Himalayan highway makes life easier for highlandersThe Kali Gandaki corridor comes up from the Tarai plains and passes through Mustang to end at Kora La.
Mustang residents who fled to the cities to escape their hard lives are returning as a game-changing road brings prosperity to their Himalayan homeland.
Pema Bista, a local of Lo Manthang Rural Municipality-1, was among those who left their arid villages.
There was no road, and they had to walk for four days to the nearest market in Myagdi to buy essentials. Sometimes, they even had to trudge all the way to Pokhara in Kaski to get certain items.
The only livelihood for the villagers was herding sheep, yak and chamba goats, locally known as chyangra.
Bista yearned for a better life, and went to live in Kathmandu after getting married.
Then the Kali Gandaki corridor was built–a 435-km highway that came up from the Tarai plains and passed through the middle of Mustang to end in the high Himalaya.
The road linked the Indian border town of Sunauli in the south and the Chinese border at Kora La in the north.
After the Kali Gandaki corridor was built, tourists from both Nepal and abroad started driving up the road to Mustang. The money they brought transformed the local economy.
Bista returned to her birthplace Lo Manthang, leaving her kids behind in Kathmandu. She opened a hotel to serve the growing number of visitors. Her village is now dotted with lodges, restaurants and cafes operated by locals.
Bista says the construction of the road changed everything.
“Before we had roads, there were few tourists in the village,” said Bista. “Now we have access to transportation at our doorsteps, and we receive busloads of tourists every day.”
The travel distance from Pokhara–the largest city in the region–to Mustang has been slashed from four days to one.
The period mid-April to mid-June is considered to be the tourist off season in the district, but the hotels and restaurants that have opened in every other house in Lo Manthang have no trouble finding customers.
Traders are busy welcoming guests even during the off season. The income of locals has swelled.
Jomsom, the district headquarters, is a three-hour ride from Lo Manthang. It is a gravel road, but locals can make a day trip to Jomsom to run errands and buy daily necessities.
The main attraction in Lo Manthang is the 800-year-old royal palace inside the walled city.
The village has also developed as a stopover on the journey to the 4,660-metre-high Kora La pass on the Nepal-China border.
Kora La is 21 km from Lo Manthang. Since there is no accommodation or places to eat there, tourists spend the night in Lo Manthang and travel to the pass in the early morning to see the sunrise over the mountains.
Visitors can reach Kora La from Gaindakot in Nawalparasi East along the banks of the Kali Gandaki River.
Along the way, they can observe ancient settlements, historical monuments and spectacular scenery that remained hidden for lack of roads.
Thrill seeker Mukti Tiwari recently travelled from Bardaghat in Nawalparasi West to Kora La via Butwal, Palpa, Parbat, Baglung and Myagdi.
Tiwari found the journey over the corridor fabulous even though it was a bumpy ride over unfinished sections.
“The trip to Muktinath and Kora La felt surreal due to the majestic mountains and the natural scenery,” said Tiwari.
The corridor was built to connect Nepal's northern and southern neighbours. There are plans to extend the road to Nawalparasi East and to Triveni pass, the only border pass in Gandaki province.
According to the proposal, a highway from Triveni in Madhyabindu Rural Municipality will pass through Hupsekot Rural Municipality and link up with the Kali Gandaki corridor at Dedh Gaau in Baudikali Rural Municipality.
“The highway has attracted domestic and foreign tourists and revived the villages in Mustang and other districts through which it passes,” said Tiwari. “This project can contribute greatly to tourism and the economy of the entire country if completed in a timely manner.”
However, the road segment between Beni, Myagdi and Kagbeni, Mustang is in poor shape. Tourists are compelled to travel in great discomfort due to the large potholes, and they find the unbarricaded road quite scary.
Kagbeni is a religious spot for Hindus. Almost 80 percent of the tourists travelling to Muktinath, which is another Hindu temple, and Kora La prefer to have a layover here.
Many Hindus from Nepal and India also travel to Kagbeni to perform shraddha, a service for the dead, so they will get a spot in heaven.
The Kali Gandaki corridor became a boon for Rythm Gurung, owner of the Hotel Green Star in Kagbeni.
“Before the corridor was opened, only travellers visiting Muktinath and Damodar Lake used to visit Kagbeni,” said Gurung. “But now, the number of tourists going to Kora La and Upper Mustang has soared.”
Hotels are packed with guests for 10 months of the year except for the two months of the monsoon season from mid-June to mid-August.
Visitors can reach Muktinath in 1 hour and Lo Manthang in 4 hours by motor from Kagbeni.
Beni in Myagdi district is one of the major trading centres for the people of Kagbeni.
Travellers usually spend the night in Beni, do their shopping and book hotels and jeeps before embarking on a journey to Mustang. Therefore, the people of Beni are excited by the opening of the corridor too.
According to Man Maya Acharya, a local of Beni, local products are selling well due to the increase in the number of travellers. There has been a substantial improvement in the lives of the people.
“Locals who previously went to Pokhara and even abroad for employment have now started doing business and running hotels in the district,” said Acharya. “The Kali Gandaki corridor has become a boon for us.”
Other villages connected by the corridor in the high hills of Palpa and Nawalparasi have got a better market for their local products such as ginger and yam.
Locals have opened homestays and resorts. The rate of outmigration from these rural villages has dropped.
The government's plan to develop walking trails along the banks of the Kali Gandaki River in the early 1980s failed to gain momentum due to the Maoist insurgency and subsequent political instability.
In 2013, the project was handed over to the Nepal Army by forming a road development task force. The army opened an 80-km track—42 km from Ridi, Gulmi to Palung Khola, Baglung and a 38-km-long Maldhunga-Takur-Palung Khola segment.
Now it is being developed by the North-South Trade Road Expansion Project Directorate under the Department of Roads.
At present, the corridor is divided into two segments–245 km from Gaindakot, Nawalparasi East to Maldhunga, Myagdi and 202 km from Maldhunga to Kora La via Kagbeni.
According to Shyam Bahadur Khadka, director of the North-South Trade Road Expansion Project, 117 km of the first segment and 30 km of the second segment have been blacktopped.
“The construction was delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic, however, it has speeded up now,” said Khadka. “We have targeted to finish it by mid-April in 2025.”
The project aims to blacktop another 100 km in the next fiscal year.
Around Rs4 billion was allocated for the project in the current fiscal year, but all the money could not be spent.
The project has encountered problems carrying out construction on the section from Triveni to Dumkibas which falls within Chitwan National Park.
The provincial government has made several requests to the federal government to facilitate construction work inside the national park, but there has been no progress.
Locals too have urged the government to assist the project realising its importance for the development of the villages connected by the corridor.
Karun Sagar Subedi, a local activist in Gaindakot, said that the corridor has helped to improve the lives of the residents by increasing self-employment opportunities and access to markets and health service.
The road can attract even more tourists to religious centres like Kali Gandaki, Saligram, Triveni Dham, Devghat Dham, Ramdighat, Ranighat, Kagbeni, Muktinath, Damodar Lake and other places.
The project was launched on December 3, 2018 and was expected to be completed by December 2, 2021. But they are still working on it.