Pokhara’s China connectionThe Chinese always had a soft spot for Pokhara that Pokhara has not taken adequate advantage of
In 1960, during his second official visit to Nepal, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai sat on a boat on Pokhara’s Phewa Lake with Prime Minister B P Koirala for one and a half hours and was spellbound by the reflection of Mt Machapuchre on the water.
King Mahendra’s chief adviser Gunja Man Singh and Chinese ambassador Yuan Zhongxian had signed the agreement to establish diplomatic relations between Nepal and China on 1 August 1955, only a year after Zhou became Premier.
In the nearly 70 years since, China has financed and supported infrastructure projects across Nepal — but especially those with links to Pokhara, like the Prithvi Highway that first linked Kathmandu to Pokhara by road.
Anand Raj Mulmi, former president of the Federation of Nepal Chamber of Commerce and Industries (FNCCI), notes that China initially wanted Pokhara to be its focal point in Nepal.
“The Prithvi Highway was built to project China’s soft power, and advance its geopolitical interest to link Nepal to China through Korola in Mustang,” Multi explains.
Indeed, China worked on road, irrigation, highway and hydropower projects in Pokhara. After the Prithvi Highway, it financed the construction of the Pokhara-Baglung road in 1988. The strategy was connectivity, long before the Belt and Road Initiative was even thought of.
By 1980, China was also helping Pokhara’s irrigation sector, providing financial and technical assistance for a hydropower and irrigation project on the Seti River. All this
Chinese activity made India suspicious, and Mulmi says things did not turn out like Beijing wanted.
Even so, China’s love affair with Pokhara did not wane. The popular Chinese tv serial Deng Feng Lai (Up in the Wind) was filmed on location in Pokhara in which the two protagonists took a paragliding flight. Since then, many young Chinese have started booking holidays in Pokhara.
This dovetailed well with Rs 22 billion Chinese ExIm Bank loan for Pokhara International Airport which was inaugurated on 1 January 2023. The international flight to land there was a Sichuan Airlines Airbus 319 from Chengdu last month.
The chartered flight on 23 June brought 130 Chinese passengers to Pokhara for the first Nepal-China Dragon Boat Race Festival organised by the Nepal Tourism Board, Pokhara Metropolitan City.
“Events like the Dragon Boat Race Festival will bolster Pokhara’s economy, and enhance the socio-cultural relations between our two countries and its people,” said Chinese Ambassador Chen Song during the opening ceremony of the event.
Although the pandemic killed tourism prospects in Pokhara, Chinese tourists are flocking back. Lakeside restaurants in Pokhara once more have Mandarin menus and the city is still hoping that Chinese airlines will start direct flights to the new airport.
Pom Narayan Shrestha, chairman of the Pokhara Tourism Council, says that Pokhara’s local as well as Gandaki Province government should push promotional activities.
Pokhara first established sister-city relations with the city of Linzhi in the Tibet Autonomous Region in 2008.
Since then, similar sister-city links have been established between Nepali cities and Kunming, Guangzhou, Yibin, Chiuchow, Haikou, Nanning and Yanji to promote bilateral cooperation in various sectors, including business.
However, entrepreneurs in the region say that there have been no benefits to their business from such agreements.
Experts also note that Pokhara has not been able to take advantage of the agreements, and the bilateral relationship has been limited to mayors and deputy mayors of Pokhara and the Chinese cities attending events in each other’s countries.
“Pokhara’s sister-city agreements with various Chinese cities will only be relevant if Pokhara is promoted as a tourist destination there, and entrepreneurs from Pokhara can participate in and benefit from trade fairs in those cities,” says Mulmi. “Similarly, people from China also need to be invited to events in Pokhara, that is how all of the cities involved will benefit economically. Events like the Dragon Boat festival, and other Chinese cultural affairs represent a new beginning.”
Kiran Prasad Koirala of Pokhara Metropolitan City, admits that the town has not been very aggressive in promoting sister-city relationships, but adds that Chinese cities have supported Pokhara, having provided financial, ambulance, and other aid during the pandemic.
Bishwa Shankar Palikhe, president of the Nepal-China Friendship Association, has been actively involved in expanding exchanges between Pokhara and its sister cities in Kunming, Guangzhou and Linzhi. However, he admits a lot more needs to be done.
Palikhe adds: “We must study the development and experiences of our sister cities and incorporate them into Pokhara’s development plans. Additionally, the entire world at present is trying to draw tourists from China, we must take advantage of our proximity.”