Himachal Pradesh, India, Responsible Travel
Comments 28

“I Love Spiti” – How Travellers Must Help Save India’s Surreal Himalayan Desert.

Six years ago, I set out on my first solo trip in India. The destination was a barren, high altitude mountain desert in the Trans-Himalayas, and my mission was to volunteer and learn about sustainable tourism.

That trip changed my life.

One week after that trip, I resigned from my full-time desk-based job in Singapore, and started charting out a different path in life.

The destination was Spiti and the organisation I volunteered with was Spiti Ecosphere.

Spiti villages, Demul spiti, Spiti photos, Spiti valley

Remote and rugged – the upper villages of Spiti.

Back to Spiti after 6 years!

Six years later, in August this year, when I finally decided to go back, it felt like life had come full circle. I had only one agenda in mind: to give back in what little way I could, to the place that changed how I perceive local communities, travel choices, and my own beliefs. My decision to return was sparked by a conversation with Ishita – the founder of Spiti Ecosphere – who lamented how much Spiti has changed over the years, and the dire need to raise more awareness of responsible travel in Spiti.

I nearly cried when the shared taxi deposited us in Kaza, the administrative capital of Spiti. The town that I remembered with only a couple of shops and guesthouses, a handful of travellers, and nothing but the barren mountains all around, has changed beyond recognition, taken over by chaotic concrete construction and shops and tourists.

The issues this environmentally-sensitive Himalayan region is dealing with are too many to summarise in one post. However, in collaboration with Spiti Ecosphere, astro-photographer Saurabh Narang, artist Michael Hickenberg, Instagrammer Aakash Ranison and fellow travellers passing through Spiti, we decided to focus on one big issue: plastic bottles.

Spiti, spiti valley, spiti cycling, spiti himachal pradesh

Cycling in Spiti – exhilarating.

Shocking facts about plastic bottled water in Spiti

  • Based on a very conservative number of tourist arrivals, it is estimated that 3,00,000+ plastic bottles are dumped in Spiti every season.
  • Imagine the irony of drinking bottled “Himalayan” water packaged in the plains and transported to the Himalayas, instead of drinking real (filtered) Himalayan water in Spiti!
  • On the arduous journey from the plains, usually Punjab, to Spiti, the exposure to heat often causes bottles to leach BPA (Bisphenol A) – a chemical known to cause cancer – into the bottled water.
  • Bottled water is known to have less oxygen than groundwater, and in a high altitude region like Spiti, you need all the oxygen you can get.
  • Even if discarded bottles are thrown in a dustbin, they typically end up in a dumping ground adjacent to the Spiti River. They take a minimum of 500 years to degrade, but no one knows exactly how long yet.
  • If reused by locals, these one-time use bottles leach harmful chemicals into the liquids stored in the bottle. The nearest recycling centre is ~500 kilometres away in Punjab.
  • If burnt or buried, the bottles release harmful chemicals into the air, groundwater or soil, ultimately landing in the local food or water. These chemicals are known to cause cancer, heart disease, hormonal imbalance and other serious ailments.
Kaza spiti, spiti trash, i love spiti, spiti photos

The dumping area by Spiti River, near Kaza.

The plan

To discourage the use of plastic bottles, we worked on three levels:

Local businesses in Spiti: Without safe alternatives to bottled water, it would be impossible to discourage their usage. So we began the conversation with hotels, restaurants and cafes across Kaza to install water filters and sell BPA-free water bottles that can be reused, as well as bottles fitted with a filter, like LifeStraw. Ecosphere is now working on a comprehensive map of Kaza, mapping out all water refilling stations across town – and we hope to replicate the efforts in major tourism destinations like Losar and Tabo. Through offline Google Maps, travel blogs and physical maps, we aim to make this map accessible to every traveller who visits Spiti in 2018.

Local community in Spiti: Turns out, most locals in Spiti have been reusing plastic water or fizzy drink bottles to store milk, araakh (the local liquor) and water. In a meeting with Kaza’s women’s self-help group, we shared studies that reveal how harmful chemicals leech from the bottles into the liquids over time – and showcased it with a live demonstration of an empty bottle exposed briefly to the heat of a candle. Try it yourself, to see how it melts and fumes. Pregnancy and heart problems, cancer and other diseases are on the rise in rural Spiti, and this could well be a contributing reason. The alternative for locals is simple – stainless steel containers to store liquids, available locally.

