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food / travel

"One Mistake, Game Over" - Driving Nepal's Highway To Hell

The Arniko Highway - Yes, "highway"...
The Arniko Highway - Yes, "highway"...
Benoit Hopquin

KHADICHAUR - Araniko Highway, connecting Kathmandu to the Nepal-China border, doesn't look much like a highway. It is narrow strip of roadway sometimes covered in asphalt, sometimes just dirt.

This 115-kilometer road, winding between mountains and ravines is also deadly. Or it would be, without the incredible dexterity of the truck and bus drivers who manage to cross or overtake each other without plunging to their death. Their hands on huge steering wheels that shake every time they shift gears, the drivers take their multicolored rusted Tata trucks up and down the slopes of the Himalaya, where the roads offer, at every turn, breathtaking sights.

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On the road to Kodari - Photo: Michel Royon / Wikimedia Commons

“One mistake, game over” reads a bumper sticker on an old, worn truck. You couldn’t put it better. Here, to make it alive, you have to use your horn – as you would a foghorn – to forewarn cars, motorcyclists, chickens, goatherds, or suicidal pedestrians – like these two men who are rolling oil drums in the middle of the road, or these three men who are pushing a tree trunk to the other side of the highway. It’s one of those roads that you find in every poor country, a heroic feat that covers your face in dust, sweat and diesel oil.

In Khadichaur, no one complains about the non-stop traffic brushing by the street vendors. This town, sitting along the greyish green waters of the Sunkoshi River has a new nickname – China Town. Here, you can find everything China produces cheaply: telephones, knickknacks, kitchenware, clothes, lamps, shoes, TVs, stuffed animals, stereos, irons, toys etc.

Bhairac Chhetri sells blankets, which are all “made in China.” “Business is good but there is more and more competition,” he says. “Five years ago there were only about 20 shopkeepers here, now there are almost 100.” Other bazar-towns are developing along the Araniko Highway, like Barahbise or Dolaghat. Competition is becoming harder.

Bhairav regularly goes to China to replenish his stock of blankets. He takes the bus or rides a pick-up truck to Kodari, on the China-Nepal border, 35 kilometers down the road. Like everyone else, he gets off at the last stop before the border and walks a few kilometers to the narrow Friendship Bridge on the Bhote Koshi River, where he crosses to the other side, to the city of Zhangmu, in Tibet.

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The Friendship Bridge on the Bhote Koshi River - Photo: Michel Royon / Wikimedia Commons

Take the Friendship Highway to China

He buys from Chinese wholesalers, merchants from the Han ethnic group who came to Tibet after it was annexed by China in 1950, to make money. “We bargain in Nepalese,” says Bhairav. “The Chinese are smart, they learned the language.” He then rents out some Nepalese carriers for less than two euros, to carry his purchases from Zhangmu to Kodari on their back. After the 15% customs fee is paid, he travels back to Khadichaur with his new blankets.

Bhairav doesn’t go any further than Zhangmu. He’s never taken the 5,500 kilometer long Friendship Highway that goes to Lhassa, and then all the way to Shanghai. This is the road that the merchandise he buys has taken, and it is the same artery used by the Chinese to penetrate and extend their influence in Tibet.

The city is called Zhangmu in Chinese, Zham in Tibetan and Khasa in Nepalese. Like any good businessman, Bhairav doesn’t get into politics and won’t speak about the Tibetan situation. His position on the civil war that raged for a decade from 1996 to 2006 between the Nepalese monarchy and the Maoist rebellion, resulting in 16,000 deaths and disappeared, is neutral. During those years he paid toll fees to both camps. “The road always stayed open,” he says.

These days, merchandise is sold in Kathmandu and all around Nepal. Sometimes, the trucks go even further, to deliver their Chinese knickknacks to India. The Araniko Highway, which is often blocked by landslides during monsoon rains, and has become an unlikely artery of globalization – with $200 million worth of merchandise being transported on the road every year.

The Araniko (named after a Nepalese architect from the 13th century who worked and died in China) is emblematic of China’s patient and methodical efforts to strategically expand their territory. The road was paid for with Chinese money in the 1960s, to replace a narrow passage that was 2,500 meters high and that could only be crossed on yaks. It will soon be expanded by China, and the modest little Friendship Bridge will be augmented by a second 112-meter long infrastructure that will allow trucks to cross the border into Nepal.

Beijing has also made it easier for the Nepalese to come and go across the border. Those who live near the border can cross into China without a visa, like Bhairav. And China has just exempted 7,787 Nepalese-made products from custom fees. Facilitating the sale of Nepalese agricultural and artisanal goods is not much compared to the massive invasion by Chinese manufactured goods. Nepal imports ten times more from its neighbor than it exports.

Cracking down on “anti-Chinese activities”

Kodari is the only legal entry point on the 1,400-kilometer China-Nepal border, but other crossings are going to be opened – or rather, carved into the Himalaya. China is also planning to build an airport in the historic Nepalese city of Pokhara in order to ease the flow of Chinese tourists and merchandise into the country.

Transports, hydroelectric plants and telecoms – China is investing billions in Nepal – one of the world’s poorest nations – until now an Indian satellite. Former Chinese ambassador Yang Houlan couldn’t be clearer on his country’s intentions in an interview for Nepalese daily newspaper Republica when he said: “From the economical point of view, Nepal is a gateway linking China to South Asia.” Meaning a bridge toward India and its gigantic market.

The two superpowers are not in good terms and their long, contested border is closed and militarized. Yet trade between the two foes is booming. It reached $60 billion in 2010, China being the obvious winner. Beijing also invested in the port of Calcutta, and now, it’s creating itself a ground route through the Himalaya.

“Nepal will be the friendship bridge between China and India,” said former Nepalese Prime minister Baburam Bhattarai. New Delhi on the other hand, sees a Trojan horse filled with Chinese manufactured goods. India has signed free-trade agreements with its little neighbor and historical ally, but it is worried of losing Nepal to Chinese influence.

In exchange for its generosity, Beijing has asked Nepal to recognize Tibet as a Chinese territory and to crack down on anti-Chinese activism. The Nepalese government has understood where its interests lay and has pledged allegiance to China. The joint statement it put out during the former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s last visit in Kathmandu was explicit: “Nepal will do everything to stop anti-Chinese activities on its territory, and recognizes Tibet and Taiwan as an inalienable part of the territory ruled by Beijing. For this, no-one will be allowed to use Nepal territory to harm Chinese interests.”

For some time now, the activism of the 20,000 Tibetan exiles living in Nepal has been largely shackled. On March 10, the demonstration planned to mark the anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan uprising was banned. All “anti-Chinese activity” is being sanctioned, even though there is no clear legislation to support the crackdown.

Nepal has traded part of its freedom for economic development. China applies the same policy with Kazakhstan, where it represses the ethnic Uyghur community, which is Muslim. Beijing invests massively in this country, in exchange for the surveillance and crackdown on opponents. But in Khadichaur, and along the Araniko Highway, it’s highly unlikely that Bhairav and his friends understand this geopolitical game.

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