Startrail of Chele La Pass

From May 1-6, 2016 I took a group of student researchers to hike the famous Druk Path Trek, a 45km path that spans the distance from Paro to Thimphu venturing through alpine lakes, rhododendron forests, and Buddhist monasteries. It was the 2nd time I had conducted the trek, yet I remained cautious in my planning as mountain weather is certainly not to be underestimated. During our stay we saw hail, snow, and rain and also unfortunately experienced minor headaches (due to altitude), diarrhea, and fevers. Despite these misfortunes, we had a great time. Although, there were a number of critical observations I made regarding the Druk Path as a whole.

I have to be careful when I criticize ‘eco-destinations’, as my own western assumptions cloud my assessment. Western ‘framings’ or viewpoints about what a trek in the Himalayas ‘should’ look like are a starting point for many tourists. Their expectations are heavily Orientalized, which is a product of purposeful branding, advertising, and imposed values. When tourists come to the Himalayas, they want to see 7,000-meter mountain peaks surrounded by clear streams, untouched communities of non-English speaking natives, herds of yak grazing in pristine high-altitude grasslands, and an experience that is altogether otherworldly. This is what they pay for, and this is also what many tourist operations are geared towards providing (for more on authenticity, see previous posts).

Approaching the Druk Path with such a framing will likely prove a disappointment to tourists, as it did for myself. Part of this disappointment is well-deserved, why should I assume that Bhutanese yak herders should meet my expectations for living a primitive lifestyle lacking in cellphones and electricity just to meet my experiential longings as a tourist? Such an expectation is misplaced and unfair to local peoples working towards advancement and ease in meeting everyday needs. However, there are other aspects of the experience that are much more practical in terms of basic waste management and cleanliness. Along the various stopping points along the trail there are clear signs of disturbance, some of the garbage is purposefully centralized in piles, but much is scattered randomly. Who is to blame for such mismanagement? Some blame the tourists, some blame the tour guides, and others blame the porters. Regardless of where blame should be laid, it is likely that all parties need to be sensitized to the seriousness of the issue. There are environmental concerns related to the presence of waste and economic issues related to tourist experiences and the decreased likelihood of repeat visits.