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Sep 19, 2018

Uttarakhand Trekking Ban: The Adventure Tourism Industry Reacts

India's adventure tourism leaders are fighting back against the High Court's blanket ban on alpine trekking in the Uttarakhand.

WRITTEN BY

Davey Braun

Over the course of September, we’ve reported a first-hand account of the environmental and human affliction brought on by mass trekking in India, as well as an analysis of the High Court’s overbroad, knee-jerk ban of trekking in the Uttarakhand region.

In the aftermath of the High Court’s judgment, which threatens thousands of livelihoods, the adventure tourism industry is up-in-arms at the blanket ban on trekking in alpine meadows within the Uttarakhand. Several industry leaders, along with the Adventure Tour Operators Association of India (“ATOAI”), are crying out for a repeal of the ban.

VICTIM TO THE NUMBERS GAME

Mandip Singh Soin

Mandip Singh Soin, Founder and Managing Director of Ibex Expeditions, was one of the first adventure travel experts to launch a company in India in 1979. He was drawn to the Indian Himalaya for their “pristine valleys and unclimbed mountains, all shrouded in Hindu mythology.” When contacted by The Outdoor Journal to comment on the Uttarakhand ban, Mandip shared that over the last decades, he has noticed an upsurge of adventure travel. The result – some companies have “started pandering to the Numbers game and also price wars which can never leave enough resources for environmental clean ups and also compromise safety issues.” According to Mandip, the blanket ban lacks the specificity of an adequate solution.

“The Ruling of the court is typically something that tends to happen when faced with a crisis. It’s easier to place a Ban and give immediate relief to the aggrieved persons rather than spend the time and effort in understanding the ramifications and undertaking a targeted therapy!” Local service providers such as trek operators, cooks, porters and guides are left without work.

Rather than eliminating the few culpable trekking companies that contribute most of the mass trekking harm, the ban puts the kibosh on all adventure travel companies. “What we are now seeing is [an] alarm call to the Trekking industry wherein due to the actions of a few rotten apples, the whole basket may not be considered worthy of serving, at least in the State of Uttarakhand.”

“These trekking routes and bugyals have formed the backbone of the local economy for generations.”

Real, targeted solutions are needed with safety guidelines that clearly identify bad actors. For example, eliminating fixed camps on alpine meadows, limiting carrying loads, reducing group sizes, educating trekkers on how to manage waste, ensuring that all local operators are registered and certified and penalising commercial trekking companies if they violate these standards. According to Mandip, “in the larger picture [the ban] will allow for all trekking operators to be properly registered with the governments and their rules will not be diluted at the state level as compared to regulations for the adventure operators certification by the central government.”

Photo: Paul Hamilton

THE HORRORS OF COMMERCIAL TREKKING

Harish Kapadia

Harish Kapadia, adventure expert, writer and editor of the Himalayan Journal, recognizes that something must be done to curb the environmental damage caused by commercial trekking. When asked to comment, Harish shared his outrage: “The news and pictures of degradation of grassland is shocking and if something drastic is not done, not many pristine areas will be available to trekkers. Photographs of mass camping, hundreds lining up on trail and garbage are horrifying and they are just tip of an iceberg.”

But Harish notes that the undefined nature of the ban will unnecessarily cut off access to many areas. “The court ruling stops camping on all Bugiyals (grazing grounds), but does not define ‘what is a bugiyal’. Almost any open grassland can be termed as such. As most trails are more than a day treks, this will rule out many trails.”

MEASURING THE IMPACT

“The livelihoods of thousands must not be compromised due to the folly of a few.”

In a press release from New Delhi on September 6th, the ATOAI, which is committed to promoting responsible and sustainable tourism, points out that the Court’s judgments lack foundation. “These are not backed by data, scientific research, or instituted studies to determine the impact, benefit or damages; which would lead to a measured debate before reaching a conclusive decision.” And because no mountain in the Uttarakhand can be climbed without camping in a bugyal, this ban puts a complete halt to the sport of mountaineering in the state.