Travellers visiting Spiti (and the Himalayas in general): Lack of awareness among travellers visiting Spiti – both about the health / environmental damage caused by plastic bottled water and the option of drinking filtered Himalayan water – results in 3,00,000+ bottles dumped on the riverbed every season, and that number will only grow with the surge of tourism. So we came up with an idea…

The “I Love Spiti” installation

The idea occurred to me on the shared taxi ride from Manali to Spiti. We were awaiting our turn as each vehicle ahead of us tried to manoeuvre the stream flowing past the road. Outside, I could see mounds of trash along the river bed. Just then, a fellow passenger opened a candy bar and threw the plastic wrapper right out of the window! It angered me and my other co-passengers, and we started explaining to him why he should keep his trash in his pocket till he finds a dustbin.

If you keep throwing wrappers like this, there’ll be no mountains left. All we’ll have are mountains of plastic. And as I told him that, it struck me that we should create exactly that – an artwork of a mountain of plastic to illustrate what we are doing to our mountains.

The artwork idea emerged into a lifesize “I Love Spiti” installation after a discussion with Spiti Ecosphere. All around the world, people take photographs with “I Love New York” and “I Love Amsterdam”. We decided to join the bandwagon, except that our “I Love Spiti” is made entirely of discarded plastic bottles, that we gathered from across Kaza and even retrieved from the dumping ground! The heart alone is made of 300+ bottles, and everyone who takes a photo with the installation pledges to say no to plastic bottled water, atleast while in Spiti.

I love spiti, kaza spiti, places to visit in spiti valley

Ishita, the founder of Ecosphere, as the “I” of “I Love Spiti”.

Michael Hickenberg, an artist from Australia, played an integral role in shaping the installation. It is an amalgamation of the creativity, sweat and physical hardwork of locals and fellow travellers, many of who just happened to see us work on it while passing through Kaza!

The installation can be found near the Kaza gate (near Rangrik Bridge, on the way to/from Kee Monastery); it’ll be dismantled at the end of October 2017 for the harsh winter and reinstalled in June 2018.

Spiti travel blog, spiti valley trip, responsible travel blogs

Fellow travellers helping out with the installation.

i love spiti, spiti travel blog, responsible travel india

Thanpa-ji, helping us install the lifesize installation.

i love spiti, spiti volunteer, spiti ecosphere

Michael Hickenberg, the artist who helped shape the installation.

InstaMeet at 12,000+ feet in Kaza

When I heard that the Worldwide InstaMeet was taking place from 8th to 10th September, I knew right away that we had to do one in Kaza, probably the highest InstaMeet in the world – and my first one as a host. Even at 12,000+ feet in this remote Himalayan town, we had a roomful of locals and travellers, and a thought-provoking discussion around responsible travel and how to eliminate plastic bottled water from Spiti.

At the InstaMeet, my fellow traveller and photographer Saurabh showcased a video he shot around Kaza, interviewing locals on how the town has changed, and travellers on the use of plastic bottles. Then we piled into the cars / camper trucks of locals, headed down to the installation spot, and had the King of Spiti (yes!) unveil it.

It so happened that the local politician and his convoy were driving past as we were photographing the installation, and they stopped by to pledge off plastic bottles themselves! How often do you get to say that your InstaMeet was crashed by a local politician? 😉

Even though our shitty internet connection in Spiti didn’t let us post on Instagram in real time, we were really grateful for the support of fellow Instagrammers who had travelled to Spiti in the past, and supported our campaign real-time with #IloveSpiti.

King of Spiti, Nono spiti, spiti travel blog, I love Spiti

The installation inaugurated by the King of Spiti!

I love spiti, instameet kaza, highest instameet, spiti valley

Our InstaMeet at 12,000+ feet, crashed by the local politician and his convoy.

The road ahead

This is just the beginning. By next season, we hope to have a sizeable number of hotels, restaurants and cafes across Kaza equipped with water filters and filter-fitted bottles, the groundwater in Spiti tested for minerals, a comprehensive map of Kaza marking out all water refill stations, cute signs made with discarded plastic bottles indicating water refill stations, and posters that reveal shocking facts about plastic bottled water. If you plan to travel to Spiti, consider volunteering with Spiti Ecosphere to help accomplish these objectives.

