31 Oct - 6 Nov 2014 #730

Value-added hiking

Nepal’s trekking is at a cross-road, in need of a quality upgrade
Donatella Lorch
THAMEL ON THE RIDGE: Trekkers throng the curio shops at Deurali on the Ghorepani-Ghandruk trail last week.
In 1983, in my early 20s, I trekked in the Annapurnas. It was a land of very basic food and lodging, and relatively few tourists except fellow hippy wannabes.

This month, I returned to the Annapurna Conservation Area for a week’s trek with my nine-year-old son and got out before the blizzards hit. The mountains are still an awe-inspiring accompanying panorama, but trekking in Nepal had changed unrecognisably.

ACAP was established in 1992 with a total area of 7,629 sq km. Last year, 90,000 trekking permits were issued, bringing ACAP about Rs 250 million from visitor fees and other incomes.

This season, Ghandruk, Ghorepani and Annapurna Base Camp routes are jammed with hiker hordes, a large number of them Chinese groups, many Israelis and a collection of Americans and Europeans some with guides, others soloing. Even young Nepali city slickers were joining in.

The tea-houses and lodges are packed. Hikers have to share the stone steps with Nepal tourism’s unsung heroes: the unending series of mule convoys, loaded down with everything from water and food to cooking propane, kerosene, mattresses, stones and bags of cement to feed the mountain region’s lodge construction boom.

All these earnings are good for the local communities, but Nepal’s trekking is also visibly at a cross-road, in need of a quality upgrade. ACAP’s successful eco-tourism model may be famous worldwide for its leadership in standardisation methods from food menus to bed styles, and its successful involvement of local communities in protecting natural resources, but these rules were instituted decades ago. Nepal trekking needs a face-lift.

ACAP faces socio-economic, ecological and political challenges. New roads have jeeps and trucks competing with trekkers and brings with it increased risk of landslides. There is little variety as the vast majority of trekkers stick to a small number of routes that are at times crowded walking highways, their identical corrugated roof lodges interspersed with banquettes of knick knacks, jewellery, woollen shawls and hats.

Getting off the main route can be challenging because maps are unreliable and other trails, mostly buffalo tracks, are not marked. But the lodges along these paths just don’t exist on trekking maps sold in Pokhara and Kathmandu. Many trekking companies find it easier to just keep their clients on the main trails.

It is a challenge to experience Nepali culture on these main routes. Take Tadapani, a heavily frequented collection of three guesthouses with a new one under construction from where you can head downhill to join the Annapurna Base Camp route. We stayed crammed in a two-storey guesthouse with 50 other trekkers and their guides and porters. There were only two toilets.

The view was surreally beautiful and ever-changing, but the food was served in a Chaplinesque Nepali version of Modern Times in a tiny dining room. Night time was a mixture of loud trekkers playing loud music, and the kitchen cleaning crew starting up at 3AM.

There is little effort to reroute the traffic to newer routes and this unequal tourism wealth distribution has fed inequality, illiteracy and unemployment in villages without tourism opportunities. The area’s energy problems have also grown due to haphazard building of lodges and hotels along the main trail.

Many trekkers along the route are willing to pay more for a more Nepali experience, and were in search of less crowded trails. A map I had bought in Kathmandu showed a dotted line away from the big place names, we followed this and walked for over five hours without encountering another tourist through Harry Potter forests, along pristine streams in rock chasms above the tree line, pulling ourselves up a sheer hillside.

We arrived at the Mt Lucky Lodge in thick cloaking fog, and were mesmerised for two days by the many faces of Annapurna, Dhaulagiri and Machhapuchhre. We visited a nearby mountain goat herd, met baby buffalos, watched grandpa carve a wooden buttermilk churner. His 12-year-old grandson taught my son how to make chapatis on an open fire. Many hours during afternoon hailstorms were spent talking about the owner’s efforts to convince ACAP to allow him to build his tiny lodge. We were truly in Nepal.

Donatella Lorch is a former New York Times foreign correspondent and East Africa Bureau Chief as well as NBCNews and Newsweek correspondent. She lives in Kathmandu.

Read also:

Better safe than sorry, Editorial

Walking with the times, Kunda Dixit

Conserving conservation, Sara Parker

Making eco-tourism work for the people, Sraddha Basnyat

In the shadow of Annapurna, Gopal Guragain

You take the high road, Shailee Basnet

The great Himalayan traverse, Matt Miller

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