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The Road to Somewhere


Nepal is spectacular.   Spectacularly beautiful. The Himalayas have eight of the ten tallest mountains in the world. Nepal is also spectacular in other ways. Spectacularly poor.   Spectacularly beset by deforestation and other self-inflicted problems and barely able to feed itself.

To this nation came an American couple, Gary and Barbara Shepherd, in 1969. They came to do Bible translation for a people-group called the Magars who currently number well over a half a million. They are a Mongolian tribe that crossed the Himalayas hundreds of years ago and currently inhabit the foothills of the Himalayas, smack dab in the middle of the country. If you put your finger on the map halfway between east and west and about halfway between north and south, you will be right there. The Shepherds had two children, Adina and Michael who then grew up with a foot in three worlds—the Magar village of Arakhala that they called home, the mainstream Nepali culture of Kathmandu, and the American culture of their parents.

In those days Arakhala was quite remote, a three-day walk from Narayanghat (at that time the end of the road), which sits on the east side of the Narayani River as it spews out of the Himalayas onto the plains. Today you can drive to Arakhala from Narayanghat rather easily in about three hours. First you cross over the river on a very nice bridge, go west on the East-West Highway for about 25 kilometers and make a right turn at the small town of Daldale. There the road narrows to a single lane, but it is still paved. At this junction there is a small collection of stores and shops, and a line-up of a few jeep-taxis. These have seating for three (or more) in the front, three (or more) in the back seat (like an extended-cab pickup) and then two benches in the pick-up bed in back that will comfortably seat eight….and uncomfortably seat ten or more.   And there may be several sitting on top as well, for a total of anywhere from fifteen to more than twenty passengers. All this, plus luggage.

So, up this one lane you go eight kilometers or so to Munde and here the paved road ends. And here our story begins.

The road for the next twenty-seven kilometers is officially called The Barbara Road. It is the only road named for a foreigner in the whole country. Gary calls it Barbara’s Highway but if you saw it I doubt you would call it a “highway”. The road is a tribute to his wife who gave her life loving and serving this forgotten patch of God’s green earth. It is a long, long story but Barbara, one of the most talented people you could hope to meet, died in 1991, shortly after she and Gary completed translating the New Testament into Magar, an effort that took twenty-two years. Sad. Indeed tragic. But this story is not that story except to say that it was a dark, dark cloud in Gary’s life.

So, from this point the road wends its way through a mahogany forest, zig-zagging to gain altitude. And as you ride up this road you notice there is not much traffic…which is not a bad thing–mainly because the road is a mere ten feet wide and there are VERY few places to pass another vehicle. Up and up you go, breaking out of the forest and now cutting across the mountain with a clear view of the plains below. Behind your right shoulder looms Deochuli, an 8,000-foot peak, the highest in the area with a cell tower perched on top. And on you go. And you slowly become faintly aware that the drop-off on the left side is incredible and the further you go the greater it becomes. Gulp. A steep dropoff with no trees. Pretty soon it is clear that it is about a 2,000-foot drop and you hope the driver knows what he is doing. Every look down gives you a jolt of adrenalin.

On you climb, past the first Magar villages scattered throughout these mountains, with patches of forest here and there, indicating what was once a heavily forested area. And now fields, terraced, like giant stair-steps down the mountain. You are climbing up and up, narrow, dusty and then the road pops out onto a ridge and levels out. Now the road is not quite as steep but the drop-off is still considerable. And several hours after leaving the paved road you arrive in Arakhala—the largest Magar village in that area—about 800 people and 125 homes.

If you had walked the old trail, that same trip would have taken you twelve hours of hard walking. And for the people to get to market or to get their produce to market every single Magar had to walk an additional five more days to get down to the bazaar on the Indian border. In 1977 the East-West Highway came in and the time to walk to market dropped to a day. And then in 1999 Gary drove the first vehicle up this road you are now driving–and the market came to Arakahala.

So, why a road? And why did Gary build it? And what has happened as a result? Those were the questions my wife, Judy, and I had as we visited Gary and his Australian wife Kerry. It was early March, 2011 when we made that trip up the mountain in a Mahindra diesel extended cab Jeep.

