Struggling North

Nepal’s changing road to China

Trucks wait in the Timure customs yard, preparing to leave for or arriving from Kerung. ross adkin
01 March, 2017

Jaya Ram was getting restless. For three days, his truck had been idling outside the customs office in Timure, a village in northern Nepal’s Rasuwa district. He had recently taken out a loan to purchase the vehicle, and had made only two of the 60 monthly payments, each of $600, that he owed his bank. The next instalment was due in two weeks, and to pay it, he needed the money he would make trucking his cargo to Kathmandu—almost 1 lakh Nepalese rupees, or around $930. To maximise profits, Jaya Ram had even avoided paying a transport union the 5,000-rupee fee that most drivers like him submit as a type of insurance each trip. “If you have an accident and you lose the truck, they’ll provide half of the costs to pay for it,” he explained. “But that’s my son’s school boarding expenses for a few weeks.”

Jaya Ram, at 34 years old, is one of hundreds of truckers from Rasuwa who regularly make a two-hour, forty-kilometre trip across Nepal’s northern border to the Chinese town of Kerung. There, they collect goods, mainly manufactured products such as flip flops, electronics and garments, and then transport them back to Nepal, sometimes trucking them more than 120 additional kilometres south to Kathmandu. When I met Jaya Ram in September, a landslide had blocked the road these drivers take: a perilous path hugging the Bhote Koshi river, which originates in Tibet. As a result, Jaya Ram, like many others, was unable to transport his cargo to Nepal’s capital. At least 250 trucks were waiting to make the journey either to Kerung or Kathmandu, stretching in a line out of the Timure customs yard and back up the road.

The Rasuwa route through the Himalayas, though it has existed for centuries, has recently taken on a new importance. Another border crossing, Tatopani–Khasa, which lies around 80 kilometres east of the Rasuwa one, in an adjacent district, had for decades been the busiest trade link between Nepal and China. After two massive earthquakes shook Nepal in the spring of 2015, however, that road has been closed. Since then—in a change that some regard as shrewd manoeuvring by the Chinese—the majority of the cross-border traffic has shifted to Rasuwa.

Rasuwa locals can receive a year-long permit to cross the border and work in Kerung simply by proving that they were born in the district. No other place in Nepal receives this preferential treatment from China, and, as a result, many people from Rasuwa are buying trucks or hiring themselves out as drivers to transport goods across the border. Others seeking to benefit from the increased traffic are setting up hotels or restaurants along the road.

I met Jaya Ram because he was sitting near me in one such establishment: Saili Didi’s Tea Shop, in Timure. Inside, men sat around plastic tables and a tarpaulin covered the dirt floor. For the proprietor, Saili Ale, a quiet woman in her forties, the landslide-induced delay was good for business. Ale had moved up from Kalikasthan, a town three hours away in Rasuwa, to work in Timure in early 2015. After serving a morning meal of rice, lentils and chicken, she handed around a copy book for customers to write what they had eaten next to their names. She told me there was no chance of her wanting to return home for the cold winter months. “Trade is good. Now, especially,” she said, grinning.

Jaya Ram, who is built like a heavyweight boxer, also grew up near Kalikasthan. He joined the Nepal Army after school, then worked as a security guard in Iraq, where he learnt to drive, from 2005 through 2010. Later, he worked at a Burger King in Saudi Arabia—“where I got fat,” he said. He then returned to Nepal and was a trekking guide until the earthquakes. Last July, and began transporting goods from Kerung. When I first spoke to him, he had already made the Kerung–Kathmandu trip four times.

For Jaya Ram, as for many in Rasuwa, the bulk of his profits go towards rebuilding his family’s home, which was gravely damaged by the earthquakes. He was reluctant to go into too much detail about the road’s many hazards—rock falls, washouts and engine failure, among others. “It was dangerous there, now it can be dangerous here as well,” he said dryly, when I asked him to compare the perils of his new job to those of working in Iraq.

Many hope that fostering trade between Kerung and Rasuwa will help lessen Nepal’s economic dependence on India. The catastrophic implications of this dependence were made clear in 2015, when, after Nepal’s new constitution sparked unrest in its southern plains, India, alongside aggrieved Nepali political groups, imposed a five-month blockade on the countries’ shared border. Midway through the blockade, the Chinese government donated about 100 tankers of fuel to Nepal, which arrived via the Kerung–Rasuwa crossing. This marked the first time in its modern history that the Nepali government received fuel from a supplier other than the Indian Oil Corporation. Last summer, a fibre-optic connection between Nepal and China was also installed along the route.

On a walk along the road, I saw that the line “Down with Indian interference”—at the time of the blockade a popular slogan in protests across Nepal—had been spray-painted on a bridge. But genuinely weaning the country off Indian imports, of course, will prove difficult. Most of the trucks I saw along that road, including Ram’s, were Indian-made.

At his office in Kathmandu in December, Lok Raj Baral, an academic and former ambassador to India, told me he thought the Rasuwa route, in its current state, “would not lessen Nepal’s dependence on India too much.” Of course, he said, “India cannot say openly that it opposes Nepal deepening trading relationships with China. But this is international politics. What India really thinks will still matter in Kathmandu.”

The official explanation given by China’s authorities for the closure of Tatopani–Khasa is that the crossing is still not safe following the earthquakes—but this seems strange, given the much-lauded abilities of Chinese engineers. In fact, the closing may have less to do with earthquake damage and more to do with the fact that the road was notorious for smuggling. Officials from the Tibetan government in exile confirmed to me that it was traditionally the most popular route by which Tibetans escaped to Nepal. In light of this, it is possible that China simply used the pretence of earthquake damage as justification to close a leaky border. The terrain between Timure and Kerung, meanwhile, is much more exposed and sparsely populated—making it harder to cross undetected.

At a hotel in Syapru Besi, a town located forty minutes’ drive from Timure, I met Nyima Tamang, a Rasuwa local in his thirties, who was looking to strike gold on the road to Kerung. He laughed when I asked how businessmen based in Tatopani feel about being shut out by the new route. “They’re already rich, anyway. It’s our turn to get some of the money now,” he said. Tamang, like Jaya Ram, had been abroad—he worked, without official documentation, for 12 years at a laundromat in South Korea. In early 2016, he used all his savings to make the down payment on a truck.

But he had no plans to drive to Kerung himself. Instead, he said he would pay a local trucker 15,000 rupees to make the journey from Timure to Kerung and back. Then, he would employ a driver from Nuwakot, another district, to make the journey from Timure to Kathmandu. For this stage—which is much longer, and with a road just as shoddy—the driver receives a much lower rate of 5,000 rupees, on top of a 10,000-rupee monthly salary. Unsurprisingly, many drivers from Rasuwa are uninterested in trucking down to Kathmandu, when shorter trips into China prove so much more lucrative.

For those who are not Rasuwa locals, Jaya Ram conceded, such disparities are unfair. “But what else are you going to do? Go to India, where the money is even worse and you get cheated all the time?”

The day after I met Jaya Ram, an army squad arrived at Timure to begin blasting the road clear. While the soldiers laid dynamite charges amidst house-sized boulders, he took me further down the road to show me one of the local sights: four goats living on the far shore of the Bhote Koshi river. Seventeen months earlier, they had been trapped by rockfall from landslides after the earthquake, and they were still living, alone and undisturbed, in a small patch of land on the riverbank. “Like us,” said Jaya Ram, gesturing back up the road towards a crowd of truckers gathered to watch the dynamite show. “Open prison.”