The cheapest form of travel is walking. As long you are moderately fit and willing to put one foot in front of the other, it’s healthy, pleasurable and good for the planet. The distance of a pedestrian journey hardly matters and even the route you take can be decided as you go along, whether it’s an afternoon stroll or a 10-day trek. Best of all, no timetables need to be followed; there are no queues for ticketing or security checks; and at the end of it all, your bank balance and credit card statement remain virtually unchanged.
Of course, there are lots of companies that try to cash in on the popularity of walking. They manufacture special kinds of shoes that cost hundreds of dollars, or trekking poles, backpacks, hats and dark glasses that come with a serious price tag. You can even invest in a GPS gadget that will chart your itinerary, measure your stride, monitor your heartbeat and supposedly keep you from getting lost. A well-outfitted weekend rambler can easily spend more on gear than the cost of an air ticket to fly around the globe. But all of that is unnecessary. A pair of sturdy sports shoes, shorts and t-shirt are all that’s required.
Also on The Frugal Traveller issue
On the Road Again: Have breakfast at home and reach just in time for dinner in Nepal. Yes, good roads and a sturdy car have made the subcontinent a much smaller place for a roadtripper.
The Solo Backpacker’s Survival Guide to Europe: You can do it cheap, but not without an Excel Sheet.
You Are Rich, When The Story is Your Currency: On a Rs 500-a-day budget, a couple sets out to see India. In Orchha, under a withering sun, they scrimp a little less, make new friends and learn, belatedly, the virtues of patience.
Where the Road Takes US: What is Albania’s capital? We were there almost before we could find out.
Be Someone With No Baggage: Why the cloakroom is the budget traveller’s best friend.
A tropical state of mind: Davao in Philippines is where you can get more bang for your buck.
Slow Train to Nowhere: Twelve days. Seven trains. A rumbling journey across India.
A Storm is Brewing: When in Bangladesh, head over to Cox’s Bazar, even if it means taking on a near-cyclone.
Much of my life has been spent walking, partly because I grew up in the Himalayas when there were fewer motor roads than there are today but also because I like to stretch my legs. I’ve trekked through most of Garhwal, as well as parts of Kumaon, Himachal Pradesh, Kashmir and Ladakh. There’s no better way to see the land and appreciate nature. You also meet interesting people when you’re walking. Conversations I’ve had by the side of a trail are often more enlightening and entertaining than those that take place with fellow travellers in a train or a bus. In the foothills above Rishikesh, I once met a former Boeing engineer who had quit his job and was living on a diet of raw onions while wandering through the Himalayas. Walking around Mt Kailash, I met Hindus, Buddhists and Bon pilgrims, all whom shared stories from their own tradition.
More than 15 years ago, when I was working on a book called Sacred Waters, about pilgrimage routes to the many sources of the Ganga, I met Chipko activists, Sunderlal and Vimla Bahugana, who led a lost struggle against the Tehri Dam. Bahuganaji bemoaned the fact that fewer and fewer people are willing to walk from one place to another. He considered journeys on foot to be part of our mountain heritage, a way of connecting with the land and appreciating its rich ecology. He also used to spread the Chipko message by undertaking padyatras.
Being a professional writer and walker has its challenges, of course. There have been times when I was obliged to keep a record of my travel expenses. Reluctantly, but in the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit that I’ve occasionally added zeroes to receipts, not because I wanted or needed to cheat on accounts but because I doubted that anyone would believe me when I claimed Rs 20 for a night’s stay at a forest rest house or Rs 15 for lunch. (The cheapest place I’ve ever stayed was a canal bungalow in the Terai, where eight of us spent a night for Rs 5 in 1978, and the caretaker apologised for charging us an extra Rs 1.25 for electricity). Of course, that was years ago, long before demonetisation, when nobody in the upper reaches of the Himalayas would accept a Rs 500 note. It was often difficult to get change for Rs 100 and the only people who accepted Rs 1,000 notes were temple priests, who are always happy to receive offerings in large denominations on behalf of the almighty.
A few weeks ago, I trekked a section of the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal. This is one of most popular hikes in the Himalayas, which has attracted foreign backpackers since the 1960s. Easily accessible from the town of Pokhara, the journey used to take 21 days. Now, with the ingress of jeep roads, shorter versions of the trek are possible. In a week of walking, I was able to cross from the Marsyangdi River valley, over the Thorang La pass (5,416 meters), down to Muktinath and Jomsom. The interesting thing about this trek, aside from spectacular views and cultural encounters, is the way in which people of the region have managed the influx of visitors and benefitted from their presence.
As a rule, backpackers are some of the stingiest tourists in the world. Most of them are in their early twenties, without much income or savings. They know how to stretch a dollar, yen or euro. Squeezing any kind of profit out of a young trekker takes a lot of entrepreneurial innovation, but the tea-shop owners along this route have been able to come up with a business plan that works. The Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) is a good example of how to make “eco-tourism” successful and it has served as a model for other, similar projects in Nepal. ACAP was set up in the late 1980s with the goal of putting most of the decisions and earnings in the hands of local communities. Training was given on how to operate rustic guesthouses and provide a simple, healthy menu, as well as strategies for conserving firewood and avoiding pollution.
Today, it’s possible to walk the Annapurna Circuit without carrying a tent or even a sleeping bag. All of the “tea-house” halts along the trail have electricity from micro-hydel power plants. And in towns like Pisang and Manang, plenty of frugal luxuries tempt a backpacker to open his or her wallet. Solar-heated showers, buckwheat pancakes and apple strudel are available for footsore, homesick travellers. Ponies and yaks are available for rent, if you find the walking too tough or the altitude takes your breath away. Internet connectivity is another feature on this route, which comes at a price. In a couple of places, there are even small, makeshift cinemas that show DVDs like Seven Years in Tibet or Into Thin Air. For those who seek to get away from it all, the Annapurna Circuit may not offer the kind of true escape and self-sufficiency that makes trekking an adventure, but there is, perhaps, no easier way to appreciate the spectacular views of the highest Himalayan peaks.
These days, everybody should reduce their carbon footprints and try to spend less of the earth’s precious resources. We need to be frugal in the way we deplete the natural wealth of wild regions like the Himalayas. Walking doesn’t use up fossil fuels or produce significant levels of greenhouse gases. Our two legs were designed to carry us forward just as our minds are programmed to explore new places. Of course, we don’t always have the time to walk all the way and need to take planes, trains or road transport to get us started. Nevertheless, there’s still plenty of satisfaction in reaching your destination on foot and knowing that what you saved on the route can be splurged on the way home.
Stephen Alter is the author of more than 18 books of fiction and non-fiction. His most recent book is In the Jungles of the Night, a novel about Jim Corbett.