Accessibility to an Environmentally Fragile Tourist Region
Case of Himalaya

Michal L. Roœciszewski, Technical University Radom


Contradiction between improvement of accessibility and conservation in natural values of especially attractive tourist region makes serious difficulties for comprehensive physical planning.



Problem on the highest level

Environment under humane stress

Existing communication network

Rail access to the rescue

Conclusion: railway against roads




Problem on the highest level:


From the viewpoint of  “fundamental environmentalists”: limiting access and letting events go own way – would be the best solution to defend nature. This approach seems to be justified only, when applied to completely unpopulated areas. Unfortunately, contemporary, the majority of regions with tourist potential are more, or less densely inhabited. The advancing growth of the local population results in the most serious endangering in the natural environment.

Evident expansion of deserts, floods, land-slides, water and air pollution appear everywhere in technically advanced, as well as in developing countries. For impoverished communities stopping the negative appearances in their environment is especially difficult, because of the lack of financial resources, and may be more in the misunderstanding of the problem. Benefits from tourism and the comprehensive assistance of wealthier foreign societies are the sole way to get out of growing environmental problems and saving the values of nature and cultural heritage, important to the whole world.

During one week trekking to Khumba Himalaya, from STOL (short-taking-off-and-landing) airport Lukla, towards the foot of Mount Everest and back, I was looking with a regional planner`s eye on the most exciting surroundings, accessible by pedestrian path only. By the way of every opportunity, I interviewed local tribesmen about the problems of they every-day life. All of them appear very friendly and open-minded. They all understand the necessity of progress and express the desire of improvement conditions of their existence.

Basing on this short experience: I would like to present some ideas on means suitable in solving evidently growing environmental endangering of this region.




Environment under humane stress:


Knumbu Himalaya, within limits of Sagaramatha National Park`s covers the highest part of these magnificent mountains. Exactly there, through the pass, along the river Dudh Cosi, and its tributary Bhote Cosi, leads the traditional track of trade between Tibetan Highland and Nepal. Branching from this track, nearly of the small mountain city Namche Bazar, starts the main access path for climbing expeditions climbing on Mount Everest.

Namche Bazar, situated approximately 3500 m above sea level, was the traditional point of goods exchange. Nowadays, with curbing the through-border trade by the Chinese authorities – the main source of profits for local population comes from tourism. Portage of tourist equipment, guiding, and (rather very primitive) accommodation for thousands of more advanced walkers and, less numerous expeditions of mountain climbers, gives now much more interest to local tribes, than former trade.

Upgrading the health conditions with rare, but existing professional medical services, and supply of modern medicaments, also by means of traditional social services, offered by Buddhist monasteries, - has limited the death – index and caused growth in population.

The life-demands of increasing number of native inhabitants, and, rather less evident, needs of temporary visitors - results in growth of consumption of every kind of goods. The building materials, food and fuel, as source of heat, so for kitchens, as well as heating houses, when not imported – have to be produced on place.      

Tourists are obliged to take liquid fuel for every day of their stay in the area when entering the National Park`s gate. Also the biggest part of food they take, by help of hired porters, supplied by air from the Lukla STOL Airport. For the local population the air transportation is absolutely too expensive. Most of supply depends only on transport on human shoulders, or backs of yaks, by 7-8 days journey from the nearest point accessible by road. In such circumstances the existence of mountainous settlements enforce local production in bigger part of consumer goods - at the cost if the environment.         

Process of widening fields and pastures at the cost of woodland on slopes of mountains proceeds from many years. Only the “sacred” properties of forests belonging to monasteries remain untouched. The governmental woods are mostly stripped of bigger trees, have been cut for timber as building material. The rest of wooded areas are covered by bushes rather, with very few coniferous trees. In spite of official prohibition, these bushes are disappearing day after day  - as the only source of fuel. The few park`s watchmen are not able to prevent taking off the wood, piece after piece. The new plants have no possibility of growth, because of numerous, going free, domestic and wild animals, not killed because of regional, religious traditions.

In such circumstances naked mountain slopes are not able to keep rain and snow waters. Water draining directly to streams and river beds causes, not only rapid floods, but also land-slides. I was told, that some years ago, rapid slide of a part of glacier, from one of slopes in Everest group, into mountainous lake, caused so big a wave of water, that all the, existing from centuries, pedestrian bridges in valleys below, have been destroyed .

