NEW DELHI, India — The Himalayan range — home to Everest, K2 and more than 100 peaks exceeding 21,000 feet in height — is without question the most well-known and most awe-inspiring set of mountains in the world. But as a trekking destination, the majestic snow-capped range has a long way to go.
Of the six countries that the Himalayan range crosses, only Nepal has succeeded in tapping the growing interest in adventure tourism, while nations like Afghanistan, Bhutan, China and Pakistan have failed to capitalize on their high-altitude potential due to strict regulations and internal strife. Even India has not made much progress, although it accounts for most of the main Himalayan range and offers a more or less safe and friendly, if not hassle-free, experience for tourists.
“Today, we are one-tenth of Nepal in adventure tourism,” said adventurer and guidebook author Depi Chaudhry, who says India doesn't track these numbers. “We have a substantial portion of the Himalayas. But we haven't been able to leverage that.”
As India's neighbor to the east prepares for a big marketing push with its “Visit Nepal” campaign in 2011, however, Chaudhry has thrown his lot in with a group of freelance trekkers, climbers and writers who are fighting their own battle to promote the Himalayan trekking industry — with guerrilla tactics.
Logging thousands of kilometers and hundreds of thousands of words, Chaudhry and fellow guidebook writers Robin Boustead, Gary Weare and Jamie McGuinness are struggling to map and promote a commercial trekking route that crosses the Himalayas from end to end.
Billed as The Great Himalaya Trail, or GHT, the traverse will cobble together dozens of marketable legs to draw some of the 30,000-plus tourists who do the popular Everest Base Camp and Annapurna Circuit treks in Nepal each year to other regions. The dream is that one day, a traverse of the entire route could be the life-long goal for every serious trekker in the world.
“I spend far too much time thinking about how to do it,” said Boustead, who recently completed a guidebook for the Nepal section of the GHT. “I have every intention of trying to do the first ever continuous walk — not taking a break for seasons, which is what has happened with the only other two attempted traverses. There's a very convincing case for creating a continuous trail that could be run over the course of a year or perhaps 14 months.”
Such long-distance trails are already popular in many other countries. The Appalachian Trail, which runs through the Eastern United States' Appalachian mountain range for 2,174 miles from Georgia to Maine, sees thousands of “sectioners” every year — and nearly 10,000 cult-hero “thru-hikers” have traversed the entire route in a single trekking season since the 1930s. The 220-mile Coast to Coast Walk across northern England boasts a similar following, as does the shorter Tour du Mont Blanc, which circles the famously sublime peak on a route that passes through parts of Switzerland, Italy and France.
But no long-distance hiking trail in the world has overcome the political and logistical obstacles that confront the GHT. High passes and inclement weather make traversing the Himalayas nearly impossible in a single season, much of the route is inaccessible by road, and many trailheads are hundreds of kilometers from the nearest airport.
But those obstacles to commercial trekking pale in comparison to the political barriers to establishing a difficult to monitor overland route crossing six countries at odds over territory, human rights violations, diplomatic bullying and even cross-border terrorism. Even in peaceful, liberal India, for example, substantial portions of arguably the most desirable high-altitude traverse are closed to foreign trekkers because they pass through sensitive border areas under dispute between India and China or India and Pakistan.
However, Boustead believes the time is ripe for pushing the envelope. Though many routes remain closed or permit-only, India has for many years used mountaineering feats as a political tool — most notably with Colonel Narinder “Bull” Kumar's 1978 race to claim a series of summits on Kashmir's Siachen Glacier, today the focus of India's standoff with Pakistan.
And in recent years India has apparently been exploring commercial trekking and mountaineering as a way of solidifying its claims on disputed territories. In January of this year, for instance, the government announced it was removing restrictions and opening to climbers 104 mountain peaks from the Leh and Ladakh regions along India's border with China and Pakistan.
“If you're going to assert your authority over a region, the best way to do that is by controlling access and allowing people to go there,” said Boustead, who bemoans the restrictions on trekking in some of India's most impressive mountains. “Why is there no Nanda Devi circuit? It's the most well known mountain in India. Why isn't there a Kanchenjunga circuit?”
So far, only the Nepal segment of the Great Himalaya Trail is officially open for business, with an established route map and nine well-defined legs serviced by various outfitters. But the team is working speedily to bring the rest of the trail online. According to Chaudhry, the map of the India route is “by and large” complete.
Having walked about 60 percent of the trails in the course of researching his book, "Trekking Guide to the Western Himalayas," he envisions splitting the GHT into about eight legs suitable for commercial trekking in India. And he thinks the trail can be up and running in 2010. “Most of these trails do exist historically, whether it was used by the shepherds to walk from one village to another, or for trading, or for marriage purposes,” Chaudhry said. “It's just that they've not really been popularized.”
In March, the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development will hold a conference in Kathmandu to bring together all the parties interested in the GHT, which the nonprofit organization views as a means “to attract repeat visitors to the Himalaya region, and to divert them into lesser visited rural mountain areas as a tool for poverty reduction in poorer mountain districts.” Bringing together stakeholders not only from Nepal and India but also from Bhutan, China and Pakistan, the conference aims to explore the viability of promoting the GHT as a region-wide project. Boustead, for one, believes that it represents a crucial opportunity.
“It's a watershed moment for adventure tourism in Asia,” he said. “There are long distance walking trails in Africa, South America, North America, Europe and Australia. But there are no formal long-distance walking trails in Asia.” The GHT could not only be Asia's first such route. It's a natural to be the most famous long-distance trail in the world.
“The Himalaya is an obvious choice,” Boustead said. “It's defined, it's well-known, it has the highest peaks on earth. There's lots of draw cards.”