Photos by Prasiit Sthapit
The road that goes from Kathmandu to Rasuwagadhi, Nepal’s only operational trade route with China, is narrow, winding, and in desperate need of repair. As it climbs higher into the steep mountain slopes of Rasuwa, it’s continually interrupted by landslides that bring the traffic to standstill, often for days.
The journey is also a reminder that security forces control these roads. Before Timure, the final bus stop, the army, the paramilitary, and the police inspect the bus at half a dozen stops. Interactions between travellers and security personnel frequently amount to harassment.
“What do you have here,” the soldier with the rifle asks, poking at a sack. He wears the nonchalant look of a soldier merely following orders. Hundreds of kilos of smuggled gold has been seized on this road, but it travels the other way, towards Kathmandu, in the dark.
“It’s a pressure cooker,” a villager explains.
“Do you have a receipt for it? Where’s the receipt for it?”
He has the receipt this time. Without a receipt, the goods get confiscated.
At the foot of the mountain, and on the other side of the river, the Army is building another expensive road that will shorten the distance from Rasuwagadhi to Kathmandu by about 25km and bring it down to 140 kms. The defense minister and the chief of the Army were there on May 20 to inaugurate the “national priority project”, which is still far from operational, and useless during the monsoon. The two roads meet at Syabrubeshi, about 20 km from the border.
Rasuwagadhi, part of an ancient trade route, lies on a geologically sensitive area where the Indian plate meets the Asian plate, and is prone to earthquake. The pass was used in two major wars between Nepal, Tibet, and China. The first concluded with a peace treaty when the Chinese Army, sent to assist Tibet, reached Nuwakot in 1792. The second was fought when Jung Bahadur Rana attacked Tibet and captured Kerung and Kuti, but was driven back and signed a peace treaty. Rasuwagadhi is named after a fort Jung Bahadur built on the banks of Bhotekoshi river formed where the Lingde and Kerung river meet. His army was able to capture Kerung and Kuti, an important trading town further east, in 1855, but the Tibetan army forced the Gorkhalis to retreat.
Rasuwagadhi lost its prominence once the Chinese-supported Kodari highway was built in the 1960s, much to India’s displeasure. Tatopani in Sindhupalchowk then became the centre of trading between Nepal and China until the 2015 earthquake damaged the town and both sides of the border on the the highway. The route, shut down since the earthquake, hasn’t reopened despite Nepal’s repeated entreaties to China to re-open it.
China had always preferred the Rasuwagadhi to the Kodari route, and it designated Rasuwagadhi as the international crossing between Nepal and China two years after the earthquake. The debris of the 2015 earthquake on the Nepali side, however, still hasn’t been cleared. A government official complained that the bodies of his dead comrades still lie buried under the pile of fallen buildings. On the other side, the fortress-like Chinese customs building looms large.
Rasuwagadhi offers a stark picture of the difference between reality on the ground and rhetoric of successive governments, including that of the current Prime Minister KP Oli, who’ve promised greater connectivity with China for years. Despite being touted as a new trade route and a potential rail route connecting Nepal with China, construction of roads and other infrastructure on the Nepali side of the border is happening at a snail’s pace.
“Our government hasn’t been able to clear the road. The train for China is a fantasy,” said Bishnu Shrestha, an officer at the Customs office. “It all depends on China.”
“The cliffs looks amazing, but some of our friends nearly died from falling rocks,” said Ramesh Pant, a civil servant at the customs office who was transferred there less than a year ago.
The government’s apathy astounds Padam Bahadur Paneru, a truck driver who ferries Chinese imports— mostly apples, garments, wool, electronics, and garlic—from Kerung to Rasuwagadhi. At the Nepali side of the border, he struggles daily with the dust, wind, and constant fear of falling rocks. “Kerung is bright as day, Rasuwagadhi is night,” said Paneru. “Make that a pitch black night with no moon”.
Rasuwagadhi and Kerung have been “elevated” to international checkpoint status, where Nepal government offers on-arrival visas to foreigners. Nepal traders, however, are not allowed to travel beyond Kerung, to Shigatse or Lhasa. The Chinese police often check mobile phones and revoke travel passes if they find a picture of the Dalai Lama. Often, people who appear darker, like Madhesis, are stopped, suspected of being ‘Indian agents’, according to several people.
Given the gigantic trade imbalance that favors China, Man Bahadur Baral, the chief immigration officer in Timure, is skeptical of the route’s potential to benefit Nepal.
“The containers go empty and come back full. This will bankrupt the country. The only people who will profit are businesses who buy cheap and sell expensive,” he said.
Baral confided that some businesses have been in touch with him to consider if the route can be used to get pilgrims to Mansarovar in Tibet. If that happens, Rasuwagadhi and the nearby town of Timure will compete with Humla in western Nepal — which relies on expensive flights and chartered helicopters — and host thousands of Nepalis and Indians passing through it every year.
In Timure, the closest town to Rasuwagadhi, with around 500 locals, there is already heightened activity. Land prices in Timure have shot up, and families who for centuries lived in a higher up village in the mountain during the summer, have moved permanently to Timure. The government has bought land to build a dry port in the narrow stretch between Timure and the Trishuli river, although some locals have refused to sell their land and tried the courts. Right across from Timure, a Chinese company is building the Rasuwagadhi hydro plant, filling the air with the din of machines.
Slideshow: Glimpses of life in Timure
However, the once-pristine town is dirtier, dustier, and people are prone to sickness, like viral fever, more than before. The buzz of construction—to rebuild houses damaged by the earthquake, and the infrastructure to upgrade the trading route—has brought in droves of government employees, businessmen, and migrant construction workers from elsewhere in Nepal.
With little labor protection, the itinerant workers face exploitation. Bam Bahadur Pun, 45, from Surkhet, had worked as a laborer in India since age 11. After the earthquake, he went to work in Kavre. For the past six months, he was working to rebuild the Timure police post, as part of the efforts of the National Reconstruction Authority that has raised billions of dollars. But he and his friends haven’t been paid.
“We talked to the police, and the contractor, but nothing happened.” Pun said.
Pun’s friend Bhim Rokaya worked in Maharashtra, India, for decades, just like his father, returning to work in Nepal after the earthquake.
“It’s government work, so we’re hoping to be paid,” he said, “if nothing works, we’ll have to go to labour court.”
Meanwhile, Udken Ghale, 50, a former post-office worker, has done well for himself.
“15 years ago, Timure was like a village, now it’s like Thamel,” said Udken, comparing the town to a busy Kathmandu neighborhood with a reputation for tourists and easy entertainment. He owns a tin house and some land close to the road. Small hotels sprung up in Timure after the border opened and compete with ones opened by newcomers from further south. Others found work in the dry port, or across the border in Kerung, loading goods into Nepalese vehicles that carry them to Nepal. They make about NPR 1,500 (USD 15) per day, and consider it a better alternative to laboring in the Middle East.
Despite the slow progress in building infrastructure, it is certain Rasuwagadhi and Timure will continue to attract major investments from governments and businessmen. What is uncertain is how much it will benefit the locals, the Nepalese economy and the workers who keep it moving.
Prasiit Sthapit is a visual storyteller affiliated with Fuzz Factory and Photo Kathmandu. In 2016, he was the recipient of the Magnum Emergency Fund Grant and was selected for the World Press Photo Joop Swart Masterclass. Gyanu Adhikari is the editor of The Record.
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