The Chinese train may or may not be coming to Nepal soon. China has only just agreed to a feasibility study of the Keyrung-Kathmandu railway. But is the train the best way to ensure better cross-border connectivity? What about improving the condition of our roads leading to China, at far less cost and time? The locals of Rasuwagadhi on the border with China don’t understand the federal government’s push for a train when improving the state of border roads could immediately work wonders to boost Nepal’s trade with China.
They have a point. The Chinese have been keen on developing Rasuwagadhi into a major trading point between the two countries after the closure of the border point at Tatopani, over security concerns, following the 2015 earthquake. On the Chinese side of the border, high-tech immigration and custom facilities are ready. On the Nepali side, work has barely begun. Without a customs office, Nepali traders face many hassles. Says Choten Sherpa, a Rasuwagadhi resident, “Chinese officials and tourists come here frequently, and they always request us to press our government to speed up the upgrade of the roads.”
But seldom do the visiting Chinese talk of a rail line, he says. The Chinese have let their Nepali counterparts know that building a rail line via Rasuwagadhi will be mighty difficult, and yet Nepal keeps insisting on it. The Chinese see no option but to go along with the Nepali request, perhaps hoping that Nepalis will see sense once the feasibility study is completed and the real costs become clear.
Back in Rasuwagadhi, “the Chinese are asking us to hurry, but the Department of Roads is delaying the process citing budgetary constraints,” says Dawa Dorjee Tamang, Chairman of Ward 2 of the Gosaikunda rural municipality near the border. He says the work could be further delayed as the government needs to follow a public tender process.
The road versus rail debate continues to make news in Kathmandu. Meanwhile, the residents of Rasuwagadhi are confident that despite all the delays, it is only a matter of time before the roads to China are repaired and their lives, and the lives of their compatriots, become progressively easier.
Rasuwagadhi folks want roads now than railways later
The impatient Rasuagadhi locals, though dejected with the slow work of their government, have their fingers
crossed. Most are optimistic that even though it may take some time, better roads to China are an inevitability
“Chinese officials and tourists come here frequently, and they always request us to press our government to speed up the upgrade of the roads between the two countries,” says Choten Sherpa, a resident of Rasuwagadhi, an area in Rasuwa district bordering China. “Seldom do they mention the railway.”
Interestingly, many locals have no clue about the possible routes of the much-hyped cross-border railway and the progress on it so far. They are instead worried about the roads. The Chinese side had officially opened the Gyirong Port on the Rasuwagadhi border in 2014 as an alternative to the Tatopani border point. Locals say there has since been little progress on Nepal’s part in improving road conditions.
“In the name of railways, we may continue to ignore these vital roads for another 20 years,” laments Dawa Dorjee Tamang, Chairman of Ward 2 of the Gosaikunda rural municipality near the border. “The government collects billions in revenue from this border point. Why not spend some of it in maintaining and repairing our roads?”
He also advises the federal government to focus more on roads rather than railways. The pre-feasibility study of the Keyrung-Kathmandu railway line has already identified the big hurdles on its way—hard rocks, snowfalls and greater chances of earthquakes. China has informed Nepal that a railway line may be possible, but only after considerable homework. During Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Nepal visit in October, the two sides agreed to a feasibility study for a cross-border railway. The visit also emphasized road and tunnel connectivity.
“The Chinese side conveyed its readiness in initiating the repair of Syaphrubesi-Rasuwagadhi Highway,” states the joint statement issued after Xi's visit. “Realizing the importance of enhanced level of connectivity between the two countries, the two sides agreed to proactively cooperate on the feasibility study for the construction of tunnels along the road from Jilong/Keyrung to Kathmandu.”
Roads not easy too
Yet even the operation of roads year-round in this area presents formidable challenges because of the difficult terrain and snowfall. There are three main road linkages between Kathmandu and Rasuwadadhi.
The first one, between Kathmandu and Betrawati, are connected by three different roads: a) Kathmandu-Galchi-Betrawati, b) Kathmandu-Kakani-Betrawaiti, and c) Kathmandu-Tokha-Betrawati. Expansion of all three is underway. In parts of the Kathmandu-Galchi-Betrawati highway, a four-lane-road has already been built.
The second section comprises the route between Betrawati and Syabrubesi, an old, 41-km-long road via Dhunche (see the map alongside). A new road, which is 24 kilometers shorter than Betrawati-Dhunche-Sybrubesi, is under construction, connecting Betrawati with Sybrubesi via Mailung.
Although there is regular bus service between Betrawati, Dhunche and Syabrubesi, it is frequently obstructed—sometimes for two to three months—because of snowfall and landslides. The under-construction Mailung-Syabrubesi road is being built over hard rock, and it will take time to make it work. But this section via Mailung offers two benefits: it is shorter and sees less snowfall than the road via Dhunche.
The Betrawati-Dhunche-Syabrubesi road section is now under operation and buses and trucks plying between Kathmandu and Syabrubesi are routed this way. But the road is in a pathetic state and the government has paid scant attention to its maintenance, compelling people to make a risky journey.
The third section between Syabrubesi and Rasuwaghadi is also in a bad shape. The Chinese side has already agreed to financial assistance to upgrade this 16-km stretch. The agreement states that the section will be upgraded to two-lanes and blacktopped. Although the inauguration of the upgrade works took place in September, work is yet to start because of the delay in removing electric pylons and shifting human settlements on the Nepali side.
Betting on the hare
“The Chinese are asking us to hurry, but the Department of Roads is delaying the process citing budgetary constraints,” says ward chair Dawa Dorjee Tamang. He says the work could be further delayed as the government needs to follow a public tender process. “Even though the local sentiment is in favor of improving roads, five years since this border-point officially came into operation, there has not been much progress except for the opening of the Mailung-Syabrubesi track,” adds Tamang.
Not only roads, Nepal is yet to build other infrastructures needed to operate the border point. For instance, the foundation stone of the Integrated Customs Office was laid in 2014, but construction has not moved beyond the initial stage. The absence of such an office has made life difficult for Nepali traders and security officials, who face countless immigration-related hassles at the border. Proper lodging facilities for border forces and other staff deployed there are also lacking. China, on the other hand, has already built high-tech immigration and custom facilities on its side of the border.
The Chinese have been keen on turning Rasuwagadhi into a major trading point between the two countries after the closure of the border point at Tatopani following the 2015 earthquake.
But on Nepal’s part, despite frequent and loud talk about connectivity with the northern neighbor in the past few years, mainly after the Indian blockade of 2015-16, there has been no substantial progress.
In the absence of proper roads and other infrastructures, traders and locals alike face a plethora of problems. But the impatient Rasuagadhi locals, though dejected with the slow work of their own government, have their fingers crossed. Most of them are optimistic that even though it may take some time better roads to China are an inevitability.