Only by help of Australian government the accessibility of region has been reconstructed. The new cable bridges, on higher than former elevation, have been built, by use of steel-cables and perforated aluminium panels for bridges walks. All these building materials have been supplied on place by use of helicopters. Of course, such costly enterprise would be completely beyond the means of the Nepali economy.

For the same reason it is impossible to supply electrical energy to the mountain villages. Though it seems to be very easy to get electricity from the fall of streams – the transport costs prevent construction of hydro-power plants. The cement for concrete structures might be transported in sacks on yak-backs, as it is for building houses – but the generators and other steel-made installations are simply to heavy. Till now only one small hydro-electric power-station works nearby to Namche-Bazar, supplying the city with electricity sufficient to lightening only. The heating uses wood, or liquid fuel brought by porters. A few portable petrol generators are the special pride of some of the more advanced and wealthier tourist-shelter owners.

The water supply by pipes is in use in some places, thanks to natural wells situated above residential sites. The water is unfortunately not safe for consumption to non adjusted foreigners without boiling it, because above these wells are other settlements, and all their sewage pollutes the ground water. Sewage treatment does not exist, because of the lack of finances, as well as in the lack of recognition of its necessity.

All these condition bring me to opinion, that the main obstacle to prevent further destruction of the natural environment, and at the same time in the development of life-level of local population, lies in insufficient accessibility. Only evident improvement in transportation system may solve the problems.        




Existing communication network


The upper part of Duth Kosi river valley is accessible from the nearest point of Nepali road networks, by pedestrian path only. The main pedestrian path enters the valley at about 2300 m above sea level, below the village Lukla. It leads, with a medium, rather mild gradient towards passes in the main chain of Himalaya. At the first main branching, below Namcha Bazar its level reaches approximately 3000 m.

The Lukla STOL airport, accessible only for small propeller engined aeroplanes, because of very short runway, is situated at the level 2700 m, what needs descending from the airport to the pedestrian track nearby 400 m.

The main track itself, only in short sections leads along the bed of the valley. Mostly it climbs some hundreds meters on one, or opposite slope, to omit the local obstacles, created by configuration of rocks, and descends down to cross numerous side canyons. In stony sections of the path, the surface of walk is usually very rough, with only slight improvements. When the path leads along the steep earthy slope, numerous land-slides are visible. In some places the track, reconstructed after slide, cut itself so deep in the slope, that it seems to be close to vertical, and ready to collapse down at any moment.

Thanks to modern cable bridges, most of the track is rather safe, but the land sliding in some sections on slopes, and the floods in the bed of valley and side canyons, where the low wooden bridges are still in use, cut off the access to the whole area for some days. It seems to be worth of mentioning, that while the track`s surface in range of villages is carefully paved with flat stones, immediately after limits of the built up area it becomes quite rough and abandoned.




Rail access to the rescue


Basing on my experience with planning the Tatra Mountains Region in Poland, I would like to express the opinion, that the improvement of access to Khumbu Himalaya National Park`s area, by construction of modern roads for motorised traffic, would be the worst solution from economic, as well as environmental point of view.

While the Zakopane city, the centre of Tatra tourist region, is under the stress of motorised traffic, the similar in size and functions Zermatt at the foot of the Materhorn in Alps - flourishes without any road access. While environmental conditions in the valley of Zakopane become worse, than in many industrial cities, because of air pollution and noises, and many pieces of meadows have been converted into parkings – the air in Zermatt is still fresh, and pedestrian only walks – quite.

All these positive difference in favour of Zermatt results from abandoning vehicular road access, and use of electrified narrow gauge railroad, as the only external transportation mode.

The narrow gauge railways have opened the access to Andean Highland much earlier, than motorised transport appeared at all, and they still are functioning in mountain`s conditions excellently. Everybody visiting Inca Monuments Machu Picchu, travelling from Cuzco to Urubamba River Valley, by the narrow gauge railroad, may enjoy the pleasure and comfort of such journey. Only the immediate access from railway station down in the valley to the ruins on top of the mountain is served by minibuses. It would be quite easy to replace this services by simple cable train, constructed on the surface of the steep slope of mountain.

