Crossing the Nepali border from Tibet was a really interesting experience. The Friendship “Highway” is a windy, usually one-lane gravel road on the edge of a sheer cliff, precariously inching its way down a narrow river valley on the edge of the Himalayas. The road is full of sheep and yaks, is often flooded or crossed by waterfalls, and descends over 2000 meters over the course of 30km. It’s steep. It’s dangerous. And it’s the best way into Nepal.
But despite the overall shittiness of the road, it is rife with commerce. China, the world’s biggest exporter, has plenty of cheap stuff to send to Nepal. And Nepal, an order magnitude poorer than China, has plenty of cheaper stuff to send back to China. It comes as no surprise that the road is full of big trucks snorting and chugging their way up the road between the two countries. (That is, until you see them…I was constantly amazed at how those ballsy drivers managed to navigate their way around hairpin curves that I wouldn’t even attempt on my own feet, let alone with a 3-ton steel box filled with fake North Face jackets.)
The two towns on either side of the border – Zhangmu in China and Kodari in Nepal – are nothing more than a series of shacks and shabby buildings lining the edges of the one road. The whole way down, it’s a constant traffic jam. Since there’s no place to park trucks in the town, everyone parks on the edge of the road. This leaves less than one lane for two directions of constantly-moving traffic. The road is the only open space in town, so it’s also the staging and loading area for all the cargo, as well as where the locals do their work, whether it’s welding pipes together, selling fruit or herding 300 goats.
For being so close to each other, the Chinese and Nepalis cultures are remarkably different. The two cultures developed independently, with the world’s highest mountain range separating them, for just about their entire existence. It really shows. The people dress and look completely different. The Chinese use chopsticks; Nepalese eat with their hands. Chinese trucks are drab and utilitarian; Nepalese trucks are colorful and show off their driver’s personality. Chinese pop music consists of cheesy ballads and over-produced kitsch that makes you laugh ironically; Nepalese music is squeaky and fast and makes you want to dance. Chinese are all about rules and order; Nepalese are all about breaking them.
The difference in the military checkpoints at the borders was pretty staggering. The Chinese side was intimidating and bureaucratic. They scrutinized every bit of our passports, entered them into a computer database, and sent us through armed security with metal detectors.
On the Nepali side, we bought our visas for $40 USD and they just plopped them into our passports without a second look. When we passed the police checkpoint down the road, one of the guards jokingly asked for our passports, checked just the first one of them, and then waved us on with a smile. The rest relaxed in their easy chairs and cracked jokes.
Both the Chinese and the Nepali troops were around 18 years old, but only the Nepali troops were having fun. Sure, a terrorist could have walked right through the checkpoint, but he would be greeted with so many smiles that he’d probably second guess his intentions.
I can tell already that I’m going to like Nepal.