Written and photographs by Vanjulavalli Sridhar

Some of the most daunting news we read come from a state of great importance in India. It is no surprise that Jammu and Kashmir is sensitive since it shares international boundaries with three countries. Despite the unrest, it has been dubbed as ‘Heaven on Earth’ and attracts visitors from far and wide. This unfortunately lasted until militancy became a serious threat to its visitors and more so to inhabitants since the late 1980s. Today there is reason to believe that things are much better than what they used to be, leading to changes in the people it attracts. I belong to the 2012 batch of Indian Forest Service probationers, and we were on a tour of the northern hill states. With great effort, our trip to the state of J&K was confirmed. No doubt it is full of wonderful places to describe but I would like to focus on what actually happens in the landscape of Ladakh. Seeing is believing. This visit gave me a new understanding of the state and now I believe different!

We flew out of Delhi and much before our landing at Leh we could decipher the snow-capped peaks through the clouds. It is said to be one of the best scenic views on a flight in our country! The region of Ladakh is composed of Leh and Kargil districts. Leh is one of the biggest districts in India. It greets you in the midst of magnificent mountains with snow-capped peaks, myriad shades of brown with a tinge of magenta, black-billed magpies, narrow stretches of trees along water channels and agriculture only in the valley. Due to the rarefied atmosphere, the intensity of the sunlight is high although temperatures seldom go above 26oC. I read in a book on Ladakh that it is theoretically possible for a person with his head in the sun and feet in shade to succumb to sunstroke and frostbite at the same time! Due to its strategic importance, the entire landscape is interspersed with innumerable establishments of the armed forces. Neither can one witness a mad rush of tourists, nor a very dense local population. The people here mostly follow Islam or Buddhism.

Border Roads Organization (BRO) has achieved to lay down a road that connects the town of Leh to the passes of Chang La and Khardung La. The roads are excellent for the climatic conditions that prevail, and two vehicles can cross each other warily. There is an imminent threat of landslides, avalanches or just driving off the road. One striking thing about the entire drive would be the informative sign boards that BRO has set up. These are well-written, crisp messages conveying traffic and environmental sense.

Once you reach either Chang La or Khardung La pass, there is not much to be done than to take pictures at the boards, shop from the souvenir store or have coffee from one of the highest cafeterias. In all, tourists spend a maximum of an hour and proceed on their journey. This is because of two reasons: to escape stranding due to bad weather at the top and continue on the other side to either Pangong or Nubra valley. As one progresses down on the other side, the panorama slowly changes. The landscape turns green owing to the rivulets that are widespread, alpine pastures with few isolated settlements. Livestock such as goat, sheep and yak are commonly sighted alongside long-tailed marmots and Tibetan Wildass. Pangong Lake is almost one end of the country as 60% of the lake continues into Tibet. It definitely is a picturesque salt water lake, nested within the Karakoram and Ladakh ranges. On some days it reflects its entire surroundings like a mirror, while on others (like what we saw) epitomizes an array of blues. Thanks to 3 Idiots, the crowd has increased manifold. Tents for camping have sprung near the area to cater to needs of tourists who stay the night. At Nubra valley one experiences a walk along the ancient silk route, ride on double-humped camels and witness the wonder of sand dunes.

Since the late 1990s, this area has been discovered as a biker’s paradise, amongst other adventure sports. It is but a common sight for an array of Royal Enfields with Buddhist flags and petrol cans to constantly cruise past line of traffic with much ease. The biking season begins around mid-June and lasts for just over a month. Many foreign tourists also prefer to mountain bike, trek and run. There are extensive trails that are walked with the hope of sighting snow leopards in the wild. These are definitely not for the weak-hearted!

Between 2006 and ‘10, visitation by Indian tourists increased from 40 to 71% with an overall increase of 77.5% tourism at Leh. Similar to recent practices of Himachal, home stays have began to come up in order to accommodate tourists in an ethnic way. Schemes under the Forest Department and District Administration helps with the establishment of home stays for interested families. A number of local youth are also being trained to act as nature guides to lead tours in the hills, and hence become direct contributors of conservation in the landscape. This has started to generate direct profits for the locals from tourism. What influences the revenue generated to benefit only the local population is that a person who is outside Jammu Kashmir cannot own land in the state. This has facilitated only the local people to build hotels, resorts or home stays. This has kept away the elite class who have taken to owning most eco-resorts in hill stations and protected areas across the country. In addition it has also protected the ethnicity of the area through its traditional buildings. Whatever profit or loss is incurred, it goes in to the local revenue cycle.

With the increase in tourism comes the consequence on not only revenue, but also the environment. At Pangong, we noticed tourists feeding paranthas to Brown-headed gulls just to get a closer shot. Despite the many public conveniences created by the administration, tourists do not utilize them as much. We came across enthusiastic tourists camping on their own (which is legally considered encroachment) and additionally littering. No matter the altitude one is at, there will be sight of stranded plastic. The landscape can no doubt support more numbers of tourists, but it is the associated collateral damage that is scary. Regulated tourism is not new to this state and probably an optimum solution to handle things before numbers blow out of proportion. The popularity of Ladakh is increasing and the time seems to be right to bring in enforceable regulations. There is an evident absence of solid waste management which demands immediate addressing. Entry of plastic in to this fragile ecosystem could probably be banned altogether because monitoring littering is not a viable option.

We had an opportunity to interact with the Hon. Chief Minister, Mr. Omar Abdullah. He says with confidence that the conditions (for tourists) are improving in the state, and is no more hostile like at the time of militancy. The state is doing its best to improve facilities to provide a comfortable setting to the visitors, keeping in mind that such tourism improves the livelihood of the locals.

Overall recognition and acceptance by the public in the improvement in state of affairs, of this sometimes extremely portrayed state, is promising. There is concrete evidence from just the increase in tourist numbers although restricted only to a few months (an added administrative difficulty). Increase in tourism to a fragile landscape demands regulations from the start so as to ease management in the long run. All else said, Ladakh is a visual treat that stirs peace, leaving one spiritually enthralled in the midst of absolute beauty in the barrenness.

This article appeared in The Pioneer on 25th August 2013 and can be accessed here.