In addition to turbulent political and civil unrest, the expansion of Nepal’s road network has brought about much change to this small country perched on the world’s highest mountain range.
The first Everest expeditions from the Nepal side, literally required a month trek out of Kathmandu to Base Camp . Over the years, the trek to Base Camp, started progressively from Lamosangu, and then from Jiri. Now the road extends to Bhandar and very few trekkers walk this section. Most fly to Lukla and start trekking from there.
Take the Annapurna Circuit. The whole circuit used to take a full month. Not too many years ago, I completed a 2 week trek starting from Besisahar, ending at Beni. The ever expanding road network was evident even then. Today, very little of the circuit is not roadless. And this in an area, which typically attracted more trekkers than the Everest region.
Nepal is divided into 75 districts, each with a headquarter village. A lot of these were typically several days walk from any road. A dramatic push over recent years endeavoured to connect all of these headquarters by road. This has affected many trekking areas too, making previous trekking routes redundant. For the visitor on a short trip to Nepal, awed by the way of life in the terraced hill country and high mountain areas of Nepal, this seems a great pity. And certainly the loss of tourism related income for some locals along redundant routes has been felt.
However, the demand for roads from the local people is big. It brings much needed development, supply and access to bigger centres. Just as an example, think about getting sick in remote hill country. I’ve seen sick people being carried on the backs of others over many weary kilometres (and days) to get to a clinic. These locals live day to day with the harsh realities of life in an underdeveloped country. I’ve seen evidence of such eagerness among locals in some areas, that they started building roads through their villages even though they weren’t connected yet! So the building of roads is, though sad in a way for some areas, an inevitable necessity.
All is not lost for Annapurna. The Sanctuary is still a trekking area. One can still fly or drive out to Jomsom and spend several days exploring the area and trekking up to Muktinath and the Thorung La from there. One can still spend many days in the Manang area. In fact, some remoter areas which were typically out of reach to most people due to time constraints, are now more accessible: Tilicho Lake and the Naar and Phu valley, for example. One can still trek to Lo Mantang in Upper Musting, starting out from Jomsom.
The tourism industry has to realign itself with this change. And that it already has in many ways.
An interesting development has been a change of strategy by some of the local airlines – and this in spite of the roads. Old, remote, high-altitude airstrips are being revived, even if somewhat redundant because of the road network. These airstrips are a memorable experience in themselves. If you’ve flown into the mountains of Nepal, you’ll know. They are called STOL’s: Short Take-Off and Landing strips. The name says it all. Ad deep valleys and steep mountain slopes for extra affect.
Flights to the old STOL airfield at Syangboche in the Everest area have started again. These fly people in early the morning, for an “Everest for Breakfast”, and back to Kathmandu the same day. Negotiations are underway to recommission several other STOLS in remote mountain areas across Nepal. This will develop a new form of tourism.
There are still some remoter and more difficult areas for the hardened trekker and mountaineer looking for areas away from roads, hordes of “tourist trekkers” and even airstrips. Try the Kanchenjuna, Makalu and Dhaulagiri areas – less trekkers there, though you’ll still encounter some. If you can afford the expensive permit head for Upper Dolpo. If all else fails, head to Far Western Nepal. Humla, Api and Saipal await.
I often reflect on the changing face of Nepal. Amid all the roads, trails and airstrips, I wish for the prosperity and well-being of its people alongside the preservation of the mountains. Whether it be the colourful busses and trucks, honking their horns loudly on dusty mountain roads, or trekkers and yaks backed up on a busy Everest trekking route, or Twin Otters banking through deep valleys and grinding to a halt on inclined, bumpy strips of dirt – may it all be for the good of the country. For me, I’ll continue enjoying that sweet, milky, local tea and silently admire the steep snowy ridges and foreboding, glaciated faces of white Himalayan peaks glistening in the sunlight...