The ATOAI’s leading members shared their views in a recent press release – excerpts below.

Swadesh Kumar

Swadesh Kumar, ATOAI President said, “We support penalising rampant defaulters, however, the livelihoods of thousands must not be compromised due to the folly of a few.”

Vaibhav Kala

Vaibhav Kala, from Aquaterra Adventures calls for operators to focus on the small details, rather than trying to expand as large as possible. “The outdoors is not about making your company a multinational corporation. It is more about Back to Basics, to how it’s always supposed to be done. Safe, Small and Sustainable.”

Akshay Kumar

Akshay Kumar, ATOAI’s former President, said, ”The need of the hour is to make sustainable policies for all adventure sports and fine defaulters. These trekking routes and bugyals have formed the backbone of the local economy for generations. We have to reinstate operations here with maximum regulation to ensure protection of our Himalaya and its treasures. The industry and state government need to join hands to ensure immediate opening of trekking activities.”

DANGERS OF CIRCUMVENTING THE BAN

Dr. Sunil Kaintholas

According to Dr. Sunil Kainthola, Director of the Mountain Shepherds Initiative, who reached out to TOJ in response to its mass trekking coverage, the commercial trekking operations are circumventing the ban by leading trekkers on more dangerous routes. “The same online companies as mentioned in [TOJ’s] article are now offering redesigned trek itineraries some of which include an altitude gain of 1000 meters in a single day in a hypoxic mountain environment. So while the spirit of the High Court order will be honored, the lives of trekkers will be definitely at risk.”

“While the spirit of the High Court order will be honored, the lives of trekkers will be definitely at risk.”

Uttarakhand, once a community-run tourism destination, has now become a global hotspot for adventure sports. The government and judiciary are struggling to find a balance with commercial operation management. High-volume trekking tours are damaging nature, but the solution cannot be to ban all trekking activity. The High Court’s decision has proven shortsighted as it is not based on statistical data, ignores the impact on local communities that rely on tourism, and has resulted in compromising the safety of thousands of trekkers. The ATOAI is seeking to repeal the ban in court later this month. The Outdoor Journal will continue to post updates as the story unfolds.

Cover Photo: High-altitude trekking in a small group of four, with a guide from Lata village in Uttarakhand’s renowned Nanda Devi National Park. © Apoorva Prasad / The Outdoor Journal.

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Travel

Jun 14, 2019

Riding Through Rajasthan

On the back of an indigenous Marwari horse, known for its warrior spirit, a female-only group rides 160 miles across India through villages that have never been visited by foreigners.

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WRITTEN BY

Margaret Reynolds

The adventure began before we even arrived at our destination. Racing through the twisting narrow back allies of Delhi, we were late. Our train to Ganganagar was leaving in ten minutes and we hadn’t made it through the swarm of Delhi traffic to the train station. We rounded a corner and came to a screeching halt as the road ahead was completely closed off at the intersection with no hope of a resolution any time soon. Honking horns, a constant accompaniment to Delhi traffic, now rose to a crescendo of cacophonic sounds as frustrated drivers expressed their annoyance. “Out! Out!” our guide shouted, and we leaped from the van and ran through the street. We were weaving around traffic which bolted forward erratically to gain inches, trying to maneuver their way free of the jam, while we stayed alert to avoid being bumped or hit. Some drivers called out to us in Hindi words we only understood by their tone. Blindly following our guide, using our adrenaline to power us through the crowd, we made it to the train and our sleeper cars minutes before departure and hoped that the bags coming behind us on porters made it too!

Author Margaret Reynolds is an experienced horseback rider who prepared for this trip with previous rides in both Europe and Africa.
Some of our group in the sleeper car of train.

Awaiting us in Hanumangarh, a short distance from Ganganagar, was the Bhatner Horse Fair, a once-a-year festival to celebrate, compete, and market the famed Marwari breed indigenous to India and unlike any other breed worldwide. Missing our train would have meant missing the Fair and it was an event that we planned our entire Rajasthan riding safari around.

