Remote Cosmopolitans

Rethinking Trans-Himalayan Trade

Paper presented at the international workshop The Art of Neighbouring, Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore, 1 March 2012.


The high Himalayan valleys of Nepal have experienced radical change over the past two generations. After the incorporation of Tibet into the People’s Republic of China, the erstwhile trade in salt, grain and wool collapsed. The high Himalayan valleys, once important pathways between the Tibetan Plateau and South Asia, suddenly became remote peripheries, and people had to look for new sources of income to survive.

Recently, however, new roads have been constructed that link Nepal’s north with PRC’s road network. In the absence of state authority on the Nepali side, a flourishing but legally gray and highly volatile free market zone has emerged. Instead of salt and wool, consumer goods, foodstuffs and Chinese alcohol are imported from Tibet; timber and medicinal raw materials are the main commodities for export.

For many people living in the borderlands, the new roads, together with the PRC’s policy of opening up, hold the promise of bringing back old prosperity. In this sense, these are not roads to development and modernity; rather, they are seen as ways to end the relatively recent, “modern” curse of remoteness.

Based on an ethnography of trade along two ancient trade routes, oral history interviews, and other materials gathered in the Nepali-Tibetan borderlands, this paper suggests the notion of “remote cosmopolitanism” as a vantage point to rethink the history and present of agro-pastoralism and trans-Himalayan trade.