Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Stepping into a dream: A week in Manali

Throughout this past week, my colleague and I had the opportunity to tour Manali, Himachal Pradesh, doing research for components of our work in environmental conservation. I have titled this piece “Stepping into a dream” as that is exactly what it felt like to get off of the bus in Manali; Throughout this article, I plan to describe what makes Manali so incredibly unique as a tourist destination, the challenges it faces, and ways in which we (as tourists) can minimize our personal impacts and ensure this beautiful location remains in tact for future generations.Manali is a resort town located in the Kullu district in the mountains of the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. At an altitude of 2,050 m in the Beas River Valley, most of the commute from Delhi consisted of frightening bus rides up narrow, switchback trails into the mountains. Manali is quite the dreamland for any adventurer; Famous for a paragliders, farmers and mountaineers, Rachel and I decided to get a fix of exhilaration through a four-day trek we took through the Hampta Pass. Reaching a total altitude of 3,200 m, the trek was easily one of the most beautiful experiences we have ever had. Each morning, we would wake up to a cup of tea overlooking stunning, snow-capped mountain peaks, wild horses, flowing rivers and the soft singing of birds. In the mountains the air is fresher, the thunder is louder, and the stars are brighter. Having only visited New Delhi prior to this trip, it was difficult to believe that Manali was even a part of the same country. With World Environment Day having just past on June 5th, we thought it would be appropriate to explore some of the environmental marvels that India has to offer. To say the least, we were not disappointed.
         This point can be even more emphasized from an environmental perspective. Manali’s selling point is its natural environment, and therefore, it would not take long for one to note the lack of litter, smog, and traffic in Manali compared to India’s capital. A study of Air Quality in 175 cities across India, done by the National Ambient Air Quality Programme, shows the following differences between air quality in Delhi and Manali throughout 2015:[1]
Intrinsically tied to air quality is Himachal Pradesh’s forest area, classified into 16 different types and covering 22.20% of its geographical area.[1] These forests are occupied with a variety of biological communities and biomass, over 224 glaciers[1], and 1,746 species of medicinal plants. [2]The most astonishing part about our trek through Himachal Pradesh was that we only saw a fraction of the biodiversity that this beautiful state has to offer.

         With a great environment comes a great responsibility. The Himachal Pradesh State Pollution Control Board is the first of its kind in India; A board constituted specifically to mitigate pollution of all types, the HPPBC is “a nodal agency for planning, coordination, prevention, and control of pollution.”.[3] The Board website includes an environmental data bank, environmental standards, reports, publications, and public hearings. The Board has eleven regional offices, which all cater to the diverse requirements of environmental monitoring, surveillance and analysis.[4]
         Yet, the beauty of Manali and surrounding Himachal Pradesh must not disguise the environmental concerns that still plague this area, despite its seeming like a utopia. The biodiversity of H.P., and the impending endangerment of many species in the area can be mainly attributed to deforestation, which is caused by several factors included in an article published in the ICEDOL Journal by Ajay Kumar. The article calls attention to the expansion of tourism, increase in forest fires in the area, and the undertaking of development activities, among other factors contributing to deforestation, and therefore, a loss in biodiversity.[5] Furthermore, the high preference of medicinal plants grown in the Himalaya region leads to illegal extraction from the wild for trade; This practice is not only harmful to the species themselves, many of which are on the brink of distinction despite being notified as a protected area. Beyond this, the practice of illegally trading medicinal plants impacts the many tribal communities who reside in the Himalayan region, and depend on these plants for medicinal purposes.[6]
         Even still, clearer and more devastating impacts of climate change can be seen in the recession of glaciers in the H.P. region over the years. Deglaciation in the Beas basin between the periods of 1976-2006 resulted in approximately a 11.6% loss, with the number of glaciers increasing from 224-236 due to fragmentation.[7]
         So, as a tourist, adventure-seeker, hiker etc. wanting to visit Manali, how does one appreciate their surroundings without leaving a negative impact on them? Through connecting with locals and doing some secondary research, I’ve come up with a few tips:

1.       Admire from afar: While the views are beautiful in Manali, it is primarily because, for the most part, they are untouched. Appreciating and photographing wildlife, plants, flowers etc. is totally okay! Picking them or destroying them for photo-ops or campfires? Not so much.
Take only photographs, leave only footprints: This one is pretty self-evident, but considering the amount of litter (and even waster) I saw on some of the trails, it is worth noting. Leave 1.       packing space for garbage you create during your treks, and always dig your waste hole far away from water sources!
2.       Ask local, shop local, trek local: The villagers of Manali care more about their home than any traveller passing through. Put your questions, dollars and interest in the local economies, and sustain the very fabric that makes Manali such a magical place! Besides, the locals know the trails like the backs of their hands.
3.       Respect the mountain: Enough said.

While Manali is a paradise to those who love adventure and scenery, we often forget that paradise must be maintained by someone. We are so grateful to have had the opportunity to visit this beautiful place, and look forward to seeing how HPPBC continues to conserve it in the future!



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