What is a connection?

10 December 2014
Re‐openings, Ruptures and Relationships
4th Conference of the
Asian Borderlands Research Network
Hong Kong, 8-10 December 2014.

Kabir Mansingh Heimsath and Martin Saxer


This panel addresses a central notion in the studies of borderlands: the connection. The term has been taken to denote a variety of relations and things, ranging from transnational ties of kinship or ethnicity and networks of commercial or religious exchange to communication or transport infrastructures. The concept has thereby not only been highly prolific; it has also remained strikingly abstract. Our aim is not to suggest a better definition but rather to explore conceptual approaches to study connections in practice. What makes a connection in daily life? How is it forged, maintained, ruptured, revived, mended, or ignored?

Our approach to connections necessitates an activated and mobile sense of borderlands – not as an amorphous periphery diffusing from a centre, but as an active meshwork of pathways along which connections are forged, broken and re-formed. Despite airports, mobile phones and other distance defying technologies, people and objects, most of the time, still move through terrain. They do not flow inherently to, from or across borders; they rather move, or they are moved, intentionally along specific paths that make particular connections possible. The possibilities shift and change as political, social and economic conditions alter, but borderland connections depend on physical movement and intersections predicated on path-ways through the landscape.

This panel, then, looks at border connections through pathways and intersections. Using this conceptualisation is helpful for several reasons. a) Pathways emphasise the movement of people and objects as they travel along particular routes or make detours. b) As this movement necessarily occurs through time, pathways provide a conceptual link between place, people and history. c) Pathways also highlight the way in which movement is confined by terrain and the technologies, logistics, and the infrastructures deployed to move across that terrain (roads, bridges, pack animals, wheeled vehicles, phones, airplanes?). d) And finally, the meshwork of pathways across, through, and along borders foregrounds the tangible intersections between particular objects, people, and places.


Galen Murton (University of Colorado) – Making markets, transforming trade, and cultivating class. Roads, commodities and socio-cultural shifts in Mustang, Nepal

In recent years, new road systems have reached Nepal’s northern district of Mustang. As a result of these roads, communities in Mustang have access to new modes and patterns of mobility, increased trans-border trade opportunities, and a vast array of commodities newly available in local markets. On the one hand, these ‘modern’ vehicular roads largely follow historical trade routes in the region and are thus reconnecting regional traders across the Tibet-Nepal border according to well-established pathways. On the other hand, however, as unprecedented levels of mobility and commodities intersect across the region, communities in Mustang are also experiencing significant social and cultural transformations.

This study asks in what ways the revitalization of trans-border trade and circulation of new commodities has affected social relations and class systems in Mustang. For example, at semi-annual trade fairs on the Tibetan side of the border, Mustang’s traders are increasingly purchasing Chinese motorcycles and polyester clothing over historically prevalent goods such as Tibetan horses and highland wool. And in village markets across the district, Lhasa beer and Chinese noodles are more readily available than locally produced chang and thukpa. Are these preferences made on the basis of convenience and price or prestige and modern imaginaries? And have cash-based economies and new mobilities allowed emerging entrepreneurs to disrupt the historical dominance of the region’s merchant families? By examining the circulation of ‘modern’ goods with regional consumer habits, market practices, and business opportunities, this study explores how cultural identities and social relations are transforming along the roads between Mustang and Tibet.

Radhika Gupta (Göttingen University) – Travelling stories and objects: re-creating the borderland in Kargil

Situated on India’s far northwestern boundary with Pakistan, Kargil has been implicated in the ongoing conflict over Kashmir since the partition of the subcontinent. It was not just the critical event of 1947-48, but also the two Indo-Pak wars of 1962 and 1971 that affected this region. Portions of villages along the line of control found themselves quietly shuffled between these two nation-states. The dissipation of the borderland as a more expansive space was deepened with the further militarization of the region after the 1999 Kargil war. The trans-border circulation of people and trade effectively ceased since then.

Yet people in Kargil, especially those who originate from the regions of Baltistan, Gilgit and Chilas that now lie in Pakistan, continue to maintain strong emotional and cultural links across the border. Since the 1980s there has been sporadic travel to Pakistan to meet kin. People return with stories about and objects that signify the ‘other’ side to imaginatively recreate the borderland. Thus stories narrating the region beyond the fixity of its geo-political border are also related by those who have neither experienced the partition nor travelled to Baltistan and Gilgit. Connections are re-forged along real and imaginative pathways, sometimes facilitated by trans-local sites where people intersect. Objects from Pakistan often find their way to Kargil through the Hajj, rather than any direct route across the border. Together these travelling stories and objects illustrate how the delineation of a region through cartographic acts of the nation-state is constantly transcended even with limited mobility and outright challenges to its territorial borders. This paper will foreground the role played by creative cultural productions in sustaining and recreating the pathways of this borderland in the imagination of its dwellers.

Kabir Mansingh Heimsath (Lewis and Clark College, Portland) – Strange Intersections: Caterpillar Fungus in Manang

The escalating market for caterpillar fungus (yartsa gunbu, Ophiocordyceps sinensis) in East Asia over the last decade has transformed the economy of remote villages across the Himalaya and Tibetan plateau. In most areas in which it is collected yartsa gunbu provides the primary form of cash generation for local residents. The inhabitants of Manang (Nepal) however, have long been involved in trans-local trade, international tourism, as well as high-profile development projects. The rise of a yartsa economy is only the most recent supplement to a sophisticated meshwork of socio-economic connections. These connections involve authorities, capital, transportation systems, local infrastructure, and a continual movement of people and things through the valley.

This paper will investigate the strange intersections that occur thereby. The daily routine of those working the seasonal tourist economy converges with Canadians checking the internet one moment and cousins herding sheep in another. A yartsa picker moves up and down the sides of the mountain each day, returning in the evenings to live under a sheet of tarpaulin pitched near the tourist guesthouse on the main trail. She talks at night with her family on a mobile phone to decide whether to sell her caterpillars to a Tibetan smuggler in Manang or send on consignment to Kathmandu. A man sells watches, earrings, hair-clips, and sunglasses. A Sherpa NGO worker chats with him about the road construction further down the valley.

The people who move through Manang also move along windswept ridges, sub-tropical villages, Manhattan offices, Kathmandu markets and Hong Kong pharmacies. How do these varied trajectories influence each other, if they do at all? Can these various pathways be traces through different scales - global markets, national priorities, local hierarchies, and individual lives? (How) do these strange intersections generate new places?

Martin Saxer (LMU Munich) – The Limi Road: Three remarks on Highland Connections

In 2010, a group of local politicians and businesspeople from Humla, Nepal, decided to take matters in their own hands and build a road to China. Taking high personal risks and working against many odds, the group has since constructed more than 100 kilometres of road. Connecting Humla to the Kailash region of Western Tibet, the road follows a disused trade route and crosses the main Himalayan range. Within a few years, this local initiative accomplished more than an ADB-funded and government-supported project in almost two decades.

Upper Humla, like many higher regions in the Himalayas, has never been able to meet subsistence needs. It has always relied on trade with the outside world. However, supplies brought in by caravans have largely been replaced by food aid managed by the World Food Programme and the government of Nepal. In this context, the question who is forging connections and who is in control of them is of utmost importance.

Thus, rather than beating the drum against the inefficiencies of big development, I take the ongoing story of the Limi road as a starting point to explore, in all their complexities, the forces unleashed, the political dynamics triggered, the geopolitics involved, and the obstacles encountered in this local effort to re-open a pathway and re-kindle old ties.