On the Road: Commodities, Trade, and Transportation in Northwest Nepal
From Nara La pass, looking north towards Sher village in Tibet (China), September 2017. The road winding down from the left is the road from the Nara La to Hilsa. Along the river is the road to Tibet, and winding up from the bridge on the right is the road to Limi Valley located in the northernmost corner of Humla. The village on the other side of the river is Sher, the nearest Tibetan village on the Nepali border, and below the village is the newly built Chinese customs and immigration building. The Karnali river flows down from Tibet to Nepal through Hilsa.
Hilsa, April 2017. Construction of a military-style bridge over the Karnali river (left corner) was completed in November 2016 and inaugurated by then-Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal on December 20, making it possible for vehicles to cross the Karnali river for the first time. The fencing marks the border, and the border marker post can be seen close to the river. People usually carry commodities on their back across the border to the other side of the river. In March 2016, Prime Minister KP Oli signed ten pacts with China including the construction of a friendship bridge at Hilsa. Yet, by October 2017, there were no signs of work on the proposed bridge, which speaks to the broader and more common instances of unfulfilled promises Karnali residents are used to dealing with.
First steps in Nepal from Hilsa, April 2017 Borders are zones of contrasts. Piles of cans build up in front of the police post on the Nepal side of the border, just beyond the Chinese fence in Hilsa. These commodities are exclusively Chinese made, but no trace of garbage can be seen on the Chinese side of the frontier just a few meters away. The rows of decrepit metal shacks behind the sign post is the Nepal border police post as it stands today, staffed for not more than seven months of the year, which stands in sharp contrast to the fully staffed, large, and impressive Chinese customs and immigration building on the other side of the border open all year round.
Overlooking Chinese territory, Hilsa, October 2017. Trucks full of Chinese goods such as instant noodles, Lhasa beer, white flour, Coca-Cola, rice, and liquor were unloading when we arrived at the border. Chinese and Nepali police officers oversee the whole process, as they ritually share cigarettes as tokens of friendship. A Nepal police constable later explained that they were there to make sure that the import of alcoholic drinks does not exceed the limit in the absence of an official customs office. The border is marked by barbwire fence that runs uphill for a few dozen meters. Chinese CCTV camera, visible on the pole in the left of the frame, surveys the space beyond their border, and notice boards (not pictured) written in Tibetan and Chinese speak of the need to behave well as a matter of national pride.
Helicopter taking off from Hilsa, September 2017. Roughly 13,000 Indian pilgrims visited Mt. Kailash through the Simikot – Hilsa route in 2017, nearly all of whom were air-lifted by helicopters from Simikot to Hilsa.* Locals along the Simikot – Hilsa route complain of not benefiting from this mass influx of pilgrims who come and go by air, while the newly elected local governments discuss ways to distribute the benefit of this economy within Humla. “One of the ways,” local youth Pema Tharchin says, “is to finish the construction of the road so pilgrims can drive instead of flying.” Meanwhile, new guest houses are under construction in Simikot and Hilsa amidst uncertainties of the pilgrim and trekking economy, which has skyrocketed after the shutdown of another border leading to Tibet in Kodari following the 2015 earthquakes in Nepal. * ‘Kailash Manasarovar Yatra likely to see record numbers,’ The Kathmandu Post, 16 May 2018.
Nara La, 4,600 meters, September 2017. Nara La is the highest point along the Hilsa – Simikot route and remains closed for more than five months of the year due to snow. The road cuts through steep slopes on its north face, which experience landslides and avalanches for most of the spring when snow melts. In April, when the road was closed for vehicles, we had to leave at 3am from Yari to cross this section before 9am, when the mountain is still frozen and safe from melting.
Tumkot, September 2017. Tumkot (mid-left) is the most prominent road head market after Hilsa. It used to be a tourist campsite managed by Tumkot village (located above on the flat hill). It sprung up four years ago when the road reached the end of the delta formed by the confluence of the Karnali River and the stream from Yari. In July 2017, construction of the Tumkot bridge was completed and, as a result, the largest road head market at Tumkot has already reduced in size. Although the construction of the road briefly transformed it into a vibrant market, its future is uncertain. Depending on the speed of construction, the next road head market is expected to find a brief life in Yalbang, before shifting to Kermi for a longer duration.