I had known the Shepherds from the early eighties when they were on furlough in Dallas.   After Barbara died, I watched Gary as he dealt with the grief of such a loss.   He had spent twenty two years translating God’s Word into the Magar language, and now he wanted to spend at least several years seeing if he could do something that would help the people in a physical and practical way. The idea of building a road was a seed that had been planted by several Magar leaders. The seed sprouted. Together, Gary and Barbara wanted to help build that road. Now that Barbara was gone, Gary wanted to build it as a tribute to Barbara—one last community development project

When Gary arrived back in Dallas from Nepal in 1992, he had a big smile on his face. He had met Kerry. Three days after that meeting they were engaged (and were married six months later). While he was in Nepal he had spent time in the village. He had listened. They really wanted a road. They believed he could build it. Someone with zero experience or knowledge. HIM. A linguist and Bible translator. Who had just lost his wife. HIM. Who had no idea how to go about such a thing or how much it would cost. Yep. HIM. Gary Shepherd.   On the surface, and indeed even after considerable reflection, it was an insane notion.

But Gary had a couple things going for him. He could hear God. And evidently, God spoke. And he was a people person—he gets along with everyone and he knows lots of people. And he had pluck (you kind of have to if you are going to be a translator living out in the backside of the middle of nowhere). He was also patient and humble (he credits everyone else in the world but himself for this road). And he was ….willing–willing to try the impossible.

With a $4,000 grant from Samaritan’s Purse and the help of an engineer friend working with UMN (United Mission to Nepal) he got started. He began learning everything he could about building roads. The Swiss, who were building a major road east of there, gave him an exceptional piece of advice since this was a more-or-less giant “do it yourself” project: keep the road as high up along the ridge as you can. If you do that you have less water to deal with, because during the monsoons, there is a LOT of water. Graham Levi, from New Zealand (but working in Nepal), came on one of his two-week holidays and helped align the first footpath that eventually turned into the road.   Later, another missionary engineer, Bruce O’Neill from Canada assisted as well.

And so a footpath was born, eighteen inches wide, the entire distance. A small but significant start. More funding came from Enterprise Development International under Bud Hancock out of Washington D.C.—crucial to overcoming initial inertia and developing some momentum. Further and future funding came from a host of friends, family members and churches that Gary enlisted to help. Over the course of the next five years he raised approximately $250,000. Apart from his time and labor, this is what the road cost to build. This is a mere pittance compared to the cost of constructing most roads of this sort in Nepal. Today, jeep-taxis and tractors ply this route (but not trucks—too narrow), transporting people and products both up and down the hill.

Here is how Gary did it. There was no office. No official Land Rover and driver. No trackhoe, backhoe, or dynamite. And they never sought official permission to build it!   The way it was done was streamlined and very simple. It involved knowing the culture, the yearly cycle of work and harvest, as well as fluency both in Magar and Nepali. There were just a handful of people–three besides Gary–who were instrumental in making it happen.

The first was K. J. S. Baral. Mr. Baral was in fact General Baral, also known as Ambassador Baral, an exceptionally bright Magar from the next village up the way–Chulibhoja, a two-hour walk from Arakhala. But he had never lived there. His father was a Gurkha officer and he grew up in India. He did well in school which eventually led to a masters degree in economics. From there he climbed the ranks in Nepal, becoming first a police officer, then eventually, the Inspector General and running the police force for the entire country. That is how he became General Baral. After that he was the NepaliAmbassador to Burma and five other Southeast Asian countries. Later he worked for the U.N., heading up the peace keeping force in Cambodia. He is educated, erudite, and strongly linked to his ancestral home area

It was, in fact, Mr. Baral who gently began to persuade Gary to build the road. He told him that this was the ONLY way the area was going to develop economically. He gave examples of how this had happened in China. And, being a man of high authority, he had friends in high places and could run interference, if necessary. With Mr. Baral’s imprimatur and encouragement, Gary felt he could proceed.

Two other men were indispensable. The first was Jipan, Gary’s old friend from the village who caught the vision for this road and simply would not let it go. He was well respected and had the welfare and interests of the entire area at heart. As it happened, he also had the practical skills necessary—he knew how to handle people well and how to use a simple type of level that measured the grade of the road (the single piece of “high tech” that was used in the entire project). It was Jipan’s job to supervise the large work-force and determine the amount of dirt, rock-and-dirt, or just rock that was excavated (each was paid differently per cubic meter removed). It is to Jipan’s credit that the villagers worked long and hard, without complaint or controversy.

