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flyingkiwi Kathmandu - A travel report by keith
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Kathmandu,  Nepal - flag Nepal
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flyingkiwi's travel reports

Are the Himalayas in crisis?

  9 votes
Are the Himilayas facing collapse and a super crisis? If the Himalayas have been both a barrier and a frontier, the complex river gorge country around Lijiang in north-west Yunnan has been something of a battleground.

Not for territory, but a war of words.

The Hengduan mountain range, a recently uplifted south-eastern extension of the Himalaya, occupies an area the size of France. The mountain range is cut up as if a chef had run a knife through bread dough. Four incisions are the four great rivers of Asia - the Yangtze, the Irrawaddy, the Salween and the Mekong. The rivers lie at the bottom of deep gorges, flanked by steep-sides mountains. This is an area of melting glaciers, and the region is prone to violent weather events, earthquakes, erosion, flooding, rockfalls, snow storms, rain storms, landslides, silting - and debate.

In a short distance, the terrain ranges from 7000m peaks of limestone and marble down to sub-tropical bamboo forests and barren rock deserts. In a tourism operators dream, your clients could be enjoying eating bananas overlooking rice paddies at breakfast, lunch at an alpine meadow, and then play in snow before the sun goes down - all within 10km distance.

The forests grow up to 3,900m high, and one of the river gorges drops away 3,700m. In this diverse landscape, there are hundreds of species of plants and animals yet to be 'discovered'. The biodiversity rivals the Amazon. And the people inhabiting these mountains and valleys are a patchwork of nationalities - ethnic minorities and hilltribes - who know the forests of pine, rhododendron, and shrub oak. Who know the names of palm trees, have stories about the snowy peaks and who frequent the alpine meadows and hanging valleys.

While the tigers, leopards, bears, wolves, deer and even pheasants may have had their habitats destroyed or been hunted to extinction, it is too simplistic to blame the mountain-dwellers - or conversely, paint them as 'noble savages' who lived

Favourite spots:
Using photos taken in north-west Yunnan by Austrian-American Joseph Rock in the 1920s and 1930s, Ives compared these with the landscape in the 1980s and 1990s. Despite the recent population growth and growing demand for resources, the results were patchy. And interestingly, compared with 70 years ago or more, some areas had more forest cover, others had been over-cut and some areas supported the same vegetation. The research went some way in dispelling the notion that the Chinese had ravaged the forests, particularly during the Cultural Revolution.

The results were also supported by stories by local people about the felling of forests and the vegetation cover over time. But as Ives notes, early Western visitors to Lijiang in the 1980s and 1990s witnessed the roads full of heavily laden logging trucks. All that pretty much came to an end when the government banned logging along the Yangtze river and its catchment, following heavy floods downstream in 1998.

What's really great:
ves is scathing on those who've predicted environment collapse, and he also suggests the Chinese government are also guilty of subscribing to the environmental degradation theory, by banning logging in 1999, citing the downstream silting and flooding as the consequences.

Throughout the book is the sense that Ives feels the local people - mainly ethnic minorities - have been maligned and continue to be marginalized. So after the government banned logging, tourism was encouraged. In the early days there were few tourists and they were mainly Westerners off the hippie trail and interested in peoples and cultures. Those tourists wanted the place 'as is' with local people, untouched landscapes, traditional cultures, and pristine nature. Such low-impact tourism would create jobs for local people and provide an outlet for local crafts. Early tourism was like Kathmandu in the 1970s, man.

But despite the opening up politically (many areas around Lijiang were off-bounds for foreigners), and easier access with improved roads, new airports and investment in tourist infrastructure, Ives laments the passing of an opportunity. Lijiang and north-west Yunnan had the opportunity to be like Bhutan - a high-value, top-rated tourist destination for individual and small group tourists, who wanted authenticity and wanted to stay with locals and support family-run businesses. Ives reckons there isn't much of a gap between the needs of the traditional religious pilgrim and the eco-traveller or mountaineer.

Other recommendations:
But instead, appropriate tourism has given way to mass-tourism. And now domestic - middle-class Chinese from coastal polluted cities - account for 95% or more of the tourists - foreigners are a small minority. It is actively encouraged by the local government. And as he points out, it hasn't benefited locals - they aren't more self-reliant, or independent. Most aren't wealthier. And the cost to the environment has been high.

While I can't find the firm figures, tourist numbers to Lijiang could be anything from 3 million to 11 million (by comparison New Zealand gets 3-4 million a year). Ives cites the poor Tibetan village moved for the highest and longest golf course in the world, the cablecars which take affluent Asians up Jade Snow Dragon mountain, displacing the local Yi people who used to take visitors up to meadows on horseback.

Published on Tuesday April 29th, 2008

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Sat, May 03 2008 - 08:32 AM rating by krisek

Thank you for sharing. Any personal experience during the trip? It would be nice to see some photos, too. I'd say this one is about 3.5* for me.

Tue, Apr 29 2008 - 10:55 PM rating by rangutan

Great comment on a very general situation, not really a "travel" report itself but a lot of useful ideas and opinions. Similar situation in Botswana, they just added massive taxes to reduce tourist traffic.

Tue, Apr 29 2008 - 07:04 PM rating by murrayskinner

Great report I sure wish you were able to upload photos!

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