The trip to Chitkul, Himachal Pradesh three years ago is still sweet in my mind, but the recent one barely a week ago is not so, because I see a change and it’s not a pleasant one- Let me explain.
I visited Chitkul, the tiny village in the lap of Himalayas, first time in 2014 and then in 2016 and recently in November 2018. Two days of drive from the smoke capital Delhi took us to one of the most pristine wonders of nature. It is something so similar to our childhood paintings that we used to draw- remember? Few triangular mountains, a lone house and a meandering river hugging the greens underneath the mountains- It was our imaginary painting of a picture-perfect place. And when I went there for the first time I was totally awestruck. It is ‘the place’ I imagined all my childhood!!!
Back then, Chitkul was a tiny village with people with big hearts, with cold huts but cozy fires to warm up the nights. It was a quiet valley with sky full of stars, with broken paths leading to the winding river and the most beautiful Jr. school in the most beautiful backdrop of gigantic mountains protecting the offspring of nature rather secretly. But things have changed, or started to change only recently.
This time, when we visited Chitkul, we found many hotels, hostels, guest houses, few resorts and a growing number of home-stays. A lot of construction is going on in and around Chitkul you can guess rightly- they were all commercial properties, not homes- not anymore. Compared to last time when we interacted with locals; this time- they are either skeptical about tourists from the cities or have become somewhat more money-oriented. Then there is the third kind- they have no clue what is going on. They do not understand what is so special about their village and why people from faraway places come to have loud parties there all night long. They are still oblivious when they see the tourists with large mobile phones treat them like showpieces or take pictures of them and their kids in a hurry and then move on. However, as a city dweller, I might have some clues to this sudden ‘development’ of Chitkul as a popular tourist destination, why it has got the limelight in last few years and most importantly what it means to all of us (including the people living there).
Here I may sound exaggerating or biased or perhaps a bit stupid with my argument – but let me put it straight- Chitkul is changing because of Us and the Internet: the pictures we share and the blogs we write. But more than anything, it has become famous for the tag that we started to put in – the last village of India #the_last_village_of_India.
Now, I know what you are thinking- “yes it is the last village of India !” and I agree- but with a pinch of salt to it. Have a look at the map of India and its borders. Every village located along the border is ‘the last village’ in technical terms. So why didn’t they become as famous as Chitkul? It is because, firstly, not all of them are as amazing as Chitkul and secondly, Chitkul is ‘not’ the last village of India! Surprised- well, it is a village, beyond which civilians are not allowed to go without special permits. To my understanding, this ‘not allowed to go’ made all the difference and as human beings, we are tempted to see how far we can push the envelope and Chitkul was that last place, where we could apparently visit and mark our foot and tyre-prints. By the way, there are few smaller villages after Chitkul, closer to the Tibet-China boarder as it was a major business route with Tibet back in friendlier times.
Then comes the trend of proving who is more traveler then other ‘tourists’ on social media of course! The hashtags soon flooded the instagram profiles and algorithm did the rest to make sure that we know about a place called Chitkul #thelastvillageofIndia. The internet paved the way for people to share mesmerizing pics with minute and ever updating details of how to reach there, where to stay, whom to contact and so on. These snaps, facebook lives tempted us more to visit the so called ‘virgin’ places and the associated info made us realize that we can go there, stay there and come back alive with tons of pictures and videos to share.
Inevitably more ‘travelers’ rushed to places like Chitkul (and Mana, another so called last village in Uttarakhand), which expanded economic activities of the area. Hotel owners realized that there is a new way to cash in this place. As a result, you see more and more concrete structures are coming up in the area and I am not sure whether they bring economic development for the locals in true sense or not except providing some new means of earnings. But that’s a different debate. So now if you go there, you’ll see there are more number of sign boards, proudly stating the ‘last village tag’. Facebook pages of hotels from Chitkul are flooded with pictures of snow capped village to lure tourists as fast as possible. While these are great for ‘tourists’ and ‘travelers’ (and hotel owners and taxi drivers) to take pictures with and flaunt it on social media – it is taking away the soul of the village in a profound way.
Just imagine your childhood drawing of that perfect village once again- with high mountains, a winding river and a little house (and may be a cow and you in it, or it was a dog and you- never mind!). Now imagine that drawing with so many houses, lots of dusts, trucks of sands and piles of iron rods filling up the green grasses. That cow or dog is now latched and importantly, there are lots of people in the drawing – and none of them live there. How would it feel? It is still a nice drawing, perhaps- with all the economic progress rushing in, modern facilities in place to ease the comfort of the visitors and so on- but in this process, the drawing is not so pleasant anymore!
