Silk roads and wool routes: The social geography of Tibetan trade
Based on fieldwork in Lhasa, Tibet, Kalimpong, India, and Kathmandu, Nepal, this dissertation examines the past sixty years of social and economic changes along a trade route that cuts across China, India, and Nepal. Centered on the narratives of two generations of traders who have exchanged goods such as sheep wool (and now, household appliances) across Himalayan borders, the project investigates how infrastructural and political transformations on global and regional levels might be experienced through smaller scale, “everyday” sites of trading activity. By exploring the intersections between economic anthropology, human geography, and material culture, I address a fundamental question: how might we make connections between aspects of seemingly mundane daily life and the more abstract level of global change? Taking an approach that explores how traders “make places,” this project examines the creation of geographies of trade that work against state notions of what the trade route should look like. These tensions between the apparent fixity of national boundaries and the mobility of local individuals around such restrictions are, I argue, precisely how routes and histories of trade are produced.
Several recent state-led infrastructural development projects – such as the reopening of the Nathu-la mountain pass between Sikkim and Tibet and the completion of the Beijing-Lhasa railroad in 2006 – have been driven by the need to open up new markets for surplus commodities in the name of "free" trade and bilateral cooperation. In an area of Asia that has long been characterized by geographical representations highlighting its supposed marginality and remoteness, these state-led searches for new openings for capital have led to the creation of what I call "geographical blindspots," the erasure or obfuscation of certain places in tandem with the highlighting of other, more profitable places for a variety of hegemonic political and economic goals. This dissertation examines how competing groups are attempting to make their trading places more coherent in the face of such powerful economic shifts, arguing for the need to obtain a more nuanced picture of the tensions and overlaps between large-scale economic shifts and smaller-scale practices in the region.