Swapping Identities

Borderland exchanges along the Nepal-TAR frontier.

For most Nepalis, the Chinese border town of Khasa is synonymous with the cheap clothes and electronics that eventually make their way down the Arniko Highway to Kathmandu. But for a growing number of people from the Nepali villages adjacent to the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), Khasa is the gateway to a set of opportunities that take advantage of China's positive discrimination policies towards minority groups and borderland populations. While northward migration has increased in recent years in response to Nepal's internal conflict, the Nepali, Tibetan and Chinese inhabitants of the area are also bound together by a rich history of crossborder economic and social relationships.

The town's three names – Khasa in Nepali, Dram in Tibetan, and Zhangmu in Chinese – attest to its multiple personalities. Located at the mouth of the steep gorge where the Bhote Khosi River exits the Tibetan plateau and enters the Himalayan midhills, the original settlement of Dram was a customs outpost where Tibetan officials registered Nepali traders en route to the trading centre of Nyalam, 30 km further north. Before the Chinese army established Dram as the official crossing on their newly built border road in 1960, the now-thriving town consisted of little more than a cluster of shacks. More important settlements in the area were the villages of Gosa, Lishing and Syolbugang.

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Himal Southasian