Page last updated at 00:41 GMT, Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Highway will bring Nepal and Tibet 'in from the cold'

By Joanna Jolly
BBC News, on the Nepal-Tibet border

Work underway in the Nepal-China border road
It's hoped that the road will lead eventually to a trans-Asian highway that will cut through the Himalayas

The Himalayan mountains on the Nepal-Tibet border are some of the most remote and inaccessible in the world.

But deep in the valleys next to the green, flowing waters of the Kyirong River, Chinese construction workers are blasting through the jagged landscape to turn an ancient trading track into a modern road.

This small stretch of road - just 17km (10.5 miles) long - from the border to the Nepalese town of Syabrubesi is costing the Beijing government almost $20m.

But it's an important investment because this mountain pass not only connects Tibet to Nepal - it's also the most direct land route to India's capital, Delhi.

Huge difference

"There is an old Chinese saying, 'To get rich, build roads first'," says the Chinese team's engineer Zhang Peng.

Mingma Dorje Ghale
When this road is built, I won't have to carry this heavy backpack up and down
Mingma Dorje Ghale

"When this road is ready, living standards and the economy around here will improve," he says.

"Nepalese people will be able to visit Lhasa, in Tibet, and other parts of China, and Chinese tourists and businessmen will come here."

The road will make a huge difference to communities on both sides of the border.

Traders still walk the old path that runs alongside the new road - an ancient thoroughfare across the roof of the world that connects Nepal to the historic Silk route.

Thirty-five-year old Mingma Dorje Ghale has walked this small, rocky path since he was a child.

He and his friend have just trekked back from Tibet, a day's walk away, carrying bottles of Chinese brandy on their backs.

They plan to sell their goods in Nepal's border towns.

"When this road is built, I won't have to carry this heavy backpack up and down," he says.

His friend's five-year-old daughter leads their yak.


Until now, yaks and mules have been the only way to transport heavy goods across the border and children often take the job of leading them.

Sonam Ghale with a yak
Long hikes over the Himalayas are likely to become a thing of the past

Mingma Dorje Ghale hopes that the new road will mean he can drive in and out of China and that his children will be spared the journey, so they can stay at home and attend school.

"Life for the next generation will be easier," he says.

Squeezed between the growing economies of China and India, the Nepalese government welcomes this sort of infrastructure project that it hopes will bring wealth to an impoverished nation.

The government is keen to maintain a good relationship with its giant neighbour to the north.

Nepal is home to a sizeable Tibetan community, many descended from refugees who've been fleeing Chinese rule since Beijing occupied Tibet 60 years ago.

China is worried that opening up the border could enflame an already unstable Tibetan plateau.

Nepalese Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal says he has reassured Beijing that his government will not allow Tibetan dissidents to operate in his country.

"China has only one concern, that is the concern of Tibet," he says.

China says Tibet was always part of its territory
Tibet enjoyed long periods of autonomy before the 20th Century
China launched a military assault in 1950
Opposition to Chinese rule led to a bloody uprising which began on 10 March 1959
Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, fled days later and crossed into India on 31 March 1959

"That is why our policy towards China has been consistent. We believe in the One China policy, Tibet is an integral part of China and the soil of Nepal will not be allowed to be used against Tibet and China."

For those living in the remote border region, this policy is not a problem.

Phurpu Tsering Tamang, a local turned trekking guide who is himself part-Tibetan, says for the local community gaining access to Chinese wealth is more important than politics.

"After Chinese occupied Tibet, some people told us the Chinese are very rude and very tricky," he says.

"But what I see when I visit Tibet is that they are building roads everywhere and they're building houses for the people, so they have an easier life."

Nepal will need to continue to reassure China even after this road is finished next year.

It's hoping to attract more Chinese investment - and eventually create a trans-Asian highway that will cut through the Himalayas, linking China to India and opening up this secluded country.

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