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TIBET/China's backdoor swings open, quietly ending years of Tibetan isolation

China has quietly opened its backdoor to the world's travelers and traders. A new border agreement with Nepal is the latest step in communist China's open-door foreign policy. It ends three decades of isolation for Tibet, a huge plateau (about the size of France, Greece, and Spain put together) surounded by some of the world's highest mountains.

Since last March, the tiny hilltop town of Zhangmu (population 1,500) on the Poiqu River has been the entry point for travelers, trekers, and traders from Nepal. Tucked away in the southwest corner of China's Tibetan region, the town has had to expand rapidly after centuries of obscurity. To manage the influx of visitors across the open border, officials have been busy planning and building hotels and trade centers, and doubling the town's electrical capacity.

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From here it is possible to make the two-day journey over- land to the Tibetan capital of Lhasa through a pass in the Himalayas that reaches more than 13,000 feet above sea level.

The opening of the Sino-Nepalese border follows a similar agreement between China and Pakistan and the recom- mencement of border trade on the Sino-Mongolian border. China is also holding talks with India on the possibility of reopening their common border, closed since the early 1960s.

Both Nepal and China say they reopened the border to attract tourists to their countries. But China was also prompted by Tibet's chronic economic problems, and the relief that trade with the outside world can bring.

Both before and after China annexed Tibet in 1951, the region was virtually sealed off to foreigners. This was especially true during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, when the then newly-completed Sino-Nepalese highway went unused.

This highway eventually washed out during flashfloods in 1981. The March border agreement stipulated the highway should be rebuilt as a ``friendship bridge.'' The agreement also calls for the construction of a new crossing into Nepal.

``In the past, Tibet was a sealed-off area. It was closed to the outside. It wasn't appropriate for foreigners to come,'' says Han Xiaoli, the general manager of the Tibet tourism company. ``Now we know that tourism can play a big economic role.''

Mr. Han says, ``We decided that we had to develop the economy and make people richer. Tourism is an important part of that. Hu Yaobang [the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party] called for major projects in Tibet, which are now under way. Most of these projects are for tourism.''

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Han, whose company was formed to orchestrate the opening of Tibet, projects that by the end of the century, 100,000 tourists will visit annually, bringing $83 million to the area. Tibet now sees fewer than 2,000 visitors a year.

This year an Australian company, Bannicks Tours, will be the first to offer an overland tour from Nepal to Lhasa.

Tamlal Kyab, the Nepalese consul general in Lhasa and the only foreign diplomat in the so-called autonomous region, says Nepal is also hoping its gateway to China will increase its tourism revenue.

``We are trying to open some areas of Tibet for trekking. By doing this we can also increase the [number of] nights people stay in Nepal,'' he says.

Tibet will also have access to the huge variety of goods available in the Nepalese capital, Katmandu, only three hours' drive from the border. Until the agreement, Tibet had to rely on the costly process of importing almost all nonagricultural products and large amounts of food from the neighboring provinces of Sichuan by air or from Qinghai by road -- a trip that takes at least 10 days.

A direct bus route from Lhasa to Kathmandu is to be established under the agreement and discussions are also underway for a direct airlink. Under the agreement, Nepalese traders will be able to sell matches, glass, bicycles, toothpaste and other light manufactured products to Tibet as well as fuel oil, rolled steel and concrete. The Nepalese are interested in buying Tibetan sheep, wool, handicrafts, semi-precious stones, and antiques.

A recent study by Chinese traders predicted that there could be a great market for Tibetan yaks, hardy, frizzy-haired cousins of the American bison. There are as many as 4 million yaks in the region. Tibetans raise them for their butter, meat, and hide, but not for their wool.

According to the study, Tibet could generate $10 million in exports for raw wool, and a further $8 million if the region processed the wool. It also estimates that $10 million could be generated from the export of cashmere goats' hair, which is also not traditonally used by the Tibetans.

Under the agreement, Tibet will export 750 tons of wool to Nepal in the next two years in return for rice, wheat, flour, concrete, and rolled steel.

Official trade between Tibet and Nepal amounted to only about $2.5 million in 1983 and $5.2 million last year. Government officials hope the new agreement will lead to a dramatic increase.

In additon to this official trade, traditonal border trade is also picking up again. Locals are permitted to trade foodstuffs, such as grain, salt, yak butter, and meat. Such trade, which persisted for hundreds of years, all but died out during the Cultural Revolution under the zealous eyes of the Red Guards.

Officials say they have no statistics on the current level of this trade because to encourage it, they want to keep it free of such restrictions as record-keeping.

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