Wed, Mar 09, 2005 - Page 16 News List

Heading back into the hills

Nepal offers the best trekking in the world, but is it safe? One intrepid hiker looks beyond the recent headlines

By Ed Douglas  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Trekking in Nepal offers the opportunity to see and learn about the country's many cultures and to take in breathetaking scenery.

PHOTO: AFP

If you ever doubted how indispensable e-mail and cellphones have become, then spending a few days in the Nepalese capital of Kathmandu at the beginning of last month would have convinced you.

Even before King Gyanendra finished telling his subjects on national television that he had sacked the government and was taking direct control himself, the plug was pulled on all telecommunications. If neighbors wanted to discuss the latest twist in Nepal's ongoing political tragedy, then they would have to go round and do it in person.

It quickly became obvious that the information highway would not be blocked for long. International flights rely on the internet for bookings, as do travel agents. Tourists outside the country had no way of contacting their hotels or agents on the ground, or confirming flights.

The small number of tourists in Nepal shared information by pinning notices on hotel message boards. Those hotels with satellite phones became popular hang-outs, and the one internet cafe in the backpackers' district of Thamel with a satellite phone had queues of more than an hour, as travelers tried to reassure relatives that they were safe and well.

But it wasn't just tourists and the Nepalese elite who suffered. The situation for local people was worse. Leaving aside the sudden disappearance of their freedom of speech, many Nepalese who rely on foreign remittances for their income found their funds drying up as the banking sector ground to a halt.

Until 1950, Nepal was almost entirely isolated from the outside world, with almost no roads and few phone lines. But if the king needed proof of how far this small and underdeveloped country has come in the past 50 years, then an attempt to switch off the 21st century will have showed him. The days of Nepal's isolation are over.

Travel to Nepal from Taipei:

Travel to Nepal from Taipei:

There are daily flights from Taipei to Kathmandu via Bangkok on Royal Thai Airways. Roundtrip tickets cost NT$21,000.


Despite it all, the country's battered tourism industry bravely ploughs on through the deepening troughs of political instability. The Maoist insurgency, which has claimed more than 11,000 lives in the past nine years, has paralyzed development of Nepal's minnow economy. Tourism continues to be the third largest contributor of foreign currency, supporting around 200,000 workers in an underemployed country of 24 million.

The murder of King Birendra by his son the Crown Prince in 2001 and the declaration of a state of emergency later that year devastated Nepal's tourism industry. Fears of getting caught up in the conflict between the Maoists and government forces kept visitors away. In 2002, arrivals by air at Kathmandu barely scraped 200,000. Since then, Nepalese tourism has bounced back, achieving double-digit growth in the past two years.

But there's little doubt among industry experts that Nepalese tourism is grossly underachieving. With Mount Everest, the Earth's tallest mountain, on its northern border, and seven more 8,000m peaks sprinkled around the country, Nepal already has a huge reputation among adventure travellers. Most popular is the Annapurna region, which attracts more trekkers than anywhere else in Nepal.

The hills south of the stunning 8,000m Annapurna are lower and warmer than the approach to Everest's southern base camp, and are consequently more approachable for those with little experience of high country. The influx of trekkers over the years has built up a network of cheap lodges, which makes traveling here very straightforward. It has also transformed the region's economic fortunes.

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