16 February 2011

Sky to Ground 3: Sonamarg

This post has been sitting in my drafts for waaaaaay too long. In case you forgot, it's a continuation of two earlier posts about my July family trip to Kashmir, Sky to Ground 1 and Sky to Ground 2. What's finally given me the urge to finish and post this is that I'm thinking of writing about Sonamarg for my first EGS assignment.
Heads up - this is quite a dramatic/depressing one.

For me, the highlight (if you can call it that) of our trip to Kashmir was the visit to the Sonamarg glacier on our way to Srinagar. Right from when my dad started planning the trip, the only thing I said to him was "Pa I wanna see a glacier". The logic behind it is a bit sad, but in times of environmentalism and global warming, to me the thought of a real live glacier was exciting. Glaciers have become so symbolic in the whole climate movement and I guess the little cynic inside me had to see a glacier while glaciers still exist, before they all melt away. So when we were finally going to Sonamarg, I was excited. The place itself is beautiful, lush green valley with snow-capped mountains between clouds, little streams and mini-waterfalls of meltwater everywhere - absolutely stunning.

The glacier itself is tucked away behind hills so you have to drive into a "reserve", but even after that it's quite a long walk to the actual glacier. My sister and I went ahead of the parents on our own, probably because I was so eager to see the glacier. We kept walking and walking and it seemed like such a long hike to nowhere until we finally reached this little area full of people and little stalls with tables and chairs selling chai and snacks. We realised it was the end of the trail and we both thought "ok, where's this glacier then?".

It's only then that you realise that you're standing where the glacier should be, typical valley, boulders once carried by the ice and everything. A few kilometres or so ahead of all these stalls, we saw some distant ice, which we assumed must be the Sonamarg glacier. Disappointing doesn't even begin to cover it. So we sat down and got a pack of biscuits and juice while waiting for our parents to catch up. Looking around, in spite of having had to walk a good half an hour through the reserve, it was only then that I really got a sense of the place. On the way there I must have been too excited to notice but the whole place is littered with plastic packets and bottles, the little streams of meltwater are choked with trash, no planning has been given to the walking trails, they've just been put anywhere that gives a simple path to the "glacier" so paths are paved right through the middle of streams, leaving stagnant water on either side of the concrete. Even where there are paths that are meant to be followed, there are just people everywhere doing whatever the hell they want, including skiing around on a little bit of ice which probably should be part of the glacier. And let's not forget! For the people who don't feel like doing the whole walk to the "glacier", no problem, you can just hitch a ride on a tiny emaciated pony that probably can't handle your weight.

By the time the parents reached us, I was in tears and honestly angrier than I've ever been in my life, and they were also completely disgusted with the state of the place. My mom's a big fan of giving randoms on the street lectures on civic sense so of course she took pictures of all the rubbish everywhere. They sat down to order chai and my dad told us that when he'd come here years ago when he was a kid, the walk to the edge of the glacier was less than 10 minutes, the whole area was covered by ice. One of those typical, heart-breaking glacier stories. My dad started ask questions to the man who came to give them tea, I tried to have a go at him and shouted (in my broken Hindi between sobs) about having a responsibility for preserving an area like this (I didn't make too much sense). Between my pathetic lecturing and my dad's interrogation, we found out a little more and I felt a bit guilty for blaming him personally. I may have been a little out of line... The people inhabiting Sonamarg, trying to make a living out of the tourists who come there are actually part of a nomadic tribe, they're known as Gujjars - once again I won't even attempt to explain something political. The situation is more complex than we made out, but the bottomline is that the Sonamarg Development Authority doesn't seem to be doing much for the development of Sonamarg and neither is the government of Jammu and Kashmir. It's the same problem all around India, but especially so in J&K because politics and Pakistan take priority up there - not the environment and not the fact that the state is one of the gems of our natural heritage. Hearing the story in full made me feel a bit naive for getting so angry at the locals at Sonamarg, it's a complex tribal rights issue that I really don't feel qualified to talk about. Even if they're whoring out frail donkeys and setting up stalls that lead to pollution, they are just trying to make a living, so I'll let them off lightly and just say that the management of the whole area is just appalling. The best way I can think to explain it is that Sonamarg and the glacier are having to pay for the authorities' inability to provide the Gujjars with sustainable livelihoods which will decrease exploitation of the glaciers surrounding land (which, from what I understand is technically owned by the Gujjars). Ideally, Sonamarg would be a small wildlife reserve with ecotourism activities and attractions, but it's really just a hole amongst some beautiful mountains. I'm not an expert, but I know a landscape in trouble when I see one, and Sonamarg was a sad sight. After hearing what we had to say, the man insisted on escorting us further up the valley, closer to the ice and to the end of the actual glacier. He wanted to show us that in spite of the state of the place, there was a glacier that is "intact". He wanted us to taste the cleaner water and ice from upstream and he wanted to explain their side of the story.

view from the top
I can't say I understand what's happening at Sonamarg. You read all the time about the effects of climate change on Himalayan glaciers, glaciers which are so crucial in the global warming debate, glaciers that provide the world with so much freshwater, glaciers whose melting could trigger significant sea level rise. When you see the lack of commitment to preserving these glaciers right before your eyes it's hurtful. Going back to what I said at the start of the post - Sonamarg was the highlight of the trip for me. Though it may sound like an unsuitable word, it really was the highlight. Even after spending all that time in the breath-taking Himalayas, Sonamarg was the most eye-opening. I compare my experience at Sonamarg to how I felt after watching The Cove. It really depressed me for a few days but that anger gave me a lot of will and inspiration.

Whenever I write depressing posts like this, I end them with happy things or with some solutions. All I've got to end this one on a light note is the song that inspired the titles of these posts - Sky to Ground by Xavier Rudd. For one, the title is so fitting for the trip, but more than anything, it's the lyrics and the mood of the song that got me. As soon as we left Sonamarg, all I wanted to do was stick my earphones in and try make sense of everything on the drive to Srinagar that evening or at least to cheer myself up. That was the first time I heard Sky to Ground and I can't think of a more perfect song for the scenario. Call me a cheesy treehugger but I had to put in the lyrics as well, the song means a lot to me.

I've seen babies begging scratching round for food to eat
I've seen a big old tree still standing strong two thousand years healthy

I've seen the oldest woman shaking her head at what went wrong
I've drank water from a stream so fresh you couldn't see the water at all, at all
I've seen streets so dirty that there's hardly a place to walk
And I've fallen asleep to wild bush birds singing their prettiest songs

I've seen all of the fear and the murder on T.V.
And I've stood free on solid waves, Mother Earth's greatest treat
And I sing

World peace all over and over again

Sending this out to all my friends
This place my home from sky to ground
I've seen the universe connected from the inside out

I've seen people screaming at the car that cut them off

And I've felt the thinnest mountain air cleaning out my lungs
I've seen fast food chains in nearly every place that I go
I've had a belly full of the freshest fish speared with a single throw
There's been changes in weather like never before
Change in the Winter and Summer and Spring and Autumn

Many many people still listening to the Earth and her songs
So I sing it strong
World peace all over and over again

Sending this out to all my friends

This place my home from sky to ground
I've seen the Universe connected from the inside out

And in these times of trouble
In these times of war
And in this time when our Planet it is getting too warm
Give thanks give a smile and take a look around
We are of this Earth and of this Earth we can be so proud.

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