SUNSET OVER ANNAPURNA
When Glenn Canyon was flooded by the creation of the Lake Powell Dam, the loss of pristine trekking trails was called progress. When the dam on the Yangtze River was built in China , flooding villages and a valley 365 square miles acres wide, again it was called progress. Now in Nepal the government is building roads in the Annapurna region from the villages of Beni to Muktinath as well as from Besi Sahar to Chame in the name of progress. While the construction of new roads allows supplies to reach towns far up the mountain far more quickly than the current porter/mule train system; the benefits come at a sobering cost.
The Annapurna region thrives mainly on the influx of currency provided by trekking. Foreign trekkers completing all or a portion of the world-renown circuit bring money and jobs for guides, porters, and countless locals providing guest and tea houses along the route. While relatively meager, the prices charged to foreigners are so profitable that when guides and porters bring clients to a guest house, they usually stay and eat for free.
With the road incomplete, the dramatic contrast between walking on the new road vs. the old trail is remarkable. The old trail is characterized by quiet, serene countryside alive with songbirds, monkeys, and other wildlife. However, the new road is a wide flat path that often fills with mosquito infested puddles, motorcycles, and tractors. By contaminating the pristine environment, many trekkers will simply opt for another trek, one without the curse of internal combustion.
The trail’s scars were most evident near the village Tatapani, where the road was currently under construction. Teams of workers chiseled holes for dynamite into the countryside, while others hauled dirt and removed boulders. In stark contrast, just a few kilometers away, the trail from Ghorapani to Ghandruk was lined with forty to fifty foot rhododendrons, in full bloom, with monkeys swinging through the canopy of flower covered tree tops.
While the higher villages are excited about the road, the villages down below do not share their enthusiasm. Just below Jomson is the apple capital of Nepal , Marpha. Now that the new road cuts directly in front of Marpha, trekkers lazily skip a stop there for apple pie and cider, instead opting for the direct route down the circuit. According to the owner of the Paradise Guesthouse in Marpha, traffic in the village has already decreased and this is with very few vehicles on the incomplete road. Indeed, even a French trekker who was meandering through the circuit told me he skipped Marpha, because “the new road looked so nice and straight.” While I visited Marpha and trekked all the way to Ghasa that day, my tired guide and porter opted for a 20K tractor ride from just past Marpa to the village of Lete . They offered me a lift, but I declined their offer. As I followed them I heard echoes of the old John Henry poem about man vs. machine in my head. Averaging over six kilometers an hour, I arrived in Lete two and a half hours later, a mere thirty minutes behind the tractor. Later I learned that if I had accepted the offer, I would have been hidden under a blanket during the ride. Apparently, the local resentment of the road is so high that any Nepali caught giving a ride to a foreigner would be “beat up” or fined 10,000 ruppies ($150). The locals fear the road will encourage tourists to bypass their guesthouses and just take a bus to Muktinath.
These thoughts, although not the sentiment, are shared by Nilitari Bastola, operator of the Asian Heritage Treks and Expeditions Ltd. “In 10 years time, there will be more jeep tours than trekking. The Annapurna circuit will probably be only a seven day trip,” said Bastola. He feels this is a natural progression for a developing country and while there will be “a few years of pain,” there are many other remote spots that will eventually open for trekking and finally that “we can not refuse these things.”
The two roads in question, like all roads in Nepal , are managed by the Department of Roads (DOR) in Katmandu and its satellite offices. They have a ten year master plan to connect all of their district office by road. Although the plan was to complete construction over the next few months, many projects are delayed due to “the conflict.” “The conflict,” is how Bijendra Bade Shiestha of the DOR, Office of Evaluation and Monitoring, refers to the Maoist resistance that crippled projects in many regions of Nepal for years. However, even with the delays the two roads in the Annapurna region are developing quickly. Currently, the road from Besi Sahar to Chame is over half trafficable, according to Shiestha. Even closer to completion is the road from Beni to Jomson, which is ¾ trafficable. While Mr. Shiestha did not have any economic impact studies for the region, he did indicate that like all projects, “there are some positive impacts and some negative impacts.” He indicated it would certainly positively impact some areas that had products to ship across other areas of Nepal . So maybe areas like Marpha will switch from providing guest houses to focusing on exporting apples.
I was surprised to find locals who should benefit from the road still against it. The owner of the ABC guesthouse in Pohkara, Hari Pahadi, spoke in disgust when I mentioned the project. Having lived in Pohkara his whole life, 52 years, he is displeased with the “growing focus on financial matters and the decreasing sociability in society.” He feels strongly that the road will destroy the natural beauty of the circuit and that any economic benefit is not worth it. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the DOR had plans to pave the road once it was completely trafficable.
The question is will there really be any economic benefit if trekkers start to shun the internal combustion laden trek? Padam Khatri, a guide and porter for the past twenty years, has seen many changes to the circuit; some good and some bad. He doesn’t want to turn the clock back to the early days when there were few, very primitive guesthouses, forcing Nepalese to sleep outside or in a shed. However, he does fear that the new road will have “vehicles throwing smoke so that the mountain air will get very bad.” He also worries about the potential shift in income from common folk to richer bus and jeep owners. He worries that people like himself and porters will have to work outside Nepal in one of the other Gulf States .
So is building these roads progress? If you are one of the few that receive a direct economic advantage, you will likely agree. However, it is probably a death sentence for the rest of the region and one of the best treks in the world.