Push for a new high

Andrew Bain treads a new path on the trekking landscape of the Annapurnas.

It is a perfect blue day and Kathmandu is burning. Car tyres are ablaze at major road intersections as protesters rally against a political killing while trucks idle in wait at the smoking roadblocks, queued for kilometres, belching fumes through the streets. The air is so thick it can almost be chewed.

It's a scene that seems indicative of the changing Kathmandu. The city that was once the tranquil end to the overland hippie trail from Europe, the city that tempted so many visitors to drop in and chill out for months at a time, is no longer such a breath of fresh air.

In the past two decades, politics and population growth have transformed the Nepali capital. Since 1991, the population in the Kathmandu valley has more than tripled with rural Nepalis forced to the city by poverty and insurgent Maoist activity.

Four million people now compete on roads controlled by less than a dozen traffic lights creating a snarl of vehicles, noise and people. Car horns are the city's soundtrack, power lines are tangled like dreadlocks and the hawked sound of clearing throats has become, like China, an unofficial national anthem. Kathmandu now truly feels like an Asian city, not a place apart.

"There's more pollution, more cars, everything has grown so quickly," says Kathmandu resident Nima Lama, who has lived in the city since 1995. "There's almost no space here."

And while the city retains its essential attractions - the cremation ghats at Pashupatinath temple; Bodhnath, one of the world's largest Buddhist stupas; the primate-packed Monkey Temple; shopping in Thamel - it has become a place to pass through, not inhabit.

"Now I think people are hardly staying in Kathmandu for long," Lama says. "It's just a stopover; people really don't want to stay here."

Kathmandu is not alone in change. With the Maoists elected to government last April, ending an insurgency that claimed an estimated 12,000 lives, visitors are returning to Nepal to find that tourism has altered throughout much of the country. White-water rafting has faded to a minor activity, with the once-quiet banks of the Trisuli, the country's most popular rafting river, now home to a truck-filled highway into India. At popular Chitwan National Park, lodges and resorts have been ordered out of the reserve and into a buffer zone by the end of this year.

Trekking remains the foundation stone of the country's tourism but it too is in flux with new roads fast devouring the Annapurna Circuit, which is the most famous trek in Nepal's most popular trekking region. Early last year the first vehicle drove up the Kali Gandaki valley to Jomsom. By next year it's likely that vehicles will be able to travel to Manang at the foot of the high Thorung La pass.

A perennial on lists of the world's best walks, the circuit now seems destined for obscurity with some trekking and travel companies already dropping it from their brochures.

"The alarm bells were ringing for me years ago," says Peregrine Adventures' Himalayan destination manager Mick Chapman. "Even five years ago we'd cut our route back to a mini-circuit because of the road. It's ruined as a walk."

The circuit's demise is certain to result in further shifts in Nepal's trekking landscape pushing more people into the Everest area. In the Annapurnas, traditionally the destination for about 60 per cent of Nepal's trekkers, it's also likely to start a scramble for new trekking routes to supplement the already-popular Poon Hill and Annapurna Sanctuary treks.

It's a race in which Chapman has a 30-year headstart. As a trek leader in the late 1970s, the Englishman pioneered a route up to Kopra Ridge, which drapes down from 7219-metre Annapurna South into the world's deepest gorge. It's higher and nearer to the mountains than Poon Hill, one of Nepal's most famous viewpoints, yet for three decades it has seen no more than a trickle of trekkers. That is almost certainly about to change.

At Deurali, a small collection of lodges an hour's walk from Ghorepani and Poon Hill, signs have started to appear spruiking this so-called "new route". And after 30 years as a trek accessible only to campers, the construction of five community lodges along its course, overseen by Chapman, is nearing completion.

I have travelled to Nepal to hike to Kopra Ridge with Chapman. For four days we will follow the traditional trekking route towards Poon Hill, along the Modi Khola valley and rising through its steep, terraced banks to the seemingly timeless village of Ghandruk. Only the graffiti seems modern. "Revolution starts at the barrel of a gun," reads one Maoist slogan scrawled in Sanskrit on rocks beside the trail.

"It is right to ribel (sic)," another notice proclaims on the boarded-up window of an abandoned home. They are messages at odds with the smiles and namastes (hellos) along the trail and in the village.

Poon Hill is near but we will not reach it. At Deurali there is a 15-minute climb to a hilltop lookout with views to rival Poon Hill only without the crowds. We share the rickety tower with just one other trekking group with three of the world's 10 highest mountains - Annapurna, Dhaulagiri and Manaslu - lined up before us.

The fishtail figure of Machhapuchhare scrapes at the sky and a sea of ridges fades away hundreds of kilometres to the horizon. It's a scene so immense, so commanding, that it's easy to overlook the other feature of the view: Kopra Ridge laid out before the mountains like a natural grandstand. Even Chapman didn't notice the alpine ridge until about his fifth or sixth visit to Poon Hill in the 1970s.

"I was on Poon Hill and you can see Kopra Ridge so clearly," he says. "And I said, 'What's up there?' and nobody knew. So I said, 'Right, let's go have a look.'

