Why are the roads in the Himalayas so bad

Infrastructure in the Himalayas : How road construction changed Nepal forever

You can hear them long before the excavators can be seen in the lush green landscape. It rattles, it cracks, then a thud. The earth is shaking. Rocks are broken up, rocks are excavated and poured down the slope. Crash, impact, shock. Again and again, from sunrise to nightfall. It is not a normal construction site, but road construction almost 3000 meters above sea level. Here in Solukhumbo, the region below Mount Everest, the last corners of the Himalayas are opened up - and Nepal is changed forever.

A man of around forty is standing in front of his house just a few meters from the excavator. Directly under his property, next to a paddock on which two dozen mules stand, the rock is drilled open and removed. The man speaks very little English, but that the construction site moves him can already be seen in his facial expressions and gestures. His parents lived in the house in the branching village of Bupsa on and off the old path, he says.

Soon the donkeys will be superfluous

For centuries, the only trade and supply route from the valley to the Sherpa villages led further up through Bupsa. Soon the trodden stone steps up to the highest mountains in the world will probably only be used by a few trekking tourists. The man looks skeptically at the excavator, then points to his donkey. So far they have been hauling kerosene, food, beverages and hygiene articles. Soon they will be superfluous.

As below, because gravel roads have long since crisscrossed the slopes like veins. Where jeeps and trucks stir up dust, donkey caravans and human porters are no longer needed. The sweet smell of donkey mess, the strict calls of the donkey drivers - they disappear with every meter of road construction.

China dredges in 20 valleys

Excavators are not only arriving in Nepal in Solukhumbo. The remote Himalayan villages are being developed bit by bit, first with roads, then with radio masts. The mountainous country is growing together. The infrastructure projects are often financed from China. The government in Beijing sees Nepal as a strategic transit country for its “New Silk Road” project. The fastest way to the important markets of India leads directly over the roof of the world. The ambitious infrastructure projects that Beijing wants to realize include a tunnel and a railway line between Kathmandu and Tibet, which the People's Republic annexed in 1950 and claims for itself. Numerous roads are also being built. North-south connections are particularly interesting for China. Currently, around 20 valleys are being dredged.

"With their massive investments, the Chinese are primarily pursuing a self-interest and definitely not pursuing the strategy of economic improvement in neighboring Nepal," says Peter Hinze. The journalist has been traveling in Nepal for more than 30 years and has written numerous books and reports on the country. He has already seen the effects of the Chinese construction activities in many places. “It's still just a narrow runway, but it won't be long before the first cars will roll there.” Hinze fears for Nepal's cultural heritage. On the ground, however, criticism of China's expansion plans is limited. Because even without good will, the new roads bring progress for many locals. "Medical care benefits as well as trade and school and training opportunities," says Hinze.

It is a two day walk to the next mark

The change offers opportunities, agrees Passang Gelje. “Hopefully the people here can sell their goods to Kathmandu or the rest of Nepal through the street.” The 35-year-old Sherpa has lived in Solukhumbo all his life and comes from a small village below Bubsa. “It's not easy to live here,” says Gelje. Most of the inhabitants of the villages work in agriculture. Many only have their simple wooden huts, some cattle and a few meters of arable land. "So far, the farmers have only been able to sell their goods in the markets in Lukla or Namche Bazar." A day and a half to two days' walk away. Gelje hopes that the street will open up new sales markets. After all, vegetables and fruits of all kinds grow on the terraced slopes: millet, rice, corn, but also tangerines, apples, potatoes, cabbage and even kiwis.

His father still lives in the village, but many of the other houses are empty, he says, pointing to huts on the opposite slope. "Anyone who does not work in tourism has major competitive disadvantages," says Gelje. He does not believe that the road will bring more tourists to the region, despite the government's announcement that it will double visits to the country to two million in 2020. “The government talks a lot, but does little,” says Gelje. He hasn't waited for new roads. Ten years ago he left his hometown and now runs a small snack bar in the tourist town of Namche Bazar.

More than 30,000 hikers from all over the world pass through here every year. If you want to go to the base camp of Mount Everest, you have to go through the bowl-shaped Namche Bazar. The tourists' money has led to some prosperity for many Sherpa families. But the trekking season from September to December is short and many foreigners are already flying over the lower villages of Solukhumbo and landing on the spectacular runway in the higher part of Lukla. The way up is shortened from three weeks to ten days.

And so, below, those who benefit from tourism are afraid of the road. “Who should spend the night here when the jeeps and trucks are driving by right in front of the house?” Asks Pramina Khaling. It's a rainy December day when she stands at the kitchen window of Gorkhali Lodge in Jubing. Yellow excavators appeared in front of their property the day before, excavated stone slabs, tore trees and bushes out of the ground and leveled everything. Where there was just a centuries-old path, there is now a loamy, muddy slope. For the 25-year-old Khaling and her family, the beginning of an uncertain future. Her parents made it a little prosperous with the small accommodation. When the earthquake destroyed the inn, they immediately rebuilt it. Without government help, they proudly emphasize. Kahling helps her parents out during the main season, and she spends most of the year in Kathmandu.

Nepal's cities are growing rapidly

Like Passang Gelje and Pramina Khaling, many young people are leaving their homes and flocking to the cities. In the capital Kathmandu, the population has tripled in the past 30 years. In Pokhara, the second largest city in Nepal, it grew fourfold. Can new roads counteract rural exodus?

“The road brings its good and its bad.” Transportation will become easier, and medical care will be easier, too, believes Pramina Khaling. Your mother is limping. "Tourists won't stop here in the village," she suspects. Your family has already thought about how to remodel the business. Maybe a restaurant or a gas station. She looks thoughtfully at the excavator through the kitchen window. A couple of donkeys with wet fur and kerosene bottles on their backs trot through the mud. "When times change, we have to change too."

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