Nepal: Joining China's "One Belt, One Road"

Borderland: The Road to Rasuwagadhi

It’s 8:30 in the morning, the start of a new day; however, for the truck drivers who have been already queuing up in Timure, a town in Rasuwa district Nepal, near the border of China, it could be another long day of waiting.

More and more truckers are coming to Rasuwagadhi–the border between Nepal and Tibetan areas of China, a place with several iron shacks and temporary tents, a few simple wooden desks, and some piles of gravel. They are lining up there because it is a critical point in commerce between the two countries, regardless of the bumpy, sometimes muddy or even treacherous road. For truckers it often involves a long wait–hours, days, weeks, or even a month, as they wait to cross the border to bring back goods from the Chinese boom town of Jilong to Nepal.

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Trucks lined up in Timure, three kilometers from the border to transport goods from China to Nepal 
Photo: Chen Shuxian

The Rasuwagadhi-Jilong border, the only open land crossing between Nepal and China since the Ghorka Earthquake in April 2015, has also recently been upgraded to an international border point, allowing citizens from other countries in addition to Nepalis and Chinese to travel across the border. The announcement was made in Lhasa on August 30th.

Together with the open border, developments are speeding up in this area and potentially bringing changes to people’s lives in the last several years, especially after Nepal’s entrance into China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Overall, the amount of trade and people crossing the border has skyrocketed in recent years. In 2016, the trade volume at this border crossing between the two countries soared to $469.7 million, nearly a five-fold increase in one year. A prominent study by Sam Cowan, a retired British army general and scholar with extensive knowledge of Nepal, suggests that the Jilong-Rasuwa Highway will “host the highest volume of trans-Himalayan commerce within five years” of anywhere in the region. And under China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which Nepal formally joined in May, a number of projects are underway along this stretch of road, from hydropower projects to a customs “dry port” among others.

Moreover, within the next two or three years, the “Sky Train” across Tibetan areas of China is planned to go under construction, down through Rasuwagadhi, and, eventually, perhaps to Kathmandu and India. Hari Prasad Bashyal, Nepal’s former consul general to Lhasa, estimated that there would be almost a two-fold increase in the number of Chinese tourists to Nepal–to 300,000 within two or three years.

But how the new tourist policy at this border will be put into practice seems to be unclear. On September 8th,  eight days after the “open-to-tourists” announcement was made, guards on the Chinese side said that only Chinese citizens with passports and identity cards, or local Rasuwa residents could cross the border. But less than an hour later, two European-looking backpackers were heading into China through this point.

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An International tourist heading into Tibet, China through the border
Photo: Chen Shuxian

Many of the locals in Rasuwa district see opportunity in the changes brought to the area by the Belt and Road projects — although some are concerned about environmental impacts, especially those living in nearby Langtang National Park. There are also concerns about human trafficking, animal parts trafficking, and smuggling–especially after the largest gold smuggling case in Nepal’s history was tied to this border crossing in September.

Concerns about security and smuggling are evident on the Syabrubesi-Rasuwagadhi road. From Dhunche, a starting point of Langtang National Park, to Rasuwagadhi, there were at least four checkpoints, one with a Chinese-language sign where bags are checked. A guard, standing not far away, was holding a gun.

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A Chinese language sign saying luggage checking at the border
Photo: Chen Shuxian

But locals largely see the growing connection with China as beneficial — and as something natural to their borderland area.

Chimi Lama, a hotel owner in the small village of Thulo Syabru in Langtang, has been to the Rasuwagadhi-Jilong border several times. He said people with Nepal-China border citizen cards can cross the border, and only locals in Rasuwa can get that special permit, a special benefit that both governments have agreed upon, harkening back to a time when herders and traders moved across a more porous border.

微信图片_20171015101929士大夫萨芬Chimi Lama holding his Nepal-China Border Citizen Card
Photo: Hong Baoju

The border may also open for trade with countries beyond Nepal and China. According to The Kathmandu Post, trading with third countries will be possible once China signs separate agreements with other nations willing to do trade through this point. And on September 12th, for the first time, Jilong customs agreed to have vehicles from other countries transport goods via the border, according to Lhasa (SP) Customs.

