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Nepal / China

How mountains become borders

This is what the night sky looks like when you’re 12,000 feet above sea level. There is almost no light pollution because there are barely any people up here, deep in the Himalayan mountains.

Those who do live in this rugged area aren’t here by chance. Most have ancestors who fled their homes to escape the influence and control of empires and dynasties. In the mountains, far from the reach of government, these communities intentionally evaded war, famine, taxes, kings, and subjugation.

I journeyed to the Himalayas in Nepal to visit one community whose forebears came to this region 1,200 years ago, running away from the Tibetan Empire. They practice the Bön religion, a variant of Tibetan Buddhism. The Bön were one of many ethnic and religious minorities that escaped to remote, high-altitude terrain to preserve their culture when predatory powers tried to force them to assimilate.

These mountains have always served as borders from government.

The Bön, as well as many others, have maintained their way of life to a degree rarely seen among indigenous peoples. The age and vibrancy of their traditions are evidence of how this landscape has an insulating effect against outside influence.

But this quiet haven is not as safe as it once was. The woman in the image above is a nomadic herder who, throughout the year, moves around the mountains with her family and group of yak. Their pastoral lifestyle hinges on the animals’ ability to graze freely. But this freedom is coming to an end as external elements encroach on this area.

I traveled here to show you what forces are breaking these communities’ isolation, who is behind them, and why customs dating back centuries may soon be lost to modernization: