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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.

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7 Responses in the Why kill the Golden Goose?

  1. 7.
    Madhu Lall, from Toronto, ON, Canada, says on 18 June 2014 at 9:11 pm

    Kerry snatched the words out of my mouth!

    Having been born in what was a pristine land not very far from McLeod Ganj (i.e. Palampur) and frequenting this area every summer during school summer break since I can remember, I was incredulous at the sights, sounds and smells of what has come to be of this once quaint little charming town. One word – defiled.

    ‘Development’, as Kerry noted, seems totally out of character. My guess is the attractions that were associated with McLeod Ganj will cease to be in a not too distant future unless the local and state administration takes matters firmly in hand.

  2. 6.
    Tom Connell, from California, says on 14 February 2014 at 5:25 am

    Dear Kerry,

    I am saddened to hear of the problems that you have written about in this website. I was not aware of these problems as I have not been to McLeod Ganj in 25 years.

    I have been planning a move from California and was considering McLeod Ganj but now am re-thinking my destination.

    I have seen positive results when groups of people get together and clean up trash that has been thrown. This does work with people living in the immediate area, but would not probably be effective with certain tourists who are here for only a short time.

    What a shame that this is happening. I wish I had something of a more constructive nature to suggest.

    The stopping of cars and the tourist parking area might be a good place to start.

    It is truly a difficult situation.

    Best wishes,

  3. 5.
    Anubhav Saxena says on 25 July 2013 at 11:51 am

    All kinds of people exist in every country. It is unfortunate for every country to have people who do not own their country. There are people, within my country, trashing and being rowdy, and also the ones who are busy cleaning the mess and educating that this is not right for the environment, also the ones who are fast trying to get into the Indian political system to correct the entire administrative machinery.

    I completely agree that the situation is grim and if not arrested fast, would lead to loss of one of the best places on earth.

    As a visitor, the least we can do at this stage is to set an example not only for fellow visitors but also for the resident population. People have a habit of following others, so if you start throwing your garbage in the bin, people looking at you follow.

    During one of my visits to Mcleod Ganj, I saw a young fellow, in his private car, throw an empty can of coke on the street. A fellow countrymen, walking by the side, was quick to spot and pick it up to throw it in the trash bin placed nearby, while returning a smile to the fellow sitting in the car. In an instant, this act passed a message, and the fellow in the car apologized for his act. I am sure lot of hands must have refrained that day, from throwing garbage on the street, after witnessing this.

    I heard someone say, There are always flowers for those who want to see them !

  4. 4.
    Bob, from Singapore, says on 24 July 2013 at 2:40 pm

    Some of the “Indian tourists” like me absolutely love and adore Mcleod Ganj, come here several times a here and feel honored with HH’s presence. So lets not set up a “West vs Indian” tourist thing here — its quite unnecessary and really not in keeping with the love the international and harmonious character of Dharamshala.

    Tourists or residents from every country, be it the west or India, should be mindful of the beauty and sanctity of this lovely place.

    That said — great website!

  5. 3.
    Steve Walsh, from Scotland, says on 8 July 2013 at 4:13 am

    This might be a silly idea, but if some cows were encouraged to wander the streets, then the Indian tourists might drive more slowly and not make so much noise. Maybe each neighbourhood should adopt a cow ?

  6. 2.
    Robyn Castles, from Melbourne, AUSTRALIA, says on 27 June 2013 at 4:25 am

    I’m not sure there’s a solution to overcrowding, rapid development, tourists, or those who move in and build to cater to them. Years back, in the 70s, and 80s, we had perfect scenery, perfect momos, a clear view of the temple, audience on request, and space to move, walk, even sit in the street and around the mani-wheels. It all seemed spotless. Only the occasional Afghan with bad medicine would disturb the peace and quiet, as the Dharma was prevalent.

    Kerry, your summing-up of the current situation has saddened me. With all the pushing and shoving to enter, someone should put up a gate and a big sign demanding five rupees, (or better — respectability — tenfold and doubled) for no better reason than “The Ecological Fund”, so as in the future, one will still be able to pass through the two roads at McLeod and Bhagsu Rd. That’s out of the question, of course, yet, the question stands: can the Dharma still prevail on a major highway?

  7. 1.
    maia sutherland, from england, says on 26 June 2013 at 3:25 pm

    one of the simplest solutions to the problem would be to implement a park and ride system. Using the carpark where the buses meet, get all tourists to park there, and take a small bus that runs every half an hour to bagsu and dharmakot, they take passengers, and bring them back. no cars would need to be going through bagsu rd …..locals of course keep using the roads, and deliveries…. but a ban on tourists…. i have been going to mcleod every year for 15, and it is shocking what is happening to it…. just look into the park and ride system, not hard to do as you already have that carpark there. and run a fine system on the throwing of rubbish… criminal in this day and age that people are not educated to think of the environment.

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