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Dr. Gillian G. Tan is an Alfred Deakin Postdoctoral Research Fellow, based at the Alfred Deakin Research Institute. She has just returned from four months of field research on indigenous ecological knowledge among nomadic pastoralists of Eastern Tibet. Her research was situated in Ganzi Prefecture, an autonomous Tibetan region of Sichuan Province, China.
During anthropological fieldwork, days can sometimes blend into one another, producing an impression of interminable routine. After over ten years researching on and occasionally living in the same area of Tibet and China, this impression has come to dominate my daily perceptions. Habit and familiarity produce many good fieldwork results but they can also blur the sharp edges of novelty – edges that are indispensable to certain pieces of writing. It is, thus, an experience of note that has inspired me to contribute this piece. And while the experience itself might seem mundane, its intensity – emerging despite habitual impressions – is far from it, and speaks to the time-space compression that David Harvey noted in ‘The Condition of Postmodernity’. I write of my flight from Kangding, the administrative seat of Ganzi Prefecture, to Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province.
A forty-minute flight is itself nothing of note if one has not had a prior experience, or many, of a distinctly different kind over the same route. As recently as early 2000, the 390 kilometers that separate Kangding from Chengdu used to take 2 to 3 days by bus. Fortunately, I never had to experience this ordeal because by the time I travelled this route, the Chengdu-Yaan highway, also known as the Chengya express, as well as the Erlangshan tunnel had both been recently constructed. When I made my first journey to Kangding at the end of 2000, the journey took 6.5 hours by the official car of Kangding Vocational College. However, from that first time due to road works and poor weather, the journey only got progressively worse. Admittedly the journey was never the 2-day ordeal of the old days, but caught me once on a 30-hour ride in a bus with windows that could not open and with travelers who chain-smoked. For the past decade or so until 2010, 390 kilometers averaged 15 hours.
Therefore, when I heard of the prefectural government plans to build an airport in Kangding, I felt a twinge of selfish delight, although I mainly despaired. As with other airports being built across the Tibetan plateau, I wondered about the real reasons for this massive input of capital into sparsely populated regions: if the people living inside Ganzi Prefecture were often unable to afford the price of a ticket, then the main purpose for the investment was to allow people living outside to enter. These were apparently tourists – so the official line went – but the military could fly in at a moment’s notice to ‘maintain order’ on the plateau. So overwhelming was the despair I felt that I avowedly avoided the airport when I returned in the summer of 2010, even though flights were already operating. And suffered another round of torturously long bus rides between Kangding and Chengdu because of landslides, poor traffic control and inconsiderate drivers.
What changed for me in 2013? It was certainly not the result of another interminably long journey from Chengdu to Kangding. The 6.5-hour journey was relatively easy, and drivers had started to actually enforce the no-smoking rule within their buses. By now, the road was well-paved and I had arrived before the dreaded rainy season that caused landslides and travel havoc. Rather, the suggestions of my local Tibetan friends in Kangding, who themselves occasionally flew when discounted tickets were available, were enough to prompt me to seek one out. With large sums of money coming in from the provincial government as part of the Western Development Strategy (Ch. xibu dakaifa), Kangding had received its fair share of change since 2000. An entire new city had been built up the valley and its residents, particularly government officials and workers, had become increasingly affluent. A few of my Tibetan friends now owned two apartments and at least one car, courtesy of an increased government wage and clever investments. Due to the fact that a number of ordinary Kangding residents now opted to fly to Chengdu, I decided that a flight was not as morally reprehensible as I had previously thought. The fact also that the discounted ticket I found online was only double the price of a bus ticket, against five times the price, allayed any lingering doubts.
The memories of ten years of long journeys between the same two places were erased by the time the flight attendants started to distribute bottles of water. Within minutes, the announcement came that we had started our descent into Chengdu. Ordinarily, twenty minutes was the amount of time it would take me to put in my earplugs to block out the sounds of B-grade kungfu movies played through the bus’ front television. In the plane, I looked around bewildered that my fellow travelers were not experiencing the same discombobulation. The several foreigners in front of me, well perhaps this was their first trip, but what about the locals? Weren’t they unnerved by this remarkable time-space compression? Several had already nodded off to sleep while others were playing games on their mobile phones despite the announcement that all mobile devices be switched off. I settled back to experience my intense dislocation alone, already thinking about how to write the opening paragraph of a piece that would convey what I was experiencing with a wider community since none of my fellow travelers seemed to care.
Within thirty-five minutes, we had touched down at Chengdu Shuangliu airport and in another five, we were at the gate, waiting to disembark. The fact that just a few hours earlier I had been in a nomadic area was not lost on me as I tried to comprehend the vastly different ways and speeds with which we travel. In the three days prior to this experience, I had been walking at 4000 meters with a backpack, feeling every stone beneath my boots and every drop of trickling sweat down my back along the slow and laborious way. I had ridden a Tibetan horse without a saddle, feeling every tussock and stony riverbed, through the horse’s movements. I had ridden on a motorcycle across the grasslands, which affords great speed, although I had also felt very nervous riding without a helmet. I had been in a car, which had taken me from the place where I had hitchhiked to the airport. These ways of travel, to varying degrees, allowed me to experience the bumps of the landscape and the passing of minutes in a way that flying could not. Flight compresses space and time, and, to my mind, exemplifies Harvey’s comments on the accelerations brought about by the production, mobilisation and consumption rates of a market economy.
In this way, the airport in Kangding goes hand in hand with the changes being lived out in the city as a result of government policies. The plane that carried me to Chengdu would likely return to Kangding the next morning carrying another full load of passengers back and forth. And all in, the inroads to Tibet continue.
View some photos from Gillian's trip on our Facebook page.