Three sturdy trekkers step out of a van and hoist top-heavy blue, green and orange rucksacks onto their backs. The two young women and a man then set off on foot, headed to one of Kathmandu’s numerous backpackers’ hotels. I ask where they’ve arrived from; “Langtang”, replies one of the women and hurries on. (Langtang is a rugged, remote valley north of the capital popular with hikers). The trio is likely booked at a Chinese lodge in Nepal’s newly designated “Chinatown”. That’s a crowded strip of shops, hotels and cafes in Thamel, the low-end tourist quarter of the Nepalese capital.
Those three young trippers, all Chinese, are part of an international community enjoying the rigors and glamour of Himalayan hiking. Fitted in climbing boots and North Face jackets, they’re hardly distinguishable from thousands of foreigners striding through Nepal’s middle hills to glimpse the spectacular peaks beyond. Although, it’s doubtful if they reflect on the other side of this seemingly impenetrable stretch of the world’s highest mountains. There, after all, lays the Tibetan province of China, their homeland!
These tourists, along with (Chinese) Tibetans, most of them pilgrims, fly into Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan airport with other foreign visitors. Their flights originate in Chinese cities however, among them Chengdu, Kunming, and Zhengzhou. With numbers increasing annually, China is reportedly now Nepal’s second largest source of tourists. (China is Nepal’s second largest trade partner, too.) Yet these sightseers represent a minor, although personal, aspect of an established Chinese presence in Nepal.
Chinese are also visible in Kathmandu’s business quarter. Here, enterprising agents search out products for export to China. It’s not uncommon to see visitors from Shanghai or Shenzhen negotiating with pashmina shawl wholesalers and jewelry outlets, with dealers in handcrafted wood, silver and brassware, and with distributors of exotic teas and cosmetics.
Hotels catering to Chinese trekkers seem to be wholly Chinese- operated. Some ask how that’s possible given Nepal’s law against foreign ownership; although silent local partnerships are a common arrangement for foreign businesses here.
Nepali shopkeepers find it increasingly hard to complete when Chinese operators pay above market rates. However, one hears few criticisms of the Chinese presence, certainly nothing comparable to hostility directed at Indian business interests.
India and Nepal have a long and checkered relationship– mainly positive.