Henry Edmundson: It is still possible to find wild areas where no one goes
Henry Edmundson has explored and climbed in the wider Himalaya and Hindu Kush since 1965. Accompanied by his wife, he has traversed the Himalayan range from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh. He is the author of three non-fiction books, including 'Tales from the Himalayas,' which received special mention at the Kekoo Naroroji Book Award for Himalayan literature in 2019. He is a fellow at the Royal Geographical Society, a member of the Alpine Club, and a life member of the Himalayan Club. Kamal Dev Bhattarai talked to Edmundson on a wide range of issues related to the Himalayas. Excerpts:
How has the Himalayan region changed since you first visited there?
I first visited the Himalayas in 1965 in Kashmir for climbing and Nepal in 1969 for a month-long trek in the Dhorpatan area south of the Dhaulagiri range. In those days, there were no reliable maps, no lodges, and the trekking business had only just begun. Conditions were very primitive. Today, in favored areas such as Annapurna, Manaslu, Langtang, a wide range of amenities are offered to trekkers. But it is still possible to find wild areas where no one goes. This year I crossed the Tilman Pass, which is rarely done by trekkers. And in past years, I have trekked to Darchula in the far-west where no one still goes. I trekked Upper Dolpo before it became popular. In contrast, the trekking business in the Indian Himalayas is comparatively underdeveloped—still no lodges. The situation in Bhutan is the same. Trekking in Arunachal Pradesh is still politically constrained.
There has been a lot of geopolitical talk about the region. What do you think are the reasons?
Mountain ranges form a natural barrier between nations, so Nepal is squeezed, as is Bhutan, between two giants, China and India, which now compete in terms of population, GDP, and most sadly, compete in terms of the frontiers directly affecting both countries. This links border disputes in the east and west—the McMahon Line in the east and claims on the whole of Arunachal Pradesh, and the Aksai Chin in the west, northeast of Ladakh. Both countries are spending billions on their armies facing off in these two areas.
Why has the Himalayan region become geopolitically important?
Mainly because China and India are competing with each other for Asian and global influence. In Kashmir, a different story of religious differences between India and Pakistan, exacerbated by serious mistakes made by the British during Partition in 1947.
Is the Himalayan region a boon or bane for Nepal given the level of geopolitical struggle in this belt?
It must be a very difficult balancing act for the Government of Nepal to feel squeezed between China and India. Both countries offer so much, but also probably don’t know when they are applying too much pressure. Nepal needs their help, but how much without compromising its sovereignty?
The way the Himalayan ecosystem is changing, what measures should the government take to protect it?
The Nepali government has done an excellent job by creating national parks and reserves to protect the natural environment in the most visited areas. Elsewhere, as in India, the main challenge is controlling overdevelopment.
If we want to protect the sanctity of the Himalayas, what should be done?
Understand the historical and cultural principles of Nepali society and life in general, and ensure that the modernization of the nation doesn’t compromise these principles too much. Don’t let modern life erode the Hindu, Buddhist, and other tribal belief systems.
How can the Himalayas help Nepal promote sustainable tourism?
I think Nepal has done a great job promoting its tourism. I think Indian tourism to holy sites is well managed, but I think there are challenges for the trekking industry. Many factors conspire to make this less attractive than in the last 30 years. It is getting more expensive (flying to Nepal as well as internal Nepal costs); the network of roads being built in the main trekking areas, while a boon for locals, is a turn-off for foreigners; trekking elsewhere in the world is becoming an increasingly cheaper option.
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