Why kill the Golden Goose?
By Kerry Wright
MCLEOD GANJ, India, 25 June 2013
Could McLeod Ganj and Bhagsu Nag soon be “loved to death” by a new, pushy mass of India, depleted and destroyed by the latest swell of domestic tourism that brings lots of noise and trash, but little widespread benefit?
As visitors to this lovely state, we all bring our own life experience, and can sometimes view from a different angle the place we are in. For many visitors, this part of Himachal is a special place and time in history, and our sojourn up here is a sort of pilgrimage.
But the changes in McLeod and Bhagsu in a few short years have been quite astounding — and worrying. We all feel a sinking in our hearts. Is this yet another brilliant place that is clearly endangered as a special place to come and visit?
The conflicting energies here, now, in June are very demanding, and strangely incompatible. It is becoming much harder to enjoy, and stay in the peace we all initially found here, and this brings a kind of sadness. Many people we know do not come to McLeod Ganj any more. Locals are worried, but feel helpless.
So what are the conflicts?
First of all, most people come up here because it has been beautiful, unique, calm, Indian sacred, Tibetan Buddhist, cool, affordable, and undemanding. Tragically, that is now fast changing, as forces beyond everyone’s control are magnified here, due to sheer numbers and rapid development without much soothing infrastructure. It is not the locals, nor the people who come to see His Holiness the Dalai Lama in his own temple, or the Buddhism and healing classes, or hippies or runaway Israelis or sadhus or yoga students. The problem here sadly (in their own country) is the massive number of seemingly uncaring Indian visitors, and the fast-growing numbers of hotels that cater for them.
No-one is arguing that Indian people cannot go where they want to, in their own country. That would be arrogant. We are simply stating clearly that the present thoughtless behaviour of many of these visitors may well soon destroy this lovely place, which is still essentially a mecca for eco-tourism, with unlimited long-term potential.
Take these last holiday weeks for example: These small hillside roads have been full of oversize, loaded, honking cars all pushing and shoving to enter tiny lanes entirely inappropriately, treating the two roads at McLeod and Bhagsu Rd like a major highway, (which it clearly isn’t) — drivers behaving without thought or sensitivity to the place, or the people they are staring at. It is deeply unpleasant, a kind of environmental rape. Unless dependent on the trade, (although these crowds spend little), local people largely stay home during this time.
Arms come out of cars constantly — not to shake hands, but to throw trash. Police are brought in to direct traffic, and prevent deaths when the bottles are smashed in the street by drunken crowds, and the fights inevitably start, but they cannot slow the unrelenting pace of spectator traffic. As one man sighed aloud, “They are all treating this sacred and beautiful place like a toilet!”
Local shopkeepers lament, and quietly roll their eyes, as the manners of the visitors are often oddly petulant and demanding. Whether it is the wildly excited cricket crowd jockeying for a glimpse of its heroes at McLLo, or the queues of lads on roaring motorbikes, or half an hour’s bargaining over 10 rupees in a fixed price shop, it all suddenly becomes a frantic party that few enjoy. This is a tiny village, in truth clearly without the infrastructure to handle the unruly crowds of a month-long major rock concert. The only people who seem happy are certain hoteliers.
New supermarkets are going up now, and more planned, as confident businessmen move in, shrugging away responsibility, bringing “the world” with them — and unlimited trash creation. Why here? Most of the people come up here to get away from all this! Everyone should see the film The Economics of Happiness about the trashing of rich areas of Ladakhi culture — in a similar way — in a few short years! Eventually, true culture becomes marginalised in the mass consumer push!
I can see that for local government and planning agencies (do they exist?) it is hard to make necessary changes. If you fix the roads, then many more cars will come. If you don’t fix the roads, then the thin road cover heads downhill every wet season. However, if they go ahead and run a road straight through the green centre of Bhagsu it will completely destroy what makes it so very beautiful, and the Western visitors will just move off, broken-hearted! All the new hotels need all these huge carloads of people to be viable — and are prepared to pay. If changes aren’t made, however, and traffic diverted, and amenities built, Bhagsu itself will just be one big toilet. In many ways, it (sadly) already is.
The problems seems to be that everyone wants a piece of what is here, on their own terms, and in coming en masse are actually destroying the beauty they seek. There also does not seem to be a strong collective of locals, professionals, and wise businesspeople willing (and empowered enough) to protect this very special place for future generations. For observers this is heart-breaking, and very short-sighted.
The local taxi drivers know the roads like the back of their hand, and usually cruise in a fairly gentle style appropriate to the place, some even taking time to enjoy the scenery and their customers. When it is full of visitors, though, with all their own cars, the radios all blare “Doof! Doof!” and relentless traffic jams prevent a decent wage. Why not have visitors park all the cars, and walk or take local transport?
When the town is busy, hapless pedestrians block traffic simply by walking, and sadly the hordes of new customers are often frugal — and demanding. The sacred ling khor (the prayerful walk around His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s temple) becomes a convenient spot for mass defecation, a shock to most Western and Asian visitors, who generally treat all shrines with respect. Endless trash is thrown carelessly — everywhere! Postcard perfect streams of people emerging from prayers at the Tsuglakang Temple are a nuisance to the honking newcomers. What is amazing is that there aren’t more serious accidents!
People have different needs: this huge crowd clearly need toilets and dhabas, cheap food and drinks, cheap markets and grog shops.
So where is this going? What are they all here for? Surely there are many places in Himachal with more space for mass partying, and walking, and shopping? Is it really that cool for the young guys to stand in silent or whispering groups and leer at Western women, and the older men to just stare? With current events in India, this makes women feel uncomfortable and invaded, and less likely to talk to them (rape is a very real topic on every traveller’s lips).
How many more hotels do McLeod and Bhagsu need when there are no access roads? Who is in charge of this ‘planning’?
How many more years can this place be cleaned up after the crowds eventually leave, sated after a cheap holiday, complete with photos of new “friends”, without becoming exhausted? What do the overseas visitors tell their friends, after they leave? And also importantly, with escalating rents, and no hope of ownership, how can long-term locals survive simply here as they have in the past?
Each group who stays longer calms down here, and discovers for themselves the attractions of this special place. The hot-blooded Kashmiris learned that business is better if you don’t hassle the customers, but actually get to know them. The patient Tibetans know that “This too shall pass”. Taxi drivers learned that gentle driving and a friendly manner gets a better result with customers.
Today I watched horrified as a truck at Bhagsunag unload its load straight into the river, already choked with cloth and rubbish. I looked around at the divine forest. I looked at the sacred ancient rocks, apparently soon to become a new road, another row of shops, forcing many to give up on sanctuary here. I looked at the honking carloads unloading themselves into the big new hotels.
I personally spent $1200 this month doing real Panchakarma, with excellent professionals, and more in the shops, taxis, restaurants. I was going to tell my Australian friends to come for a healing month. I changed my mind as I tried once again to navigate the McLeod to Bhagsu insanity. Better perhaps to send them (and their gentle tourist trade) to Sri Lanka!
Preservation of environment (especially in such a sensitive area, close to China) should be a national priority, a legacy for India’s future! As the time of crowds expands, less is attractive here: each year at certain times there is this growing unpleasantness, with little space for culture, or enjoyment of nature.
Perhaps it is the invasion of the new world, where money rules, where people just have not experienced enough, and don’t understand the value and importance of eco-tourism, or traditions, or just simply don’t care: Like China. Like many trashed places on the planet.
Or perhaps someone with vision and influence and a conscience can envisage and plan a solution, before this golden goose is well and truly cooked.