As I think we’ve mentioned, neither of us had done a trek anything like as long or sustained as our Annapurna Circuit trek. We’d both done 4/5 days (in tents) up Jebel M’Goum in Morocco and I’d done 4/5 days in Torres del Paine in Chile with Dave Emery (the wrong way, as Dave likes to remind me). With 18 days of walking every day (average > 6 hours/day) of over 250km from 500m altitude up to 5416m, this was a completely different kettle of dal baht. Genuinely I loved the whole thing. There were a few (we worked out 5) tough days, but they were so rewarding and satisfying that I enjoyed those too. It probably helped that neither of us got particularly sick, either with altitude or digestion, and that this wasn’t the ‘whole’ of our holiday, but the food, terrain, atmosphere, routine and, of course, scenery were thrilling and inspiring. We were also very much aided by not having to carry our main packs each day (thanks porters!) and by staying in proper beds in tea houses each night rather than tents. It makes a huge difference when you know you’ve got a dry, warm bed to recover in.
Even with some of our group who’d struggled a bit more (usually with the food) evening conversation towards the end turned to other treks to do, whether day walks in Northern Ireland, or the West Highland Way, to the Inca Trail and Kilimanjiro. I think the 18-day nature of the trek was probably longer than we’d do again, but it was very worthwhile to go through a trek that long. We’ll probably look to do a couple of days here and there in SE Asia, and certainly see what we can do in New Zealand.
Nepal was a great experience as well, the first proper period of the trek where we weren’t in daily comfort. I’m sure this will sound awful, but I don’t think we’d been more than 2 days the whole trip beforehand without broadband internet. The world is an incredibly connected place nowadays, as my ability to get live twitter updates on Bath games while in a small town by Lake Baikal, or checking whatever latest stupidity the American government was up to while stopped at the Mongolian border, will testify to. We’d joked upon reaching Hong Kong that we were ‘back in civilisation’, but to be honest we hadn’t ever left it. Stable electricity, clean, potable water, hot showers and wifi connections were ubiquitous for the first 7 weeks of our journey, the nights spent on the train being pretty much the only exceptions.
As soon as we arrived in Kathmandu the climate, culture and communications were clearly comparatively compromised (sorry). The roads throughout Nepal are rough and rarely tarmac-ed, there are daily power cuts in all parts of the country (apart from a couple of small villages with their own micro-hydroelectric projects), water is either so polluted or populated with bacteria that you can’t even brush your teeth with is, there is very little internet access outside the cities (and what there is is unstable and slow) and showers are often solar-powered, limiting you to a couple of gallons of lukewarm water in the early afternoon. This wasn’t particularly difficult to navigate given our guided trek, but it shows how easy it is to be glib about far lesser ‘hardships’.
I’m a firm believer in the benefits that technology and communication bring, better roads means greater ease of movement, which means broader horizons. Stable electricity means opening up more hours for reading. The internet brings a wealth of information and the ability to reach for goals that previously weren’t just unobtainable, but were inconceivable. Given my general geeky leanings and choice of profession I doubt this is of any surprise, but I don’t hold that we were weakened by these advances, that they are barriers to human interaction. If my Mum is able to criticise my choice of hair colour and beard halfway around the world, that’s a good thing. I think. Yes, it’s a good thing!
The point of this aside is that it’s often brought up on treks like this that it’s important to see them ‘before they’re spoiled’. Spoiling, generally, means ‘making more accessible to others’. Sure, occasionally this means there’s an extra McDonalds or Starbucks and God knows that’s depressing to see, but it’s too easy to see those bad things and ignore the improvements in healthcare and education that has been brought to locals. It is, perhaps, the pace of change that can be a damaging factor, and one that is extraordinarily difficult to manage. In Nepal they seem to be making a decent stab at this, focussing on small, sustainable projects, like local hydroelectric projects, a primary school for every village, computers, small, but regular extensions for lodges, and regular water purification systems to sell safe water to tourists. Yes, the new roads will bring more tourists, and yes it’s satisfying to be smug about seeing what has been seen by few other westerners, but the democratisation of knowledge and natural beauty are fundamental forces for good in this world – supporting bringing them about in sustainable ways should be applauded.