The Hills are Crying. Don't Go

The Hills are Crying. Don't Go
The Tibetan National Martyrs' Memorial in Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh, Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Travel. But don't let that influencer tell you that it's safe or advisable to move to the mountains

Prannay Pathak
September 08 , 2020
18 Min Read

A few days ago, when I saw an ad about a webinar that would teach one how to 'move, earn and survive' in the mountains, I was left first amused and then concerned. Wasn’t it only last month when the Dehradun-Mussoorie Road collapsed from a massive landslide? Mussoorie was also among the 13 towns in the Himalayan region that are facing a severe water crisis, according to a study that came out early this year. Nainital stands as it is on shaky ground, and the road widening projects for Char Dham pilgrims is feared to be a recipe for disaster.

Whatever the ‘move, earn and survive’ trinity meant I do not yet know, but it surely got me thinking. If this fledgling fascination with setting up bucolic (but also Instagram-worthy) abodes in the hills is not addressed soon, more places face impending water crises and natural disasters, not to forget the hazards associated with deforestation and urbanisation.


Why Mountains?
We are a spoiled generation. The loves of our lives leave us and we either colour our hair blue or run off to the mountains. We fail an exam or get fired and we either shoplift or run off to the mountains. Someone dies and off we run, again, to the mountains. Endorsed by Instagram and vouched for by travel influencers, travel is the all-conquering panacea for all our woes. And when it comes to the alpine heights, their appeal is such that they don’t even need selling anymore.

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More than the outdoors I think what I miss is real human contact. Talking to people, going out with them, working with them, it's value and neccessity in maintaining our sanity is becoming so damn clear to me. But then again it might not apply entirely to someone who doesn't have a green lawn to walk on a balcony to look out to the world and nature. I'm sure all they'd want is to step out into an open space and breathe. When the lockdown began our house was full of people, it didn't even bother us that we are not going to be able to go out because we were having a great time with each other. Slowly everyone left and today Gauri left too and now it's just Adi, Tanya, my parents and me, all by ourselves. Sooner or later one of them will also go somewhere and then I guess the tragedy of this bloody lockdown will pretty badly hit my privileged ass! Then again with social media and the internet we still have a lot of social interaction with people but that can never make up for talking to a person one on one. It cannot make up for going out with people and doing litterally anything or nothing which has more value than being alone with your phone. Being stuck to my phone is THE most problematic shit that has happened to me, I might have to go to phone rehab (Netflix rehab) once this ends! But when this does end, I'm running straight to all the people I wish were locked up with me in a house, in case another lockdown is enforced because it is ALWAYS better to be trapped with the people you love. Always. :)

A post shared by Sheena | Tirthan | Himachal (@thebluesheeptirthan) on Apr 26, 2020 at 3:24am PDT

Running off to the mountains all year round is not even a trend anymore in a climate that is for the most part hot and humid—it’s a cultural phenomenon here. However, the ominous snowballing of the pandemic and its subsequent suspension of our daily lives could be said to have triggered a widespread desire to settle on a near-permanent basis in the mountains. Our panicked modern yuppy selves, brought up on instant gratification, are convinced too easily about the charms of becoming happy hillbillies who can eat fresh, wake up to scenic views, denounce day-jobs and write poetry to go with pretty pictures for Instagram.

And yet, the endless stream of social media facilitation of this Faustian pact is personally crippling. With the spectres of joblessness, pollution, crime, poverty and disease tightening their grip around our existence in the cities, what do we possibly seek in the hills? What have we ever given back to the hills that convinces us of our love for the heights?

Commercialisation and Monopolisation of Resources
While advice on how to start one’s own homestay in the hills certainly sounds ambitious in wake of the damage the pandemic has inflicted on tourism, on looking deeper the idea is a direct threat to the local communities’ existence and economic security. Palampur-based academic Apoorva Sharma articulates her fears: “I have seen my native place change from small and sleepy to bustling and touristy, with hotels and cafés constructed in every inch of space. There are vlogs on social media of some “hidden wonder” in Palampur, or some “offbeat place” because the regular spots that tourists visit are too congested. The influx of influencers to the hills, promoting undiscovered places is highly unsustainable for the fragile mountain ecology and irksome for the natives to say the least.”