Tumkot, October 2017. Although no workshops and mechanics exist in the region, Humli people say that the Chinese-made Dongfeng trucks were easier to fix and maintain than Indian Tata trucks because the Dongfeng spare parts are easily available in Taklakot (Purang), the nearest market town across the border.
Yangar and Yalbang (Yulwang), September 2017. The construction of roads gives birth to new settlements and can isolate old ones. The cluster of houses on the left middle corner is Yangar. On the right, the rows of long blue houses constitute the Yalbang school, and above it, the square complex in red is a residential monastery. Houses in blue scattered on the right just below the road are new settlements in Yalbang built following the planning of the road. Like Yangar, old Yalbang village is located further down from the new road, and is becoming deserted. Once a prominent village, Yangar now faces an existential threat from the construction of the new road that alienates it as inhabitants of the old settlement are slowly relocating nearer to the road. Yalbang, on the other hand, holds a brighter future as it was recently declared the headquarters of Namkha Rural Municipality following the 2017 elections that is part of an ongoing process of federal restructuring happening throughout Nepal.
Yari, October 2017. Although many of the commodities brought in from China are perishable food items, groups of households in Yari have pooled money to buy heavy machinery like this threshing machine. Weeks of work can be accomplished in a day with this machine, which requires nothing more than fuel and a handful of people feeding it. Threshed hay-grain mixture is then winnowed traditionally using the wind. Apart from the difficult logistics of arranging petrol, we noticed evidence of machines breaking down with different parts abandoned all over the village. This raises questions about the reliability and feasibility of new technologies in the region. Locals, at least for now, seem to enjoy these gifts of the market economy.
Muchu, April 2017. Chortens (Buddhist shrines) like these often have specific religious meanings to locals and travelers alike. However, the construction of the road has undermined the importance of these cultural structures in three crucial ways: rampant destruction of such structures to make way for the road in some cases; the isolation of such structures from the main road in other cases; and, generally through polluting areas held as sacred.
Kermi to Dharapori road section, October 2017. Arguably one of the most dramatic sections of the Hilsa – Simikot route, the Chachara cliff overlooks the Karnali river below to form the base of Chaduk, a village located directly overhead. The streams from the village drop over 200 meters below forming a picturesque waterfall. The cliff is approximately a kilometer in length and forms the biggest hurdle in completing the road and reaching the district headquarters of Simikot. Reportedly, the explosives necessary to sculpt the cliff are not available in Nepal. The Nepal Army (NA) has been called in to undertake the task, but it might be years before this work is completed. Because of the cliff, people in Kermi believe that a major road head market might come up near Kermi. Currently, there are only three small tea shops each in the north and south of Kermi, but none in the village.
Salli Khola, October 2017. Among other signs of underdevelopment, Humla has long been a designated food deficit district—a somewhat suspect label used to categorize districts that do not produce enough grain to meet an average dietary need. Tsewang Lama, a local politician and Humla’s first member of parliament, described how the whole idea of a food crisis can in fact be reduced to a ‘rice crisis’ originating from, and reinforced by, the aid of the very actors engaged in mitigating the so-called food crisis in Karnali. Sample household surveys conducted by the authors of commodities purchased by each household suggest that white flour is the most imported food product from China. With the construction of motorable roads from China and increased dependence on Chinese goods, there could be a ‘white flour crisis’ looming, especially in the event of border restrictions and/or seasonal closure of roads. On this point, Tashi Lama, 52, from Yalbang comments, “earlier it was rice that made us poor, now it is Chinese white flour.”
Simikot, September 2017. Simikot, Nepal’s highest district headquarters located at 2,900m, is at the crossroad of wheels and hoofs like many Himalayan settlements. The busy street that runs through the short market is paved with stones and rubble. Until very recently, only people, livestock, and animal caravans were seen on the streets. But now occasional jeeps and tractors also make their way through the market. Unlike in Hilsa, Yari, Tumkot, and Yalbang where Chinese Dongfeng trucks are used, jeeps and tractors in Simikot are airlifted from within Nepal, and have valid registration plates.
