Cellphone on the Plateau


Tibetans are a people on the move. The endless space of the windswept Plateau required seasonal migration of domesticated sheep and yak and encouraged distant trade with goods from Italy or England finding their place in in the markets of Lhasa or Shigatse. Spiritual life demanded taking off to holy sites thousands of miles away, sometimes as far as India or China. Until recently, when a family member took off to a far-reaching destination, no one knew when to expect them back, resorting to various forms of divination which allowed them to prod the unknown for a clue of their whereabouts or their likely return.

Now there is the cellphone. At first, one had to climb on the top of hills to catch a signal, and the higher pastures were off limits to the networks, but now the smartphone is the nomad’s indispensable tool. A typical herder is no longer isolated; while taking his flocks to graze, he or she can listen to songs, engage with friends on a We Chat group, or shop online. The older generation does not approve of this distraction conducive to lowering the herder’s guard facilitating the loss of sheep to wolves or thieves, though they themselves most probably have their own chat rooms to catch up with friends and relatives their own age. The trend is there to stay.

At Norlha, the endless chatting on cellphones became a nuisance, distracting the artisans from their work and they check them into a box as they step in for work. This initially gave rise to a wave of protest, but has become a way of life, of staying in touch, of covering distances without having to move, of recording important events on camera and sharing them with loved ones.