As opposed to responsible and immersive travel that could give back to homegrown businesses, joining the will-settle-in-the-hills bandwagon could not only take away opportunities from the native population, but give rise to natural disasters, as Pradeep Sangwan, mountaineer and founder of the NGO Healing Himalayas, points out.

“Chitkul has garnered a lot of popularity in the past few years owing to its status as the last village of India. This has triggered random construction activities in Chitkul—the place has been left completely transformed in the past decade or so. It’s like someone is crapping from up above and it’s piling up on the land,” quips Sangwan, who, aided by other volunteers, has so far cleaned over seven hundred ton of non-biodegradable waste from the Himalayas.

Cramped construction in saturated hill stations such as Shimla puts it at increased risk to natural disasters
Social entrepreneur and environmental advocate Anoop Nautiyal is concerned about the carrying capacity of places designated popularly as hill stations. “The rate at which our mountain towns are urbanising is a scary prospect. A recent report by the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology points to Mussoorie’s dangerously high degree of susceptibility to major landslides in the future. The same is true for other places, where challenges of housing, pollution, waste and water are breathing down our necks. Large-scale construction projects have created entirely new landslide-prone zones and the land is reeling under the pressure of urbanisation,” says a concerned Nautiyal.

Mountains of Waste and Clouds of Pollution
One often reads about waste cleaning teams finding tonnes of plastic and other non-biodegradable waste in what otherwise are pristine trails where one might be expecting to ‘find himself’. No matter how well-intentioned calls to go and set up base in the mountains may be, it’s fast driving a consumerist fascination with such places, and the allure lies in a career as a travel influencer and monetary gains. 

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Shrikhand Mahadev yatra 2017 (August) Usually end of July most of the camping sites are removed by the locals therefore it’s a perfect time to do cleaning but this comes with certain challenges such as we have to carry our dry ration, tents, sleeping bags, garbage bags, utensils to cook our food and along with it our main focus that’s cleaning the trail. Although we had 4 porters to divide our weight but we still had a lot to carry. First day late evening we reached Singhaad and over night stayed with baba ji along with deshi ghee ke laddoo 🙃. Next day we started our journey and happens to be the toughest day as it’s steep climb and usual add on is the heavy rains. Around 4:30pm we crossed Kali ghati, drenched in rain we planned to camp and hoping to cook dinner before sunset. Some started cooking rest were playing cards ðŸ˜ÂÂÂÂŒ. Next day was easy as it was scenic and the journey was easy comparatively. I usually prefer to stay a night in Kuncha but timings doesn’t really match with my wish. We reached Bheem dawari by 2pm again it was raining, we pitched our camps and enjoyed some of the laddoo we carried from Singhaad, we were eating them regularly but they were getting heavier by every passing day. I was really praying that next day it shouldn’t rain but it did heavily so we stayed back at our camps. It was raining all day so cards become your best friend. Day 4 was nothing less then a miracle as it was clear sky ☀ï¸Â since morning and we started trekking towards Parvati baag at 5:30am followed by Naian sarovar. We cleaned garbage at Parvati bagh, Nain sarovar and started steep climb towards Shrikhand Mahadev welcomed by bheem bainya (boulders). We reached the top by 12:30pm and managed to pick up 6 bags full of plastic waste around the Shivling (The garbage mostly is from Prasad samagri + temporary raincoats + broken umbrellas). It was one of the happiest day of my life as we could manage to do what we came for PS: the bottles in my hand I picked up along the way, filled water in it proved a boon as there wasn’t any water from kaali ghati to Singhaad. So be prepared usually camp owners remove water pipes from Tachdadu.

A post shared by Pradeep sangwan (@pradeep_sangwan_) on Aug 8, 2020 at 9:24pm PDT

If the trend manages to inspire even a fraction of its target audience, the results could be devastating. In a bid to garner greater traction and assemble as many followers as possible, the growing legion of influencers could expose new and pristine places to unfettered, irresponsible tourism.

