Article by Ella Maillart, Journal of the Royal Central Asian Society, London, June 1966:
Nepal: The China Road
When, in 1963, I asked the Nepalese: “When will the China road be finished?” they answered: “It will take a long time yet because there is a considerable section to be cut through rock, which will be difficult.” The Nepalese could have avoided this error of judgement which underestimated the ability of the Chinese – the latter acquired great experience during the fifteen years they spent building roads in Tibet. When I put the same question this year (1965), the reply was: “Oh, the new road is getting on very fast! It is almost finished... jeeps use it every day.”
Let us have a glimpse from the sky on this far-off region where many of the deep-cut valleys which constitute Nepal, jostle each other – Nepal, whose paths and tracks are too steep to be used by beasts of burden. Leaving Kathmandu and its old brick houses the jeep travels in the direction of the rising sun, now warming the fruit trees and rich vegetable gardens. We pass quite near the residence of King Mahendra whose father took over the government in 1951, having overthrown the Prime Minister who was the last representative of the Ranas, the usurpers of power for 104 years.
On the way, we meet many coolies walking towards the town, barefoot, their baskets filled with leeks, or their bamboo poles evenly balanced at either end by loads of earthenware pots. Peasant women, wearing black skirts with red borders, on their way to Pasupatinath, the ancient Shivaite sanctuary whose golden-roofed pagoda can be seen in a hollow in the valley; they carry offerings on glinting brass plates and the red poinsettia thrust into their black chignons enhances their golden complexion. This is the age-old way of life...
By contrast it is the ultra-modern way of life that can be seen when we reach the plateau where the airport is situated (which still was the maharajah’s polo ground at the time of my first landing in Nepal, in 1951). Here are King Mahendra’s private planes, parked next to the small plane bearing the federal cross of Swiss Technical Aid. I also notice the emblem of the United Nations on a Pilatus Porter about to transport metal girders to far away Western Nepal where a dam is under construction on the Karnali river. As this involves three hours of mountain flying the pilot carries a thermos flask and some food with him – for one never knows! It must not be forgotten that certain gorges in the Himalayas are virtually gigantic bottlenecks which can turn the wind into a hurricane. Moreover, during the three months of the monsoon season, flying becomes impossible.
At first we head northwards to fly over the Pilgrims’ Lake (Gosain Kund) situated at an altitude of nearly 4500 metres. I once reached this lake on foot after a five-day climb. Flying direct, it takes only twenty minutes – what a contrast! I wonder if farther east I shall be able to identify the Chinese road, which will link Kathmandu to Lhasa and, eventually, India to China through Tibet? As we rise above the paddy fields, evenly terraced and looking like half-opened drawers, high summits appear. To the north-west I recognize the 7700 metres of Ganesh Himal, first climbed by Raymond Lambert; to the east, in a mist which hides Mount Everest, still too far off, I can see the steep, harsh Gaurisankar; to the north-east, striped Hodler-fashion, the massif of Jugal Himal dominates the whole region. One of its peaks was climbed by an Englishwomen’s expedition.
We have left far behind us the smiling region of Kathmandu, that elongated plain stretching for about 25 kilometres, with its 800’000 inhabitants; where medieval, overpopulated towns rise above fields dominated by many-roofed pagodas, and where an occasional stupa looks like the top of an egg laid on the very ground.
Now we are flying above the wide, deep valley of the river Indravati, a landscape of predominating beige tones. The Indravati is the westernmost branch of the river Kosi (formed by seven streams that drain the whole of Eastern Nepal, topped by Mount Everest), whose terrible floods often devastate the Indian plain of Bihar. I can clearly see how the small, horizontal, carefully terraced fields are gashed again and again by vertical ravines. Some widely spaced scars denote the road under construction. It rises to go over the round back of an enormous hill; it descends again to plunge into the long valley of the Sun Kosi. There the ground is so steep that the two banks are just huge landslips where nothing grows. Higher up, minute white dots on a mountainside indicate Gumthang and its thatched huts among cultivated fields.