Kaza night sky, spiti night sky, spiti photos, spiti blog

The Milky Way from Kaza ❤

How can you help as a traveller visiting Spiti

  • Take a photo with the installation and pledge to say NO to plastic bottled water in Spiti. As of now, you can refill your bottles with safe, filtered drinking water at Taste of Spiti, Sol Cafe, Hotel Deyzor, Zostel and Delek House in Kaza. Most homestays in the upper villages of Spiti also have water filters.
  • Before you book your tour, hotel, homestay or guesthouse in Spiti, ask in what ways they contribute to environmental conservation in Spiti. The best way to make businesses care is to demand it as their potential customers.
  • Volunteer with Spiti Ecosphere – in Spiti or virtually – to take this project to the next level.
  • Carry your non-biodegradable waste back from Spiti, and dispose it in a big city where some form of waste management or recycling is in place. For me, doing this puts in perspective how much plastic waste I generate, and inspires me to consume less plastic-wrapped junk food!
  • Encourage your fellow travellers to do all of the above.
Spiti travel blog, I love spiti, shivya travel blogger

Contemplating the beauty of Pin Valley.

I’m hardly an optimist, but even as we overcame apathy from locals, travellers and commercial establishments in Spiti and faced some setbacks, I still felt like everything we do as individuals counts. Every less plastic bottle used and disposed counts. Every voice discouraging their usage counts. Every blog post that urges travellers to switch to eco-friendly alternatives counts. Every responsible travel choice counts.

UPDATE: The “I Love Spiti” campaign has been featured on Hindustan Times, The Better India and Scoopwhoop! We’re grateful for the support.

I love spiti, spiti responsible travel, travel blogs india, spiti valley

The team behind “I Love Spiti”.

Do you use plastic bottled water when you travel? What alternatives have you found? Any bright ideas to take the “I Love Spiti” campaign to the next level?

If you have interesting ideas for environment-focussed travel campaigns, drop me a note!

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Also read:

Why long term travel is more like real life and less like Instagram
How responsible tourism can challenge patriarchy in India
Sarmoli, Uttarakhand: A Himalayan village where locals run their own Instagram channel

28 Comments

  1. Hey Shivya,
    I would like to take some time out and let you know that you have been an inspiration for me, giving me a hope and dream that you can achieve whatever you wish in a domain like travel and adventure. I’ve been an immense follower of your website as well as your Instagram account. I love this initiative “I LOVE SPITI”, even though I’ve never been there. But imagining the fate of such a beautiful place brings tears in my eyes. I would share this post and the thought that you have inculcated through this post to the maximum. And I also have some eco-friendly thoughts about using carrying water while traveling which I will shortly send you.

    Thank you so much once again, for being a role model to folks like me who intend to make a life out of travel. Thank you for being my Chris McCandless.

    Like

  2. Oh my gosh. I’ll have to add this place to my bucket list too. Thanks so much for sharing. I really enjoyed reading it and all your posts. Have a great day!!!

    Like

  3. What a wonderful initiative. Thanks to you and others for taking on such important work in this beautiful place (which I would love to visit). I have witnessed the plastic bottle problem many times in my travels. I particularly remember scuba diving in northern Sulawesi, Indonesia and seeing all the plastic bottles bobbing in the beautiful water…very sad. I always carry my own water bottle and refill it when travelling in North America, Europe, and other places with safe drinking water. I try my best in places with poor tap water by filling from clean sources in hotels or boiling water and letting it cool, but I must admit that I do succumb to plastic bottles for convenience (and of course for the locals it is even more difficult). You are right though that every less plastic bottle used counts. Thank you for the “how you can help” tips, many of which apply to travel in general.

    Like

  4. Pingback: “piti” – How Travellers Must Help Save India’s Surreal Himalayan Desert. — The Shooting Star | My Blog

  5. josypheen says

    What a brilliant post!

    I love the look of Spiti so I hope I can visit one day. For now, i am just really happy you are doing such good work to keep it beautiful!!

