31 Oct - 6 Nov 2014 #730

Walking with the times

Trekking needs to change with the times because of expansion of road network, outmigration of men from rural areas, and demands of trekkers for better facilities.
Kunda Dixit in POKHARA

MY WAY OR THE HIGHWAY: The construction of the Kali Gandaki Highway has displaced mule trains, porters and trekkers.
Experts at a recent seminar here said trekking needed to change with the times because of the expansion of Nepal’s road network, outmigration of men from rural areas, and demands of Chinese, Indian and domestic trekkers for better facilities and shorter treks.

“Market demand from Chinese, Malaysian or Hong Kong tourists is changing,” said Wouter Schalken of the group Samartha, “people don’t have time for 21-day circuit treks anymore.” This shift in the country of origin of visitors and a drop in the average duration of their treks coincides with new motorable roads snaking up valleys where there used to be trekking trails. The number of trekkers to Nepal in 2014 is expected to cross 130,000, a 15 per cent growth over the previous year – and with most of the increase made up of hikers from southeast Asia and mainland China.

The Pokhara seminar focused on access routes for tourism, and speakers discussed ways trekking tourism could benefit from better accessibility.

Nowhere is the incursion of roads into trekking routes as visible as in the Annapurna area. The road from Besisahar is now jeepable up to Manang village, and right up to Muktinath on the other side. This has increased the numbers climbing to Thorung La, and some of them were caught in the blizzard on 14 October.Ghandruk will be connected to Naya Pul next year, and trekkers descending from Ghorepani can now take a jeep to Pokhara from Hile.

“Not all roads are bad, there are plenty of corners of Nepal where trekking is now possible because of better access, and this can enhance community development,” said Schalken whose organisation works to brand sections of the Great Himalayan Trail.

Heritage trails along historical and cultural routes (the salt trade route in Dolpa and Mustang, the sites of the Anglo-Nepal  and Nepal-Tibet wars) could now be developed. A start has already been made with trying to promote the Guerrilla Trail in Dhorpatan, however the trails and lodges along the way need to be upgraded.

“It’s not an either-or, roads and trails can complement each other to develop heritage routes like the Swiss have done in the Alps,” said Chandra Shrestha of the non-government Nepal Transportation and Development Research Centre (NTDRC). “It isn’t just walking, it is educating, learning history in living form”

Ancient trade routes to Tibet can be revived for poverty reduction, sustainable development and heritage conservation by promoting their use for tourism, Shrestha said. Developing trails, lodgings, museums with maps and guides can promote eco-tourism along heritage routes and add value to trekking.

However, some heritage trails have already been ruined by ill-planned road construction. In the Kali Gandaki, the trade route from Kyirong in Tibet to Kathmandu, or the pilgrimage trail to Mt Kailash through Humla, the valleys are so narrow that new roads have just widened previous walking trails.

“In the Tsum Valley, the road alignment goes right through monasteries and sacred sites,” said Sonam Lama of the Nepal Engineering College. “The priority should have been to preserve the pilgrimage route and the emotional attachment of the people.” Narendra Lama of the ACAP agreed that not all roads are harmful, but some them were not planned properly.

“They now want to build roads to Tilicho Lake and Thorung. That is insanity,” he said. The construction mafia made up of local politicians and excavator owners are believed to be responsible for poor roads.

Former head of the National Planning Commission, Jagadish C Pokhrel, said there were plenty of examples of how roads have preserved heritage and helped tourism, citing the case of Lete and Marpha which were bypassed by the Kali Gandaki Highway but benefited from access.

“At first local people were angry that the road did not touch their town, but now they see the benefits,” Pokhrel said. “Better access means more tourists who come to admire the heritage of these trading towns.”

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