May 8, 2007 marked the beginning of an incredible three week, six credit hour adventure course for a team of fifteen students from Georgia Southern University (GSU). The students studied Sustainable Mountain Development and Mountain Geography while being led from the plains of Delhi to the towering Himalayan peaks of the Garhwal by Dr. Keith Bosak, a professor of Geography from GSU and Leah Wallach, a Biology student from Appalachian State University (ASU). The journey would not have been possible without Mountain Shepherds Cooperative which provided the team with highly experienced mountaineering guides who assisted the group from the moment they emerged from the Delhi airport till the time they returned home. The guides of this community-owned ecotourism company are trained at the Nerhu Institute of Mountaineering in basic mountaineering and advanced high altitude courses, making them some of the most experienced and knowledgeable guides in the region.
The students experienced their first taste of the new culture as they exited the Delhi airport, loaded into vans and rushed to the Florence Hotel where they would spend the first night. Despite the lingering travel pains, students were immediately revived at the site of the streets packed with cars, trucks, vans, mopeds, animals, bicycles, and pedestrians. There were new sites and smells everywhere! Sleeping was difficult, but knowing that the next day would be spent traveling, forced the travelers to rest.
The town of Rishikesh was the next destination. Once here, the students had the chance to catch up on some lost sleep and take in the new surroundings. They also had the exceptional opportunity to participate in an Academic Interaction held at the Bharat Bhoomi Tourist Complex in Rishikesh on May 11, 2007. This was an excellent introduction to many of the socio-economic, cultural, and environmental issues associated with the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve (NDBR) and its surrounding area. A total of nineteen students and teachers from GSU and ASU as well as students, researchers, and faculty members from Government Post Graduate College, Rishikesh (affiliated to HNB Garhwal University) were welcomed by Shri Nandan Singh of Gram Sabha of Lata. The event was organized by Mountain Shepherds Cooperative and coordinated by Dr. G.S. Rajwar. Discussions were coordinated by Dr. Keith Bosak and Dr. Anup Sinha of the USA.
The introductory statement for the 2007 Academic Interaction was put forth by Dr. Bosak who has been conducting research in and around the NDBR for the past ten years. He highlighted the importance of exchange as well as the significant value of a World Heritage Site governed by environmental policy that meets conservation standards as well as meeting the needs of the people.
Ian Snider, a student of ASU, conducted research for his Master’s degree on transhumance tribes around Lata and Reni. His presentation further expanded on the idea that the needs of the people must be met. Snider believes this goal can be reached through local participation in policy making and higher overall involvement from local populations. He felt this was a necessary component in promoting ecotourism in a way that benefits the local economy. Kelly Sheets, also from ASU, accompanied Snider during his research and performed her own research on traditions and practices of the transhumance tribes. She compared the practices from the Garhwal of Himalaya to those of the Appalachian Mountains, showing that mountain communities throughout the world are faced with common issues and that it is important to keep tradition alive despite widespread westernization.
Dr. G.S. Rajwar, an Environmentalist from Government Post Graduate College, spoke on the importance of developing resource databases called Biodiversity Registers. The registers will help promote ecotourism as well as provide insight on sustainable living practices. Local mountain people have been practicing sustainable living through utilization of medicinal plants, and other resources for farming, herding, and weaving. This indigenous knowledge will play a key role in conservation efforts.
Dr. Pankaj Pant, from the Geology department of Government Post Graduate College, called attention to the effects of climate change on glacier retreat. Dr. Pant focused his discussion on the Gangotri-Gaumukh Region and the implications of Global Warming to wildlife.
Dr. K.S. Rana, from the Geography department of Government Post Graduate College, summarized geography and plant diversity of the Uttarkashi district and advocated the development of ecotourism in Uttarakhand.
Dr. Sunil Kainthola spoke about the objectives and activities of Mountain Shepherds Cooperative and the Nanda Devi Campaign. Dr. Kainthola supports the idea that the people should benefit from ecotourism and that more organizations like Mountain Shepherds will help accomplish this goal. Local youth are trained and take part in ecotourism and adventure tourism, directly improving the local economy of the people surrounding NDBR. He also stated the need for more researcher involvement to improve sustainable ecotourism practices.