Then there was Captain Thapa. He was a Gurkha soldier, a quartermaster used to keeping track of supplies. He had, over time, become a Christian. He was rock solid, completely honest….and retired. It was Captain Thapa who kept the books down to the last paisa (one-fiftieth of a cent). And, as it happened, Captain Thapa lived very near the beginning of the road. This was an ideal location to warehouse all the rice that was bought

Rice? Rice? The rice was used in lieu of money. Why? Because if they had been paid with money the villagers might (in fact, likely would) have gambled it or drunk it. This way, they hauled it home and their families had something to eat. Gary made a point to buy the rice just after the rice harvest. There would be a glut on the market, and Gary would be able to buy it at the lowest price possible. Several months later, the value of rice rose, but Gary pegged the wages of the workers to the low price of rice, thus giving them a significant bonus. The Magars are used to being cheated. This was a type of change they could get used to!

In this way, each year the work proceeded. Early in the year, from February to May, the crops would be in and the men had nothing much to do. So, during precisely this time Jipan would hire 750 and sometimes up to 1,500 people to start digging on the road. Workers were required to bring their own tools—shovels, pickaxes, hoes, baskets and so on. Provided for them were crowbars and chisels (for removing rock) and sledge hammers, since these were not local tools.   Their pay was based on the amount of dirt and rock they removed.

Let me ephasize this again: not a single backhoe, trackhoe or even wheelbarrow was used. And not a stick of dynamite.

Finally, in 1999 Gary was able to drive his little red Suzuki jeep up the entire length of the road. They were done!

Okay. Not quite. They found out pretty quickly that every year during the monsoons landslides would occur, blocking the road. Or a tractor hauling a particularly heavy load would end up tearing up the road and creating huge ruts. Something had to be done. Of course, they looked to Gary. Gary pretty much told them, “Look, I helped get you this far. Now it is your turn. You figure it out.” And they did. They set up an association of all the jeeps and tractors using the road and they began to charge a toll. The toll is collected, then kept until it is needed to fix the road. Then it is used for that express purpose. The man handling this fund , as it happens, is a fine Christian, Pitam, a jeep taxi owner and a childhood friend of Gary’s son, Michael.

So, what happened as a result? Sure it became rather easy to ride in and out. And it became very easy to get people’s main crop, ginger, to market—effectively doubling what they used to make. Anything else? What good did the road do?

Well, as it turns out there were a LOT of things that occurred as a direct result of that road.

Before the road, all the roofs in every village were thatch—a potentially dangerous situation when all the houses in the village are jammed together and all the cooking is done over an open flame. Now virtually every house has a tin roof, so, no fires. But there was an unforeseen further advantage to the tin roofs. Rats used to live in the thatch, and they have to eat something. What did they eat? The stored crops of the Magars—the rice, the barley, the wheat, the lentils. A good guess is that twenty to thirty percent of every crop was eaten by rodents. Further, thatch has to be repaired or replaced every three or four years. THAT is a lot of work. In fact, it takes four to six weeks for a family to go out, cut the grass, and re-thatch a house. A huge amount of work is saved by the tin roofs. Furthermore, the reduction of rats reduced disease being transmitted to man

And then Pitam, (the jeep taxi owner who held the monies for road repair) decided to build an outhouse. Normally people just go out early every morning to the fields to “do their business.” When he was done with his little outhouse, complete with a ceramic squatty-potty, he had an open house to show everyone what he had built. Then he locked the door and told everyone that if they wanted to use one they would have to build their own. And they did. Virtually every house in the village now has its own outhouse, each with a door that is kept locked! Less flies. Fewer medical problems.   The cement and tin for such an outhouse could only have been brought up by a tractor on that road.

May I insert here that Judy and I stayed in Pitam and Kumari’s house while we were there in the village. They gave us their best room. The bed was a bit narrow, just wider than a twin. And it had a fine cotton mattress on it, under which was a woven rice mat. And here we slept for several nights. Everything in their bedroom was neat and clean and colorful. But I could touch both walls with my outstretched hands and almost had to stoop so as not to hit the ceiling (and I am only 5’ 9”). It was a generous gesture, but I must say that after sleeping a couple nights on a half inch thick cotton mattress, I was more than ready for my own bed.

