When Chinese social media posted photographs last month of engineers surveying the extension of the Tibet Railway, one of the images showed Mt Everest to the south looming over the plateau from the proposed route of the tracks.
Suddenly, a promise that Mao Zedong had made to King Birendra back in 1973 to build a railway from Lhasa to Kathmandu looked like it was finally going to happen.
Reports suggest the Chinese want to finish the Xiagtse Gyirong (Kerung) extension of the Tibet Railway by 2025 — although its further extension across the Himalaya to Kathmandu is going to be a much more technically and financially challenging prospect.
The railway project was brought up again in 2008, and got a push after the Indian Blockade of 2015 forced the Nepal government to plan alternative trade routes. The trans-Himalayan train was discussed between Prime Minister K P Oli and President Xi Jinping in two meetings in Beijing and Kathmandu last year.
In 2017, Nepal also signed a framework agreement on the Belt Road Initiative (BRI) of which the railway project is a part. A feasibility study for the train link from Kerung via Rasuwa to Kathmandu and onward to Pokhara and Lumbini was completed in 2018. But not much else has happened since – largely because of the COVID-19 crisis and political uncertainty in Kathmandu.
Most observers agree that despite the lackadaisical attitude on the Nepal side, the Chinese are forging ahead with their BRI strategy in general, and the plan to extend the railway line from Xigatse to Gyirong with the survey of the route.
When the first Belt and Road Forum was held in Beijing in May 2017 amidst much fanfare, the much-anticipated conference attracted more than 60 countries which wanted to partner with China on upgrading infrastructure and connectivity.