Of course, the government is not the only thing that’s changed since the pioneering treks of Roberts and Le Bon. When I arrived in Kathmandu, I was bombarded by the shouting, smog, horns, and motorcycles of a rapidly modernizing, if not fully modern, city. Pedestrians bustled between warrens of half-completed buildings, and local elites squeezed down lanes too narrow for their gleaming black SUVs. Sushi restaurants and fluorescent-lit clothing boutiques stood down the street from crumbling temples patrolled by monkeys.
I rode in a taxi to Thamel, whose restaurant-jammed alleys and intricately carved wooden buildings have lured travelers since the Age of Aquarius, when the first waves of hitchhiking seekers arrived after crossing Europe on the Hippie Trail. The visitors these days looked more likely to be humming Katy Perry than Cat Stevens. They wandered in a happy daze amid dozens of stores selling maps, ice axes, sleeping bags, and the world’s largest supply of counterfeit Mountain Hardwear jackets. Everybody was gearing up for long expeditions, or, with chapped lips and sunburned faces, just coming back. Roberts’s original Mountain Travel outpost was long gone, but it had sired countless guide service progeny who were at the epicenter of an international industry.
As we inched around bicycle rickshaws and street vendors, touts sidled up to the open taxi window and whispered, “Hotel? Trekking? Hash?” Business for all three was booming. Though travelers were never targeted during the war, visitation plunged by nearly half. In 2008, however, nearly 550,000 tourists came, an all-time high. The government, which relies on tourism as a leading source of revenue from overseas, wants the positive momentum to continue. Prachanda Man Shrestha, chief of the Nepal Tourism Board, hopes for one million visitors by 2011. “Tourism,” he says, “is not a choice but a compulsion for the development of Nepal.”
Not coincidentally, the country is creating what is sure to become a magnet for adventure travelers: the Great Himalaya Trail. At 1,600 miles, the GHT is like the Appalachian Trail but on a diet of red meat, anabolic steroids, and nails. The route traverses the length of the loftiest mountain range on Earth, passing subtropical forests, remote villages, and all eight of Nepal’s 8,000-meter peaks. Hiking the entire trail takes four months, about a month less than the AT, and you can hire a single outfitter to coordinate your trek. The alternative, if you don’t have the luxury of that much time, is to cherry-pick GHT segments and enlist outfitters as needed. I had five weeks to test-drive the proposed route, so I carefully selected three of its most spectacular portions: Humla, Annapurna, and Everest.
In a country recovering from civil war, the symbolic value of a nation-spanning route is obvious. But a symbol only means as much as the reality it represents, and Nepal’s route to prosperity is long and perilous. A trail won’t do much, but at least it articulates the promise of the unified nation Nepal would like to become. And it showcases the country’s crown jewels as well as the Himalaya less traveled—places that have remained just as veiled to most outsiders as they were when the only view came through a surveyor’s scope far away.
A roadless, Delaware-size region tucked into the northwestern corner of Nepal, Humla has a mere 43,000 inhabitants living in an unspoiled realm of peaks, pine and rhododendron forests, and deep river gorges. Fewer than a thousand travelers visit annually, consisting mainly of pilgrims making their way to Tibet’s holy Mount Kailas and paddlers drawn to Karnali, one of the greatest, if not best known, expeditionary rivers in the world. Only a handful of visitors make it into the lonely, Tibetan Plateau–like countryside of the Limi Valley, where I had stumbled upon the barley harvest in the village of Til.