For the GSU students, the Academic Interaction was an excellent introduction for the following weeks of travel and study that would take them towards the NDBR. After three nights in Rishikesh, the team headed to the mountain community of Deval where they set up camp for the first time. The following day, the students traveled to Wan in diesel-powered trucks, strong enough to withstand the absurdity of the mountain roads! Tents were assembled on a flat lawn just past a grove of 200 feet tall Cedar trees that overlooked a small farming village. A close examination of the intricately terraced hillsides used to grow a variety of crops revealed just one of the ways that people had learned to utilize the steep landscape.
From Wan, the group began the upward trek to Bedni. This was the first destination above tree line and it offered breath-taking views of snow-capped mountains that would occasionally creep from behind cloud cover to share their splendor with the weary hikers. The guides from Mountain Shepherds provided the group with warm, freshly cooked Pakoras and hot Chai soon after arrival which held the team over till dinner.
The journey continued the next morning towards the next camp at Patar Nachania. The students woke the next morning and prepared for a day hike to Baguwbasa that turned into a mad dash back to camp to escape the hail storm at 13,500 feet! Once back at camp, the following three hours were spent waiting for the storm to pass. The hail eventually ceased and then it began to rain. It sheeted down sideways and was accompanied by high intensity thunder and lightning that reminded the group how close they were to the clouds. Some time passed and the rain turned to snow that fell in golf ball size flakes to the earth’s surface which was now covered in a strange mix of slush, ice pellets, and water. The fluffy white layer was the perfect coating for the conglomeration.
During the course of the storm, Dr. Bosak and Ms. Wallach provided the students with instruction on how to stay warm and get dry and the guides from Mountain Shepherds were incredibly helpful. While students remained under shelter, the guides stabilized the wind blown tents and even brought hot chocolate, chai, and cookies to each person. The kitchen collapsed during the course of the storm but the guides still managed to prepare a delicious, warm dinner after it had all ended.
The view the following morning showed a whole new side to Himalaya. The clouds had passed and the sky was clear. The landscape was dusted in snow and ice and the surrounding beauty was overwhelming. It provided the group with just enough inspiration to collect their damp items, pack them away, and begin the trek out.
The team passed through Kanol and then descended to Setail where jeeps were waiting to take them to the village of Lata. Here the students had the opportunity to sleep in a bed in a village home, take showers in a stall with a bucket of water, and participate in other village activities. Each student spent an afternoon with a local member of the community, helping them perform daily work. This allowed the students to learn about a different way of life through first-hand experience. Also in Lata, the members of the Mountain Shepherds were presented with the gear collected through the Gear for the Garhwal drive sponsored by Mast General Store, headquartered in the Appalachian Mountains for North Carolina. The gear donated ranged from external frame backpacks that are loved by porters for their ability to carry awkward loads to brand new tents generously donated by Mast General Store. In all, thousands of dollars worth of quality outdoor gear was donated and the Mountain Shepherds were tremendously grateful for the donations.
From Lata, the group trekked to Lathi Kharak which was an extremely difficult ascent to a forest service hut that provided shelter for the night. From Lathi Kharak, the group took in amazing 360° views of towering snow-covered peaks that were well worth the strenuous hike. The group returned to Lata and set out for another overnight trip to the terminus of the Niti Valley.
Students set up camp in Ghamsali and then traveled the following day to Niti, the last village in Uttarakhand before the Tibetan border. This was at one time, a thriving trade community with a very wealthy population. However, trade between India and China was banned in the early 60’s and the locals were forced to find income elsewhere. What remains of the lost wealth are buildings with intricate carvings and unique designs that are endemic to trading villages.
The group headed back to Lata and then began the slow journey back to Delhi to a four-star hotel with a pool and air conditioning. The last adventure was a day trip to Agra to see the Taj Mahal and other religious monuments along the way. The remaining few days in Delhi was spent experiencing the city life and reflecting on the past three weeks of travel.
On May 28, 2007, the students returned to the Delhi airport. Everyone was excited about going home, but also sad that the course was over. Each person experienced many new and exciting things and gained knowledge that will hopefully impact his or her life for many years to come.