In order to fully understand what modern roads cut into the heart of Asia will mean, one should have followed a silent track for weeks at a time, according to age-old customs adapted to man’s walking pace, endlessly climbing up and down, passing from cold to heat, and pitching camp every evening near some running water. One feels far away from everything – almost at the end of the world. But as soon as there is a road, everything changes; one feels linked to a network that covers a continent... or two continents. Going from Paris to Peking becomes a possibility, by the simple addition of wheels’ revolutions. Along with a variety of goods, ideas and new ways of life cross the deserts with great rapidity. In the past, the silk caravans used the tracks of Turkestan during many slow centuries as did the Buddhist pilgrims. Today, thanks to the internal-combustion engine it is the wireless set, the aluminium pan and the plastic basket that infiltrate everywhere within months.
At last I see, far below in the blue shadows, the narrow gorge of the Bhote Kosi rising towards the north-east. It is here, no doubt, that the road will be cut into the rock for a distance of about twenty kilometres before it reaches Kodari on the frontier – the place whose name has been given to this international route. A great hairpin bend above the Bhote Kosi is the freshly cut signature of a new enterprise in the Himalayas.
According to the correspondent of the Calcutta Statesman, who has visited the road works, five important bridges are being built there. He confirms that jeeps will use this road, measuring 104 kilometres on Nepalese territory, in 1965; its estimated cost of around four million pounds is part of the aid China is granting to Nepal in accordance with the 1956 agreement. Armed with spades, iron bars, wheelbarrows and, above all, baskets, 12’000 labourers were working on five sections of the road simultaneously – under the orders of six Chinese engineers and nine Nepalese engineers. They began with the easiest sections, so that 60 kilometres were quickly completed. The masonry work and the bridges will come later. (The long Kodari - Lhasa section, on Tibetan territory, was finished in 1964; beyond Nielam and the Pass of Kuti the ground is relatively flat.)
The monsoon rains will put this road in jeopardy every year. It has already happened to Rajpath, the 120-kilometre road that links India to Kathmandu, crossing a pass of 2700 meters. (Approximately the same amount of money was spent on the Rajpath road – a present from India to Nepal in 1956.)
Thanks to our wings we soar to 5000 metres - the height of the eternal snows of the Jugal Himal - so that to the northeast, beyond the indentation made in the mountains by the Kodari valley, I can make out the vastness of the greyish-yellow Tibetan plain. And over there on the fabulous northern horizon white splashes mark two of the peaks of the Trans-Himalayan Range explored by Sven Hedin, long ago. It is like flying over a relief map. But there is no coloured line here to indicate the border; the world is without divisions, peaceful under a luminous sky. We make a half-turn - I have just seen one of the two historic passes of the Himalayas, deep fissures that give gradual access to the Tibetan plateau lying at an average height of 3600 metres.
The Kodari Valley leading to the Pass of Kuti is as well known as that of Kyerong to the northwest of Kathmandu. This may have been the way by which two elephants once reached Tibet, gifts from a king of Nepal to a king of Lhasa. (One of the elephants died on the way.) It was by this track that the Jesuits Grueber and Dorville arrived from China in 1661, on their way back to Rome. And this was also the itinerary of the Capucin fathers who had been expelled from Lhasa and were then driven out of Nepal by King Prithvi Narayan in 1768.
Today a new era has begun for the peasants of that region. Those who work on the road for the equivalent of five shillings a day are assured of a regular wage for one more year. The others rejoice in the thought that they can reach the hospital at Kathmandu in case of need and that they can now buy Chinese goods, reputed to be cheap. But meanwhile the Chinese buy all they can in these valleys, which were barely self-sufficient. Demand having increased, the price of millet, wheat and potatoes has already doubled. As happens all over the world, modernization causes an ascending price spiral – a bitter experience for those who gain no direct advantage from the innovations.
© Ella Maillart, 1966