“We discovered that we were the main attraction.”

The next morning, we arrived at the fair. It was the last day and while most of the events were completed, we discovered that we were the main attraction as they rarely had foreigners, and there were no other women there. We were given the red-carpet treatment since we were accompanied by Raghuvendra Singh Dundlod, affectionately known as Bonnie, a nobleman of the Shekhawati clan and reputed to be the savior of the Marwari’s. He has dedicated his life to the promotion and protection of the breed which he considers the true ambassador of Rajput culture and heritage. We were followed by a beehive of fair attendees, drawn to us like honey, and even interviewed by the local media. It became clear that our presence held so much more value than just our own education and enjoyment; we could offer support to Bonnie’s cause through our words and interest, as well as in undertaking the week-long safari to showcase these beautiful steeds to his countrymen.

Bonnie educating us on the horses while being observed by other fairgoers.
In breeder tent at the Bhatner fair with Bonnie, our guide and emissary (Margaret wearing bright scarf).

The next day we greeted our horses and mounted into traditional military saddles. The horses were proudly adorned with cloth martingales baring the rich red and saffron colors of Dundlod Fort, and the ride began past sheep herds along the Indira Gandhi Canal. These majestic horses, with warrior spirits, known for their stamina and power were the perfect partners for our eight-day safari across 160 miles of desert. We rode through the heart of Rajasthan, across the Thar desert, far from the bustling cities of the Golden Triangle, now populated by robust crops of millet and mustard enabled by the newly built canal system.

Our group freshly mounted ready to ride out. Margaret and Noel on far right.

“These majestic horses, with warrior spirits, were the perfect partners for our eight-day safari.”

The route was a new one as each year the progress of India’s roads, establishment of new agricultural fields and corresponding fences creates the need for a different trail. We passed through villages that had never been visited by foreigners. Women and children came rushing from all directions to shout “Hi” and “Hello” and shyly wave at us. We were followed for miles by young men on motorcycles whose English focused on the word “selfie” as they came armed with their cell phones to take pictures of this unusual parade of noble horses and white-skinned foreigners. We were welcomed guests wherever we traveled.

Passing through a village in Rajasthan.
Being greeted by villagers along the route.

Our first night by the village of Raika Ki Dhani, we were greeted by dozens of villagers who came to watch us—they observed us sharing chai and popadum, a crispy tortilla-like bread spiced with pepper whose flavor snaps in your mouth just like the texture, as we sat around the fire and chatted about our day. Bonnie regaled us with entertaining tales from his many adventures such as the time they were almost attacked by misinformed villagers who thought his group was hunting their sacred antelope. The locals stood quietly, respectfully, yards away and crept ever closer like sandhill cranes, en masse one step at a time, until the camp staff intervened.

Evening view of tents.
Inside view of the tents.

“We were all wearing smiles that transformed our souls and changed us forever.”

In the morning, the son of the landowner on which we camped, fluent in English, came to us requesting our presence at their home in the village so we could meet their women. Delightedly, we accepted and drove to their brick and adobe home in the village. Many generations live together, and women join the family home of their husbands. When we arrived, there were a dozen people and when we left many dozens as villagers heard of our presence and joined the gathering. The women are beautiful, graceful, and shy but so friendly and welcoming. It didn’t take long to bridge the language barrier as they let us hold their children, shake their hand, and take many pictures together. We aren’t sure who enjoyed it more. We were all wearing smiles that transformed our souls and changed us forever by the time we left.

Invited inside a local village family home.

The ride was swift with many fast canters through the desert, lined up side by side on a sandy two-track, with every horse competing to be in front. Astride the powerful Marwari thundering through the desert is an experience in which your soul is freed, and you are in the moment, feeling like you are riding on the wings of warriors past. You hope it never stops and if it were up to Koel, my lovely Marwari mare, it wouldn’t. She is a successful endurance horse that can go forever and is pleased to show you her power and speed.

The famous Marwari inward tilting ears—view to the desert.

