Reportaje de Mateo Bueno
The route from Besisahar to Manang – the eastern section of the Annapurna circuit – is fairly representative of the rapid transformation that Nepal is undergoing. For better or for worse, this mutation is happening – from an indigenous, agricultural, collective-minded and radically self-reliant culture into one that is entrepreneurial and severely dependent on foreign tourism.
For millennia, the Himalayan people of Nepal had been secluded from most of the world. The nation was never colonized and a long legacy of kings showed little interest in opening the borders for foreign investment/relations. With European and American expeditionists exploring new peaks in the 50s and 60s, that began to change. Us westerners could only see through a western lens and could only see an opportunity to help the Nepali people “move forward” – building roads, schools, telecommunications systems and a thriving tourist economy that can grow at 30% y/y on good years or plummet on earthquake years.
The result is a constant tension between the past and the future. You can walk into a town of 7 homes that were built with wood and stone centuries ago and you can walk inside one of those homes and see a Nepali toddler playing with an iPhone and wearing a Nike sweatshirt. It’s as if the people of the Himalaya were one of the few remaining civilizations of humans who had figured out a different art of living, a different model of existence. Globalization and technology are causing that culture to evaporate.
The road from Besisahar to Manang was only finished two years ago. Previously, it was only a foot path for the locals and the trekkers who wanted to circle around the Annapurnas in 20 days or so. With the road, the locals can get medical attention in one or two days, when it could have been a multi-week trek to Besisahar’s Lamjung Community hospital. The road also brings power, wifi, food selection, and jeeps for trekkers who want to skip some sections (rides can be up to $200! The locals know how to tap into your willingness to pay when you don’t have 20 days to hike in or out of the park). Perhaps above all else, the connection that the road brings to the external world has brought ambition. Young people are no longer as committed to their village and they set their sights on college or a job in Katmandu. Ten years ago, 3% of Nepal’s population was urban compared to 40% today.
But who are we to judge? What right do we have in asking for a different path that will protect the traditions of the Nepali people when they know what’s best for them today? Everything is in flux, and like Mayas, Incas and Navajo, the tribes of Nepal will also pass as we all become one and the same.
Every 5 to 10 kilometers you cross a village with 5 to 10 homes where almost 10 out of 10 have now become guest houses. Previously, the locals would open their homes for guests to stay. Today, they have optimized their supply curve and you can see several new houses being built exclusively as hotels. Right now, most are empty during the monsoon season but the villages must be packed during the trekking season. Some homes have over 20 rooms.
Regardless of cultural transformations, the landscape and the views are unlike any other and the road seems to be optimized for an adventure bike. Narrow dirt road that won’t fit two jeeps, cliff on one side and steep mountain on the other. You literally ride under, through and between waterfalls. At times, a rocky overhang will cover the road and falling water forms a curtain waterfall that runs by you. It’s as close As I’ve been to moto surfing. The entire thing feels as if you’ve entered into an episode of game of thrones and you get to ride to Westeros.
After the first half of the day, the towns get further apart and much smaller in size. In the case of some, the dirt road converts into a cobble stone sidewalk through the town which is the only way to cross the town. Jeeps pass touching the homes on both sides of the road.
The elevation gain on day 2 is from 1,400 ms to 3,700 in Manang. I immediately feel the dizziness when getting up quickly from a seated position and the bike can feel it as well. It loses power on the uphills and in one occasion, I have to get off the bike to remove weight and walk it uphill.