China — Nepal
Across the world, for hundreds of years, in fact, are there lines that separate parts of the world from each other. Depending on the type of person you are, and where you might be from, humans will see these lines in a variety of different ways. Whether you see these borders as separating two nations, or two different cultures. Maybe you don’t understand why the borders are there in the first place. Regardless, these lines that we call borders are there, and will continue to define areas all over the world. At times, the border to a country might be defined by physical features that cannot be moved by humans. But what were to happen when the very lines drawn onto maps by politicians and governments are practically impossible to reach? What if the highest mountains in the entire world were used as a wall to separate two countries with long, controversial histories across the Himalayan Mountains? The way in which one specific group in the Northern reaches of Nepal has shown to the rest of the world that borders do not necessarily apply to them, or at least in their point of view.
Since the beginning of human civilizations appearing on Earth, movement from one place to another has been constant. Finding areas around you that will better suit their way of life, whether that be moving away from conflicts, searching for environments that provide a group of people with more adequate foods and lifestyles, even just moving to keep your own culture and traditions alive. In the Himalayan Mountains, tough geography to travel across includes some of the largest peaks in the world. This fact leads to a reason why no country has been able to centralize the region, and only “theoretical” borders had existed until just recently. The mix of two empires, starting over 1,200 years ago created a group of people that fled into these mountains, calling it their home and were practically untouched for nearly a century.
The Tibetan Empire was looking to expand its large empire in the 8th century, already occupying much of present-day western China. The Empire had much success with conquering most of what they sought out to find, in the Northern and far Western parts of their land at that time. As soon as the empire began moving South, they encountered the Bön religion. This religion was sort of what started the Buddhist religion, as many of the founding beliefs and traditions are similar to that of the Buddhists that we hear about today. At the time of the expansion from the Tibetans, the Bön were mostly settled just North of the mountain range and weren’t exactly looking to expand its beliefs outside of the region that its followers had since the creation of the religion nearly 18,000 years ago. This is all according to the information website, ReligionFacts.com, which gathers data from thousands of years of historical and spiritual documents, culminating them into a database to simplify the main ideas and timelines of the religion. The Bön didn’t originally give in to the invading Tibet’s, and put up more of a resistance than the Tibet’s had thought would be necessary to overthrow. Eventually, however, the Bön fled to the South, setting up their territory in the Himalayas, out of reach from the Tibetans.
In 2017, a Vox journalist named Johnny Harris traveled to the region that had been occupied for so long to see what life was like for the people living in such a treacherous landscape. The people living in what is now called, Mustang, Nepal and other areas around Mustang live their lives wherever their animals go. Mostly made up of herds of yaks, the people of this region allow them to roam freely, and they follow them to wherever they end up grazing for that time of the year. These areas that they would move to expand in certain times to the border between China and Nepal, in rare cases inside of official Chinese territory. The border for many years was not even a real border per say. It was more just a line drawn on maps that defined where the two countries were, but no wall or barrier separates the two. Allowing the people that follow the Bön to move freely throughout this region is an example of a non-state space, found in places all over the world for groups that have no aspirations to expand their territory, but mainly keep their indigenous lifestyles alive. There are many in these spaces found in the Himalayas that some have begun to call the area “Zomia”, claiming that it should all just be one region. This specific non-state space has never really been a problem to either the Chinese or the Nepalese, as the yaks along with their owners meant no harm to the governments of either side. Recently, however, this idea of Zomia might be coming to an end.
