Wed, Jul 26, 2006 - Page 13 News List

Tibet's new iron horse

Motorcycles are becoming increasingly popular among nomads, allowing greater freedom to roam

By Jim Yardley  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , MADOI, CHINA

“The price of a horse and a motorcycle are about the same,” Qu said.

One man, Nga Gersu, said he purchased a motorcycle last year for herding, a job that once required help from his two oldest daughters, ages 18 and 16. “Before, two people had to go out with the herds, but now I can do it by myself,” he said.

He had planned to allow his daughters to attend school for the first time, but rising fuel prices have curtailed his riding. “I had hoped to send my two older girls to school to study this fall,” he said. “But because the price of gas is up, I need them. Now I want to sell the bike because I cannot afford the gas.”

Horses are still a regular sight in the grasslands but, increasingly, it is just as common to see a motorcycle parked outside a nomad's tent. Some riders decorate their motorcycles with photographs of the Dalai Lama or with ornate Tibetan rugs. Others wear felt cowboy hats or colorful robes as they speed down the region's lone two-lane highway, often with a wife or child sitting in the rear.

On a recent afternoon outside the small city of Huashixia, a cluster of motorcycles had stopped beside the road around a stalled jeep. The jeep belonged to the fourth incarnation of the Lama Drabu, 68, a living Buddha from a nearby monastery. He had been traveling to collect some stones etched with Tibetan prayers when his jeep had blown a tire.

A few years ago, it might have taken awhile for help to arrive. But within minutes, several motorcycles had shown up. “Everyone knows his jeep,” said one man, Senggey, 43. “Everyone came to help him fix his tire.”

One man offered Drabu a sip of barley wine. A young monk in a maroon and saffron robe grabbed the punctured tire, jumped on the back of a motorcycle and rode off to a repair shop. Asked if he had ever ridden a motorcycle, Drabu said he had not. But, he added, he was not disconnected from the motorcycle world.

“Some people bring me their new bikes to bless them,” he said.

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