Animals are esteemed in India. Cows, dogs and even pigs are considered holy and roam freely throughout India, including the cities. Drivers don’t honk at them even though they honk at everything else. They feast on grass and garbage or food provided by shopkeepers or families. While those of us in first world countries drive through our suburban neighborhoods, expecting to see the standard home with two car garages and the glow of multiple TVs, as we passed each home in the village we found a courtyard with a camel which served as the beast of burden pulling carts of supplies or crops, a few water buffalo that provide milk, a dog or two and likely sheep or goats for milk and meat. These precious animals, so essential for survival, are well cared for in a country known for its poverty.

The indigenous Marwari horse.

Life is simple in the villages. Days are repetitive and the work is essential –laundry, gathering fuel, cooking, and tending fields. Our presence in their villages provided some respite from the day to day existence. Often, a young boy would lead the way through town shooing goats, cows, or other animals out of our path and showing us the way to the community water trough so our horses could have a refreshing break, feeling pleased with his important role.

“The earthiness that filled the air was far preferable to the gagging stench and pollution of the city.”

Unlike the cities with their explosion of people and constant stench created by the recipe of uncontrolled diesel fumes, sewage, and trash, the villages were peaceful and calm. Here the smells were not of diesel but of livestock. Camels, so common in courtyards and hitched to carts, are ruminants. They chew and swallow their food into rumens where it is fermented, then burp it back up into their mouths later for more chewing. It smells a bit like a compost heap on a warm desert day. Cow patties are the most common source of fuel and they are being shaped by bare hands, then dried for use, usually within the courtyard or sometimes on the roof. Inexplicably, these smells weren’t offensive as they seemed harmonious with the way of life and the use of the land and its resources. For this Midwestern equine enthusiast, the earthiness that filled the air was far preferable to the gagging stench and pollution of the city.

Riding through a village.

We rode for 6-8 hours a day stopping for a break mid-day for lunch and a rest, avoiding the hottest sun of the day. Just before lunch, Bonnie’s staff raced ahead of us in the “gypsy” jeep to set up a small camp, with chairs and sleeping pads and to prepare the food, a buffet of vegetarian delicacies such as dal and curry flavored vegetables with steamed rice and endless chapatis. We were reliably greeted by villagers or passers-by, a camel driver, or young lads on their bikes, as we rested. Our biggest challenge was in finding an appropriate and private spot for a comfort break without being observed.

Men gathered with invitations to their homes.
Photo Op and Interview with the local press while the crowd watched. Margaret in a bright scarf to right of the horse.

“The future of the Marwaris has become our new cause.”

Our eight days through the desert was not a ride for the inexperienced. For those experienced riders who have come to believe they have tried it all, this ride surpasses expectations—not just because of the majesty of the Marwari’s but for the combination of culture, history, and riding which is unparalleled. I have worked up to this event by riding through other countries from Europe to Africa and the magic of this ride transcends them all.

Riding through a village being led by a young man.

The Marwaris, which drew us to India like snake charmers beckoning cobras, were everything we expected and more. We learned that they are banned from exportation which is leading to declines in the quality and popularity of the breed. The future of the Marwaris has become our new cause as we have so much respect for these amazing animals.

Dancing Marwari.

The days included challenge and leisure; hardship and comfort; and speed and stillness which have come to define India to me. It is a country of contrasts—from city to village; from western dress to traditional kurtas and saris; from Muslim to Hindu; and from ancient to modern buildings and customs. It is a country with many possibilities and it was exciting to experience first-hand the range of the country’s legacy and promise for its future.

Margaret Reynolds is a speaker, author, and advisor to organizations on improving business performance and increasing revenue growth. She is an avid competitive trail rider, winning back to back National Championships with NATRC in 2017 and 2018. Every year she and her adventurous friends find a new country to explore on horseback. mreynolds@breakthroughmaster.comhttps://www.breakthroughmaster.com/

Feature image: Group send-off at Bonnie’s Dunlod Fort

 

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