Back in Shigatse, while killing some time in the hotel room before bed, I’d picked up the courtesy travel magazine that came in the room. The power was out, the temperature was making its evening plummet, and I was putting off a decision on whether to take a quick cold shower while I at least had water available. Tilting my head slightly to shine my headlamp on the glossy pages, I saw that the feature article was on Zhangmu, the Chinese border town adjacent to Nepal. Interested, I read the first couple paragraphs. The lengthy intro basically highlighted two things: the existence of sherpas (夏尔巴), and the town’s (of course) booming economy. Cool, I thought. Sherpas.
Two days later (I never did take that shower), I remembered what I’d read and asked Norbu. Is Zhangmu (Zham in Tibetan) a Sherpa town? We were on the Friendship Highway, winding our way down towards the crack in the Himalayas that links Tibet and Nepal. Depending on how long things would take at the next checkpoint (where the Everest question was sure to be asked, one last time, just in case it was our lucky day), we’d be in Zhangmu by early afternoon. Norbu replied that there were no Sherpas in Zhangmu. None? None. Not even one.
I guessed all I had to look forward to was that booming economy. At least there’d be a shower.
As our SUV continued down, down, down, we periodically passed scattered remains of old Tibetan forts, meant to defend against occasional invasions by their militaristic southern neighbor. We dropped into a tight valley, the narrow road hugging one steep side. Suddenly there were trees, terraced fields, and waterfalls. And a traffic jam.
Zhangmu, we discovered, is just that: a traffic jam on a cliffside. Above is Tibet, below is Nepal, and in between there is a narrow road blocked with hundreds of trucks trying to get past each other. Half are Chinese, the other half Nepali, and where there is a Chinese truck trying to go down there is a Nepali truck blocking its way trying to come up. The Chinese trucks are easy to spot: all a uniformly dull orange, with license plates from Qinghai. The Nepali trucks aren’t so much easy to spot as they are impossible to ignore: brightly-colored paint splotched all over, in customized designs featuring painted-on bumper stickers and inscrutable pop-culture labels (see the pictures below). Goods get offloaded from one truck, stacked on the side of the road, and then loaded on another. Trade between between China and Nepal reached $33 million last year (according to a quick internet search, anyway). Not a high figure. But most of that trade, it would seem, was at one point chucked onto the trash-littered sidewalks of Zhangmu, tallied, and then heaved back into another waiting truck that was blocking everyone behind it. If there was any confirmation to be found in the cacaphony of brake squeels, jackhammers, and clown-car melodies ringing out from all the Nepali drivers hitting their custom horns, then the economy of Zhangmu is indeed booming.
And those Sherpas? Well, right near the entrance to town a construction team was busy hauling lumber and stacking lumber for some new buildings, with a sign nearby announcing a “Sherpa Ethnicity Culture Park.” The workers were all from Gansu, and the one I talked to said there were indeed Sherpas in Zhangmu, or nearby. But outside their halfway-constructed culture park, this Tibetan-related sub-group famed for its mountaineers could not have been less conspicuous. I did find that most of the Tibetans in town, at least the ones doing business streetside and willing to talk to me, were from elsewhere. And the Han shop owners were of course from all over. This little border town, a remote outpost of China on the edge of South Asia, was a cosmopolis of many peoples.
And like many border towns, its colors had a dark side as well. As the sun set and the truck crews finished their unloading and tallying and loading for the day, the KTVs and “clubs” with their neon-lighted Chinglish names opened, and the garage doors of other storefronts lifted to reveal an Amsterdam-esque red light district with prostitutes on display through street-level glass windows. Of course, this being Tibet, the women behind the windows wore hats, boots and long parkas, and sat in chairs. Out here, “the sky is high and the emperor far away,” but still I was amazed at how openly these businesses operated, given Chinese laws and the conservative nature of Tibetans. Groups of Nepali men walked up and down the narrow road, looking in the windows as they passed but mostly settling for beers in the little restaurants.
Our last night in Tibet, it already felt like we’d left it behind. We wandered into a pool hall, ordered some beers, and struck up a conversation with a man from Sichuan. He ran a shop up the road, he said. Why on earth anybody from Sichuan would decide to come all the way out here, of all places, to run a shop was beyond my comprehension and apparent lack of business sense. But I admired the adventurousness involved in such an endeavor. And here he was, helping populate his country’s empty southwest. As an American, I’ve been culturally trained to esteem a pioneer when I meet one.
He viewed the natives with some disdain, but mostly blamed the government for creating a bad situation. The Tibetans receive more generous government support than any group in China, he said. The result is that they’re incapable of doing anything for themselves, and can play no role in the development of their own region. At the same time, a culture of victimhood leaves them perpetually dissatisfied with what the government does for them, and with their lower economic status. The only solution was to just live and let live a little more, and allow the Tibetans to either succeed in Tibet’s development by their own discipline and ambition or to fall by the wayside of history.
Perhaps it wasn’t surprising that this young man, who’d set out alone for the far-off frontier to start his own business, was about as ardent a libertarian as can be found in China. But his views were also undeniably racist, and most of what he said struck me as self-serving. After clinking bottles in one last gan bei, he made a call on his iPhone and departed.
We continued with another game of pool, and soon struck up another conversation. This time it was with the old woman in charge of the beer, which was stacked in boxes against the cold wall of the room. She was Tibetan, and she was from Aba. Upon hearing her hometown, we grew interested (Aba, the name of a town and prefecture in northwestern Sichuan province, is where the majority of Tibetan self-immolations have occurred in the last year). When was the last time she’d been back there?
Her answer surprised us: not since four years ago. The reason, she explained, is that she simply can’t get approval. Tibetans require travel permits to go just about anywhere beyond where they live or work, the latter requiring its own permit as well. (Han are largely free to move around as they please, although they too require permits to work outside their hometown, as is the case across China.) With the situation in Aba continuing to be tense, as evidenced by its ongoing closure to foreigners and the spotty reporting by advocacy groups coming out of there, I asked her when she thought she might be able to go home again. Without a hint of exaggeration or melodrama, she said she didn’t think she’d ever go home again. She was stuck in Zhangmu, she said, as she opened another round of beers for us.
I was struck by the contrast, and by that I mean the injustice, in how the two people with whom we’d just had conversations were experiencing life in this little border town. For the young guy from Sichuan, this place represented opportunity and a fresh start. For the old woman opening our beers, it was forced exile, a remote prison. And the two of them lived practically side by side here on the same narrow street.
Walking back to our hotel, I thought over what they’d both told me. And I decided it’d be good to get out of China for a bit. Tomorrow we’d cross into Nepal, and leave Tibet and all its complicated problems and grave injustices behind.