So the government of Nepal has u-turned on a decision made earlier this year to ban solo trekking in the country. It’s a victory for common sense. Nepal is currently the best place in the world for solo trekking, and to ban it would have been a bit like the Jamaican Olympic team forgetting to register their athletes for the 100 metres.
The solo trekking ban has been widely reported in the last month by both the mainstream media and the adventure travel community, and was expected to come into effect in time for the start of the autumn trekking season. There’s been no official explanation of why the ban has been put on hold, but it was announced on the Trekking Agencies’ Association of Nepal (TAAN) website earlier this week.
Why did Nepal want to ban solo trekking?
The ban was supposedly intended for security reasons after the decapitated remains of a female Belgian trekker were found in the Langtang region in June. This followed a number of other incidents involving solo trekkers in the area.
But leaving aside arguments that a solo trekking ban punishes the victims rather than targets the criminals, not everyone thinks security was the only consideration behind the decision. TAAN represents trekking agencies who provide porters, guides and logistics to trekkers. The biggest cash cow for agencies are organised trekking groups with many clients, and some independent travel bloggers have suggested the government may have been under pressure from organisations such as TAAN to implement a solo trekking ban in the misguided belief that it would encourage solo trekkers to hire guides or sign up for group treks instead.
A ban on solo trekking would certainly have been bad for Nepal’s tourism industry. The country has some of the best infrastructure for solo trekking anywhere in the world, and undeniably the loveliest scenery. It’s the home of tea house trekking, a phenomenon that doesn’t seem to exist in any other country containing one of the world’s greater mountain ranges.
What is tea house trekking?
Three of Nepal’s trekking areas – the Annapurnas, the Khumbu (or Everest region), and Langtang – are well-developed with tea houses (or lodges) at regular intervals along the trail providing accommodation and hot meals. Tea houses are not hotels, and their facilities can be quite rudimentary, but although prices have increased a lot in recent years, they are still extremely cheap by western standards. Most rooms are little more than a mattress on a bed, and trekkers need to bring a sleeping bag. Walls are usually made of timber and paper-thin so that you must keep your fingers crossed the couple next door are not too amorous. Shared toilets are usually squat-style, and often just a hole in the ground in the Khumbu region. Hot water for showers is usually an optional extra, and the shower ends when the bucket of hot water runs out, but increasingly lodges are now providing rooms with en suite facilities. As long as you don’t expect gourmet cuisine, hot meals can be tasty, with dal bhat (rice and lentils), chow mein (noodles) and momos (meat or vegetable filled dumplings) the staples, but yak or chicken sizzlers with French fries common enough. Depending on your comfort requirements, it’s still possible to travel for as little as $10 a day. In fact, some of my best memories of trekking in Nepal are the tea houses I’ve stayed in.
Route finding on the popular trails such as the Annapurna Circuit and Everest Base Camp Trek is quite straightforward. As long as you’re happy to carry a few extra kilos, there’s really no need to hire a guide or porter, and the easy availability of food and accommodation means the complex logistics involved in carrying kitchen and sleeping tents and enough food for your trek isn’t required. I trekked the Annapurna Circuit this way myself in 2006 and thoroughly enjoyed it. Although this wasn’t a solo trek (and presumably therefore wouldn’t have been affected by the ban) as I was travelling friends, I did explore a bit of the Khumbu in this way on my own in 2009.
Why solo trekking benefits Nepal’s economy
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking Nepal’s economy doesn’t benefit much from solo trekkers, but this would be wrong. Solo trekkers spend money in tea houses, and tea house owners provide work for porters because supplies still need to be brought in on foot. Although fledgling tea house accommodation is starting to appear in new trekking areas such as the Tamang Heritage Trail and the Manaslu Circuit, tea house trekking is still mainly confined to the more developed areas. If trekkers want to get off the beaten track to the many beautiful trekking areas elsewhere in Nepal then they will need to hire the services of trekking agents. I’m sure many people who once started as solo tea house trekkers have taken this route. Conversely there are many solo trekkers (such as round-the-world backpackers) who are defined more by the “solo” than the “trekker”. The theory that such people will sign up for group treks is entirely false. If they can’t solo trek they will simply miss Nepal off their itineraries instead.
Nepal is the jewel in the world’s trekking crown. I join many people in rejoicing that common sense has prevailed here, and I hope the idea of a solo trekking ban is now dead and buried.
If this is a subject close to your heart then you may be interested in some of the other posts I’ve written about trekking in Nepal, including Is the Annapurna Circuit still a Must-See?, Is the Manaslu Circuit the new Annapurna Circuit? and 5 off-the-beaten path treks in Nepal.