The last of Lhasa’s cartmen struggle to survive




Dhondub Kalsang, 58, is short but sturdy. Still something of a newbie in the cartage trade,

he bought his handcart in 2000 and has dragged it around Lhasa for a mere 15 years. 

Photos by Purbu Tashi





LHASA  |  2015-03-31 23:42:44


The last of Lhasa’s


struggle to survive


By Pempa Tsering, Purbu Tashi, Zhou Yan and Dronla



The anticipation in Jampa’s eyes gave way to disappointment as the first customer to show up for two days chose his friend Dhondub Kalsang to haul some crates of yak beef and butter.

“He has good reason for that,” Jampa said as he sat back down on a quiet corner in the heart of Lhasa. At 74, lanky and gray-haired Jampa knows he is an unlikely “ter ka” — the Tibetan word for cartman — but he needs to support himself.

Jampa’s service costs 15 yuan (just over 2 U.S. dollars) anywhere within Lhasa city center, home to 80,000 people and Lhasa’s major landmarks, including the Potala Palace and Jokhang Temple.

Despondent, he watched his friend tie the boxes with a strap and set off, pulling the heavy cart in the customer’s footsteps.

Jampa is single and, apart from a meager allowance of 440 yuan a month from the government, has nothing except what he makes by power of his legs and the sweat of his brow. “I’m still fit enough to earn a living,” he protests. “Even a few hundred extra yuan can help a lot.”




Dhondub Kalsang, 58, is short but sturdy. Still something of a newbie in the cartage trade, he bought his handcart in 2000 and has dragged it around Lhasa for a mere 15 years.

Every spring and fall, however, he spends several weeks in his home village, plowing and harvesting.

Jampa has been hauling freight since 1989. “I was 48 when I became a ‘ter ka’. Business was good. In one year, I saved enough money for a pilgrimage to the holy mountain of Gangsrinpoche.”

Gangsrinpoche, the main peak of the Gangdise Range, is 6,638 meters high and sacred to Tibetan Buddhists. It is nearly 1,200 km from Lhasa.

Handcarts were the main transportation in downtown Lhasa since time immemorial until the recent past. The labyrinth of narrow winding paths was impossible for motor vehicles, which, in any case, were very rare in Tibet.

“A ‘ter ka’ would make at least 20 yuan a day, a lot of money in the 1980s,” said Dherong, 64. He has been a “ter ka” for 32 years.

“I was 32 when I left home to earn a living in Lhasa,” he said. Derhong is from Maizhokunggar County, only about 100km away, but mountainous and with very few roads. At the time, a journey to Lhasa could take several days. Maizhokunggar was the birth place of Songtsen Gampo, the king who unified Tibet in the 7th Century.

In 1983, China had just started opening up to the West; Apple introduced the first personal computer with a mouse; and China, for the first time, conferred doctoral degrees on 18 graduates. In Lhasa, handcarts were still the order of the day.

In that same year, Dherong began hauling his cart around the city streets earning a decent living to support his wife and two daughters. The same two-wheeled cart has since accompanied him around every corner of Lhasa.”I know Lhasa better than most natives,” said Dherong.

His heyday was in the 1990s, when commerce and tourism boomed. A “ter ka” could make 200 yuan a day.

“More than 100 ‘ter ka’ worked downtown Lhasa in those days, delivering bulky baggage and merchandise,” said Dherong. “Life was not easy, but hard work paid off.”

Most of them hung around Owndhu Shingkhar, a marketplace near the famous Porgor Street, chatting in the sun, with their feet up, while they waited for business.




Today Dherong, Jampa and Dhondub Kalsang are the only “ter ka” at Owndhu Shingkhar. Their former colleagues zip around on motorized tricycles.

Pempa, a much younger man, spent 7,000 yuan on a tricycle last year. Now he makes at least 100 yuan a day. The last three “ter ka” often wait days for business.

Their income has shrunk back to the 1980s level; about 20 to 30 yuan a day. What was once more than ample is now less than a pittance, but none of them is ready to desert the handcart.

“My cart was bought only 15 years ago and is still in pretty good shape,” said Dhondub Kalsang. He does not want to invest in a new vehicle, and only hopes to make maximum use of the cart.

For Dherong and Jampa, their ancient carts are inseparable parts of their identities.

Dherong has two daughters but no son. Like many elderly Tibetans, he insists on working to provide for himself and his wife. “My daughters are both married. I don’t want to be a burden, at least not when I’m still able to earn a living,” he said.

“I will keep working until the day I’m unable to walk — then I might move into a nursing home,” said Jampa, finally finding a chore humping some furniture across town.




Cartmen earn a living by power of their hands and legs.   Photos by Purbu Tashi









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