"It's just so clear from Poon Hill that there's a better view from Kopra Ridge."

At Deurali the next morning the sun burns on for a fifth day and we turn away from Poon Hill to truly begin our journey to the lofty solitude of Kopra Ridge. It will be three days before we see another trekker and yet they will be the finest days of the walk climbing through the treeline into alpine country, threading through yak herds and watching clouds and aeroplanes skim through the valleys below us. And ahead each night one of the new community trekking lodges with their grand views and their grand vision. As beautifully positioned as any lodges in the Annapurnas, the community lodges represent another, better shift in Nepali tourism, with all profits from the five lodges going not to lodge owners but to schools in nearby villages. A joint initiative between Chapman and the villages, the lodges will be open to all trekkers though trekking groups will be encouraged ahead of individuals for two reasons: more people means more money; and, even after 30 years of use, the trails are at times so faint a guide is essential.

The lodges will be staffed by villagers for whom the trip to the isolated huts such as Baiyali, Kopra Ridge and Danda Kharka is often a few hours on foot through the mountains.

"It will be a unique trekking area in that you can help the local communities," Chapman says. "The people in these villages haven't benefited from tourism even though they are smack bang in the middle of a trekking area."

The village of Swanta is a case in point.

A day's walk below Kopra Ridge, it's arguably one of Nepal's most beautiful villages stepping up the hillsides in a South-East Asian-like landscape of green terraces and forested ridges.

High above, Dhaulagiri, the seventh highest mountain in the world, hovers in the sky plunging away into the Kali Gandaki, the world's deepest gorge, bottoming out almost seven kilometres below its summit. It's an idyll that suffers only for the fact that it's an hour's walk off the Annapurna Circuit, which is teasingly visible on the opposite bank of the Ghara Khola. So near and yet so far, Swanta has seen very few trekkers and almost none of their money.

So while the trekking trade props up nearby villages, Swanta has struggled to keep its school open. It has three teachers but requires five, which means finding about $250 a month. So on grounds beside the school, the first of the community lodges was built, funded and managed by the school's headmistress.

We will walk through Swanta, staying a couple of nights in its lodge, but first we must climb to Kopra Ridge. From Deurali, it's a two or three-day walk to the ridge, depending on snow conditions. Past a stone hut in which a pair of cheesemakers turn out wheels of yak cheese and the community lodge at Baiyali with its sublime views to Dhaulagiri we begin the precipitous traverse of the ridge's high slopes.

Waterfalls roar down from above and the landscape of rock and yellow grasses crisped by sun is almost outback-like, coloured only by the blue gentian flowers and the thorny red stands of barberry. For almost an entire day the mountains lay hidden behind the crest of Kopra Ridge coming into view only 20 minutes before we reach the lodge, which sits atop the ridge among sheep pens and a shelter for pilgrims to holy Kaire Lake.

It's an ageless scene with a twist since the lodge also serves as one of two solar-powered relay stations that transmit wireless internet signals to surrounding villages.

Though it's halfway up Annapurna South and a day's walk from any village, you can check emails and footy scores on Kopra Ridge.

We are only the second group to stay in the lodge since its opening late last year bringing to three - Swanta, Baiyali and Kopra Ridge - the number of community lodges now operating. The final two lodges, at Chistibung and Danda Kharka, are expected to be completed by March.

With the lodge construction nearing its end, Chapman has been approached by a number of other villages around Nepal keen to establish similar community lodges. He is excited by the prospect but also cautious.

"Now that I've seen these lodges set up there's a couple of places in Nepal I'd like to do similar," he says. "But the important thing is not just to set up lodges - they have to be in a spot that makes for a bloody good trek."

Spots such as Kopra Ridge, where this night, as a near-full moon rolls into the sky, the surrounding peaks of Annapurna South, Dhaulagiri and the amber cliffs of Fang flare like lit matches in the day's last light.

Politics may have set Kathmandu burning but out here, where the beauty of the scene will never change, it takes only a sunset.

Andrew Bain travelled courtesy of Peregrine Adventures and Thai Airways.


Getting there

Kathmandu is the main airport and Thai Airways has $1210 fares with a change of aircraft in Bangkok. Singapore Airlines has a $1300 fare with a change of aircraft in Singapore. Royal Nepal Airlines has daily flights from Kathmandu to Pokhara, the base for treks in the Annapurna region, from $US61 ($86) while Yeti Airlines charges 2300 Nepalese rupees ($42), both one way, not including tax. All fares are return from Melbourne and Sydney (unless otherwise stated) and do not include tax. Australian passport holders require a tourist visa for a stay of up to 30 days. Visas can also be obtained at Kathmandu airport for $US40 (US notes are required).

Walking there

Peregrine Adventures' 16-day Annapurna Dhaulagiri trip visits Kathmandu and includes an 11-day trek to Kopra Ridge and the community lodges. The trip costs from $2590 a person, twin-share, and equipment provided includes a sleeping bag, a down jacket, a sleeping sheet and a kit bag. See peregrineadventures.com.

The trekking season in Nepal runs from October to May. October and November have the most stable weather conditions. The rhododendron forests flower in March and April.