Tourism trans­forms long-hid­den Bud­dhist val­ley in Hi­malayas

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - FEATURES - By Thomas Cytrynow­icz

For cen­turies, the sleepy val­ley nes­tled in the In­dian Hi­malayas re­mained a hid­den Bud­dhist en­clave for­bid­den to out­siders.

En­dur­ing the harsh year­round con­di­tions of the high moun­tain desert, the peo­ple of Spiti Val­ley lived by a sim­ple com­mu­nal code — share the Earth’s bounty, be hos­pitable to neigh­bors, and es­chew greed and temp­ta­tion at all turns.

That’s all start­ing to change, for bet­ter or worse. Since In­dia be­gan al­low­ing its own cit­i­zens as well as out­siders to visit the val­ley in the early 1990s, tourism and trade have boomed. And the marks of mod­ern­iza­tion, such as so­lar pan­els, as­phalt roads and con­crete build­ings, have be­gun to ap­pear around some of the vil­lages that dot the re­mote land­scape at al­ti­tudes above 13,000 feet.

“This year is busier than ever,” said Ishita Khanna, co-founder of the eco-tourism agency Eco­sphere. By Aug. 29, with at least a month left un­til the end of the tourism sea­son, there had been 847 for­eign vis­i­tors to the re­gion in 2016, com­pared with 726 for all of last year, of­fi­cials said.

They could not give a fig­ure for how many In­di­ans had trav­eled to the re­gion in jeeps and buses across treach­er­ous moun­tain roads, as In­dian tourists do not need spe­cial per­mits. But ad­di­tional dis­trict mag­is­trate Ja­gan Thakur said that 70 per­cent of the tourists to the re­gion were In­di­ans.

Many of the val­ley’s 13,000 or so res­i­dents — eth­ni­cally Ti­betan yet long res­i­dent in the In­dian state of Hi­machal Pradesh — wel­come the in­flux of tourists ea­ger to ex­plore the moun­tains or sim­ply en­joy the pris­tine sur­round­ings.

“In years when the cli­mate and roads are good, they flock in to­gether in high num­bers,” Thakur said. “Vil­lagers will ac­tu­ally con­vert their houses into home­s­tays.”

In the hill­side vil­lage of Demul, with only around 250 res­i­dents, peo­ple have de­vised a sys­tem whereby half of the res­i­dents move in with their neigh­bors while rent­ing their earth­en­hut homes to trav­el­ers dur­ing the sum­mer, and then share the earn­ings. That in­come is help­ing many in­vest in bet­ter school­ing for their kids.

“They have a great sys­tem in this vil­lage ... every­body takes turns,” said Bri­tish trav­eler Tom Wel­ton. “They col­lec­tively bring all the money to­gether and at the end of the year they

THOMAS CYTRYNOW­ICZ — THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

A group of young monks brush their teeth at the Kon­gri monastery, Spiti Val­ley, In­dia. For cen­turies, the sleepy val­ley nes­tled in the In­dian Hi­malayas re­mained a hid­den Bud­dhist en­clave for­bid­den to out­siders. That’s all now start­ing to change since In­dia be­gan al­low­ing its own cit­i­zens as well as out­siders to visit the val­ley in the early 1990s.

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