I stood outside the lovely Buddhist monastery of Upper Pisang, Nepal, beheld the village of Lower Pisang below, and sighed.
The two young monks in traditional burgundy-red robes to my left, had they read my thoughts, might have reminded me that all suffering begins with clinging, that nothing lasts forever. You see, I mourned, if not the loss of the legendary Himalayan Annapurna Circuit, at least its swift and radical transformation.
The Annapurna Circuit winds for about 150 miles around a Nepalese mountain range of the same name. Beginning in lush, tropical lowlands, the challenging trail follows a thundering river, eventually leading up over Thorong-La Pass at 17,769 feet (the highest I’ll ever likely hike). On the other side, another river plunges back down to the lowlands again. Boasting unparalleled views of quant villages, towering waterfalls and, of course, Himalayan peaks, the Annapurna Circuit has been a favorite for international trekkers for years.
And therein lies the problem. Trekkers like me are loving the Circuit to death. Over 70,000 of them visited last year. As a result, tourism, not agriculture, now dominates the local economy. And every village no matter how small (and small villages won’t remain so for long.) is frantically replacing traditional homes with western-style trekking lodges.
That included Lower Pisang below me. I observed how one colorful new lodge crowded the next, their first-floor shops hawking souvenirs and fake Chinese-made North Face trekking gear. I wondered what the village had once looked like; but noted as well that the profits from those lodges had rebuilt the beautiful monastery and temple here in Upper Pisang, from where the monks and I now gazed. There’s a new school, too.
Nepal desperately needs the foreign capital and employment such tourism provides. But, is the money worth the terrible cost in culture?
And to the environment? A new dirt road replacing the Annapurna Trail will soon reach all the villages on either side of Thorong-La Pass. (Although, with the constant landslides, the road may never truly be finished — or safe.). The construction provides employment for hundreds of local peasants. But, with its erosion, it permanently scars a once pristine Shangri La.
Will the road and the development it brings help the trekking industry, or destroy it?
I glanced up from the village towards the Annapurna Peaks, which were supposedly arrayed majestically above, but remained maddeningly hidden. My few fellow trekkers and I had exchanged autumn crowds for summer monsoons — a gamble we eventually lost since, except for one, small, fleeting break in the clouds two days later, my friends and I never saw the mighty Himalayas.
The Annapurna Circuit is truly a remarkable, unforgettable place. I discovered so much beauty there, but so many gambles, dilemmas, trade-offs, and compromises as well. Life, with its inevitable onrush of change, offers few easy decisions, even fewer right answers; and, as the monks might murmur, little at all to those who would cling to what was, no matter how wonderful and simple it might have seemed.
Such is the complicated, messy world education ought to prepare students to inhabit, and perhaps even to lead. We Americans, however, still teach our children to choose/guess between A, B, C, or D.
One can see very far, indeed, from Upper Pisang, Manang Province, along Nepal’s famed Annapurna Circuit.
(This is a preview of a collection of such articles I hope to publish soon: Rambling on Borrowed Time — A Teacher’s Marks)