Tuesday, May 8, 2018

A new Xinjiang-Tibet-Nepal Highway?

New developments in Western Tibet
The development of Western Tibet (Ngari Prefecture) is going on in an accelerated manner despite the 2015 Nepal Earthquake, which delayed for at least 3 years, the building of infrastructure in the area, particularly the railway line to Nepal (to Kyirong, spelt Gyirong by the Chinese).
But there is more, China is planning to extend the national Highway G216 from Xinjiang to Kyirong landport with Nepal; linking Xinjiang to South Asia is a new dream for the leadership in Beijing.
It will have immense economic and strategic implications (for China and …for India).
As we shall see, technically, it is not an easy proposition, but the Chinese engineers seem to be determined to work on the scheme.

Guge Kingdom's ruins

Tourism in Ngari
In January, VTIBET.com reported that the Ngari prefecture received over 660,000 visitors in 2017.
The statistics released by the Ngari Tourism Bureau website said that it was a 20% growth compared to the previous year. Even the revenue increased: “The tourism revenue totaled about 750 million yuan, up by 10 percent over the same period last year.”
The website explained: “Hailed as ‘Roof of the World’, Ngari, at an average elevation of 4,500 meters above [sea level], is the birthplace of the four major rivers in Asia. It’s the place where the Himalayas, the Gangdise, the Kunlun Mountains and Karakorum Mountains meet. There are great mountains, beautiful lakes, vast grasslands and spectacular snow mountains in Ngari. Famous tourist landscapes, including Mapam Yumtso [Manasarovar], Kangrinpoche [Kailash], Guge Kingdom Relics, Piyang-Donggar Caves Relics, Zanda Clay Forest are all in Ngari Prefecture.”
Liu Qilin, deputy director of Ngari Tourism Development and Reform Commission asserted: “In 2017, more than 12,000 farmers and herdsmen in Ngari participated in tourism industry, creating income of 153 million yuan, and promoting tourism development of 11 poor villages with tourism development conditions.”
Some 12 new tourism projects were built in Ngari during 2017, with an investment of 12 million yuan (not much!). Further, a 97 million yuan budget was approved by the central government to invest in six key tourism projects, a already announced in the 13th Five-Year Plan.
The Pangong Tso, which shares its shores with India, is one of them: “This beautiful lake sits at an elevation of 4,350 meters. The lake and sky are both amazing shades of blue that make it become one of the must see scenes,” says the website.
Incidentally, during the Doklam episode, the lake witnessed a clash between the Indian and Chinese troops in the vicinity of a place called 'Finger Four'.

A new airport in Lhatse
A few days ago, Radio Free Asia (RFA) announced that the Chinese authorities have seized farmland in Lhatse to build a new airport, “displacing Tibetan villagers and offering far less in compensation than the land is worth.”
RFA argued that the land belonged to Yushang village in the Chusha municipality of Shigatse prefecture’s Lhatse county.
A source told the US radio: “For Tibetans in Chusha, farming has been their main source of livelihood for many years, and is a tradition handed down to them by their ancestors. The loss of so much land to Chinese development projects is having a negative impact on the daily life of the local people.”
The source then added: “Chinese projects have already been under way on vast stretches of land lying near Lhatse county, with new buildings being constructed, for more than a decade.”
Apart from the deprivation of the land, the news item shows that ‘Go West’ movement is unabated on the Tibetan plateau.
In the years to come, Ngari will become the new economic and touristic hub for the plateau and of course …an important strategic center for the defense of China’s borders.
Ngari, with its rich cultural heritage (particularly the ruins of the Guge kingdom which are being restored, the Kailash-Manasarovar area or the Pangong tso), will be THE place to visit.
The opening of a new airport should be seen in this perspective, but also the burgeoning trade with Nepal.

Tibet’s Foreign Trade
According to Tibet Business Daily, the total value of Tibet’s foreign trade exceeds 5.8 billion yuan in 2017: “the domestic economy has been steadily improving, and the demand for international market has generally recovered,” noted the daily.
Lhasa Customs’ data showed that the total import and export value of Tibet’s foreign trade was 5.885 billion yuan in 2017, adding 13.9% from the same period in 2016, among which the export reached 2.950 billion yuan; a decrease of 5.6% and the import totaled 2.935 billion yuan, an increase of 43.6%, with a trade surplus of 15 million yuan.
Nepal, France and Belgium were Tibet's top three trading partners,
While France is the largest source of imports, Nepal is the largest export market.
This partially explains the development of the infrastructure towards the Nepal border.
The total import and export of those three countries reached 72.1% of the total value of the entire Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR).
Further, the import and export performance of private enterprises dominated the scene; it accounted for 71.7% of the total value of the whole year of 2017.
One of the features described by the TAR government explained why France is number one: “The export commodities [to Nepal] were dominated by traditional labor-intensive products, and the main import commodities [from France] were aircrafts and medical products.”
At the same time: “the traditional labor-intensive products in 2017 reached 1.990 billion yuan, down 17.6%, occupying 67.5% of the total export value of Tibet.”
This is mostly the trade with Nepal; we shall see that it was partially due to the difficult road conditions.

