Tibetan and Himalayan Library - THL

THL Title Text
Of Horses and Motorbikes
Lilian Iselin, University of Bern
JIATS, no. 6 (December 2011), THL #T5716, pp. 429-450
Section 3 of 5 (pp. 436-443)

Of Horses and Motorbikes: Fragmented Space and New Places

At a superficial glance pastoral space, the landscape of the pastoralists as described earlier, seems unaltered and unchanged. The pastoral lands still stretch over vast areas, wide plains, rolling hills and an open sky that arches over the landscape. However, in that very landscape, marks such as fenced pastures, brick buildings, paved roads, electric wires, telephone towers and other inventions have appeared over the last forty years, and increasingly so since the late nineties and in the wake of the government policy of “Opening up the Western Regions” (Xibu da kaifa, 西部大开发). These marks are part of a new reality and of processes linked to concepts of “modernity” and “progress” as promulgated by the state and its discourse of development. Pastoralists are not mere recipients of these processes. They engage with the changes and transformations in the landscape and the notions of “modernity” those changes introduce, and – as I will show – use the motorbike as a meaningful vehicle to conceptualize these processes within their socio-cultural context.

In TangkorThang skor an estimated 70 percent of households own a motorbike according to one interlocutor. In summer 2006 another informs me that there are one-thousand households and a thousand-five-hundred motorbikes in TangkorThang skor.27 Although [page 437] pastoralists may decide to purchase a motorbike for pragmatic reasons, the shift from horse to motorbike has implications on a variety of levels. The following ethnographic material will, I hope, bring to the fore some of the attitudes and practices connected to the motorbike and how the shift from horse to motorbike might be significant in terms of a new direction of movement that has emerged within the pastoral landscape. I will describe a number of events as noted in my field notes28 followed by a discussion on the shift from horse to motorbike, the meanings accorded to both and how to understand the changes in terms of pastoral spatiality.

Herding Practices and Motorbikes

When discussing the purchase of a motorbike and its employment, local interlocutors stressed the fact that motorbikes are convenient and fast, saving time and the physical efforts of riding horses. Implicit in such statements is the role of the motorbike as a means of transport to facilitate getting into town. The weekly to monthly arduous ride from the pasturage to the administrative center of TangkorThang skor to buy provisions, to put possessions into storage and for other needs such as bringing children to school, medical treatment, political meetings, and more, is made considerably shorter and less exhausting by the use of a motorbike. Some of these, as needs to be noted, have increased in frequency or have come into being because of the changes TangkorThang skor has undergone in the last few decades. Some of these new practices or the frequencies with which they are accessed and made use of are brought up as examples by pastoralists from TangkorThang skor when discussing changes and “modern life” (dengsanggi tsowadeng sang gi ’tsho ba). They seem to represent a modernity that has come into being in the pastoral place but more will be said about this later.

Quite apart from the motorbike as a means of transportation between the pasturage and the town, it did not take long for motorbike owners, especially the younger generation, to discover that it could also be usefully employed in everyday herding practices.

(February 2006) I am staying with a nomad family in their winter house for a few days. The woman – head of the household of which I am a guest – has set up the loom outside the house and is weaving. Neighbors are visiting and we are all sitting around the loom chatting when attention is suddenly drawn to a herd of yaks on the opposite side of the valley. The herd is grazing within the fence of the winter pasture of our neighbors. But instead of being spread out as they usually are when grazing, they have bunched together. The bunching indicates trouble of some sort. Wolves are suspected and the owner of the herd, who is one of the visitors of today, decides to investigate. Although he lives less than ten minutes walk from us, he has come on his bike. He and the youngster of “our” household get onto the motorbike and ride off. We watch them as they cross the flat-bottomed valley and ride to the summer pasture about three kilometers away following the [page 438] road that was constructed a couple of years ago. From the summer pasture – out of our field of vision – the herdsman rides his motorbike up the side of the mountain to its ridge and to where the yaks are. In less than ten minutes we see the motorbike come up onto the ridge and observe the herd moving lower down into the winter pasture, presumably prompted by the whistling and possibly honking of the horn by the two young men up on the ridge. Less than half an hour later they are back to report that they have sighted a pack of seven wolves.