The true border that splits China and Nepal runs through some areas that sit on mountains, and not just any mountains. Some of the highest in the entire Himalayan range. In theory, the border would be 4,600 meters high, making it the highest border between nations to exist in the current world. But the only people who occupied this region at the border were these peaceful indigenous peoples that simply followed their yaks to use as food and resources from its wool for shelter. Neither country saw it as all that necessary to build a border at all at such a mountainous part of the world, that is until China got rich. You see, the Chinese government controversially annexed the Tibet, an area that some of these non-state spaces would enter without much regard to national borders that had been defined when the Chinese took over. Trading between these Zomia cultures and the Tibet’s were quite common, as well as religious practices since Buddhism and Bön were so similar. The area in red is where people of Mustang, Nepal call their home, with the blue parts of the map indicating where Tibet culture can still be found, regardless of Chinese rule. This blue area includes parts of Zomia, and until just recently, these people had continued to cross into the former Tibetan land. The annexation happening in the 1950’s forced the people in the Zomia region to be much more careful when crossing into lands that they had once been free to go in and out of to sustain their lifestyles. Those people who had moved away from the Tibetan Empire to evade taxation, new religions and the preservation of their culture are now faced with those same issues today.
As the Chinese grew in GDP over many years, they had reason to show their true dominance and define where China was actually supposed to start and stop. In 1999, a fence was brought to the long-lasting “theoretical border” which brought an end to these communities being able to move freely from the Himalayas to the Tibetan plateau. This fence is to be expanded by the Chinese government, furthering their military control in the region and trying to keep people who define themselves as Tibet from entering Nepal. In addition, both the Chinese and Indian nations have been slowly constructing a road that would connect two of the most influential countries in all of Asia. This project is still going on to this day, and it will be a massive challenge to be able to create a safe, and functional highway that runs through such an unforgiving landscape. The presence of construction vehicles and foreigners being present in Nepal created hazards for the herds of yaks that roamed the areas that are now being worked on constant. This change has triggered another change in this area that the people of Mustang never even saw coming.
For most of their history, the people of Mustang, Nepal only knew the yaks and livestock as ways to sustain life. When the construction workers came into their lands, they saw it as an opportunity to sell them their goods, looking to make a profit. This didn’t work out so well. Yak wool is not exactly desirable, there are much more efficient and heavier furs that have been used for decades by now. But the indigenous societies never knew this, as they believed that they had an excess in yaks that everyone else wanted. The Mustang people living in Nepal trying to trade yak for a sustainable profit would be like a modern day American trying to sell candles for the use of light. The products are outdated and only used for decoration in modern times. After the Mustang citizens realized that their goods would not be desired by the Chinese workers as much as they had hoped, they began to modernize as well. They traveled to parts of Nepal, and even some small cities in China, mainly the Tibetan plateau, to learn what people were looking for, hoping to sell them for their own profit back in their homelands. By doing this, the old traditions and lifestyles of the Bön followers were slowly disappearing, selling processed foods and clothes that were not even their own to the construction workers. Yaks were now not looked upon as sacredly and important to the Mustang people, and even the children in the community were beginning to learn about how to make profits for themselves instead of preserving the identity and traditions that had lasted for centuries in the Himalayas. Many children, in fact, have been a large reason for people moving into China, to educate their children better and be in a society in which increasing wealth is much easier than it would be in the Himalayas.
The change does come with a few positives, such as people who knew little to nothing at all about these indigenous societies are being introduced to them, learning about their history and why they are still present in such a harsh environment. Recently, a school system has been added in Mustang to establish a sense of identity that is to be kept by the new generation, as well as to learn about their own history and ways that the land could thrive in the future.
With the introduction of a border coming to a region of the world that has mainly been isolated and left alone for centuries, the change will take lots of time and difficulties within Zomian civilizations. Even when the very beginning of the migration to the Himalayas is what kept the Bön belief alive for so many years will have to see its own adaptations as well. When a border reaches such a place in the world that seems unreachable, the response to change from those directly affected will determine how the society will grow, or decline in the future.
“Bon.” ReligionFacts, 28 Oct. 2016, www.religionfacts.com/bon.
Harris, Johnny. “Building a Border at 4,600 Meters | Borders.” Vox.com, 5 Dec. 2017, . www.vox.com/a/borders/nepal-china.
“Tibetan Empire.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 23 Oct. 2018, . en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tibetan_Empire.
Vox. “Building a Border at 4,600 Meters.” YouTube, YouTube, 28 Nov. 2017, . www.youtube.com/watch?v=ECch2g1_6PQ