However, according to at least one local, transporting some goods from China, like building materials, can be difficult. Chhesum Lama started to rebuild her house six months ago, which was severely destroyed by the 2015 earthquake. “We need the government paper if we want to get building material from the border, which takes a long time. It’s a big mess,” she said.

Despite the harsh conditions, more and more people are coming to the border to do business. On the afternoon of September 8th, 226 trucks were lined up in a several-kilometer-long stretch to get across the border to transport goods from China to Nepal.

On the Nepalese side, only temporary police booths are available, while on the other side, there is a large building constructed of reinforced concrete. Narayan, a Nepali truck driver spoke of the difficulty of waiting at the border, “with wind and dust, it is difficult to be around.”

DSC_2526发的Border on Nepal side
Photo: Chen Shuxian

Truckers waiting to get clearance from Nepal’s security force to cross the bridge [image by Liu Qiuli]

For locals in small villages scattered throughout Langtang National Park — which is immediately adjacent to Rasuwagadhi border and the OBOR projects along the highway — the development is largely seen as a potential for more business.

Temba Tamang, a lodge owner in Thulo Syabru of Rasuwa district, is happy to see the border open. “More and more tourists will come, good, (it’s a) very good thing,” he said.

Another local, hotel owner Cheki Sherpa in Laurebina goes to Kerung — the Nepalese name of “Jilong” –twice a year and gets goods like noodles and wool. “You know, here… nothing. Kerung is very near, very nice, the goods are cheaper than Kathmandu, so we buy there. We like Kerung,” said Sherpa. It usually takes her around two hours by motorbike to get to Jilong from Syabrubesi, a town 17 kilometers away from Rasuwagadhi.

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Cheki Sherpa doing needlework with materials transported from Jilong
Photo: Li Yin

For Tempa Sonam, who runs a hotel in Gosaikunda,  the newly-opened border is a chance to get to know another culture. “I will go there to buy some souvenirs from China for my family. I like to visit China and experience a different culture,” he said. However, he sometimes feels upset because guards from Chinese side and people in Jilong town “don’t feel like speaking English”, which makes it hard for him to “express feelings and make friends with Chinese”.

Talking about the road from Syabrubesi to Jilong, Sonam said it’s bumpy, but he believes the road will be better, because “both Nepal and China need it.”

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A bus navigating the bumpy, circuitous mountain road
Photo: Liu Qiuli

The roads in the area are often little more than muddy, one-lane tracks. From Kathmandu to Dhunche, a mid-point from Kathmandu to Rasuwagadhi, even 4X4 vehicles and army-type transport trucks got mired in the mud–at a time when many trucks were coming at them from the opposite direction on the narrow road. Next to the road, a few construction workers were working on the steep, muddy side of the mountain, not wearing helmets, gloves or vests, and breaking up rocks on a foggy, cold morning. It’s likely what the Syaburbesi-Rasuwagadhi road looked like before undergoing reconstruction.

微信图片_20171024112027Vehicle got stuck in the mud on the way from Kathmandu to Dhunche
Photo: Chen Shuxian
DSC_2419 工人修建Construction workers
Photo: Liu Qiuli

The Syabrubesi-Rasuwagadhi road, the 17-kilometer long, 5-meter wide road that links Rasuwa to Jilong, came into formal operation in 2012. The total cost was Rs 1.59 billion ($24.58 million USD) with grant assistance from China government. In May of this year, China agreed to upgrade the single lane Syabrubesi-Rasuwagadhi road to a two-lane road.

On top of the road and railway, China is also building a dry port at Timure. Urgen Tshering Tamang, the chairman of the Rasuwa trucking association, said there are 12-1300 trucks that operate on the road currently, but after the dry port is completed, the number of trucks could reach 5,000.

At least one expert back in Kathmandu points out that in addition to the infrastructure Belt and Road projects bring, communication is key in the linkages envisioned by the initiative.

“We are going to bring railway train by 2020, there will be fantastic roads and thousands of trucks going every day. The important thing is how do you really make a plan and cooperate with your neighbor,” said Ramesh Bhushal, executive board member of the Nepal Forum of Environmental Journalists and a reporter who’s covered the area extensively.

Written by Liu Qiuli

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