Winter pastures were divided and leased to individual households in TangkorThang skor in 1999. Over the following couple of years all winter pastures were fenced. This has reduced the need for round the clock supervision of herds. Herds are driven out to pasture in the morning and left to wander. They cannot stray far and during the months when the households stay in their winter camps herders do not need to stay out with the herds. It is enough to check on them occasionally during the day, to make sure, for instance, that the herd has not come upon the open gate to the neighbor’s fenced area. However, there may be occasions when the herders need to address some incident that requires speed – such as threats from predators or thieves. In such instances the motorbike has become the preferred means of transport for households who do have the choice and where terrain allows for its use. Ekvall noted that pastoralists always kept horses at the ready to meet exigencies such as mentioned above.29 However, these days cattle thieves use phones and trucks and the horse may not be a suitable means anymore to meet their threats. To make them ready for use requires time and energy, while the motorbike parked outside the house or tent is ready to go. It makes for convenience and speed. The motorbike has, within the grid of pastoral movement, found its use. However, its usefulness is contingent on a number of factors. Terrain varies and some areas are easily negotiated by bikes, others less so. After a heavy snowfall or during rainy summer months the motorbikes often become useless for pastoral activities even in normally accessible terrain. Also, it has to be noted that many of the summer pastures are out of reach for motorbikes or located in terrain that limit their use considerably. It is during these months that the horse, as the main means for herding practices, is most visible in TangkorThang skor.

The above example is significant not so much for the fact that the motorbike can be and is at times used instead of the horse to negotiate pastoral space, but rather for attitudes exhibited by young men who show a clear preference for the bike. Its use creates a link to the new and the modern. “It’s cool to ride a motorbike,” I was repeatedly told by young men from TangkorThang skor who spoke English and translated not just statements, but also behaviors of their peer group to me. Others would express similar attitudes by stating that a young man needs to have a bike or that “it’s comfortable” (degibde gi) to ride a bike. Such expressions are supported by the behavior of young men in town as well as out in the pastoral place.30 The very fact that the above mentioned herder came visiting riding his bike instead of [page 439] walking like the other members of his household, is giving form to attitudes connected with space negotiated by the bike. The young men who were part of the party gathering around the weaving loom, did not – at least not for a long time – sit down like the rest of us, but were lounging about the motorbike. Part of this can be explained by gendered behavior. However, it also reveals another layer. When the herder decided to check on his herd by riding the bike over to the other side of the mountain, one of the sons who is too young yet to own or ride a motorbike, immediately volunteered to accompany him. Such behaviors are performative of the way motorbikes are viewed and the values attached to being seen using one. I suggest that motorbikes confer meaning in terms of accessing modernity. The pastoral life reaches back into a past that creates ambiguous responses among the young. Government and development discourse of the last few decades, which propagates ideas of progress and modernization, relegates the traditional pastoral way of life to the backward. Pastoralists do not embrace this discourse unquestioningly, but construct their own modernities within the pastoral context. The use of motorbikes does not only alter pastoral spatiality; it may also be viewed as a vehicle that creates a link to modernity as perceived by pastoralists.

Horse Trails and Motorable Tracks

The horse maintains an important role within pastoral production and especially during the summer months when pastoralists dwell in areas less easily or not at all accessible by motorbikes, the horse is again more visible. However, there is a definite trend to accommodate the needs of motorbike owners. This has led over the last few years to the construction of motorable tracks connecting summer and winter pastures, and more so to make those places accessible to movement from and to town.

Construction of roads is part of modern, state-sponsored development.31 At the onset of the state-run development program “Opening Up the Western Regions,” the main road connecting Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, with Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu Province – which runs right through TangkorThang skor lands and was formerly a dirt track with plenty of potholes – was paved and made into a veritable “highway.” Only a couple of years ago the road leading from that main road into the administrative center of TangkorThang skor and to the bank of the Yellow River, was paved to make the area more accessible for tourism. While such developments have facilitated the use of motorbikes in TangkorThang skor, it is disputable to what degree pastoralists buy into state-promoted notions of development. I would suggest that they have their own agenda for the construction of roads. Apart from main roads, which give only limited access to pastoral areas, pastoralists themselves started to invest into the building of tracks of a more definite character than the horse trails that have been in use since earlier times. Interestingly it seems [page 440] that the need for good tracks overrides taboos such as not to break the ground near ritual cairn (laptséla btsas), areas marked as the territories of local gods:

(April 2005) A couple of years ago – I was told by a friend, a young man from TangkorThang skor – his village decided that they needed a track to connect the areas of the winter pastures with the summer pastures. Each household had to provide one able-bodied male person to perform the labor. There were already horse trails in place as well as tracks made by the movement of herds – some of them extended and deepened by the use of motorbikes. The requirement, however, was to have a track that would make riding the motorbikes to the summer pastures easier. The road was to lead through the territory of the local mountain god right past the ritual cairn – an area in which people are normally forbidden to dig the ground. I lack the information as to whether religious specialists were consulted or rituals performed to make it proper. My informant, who made it very clear that normally nobody would interfere with the ground in such a location, said “Nothing happened.” And tongue in cheek: “Maybe the mountain god likes the sound of motorbikes.”