All these examples argue for conclusion, that also in Himalaya, and especially in access to Sagarmatha (Khumbu) National Park`s area, where roads not exist till now – the choice in suitable transportation mode would be in favour of modern narrow gauge railway.

The narrow gauge track, comparing to standard gauge, has many economic and environmental values, when constructed in mountainous areas. The narrow gauge trains have much smaller dimensions of stock, so the whole tracks are much cheaper in construction. The occupancy of space and diameters of tunnels and viaducts are limited. All the modern railways, with evidently higher speed of traffic, ought to restrict its curvature. So more tunnelling and section of viaducts has to be constructed, instead of adjusting, the track to the configuration of the terrain. In the railway-less Nepal, it is also important, that the most of railway network in neighbouring India operates with narrow gauge, what will eventually ease the future connection.

Building the new, separated railway line in Nepal needs to take into consideration the local social conditions of the country. The high level of unemployment results here in comparatively very cheap labour force. Use of labour consuming methods of works, is not only economical, but also socially most justified. Such circumstances make possible to apply in construction simple tools and light mechanic equipment. With such method it is possible to start works on the whole length of the track, also in places not accessible to vehicular transport. Cutting the track`s bed in ground and also hard rock, and boring time consuming tunnels, might be realised this way.

Building the viaducts, needing much more supply of heavy materials: cement, steel and especially big prefabricated elements, and heavy equipment, enforces progressing section, after section according to extension of ready track.     

The methods of building in use contemporary in India and China show effectiveness of such organisation of works.

According to this examples the most of track, proposed for Nepal would cause no special technical troubles, except sections along earthy mountain slopes. My observations of road building in Zaravshan mountains in Tadjikistan, make me especially aware of cutting the road track into the slope. It is in some places quite impossible to avoid landslides. Therefore, it is much more safe, to cross such sections on viaducts, supported on separate pillars, reaching the solid rock, to be found on different depth under the earth surface. Land slides or avalanches on such slopes, when they occur - slides down between supports, without braking the track. Happily, as mentioned above, such dangerous sites are in range of our valley not too numerous.

In the period of construction, and first years from making it operational, it will be necessary usage of diesel engine trains. But, with effective mode of transport of heavy loads, the region will be supplied not only with cheap fuel, what should prevent destruction of wood-land, but also with building materials and heavy equipment to build numerous, approximately small hydroelectric power stations. I would like to stress, that exactly the smaller barrages and installations are much less harmful to local environment. Dispersed sources of energy, should limit by them the network of high-tention lines, spoiling oftenly the landscape. Source of cheap water power would enable the electrification not settlements only, but also the railway itself.

The new line should be constructed completely as collision free. The fencing, within sections leading on the ground level, should prevent not only accidents on crossing points, but more likely obstacles to traffic, caused by free-going “sacred” cattle. By the way, such lay-out allows to apply energy supply from the third side-rail, what is not only much safer functionally, but also more aesthetic, comparing hanging wires.

The railway should create the back-bone of transportation to the whole area of Eastern Nepal – from Kathmandu to Dudh Kosi Valley. It seems to be, most probably, the easiest, to lead the track, starting from Kathmandu – along the Rosi and Sun Kosi rivers valleys eastwards, and later along the Dudh Kosi upwards to Namche Bazar. The whole length of the single track line (including limited curvature) – may be estimated as about 250 km. The supply-distribution system may be served, so by existing, modernised path network, as well as, some local roads, not necessarily connected each other. Within Khumbu Himalaya, it seems to be very useful to construct two on-terrain cable-trains, linking the main railway line to elevated sites of Namche Bazar and the Lukla airport.





Conclusion: railway against roads


In specific conditions of rather densely populated areas, where the general lack in transportation network, needs radical improvement – it is necessary to take under consideration all the negative consequences of unlimited motorization. Basing on experience from the whole world, we are able to prevent such line of development in advance. In only a few regions the existing situation allows to gain the control over expected endangering and prevent them.  Exactly here – in Nepal comprehensive decisions are quite realistic. We are quite able to create accessibility, humans and environment friendly with narrow gauge railway, needing by them much less financial means, comparing with construction of roads in mountainous conditions.