Baglung, Nepal —A Nepali geographer once observed that if it were possible to flatten all the mountains in his homeland, the country would be larger than the People’s Republic of China.
The farmers, traders, and workers who live in those hills hardly need a scientist’s insight to know that they live in impossibly rugged territory. They experience it every day.
“It used to take me 8 hours to walk down to market from the village, more to come back,” said Krishna Sapkota, who lives in the remote village of Golkot, about 90 kilometers from Baglung. He spoke from the front seat of a crowded jeep, waiting to get around a traffic jam on the Baglung–Bartibang road. This route, through Nepal’s Middle Hills, west of Kathmandu, was built and is being upgraded with ADB assistance.
Asked if he minds waiting while jams are cleared and construction continues on the road, Krishna gestured at the load of goods and food bundled onto the roof of the jeep.
“You mean walk and carry that?” he asked, shaking his head in disbelief at such a question.
A clamor of mostly female voices joined the conversation as a mechanical digger pounds its shovel into a stubborn boulder embedded in the road surface. No one minded the wait, it seemed, or the harsh clang of steel on stone.
Baglung is a major town, a district headquarters in Nepal’s midwestern hills. The peaks of the Himalayas tower high over brick houses and terraces of wheat, potato, and rice. It is also near the end of the paved highway that starts in Kathmandu, 300 kilometers to the east.
Nepal is a newcomer to the notion of road transport. The first road into the Kathmandu valley from outside the country was not built until the 1950s. Cambodia, slightly smaller thanNepal, has 3 times more all-weather roads; and Greece, a similar size, has 10 times more.
Obviously, the country’s rough terrain and monsoon-drenched climate are major challenges to road builders. Once a new route has been cut through hills and roaring rivers, maintenance can be as expensive and timeconsuming as construction. Development partners and governments factor this in, and take a different view of the role of roads in Nepal’s development.
“This [road-building project] is actually about easing rural poverty,” said Narendra Chand, ADB project officer. “Roads are just the means to do that.”
The trip along the Baglung–Bartibang road in the tire tracks of Krishna Sapkota’s jeep was jolting and uncomfortable, but the dust and potholes ceased to matter as villagers explained how easy access to the country’s highway network and markets has changed their lives.
Fifty-year-old Badri Bahadur KC sells soap, vegetables, soft drinks, and Chinese-made batteries to a hillside community of more than 500 people.
“Never mind this little village,” he said, pointing up a steep hillside to where clouds were whisking over the top of a ridge. “They come down from up there, about 800 meters above, to buy my stock.”
Prices for goods easily brought in by truck plummeted, Badri said, and everyone around reaps the rewards of easy access. The only problem is that the cars churn up dust. “I do have to wipe the dust off everything now,” Badri said, grinning. “That was a less of a problem when porters were carrying things up the trails in baskets.”
The road has made Badri so successful that he has even opened smaller shops in outlying communities, supplying them from his village deliveries. He said members of his family are working in the new businesses, and do not have to leave the hills to find jobs in Kathmandu or abroad.
Small shops are not the only business to see big gains from the new road. Gambheera Khandel owns a farm on a couple of hectares of steep land about 20 kilometers beyond Badri’s network of stores. Her rough stone house is surrounded by a rich array of cash crops that she sells in the market in Baglung.
Green coffee beans dangle from vines, sugar cane rustles in the breeze, and the air is fragrant with the smell of oranges and patches of herbs. Mostly the road helps my dairy business,” the 67-year-old grandmother said, patting one of her three water buffalo on its bony rump.
“We had to carry the milk down to town in shoulder baskets and if anyone fell, well, you can see the problem. These days, she takes her buffalo milk in metal containers to a small dairy just across the road and trucks bear it to market, along with the coffee beans, citrus fruit, root ginger, and other things she has grown for sale.
“We’re doing a lot better than we used to,” Gambheera said, crushing peppercorns in a stone pestle for the family dinner. She explained that plants and gardens have always been a passion, and the road gives her a way to get new seeds and new ideas, while marketing the result.
The government has ambitious plans to turn this road, and others along the same central belt of the country, into a highway linking the country’s eastern and western borders. Narendra Gawle, the government engineer in charge of maintenance and new construction, said such a road will transform his country. He used computer jargon to make his point.
“It’s all about connectivity,” he said. “We’re linking up Nepalis with Nepalis, giving them networks, and standing back while they make us all prosperous.”
The road does more than increase the wealth of the people who use it; it also protects their health and, at times, may even save their lives.
At the highest point on this section of the Baglung–Bartibang road—2,300 meters above sea level—the icy knives of two Himalayan peaks dominate the horizon. It is cool and the winds carry a whiff of the snow and ice on the mountains.
Kamalapadi Khandel, of no relation to Gambheera, is the secretary of the village development council up here. “When my nephew was born, about 30 years ago,” said the septuagenarian, “there were complications. The baby couldn’t come out. So I helped carry my brother’s wife all the way to Baglung hospital; three of us took turns.”
“It took a whole day and she was crying and in pain all of the way,” Kamalapadi said. “Luckily, the hospital did a good job, but now we have an ambulance. I’d hate to do that again.”