    Like

  6. What a brilliant initiative Shivya. Well done by you and your team! I have never visited Spiti but hearing your story made me sad, it is heart breaking when places special to you change for the worse.
    Plastic is such a menace and while travelling (and in daily life) I endeavour to reduce or reuse plastic as much as possible. When it comes to water, I still depend on plastic bottles but instead of buying water, I carry empty plastic bottles in planes and then fill them with tap water daily while moving about at the destination. I have probably had to purchase water twice in the 4 or 5 times I have travelled this year. We all need to do our bit to preserve the places we so love to visit and your post is an inspiration to do more than just a bit. Cheers!

    Like

  7. Shivya! I love what you guys have been doing! I think another important project to start would be to find out any future construction projects and collaborate with them to make their new buildings out of the plastic bottles! I know it may sound insane if you have never heard of this but it is an initiative that has slowly been growing in many different places, mainly in Africa, central and South America. They can be made to be fireproof, earthquake resistant and even bulletproof!

    Like

  8. Greg Jor says

    gr8 post and pics Shivya. ty Greg

    On Wed, Sep 20, 2017 at 9:10 PM, The Shooting Star wrote:

    > Shivya Nath posted: “Six years ago, I set out on my first solo trip in > India. The destination was a barren, high altitude mountain desert in the > Trans-Himalayas, and my mission was to volunteer and learn about > sustainable tourism. That trip changed my life. One week aft” >

    Like

  9. Great initiative Shivya and loud applause for your effort and hardwork. You always stand out in the crowd :).
    Its not only the case of Spiti, but all unexplored destinations in rural India is facing the same challenge. I feel it is better not to disclose the exact location of such places when we visit there, though it sounds impractical in this age of multimedia convergence. Travellers have done enough damage exposing virgin landscapes to mass tourism. At least by volunteering such initiatives they can repay for the damage they have done. All the best and keep posting such inspiring stories.

    Like

  10. Wonderful efforts Shivya! However I’d highlight another issue as well. This is exactly what over advertising of travel does. Locations which are pristine are highlighted by travelers via social media, now more people travel to those very places and they are no longer pristine any more. Travel does bring in revenue to these places, but at what cost? What are we leaving to our future generations? These areas are extremely fragile to handle mass tourism. We are all guilty of it and I wish you all the best in all your endeavors and travels!

    Like

    • I agree with this. More than relaxing and enjoying the beauty, a lot of people have started to report about the places. That has resulted in much more garbage..

      Like

  11. mohinin says

    Wonderful initiative, Shivya! Thank you for doing this..

    The place I stayed at in Lake Atitlan was a eco-farm and they used stuffed plastic bottles as bricks for construction and building furniture.

    Like

  12. Sangeeta Chandran says

    Shivya
    Inspiring and engaging. And so so needed everywhere we go. You are right- we need to actively save what we love and our mountains are especially dear.
    Will share and hope we can all make the small differences which will add up to a big difference.

    Like

  13. Wonderful efforts Shivya! However I’d highlight another issue as well. This is exactly what over advertising of travel does. Locations which are pristine are highlighted by travelers via social media, now more people travel to those very places and they are no longer pristine any more.

    Like

  14. Hi Shivya! It is always so heart-warming to read about your travels. 🙂

    I want to travel to Europe next year, not really solo but with a small unknown group of other people my age. Do you know of any organisation that does that? I have a slight feeling ‘all by myself’ is a little too much to start with, for me.

    Any help will be appreciated!

    Best Kavya

    On 20 September 2017 at 16:40, The Shooting Star wrote:

    > Shivya Nath posted: “Six years ago, I set out on my first solo trip in > India. The destination was a barren, high altitude mountain desert in the > Trans-Himalayas, and my mission was to volunteer and learn about > sustainable tourism. That trip changed my life. One week aft” >

    Like

  15. ansh997x says

    Spent a month with Snow Leopard Conservation Society in Ladakh. I was saddened looking at the amount of plastic bottle consumption that is happening at touristy spots.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Hi Shivya

    Thank you for this post. It’s an inspirational read, so much so that you’ll find a link to it on my blog this weekend. I hope you don’t mind!

    Steve H

    Like

  17. Ashish Kumar says

    This post was just way too beautiful, while reading felt like i am part of the story.
    #ilovespiti
    Thanks for sharing this and keep going. 🙂

    Like

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