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Unearthly light over Annapurna - photos by William L. Pohl
Unearthly light over Annapurna - photos by William L. Pohl

Trekking the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal: Change on the Horizon

“And you think that Shangri-La may escape…Perhaps. We may expect no mercy, but we may faintly hope for neglect. …We have a heritage to cherish and bequeath.”
– James Hilton, Lost Horizon (1933)

When I was seven years old, I read Annapurna, the now classic book by Maurice Herzog about his 1950 French climbing expedition that became the first to summit a mountain over 8000 meters.

This was a heroic if harrowing tale of the conquest of Annapurna I, a 26,545-foot-high Himalayan peak. I never forgot the grainy photographs of men crossing the wild Kali Gandaki River, sun-dazzled mountains looming over clouds, and visions of climbers risking lives with crampons, ice picks and dark goggles.

I knew even then that I had to see this place for myself. So it was that at 51, I reread Annapurna and booked myself on a month-long 200-mile trek through the Himalayas, first traversing the Langtang wilderness and then circuiting the Annapurna Sanctuary, one of the world’s great walks.

I timed my trip in March and April when the rhododendron trees of Poon Hill were in full bloom, and when the threat of avalanches in high passes like 5416-meter Thorong-La had receded until the next monsoon season.

The author climbs up Thorung La Pass.
The author climbs up Thorung-La Pass.

Unlike today’s well-heeled expeditions whose porters hump in everything from filet mignon and wine, Herzog’s team didn’t have the benefit of very modern equipment or accurate maps.

It took weeks just to trend into the Annapurna wilderness, and once there they had to give up on a plan to summit 26,795-foot Dhaulagiri (The Mountain of Storms), its glistening slopes of rock and ice unassailable.

Annapurna I, the highest in a massif of peaks over 7000 meters (23,000 feet), was the consolation prize, and the news of their eventual success, achieved at the cost of snow-blindness and amputations, spread around the world, paving the way for Hillary’s conquest of Everest in 1953.

Much has changed since Herzog first ventured in. Certainly there was no formal trekking circuit, and indeed the first trekking company in Nepal didn’t even come into existence until 1965. There were no reliable bridges, trekkers’ lodges or mule packs to ferry in food, nor were there cell phones and GPS tracking systems.

Except for high passes known only to Tibetan salt traders, local Nepalese and their yaks, the back of beyond was all-but impenetrable.

Change is coming to the region. As late as 1979, Julie Fairchild, a grad school chum of mine at Brown University, left with three adventurous friends to trek the Annapurna Sanctuary.

The author with Sadhu holy men.
The author with Sadhu holy men.

Although she completed the Circuit, two of her companions were swept to their deaths while crossing raging rivers on foot since many of the bamboo bridges had been washed out by high monsoon waters.

The trekkers fought fatigue and impaired judgment at altitude, hypothermic nights, and food sickness.

Today the trip is safer though no romp in the park. There are modern cable bridges, many completed after the year 2054 (Nepal has five calendars; the Sakya Era edition began counting in the year 108 A.D.), basic trekker’s lodges spaced every half-hour, and meals served with enough carbs from dahl bhat, macaroni and chow mein to keep a Chinese laundromat in starch for years.

The New New Road

One thing I discovered is that the Annapurna Circuit is threatened by a foreign-subsidized road that is being pick-axed by hand out of the riverbank cliffs.

Building the new road
Building the new road

When completed sometime between two years and, well, maybe a decade or two from now, cars and trucks will be able to travel from Beni up to Jomson and the Tibetan Mustang Region for the first time.

The yin of the road is that it will stimulate an impoverished economy bringing much-needed supplies and commerce to the locals. But the yang is that, inevitably, it will forever alter a pristine Himalayan environment and change the character of ethnic groups that comprise a vibrant Buddhist and Hindu culture that has subsisted relatively undisturbed for a thousand years.

When the road is completed, one can expect the trekker’s lodges to succumb to $200-per-night Western hotel chains with modern flush toilets and hot showers that actually work as advertised.

Today the lodges offer rooms with prices that are set by the government under the auspices of the Annapurna Conservation Area Project at between 50 cents U.S. and $1.50 per night, plus meals.

While some of the lodges are clean and comfortable, others, lacking competition and the incentive to improve, are in a race to the bottom. They embrace the mentality of, “If we knew ya were coming, we’d have changed the sheets.”

Snake charmers in Kathmandu
Snake charmers in Kathmandu

They are a nightmare of dead flies, tattered curtains that look like they were shredded by snow leopards, moldy hair-clogged sinks hanging off bathroom walls, and shared crusted toilet holes.

