18-24 December 2015 #787

Taking the high road

Manang will not just survive, but prosper from its new road
Seulki Lee in MANANG

After decades of debate about the pros and cons of having the remote trans-Himalayan district of Manang connected by a motorable road, and the impact it would have on trekking in this scenic region, there is now a regular jeep service to the Pokhara-Kathmandu Highway. And it looks like Manang will not just survive, but prosper from the connectivity.

All pics: Seulki Lee

The rough 12-hour ride from Besisahar to Manang follows what used to be one of the world’s most spectacular hiking trails up to Thorung La (5,416m) on the Annapurna Circuit . Although trekker numbers have dropped, most residents of Manang are glad that the road has reduced travel time since it opened in March.

“The road saves time, allows us to take the sick to hospital, it has made things cheaper,” says Binod Gurung of a local conservation group. “Even I don’t need to walk for two days from Chame to my home here anymore.”

Interactive map by Ayesha Shakya

Manang used to be one of the last four districts to be connected to Nepal’s road network, now there are only two left: Dolpo and Humla. Even though many of the new roads are not planned well and are dangerous, they do meet the overwhelming local demand for transportation.

This 97km-long route from Besisahar to Upper Manang can take the whole day in a 4-wheel-drive lurching along at 10 km/h along a narrow ribbon of road carved into sheer gorges above the Marsyangdi River. Nepali passengers on a recent trip were paying up to Rs 2,000 for a one-way ride down to Besisahar, the rate for tourists is Rs 5,000.

Although visitor numbers are down due to the earthquake and blockade, the ones who are here say the road has made it possible to stay longer in Manang, or make side trips to Tilicho or Nar and Phu that they couldn’t otherwise.

“The Annapurna Circuit used to take 17 days, now you can do it in seven,” explains Gurung. But this does mean that trekkers now need to spend a few days in Manang to acclimatise before climbing up to Thorung. The road has also increased the number of Nepali trekkers, who were earlier negligible.

Manang is a place to linger, with stunning views of the northern wall of the Annapurnas, and Manaslu and Himalchuli dominating the eastern horizon. Manang has forests, glaciers, lakes and a high altitude desert, but is also a culturally rich valley with monasteries and a cave where Mila Repa is said to have meditated.

“The motorable road is the most important infrastructure development for the livelihood improvement of local communities,” says Narendra Lama, tourism officer at the Annapurna Conservation Area Project(ACAP). “However care should be taken to minimise the negative impact on the environment.”

But the road gets a lot of negative reviews on the Internet. Many miss the unspoilt ‘back-in-the-day’ Annapurna Circuit, like 60-year-old Ukrainian trekker, Sergei. “It is such a pity that the road will hasten the loss of an ancient indigenous culture and heritage of Nepal,” he says.

ACAP is also concerned, and is trying to promote nine alternative trekking routes on the Annapurna Circuit that bypass the road. The trail from Pairothopla to Jomsom on the Mustang side of the Circuit is almost complete and nearly half the trekkers are already using it, and ACAP is soon completing an alternative hiking trail from Lamjung to Manang.

For the time being, it might just be safer to walk. The most perilous stretch from Tal to Chamje is a narrow ledge chiselled into the side of a cliff, and it takes a brave driver (and passenger) to ride it.

Read also:

Walking with the times, Kunda Dixit

Road from nowhere to nowhere, Sonam Lama

The road to prosperity, Kunda Dixit

Trekking trails half full... at least not half empty