The plains and plateaus of India showed no mercy this year, with the temperatures soaring high it seemed like the planet was getting back at us for all the heavy overuse of refrigerators and air conditioners.
But when our cooling systems gave up on us many of us took the birds way out and migrated to the world's biggest cold storage 'The Himalayas'. Looks like everyone literally had the same idea. I'm in Manali right now and all I can see is humans and vehicles.
However, I refuse to be guilted for a tourist since I grew up right here, so I am back to attend a friend's wedding and refresh memories from my alma mater.
Referred to as 'Valley of Gods' this place is very significant mythologically, the word Manali comes from the word 'Manu Alaya' the home of Sage Manu. It is believed that he re-created the whole world from here. Manali also has shadows of 'Mahabharata' and 'Ramayana' under the presence of the ancient Hadimba temple and it is also believed that Rama and Laxmana studied right here under the guidance of sage Vashist, a fact I cherished while studying here.
In my memories, Manali was a place where the chirping of multiple birds at once would wake you up in the morning and the sound of the gushing river would put you to sleep in the night. The mountains always had ice, the river never stopped flowing and the pine and cedar trees were in constant competition to always stay green.
The chilly winter would fill Manali with snow up to 4 feet and we would eagerly wait to burn firewood and sit under the sun to keep us warm. Autumn was full of apples and I even remember people talking about not locking their houses back in the day.
Now, I'm back here after 12 years and over these years with the help of Instagram and articles from travel sites mentioning Manali as the top 10 places to visit in India before you die. Literally, every Tom, Dick, and Harry feel that the 'mountains are calling them' not sure for what joy though. About 5 out of 10 people I've met in Hyderabad have been to Manali at some point in their lives.
The first thing I noticed even before reaching Manali was what used to be a 14-hour journey from New Delhi to Manali is now taking 24 hours to reach. The only reason being traffic, the vehicles heavily outnumber the capacity of the road.
The roads are already narrow and the number of hairpins you pass by would put a cosmetic shop to shame, to give you more context every time two buses from opposite sides have to pass each other they literally have to stop, look, and make their move very carefully to avoid contact, now imagine that happening to hundreds of vehicles every day and the time it would take.
The bridges which are quite plenty in number are even narrower, they can only have only one vehicle pass slowly at a time. The government which is very conscious when imposing the green tax, appears to be dormant when it comes to improving the infrastructure, for example, one of the bridges that connect Manali was built by the army in just 24 hours during the floods of 1995 and was supposed to last only for 6 months but somehow magically the bridge is still in use today. Forget a new bridge the authorities haven't even been able to maintain it properly.
The traffic here is much of menace to the locals than the tourists, I mean if you are a tourist and are stuck in traffic just look out of the window there is always a beautiful mountain and a river flowing right next to you which is what you wanted to experience anyway. I was really impressed by my fellow passengers on the bus who decided to take a walk to Manali when the bus was stuck in traffic 15 kilometres away.
However, local musician, Vinay who has no option but to travel with his heavy instruments in a car says that he is stranded every day in traffic for hours just to cover a small distance of 4 kilometres.
Vinay says, "A lot of locals who are trying to get to their offices and schools are late every day and god forbid if there is a medical emergency, I don't know how it will be handled."
Only after spending a couple of days in the newly overcrowded town I learnt that the traffic suddenly is the most harmless of all the problems Manali is facing right now. There is a huge amount of plastic and human waste and disposing of them is something the town is still figuring out.
When asked his opinion on so many people visiting Manali, Buddhi Singh Chand, who runs a cafe in Manali says that the multitude is always welcome since without a doubt it is more than just good for business but when I asked him about the cons of tourism, he said the town has lost a bit of its character. Buddhi says, "I remember a time when I could walk up to the river and directly drink the freshly melted ice water flowing right from the snow caps, but wouldn't dare to do the same now as the river is heavily polluted as the sewers and garbage are dumped in the river."
He also gave me a shocking calculation about the number of water bottles being used and thrown he says "The average humans would drink three litres of water every day which means a tourist here would buy and throw bottles of water and even there are 1000 tourists doing the same thing, that's a lot of water bottles ending up in the river."
When asked to provide a solution, Buddhi pleads tourists to fully learn about the place before entering and suggests that every tourist should go through a mandatory orientation about keeping the valley clean.
I spoke to a few more locals, their awareness about the environmental crisis was very reassuring. Vineet Abraham, who manufactures eco-friendly household products says that if only the authorities can take care of the sewers and have a proper waste management system the town could still contain its beauty while accommodating as many visitors. He urges tourists to carry reusable water bottles and minimise the usage of plastic.
This is the great Himalayas it has survived avalanches, earthquakes, floods, and cloudbursts. The mountains have guarded our country against cold winds and invaders from the north it a bit sad to see them finally lose out honeymoon couples.
Well, it is not the end of hope, with a little help from the government and good behaviour from the visitors the Valley of Gods can still be a paradise for the mortals.