Now I request you to be a little bit more imaginative- add sound to your earlier drawing- what can you hear? Remember, there were always two birds (big upside down ‘W’s) and of course they sing, call each other or just flap their wings. The fireflies, the little trembling sound of the stones when the donkeys (or that cow or dog) roam around- each one with their distinct melodies. Now imagine that sound being overshadowed by the noise of concrete mixing or drilling machines. The little stream that meets the main river is now covered – so there is no sound and the silence of the night is now filled by loud music demanding people to drink vodkas all night long- yo! If you can relate with what I am trying to say, you’ll realize that your drawing now has a glossier picture, but in the process of ‘development’ the soul of that drawing is lost somewhere! It’s the same happening with the village of Chitkul (and to some other villages for sure).
Look at Kasol or Mana. A decade ago, these were tiny villages nested in the laps of nature, where people used to go to find solace. Now Kasol is a place for loud parties and mounting garbage. Many moved to Tosh, which is now overcrowded with constructions. Mana (in Uttarakhand) on the other hand is so much overburdened with the tag of ‘last’ that everything starts with ‘the last….. (barber shop, post office, hotel and so on)- so much so that the name Mana can perhaps be replaced with just ‘the last village of India’ and nothing else. Shockingly, I saw a similar trend in Chitkul this time where an under construction hotel flaunted its ‘the last house of the last village of India’ tag. Thankfully the school there next to the river (and much ahead of that hotel) does not care of such tags. Instead, they have put a handwritten placard politely mentioning that ‘No Entry for Outsiders’- except realizing that ‘outsiders have already entered’. Nevertheless, it reminds us that we are invading.
And indeed, we are invading their lives. The locals of the village who used to talk about their lives, how they spend long winter months and how difficult it is to commute to Rampur if they need something – do not share those anymore, or do it only with the people they trust. But it was not like this- even as a first time tourist, we were like their friends. Sitting together by the fire and sharing stories of each other, laughing at each other’s silly mistakes were the ways to spend long evenings. Bringing the bucket of water from the stream or going out in a bone chilling night to answer nature’s call were the most dare devil tasks for us while for them, it was a part of life. Similarly, going to Delhi once was the most striking experience for Ravi, a guy I met there, while it’s an occupational hazard for us – which I failed to explain to him. Things are no more the same and while you may argue that ‘change’ is the only constant – I can ask ‘for what’? Has the lives of these people improved? In what terms? – Is it only economic prosperity that defines wellbeing? Or is it happiness, feeling content while living in synergy with nature? – This is perhaps not a forum to discuss all these, but let me just put one more line. If we were happy with our economic progress in the cities we wouldn’t be coming to (or wish to) venture into the nature- because deep down we know what makes us happy !
- an old pic of Chitkul
Changing the villages with concrete structures, replacing the innocent smiles with profit, loss and targets thus sadness me. After all, what is the point of changing the place into something, from which we tend run away- to reclaim our souls, even for a short while? Why cannot we leave them like the way they are and try to live their lives for a day or two? Why cannot we just keep Chitkul the way it was, without any tags and hash tags?
It seems too difficult at this stage, when the whole world knows about it, have seen its beauty and are gearing up to invade it as soon as the snow melts. Since some (or a lot) of the tourists have money, they can claim (to buy) the comfort of the city, disrupt the night with loud music or litter the place thinking that it is after all not their job since they are paying for it! They are not the majority of tourists yet, but they are the loudest for sure and worryingly, their numbers are increasing. Its important to put a check on these pollution.
On the other hand, on what basis will anyone stop people from going anywhere or even worse, allow some and restrict others? Moreover, can anyone really prevent someone from enjoying or sharing nature and such marvelous landscapes? The answer is perhaps ‘No’ and that is why an emerging tourist destination is always a ‘waste destination’ – meaning that the more it becomes popular, the more it loses its unique nature and eventually becomes just another touristy town/city with all the problems of a metropolis. Chitkul, in little over last 5 years have moved in that direction firmly and I don’t see that speed to slow down anytime soon.
To my understading, Chitkul and other similar places are dying because they are too beautiful, too pristine and too pure – and now, too exposed. And more than our wanderlust, the lust to share it on social media, let the world know that we’ve ‘concurred’ the place with all possible forms of hashtags and our naïve instinct to think that ‘sharing is caring’ is possibly pushing the real Chitkul far from us and bringing a new touristy village with the same name but without the soul.
But it could have been different – there could be an integrated development of the place with its inhabitants where tourists come and live the lives of locals with all its flavors and hardships. How to do it – I don’t have any answer- but we can discuss this here and who knows, we might give back something to Chitkul in true sense and in return, bring back the real Chitkul.
a 'thought' by
C/o Dr. Sayantan Mandal
Academic by profession, explorer by passion