The More Things Change (2012)

One of the three main regions of Tibet (along with Ü-Tsang and Amdo), Kham is located in Southwest China at the intersection of India, China, and Myanmar. A vast swathe of grassland punctuated by barren peaks, this remote corner of Asia is home to over one million ethnic Tibetans, whose traditional dependence on the milk, meat and wool of the hardy yak has for centuries afforded them self-sufficiency from the outside world.

Times are changing. Although, as the Chinese proverb goes, “the mountains are high and the Emperor is far away”, Tibet’s geopolitical sensitivity and rich mineral resources give Beijing strong political and economic incentives to bring this gateway region of the Tibetan Plateau into its orbit. A rapid influx of Chinese capital, labor and tourism in recent years has brought to Kham the same breakneck pace of change and development historically associated with the wealthy coastal areas of China.

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By bus and by foot, I spent twelve days during December 2012 making my way from Chengdu to Shangri-La in order to document this rapidly transforming part of Western China. Kham is a popular tourist and business destination from April to October, but the camera-toting hordes virtually disappear in the winter, leaving little more than yak dung and dried shrubs behind. The lone adventurer is then free to experience Kham society at its least self-conscious.

From above, the cities of Kham Tibet already display a striking similarity to their much larger counterparts in the East, and this resemblance strengthens daily. The Kham are a fiercely independent people, however, and their rugged way of life yet persists. At the scale of individuals and families, and in more remote settlements, tradition lives on, perhaps the more proudly as the presence and influence of outsiders grow.