Change on a Himalayan scale
German journalist Peter Hinze always had a fascination for the Himalaya, and later for trail-running. On one of his trips to Nepal, at Pilgrim’s Bookstore in Thamel, he came across Robin Boustead’s Nepal Trekking and the Great Himalayan Trail. On his flight back to Munich, he decided to one day do the trek himself.
‘My goal was not to break records. No, speed was not my motivation,’ Hinze writes in the prologue to his own book titled The Great Himalaya Trail and self-published in English in 2021. The German original won the International Tourismus Böurse Book Award in Berlin in 2019.
The reason he made the three-month journey in 2017 was that he felt the Himalaya was at a great risk from climate change, ‘civilisation’, road construction and out-migration. It was to draw attention to this ‘existential danger’ to Nepal’s mountains that he wrote a book that does not just record his adventure, but highlight haphazard road-building, the erosion of culture, impact of climate damage, and also the hardiness and adaptability of the high Himalayans.
With its superb photography, the book is a guide to those who want to be among the less than 150 people who have completed the entire trail, or even just do a part of this epic traverse of the Nepal Himalaya.
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There are two Great Himalaya Trails (GHT): one is the High Route that traverses the upper passes and uninhabited valleys, and the other is the Cultural Route which moves through villages and settlements. One has only mountains, and the other has mountains and people. Hinze’s book is as much about people as it is about terrain.
It is almost an anthropological documentation of the rapidly-changing landscape and culture of Nepal. As we flip through the pages, we know that many of these places will never be the same again.
Hinze’s team of porters and guides starts in Lhonak below Kangchenjunga and already the first signs of shrinking glaciers and retreating snowline are visible. Trying to cross from Khumbu into Rolwaling, the team is forced to turn back from Tashi Laptsa Pass because of heavy snow and avalanche danger.
He does make it to Mt Everest Base Camp to recount the series of disasters that have hit it in 2014 and 2015. We can see with the pandemic how over-dependence on tourism can be disruptive to livelhihoods.
Being a journalist, Hinze’s book is like a magazine longread. Instead of chapter breaks, we have sidebar interviews with people he meets along the way: the climate scientist Fidel Devkota, tourism entrepreneur Yankila Sherpa, Raju Bista, the nephew of the King of Mustang, and Robin Boustead himself.
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Hinze avoids polemics, trying to understand the need of Nepali villagers for better roads. He quotes Raju Bista: “Mustang is not a zoo for foreigners to come and ogle at us like we’re some sort of attraction. We are also entitled to progress, wealth and a better life, the road will bring us all of this.”
But Hinze is deeply worried about scars that the roads are leaving on Nepal’s nature and culture. The country’s bio- and human diversity is being erased by this accelerated rush to connect. Along the way, Hinze develops a special bond with Dolpo and its people. It is Nepal’s largest district still largely untouched, but the world is encroaching from its north and south.
Ten years after the first GHT traverse, Hinze gives us a glimpse through text and images of change on a Himalayan scale. We just hope that the book finds an international publisher so it is circulated widely. It has a useful appendix with the stages of the Trail and tips for those who want to do all 1,864 horizontal kilometres, 95,551 vertical metres, crossing 12 passes above 5,000m and 22 above 4,000m.
The highest point on the trail is 5,758m, and the lowest 303m. This book is vivid proof that there are six directions in Nepal: north, south, east, west, up and down.
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The Great Himalayan Trail
by Peter Hinze, 2021
English translation: Sylvia Goulding, Emily Plank
Chat with Peter Hinze
Nepali Times caught up with the author of The Great Himalayan Trail during his recent visit to Kathmandu. Excerpts of the conversation:
Nepali Times: This book explores not just the Great Himalayan Trail, but also the changes that are sweeping the land. Is that what inspired yoiu to write this book?
Peter Hinze: Although the book was only published a short time ago, some parts of are already in the past. That is how rapid the changes are. There is hardly any part of Nepal or the Himalayan region that are spared from these transformations. Valleys and mountains, which until recently were considered ‘inaccessible’, also for political reasons, are being ‘civilised’ and ‘developed’ at breakneck speed. The transformation is in full swing, and it will not be stopped.
It is important for people to connect to a more dignified life. For Westerners, the term Himalaya still has a romantic image: prayer flags, yak butter lamps, candles, no electricity. But of course the Himalayan inhabitants also want to participate in the development towards modernity.
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But there has been a lot of hype about this modernisation of the mountains. The danger that traditions and social structures will be lost is real. The book attempts to visually document at least some of the traditions.
One fact, however, has left me with mixed feelings: it's China's massive influence in the region. People are drawing hope from possible Chinese aid, which Nepal's government has denied for decades. But only short-term help is received, nobody wants to know anything about possible dependencies in the future, nobody wants to talk about it. But that dependency will come.
The book seems to mix your role as a journalist with that of a trail-running adventurer. How did you combine those two roles?
As a journalist, I encounter people and situations. I'm a guest for a short time. I meet people, some of whom haven't seen a stranger for years. So I have to adapt to this situation. I'm not allowed to disturb, but I still want to learn something about the people, about their lives and their problems. What could be more useful for a reporter than people opening up to them. I had the help of two Sherpa friends but for them too we were in a different place. For many people in the Himalaya, the unfamiliar begins in the next valley. “Here is my home, here is my family and my country. Why should I go to the next valley or even further?” This I've often heard this as an astonished question. In the west, the term ‘homeland’ has acquired a somewhat questionable (because it is too traditional) connotation. In the Himalaya, home is still an affair of the heart, even for young people.
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Your book is as much about the place as the people. What stuck you most about the inhabitants of the high Himalaya?
Between Kanchenjunga and Api-Saipal the inhabitants of the Himalaya master a life of the most extreme challenges. Deprivation, extreme weather, isolation, lack of health care, difficult access to education and increasingly the consequences of climate change. Nevertheless, there is confidence and hope for better days. Religion is the leitmotif of their will to survive. Modesty, hope, faith and confidence: these are the cornerstones of existence in the mountains. I live in Bavaria, close to the Alps. The mountain dwellers there lived the same way decades ago. It is the mountains that shape the people. No matter where, no matter what elevation. It doesn't matter what language is spoken.
Young Nepalis moved down into the valleys to Kathmandu or Pokhara. They went to good schools and found a job. But more and more of them are now returning to their home villages because they see opportunities there. This is a good trend, although not very strong yet.
Of all the places you walked through, you seem to have been really taken by Dolpo. Why Dolpo?
I often ask taxi drivers in Kathmandu if they have heard of Dolpo. Many have not.
They are a people that have been ignored for decades by Kathmandu. It is a place where the most original form of Tibetan Buddhism is still practiced, as is the Bon faith – one of the oldest in the world.
In the two years of the pandemic a lot has been said and written about in Europe about a return to the simple life, of basics. If we listen to the people, and especially the religious leaders in Dolpo region they can teach us a lot about frugality, happiness and living lightly.
Karma Tsering, is a yak farmer I met in Bhijer, located at 3,900m on the border with Tibet. He told me: “We have enough to eat. We have enough to wear. Why shouldn't we be happy?" He need to have said more. And that is why the Dolpopa deserve hope and help, and that is why the place is so close to my heart.
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Kunda Dixit is the former editor and publisher of Nepali Times. He is the author of 'Dateline Earth: Journalism As If the Planet Mattered' and 'A People War' trilogy of the Nepal conflict. He has a Masters in Journalism from Columbia University and is Visiting Faculty at New York University (Abu Dhabi Campus).