High-wayWhen construction of a road linking Besisahar in Lamjung to Chame in the trans-Himalayan district of Manang began in 2010, the project invited plenty of scepticism.
When construction of a road linking Besisahar in Lamjung to Chame in the trans-Himalayan district of Manang began in 2010, the project invited plenty of scepticism.
There were doubts about the feasibility of the project, given the difficult terrain the motorway was to be built on.
The jeep track, at places, needed to be chiselled into rock faces hugging the Marsyandi River and there remained concerns that even if the road was completed, it would be too risky to travel on.
Others tabled concerns about how it might change the indigenous lifestyle and environment, negatively impacting the annual footfall of tourists who serve as a crucial lifeline to the remote district.
But five years after the completion of the motorway, those initial concerns have been largely placated.
Today, Manang is booming like never before and the district is becoming a highly sought-after destination not just for foreign visitors but also for domestic travellers.
“When the construction project took off, we had little hope that the district headquarter (Chame) would ever see the motorway,” confesses Kapli Gurung, the chair of Manang District Development Committee, “Looking at how difficult it was to carve a road by chiselling into the Myardi Bhir, it seemed impossible at the time.
Now travelling to Manang through that impossible terrain is what brings adventure seekers to the district. What’s more, the road has brought development in other ways we once thought was impossible.”
The Besisahar-Chame Sadak, also known as the Manang Sadak, is a one-lane 65 km long road through the Marsyangdi Valley that connects the district headquarters of Lamjung and Manang.
From Chame, the road extends another 31 kms towards Khangsaar in Upper Manang. According to Hom Prasad Gurung, who plies his jeep along the Besisahar-Chame stretch, the road, while far from ideal, stays in operation all through the year, save for the times the upper reaches of the district see heavy snowfall in winter.
Currently, it takes seven hours to reach Chame, and another three to Khangsaar.
Before the opening of the Besisahar-Chame Sadak, the promotion of Manang as a tourism hotspot had largely remained an unfulfilled dream, ever since Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) expanded its work to the district in 1997.
Together with its adjoining district Mustang, Manang has been dubbed as the Himal Pariko Jilla—a District beyond the Mountains. But unlike Mustang—which has remained connected to the rest of the country via the Beni-Jomsom highway for over a decade—Manang had not been able to replicate the same touristic boom.
Also, unlike Mustang, Manang doesn’t have an airport in operation to ferry in visitors either. Which is why, initiatives like the Manang Gantabya Abhiyan (Destination Manang Campaign)—launched by the local Manang Youth Society in 2004 to encourage locals to launch hotels and restaurants—had remained largely ineffective.
But now that Manang is connected by a motorway, the district has seen a considerable rise in the number of visitors.
According to the ACAP, a total of 22,108 foreign tourists took on the circular Annapurna circuit, which straddles both Manang and Mustang, in 2016.
“But beyond just international visitors, it is the Nepali tourists that are flocking to Manang this year,” says Babulal Tiruwa, the chief of ACAP’s Manang division. According to Tiruwa, because the conservation area doesn’t charge Nepali tourists a fee for entering the district, it is difficult to put an estimate on the number of the actual footfall.
“But, the volume of domestic tourists has been very encouraging,” he says.
Bin Ghale, a tourism entrepreneur based in Thanchok, agrees that Manang captures the imagination of visitors, regardless of where they are from.
“As soon as you cross Bahundanda, to the east of Besisahar, it is like you have entered another world,” he says, “A lot of people, even Nepalis, have never encountered such beautiful landscape before. A lot of Manang’s popularity in recent years has been due to the word-of-mouth publicity by those who have visited.”
Buoyed by the influx of visitors, talks are already afoot for upgrading the condition of the Besisahar-Manang Sadak. According to Bhanu Joshi, the chief of the Division Road Office-1, in Damauli, various maintenance and expansion works have been scheduled on the stretch this fiscal year.
“This year the budget allocated to the stretch is Rs 200 million,” he says, “When it was constructed, the track was only meant for jeeps, so there are some portions that look almost impossible to expand. But we are working towards ensuring that two jeeps coming from opposite directions can easily pass abreast. We hope that it will make the road far more comfortable in the coming years.”
Until then, Joshi warns, Manang remains a tricky destination unfit for inexperienced drivers. Just this week, a 26-year-old Israeli tourist died and 10 others were injured, when the jeep they were travelling in overturned a steep section of the road near Talguan.
It is the latest of several accidents that have occurred on the track this year.
Experts have also warned that the opening of the track to Upper Manang has also left visitors in risk of suffering from high-altitude sickness.
According to the Himalayan Rescue Association (HRA), the problem of high-altitude sickness has become a serious issue in Manang and a few other mountainous destinations which are now connected by motorable roads.
“More than 400 cases of high-altitude sickness were recorded among Nepali trekkers in Manang last year, and the number could mount in the future as the number of visitors spike,” said DB Koirala, chairman of the HRA. “Fortunately, no one died or sustained serious injuries. But if we do not take this matter seriously, it’s going to become a big problem.”
For a visitor embarking off from Besisahar, which stands at 760 m above the sea-level, the nine-hour jeep ride to Khangsaar takes them up to an altitude of 3,756 m.
Such drastic change in elevation can cause altitude-related sicknesses such as acute mountain sickness, swelling of the brain (High-Altitude Cerebral Edema, HACE) or accumulation of fluid in the lungs (High-Altitude Pulmonary Edema, HAPE).
“Which is why, it is necessary to raise awareness among travellers, both domestic and international, about the consequences of gaining too much altitude without acclimatisation,” said Koirala, “That way, we can ensure that places like Manang, which have only just started attracting throngs of tourists, continues to be considered a safe and popular destinations.”