(As published in “Living”, ISSUE 67, July 15-Aug 14 2012)

Not many people know of Binod Chaudhary’s passion for trekking. In an exclusive conversation with Utsav Shakya, Binod talks about how he got started, his regrets and what reforms he plans to bring to the trekking industry.

Binod Chaudhary is a name that needs no introduction in Nepal. From his company Chaudhary Group’s (CG) food to Home Appliances to Education to Financial Services to Power to Infrastructure, the sky is the limit. With interests and expansions through their Non-Resident Nepali members in Singapore and Dubai, CG is already the most successful Nepali brand in the world. Together with Cinnovation, their overseas arm with headquarters in Singapore , the company’s joint valuation is a staggering $ 1 billion, making the Chaudharys, according to a story on them in Forbes Asia’s 2008 issue, Nepal’s richest non –royals.

Every year however, for the last four years, the president of the company leaves his work behind to pursue a Nepali brand that is bigger than his own and which gives him the kind of joy that he wants more people to share with him. It’s a passion that he says him “recharged”.

Born and brought up in the capital, Binod always thought of Nepal’s tourism as a mid-market product. He had stories of tourists who would spend a measly Rs. 200 (slightly more than $2) per day on their trek. “This is what I thought trekking was in Nepal and I must admit that I had completely wrong, naïve perspective,” says Binod, as he leans forward on a plush sofa in his glass conference room with a 360 degree view of the city. He was partially right of course – there are many instances where trekkers eat at a lodge and get free lodging.

All this changed one fine day. A family friend wanted the Chaudharys to take care of a friend who was leaving Kathmandu. After meeting the friend, Nirvana Chaudhary, Binod’s son had a fascinating story to tell his father. The guest was the Global Chairman of telecom giant Vodafone, who was accompanied by a Board Member of luxury brand Cartier. The duo had come to Nepal for a ten-day trek! In the meantime, their private jet remained quietly parked at Tribhuwan International Airport. “After hearing this story, I felt like I had fallen off a flight of stairs. The political situation was much more chaotic then and if these people came here then to pursue their interest incognito, there must be something to it, I thought. For a man like me, it doesn’t need any more convincing. I went on my first trek the same year,” he says.

If there is any regret that Binod says he has, it is that he started trekking at 50 and not at 20.  He calls trekking “The only form of and exercise or meditation which is holistic: physical, mental and spiritual,” adding, “It reaches out to your soul when you are in that untouched, tranquil topography. I am yet to think of a physical activity which is as fulfilling on all these fronts – mind, body and soul, and that’s what trekking is all about,” he adds.

Binod got together some friends and started on the Annapurna circuit, through Lamjung and Manang. The more he walked, the more his body and mind became conditioned, making the journey more enjoyable. After Manang , some of the members of the group wanted to turn back. Going any further would mean going up to Thorung La pass, at 5,800m. Having always done yoga, worked out and played squash, Binod considers himself a fit man and so wanted to pursue Thorung La. “You’ve already proved a point, you’ve reached till here,’” my friends reasoned, making me question myself, My friend and owner of Temple Tiger Basanta Mishra however, encouraged me to do it.”

The next morning, when a plane had been arranged for them to fly out of chyaame, Binod struck up a conversation with an old woman at a small shop adjoining their hotel. He asked her if she had climbed up to Thorung La pass and whether she thought he could do it. “tapai lai afu mathi biswas chha bhane garna saknu hunchha”, (you can do it if you believe in yourself) replied the old woman simply. “It was then that I decided that I would do it and I did, without any problems. Looking back, I think if I had backed out then, I wouldn’t have done the rest of the treks that followed. That was a second turning point in my life in terms of adventure,” says Binod, gleaming from reminiscing that pivotal moment, adding, and “It’s harder to come back down then going up to the pass. You go from 5,500m to 2,700m. But that’s like life.”

The next year, he did Annapurna from the Kaski side. The year after that, he did the Kailash Mansarovar trail, an intense trek while doing the Parikrama by all standards. Last year, Binod had to cancel a trip to Everest Base Camp (EBC). Of his trek to EBC this year, Binod says, “If Thorung La was challenging in terms of altitude and test of endurance, Everest was stunning in terms of exotic surroundings and unbelievable vistas,” adding with a laugh, “I always make it a point to drag my wife along too on my treks, but this year she escaped somehow!” Next on his list is a trek to the Shey Phoksundo Lake in Dolpo District and from there to the Rara Lake in Mugu District.

“As a Nepali, I am very proud that we are giving this gift of trekking to the world. Nowhere is trekking as exquisite as here,” he adds. But just enjoying the landscape is not enough for him. As someone who has been a Member of Parliament in Nepal, and having gotten so much from the country, when he sees problems, unlike most people, he takes it upon himself to make a sincere effort of solving them.

Binod says that it pains him immensely to see that despite having such trekking destinations here, we have no policies that work towards improving the lives of the region’s people, on his Everest trip, Binod happened to converse with a local porter. The answers he got to his questions shocked him. The person had been carrying loads on the Namche-Lukla trail for 300 rupees each day. Still, there was no guarantee of work every day and the porters had queue up for their turn, In this line of work, after 50, the body can’t take any more’ the porter had told Binod. “If such people cannot earn a respectable wage for such backbreaking work, what are we doing as policymakers? Why can’t we fix a reasonable rate for these people?”

Binod explains further: “How about we set the rate at 50 rupees per kilo, which has to go through a government structure. Let’s say that he cannot carry more than 30 kilos. By how much will that affect the cost structure of that area’s tourism? Not much. A bottle of water costs 80 rupees there, which might go up to 85. How much more is that?”

Another issue that Binod is adamant toward reforming is the price of food and lodging in the region, something that gathered more resolve when he chanced upon a Swiss father-son bargaining for less than Rs.500 for a night’s accommodation in Lukla. The guy admitted later that he would pay about 100 Euros at a similar setting back in Europe. When I asked him why he could not contribute a few Euros for this economy and for these people, his answer was “Its demand and supply”.

Binod’s idea is that the government put a ceiling on these rates. All tourists entering Khumbu would have to get a coupon worth around $50 with the tourist’s name and issue date. The coupon would have no value the next day. The tourists would automatically become a bit more generous and pay more instead of letting the money go to waste. “These are people who can afford it. They try to do it for $3 trekking can be upgraded to $50 per day.”

If CG”s success is the scale to gauge Binod’s ambition and drive in life by, then the industry and more importantly the people who are most affected by it should see some important changes soon. “I can only hope that by reading this, as surely as they will keep their eyes and ears open to hearing of such changes happening here in Nepal.