Temba and his wife Paten Sherpa, permanent residents of Olangchungola in ward 7 of Phaktanglung Rural Municipality, live in an animal shed near Sinjema lake. They raise yaks in the highlands and also provide food and accommodation for visitors. They have three children who study in Phungling, the district headquarters of Taplejung, and in Kathmandu.
The Sherpa couple has been tending to animals in the isolated pasture, situated around 47,700 metres above sea level, just a few hours walk from the nearest human settlement. Their shed is close to the Tiptala Bhanjyang, near the Nepal-China border in Taplejung. There is Riu settlement of Dinggye County of Tibet, an autonomous region of China, just across the border. Riu, which is 35 km from the Nepal-China border, is Paten’s maternal home. While it takes around five hours on foot to reach the Nepal-China border from Sherpa’s shed, by bus it takes one hour. “But I have not been able to visit my maternal home for the past four years. The way to my maternal village is inaccessible as the Nepal-China border remains closed for a long time,” complained Paten.
The Chinese government closed Tiptala Bhanjyang border point amid a coronavirus threat in January, 2020. Due to the protracted border closure, hundreds of locals in the northern villages of Taplejung have been unable to meet their relatives in Tibet for four years now.
Bhujung and Bhomo Sherpa of Mauwatar in Olangchungola have a similar ordeal like that of Temba and Paten. Bhomo, who was born in Tibet, married Bhujung of Bhotkhola Rural Municipality in Sankhuwasabha district. The couple later migrated to Mauwatar and began rearing yaks. They are happy with the income they earn from rearing animals, which supports their livelihood and three children’s education. However, Bhomo has one complaint—the border has become a barrier preventing her from meeting her parents in Tibet.
Temba and Bhujung would frequently visit Tibetan markets for trade, transporting various goods on yaks. During their visits, they formed connections with Tibetan girls, whom they eventually brought back as life partners. “We never imagined that the border would close some day leaving us unable to visit our relatives,” said Bhujung.
The Chinese authorities installed a telephone repeater tower near the Nepal-China border. But it is not useful for the Nepali side. Nepalis living near the border have to trek down to Olangchungola to make a phone call. Although there is a 2G network of Nepal Telecom in Olangchungola, it does not support online communication platforms like WhatsApp and Viber.
“We have to walk for five to seven hours just to make a phone call to my maternal relatives in Riu. It would take me less time to reach my maternal home than to get to Olangchungola. But the closed border is a barrier in my way,” said Paten, who is in her mid-forties.
Tsering Kipa, who has been living in Olangchungola with her husband Dandu Sherpa, is in her early seventies. She has a strong desire to reunite with her maternal family in Tibet. Her husband Dandu also shares her longing and wants to support her. But their wish to visit their relatives in Tibet will remain unfulfilled unless the Chinese authorities reopen the border.
According to Chheten Sherpa Lama, ward chairman of ward 7 of Phaktalung Rural Municipality, there are at least 18 women in Olangchungola and Yangma settlements who have their maternal homes in Tibet. He said that many Tibetan women married to Nepali men from Ghunsa, Phale, Mikkakhola among other settlements as well.
Chheten claimed Nepali side tried their best to reopen the border, but to no avail. According to him, the chief of Dinggye County telephoned him in September last year and informed that the border would reopen soon. Accordingly, the then chief district officer of Taplejung Goma Devi Chemjong distributed border identity cards to the people living in northern villages bordering Tibet.
“We have discussions with the representatives of the county. They tell us that the border will reopen once they get permission from the centre (Beijing). The government of Nepal should talk to the central government of China,” said Chheten.
Trans-border trade and animal husbandry have been hugely affected by the border closure. People living near the Nepal-China border rely on Tibet for their daily essential commodities, as the area has yet to be connected to the national road network. Tibet also serves as a major market for them to sell a variety of products including medicinal herbs and domesticated animals.