“There are new cafés coming up in the deepest recesses of the forests surrounding these areas, and higher up in the mountains. The problem is tourists visiting a certain place to make their social media pages more aesthetic and using the locals as props for their pictures and vlogs. Who is going to take responsibility for the tourists who come here for relaxation, and leave behind tonnes of garbage in the mountains and forests which are intrinsically sacred to us?” asks Sharma.

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A special presentation of Yoga and cleanliness. Once a heritage now turned into Nallah these natural springs need our support. Open sewerage has been stopped now it’s time for plastic not to find its way into rivers. Enchantress Shimla always blessed us now it’s our duty to put our acts right and make it single use plastic free. . . .. ... .... ..... सितारà¥Â‡ हम ढà¥Â‚à¤Â‚ढ़तà¥Â‡ à¤ÂÂÂÂœ़मà¥Â€न पर à¤ÂŸà¥Â‚à¤ÂŸतà¥Â‡ हमारà¥Â‡ à¤ÂÂÂÂ…रमान हà¥Âˆà¤Â‚

A post shared by Pradeep sangwan (@pradeep_sangwan_) on Jun 22, 2019 at 12:32am PDT

Journalist-travel writer Sanchita Guha echoes one’s thoughts on influencer-led tourism: “I would very much like to discover places and for local communities to benefit from our travel—but I would go as an explorer, not as a tourist…the rise of ‘Instagram tourism’, the craze for online followers, the role of influencers in driving herds of tourists to places groaning under the weight of human feet (and litter) all point to the fact that over-tourism defeats the very purpose of travel.”

Read: Plogging it Out in the Post-Covid-19 Era

Sangwan believes that if practised for short periods of time, digital nomadism could help prepare local communities better for adapting to modern technology and boost homegrown industries. However, he adds that life in the hills demands acceptance of the elements and the fact that resources are going to be sparse. “I feel ninety percent of the people moving to the mountains return to the cities in a year or two—generally, the love isn’t everlasting. A lot of people got in touch with me, too, expressing their desire to settle in the mountains, but I told them to give it some time. Don’t unleash yourselves here!”

Selling Unrealistic Dreams?
Having stated my concern for mountain ecology, I remain pro-travel. However, at a time as delicate as this, fetishising “moving” to the mountains and attempting to teach a generation what are apparently skills needed to “survive” based solely on the success of a few people is selling unrealistic dreams to those watching. Responsible travel blogger and waste management expert Anshul Akhoury explains.

“I have spent my time in Dharamshala to create awareness against plastic pollution and lived in Ladakh to help villagers understand the issues of man animal conflict. I have seen that it can be really difficult to survive in the mountains. During my time in Dharamshala, I realised that influencers who say that they left everything and moved there have a very big network of other influencers who are living there through which they get work and collaborations,” shares Akhoury.

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You've been locked in here forever and you just can't say goodbye. #RainyMcLo

A post shared by Prannay Pathak (@gregorsamosa) on Mar 11, 2020 at 9:02pm PDT

He adds that before one even thinks of making the big move, have a plan B ready in case things don’t work out. “You will not be living in the same tourist area that you see on social media. Until and unless you have sorted everything including your food and transport, things are going to be really difficult. Scorpions and huge spiders are regular visitors wherever you live. If it rains and you have your meals outside, you will end up starving because everything shuts down. And if you’re under the misconception that the influencers who have showed you the dream of moving to mountains will help you out find work and collaboration, then no such thing is happening because they don't want another competitor in the market,” Akhoury adds.

I remember, facing a mid-lockdown crisis what with all the new normals, I frenziedly called up an acquaintance in the hills, sounding off an urgent call for help. Did he know of a place, an apartment with a kitchen (and free-flowing internet?) that I could rent out to work from the hills? My discerning acquaintance immediately turned consigliere, asking me to keep away till the rains were over. The subtext was—keep on travelling, ditch the settling.

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