Apart from cheapskates who try to bargain down even the 50-cent room prices, the lodges serve tourists who spent thousands to fly from Paris, New York and Hong Kong to see the Himalayas.

Lodge pricing is not the only lousy business decision the uncaring and dysfunctional autocrats of Nepal have made. Today, this mountain country sells hydroelectric power to India at rates eight times lower than the locals are charged.

Indeed, if the Himalayan hydroelectric industry was allowed to develop to its full potential, not only would deforestation be reduced but daily blackouts and electric rationing would cease.

Nepal could supply the needs of all of Asia including China, making it one of the wealthiest nations in the region and a green leader. Instead, many don’t even have access to clean water, and subsist on less than one dollar per day.

Chickens to go
Chickens to go

Insult added to injury, there is even a mineral water bottling plant operating in the Langtang region, but this pure mountain water is sold to the Japanese because the locals can’t afford it.

The road promises to change other things in the Annapurna region as well. Soon the roar of rushing river water will compete to the sound of tires on asphalt. The tinkling of mule bells with their muleteers crying “Chu!” on the stepped trails will give way to honking trucks belching acrid smoke in your face.

There will be ugly functional western-style buildings to support the car industry – gas stations, used car lots, cheesy auto supply stores – shoving aside traditional Newar-influenced architecture with its intricate wood carvings and thatched roofs.

There will be more ads that seek to turn local cultures into amusement parks for tourists, like the one sponsored by the Austrian NGO Freunde Nepal E.V. that gushes, “Come see the real people of Shangri-La. Visit the unspoiled people of the Kyrong tradition….”

When the road is completed, Annapurna will cease to be much of a Sanctuary from the modern world.

This isn’t the first new road Nepal experienced. The first was called the New Road, even though it followed the oldest route connecting Tibet with Kathmandu. It was commissioned by Juddha Samsher Rana, prime minister from 1932 to 1945. Actually, he was a dynastic king with absolute rule.

The First Car
The First Car

Indeed, the story of the First Car is quaint if not quirky, like most of Nepal’s history. According to Bharat Raj Rawat, Museologist of the National Museum, when the Rana ruler saw his first car, he was smitten by road fever and a quest for modernity.

Leveraging his good relations with the British government then ruling over colonial India, he arranged to have a Hudson motor car transported by freighter all the way from Australia to Bangladesh.

From there it was put on a railroad flatcar. When the tracks ran out in Delhi, porters removed the car’s wheels, hoisted the chassis onto two long wooden poles, and humped it over the Himalayan foothills to the royal palace in Kathmandu.

The process of building a road and shipping a car to the middle of nowhere went smoothly enough, but the car arrived without “petrol or spare tyres.” While waiting for these annoyances to be shipped, a coterie of royal pushers put their backs into the car’s rear end, with the King and Queen sitting in the front, proud as pashas, their armed bodyguards keeping a watchful eye from the backseat.

Farm villages cling to the mountainsides.
Farm villages cling to the mountainsides.

In this way, the First Car was paraded up and down the New Road to the delight of cheering throngs of children, jumping up and down behind in the dust.

Cars and roads are still a fairly recent phenomenon in Nepal. Just ten years ago, Kathmandu was a sleepy little city of a few million people running around on foot, bicycle and rickshaw. On any given morning outside of the monsoon season, clear views were to be had of the distant Himalaya.

Today the place is choking in traffic, fumes and smog, and the new new road promises to bring more of the same to the Annapurna Sanctuary, possibly killing the goose that laid the golden egg, and driving away trekkers who come to see a region of beauty and grace.

Clash of Values

Another problem with the road is that it threatens to speed the clash of Western with Nepalese values. Today the wonders of Nepal can be seen without anyone playing interference. For example, I toured the Mahendra Gupha Cave outside the city of Pokhara.

Women in Kathmandu
Women in Kathmandu

In impoverished countries like Nepal, there is no liability insurance to speak of since almost no one can afford it. (For that matter, there are few lawyers or insurance companies.)

Hence a consecutive string of broken light bulbs is allowed to remain unfixed, affording tourists the thrill of experiencing the uneven floor of a pitch black cave the way Nature intended. If you fall and break something like your neck, you’re on your own.

I found all of this exhilarating, and since the cave was “filled with limestone formations and other natural stuff,” as the tourist brochure states, I stumbled on without a torch.

Unlike America, whose museum curators even clean blood off Civil War flags to keep everything nice and sanitary, touring Nepal is a more authentic experience. It will be a shame if the road changes all that, and transforms an ancient and noble culture into something fake and superficial like a “reality” TV show.

