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Time: 10–15 days. Distance: 75–95 miles. Elevation: 14,000–18,000 feet. Rating: Difficult to strenuous. For 70-year-old Ajmal Sobhan, these statistics that define high-altitude trekking in Nepal are annual must-haves. The retired surgeon from Virginia visits the Himalayan nation every year to quench his thirst for adventure. The base camps of Mount Everest and Mount Annapurna, the valleys in the Langtang region and the lakes of Gokyo are among the iconic Nepal treks he has conquered. This year, a decade after his romance with the Himalayas began, he decided to try something different.
The veteran endurance junkie steered clear of established treks and chose a relatively less-known route around the summit of Mount Manaslu, the world’s eighth-highest mountain. The 145-kilometer jaunt took him 13 days. It meant walking on a mostly undeveloped trail with few other hikers, scrambling across precipitous landslides and hazardous rockfall zones, spending nights in rudimentary lodges with hellish toilets and tiptoeing his way through treacherous snowfields at 16,000 feet.
And it was worth it, he says. Not just because it was challenging, but also because it removed him from the crowds and commotion on other busy routes, and allowed him the solitude and serenity to connect with the primal terrain.
Sobhan isn’t alone. An increasing number of trekkers appears to be stepping away from Nepal’s well-trodden tracks to turn their eyes toward grassier paths. Nepal authorities are responding by opening several restricted areas for hiking, thus allowing controlled exposure of these previously unspoiled regions to foreign presence. The Manaslu Circuit — touted by many as the next Himalayan rite of passage after the Annapurna Circuit — drew 4,650 trekkers in 2016, rising from a mere 561 in 2006, according to official records.
It’s hard not to notice the growing interest in newer regions.
Lok Silwal, Kathmandu-based travel agent
Neighboring Tsum Valley was visited by 1,219 foreigners in 2016, up from 780 in 2012. Just three years ago, no one would visit the Nar and Phu valleys, remote regions contiguous with the Tibetan Plateau. In 2017, says Kathmandu-based travel agent Lok Silwal, he sent five groups of trekkers there.
“Many trekkers coming to Nepal are now keen on exploring new horizons,” says Silwal, who organizes treks and expeditions across the Himalayas. “While it’s true that my business is still largely driven by clients doing the iconic treks, it’s hard not to notice the growing interest in newer regions.”
The emergence of these newer routes is in many ways an outcome of the manner in which years of trekking has transformed Nepal. Mountain tourism in Nepal is arguably one of the most popular outdoor activities in South Asia; between 60,000 and 100,000 foreign trekkers and climbers visit the country every year.
However, given its reputation as a shadow activity to mountaineering, most trekking traffic is still driven on paths leading toward mountains like Everest and Annapurna, which have long histories of human endeavor and conquest. The Everest region alone attracts close to 35,000 trekkers each year. Incidentally, it is also Nepal’s most-evolved trekking area, boasting hipster cafes with Wi-Fi, quasi-French bakeries, the odd cash machine and helicopter support for those in need of emergency evacuation or simply in a hurry to get back home.
Ironically, evolution itself has become trekking’s biggest blight in recent times. The Everest region now suffers from overcrowding. A recent fair-weather road up the Annapurna Valley connects remote settlements previously accessible only by foot, bringing a tide of welfare for local villagers in the form of health care, education, food supplies and connectivity. For trekkers, though, the road has cut the iconic Annapurna Circuit trek down to almost a third of its original length.
To people like Sobhan, it is “the grandeur of the mountains, the blooming rhododendrons, the backdrop of waterfalls, the sound of silence” that serve as the central attractions of an annual trek in Nepal. Getting what he wants on Nepal’s traditional treks is getting harder and harder.
“Ten years later, I find differences,” he says of how the popular treks have transformed over time. “More crowds, more pollution, more helicopter sorties, more people looking for Wi-Fi [rather] than absorbing nature.”
For sure, the traditional walks still draw numbers and it’s far from death knells for these routes — for the moment at least. “Everest and Annapurna still remain the treks of choice for most first-timers visiting the Himalayas,” says Sujoy Das, an Indian trek leader and photographer who has organized treks in Nepal for more than two decades. But many veteran trekkers, he says, are turning to less-popular routes — willing to take on challenges of the kind Sobhan faced during his trek around Mount Manaslu. “Though the facilities on these treks are not comparable, many enterprising trekkers are enjoying exploring these offbeat routes,” says Das.
Over time, these shifting dynamics could redefine trekking in the region.
On his company brochures, Das now promotes the Manaslu Circuit trek as “what the Annapurna Circuit was 30 years ago.” In many ways, it’s an apt summary of the times. As modernity makes slow inroads into Nepal’s virginal landscape, thrill-seekers move away to greener pastures and survey new horizons in search of that quintessential — and timeless — Himalayan thrill. The wheel of adventure turns a full circle. And the call of the mountains remains as strong as ever, even as trekkers increasingly follow it in newer directions.
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