Tibet's new iron horse

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


Wed, Jul 26, 2006 - Page 13

At the Doulong Store, the musty shelves are stocked with the necessities for Tibetan nomads. There are kettles for yak butter tea and bolts of colorful cloth for traditional Tibetan robes and clothing. A nomad affluent enough to use a light bulb in his tent can buy an electric generator.

But an unexpected necessity here in the immense grasslands of the Tibetan High Plateau are the six motorcycles on display, including the Asiahero Alt 150-7 bought by a nomad named Trashi Dorjay. He had traveled almost 322km to the store from his tent because he wanted a bike to herd his sheep and yaks.

“I used to ride a horse,” he explained. “A motorcycle is faster.”

At altitudes of 4267m or higher, the immense, mountainous grassland here in Qinghai Province, in western China, has become motorcycle country. With a motorcycle now sometimes cheaper than a horse, ethnic Tibetan nomads scattered across the region are buying them out of necessity but also as status symbols. The dingy truck-stop towns along the region's two-lane highway are swarming with Tibetans on motorcycles.

“You're only a real nomad if you ride a horse,” said one nomad, Tsendo, as he sat in a hillside tent located a two-hour drive from the nearest town. Then, glancing at a motorcycle parked inside the tent, he laughed and added, “But this is our horse.”

The trend began a few years ago and reflects the subtle changes under way in this isolated region of Qinghai, where most residents are ethnic Tibetans. Nomad families still live in tents and move their herds of yaks and sheep between winter and summer grazing pastures. Yak milk is still used to make tea, yogurt and butter, while yak hair is sometimes used to weave tents. Even yak dung is a commodity; it is flattened, dried in the sun and burned for heat.

But some nomads, unable to subsist any longer on the land, are beginning to move into relocation centers built by local governments. Pilot projects with solar energy have brought electricity to at least one remote grazing area and with it the beginnings of contact with the wider world. Even nomads who live in the most isolated high-country mountains make occasional trips into small cities like Madoi to buy supplies.

This deepening interaction has made the motorcycle an essential possession. “We mostly use it for transportation to go to town,” said one nomad, Tupten Jikmay, 29. He said that wealthier nomad families began buying motorcycles five years ago but that he and his two brothers had just managed to purchase their first, a used model.

“It used to take two days on horseback to go to Madoi,” he added. “Now it is much faster.”

Many nomads credit China's economic changes for the arrival of the motorcycle. Under the old system, nomads raised their yaks and sheep in a collective and were required to sell certain numbers of animals at a set price to government agencies. But by the late 1980s, nomads could sell their yaks and sheep at a higher market price. Madoi remains one of China's poorest areas, but over the years, some nomads were able to save enough money to purchase motorcycles.

More recently, the arrival of cheaper, Chinese-made models has made motorcycles more affordable. A used model can be bought for US$50, and nearly every crossroads in the region seems to have a motorcycle repair or sales shop. Qu Jiang, the owner of the Doulong Store, said he sells about 20 or 30 a year, each equipped with a tape deck.

“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.