Four years after the devastating Gorkha earthquake, there’s a sense that the country is clearly long past recovery mode and finding ways to transcend and thrive, while trying to leverage its position between two dominant powers, neighbors India to the south and China to the north. In my brief visit (I was there to speak at the Himalayan Travel Mart), I clearly saw the potential for sustainable tourism—particularly community-based tourism—to benefit the country economically and socially. However overtourism and a lack of regulations on the world’s highest mountain, as well as pressure to drastically increase the number of visitors to the country regardless of quality, are specters that could derail progress. As I said in my remarks, “We are in the country that arguably gave birth to adventure travel, on Everest, in 1953. And I’m here to talk to you about the future of travel, but let me be clear: that Everest photo that has gone viral in the last couple of weeks is not the future but the past. Adventure travel, after all, is about blazing new trails and taking on a challenge. Sixty-seven years later, in 2019, the world has changed. Where travel is going, and where I hope you will be going, is very different. One thing I do know: Everest is more than just the climb to the summit. The Himalayas are more than just Everest. And Nepal is more than just the Himalayas.”
After a week’s delay to deal with a thankfully minor health issue, I’m off! I won’t have much time now to see the country, but I hope to have a couple of days to explore the Kathmandu Valley, a cultural treasure of ancient civilizations and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Thanks to Washington, D.C., friends Parashu and Ranju for inviting me into their home and giving me a preview of Nepali cuisine, including the addictive and yummy-in-the-tummy dumplings called momo. Namaste!
Better late than never!
(At the HUB, home to an artisanal coffee shop and socially conscious tour operator.)
After two days of travel and little sleep, I arrived in Kathmandu with no plans for the day. Six hours and a flurry of WhatsApp messages later, I’d met up with three sets of friends of friends, lunched on daal bhat (lentil curry and rice), found a great coffee and community hangout, and gambled with life and limb on Kathmandu‘s chaotic and air-polluted city streets on the back of a scooter, without a helmet or a face mask. (Please don’t do what I did, and for goodness’ sake DON’T tell my kids!)
The mountains are calling: You don’t have to be a climber to feel the magnetic pull of a set of peaks, and particularly the Himalayas, the world’s tallest and pointy-est. The question—after a viral photo of a long queue of climbers on Everest highlighted the complex issues that plague it—is how to honor both the human quest and the sacredness of a place whose traditional names mean “Goddess Mother of the World” and “Peak of Heaven.” I’m not going to wade into a discussion on a topic I have no expertise in; there are some great tourism discussions resulting from this which I hope will propel changes. What I will say is that there is more to Everest than the climb to the summit; there is more to the Himalayas than Everest; and there is more to Nepal than the Himalayas.
The second photo is of Everest, taken from seat 7D, and the cockpit, of a one-hour “mountain flight” on Buddha Air.
Enjoyed talking tourism (the responsible kind) at the Himalayan Travel Mart. Where else can you meet tour operators, Everest pioneers, hoteliers, monks, bloggers, and swamis all in one room? Made a bunch of new friends, too! Dhanyabaad! Kathmandu.
Seeing red (and other bright colors) in Kathmandu makes me wonder why we wear such dark and neutral hues back home. At the Hindu temple Pashupatinath and the Buddhist stupa Boudhanath, both dating back to at least the 5th century. Some 85 percent of Nepalis are Hindu, 15 percent Buddhist. The two spiritual traditions are related, one developing out of the other. There are smaller numbers of Muslims and Christians, and other religions. All live in harmony, mostly.
What do those who have summited the world’s tallest mountain do first? Why, head on over to the Rum Doodle Bar and Restaurant to sign a paper footprint of a yeti at a restaurant named after the world’s tallest fictional mountain (in a spoof of mountaineering written by W.E. Bowman). The walls bear the marks of all the climbing greats, from Edmund Hillary to Junko Tabei (first woman to summit Everest in 1972) to Reinhold Messner, and more. (The bar has changed location, but the owners made sure to take the walls with them.) Kathmandu.
