Improving Trans-Himalayan Land Link


For millennia, the Himalayas have served as more than a formidable physical barrier between Nepal and China. The primary obstacle on this route was the terrain itself. Towering mountains, and treacherous passes slopes presented a constant threat. The harsh climate added another layer of complexity. Frigid winters with heavy snowfall rendered many passes impassable for months, severely restricting travel windows. Even during summers, unpredictable weather patterns could turn a seemingly clear path into a perilous course. Beyond the physical dangers, sustenance was a perpetual concern. Sparse vegetation and limited access to water along the routes necessitated meticulous planning and the carrying of ample supplies. The constant threat of avalanches and landslides added another layer of risk, ever-present companions on this unforgiving journey.

Despite these formidable challenges, our ancestors in both sides were able to foster trade and cultural exchange. They were able to establish well-defined trade routes, often following river valleys and utilising high passes with some level of predictability. We had developed trade routes through treacherous mountain passes, weaving Nepal into the vibrant world of commerce. Yak caravans laden with spices, salt, and the coveted silk trudged across high-altitude passes like Larkya La, transforming Nepal into a crucial transit point between China and India.

As early as the 7th century, Kathmandu-based Newar merchants established themselves in Lhasa, becoming cultural ambassadors. They carried not just goods, but also traditions and artistic influences. Shared faith in Buddhism served as a powerful thread, flowing freely across the Himalayas. Monasteries flourished, becoming not just spiritual sanctuaries but also welcome rest stops for weary travelers. Newar communities actively patronised Tibetan Buddhist institutions, leaving an indelible mark on Himalayan art and architecture, evident in the region's stunning monasteries and temples.

Spirit of exchange

In course of long history, challenges were inevitable. The hazardous terrain and harsh climate demanded resilience and resourcefulness from travelers. Political situations also played a part, with periods of varying openness. Yet, the spirit of exchange persisted. Treaties facilitated trade, and cultural influences continued to permeate everyday life. The legacy of these ancient travels lives on. The ethnic composition of Nepal reflects these interactions, with Tibeto-Burman groups forming a significant portion of the population. The vibrant artistic traditions of both nations bear the marks of this shared history. Most importantly, the spirit of cooperation and cultural exchange established in those early journeys continues to inform the relationship between Nepal and China today.

It is as recently as 1965 when the Nepal-China Friendship Highway opened to traffic, that travels and trades were no more restricted to the brief summer window when the passes were relatively free of snow and the risk of avalanches subsided. The road link made possible our trade meaningfully expand into inner parts of China, allowing the trans-Himalayan route to play more valuable role in the Nepali economy. Now Nepal is in a better position to export its products like carpets and handicrafts to eastern parts of China. The railway link of Lhasa and Shigatse to rest of China has also helped Nepal's tourism industry, as many Chinese who visit Tibet also opt to visit Nepal. While the bilateral road links were growing smoothly, the sudden onset of COVID-19 epidemic in early 2020 came as a blow, forcing a temporary closure of the border points. 

Keeping in view of the growing need, Nepal and China Tibet, on 25 May this year declared reopening of all fourteen traditional border trading points. Depending on the local climatic conditions, while most of them are already open, two points – both linking Nepal’s Mugu with China’s Zhongba – will open by the end of August. The future of Tibetan trade with Nepal is likely to be shaped by a confluence of factors. On one hand, China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) aims to develop trade infrastructure, potentially offering new opportunities for Nepal. With the increasing living standards, Nepali organic food and luxurious goods can find their way to the Chinese market. 

There are already early signs of Chinese readiness to import Nepali tea, orange, meat silage and other products. One area bilateral trade can quickly take pace is in raw materials of both Ayurvedic and Tibetan medicines. They rely heavily on medicinal plants and these are produced in the shared ecosystem of the Himalayas. Herbs like Rhodiola rosea (golden root), known as Sipli in Ayurveda and Serjong in Tibetan medicine, are valued for their adaptogenic properties, helping the body adapt to stress. Similarly, Bergenia stracheyi (elephant bells), known as Pashanbhed in Ayurveda and Ganshisha in Tibetan medicine, is used for treating various ailments like diarrhea and dysentery. 

The Himalayan environment also cultivates unique plants with specific medicinal properties. For instance, Berberis aristata (Indian barberry), known as Daruharidra in Ayurveda and Shukpa Zhol in Tibetan medicine, possesses antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. Additionally, Cordyceps sinensis, a parasitic fungus found on high-altitude moth pupae, is revered in both traditions for its purported energy-boosting effects. This shared reliance on Himalayan flora fosters a unique exchange. For example, certain Ayurvedic herbs like Mucuna pruriens (velvet bean) might be imported into Tibet, while certain Tibetan herbs like Saussurea costus (Kuth) might find their way into Ayurvedic formulations.

Chinese investments

Chinese investments in Nepal's infrastructure, including tourism-related projects, have been increasing. For instance, China has pledged significant financial support for various projects, including a feasibility study for the cross-border railway link. These initiatives are expected to attract more tourists, not only from China but also from other regions, as Nepal becomes more accessible through improved infrastructure. Understandably, Nepal and China face common cross-border threats: smuggling and terrorism. In recent years, Nepal has been facing the issue of gold and forex smuggling. Porous borders enable criminal networks, while open societies like Nepal's could be terrorist targets. 

Overcoming political hurdles and respecting sovereignty are key. A secure border benefits both nations economically and allows for a proactive approach to security threats. With technical advances, now it has become easier to check cross-border smuggling, terrorist and other criminal activities. As with the cross-border early warning systems to prevent possible downstream loss from heavy rains, flash floods and glacial lake outburst floods, cross-border intelligence sharing and joint patrols against possible criminal activities help legal and constructive bilateral exchanges, trades and economic collaborations. This also helps settlements along the border boost Himalayan tourism.

(Regmi is a professor at Tribhuvan University and a researcher at Charhar Institute, China)

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