Paving the Stairway to Heaven — a 100-kilometre trail between 8,000-metre peaks in Nepal’s Kali Gandaki Valley — seems as impossible in this century as conquering Mount Everest did for much of the last. But Nepalese soldiers, working uphill from the tourist town of Pokhara, have already whittled 73 kilometres and a week’s worth of walking off the Around Annapurna Trek, Nepal’s most popular.
For now it’s only a dirt path, but officials say it’s the beginning of a Himalayan highway that aims to connect the billion-person markets of India and China.
However, it could also disrupt Nepal’s homespun trekking industry and the serenity of the world’s apex. “It’s such a shock to see this,” Andrea McIntyre, a trekker from Toronto, says upon reaching the road at the town of Galaswar in the Annapurna region west of Pokhara and Kathmandu. “It makes you wonder if this is the last chance you’ll ever get to experience the mountains like this in a pure form.”
Some veteran trekkers say the road has already wiped out locally owned lodges and restaurants between Pokhara and Beni, and will do the same higher up.
Farther north, around the town of Marpha, noisy tractors haul villagers and supplies, while mountain bikers and uniformed racers hurry past barefoot saddhus walking from Tibet back to India.
There’s still no Himalayan Hilton or Hyatt, but near the town of Jomson the owner of Cosmic Airlines, Rabindra Prasad Pradhan, has recently opened the stunning 102-room Jomson Resort. It resembles a Tibetan monastery for upmarket ascetics, where visitors pay up to $550 (all amounts in U.S. dollars) a night for rooms at 2,800 metres. Instead of trekking to the resort, guests can take daily flights from Pokhara on Cosmic Air.
Near the Tibetan side of the trail, the Chinese Army has reportedly built a road into Nepal’s mythical hermit kingdom of Lo Mantang, usually accessed only by paying $700 for a 10-day trekking permit.
“You can buy TVs and many other Chinese products brought in by Chinese army trucks,” says a Nepalese guide based near Tibet. “It’s quite a surprise to see this in such a remote location.”
Locals even talk of an alleged proposal to build a gondola along a dizzying ridge between Jarkhot and the Hindu pilgrimage site of Muktinath, 3,800 metres up.
Villagers, tourism officials and trekkers are pondering the impact of turning a 10-day hike into a five-hour drive.
“It will have both positive and negative effects,” says Tek Bahadur Dangi, chief of the Nepal Tourism Board. “Maybe it is our immediate need from a development point of view. But in terms of preserving natural beauty, our wilderness will have more hustle and bustle. A trekking experience and a driving experience are quite different.”
“A road will make things cheaper,” says one local, Punjo, installing a water line to his new YakDonald’s guesthouse and faux-7-Eleven store in Kagbeni. He says that paying human porters to carry goods for a week from Pokhara to the Tibetan plateau doubles the price of products such as cement, solar heating panels and chocolate.
“But maybe we will lose tourism business. People won’t stop here, they will drive straight from Jomson to Lo Mantang.”
If that happens, tourists on express buses would whiz past the rustic New Asia Trekkers lodge in Kagbeni, an 11-kilometre hike from Jomson Resort.
“When visitors come to stay in our home we are very happy,” says owner Yangzom, a 45-year-old woman who employs her children in the kitchen. “If no one comes, our house has too many rooms.”
Jomson Resort staff say the road will boost the quality of tourism services and liberate locals from having to lug 50-kilogram loads.
“We have to do something to get business, we have no other way to survive,” one resort worker says. “Nepal doesn’t have the technology to cultivate this bad land. There is no alternative to tourism.”
Most agree that change is inevitable. While nearly 1,200 people have now summited the once-invincible Everest, tourist arrivals in Nepal have also climbed to nearly 500,000 in 1999 from 6,000 in 1962.
Though fear of war and SARS has eroded those numbers recently, Nepalese officials are bracing for an avalanche of visitors from China, which lifted travel restrictions to the country in November, 2001. Tourism from neighbouring India, meanwhile, is up 44 per cent in the past year, according to the Nepal Tourism Board.
But change, like the pace of trekking, will likely come at the leisurely Nepalese pace of pistari, pistari. “They have been saying they will build a road for many years, but it’s still not coming,” says Punjo of YakDonalds. “I believe they will build it, but slowly, slowly.”
According to a Nepalese army commander overseeing a road-building crew, it took 1,200 soldiers 18 months to build the road from Beni to Galaswar. From there to Jomson, the site of a military base, will take another four to five years.
The Chinese, known for building epic roads, may expedite matters. Though global warming threatens to melt permafrost on the Tibetan plateau, China has constructed the first half of a 1,956-kilometre railway between Qinghai province and the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. Started in 1984, the line is slated for completion in 2007.
Still, Nepal tourism officials say the country will remain heavenly — so long as trekkers who cherish purity spread the word, and the wealth, to Nepalese locals.
“At one time, Nepalese people didn’t even know the highest point on Earth was in Nepal,” the tourism board’s Kashi Raj Bhandari says. “They thought it was a place of the gods. They never thought of climbing it. Now trekking is their bread and butter. So we must learn how to preserve this beauty for the trekking industry.”
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