18 Jun 2019

Dry ports, Tibetan trains, and accumulating stuff at the Nepal-China border

Paper presented at the workshop “Development Zones in Asian Borderlands”, Aarhus University, Denmark

Galen Murton


In recent years, accelerated modes of transport and flexible border regimes have led to the formation of new development zones across the Nepal-China borderlands. Particularly in Himalayan spaces of Nepal’s Mustang, Rasuwa, and Sindupalchok districts, massive dry ports have been designated and constructed to consolidate and transfer the import of Chinese commodities. While a torrent of Chinese goods accumulates in warehouses and cargo lorries in close proximity to the border, Nepali exports to China remain little more than a trickle. Resonating this stark contrast in import-export volumes, popular conversations across Nepal about trade with China articulate a distinct moment of new Sino-Nepal relations. Taking asymmetrical trade patterns at the border as a point of departure, this paper analyzes the construction of massive – and in many cases still missing – dry ports in Nepal as a material representation of the nation’s earnest but also ambivalent absorption of Chinese capital through investment and largesse. Framed both by possibility and hegemony, I argue that the empty warehouses and traffic jams increasingly ubiquitous at the Nepal-China borderlands reflect broader, uneven patterns of infrastructure investment, commodity circulations, and trans-border mobility between Kathmandu and Beijing. While Mustang, Rasuwa, and Sindupalchok have been popular trade routes for centuries, the current moment of China in Nepal and the associated one-way volume of stuff moving north to south raises old-age questions that are again important to ask in the new BRI era: development zones for whom, by whom, and at what costs? By looking closely at these material and mobile things, I invite some new perspectives on social, political, and economic relationships across Asian borderlands today.



Highland Asia Research Group
LMU, Social and Cultural Anthropology, Oettingenstr. 67
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