China may open the 'rooftop of world' to tourists, traders

The outside world may soon get more of a peek through the bamboo curtain at remote, mystery-shrouded Tibet. Chinese officials have indicated they may open up selected areas of the rugged autonomous region to more trade and tourism from neighboring Nepal, perhaps by fall.

Peking is also hinting at establishing air travel between the Nepalese capital of Katmandu and Lhasa, the chief Tibetan town. And Katmandu is abuzz with talk of forging new trade links through the towering Himalayas.

China's opening of the "rooftop of the world" reflects Peking's growing confidence in its liberalization policy toward the restive region.

Nepal traders hope the policy shifts will bring a favorable nod to their long-sought desire to open three more passes to trade between the countries: near Mustang and Yari in western Nepal, and Kimathang in the east. Under a 1974 Sino-Nepalese pact, China agreed to augment an existing trade route by opening two others passes.

Despite currency exchange problems, trade between the two countries has grown steadily over the years, topping $4.8 million in 1978-79. Nepal ships such commodities as rice, flour, and tobacco to Tibet. It imports raw wool, salt, goats, sheep, and yaks' tails.

The prospects of Nepal developing into a "tourist launching pad" for travel across the snow-crested Himalayas already is boosting spirits in Katmandu. The development of an air link between the capital and Lhasa, for instance, would make Nepal the only country allowed to use Tibetan air space for east-west flights.

But Chinese officials caution that air travel won't be opened until Lhasa is ready to receive the tourist influx. A similar proposal for an air link bogged down in 1977 after Japanese airline officials, planning to extend flights to Shanghai and Tokyo, demanded better airport facilities. Lhasa is playing host to an international conference of seismologists in October.

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