Nepal’s Foreign Minister in China
In April, Nepal’s Foreign Minister, Pradeep Gyawali visited Beijing, where he met Vice President of China Wang Qishan and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi; he spoke of “expediting past agreements, developing trans-Himalayan multi-dimensional transport network and building a China-Nepal-India economic corridor.”
Has India been informed?
Probably, not yet!!!
Speaking about Nepal-China relations in Sichuan University in Chengdu, the foreign minister said that academic exchanges, tourism, cultural exchanges and cooperation would help in strengthening proximity between the people of these countries: “As the future belongs to young generation, exchanging visits and sharing of opinions between the youths of these countries have become crucial so that they can frame correct policy to lead the future in the right direction.”
Gyawali also appreciated Chinese assistance in the construction of airports in Pokhara and Lumbini, the tourist cities of Nepal, “to spur the untapped tourism potentiality of nature-gifted Nepal.”
He said that China is Nepal’s genuine friend and a trusted ally: “we should build on the excellent roots of civilizational, geographical and cultural affinities to further connect our countries and societies in order to achieve common prosperity in the trans-Himalayan region.”
This new ‘civiliziational bond’ between China and Nepal partially explains the need of a new airport in Lhatse.

The train to Kyirong
In this context, it is interesting to look at another piece of news which appeared the China Tibet News Network which mentioned the G216 National Highway (see my posting in December 2016 on the subject).
According to the article, the National Highway No. 216 will end in the Kyirong (written Jilong in Chinese) county, near the Nepal border.
Incidentally, the G318 ends up in Zhangmu, the other landport between Nepal and Tibet; it runs from Shanghai to Zhangmu on the China-Nepal border. It is the longest National Highway with 5,476 kilometres, passing through Zhejiang, Anhui, Hubei, Chongqing, Sichuan, and ending in Tibet (from Lhasa to Zhangmu it is called Friendship Highway); a 115 km long Araniko Highway then connects Zhangmu to Kathmandu.
As mentioned earlier, the G216 starts in Northern Xinjiang, from Altay City to Baluntai (in Hejing County). The 857 kilometres highway could be extended to Southern Xinjiang (Keryia) and later Western Tibet.
Needless to speak of the immense technical challenge to cross the Kunlun range between Keryia and Rutok (joining the G219 or Aksai Chin road).
As mentioned on the map above,Keryia in South Xinjiang is located at 1459 m asl, while lake Lighten on the plateau is at 5080 m asl (a 3,500 m climb in some 200 kms!!!).
The last section of the ‘extended’ G216 (towards Kyirong) would have a length of about 94 kilometers; the geological conditions are complex, said the website: “After experiencing the ‘May 12 2015’ earthquake in Nepal, the geological conditions are even more inestimable. The original roads at the Kyirong Port have been seriously damaged, and the subgrade has subsided in some sections.”
The main bridge in this section is said to have collapsed “and the road surface was broken and cracked.”
The town of Kyirong is only about 24 kilometers away from the Nepal border; it is now the main channel for land trade between China and Nepal.
Let us remember that though the casualties in Tibet are not known, 8,857 died in Nepal and 21,952 were injured, while 3.5 million were rendered homeless as the result of the earthquake. Further, the railway line between Shigatse and Kyirong has been delayed by at least 3 years.
The same Chinese website said that after the earthquake, one section of the 216 National Highway slipped and was no longer accessible: “After the disaster, with the efforts of the relevant departments, it was promptly rushed through. However, one Kyirong-Huan [?] section of the 216 National Highway has changed beyond recognition.”
The road from Kyirong Town to the landport bridge (the border with Nepal) which is about 24 kilometers long is a ‘dirt road’: “It takes about two hours to pass through this section. When the rainy season arrives, disasters such as landslides and mudslides are frequent.”
The China Railway’s 20th Bureau Group of the Tibet First Engineering Co, located in Kyirong town is responsible for the post-disaster reconstruction of this section of the National Highway: “In May 2016, after the preliminary bidding and related preparation work, the post-disaster reconstruction project of the 216 National Highway Section was fully started.”
In order not to affect China-Nepal Trading, a ‘fully-closed’ construction was adopted (probably selecting a new route).
During construction, there are dangerous situations, said the website.
Ren Jixing, head of the project department of the company of the 20th Bureau Group openly stated that “this is very difficult.”
A reporter who followed the staff of the 20th Bureau Group when it visited the section between Kyirong Town and the landport wrote: “On the same day, rainy and wet, two-lane asphalt roads were slippery.”
According to Liu Jian, a member of the Standing Committee of the Kyirong County Committee and a member of the Landport’s Working Committee said that after the earthquake, the Zhangmu Port was closed and the Kyirong Port became the only channel for land trade between China and Nepal.
In the first quarter of 2018, the total import and export trade volume was however up to more than 600 million yuan. “Usually, we put more than 80 trucks in Nepal and released more than 70 vehicles. In the peak season, more than 100 trucks can enter and exit. The imported goods are mainly bronze sculptures, decorative copper ornaments, decorative aluminum ornaments, and handicrafts. Products, etc.; exports of goods are clothing, footwear, agricultural and sideline products, textiles, hardware, small appliances, etc”.

Is crossing the Kunlun feasible
The point remains that if the terminal section of G216 towards Kyirong is ‘difficult’, it is nothing compared to the section which will try to cross the Kunlun range, north of Lake Lighten.
One more mad dream of the Emperor?
Or a futuristic vision of the importance of having  second Xinjiang-Tibet highway (after the Aksai Chin road in the early 1950s)?
Could it be a true New Silk Road linking Central Asia (Altai) to South Asia via Nepal?
Difficult to say today ...the engineers have to cross the Kunlun first.

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