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Building a border at 4,600 meters

We’re driving through a river right now
in the Jeep. For thousands of years, humans have drawn lines on the Earth,
dividing the planet into nations, but there are some parts of the world that
no empire, nation, or state has been able to tame. Just the geography here is
completely unruly. Land that is so high, so rugged, that states have found it
impossible to exert control. We’re about to hit 4,000 meters, feeling the effects. These are called non-state spaces. Definitely feels like humans were never
meant to be here And the people who settle in these places sought refuge
from borders. But even here, among the highest
mountains in the world, this stateless lifestyle is coming to an
end. Non-state spaces have always existed,
all over the globe. They’re usually high up in mountains, far from the reach of
any government and the people who live here didn’t come here by chance. Most of
them are communities who fled into the mountains to evade expanding government
forces, some communities were escaping capture like those in Africa fleeing
from the Arab and Atlantic slave trades. Other groups retreated to remote
regions to escape ruling powers who they opposed, from the Inuit and the Arctic,
to the Berbers in North Africa, to the Jivaroan in the Amazon rainforest.
Examples exist all over the globe of people who chose rugged terrain over
taxes, war, famine, and subjugation from state powers. Today, there are some 5,000
indigenous groups living in 90 countries, numbering in total around 370 million
people worldwide. 70% of those are in Asia. Most of these groups have
integrated into countries, but for those who reside deep in the mountains,
geography has largely held off the influence of any kind of centralized
government. So I came up here to visit one community that fled to the mountains
1,200 years ago. Back then the Tibetan Empire, which was just north of here was
pursuing its own state-making project, its own empire, and it was growing. As the
Tibetan Empire grew, its borders eventually encompassed the Bon religion.
This was a religious group that predates Buddhism. The Bon fought to preserve its
culture within the Tibetan Empire. They resisted the Empire, but eventually
failed and instead of assimilated to this new Empire, they fled and they came
here to these mountains, where they created a life away from the militaries,
the taxes, the religion, and the control of the Tibetan Empire and that life
continues today. Eventually this whole area would be
drawn into a modern state, the state of Nepal. And Tibet, where these people came
from, would become China. But these people don’t identify as Chinese, or necessarily
Nepali. People here, they wanted the kids to learn to Tibetan, like as their
language, because we are more related with the Tibetan culture. The 25 families that live here
have their own distinct identity. They speak their own dialect of
Tibetan. They mainly live off the land, farming and raising animals to survive. The Himalayan mountain range is
particularly rich with these examples of non-state spaces. So many examples in
fact, that a group of anthropologists argue that this place should actually be
its own region. They use the term Zomia to describe this long range of mountains
where people have set up for thousands of years without the help of governments
of states. The borders of this Zomia concept encompass a hundred million
people. It runs through eight countries, but is on the periphery of each. The
diverse set of peoples living here have a varying degree of interaction with
their country governments. I came to this region, one of the most remote zones
within Zomia, but even here you can feel that Zomia’s stateless days are
numbered. Everywhere you go up here, you see herds
of animals, shepherds guiding them through the mountains. After leaving this
Bon village I moved north and came across a different community, where this
family’s lifestyle is based almost entirely on the movement of their
animals. We’re at 4,200 meters, Tibet is just right over this hill. And I’m hanging out with some yak today. This family’s actually nomadic, they’re constantly moving around throughout the year, so
they’ll be in this pasture for a little bit while the yak will graze here and
eat this grass, and then they’ll move on to another place. Meanwhile the grasses
here will have time to regenerate, the dung from these yak right now will help
fertilize the land, and they’ll eventually come back here, maybe next
year, and they will find a pasture full of really wonderful grass that’s full of
nutrients that their yak can graze again. And there’s no external inputs to this,
there’s no fertilizer or irrigation infrastructure. And this whole process and
technique hinges on their ability to be able to move freely throughout this
region, which hasn’t been a problem for hundreds of years as this place has been
basically rid of any sort of borders or control. But that’s changing very quickly. This is where the Tibetan language is
spoken. The many communities in these mountains have always considered
themselves Tibetan, moving freely into Tibet for trade and religious practices,
but in 1950 China controversially annexed Tibet. They eventually negotiated
this border line with Nepal. Notice that it goes right through what these people
think of as Tibet. The yak grazers I met are mostly based down here on the Nepal
side, and luckily for them this border only existed in theory. The yak grazers
continue to graze their animals deep into Tibet, as they had for hundreds of years, but over the years China started getting rich, which
came with a renewed desire to project its influence and protect its borders,
especially in Tibet where people were fleeing to get away from Chinese rule.