When pastoralists started to buy motorbikes the grasslands were negotiated by following horse trails. New tracks were developed at need, leaving deep ruts in the landscape that crisscrossed the grasslands connecting settlements, following the course of valleys, circumscribing bogs, and generally following the direction of pastoral movements.

However, riding motorbikes over grasslands through terrain that is not just flat expanse, requires skill and additionally it does not allow for speed. In 2001, when I attended the local summer festival that traditionally holds horse races, there was a new kind of competition, which was to ride a motorbike along an approximately twenty meter long straight line, as slowly as possible and without putting one’s feet down on the ground. This, I maintain, is an expression of just that skill that is and was required when crossing the grasslands in the absence of some motorable track. The construction of tracks that are accessible for motorbikes and other motorized vehicles, I argue, is indicative as well as performative of some underlying assumptions about motorbikes and the function they are to have. They are made for speed. The above interlocutor stated that motorbikes are preferred because they are fast and convenient. Where there are proper tracks or roads, motorbikes can go fast and going to places at some distance becomes less arduous. Distances are cut short in terms of time and effort. The administrative center that used to be a long horse ride away has become much more accessible – not only by the use of motorbikes but by tracks that have been constructed to allow for speed.

Motorable tracks facilitate the use of motorbikes and lend them speed. This has decreased pastoral distances. Formerly long and arduous rides on horseback become more manageable by the employment of motorbikes. Those tracks are exploited for movements required within the context of pastoral activities, such as looking for stray animals, moving things from the winter storage place to summer pastures and so forth. They do nevertheless underline a new direction of movement leading out of the pastoral. New spaces have opened up because speed makes formerly [page 441] remote areas move closer. Pastoralists who own a bike have access to a wider radius of action within the same time constraints given by the requirements of pastoral life.

Fragmented Space

(June 2006) One household I became acquainted with consists of five people: the parents, two sons and one daughter. The eldest son was meant to take over the herding with his young wife. However, the wife has recently left him to return to her own home. The daughter, the only one who got sent to school, is studying in LhasaLha sa (Lasa, 拉萨市). The younger son has taken up with bad company and the parents have told him not to bother to come home. He now lives in the administrative center of TangkorThang skor and relies on support from others (one of them his brother) and whatever other means is available to him. This family owns one motorbike and sold their one remaining horse the year before. Now that the daughter-in-law has left, the milking and all work around the tent is again the mother’s responsibility. The herding and other male tasks are divided between father and son, depending on which of them happens to be home. Herding is done on foot or with the help of the motorbike, the latter seemingly preferred by the son. According to the required task, the herdsmen walk – or ride the motorbike – to the pasture, driving herds with the use of the slingshot, whistling and other such means employed by herders. The motorbike can be used to some degree as their pastures run along the track that was constructed a couple of years ago.

Space is fragmented in more tangible ways than in the past.32 In this instance, apart from the pastoral home there is the administrative center of TangkorThang skor where one of the brothers – alongside a number of other young males – has made a permanent home by choice as much as by parental order. The elder son also exhibits a preference to spend time there. The daughter who studies in LhasaLha sa is accessing yet another spatiality by being physically remote and by acquiring an education which will more likely than not take her out of the pastoral economy and preparing her for a life in an urban setting.

This family has adjusted to fenced pastures and reduced migratory patterns by selling the horse and relying solely on a motorbike for movement. In my conversations with pastoralists of TangkorThang skor and other places, it was regularly stated that to be a herder the horse is a necessity. This family agreed in principle, but since their herds are small, the summer pasture close by and, there is a motorable road to the summer pasture, they can do without the horse.

Movement for this family unit has taken very distinctive directions. Pastoral movement can be negotiated without the horse or the motorbike. The latter may be used, however, if it happens to be out in the pasturage and makes for convenience and speed. A second direction of movement runs between winter and summer [page 442] pasture. In their case they are adjoining and at a distance of three kilometers at the most, a distance which is manageable on foot and also connected by a well-maintained motorable track. The third direction of movement, between the pasturage and the administrative center has increased in importance to the degree that the horse was replaced by the motorbike. To be able to move at convenience between the pasturage and the administrative center the motorbike is necessary. The father, who is in village leadership, has to attend meetings on a regular basis. As the head of the household he has privileged access to the motorbike. But in actual fact the oldest son is making the most use of the bike, frequently going into town and staying there until word is sent from home that either he or the motorbike is required.

For this family pastoral movement has shrunk to dimensions that made the horse obsolete. Fragmentation of space, not only through fencing and semi-settledness, but much more by members of the household living dispersed and occupying diverse spaces has reduced the need for pastoral movement and increased the need to negotiate a differently defined space. The very same fragmentation that reduces pastoral movement has opened up disjunctures and shifts which emphasize a new direction connecting to a space linked to perceptions of modernity as located in town as well as in modern education.

