KATHMANDU – The quickest way to reach the Everest base camp is to fly into one of the world’s dangerous landing strips carved into a mountain ridge, and then trek for a week from there. But that is about to change with the first hard surface road in the region.
Authorities expect to have the link ready by the next two years. And once opened, any traveler will be able to drive to the Everest region, crossing highlands and passing through breathtaking terraced paddy fields with panoramic mountains ranges in the background.
The new stretch of road is being built from the existing motorable link up to Khari Khola (at an altitude of 2,100 meters) to Chaurikharka, located about 3 km from Tenzing–Hillary Airport in Lukla (2,860 meters). For slow trekkers, it takes almost a day to reach Chaurikharka from the airport.
“From Khari Khola to Chaurikharka, we have targeted to complete the track opening works by this fiscal year, ending mid-July 2020,” Ganesh Ghimire, the chief administrative officer of Khumbu Pasang Lhamu Rural Municipality, told EFE. “It will be blacktopped by 2021.”
According to Ghimire, there will be two bus stations in Khari Khola and from there onwards, only electric vehicles will be allowed to Chaurikharka as part of the government’s initiative to keep the Everest region emission free. Charging stations for electric vehicles will be installed at a number of locations.
Ghimire said plans were afoot as well to construct a ropeway or cable car from Chaurikharka to Namche Bazaar (3,440 meters), home to most of Sherpas or mountain guides.
The measures to maintain balance in the ecologically fragile region follow a ban on plastic items of less than 30-micron thick from January 1, 2020.
Locals in the region have long been urging the government to build a road, citing high costs, flight service unpredictability and dangerous flights to the airport.
The Khumbu or Everest region is the most expensive place in the country as all supplies have to be flown in.
A cook gas cylinder costs $150 and a cup of tea over $3. Compare this with Kathmandu, where an LPG cylinder is priced $14 and a cup of tea at an upscale restaurant at half a dollar.
A one-way plane ticket for a tourist for 25 minutes flight to Lukla costs around $180–that is almost the fare of flying to Bangkok. Airfreight from Kathmandu to Lukla costs $1.50 per kg.
“Due to high-cost factors, most of the tourists and even Nepalese think twice to trek in the Everest region,” said Ghimire.
Last year, 56,303 foreign trekkers and mountaineers visited the region. The number of Nepalese was even less.
Authorities expect that the number of domestic and foreign trekkers will go as high as 500,000 annually once the road is constructed.
Ang Tashi Sherpa, a restaurant owner in Lukla, told EFE that locals were happy with the government initiative to build the road link that is “expected to help ease the transportation of supplies from urban centers to the mountain region.”
He said goods would become naturally cheaper as supplies can be trucked in for around 10 Nepali rupees (0.087) per kg, compared to high-costs charged by airlines.
But there are ecological concerns as many fear that more tourists could cause more environmental damage.
“Heavy footfalls may damage the pristine environment of the Everest region,” said Sitaram Sapkota, former president of Trekking Agencies Association of Nepal.
He said the motorable road has killed the trekking in many areas including the world-famous Annapurna Circuit and sooner or later the impact was going to be visible on the Everest region as well.
The government is planning a 100-km motorable road linking Salleri and Jiri. The route from Jiri to Everest Base Camp retraces the footsteps of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay Sherpa in their historic expedition to Everest which climaxed with the first ascent of the peak on May 29, 1953.
Lukla airport was built in 1964 by the Himalayan Trust created by Hillary. The objective of the airport at that time was to ease the transportation of supplies to the region. Before the airport was built, people used to take the Jiri trail to reach Everest Base Camp. Jiri to Lukla is a 10-day trek.