relatively gentle. The king of Ü-Tsang may not have been a kind man but he never lost sight of his main goal of restoring his patrimony and the crumbling ruins of a sacked city was not likely to satisfy that ambition.

Indeed the Gyalpo was anxious to expand his kingdom internally as well as externally. By his command two grand new temple-monasteries to the Bön were founded in sparsely populated territories of his kingdom. A new trade post rose in Lhasa to draw on the wealth of the Silk Road, still flowing even with the turbulent events in the Tang Empire where the Emperor Li Yizhong fought to hold his own throne against rebels. Like all the rulers of Tibet Yumtän kept one eye and one ear on the Tang and merchants were paid handsome bounties in silver for any trustworthy news they could relay. The current situation had certain advantages; a stable China meant more trade but also the prospect of armies on the march West.

That trade was still sufficient to fill Yumtän's treasury several times over. Silver paid for the monasteries mentioned above but it also went towards something more personal and here lay the greatest embarrassment of Yumtän's reign.

The Gyalpo of Ü-Tsang was a collector of artifacts. Pride of his possessions was a tongue preserved in an exquisite case of gold and glass and wood. this relic, retrieved by the agency of one of the nine royal ministers was believed to be the tongue of a great hero, one of the ancient pre-Imperial kings of Old Tibet [2]. A less successful business would be the affair of Sambhota 'the Armoursmith'. Sambhota was a commoner of obscure origin but had risen in life to become one of the most renowned men in Tibet. A smith of great talent and many secrets he had forged many prized items for the great and good and in late 871Yumtän paid him the supreme honour of commissioning a suit of armour. The Gyalpo was already looking ahead to his war against the rulers of Paro and he wished to lead his army in personal splendour. Master Sambhota was paid an absolute fortune for his troubles, quite apart from the prestige of serving a king.

At first all seemed normal. The smith was secretive but that was the manner of great smiths and raised no fears. Crown Prince Palkhorre, Yumtän's eldest son and heir was especially intrigued by this mysterious figure and even aided Sambhota in his forging (growing noticeably brawny as a result.)Yumtän, eager for his armour accepted such behaviour with uncharacteristic silence. Unfortunately his faith in Sambhota proved ill-founded...

Treachery of Sambhota.jpg

The treachery of Sambhota, February 872 AD.

It took days for the trembling courtiers to build up sufficient courage to tell Yumtän of the midnight disappearance of Sambhota, of the armoursmith's lonely ride along mountain roads west with his horse groaning under the weight of bags bulging with silver. Mayor Changchub alone had the courage to inform his monarch of the welcome the traitor received at the hands of Shambhala Jangchup the ruler of Nyima. The fury that echoed through the halls of Taktsé Castle became a legend of its own.

Everyone agreed that Yumtän was the wronged party, but what could he do? Invading Nyima was a possibility but there was a chance that could bring Yumtän's brother into the war, a clash for which the monarch of Ü-Tsang was not yet ready. So Yumtän turned to the knife. For the remainder of his days Yumtän would plot the death of Sambhota (or sometimes his kidnapping for a more creative death in Taktsé.) Alas with the traitor enjoying the favour of Jangchup there were few in Nyima willing to join such a plot and Sambhota retained his spiritual presence on the earthly plain and his physical being in the lap of luxury.

It was a loss to the treasury and infinitely worse a personal humiliation and in many respects Yumtän never recovered. The bitterness gnawed away at the corners of his mind, giving way to stress and ill-health in later years. Though a comparatively young man ruling a rich kingdom his decline would be swift. Increasingly suffering from depression he retreated from public life, his always mercurial mood growing darker and colder.

To the end there were still flashes of the old Yumtän. In June 877 when certain Buddhists of the realm begged their monarch for a monastery to be dedicated to his own ancestor Songtsen Gampo, Yumtän considered the matter deeply before giving his answer:

Blood of Songsten.jpg

Heir to a Dharma King.

'I honour the accomplishments of my forefather. He was a great hero and leader of our people... but his ways were not my ways or our ways. The Tibetan Empire shall arise anew... not a pale of shadow of what once was but the promise of what shall come.'

Though no new shrine was built the monarch allowed the Buddhists to conduct their prayers in honour of the long dead emperor under the open skies and let them leave unharmed. Perhaps he had a premonition that his own passage to the next life was not far off.

On 5 December 877 Gyapol Purgyal Yumtän died in his bed in Taktsé Castle. He was forty seven years old and in the opinion of all in court the black depression that had clung to him for so long had finally overwhelmed body and mind. He had not succeeded in great goal of taking his rightful place as Tibetan Emperor. And yet... he left a prosperous legacy. Ü-Tsang was a rich and important kingdom, a stable base for his heir Palkhorre to take further. Yumtän may have died by his dream of a restored Tibetan Empire remained very much alive...
Ü-Tsang 877.jpg

The Kingdom of Ü-Tsang in December 877 AD.


[1] Modern Bhutan.

[2] The minister in question was Mayor Changchub of Mangan. Officially he was the 'Supervisor of Attendants' or 'Minister of the Household'. Unofficially he was

Yumtän's spymaster. It was a universal belief among the peasantry that Changchub was a potent sorcerer and even some of his fellow courtiers wondered just how he did accomplish his designs.
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Ah, the smith disappearing with the gold, that is such a nasty event. In one of my recent games I had it happen twice in a row. :(