A day hike from Pokhara in central Nepal (Kande-Australian Camp-Dhampus-Phedi) offers a small taste of the iconic Annapurna Circuit, a long-distance trek in the foothills of the Himalayas traversing farms and small villages and resting at tea houses along the way. The views of the snow-capped range are legendary but it’s the start of the monsoon season so we have to take our chances and hope the clouds part. (Tour organized by Royal Mountain Travel.)
Beauty and the Beast: I’ve only seen a small slice of it, but the Annapurna Circuit is unquestionably unique in all the world. Development for social good is vital but it’s important to ensure it does not threaten an iconic attraction and the livelihoods of residents who depend on tourism. I’m told that already roads have been built next to portions of the circuit, making trekking unsafe and unpleasant.
And rubbish remains a problem: plastic bottles, beer cans, and snack packaging litter trails. It’s not enough to blame residents, who often live on a razor’s edge of survival. Every link in the chain should take responsibility and action, from the travelers, to the guides, to the tour operators, to the government entities, to the travel media, to the food manufacturers and distributors. There are some great case studies out there, from cleanup campaigns, to organizations adopting portions of a trail, to shaming snack manufacturers into action by posting photos of their discarded product on social media.
I don’t pretend to have the answers to these complex issues but hope well-meaning people keep pushing for improvements, which are necessary if this amazing country wants to attract more higher-spending, low-impact visitors. I’m encouraged by the passion and resourcefulness of everyone I meet and am hopeful for positive change.
The Leg and the Leech: I never even felt it, but wondered why there was blood on my pant leg. My trekking guide took one look at the telltale V mark and confirmed it was a leech which had crawled up my leg, suction-cupped the skin, injected both an anesthetic and an anti-coagulant, sucked my blood, and dropped away gorged and sated. No big deal, he said, it’s common in the monsoon season in the Annapurna and a mere minor annoyance. That reassured me somewhat until I got back to the hotel and took off my pants to find not only three more bleeding bites but a wriggling leech fallen to the floor! I don’t think I screamed out loud but I definitely screamed inwardly and stripped everything off and ran around, frantically checking to see if there were any more critters clinging to me, looking for Kleenex to stanch the multiple trickles, Googling what to do, and of course snapping photos—in the process repeatedly and inadvertently stepping on and spreading the few droplets of blood on the white-tile floor until it looked like a crime scene.
This happened yesterday; all’s well now and—just the scabs and the story remain. (This won’t stop me from doing it again, I’d just try to find a way to secure the bottom of my pants legs. And compared to mosquitoes, leeches are benign, as bloodsuckers go.)
Pokhara, in central Nepal, is about a fifth the size of Kathmandu and super laid-back. It’s the gateway to the Himalayas, the starting and ending point of many expeditions and treks. Here, along the main lakeside drag, you can find trekking poles, food, beer, massages, and Tibetan singing bowls.
Why do I get so excited about community-based tourism? Because, if done properly, it is one of the best ways to get what we often seek in our travels—to learn, to see something unique, to tickle our tastebuds, and to connect. Plus while getting all this, to leave more of your money with the local destination and not large multinationals, as typically happens with mass tourism.
Guests can stay with one of 18 host families in the town of Panauti about an hour’s drive from Kathmandu. CommunityHomestay.Com has vetted homes for safety and sanitation (offering training if necessary) and it organizes custom activities and tours. I could only manage a quick visit but you’ll definitely want to schedule more time. Panauti, Kathmandu Valley.
There is so much of the kind of travel I preach in this one photo: Meet Jamuna Khatri, Jyoti Shrestha, and Sita Panjara, among the few female drivers and guides in Nepal’s tour industry. We’ve arrived in Panauti for our community-based tour in a non-polluting electric vehicle. Not pictured: the reusable water bottles for guest use in the cup holders. Nice work, Royal Mountain Travel-Nepal. Panauti, Kathmandu Valley.
The land is beautiful, the momo divine, but my new friends (too many to tag) are what I am most grateful for. Dhanyabaad and Namaste! Kathmandu.
Photos © Norie Quintos.