Into the wild A relative political calm in Nepal has led to thousands of trekkers returning to enjoy one of the world's finest mountain walks.
A trail blazed anew
The unmistakeable symbol of a white hammer and sickle on a red background fluttered gently against the kind of deep blue sky that you only seem to find high up in the mountains. At nearly 2,000m above sea level, the trail had gone from the deep shadowy gorge of Nepal's Marsyangdi Valley and risen onto a beautiful wide hanging plateau where the growing Buddhist influence on the landscape is clearly visible.
Perhaps more significant was the sight of trekkers happily passing by the heavily fortified army outpost, and, barely a kilometre later, beneath an arch proudly sporting the flag of the Maoists. On entering the remote mountain region of Manang, tucked behind the vast Annapurna range, trekkers had crossed into a district won by the former guerillas in an election only months before. Jonathan Lessware / The National Only a year or so ago, rumours of Maoist sightings, even on the most popular trekking routes, would have led to fears that tourists might come face-to-face with a band of armed militants demanding money for its "people's war". It was usually the biggest inconvenience faced by those who refused to allow the 10-year insurgency, which left 13,000 people dead, to keep them from visiting this magical Himalyan country.
As embassies warned against travel to the country, the number of visitors dropped, tour groups stopped operating and the effect on the vulnerable economies of the remote villages was crippling. Now, with the royal family removed and the Maoists leading the government after a convincing election victory in April, a relative political calm has descended on the country and, as a result, the numbers of trekkers this season is clawing its way back to the levels of the 1990s boom.
Recent official figures show that October, one of the peak months for trekking, saw more than 50,000 tourist arrivals in Nepal; the highest monthly total since 2000. One travel agency based in Pokhara, a trekking hub for the Annapurna range, says that only two years ago bookings were "rock bottom". "People just weren't coming," he says. "Now things are much better - we just hope that it continues."
According to recent reports, the new government aims to encourage one million visitors annually by 2011, almost double the number of tourists in 2007. The reason for visiting is simple. Nepal probably has the most stunning mountain walking that the world has to offer.
My trip took me to the Annapurna region which is one of the two most popular for trekking in Nepal - the other being the Everest area. It is a vast range of mountains that includes the 8,091-metre high Annapurna I - the tenth highest mountain in the world, which provides a wonderful backdrop to the town of Pokhara. To circumnavigate the range is known as the Annapurna Circuit; a 16-day trek that is widely regarded as one of the finest mountain walking routes in the world.
Starting in the town of Besi Sahar after a bus ride from the country's capital Kathmandu, the walk begins by winding its way up the Marsyangdi River valley. Perhaps what makes the circuit so special is the diversity of the landscapes that you pass through as you make your way deeper in behind the Annapurna Himal, towards the trek's crux - the Thorung La pass at 5,416m above sea level.
Source: season.ee website The walking begins at a mere 820m above sea level, where the surroundings are still tropical and the climate is warm. The trail winds beneath banana trees and through thickets of bamboo to a chorus of insect noises.
You pass countless bright yellow, terraced rice fields cut into the sides of the valley, where, it appears, every possible last patch of land is being cultivated. Trekkers usually stay in teahouses scattered along the route that usually provide a warm welcome, a basic room for the night and a standard menu of hearty meals - much needed after a day of walking. The walk continues up the valley with each day bringing a gradual change in scenery as the trail gains height. It passes through a section where the valley becomes a deep gorge and the trail is cut into rock walls. Huge waterfalls spout from the steep valley sides cascading to the river below.
Along the way, the path crosses narrow suspension bridges strung high above the torrents of water. It is hard not to marvel at these ingenious feats of engineering that provide a vital lifeline between villages. The paddy fields give way to woods of blue pines and spruce as the scenery becomes more alpine. While the Annapurna circuit first opened to trekkers in 1977, parts of the trail have been used as trade routes linking Nepal to Tibet for centuries. Even today, trekkers often have to move aside as trains of mules continue to be led along the trail carrying goods between villages.
As the landscape changes during the walk, so do the people. The further along the trail you go, the more people seem to appear to be of Tibetan descent. However, the warmth of the Nepali welcome - wide smiles and greetings of Namaste - remain the same. For me, the most memorable day occurred when my impromptu companions and I opted to take the what is known as the high route between the villages of Pisang and Manang.The trail passed along a Buddhist Mani wall decorated with stones carrying meticulous script carvings. These spiritual monuments are found all along the trail in the higher regions.
The path then climbs steeply to the medieval-looking village of Ghyaru, cut improbably into the hillside below Pisang mountain. The views back onto Annapurna II, III and Gangapurna were simply breathtaking - stretching from the base of the dark wooded valley up into the huge chaotic masses of ice reaching into the blue sky. Staring up at the wisps of snow being blown from the summits, with the village prayer flags fluttering above my head, I found it hard to comprehend that only the week before I had been sitting at my desk in an air-conditioned office.
The next few days were spent building up to the crossing of the Thorung La pass. Altitude sickness is a very real risk during this section of the trek and a day of rest is required in the village of Manang to allow the body to acclimatise to the lack of oxygen. Crossing the pass itself means a long day with an early start from Thorung Phedi, a lung-bursting 1,000m climb, followed by a gruelling 1,620m descent. With a worrying headache and aching legs, I finally reached the tangled web of flags set on top of the rocky moonscape that marks the high point of the trip.
After a quick congratulatory hug with my team mates and a chuckle at the sign that reads "see you again", we set off down the trail into the Kali Gandaki valley and into what seemed like a whole new world. Crossing the watershed takes you into the dusty dry high-altitude region of Mustang. After a stop in the pilgrimage centre of Muktinath, my trek finished early with a terrifyng flight that takes you out of the windswept town of Jomsom. This option cuts the overall length of time on the trail to about 11 days. The fear of crashing into the valley sides was offset by the fantastic views of the Annapurna Himal from the window of the tiny plane being buffeted about by the swirling winds.
While the return of the trekking masses to Nepal may be good news for the economy, it means that teahouses can become busy in the two peak seasons - October to November and March to April. The pressures on the environment and the local people are also a concern. The Annapurna Conservation Area Project has a code of conduct for visitors to the region in a bid to restrict problems such as deforestation and the use of plastic water bottles. It also appears that work to build a jeep track along sections of the trail is continuing apace with much of the latter half of the trek now navigable by four-wheel drive. This could prove a much bigger deterrent to would-be trekkers than the Maoist insurgency ever was.