Nepal’s road to ChinaThe two countries’ relations in the future will be guided by their past.
A few years ago, I was in Jyatha, Thamel, at the New Chong Qing Wei restaurant. The Sichuan restaurant is run by Ramesh Bishwokarma, also known as San-Dai (and who I’ve profiled separately), who speaks Chinese with flourish but has never been to the country. The signages in Jyatha had begun to change; most now advertised to the Chinese tourist. I could see groups of Chinese tourists walking past in their fluorescent-neon glows. Some held up their phones, video-chatting with friends back home; others were hunched over curios inside jewellery and handicraft shops. San-Dai’s restaurant was crowded with Chinese travellers; the waft of Sichuan pepper was ripe in the air.
All of this was new to me. Thamel has always catered to the tourist, but there seemed to be a newfound focus on the Chinese visitor. Chinese investors now saw Nepal as a suitable destination, and Nepalis were setting up businesses targeting Chinese tourists. Chinese leaders were visiting Nepal regularly, and vice-versa. New projects were being announced with Chinese assistance regularly, including in Pokhara, where I come from, and where the international airport project finally moved ahead because of China. It seemed like relations between our two countries were at an all-time high.
But the truth was, no one really knew how this had come about.
It is easy to dismiss China’s rise in Nepal as an outcome of the 2015 ‘unofficial’ Indian blockade, but that is far from reality. Nepal has always viewed China as an alternative to the often-overbearing Indian political and economic hold over the country, but in the past, Chinese infrastructure limitations in Tibet and the Himalaya had not allowed it to be so. But in the 21st century, with the Qinghai-Tibet Railway (QTR) making its way to Lhasa and Shigatse, Nepali dreams were once again reawakened. Combined with the overt Indian political (mis)management of the post-conflict transition period, it seemed Kathmandu had found a willing partner in Beijing to negate Delhi’s influence. And nowhere was this clearer in that Jyatha lane, speaking to a Nepali entrepreneur whose business was made possible because of the rising number of Chinese tourists.
The story of China’s rise has been documented many times by now; however, very few have written about the other side of the story, about how developing countries like ours have come to view the new superpower in our midst. Walking past that Thamel lane under the glow of Mandarin characters, that is where my book, All Roads Lead North, began: as an attempt to tell the story of China in Nepal. But first, I needed to explore Nepal’s intimate historical connections with the north, starting from Tibet.
Across the Himalaya
Tibet has always been Nepal’s window to the north, starting from the time Tang general Wang Xuance arrived in Nepal valley via Kerung pass in the 7th century, and eventually led a combined army of Tibetans and Nepalis against the king Arunasva, who had usurped the throne of Magadha after the death of Harshavardhana and imprisoned Wang’s retinue. Once Buddhism flourished in the plateau, the connections between Tibet, Nepal and China deepened, as Nepal became a centre for Buddhist arts and learning.
But while Buddhism was the locus, trade became the wave on which connections between the many communities of Nepal and Tibet rode—from the Newar traders of the Valley to the trans-Himalayan traders of Khumbu, Mustang and Humla. Ethnic connections helped; trade between these two regions was often intimate. The advent of modern borders, and China’s need to secure its Himalayan frontier in the face of the Tibetan uprising and conflict with India, turned this millennia-old contact into a thing of the past (combined with other factors such as the import of subsidised iodised salt). Then the Cold War arrived, and with that, Nepal became sandwiched between great powers, as the Himalaya turned into a site of anti-Communist movements.
If I was to write a book on Nepal’s history with China, I realised, I needed to tell the story of our Himalayan regions too. So I travelled to Mustang, where armed Tibetan guerrillas launched a war in the Himalaya, and to Limi valley in Humla, where the trans-Himalayan traders of yore have evolved and kept up with the demands of the modern economy, despite the challenges. I went to Rasuwa, once the site of a war between Nepal and China, and today the symbol of how China can transform Nepali dreams and ambitions; here, China and its companies are building a dry port, a two-lane highway, a hydropower project and a border bridge—all in a stretch of 24 kilometres.
I met with Newar traders who lived for years at a stretch in Lhasa and traded on the Silk Road, and with Chinese farmers who had adopted Nepali names and farmed in Pokhara. And apart from the politicians, the journalists, the bureaucrats, I also met with farmers whose lives had changed because of the Chinese capacity to consume, and with students who will shape Nepal’s future with China.
A hundred thousand words later, my story of Nepal’s turn to China is finally ready. My book explores these stories, and much more, in a quest to describe how we as Nepalis—beyond the corridors of power, beyond the boardrooms of Kathmandu’s elite—have viewed, interacted and shaped our history with Tibet and China. In doing so, I ask, what does the future hold? For, although the road to the north has been built; it is now up to us to decide how smooth the ride will be.