Note: I have avoided references to names of companies or locals on purpose. I have also avoided pictures of unsustainable practices on purpose
Kedarkantha peak in winter. God save these slopes! Picture by the author
In 2009, I set out on a journey that would change me as a person and my lifestyle. I visited a remote part of Uttarakhand, that would become part of my life since. My friends and I reached Mussoorie and set out on a journey of 170km by a Bolero.
The trip would take us along the Yamuna, beyond Mussoorie and Kempty falls. We would cross villages with wonderful names such as Nainbaug, stop at roadside waterfalls and the Yamuna banks, cross villages referred to in Mahabaratha – Lakhamandal and traverse on pretty much dirt tracks. Following the flow of Yamuna and its tributaries, we crossed Naugoan, Purola and Mori and reached the end of the road as we understand it. The Bolero wouldn’t stop though; a bone-rattling 90-minute journey took us over dirt track to Sankri, a one-road village that was also known in the trekking circles as the gateway to some amazing treks.
Sankri in 2009, had GMVN offering a liveable accommodation, an insect-infested local hotel, ironically named Swargarohini Palace, a small Dhaba (Rinki ka Dhaba) that offered food and a grocery shop that served the locals with select stuff. Uttarakhand government operated one bus daily in each direction, the bus would leave from Mussoorie and Sankri early in the morning and reach the destination by 5 pm. For the locals, overloaded Bolero’s, Trax, etc. would be the mode of transport. There was no electricity supply or telephone connectivity.
The trek experiences were among the best in the world. Some of the most pristine and spectacular trails to Har Ki Dun, Ruinsara lake, Kedarkantha, Rupin and Supin valleys.
And then development happened. Specifically, adventure travel and trekking started.
Fast forward to 2021. There still remains 2 bus that visits the village. Electricity from the electricity board remains patchy, though better than before. But people have generators installed. GMVN remains just a liveable space where none venture, but Swargarohini Palace today rivals 3-star hotels in hill stations. Others have built equally luxurious places to stay. Neon lights announce café’s on the hillside.
Some of the slopes are converted from farms to accommodation for trekkers, others to apple farms and yet more to better homes and homestays. Now you can buy any trekking gear in this village. A multitude of shops exists. Even a pharmacy and a pharmacist who provides basic health care exists. There is even an English medium school.
My old-time friend from 2009, will launch his luxurious homestay, which will cost as much as it does in Mussoorie, with 15 rooms with the best alpine views. You will probably feel you are in a European alpine village. It possibly cost him upwards of 5 million INR to build it. Soon he will have rivals for sure.
And come the snow in December, this town will be overrun as it was last December. Local guides say that on the peak days there were more than 1000 people at Kedarkantha and over 500 tents. Hundreds of people can be enjoying the trek to Kedarkantha peak in the winter snow. This is an easy trek in which you can summit a 3800m peak and be rewarded with views of spectacular Himalayan ranges. You can then slide down in the snow.
What’s wrong you say?
Well, Sankri still has no reliable power of telecom infrastructure. The road is still pathetic. There is no hospital or doctor in the village (there probably will be multiple doctors amongst the trekkers though). It has no piped water and sanitation system. And the small village can’t simply sustain a tourist population of several hundred, leave alone thousands.
What about Kedarkantha trekking trail? With the water resources available and the meadow space, no more than 100 people can be sustained on the trail per day. Yet we know that last winter season (despite COVID pandemic) enormous crowds gathered here, music, liquor and what not. Today the trail is filled with mule shit that you can smell in the offseason where there are only 10 trekkers. Human waste fills the meadows. The water quality is doubtful and experienced trekkers rush to higher altitudes to avoid all of the garbage.
Unless drastic measures are taken, the Kedarkantha trail will die. Unless drastic measures are taken Sankri as a village will become a hell in few years. Our legal system will probably initiate knee jerk reaction banning trekking. What happens to the local economy that lives on trekking?
As of today, the problem facing Sankri has been built around Kedarkantha. A well-known trekking agency has shifted base to another nearby village, Kotgarh, which will soon become another Sankri.
What is necessary is the sustainable planning of ecological tourism. There are environmentally conscious trekkers and several hundred consultants who love and travel to Sankri. The government and the legal system needs to engage them along with the local community to come up with a sustainable solution.
In the meanwhile let’s pray no untoward accident happens on the slopes of Kedarkantha or Sankri.
Trekker, photographer and management consultant