The “Urban Center”

(November 2005) I was visiting shops in TangkorThang skor, talking to their owners. Many, it turns out had set up only the previous year. However, there is a small number that were established well over twenty years ago. One man tells me that he took over from his father who was placed in TangkorThang skor in the fifties to run the local goods store at a time when people still paid with work points.33 As our conversation turns to recent changes and I bring up the topic of motorbikes, he says that less than ten years ago people would ride their horses into town to supply their provisions. The horses would be tied outside shops such as his. At that time there were fewer people in town and the pastoralists came less frequently. As we are talking a woman comes in to do her shopping. She listens to us talking and I ask her how she came into town that day. Her son took her on the back of the motorbike. She had to see a doctor. Her son is probably now in one of the teahouses. Later, she and I sit outside in the sun talking, since she has to wait for her son who, she says, will not want to go back just yet. Traffic on the road is constant. Motorbikes are going up and down the main street, mostly young men – sometimes just one, sometimes in pairs. From where we sit I can easily count over fifty bikes parked outside shops, teahouses and repair stations. My guess (based on earlier surveys) is that this is not even a third of all the motorbikes in town that day. My companion tells me that her husband bought their bike only last year. It is convenient to get into town with. I ask her how frequently he comes into town. He comes often, she tells me, and with fuel and all, it is an expense to be reckoned with. But women do not have much to say in matters such as this.

[page 443]

The administrative center of TangkorThang skor has mutated into one of economic opportunity. At the same time it is providing pastoralists with a public space of new dimensions within which different dynamics are at work. Through the motorbike this space has become accessible in new ways. The economic development of the town with more shops, more teahouses, more restaurants, and more suitable places to meet has made it a place of attraction for people who otherwise live dispersed over wide areas. The town has become a center of gravity where people can meet people, where gossip is exchanged, deals made, fights erupt and are resolved and much more.

This place, grown into an “urban center” of some substance, displays multiple dynamics and affects the lives of pastoralists in unprecedented ways. There seems to be a pull away from the remote pasturage to a rallying point where one can meet friends and join in consuming “modernity.” Fragmentation of space is reinforced by a locality that offers new opportunities, behaviors and attitudes, which is taken advantage of especially, but not exclusively, by young men.

The material above gives us a glimpse of the shift that is happening from horse to motorbike. It clearly shows that one is not replacing the other, but that they are used in different contexts and for different purposes. Within the pastoral setting the use of the motorbike is marginal in a real sense and has minor effects on the way the pastoral land is inhabited. Pastoralists have maintained nomadic movement throughout the year, even though they have to deal with new realities of fences, privatized land, roads, and more clearly defined pastoral grounds. Parallel to such processes new space beyond the pastoral has opened up. There is now a new focal point for pastoralists – the administrative center of TangkorThang skor, where modern goods, modern education, modern health services and more are available. This “urban center,” as much as a real locality as a place that connects to that which is perceived as part of modern life, opens up new space. While in the pastoral context the use of motorbikes is limited, it has taken on an important role as the vehicle with which this new space is negotiated and conceptualized.

[27] Personal communication.
[28] The notes have been edited for the purpose of this paper.
[29] Ekvall, Fields on the Hoof; 29, 40-41.
[30] Gendered behavior and youth culture in relation to motorbikes in a pastoral place would itself be worth a study. However, it exceeds the scope of this paper.
[31] Hongyi Harry Lai, “China’s Western Development Program: Its Rationale, Implementation, and Prospects,” Modern China 28, no. 432 (2002): 451-53.
[32] I do not want to fall into the trap of assuming an idyllic past in which families were not fragmented spatially and / or temporally. Indeed, pastoralist culture seems to make allowance for fragmentation to a much higher degree as a farming society. This may be due to movable wealth and ingrained attitudes of fierce independence. See Ekvall, Fields on the Hoof, 75-78.
[33] At the time of collectivization (1962-1977) work points largely replaced monetary units. Household items, grain, oil and other necessities were available in exchange for work points in government stores.

Note Citation for Page

Lilian Iselin, “Of Horses and Motorbikes: Negotiating Modernities in Pastoral A mdo, Sichuan Province,” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 6 (December 2011): , http://www.thlib.org?tid=T5716 (accessed ).

Note Citation for Whole Article

Lilian Iselin, “Of Horses and Motorbikes: Negotiating Modernities in Pastoral A mdo, Sichuan Province,” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 6 (December 2011): 429-450, http://www.thlib.org?tid=T5716 (accessed ).

Bibliography Citation

Iselin, Lilian. “Of Horses and Motorbikes: Negotiating Modernities in Pastoral A mdo, Sichuan Province.” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 6 (December 2011): 429-450. http://www.thlib.org?tid=T5716 (accessed ).