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Road Construction to Change Popular Nepal Trekking Route?

At 4:30 in the morning Kumar knocked on the flimsy wooden door of the lodge where I was staying. A few days into my trek on part of the Annapurna Circuit. a popular route for Western trekkers in Nepal, I had agreed to get up before sunrise to hike up Poon Hill. Kumar, my trekking guide, had told me the views from the hill were spectacular, and he promised there would be some tasty sweet Nepali milk tea waiting at the top.

I slowly clambered out of my sleeping bag and off of the wooden plank that served as my bed. Since the lodge had no electricity, I used a flashlight as I dressed haphazardly in the dark. Downstairs Kumar waited anxiously. It would take an hour to hike up the mountain, and he did not want us to be late. Once outside, a faint hint of sunrise motivated me to move quickly through the thick brush and up the narrow dirt trail.

When we reached the top, a small crowd of Western travelers and their trekking guides was already there, watching the sunrise. From a Nepali woman I bought milk tea for Kumar and myself, and we found a spot away from most of the other trekkers. I told Kumar I needed a moment to myself to soak in the views of the Himalayas. Although not a religious person, I felt a spiritual presence all around as I looked out at the incomparable mountain vista.

This was the highlight of the eight-day trek that took me through the Annapurna Sanctuary to Muktinath, a pilgrimage site for both Buddhists and Hindus. Now, 10 years later, plans are underway that would change this trekking route forever. The pedestrian-only trail is scheduled to be replaced by a road leading from the town of Tatopani to the temple at Muktinath, a four-day trek on foot.

The road is one of a broader effort that is underway to link villages in the area together by motor vehicle. In recent years, a road was built to Muktinath through the nearby Kali Gandaki Valley, and more roads are planned for completion by 2012.

As quoted in a recent New York Times article, Lal Prasad Gurung, director of the Annapurna Conservation Area Project, a governmental agency opposed to the development, says that the road through the Marsyangdi River Valley is scheduled to be completed to Chameby 2011 and to Manang by 2012.

In the same article, Mr. Gurung goes on to say that local people who make their money from tourism are firmly against the road but make up only 15 to 20 percent of the population.

People in the travel community and beyond have expressed mixed feelings about the building of the Marsyangdi road, or any road along the foot-only trekking routes through the Annapurna region.

Natasha von Geldern, editor of the travel website writes that “the road represents the slow creep of progress in this, one of the world’s poorest nations. The government has talked about plans to introduce a different kind of tourism, featuring adventure attractions rather than the simple tea-house trekking, backpacker tourism so many have known and loved.”

Von Geldern points out that many local porters and guides and guesthouse proprietors, who currently provide services toforeign trekkers, “could see their incomes decimated” as a result of the development. On the positive side, the road would allow local communities that must now carry supplies on their backs to send and deliver goods by vehicle, a big step forward since, as von Geldern notes, “Nepal’s extreme poverty is for a large part due to poor transport facilities. Good roads mean development and the reduction of poverty.”

For many travelers, the issue comes down to the cultural experience that will be changed or even taken away by the building of the road. As von Geldern writes, “the most attractive feature of the Annapurna Circuit is the cultural experience of visiting the lower altitude Nepali villages. There aren’t many real villages above 3,000 metres.” Although local trip operators are planning alternative trekking routes, these will be longer and more strenuous than the popular routes that many travelers currently enjoy.

According to the New York Times article, “it’s not even clear that vehicle accessibility will hurt the region’s long-term tourism prospects. As jeeps and maybe someday cars take over, Muktinath and Manang will most likely only grow as tourism hubs, attracting new visitors content to ride up to the peaks. The only clear losers in the equation are the trekkers.”

For me, the best part of trekking the Annapurna Circuit was interacting with the locals along the route and staying in the tea houses along the way. The possibility of that still remains to be seen, as new roads are built and new routes planned.

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