Another example of clashing values that even the road has failed to change is the unintended consequences of road accidents. If a car hits a motorbike or pedestrian and injures him, the driver will often back up over the offending victim and finish the job to avoid having to pay a 70,000 rupee fine. Dead people tell no tales.

Hindu festival
Hindu festival

Really, the only things that will stop a fast-moving vehicle are cows, which invariably know how good they have it in a country with a Hindu population that considers them sacred.

As in India and other places, cows are free to roam as they please. Invariably they choose roads and highways – the busier, the better – as idyllic places in which to lie down and have a snooze.

The road also promises to alter the wonderful English prose used in Nepal. Personally I will miss the hotel signs that mysteriously state, “Do not leave unethical materials behind when the electric city is on.” Your guess is as good as mine.

Or, “Cary (sic) out wife and other non-biodegradables.”

I’ll miss the considerate, “Dispose of your rubbers (rubbish?) properly.”

Cremations in Kathmandu
Cremations in Kathmandu

I’ll miss the perfume billboard that shows a young happy woman being approached by a man. It boldly proclaims, “Prepare to be assaulted!”

I’ll miss the “Traveler’s Pest (guest) House,” and my favorite, “Welcome to Lynch (lunch?) Garden.”

It’s amazing that, with all the educated talent from America and England roaming around the countryside, still no self-respecting Nepali would ever ask to sanity-check their use of Shakespeare’s language. (But then, in our culture, how many men ask for directions when they are lost?)

Fortunately, given how efficient Nepal is, the road through the Annapurna Sanctuary is proceeding at a pace that makes a sloth look swift. As such, I still found a remote place filled with incredibly friendly if not odd people.

For example, in Mutinath I enjoyed meeting the keeper of a Hindu temple. Its god, a natural gas flame that issued from a hole, ensured that a shrine was built around it.

A temple in Kathmandu
A temple in Kathmandu

“Namaste. Let me guess where you from,” said the keeper with enthusiasm. She looked me up and down. “Japan, right?”

I loved seeing spinning prayer wheels, some water-driven and made from discarded Red Cow dried milk cans, sending invisible waves of good karma into the air.

I was amazed by bus drivers that drove up and down the streets of Besishahar honking their horns at six in the morning in an attempt to round up additional passengers to Kathmandu. You’d be shot if you tried this in America!

The buses were jammed three to a seat, passengers lurching and vomiting into every turn. Did I mention the goats in the aisles, and the children on the bus roof hanging on for dear life?

Lost Horizon

Most wondrous of all was what I came for, the majesty of the Himalayas. They surpassed my every expectation, contrary to my impish replies to Dhurba Saporta, my guide. The son of a Brahmin caste Hindu with an arranged marriage, he is a man proud of his beautiful country.

Every few days of our trek he would enquire, “Meester William, does these mountains meet with your expectations?”

Lantang Himalaya
Lantang Himalaya

“These are mountains, Dhurba?” I craned my neck up beyond the clouds to see white peaks looming impossibly high, spindrift blowing wildly off the summits. “We have bigger mountains in Cape Cod. These are girlie mountains. When do the real brutes begin?”

In Sanskrit, Himalaya means Abode of Snow, and the range, once buried under an ancient sea, is today still rising as India pushes under the tectonic plate along the Tibetan plateau.

Rather than a “lost horizon,” this is a region with no horizon – the far reaches of earth being obliterated by the world’s highest mountain range, its rivers cutting gorges two-miles deep into the earth.

Put into local perspective, the Himalaya begins where the highest mountains in the Lower 48 leave off. Anything below 14,000-feet is considered a “hill” by the locals.

It’s best not to be fooled by the transcendent beauty of the place. These great mountains exist in a vertical world whose very gravity and malevolence seeks to bring people down.

Annapurna through the temple door

In fact, everything eventually does come down, from dead climbers lost in the 1950s to used oxygen bottles and falling rocks that can knock brains out through the back of a skull as cleanly as a sniper’s bullet.

The dangers of climbing only increase with altitude, from mild headaches and hyperventilation to potentially fatal cerebral edemas and good-old-fashioned freezing to death.

As we climbed to just below 19,000 feet, I couldn’t help but notice how people literally thinned out with the air. There were no obese climbers above 10,000 feet, and tourists disappeared altogether on expedition climbs above 7000-meters (23,000 feet).

Time will tell if the new road through the Annapurna Sanctuary will change the region but the Himalaya will continue to work their magic and draw adventurers to its realm.

As Maurice Herzog states, “Annapurna, to which we had gone empty-handed, was a treasure on which we should live the rest of our days. With this realization we turn the page: a new life begins.”

 

 

Willim L.Pohl

 

William L. Pohl is author of four travel books and numerous magazine articles. He lives in Western Massachusetts.

 

 

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