China now had the money, technology, geopolitical motive to start taming this
region. They started crushing protests from Tibetans and setting up military
infrastructure on the Tibetan Plateau and in 1999 they built this fence on the
border, marking the end of the unfettered mobility that these people had depended
on for centuries in this non-state space. This place that had been too high for
borders, suddenly had to adapt to the first concept of boundaries and control
coming from far away governments. I wanted to go see this fence. At over 15,000 feet above sea level, it has to be one of the highest
borders on Earth. So I’m on the windy Tibetan Plateau, looking at the border
but we’re half a kilometer away and something really weird has happened. My
driver who’s Nepali stopped and said we can’t go any further. I was like well
we’re on Nepali sovereign territory, why would why couldn’t we just go up to the
fence? You’d be able to do this at every other country I’ve ever been to. He said
no, the Chinese will come over and they’ll snatch us. Now we’re still very much on
the Nepali, side but the Chinese come in here routinely to ask questions, to even
detain people randomly. They have surveillance, they have watch towers
even on the Nepali side. China now has the technology and political motive to
exert control in this remote and rugged region, to militarize its border here. This isn’t the only effort by a faraway
government to tame this region. The governments of Nepal, India, and China are
also building the first roads here. It’s a lofty goal. So we’ve got a landslide
on the road, which means we can go no further in the Jeep. And we’re
gonna have to hike. The thinking here is that a road system could serve as a
trade artery through the Himalaya Mountains, eventually. We’re stuck again,
this time on a waterfall with a 200-foot cliff by the side of it. And so yes, while
these state forces are slowly encroaching on this terrain, it’s going
to be long work and it’s not going to be easy. They’re slowly chipping away, but
man this place just was never meant to be tamed. Nepal is sandwiched between the two largest countries on Earth,
divided by these massive Himalaya Mountains. A road would create an
enormous trade opportunity between these countries. So there’s been a blitz of construction projects aimed at creating a viable road
through this mountain pass. The Indian government is funding projects like this
bridge, and locals told me that the Chinese government routinely sends
building materials to help construction. The road still has a long way to go
before it can sustain large flows of goods, but even now the road is reshaping
the relationship that these communities have with the outside world, shifting
their economy from bartering to cash-based markets where residents can create
businesses around cheap goods from China. And as always with change, there are
winners and losers. Everything here is made of yak. This tent, which is made entirely
of yak wool. Yak cheese, Tea with yak butter in it. Drinking yak milk, which is extremely delicious. These people who are used to bartering
and are used to living off of the products of their animals, are having a
hard time integrating, having a hard time finding a space in this new economy that
is based on cash, is based on big international flows of goods. That Bon community whose customs had
been so well preserved in these mountains, have also felt the effects of
this road. People are leaving. Children
especially. Parents want to educate their kids and they are sending them to India
or to Kathmandu to get educated. A lot of these kids will go their entire
childhood without actually being in this community. You have to remember these people set up in the mountains specifically to preserve their tradition and culture, and so to see it disappear
overnight due to these modernizing forces, is
giving people a lot of anxiety. The way they’ve solved this is that they’re
building this school, that is based on educating children in the Bon tradition
and the language of this community. But despite the disruptive effects of the
road, most people I talk to are still happy it’s here. For centuries people have escaped modern civilization by fleeing to the
mountains, but now generations later, for some these mountains can feel more like
a trap than a refuge.

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