“All Roads Lead North: Nepal’s Turn to China” by Amish Raj Mulmi

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Never in Nepal’s recent history has talk of China been so heated, or controversial, than in recent years. Since India’s 2015 border blockade, which crippled a Nepal still struggling to rebuild from a devasting earthquake, talk in Kathmandu has ramped up about the benefits of a stronger relationship with the nascent superpower to its north. Such a relationship would reset Nepal’s over-reliance on India and bring in a new era of trade and connectivity. This talk is often full of excited chatter of a Lhasa-Kathmandu railway, concerns about “debt trap diplomacy” or strategic analysis of Nepal’s position landlocked between two great powers, a “yam between two stones”.

Yet little has been said about the impact China’s increased involvement in Nepal has already had on individual Nepalis. This is what Amish Mulmi attempts to remedy with All Roads Lead North. He tackles Nepal-Sino relations from the perspective of those whose lives can and regularly are turned upside down by geopolitical developments such as trade embargos, border blockades or development of border infrastructure.

 

All Roads Lead North: Nepal’s Turn to China, Amish Raj Mulmi (Context, March 2021)
All Roads Lead North: Nepal’s Turn to China, Amish Raj Mulmi (Context, March 2021; Hurst, November 2021)

Mulmi grounds these changing relations in a comprehensive historical context. Armed with a varied supporting background cast of 7th century Chinese travelers, 13th-century architects, 19th-century indologists, poets and dozens of interviews, Mulmi focuses on the experiences of individuals in a highly personable take Sino-Nepali relations.

Given it is the part of China that borders Nepal is the Tibetan Autonomous Region, much of the book is given to describing both the historic trade between Nepal and Tibet, and how that has changed  since the political incorporation of Tibet into the PRC in the early 1950s. Mulmi highlights the key role Nepali traders had in navigating Tibet;  however unknown Tibet may have been for the rest of the world, for Nepal, it was a viable, lucrative trading partner. The story of Nepal-Tibet trade is told through the recollections of traders themselves, such as the recollections of 14-year-old Newar trader, Pragya Ratna Tuladhar, who reminisced on listening to classical Hindi film scores on portable radio in Lhasa after a day’s work and who later fled back to Nepal after the Chinese invasion. Mulmi also talks in detail about the personal struggles of mixed race children born to Nepali-Tibetan relationships and the struggles they faced in either country, both societies being highly attuned to ideas of racial purity.

Mulmi provides enlightening interviews with former Khampas (Tibetan guerillas) now living in retirement in Nepal and reminds us that the Himalayan borderlands, now a burgeoning area of trade, was  just a few decades ago, rocked by armed resistance.  Demonstrating the change the border has gone through in the last few years, Nepali communities living along the border now go over the border to buy a flat screen TV for a third of the price of that in Kathmandu. No longer do laden pack-mules carry salt over the Tibetan Plateau; now traders sit in cafes next to newly constructed highways, doing business over smartphones, drinking Chinese beer and trading electronics, household goods and even fruit, a trade unimaginable a few decades ago given how long travel in the Himalayas used to take. While the goods traded may now be Chinese and no longer originate in Tibet, the Himalayas (after a brief interregnum in the late 20th century) have returned to their place as the highest trading place of the world.

 

Tibet is not the book’s sole focus. Mulmi shows how Chinese influence dates back to 7th century Tang embassies traveling to Nepal. He charts the much later introduction of the first few Maoists texts into Nepal, and the gradual rise of Maoism and the often fractious relationships being Nepal’s Maoists and Beijing.

Mulmi also interviews Nepali entrepreneurs who have come to serve the thousands of Chinese working in Nepal (and profiles Nepali chefs who speak fluent Mandarin and cook authentic Sichuan food without ever having set foot in China) as well as Chinese traders and businessmen who have come to settle in Nepal. Influence in the other direction may have been relatively limited, save for the work of 13th-century architect Araniko who served in the court of Kublai Khan, but, it would nevertheless have been interesting to learn more about Nepal’s impact on China.

Mulmi also provides a concise modern history of the complicated triangle of Nepal, China and India relations and how a focus on one of Nepal’s neighbors always needs to factor in the other. As informative as this big picture history is, it serves to highlight Mulmi’s skill at focusing on individuals.

 

Mulmi clearly demonstrates the complexity of the relationships with China that many of those who live along its northern border have and does a good job at explaining why such people felt drawn to China, more so in some cases than to their own country of  Nepal. He highlights the glacial pace of the central Nepali state in reaching rural areas in Himalayan borderland (at least one district is still not connected by roads to rest of Nepal), to the myriad of connectivity and benefits, such as access to markets and healthcare, offered by China. The impact this has on identity and sense of belonging as a Nepali for those living, as Mulmi puts it outside of the Nepal “mainland” is deftly explained.

While the book does a good job in portraying the complex and multifaceted story of China’s increased influence in Nepal, be it through trade, tourism or bilateral developments, it is the portrayal of how this affects people living along the Nepal-China border that is the book’s primary strength. Mulmi’s examination of these lives is the highlight of the book, as he is deftly shows how people navigate ideas of identity and the marketplaces of the Himalayas.


Maximillian Morch is a researcher & author, formerly based in Kathmandu, focused on regional refugee and migratory issues.