What else happened because of the road? The price of food coming into the village on the road dropped precipitously. A kilo of rice could now be brought to the village for one rupee in transportation cost, which meant that the same money the people used to spend on a kilo of rice would buy fifty percent more rice than it did before the road was built. And? This meant they had more to eat. No more starving. Further, it meant that fewer children had to work in the fields to help feed the family, which meant that the schools began to overflow with children. More educated kids augurs well for the next generation.

One of the interesting (and unexpected) by-products of the road was that it diminished the need for slash-and-burn farming. This method involves cutting vegetation (including trees), letting it dry and then burning it to clear space for a crop. It is wasteful and highly destructive and leads to enormous amounts of erosion.   So, now, erosion is less of a problem, vegetation is allowed to grow, and the forests are returning. Why? Because it is easier and cheaper to buy rice and corn than to go through the labor and effort of slash-and-burn.  

There were other benefits as well. Medical emergencies could be transported to a hospital (which meant fewer women dying during delivery). It meant heavy machinery could be brought up the hill. Once the road was complete, Gary contacted a British relief-and-development organization about a small hydro-electric project. They assessed the project and put one in and five villages, including Arakahala now have electricity at night. Amazing. When I walked into Gary’s house in March I noted the light switches and bulbs and assumed they were solar. Gary said they used to have kerosene lamps but now they have electricity. I thought he was joking. He wasn’t.

Barbara’s Highway has saved many from the backbreaking (and life-shortening) effort of carrying food and supplies into the village and carrying their produce out to market. It has given the people more leisure time. It has improved education—more kids going to school. It has improved health. All of this is a cascade of benefits, most of which was not foreseen.

If I were to name the single greatest benefit, it would be one I have not mentioned yet. It would be this: they people were given a fishing rod. Gary and Kerry believe in helping, but they like it most when people help themselves. And that is what they did and that is what the Magars learned. They learned that building something like a motor road is DOABLE with simple tools that they themselves possess. They did not need the government (they would still be waiting). They did not need huge sums of money. All they needed was some concerted community effort.

One year Gary came back and noticed there was an addition made to the road. Six kilometers of addition. He asked who did this? “We did it,” was the reply. THEY did it. No dynamite. No trackhoe, backhoe or wheelbarrow. They did it just like they had seen it done. THEY did it. And now, all along this twenty seven kilometers of road there are spurs going to various villages. Here a spur. There a spur. Villagers realized they could tag onto Barbara’s Highway and get the same benefit as everyone else with just a little work and effort. And today, amazingly, there are 300 kilometers of spurs glommed onto Barbara’s Highway. THEY did it.

I grew up in India. I worked in Africa, both in Sudan and Kenya, and have visited thirty two countries in Africa. I have seen many projects designed to help the poorest of the poorest of the poor. Most do some good. Some do better than others. But I can not think of anything I have ever seen where people grabbed the fishing rod and ran with it like this road project in Nepal.

Barbara’s Highway. One of a kind. Gary and Kerry. Fishers of men and providers of fishing poles.

A road. A simple road. A cascade of blessing.

The end? Hardly.


Steve Van Rooy

Dallas, TX,

May, 2011


Post Script: In all of this I have hardly mentioned the reason why the Shepherds were there in the first place—Bible translation. But Bible translation is not done just for the intellectual exercise, though there is indeed plenty of that. It is done so people can read God’s Word and decide for themselves who Jesus was. This part of the story can be read in Gary’s book, “Angel Tracks in the Himalayas”, which I heartily recommend as a good read. When Gary finished the translation in 1991 there were a mere five people who had decided to take a deep gulp of Living Water. Five.   When he finished the road there were not many more, but there were a few more. And in the twelve years since? An interesting thing has happened–and you will have to buy Gary’s next book (God’s Hand in the Himalayas) to get the full story. The seed that was planted has…sprouted. There are believers in about every village Gary knows of. Churches are being built. There are perhaps a thousand believers now and their numbers are growing.