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January 16, 2012

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Opening tourism in Himalayas

IN the shadow of Mt Everest and its magnetic lore, a cross-border route with a grand name, the Great Himalaya Trail, is being touted as an epic, untapped alternative to the bucket-list trek to base camp on the world's highest mountain.

Trekking this trail is an odyssey, not a routine vacation, and even promoters admit that it's more a theory or consumer product for an untested market than a continuous path. Instead, it's a web of paths, many unmapped and barely connecting, that meander east to west along the Himalayan range.

Granted, the Great Himalaya Trail lacks the history and utility of the Silk Road, the ancient trade network that linked Asia to Europe, or the cohesion and accessibility of the Appalachian Trail for hikers in the United States.

Instead, it is what trekkers and climbers make of it: a one-time hike through forests and grasslands at lower elevation, an assault on high passes that demand technical skill, or a periodic pilgrimage to sample chunks of the rugged expanse.

Susanne Stein, a 44-year-old German, completed an eastern trek on Nepal's section of the trail with three guides in late 2011 and is preparing for the central and western leg in February. When it's all over, she'll have covered 1,700km in 165 days.

"One thing I like very much is just to move," said Stein, a health specialist whose assignments for international aid groups have included Sudan's Darfur region, Pakistan's earthquake-hit Kashmir region, Afghanistan, and Nepal. "I always have the feeling I want to see around the corner. This keeps me going somehow."

Stein set out a week after a deadly earthquake in the Himalayan region. Some paths had been virtually wiped out by landslides, forcing her team to crawl at times. In the past, she visited the Everest region on her own. But Stein prefers guides on the Great Himalaya Trail because they motivate her when she is exhausted.

"The GHT goes through areas where there is no guesthouse, no food, and no defined trail. So I guess for the average tourist, it is too difficult to do it alone. Besides the fact that you need to be fit. Probably for people with very good navigation skills, and a good map and GPS, it's possible," Stein wrote in an e-mail.

A Nepal-based campaign aims to transform the Great Himalaya Trail into a basket of options for adventurers who prefer itineraries without roads and teahouses. It says western districts like Dolpa, Humla and Mugu offer rich scenery and local culture that has little outside exposure.

Promoters have broken the Nepalese stretch into 10 sections that can each be walked in a few weeks. Dorendra Niraula, an official at Nepal's tourism ministry, hopes repeat visitors will trek parts of the trail over five or 10 years.

"We are in the initial stage of the project," he said. "It's a challenge. We are trying to diversify tourism."

The goal is for people to "go to places they have not thought of going," said Robin Boustead, an Australia-based trekker who traversed 6,000 kilometers of Himalayan trails and says he has another 4,000 kilometers to go. He charted his trips with GPS, published a guide book and runs a trail website.

Boustead belongs to a loose alliance of trekkers, tourism agencies, non-governmental groups and Nepalese officials who hope a more even spread of tourist revenue can help a poor, politically weak nation that emerged from civil war five years ago.

These marketing pioneers are still finding their feet. Some efforts overlap; some agendas diverge. There are concerns about the commercial and environmental impact on areas unaccustomed to tourism.

Tourist-friendly Nepal spearheads the idea, and a trail section in Bhutan is on the map. There is less development in Chinese-ruled Tibet, as well as old foes India and Pakistan, which share the Himalayas. The goal of coordination across sensitive borders is immense, but Boustead wrote in an e-mail that "the long-term strength of the GHT lies in its international focus."

About 600,000 tourists visited Nepal in 2010, according to government figures. The largest groups are from India and China, though Europeans, North Americans and Australians account for most trekkers. Well over 90 percent head for the Annapurna, Everest and Langtang regions, which offer tourist infrastructure.

"Access is definitely a real challenge and a difficulty that has to be worked on," said Paul Stevens, a Kathmandu-based adviser for SNV, a Dutch non-governmental organization that provides funding and job training to communities on the Great Himalaya Trail. "Many of these places have air strips, but they're quite hairy and you go in small aircraft and you wind through the mountains to get there."

The trail includes the Everest region, but highlighting remote parts is a hard sell. For some, reaching Everest base camp is among "things to do before you die," said Dawa Steven Sherpa, a Nepali who reached the summit twice. In mid-January, he and Apa Sherpa, who has scaled Everest a record 21 times, plan to start a 120-day publicity trek across Nepal's section of the Himalayas.

"The concept itself of walking along the whole length of the Himalayas is not new. What is new is making a package out of this that can actually be promoted for tourism," Dawa Steven said. Until now, he said, Himalayan treks were viewed in a "very compartmentalized way" and the idea of "one trail to rule them all" was eclipsed by the fabled trails at the highest peaks.


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