The blog of Tokyo based photographer and photojournalist, Damon Coulter

Wanderings

Quite upset to hear that the Nepali Government is going to make it compulsory, from September, to take either a guide or porter with you when trekking in the Himalaya.

The reasoning behind this has been a number of attacks on trekkers who were exploring the mountain ranges alone. Apparently this rule will even apply to the most popular routes and areas, although on the Everest Base Camp trek or the Annapurna Circuit it is probably quite hard these days to find yourself truly alone.

In the article from Wanderlust I linked above, Tim Geening from KE Adventure travel (Karakuram Experience in my Day I think) says: “The rule is sadly another bit of red tape that affects our right to roam freely in mountains but I think it has been brought in with all the best intentions.”

Not so sure on that.

While it is true that travelling with a guide or porter does directly benefit the local economy, giving work and wages to not only the person walking the trail with you, but also to the lodges and restaurants along the way, where he or she will stay and eat; and it is a given that travelling into these amazing areas with a local person can also open up new and unique perspectives on the people you meet along the trail; enriching your travel experience enormously, there is something to be said for the romance of travel that can only be found in solitude.

Of course the Nepali government is not about protecting the romance of our youthful wanders, or if you ask me that much about protecting the trekkers that do set out alone. It is about money. Nepal is still a very safe country where many people travel without incident. The majority of the incidents that have caused this rule to be brought in have been ones of sexual violence towards women trekkers where, in many cases, it was the guide or porter employed that committed the offences.

Not to say that solo trekkers cannot have dangerous encounters in isolated areas, especially in the border lands of the Langtang Himal it seems, and travelling alone is always to take a bigger risk, particularly for women, but this policy appears to be no more than part of a global policy to attract the richer tourist on the mistaken idea that they cause less trouble and contribute more money to the economy of the receiving country.

Backpackers globally it seems are becoming sidelined in favour of wealthier tourists. Yet why should backpackers be so unwelcome in modern tourism? Present day budget travellers, unlike the drifters or hippies of the sixties and  early seventies generally do not beg or steal, nor are they a significant part of the Western counterculture scene, and as P. Riley pointed out in her paper on the “Road Culture of International Long-term Budget Travelers” in 1988 their drug use is unremarkable. In fact backpacking, especially of the the ‘Gap Year‘ variety is incredibly mainstream, a right of passage for many young people that sees them living for extended periods of time in foreign countries, supported by organisations and the company of similar travellers, and without perhaps the overwhelming sense of hungry adventure and need to squeeze as much experience out of a finite irresponsibility as earlier traveller had. In the paper Riley defines budget travellers merely as people “desirous of extending their travels beyond that of a cyclical holiday, and, hence the necessity of living on a budget.”

An illustration of the change in modern backpacking can be found in Kathmandu’s famous “Freak Street” which is now as Dirgha Sag Sigdel pointed out in his paper on Backpacker Tourism in Nepal (2010) ” hippies’ heritage”. These days the place, “once a favored hangout of long-haired travelers, today [is] more often visited by tourists in search of the “hippies” who have long since moved to other less conspicuous locales.”

Over six-hundred thousand tourists visited Nepal in 2010 according to the Nepal Tourism Statistics. Tourism is a major industry in the country; perhaps the major industry, and I do not blame the country for trying to capitalise on that. Yet that “Hippie Heritage” is also a big draw for visitors and I do not think Nepal should be making itself unattractive to travellers that come looking for something a little different from the commodified  experiences of more developed destinations. There is a feeling that Nepal, that only entered the global consciousness in the 1950s due to daring climbs on the Himalayan peaks, is a land where a romantic traveller’s desires can be sated. It is a place that in 1951 didn’t have schools or electricity. A sense of adventure was necessary plus a willingness to rough it and not complain. It is and was travel as it used to be. You went, you learnt what you needed to survive en-route and you took a risk.

It is a risk many people are still prepared to take and by forcing restrictions on freedoms the Nepali government are turning the experience of visiting their country into something less. Will the rules be extended to make sure all trekkers sleep in the same villages for safety at some later date? Many freedoms are lost under the guise of providing us with security. These usually also provide some profit to the writers of the rules and though there may be an increased danger recently from bad people targeting tourists and despite the advantages that can be had from employing a guide or porter I outlined above, I know from my own wanders around the Himalaya that there is still nothing like finding yourself free and alone at a height where it is possible to take in views of mountains that leave you speechless. I do not want at such times, regardless of the friendliness of the porter I’ve employed, to feel the need to share some trite words with him. Nor do I want to feel the need to press on with a schedule that has been pre-arranged and over which I have not got complete control. Granted the tourist on a break from work has to be back at a certain time but that is the beauty of backpacking, you don’t have these duties imposed upon you. I loved leaving villages in the Himalaya knowing that my path was never going to bring me back to them. I loved that I could wait an hour for a picture if I needed to or decide, on a whim, to stay a week in one village during the Holi Festival, making friends, learning the language and getting splatted with red and purple dye by Lolitta Pun in the photo above. (Yes that is her real name) All things I could do, of course, with an employee accompanying me but not so free of guilt or expense.

The Nepali government helpfully points out that the $10 or so extra a day incurred in the cost of taking a porter or guide with you on a trek will not adversely affect your ability to enjoy your travels in the Himalaya. While this may be true for some richer tourists who have over budjeted for their short excursions, in a country where the living costs on a trekking route can be a little as $5 a day it is a significant increase. Over a three-week trek like the Annapurna circuit the extra expense could make the difference between spending another month in the country or having to go home.

Maybe it is more expensive now, certainly the costs of the permits is not included in that $5 and when I was trekking I lived very cheaply on Daal Bhat and stayed at the lodges that leapfrogged the usual itinerary (sleeping at lunch spots and lunching where every other trekker was told to stay by their Lonely Planet guide book) Rather than demand comfort and western meals like pizza at 5,000 metres I ate with the porters and guides, got second helpings all the time and had a fantastic journey. Of course the last time I was trekking in Nepal was in 1995 and even then I was shocked to discover suitcases and wheely bags being off-loaded at the airport. Perhaps these rules will not affect the average tourist or average back packer much these days.

But to me they seem another diminishing of the freedoms that being on the road meant for me. They seem another way in which the experiences I set out on my travels to find are being increasingly costed and becoming exclusively  for those that have the money demanded of them. I would like the choice to have two different travels if I so wished. One where I helped the local economy, employed the services of guides and porters and had unique insights into their lives through the bond built in our shared endeavour. But also I would like the chance to stand under huge skies in some dizzyingly high valley, completely alone looking at the mountains and feeling more alive than I have ever felt before due to the effort I alone put in to reach this place. I have felt that in Nepal a few times. It may be the last time I ever do.

Sorry not been here for a while, super busy.

back with avengeance hopefully.

Damon

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One response

  1. eastwestspace

    the government is lame, there is no way to rationalize the decisions they make

    August 8, 2012 at 12:12 pm

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