Simikot airport, October 2017. While waiting for flights at Simikot airport in October, someone in the crowd sarcastically shouted, “Ayo, ayoo…Giddha Air ayoo” (Eagle Air is coming), which happens to be a popular pun to crack the dullness of endless waiting. Flying on twin-otters and single engines is the easiest way to get to Simikot from Nepalgunj; the other option being 3-5 days walk from the neighboring district. Airlines tend to abandon places like Humla when they need it most, namely, from October to December when Humlis fly down to Kathmandu, and from March to May when they return. This is because the timing coincides with the tourist season in the Everest region when most airlines turn towards ferrying tourists back and forth to Lukla where the trek to the world’s highest mountain begins. Foreigners pay more than twice the local fare, so between June and August when thousands of Indian pilgrims going to Kailash travel through Simikot, airplanes and helicopters compete for space in Simikot airport. There have been several local protests in the Karnali, including the hold up of a few twin-otters for several days in Simikot. Nothing significant has changed when it comes to air transportation for locals in Karnali.
by Phurwa Dhondup Gurung & Nyima Dorjee Bhotia
Roads have become synonymous with the idea of bikas (development) in the imagination of many Nepali people and the state. This is perhaps most dramatized in the remote district of Humla, situated in the far northwest Karnali province, and one of the last two districts yet to be connected by road to lowland Nepal. There, hopes and fears about the arrival of ‘the road’ are reaching a climax. Indeed, road construction has taken the center stage of the development and political agendas in the region, and its importance is an endless topic of discussion among Humli communities.
The construction of a motorable road in Humla is already a rather long story, though one still in the making. Work to connect Humla’s district headquarters (Simikot) with Nepal’s furthest northwest border with China at a road head market called Hilsa (Yulsa) began as far back as the late 1990s. The United Nations World Food Program (WFP) contracted the grueling work of shoveling rocks and dirt to widen the existing trails, often in exchange for poor-quality food aid rice, a commodity at the center of Humla’s political economy. After the WFP’s program was unable to bring substantial progress on the road, the work was picked up by the Department of Roads under Nepal’s Ministry of Physical Infrastructure and Transport. After decades of deliberation and punctuated activity, a dirt road crossed the Nara La pass in 2014 near the border with China at Hilsa. Over the following three years, six temporary road head markets sprung up and then quickly died out along the part of the road completed between Hilsa and Tumkot (Dhumbu).
Although impressive progress has been made on sections of the Hilsa – Simikot road, many hurdles remain along the route, including opening up the formidable Chachara cliff (pictured in this essay) and bridging the multiple river crossings that ultimately lead to the district headquarters. In contrast to exuberant press reports in Kathmandu suggesting that the completion of the road is imminent, we estimate that it will take another few years before the road reaches Simikot. The even more ambitious Karnali corridor road project, which aims to connect Hilsa with the city of Nepalgunj along Nepal’s southern border with India, remains an even more distant prospect for those who live in Humla.
In this photo essay, we show the construction of a Himalayan border road and the general state of transportation in Humla. We offer a glimpse into the flow and social lives of commodities and trade through the birth of temporary road head and road side markets, and explore how these shifting markets give rise to, if temporarily, new sites of social and economic activity. In so doing, we aim to highlight the ways in which the border population interacts with the changed realities of a market economy vis-à-vis traditional forms of production.
All photos were taken by the authors in April, September, and October 2017. Photos generally follow the road from Hilsa to Simikot. The authors would also like to thank Patricia Owens for providing a map of the route.
The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Arjun Appadurai, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Pp: 64-94.
Phurwa D. Gurung is interested in border infrastructures, natural resource management, and federalism in Nepal. He has previously worked with Action Dolpo, a non-profit that has been working in the field of education and healthcare in Dolpo, and the School for International Training.
Nyima D. Bhotia is a photographer and part-time researcher with interests in visual documentation, migration, borders, and infrastructure development in the Nepal Himalaya.