I’ve mentioned a couple of times how I’m a keen follower of The Longest Way Home blog, written by UK-born travel writer David Ways. Although he’s been all over the world during the decade or so he’s been writing it, Dave is semi-settled in Nepal now and spends much of the year there, reporting back on the latest tourism developments.
Back in December I reported on Dave’s latest website project Missingtrekker.com, which provides information on tourists who have gone missing while trekking in Nepal. This site hit the headlines last month when a Taiwanese trekker was found alive, but close to starvation, 47 days after being reported missing. Tragically his girlfriend, who went missing at the same time, died just three days before he was rescued. Missingtrekker.com was picked up by a few news outlets, including the BBC, because it was the most comprehensive source of information about the couple and their movements.
Dave is also the founder of the Digital Archaeology Foundation, an innovative and ambitious project to preserve Nepal’s cultural heritage electronically. This involves using 3D cameras to catalogue high-resolution 3D models of Nepal’s historic monuments and buildings. If an earthquake like the one in 2015 destroys more of Kathmandu’s historic sites, an electronic blueprint will exist for them to be rebuilt exactly as they were.
If that wasn’t enough, he’s also been writing a series of guidebooks to Nepal. While I was there in March I thought I’d take the opportunity to try one of them out.
The books are available in parts, at the budget price of $1.99, and cover some of the most popular tourist destinations, including Kathmandu, Pokhara, Chitwan and Lumbini. There is a guide for first-time trekkers, and possibly the most comprehensive guidebook to the sites of the Kathmandu Valley ever written.
The books are available in sets at a discount, but the best value-for-money is the guidebook to Nepal, which is essentially all of them combined into one. It weighs in at 538 pages, and is priced at $19.99. By comparison the 10th edition of the Lonely Planet guide to Nepal is also available for $19.99 (though the Kindle version is $17.70), but comes to just 416 pages.
I’m going to continue the Lonely Planet comparison, because in some ways this guide is modelled on the Lonely Planet, but is seeking to be better – more comprehensive, more independent and more up-to-date. So how well does it succeed?
I bought one of the earlier editions of the Lonely Planet guide to Nepal when I first travelled there in 2002. Tourism in Nepal changes rapidly, and it wasn’t long before the book became out-of-date. I had to chuck the old edition away and buy a new one at a similar price. It’s rather like buying an iPhone, but without the additional connectors and cables.
Dave has paperback versions of the guidebooks planned very soon, but at the moment they are only available digitally. The Nepal one is a whopping 70MB interactive PDF. Although you’re not allowed to distribute it to other people, the license entitles you to sync it to multiple devices. The reason for the large file size is because it’s choc-full of colour photographs and maps, with plenty of hyperlinks, enabling you to flick through to relevant sections in the same way that you would flick through the pages of a book. I found the text a little too small to read on my phone without having to zoom in, but it was just right for my 4½” x 7” tablet. It looks very neat when using the Foxit PDF viewer, which is a free app for Android (I don’t use iPhones or iPads any more, because there are only so many times you have to throw away your old device before you give up and throw it away for good).
Another advantage of a digital guidebook is the ability to get updates. The license entitles you to free updates for a year – just contact Dave before you travel and he’ll email you the latest version. He updated parts of the guidebook last month, and sent me a new version after I returned from Nepal. That April 2017 version is available online now – there is no need to wait for the next edition.
Structurally the book has similarities with a Lonely Planet guidebook too, with an extensive introductory section, followed by chapters arranged geographically. The last 100 pages or so are about trekking, and there are a few appendices about language, culture and health. The introductory section contains all the essentials, such as info on money, visas, getting to and from the country, and in true Lonely Planet tradition, 12 pages about the country’s history (I realise they must be fascinating to a small minority of people, but if Google Analytics provided data on guidebooks, I’m guessing the history sections would be the ones with the smallest number of page views).
The Longest Way Home guidebook contains comprehensive chapters on Pokhara, Chitwan, Bardia and Lumbini, but its standout feature is without question the phenomenal amount of information about the Kathmandu Valley. This is hardly surprising. His work with the Digital Archaeology Foundation means that Dave probably knows as much about the historic sites of the Kathmandu Valley as anyone in the world. While Lonely Planet manages 25 pages about them, Dave’s guidebook contains a staggering 250 pages. You could live for years in Kathmandu, and the chances are you won’t get round to visiting them all (I notice he still has to visit Shivapuri Peak though, Kathmandu’s best one-day hill walk).
The book is also great for restaurants and bars. It was my 12th visit to Nepal, so I thought I knew Thamel well, but I still got a couple of good recommendations from this guidebook. We ended up visiting one of them, Black Olives, for breakfast every morning. In the last few days Dave has also discovered the new location of Rum Doodle, Kathmandu’s famous mobile restaurant, that changes its location more frequently than Teresa May changes her mind.
Dave visits the places anonymously, and aims to spend at least one night in every hotel. He keeps a low profile in Nepal, and doesn’t tell anyone he’s a travel writer. Lonely Planet’s writers tend to be more well known, and are therefore more likely to get a better standard of service than the average customer.
I’m probably not being too unfair if I say the trekking section of the guidebook is still a work in progress. By this I mean there are currently a limited number of trekking areas covered. Those that are included, are covered well. The old favourites, Everest Base Camp, the Annapurna Circuit and Annapurna Sanctuary are in there, as well as shorter ones like Dhampus, Poon Hill, and the relatively new Mardi Himal trek. The section on trek preparation is also comprehensive, and there is some good advice for newbies. If you’re looking for a detailed day-to-day guidebook for a particular trek though, you are still better off buying one of the more detailed guidebooks for a specific area, such as those published by Cicerone and Trailblazer.
New trekking regions are opening up in Nepal quite frequently. At the moment there is nothing in the guidebook on Langtang, Dolpo, the Manaslu Circuit or Kangchenjunga regions. I expect this to change soon though, and Dave has a network of Nepali trekking guides out in the field to provide him with updates.
I’ve been corresponding with Dave for a few years now, and last month I finally got round to meeting him in person while I was in Kathmandu. He is camera shy, and you won’t find a single photo of him anywhere on the internet. I didn’t ask if I could take a selfie of the two of us having breakfast in Black Olives to post on Facebook. I had no idea what he looked like, and I half expected him to turn up dressed as a sadhu. In this respect I was disappointed, but not in others. His writing style is outspoken; he is not afraid to be critical where it’s needed. In person he is more understated, and his love for Nepal and its people shine through, in particular his respect for Nepal’s cultural heritage.
For no other reason I would recommend The Longest Way Home guidebooks to help Dave support the many worthwhile projects he is involved with in Nepal. But I don’t need to do that. The guidebook stands on its own. It’s as good as the Lonely Planet, and any number of better-known travel guides, if not better. In some areas it’s much, much better, and it’s only going to improve over time.
You can download all of the guidebooks from The Longest Way Home website.
Note: Dave sent me a free copy to review.