Trekking is beneficial in more ways than one. For the trekkers, it helps increase their fitness and endurance by challenging them both mentally and physically. A trip to the Himalayas provides a much needed sojourn into the purity of the mountains and the environment.
There are benefits to be had for the natives too. Not only do the locals benefit economically, it increases interactions between the hosts and the tourists thereby promoting social and cultural exchanges. With the increase in number of trekkers venturing into the Himalayas, it is sure to stimulate social awareness and change.
But it is the responsibility of the trekkers to make sure their actions and behaviour make these interactions and exchanges meaningful in the long term. The tourists are, after all guests in the Himalayas and they must ensure their presence does not lead to any impact the environment and local cultures negatively.
Respect local culture, follow traditions
First and foremost, the trekkers must develop an understanding of the culture by reading up beforehand on related topics. Such awareness builds cultural sensibility and helps develop mutual respect between the locals and the trekkers. The tourists must also observe the behavior of their guide and the locals in general. Customs like taking of your shoes when entering someone’s house or a temple can be easily observed and emulated to good effect.
The respect must follow when taking photographs of the locals, houses, temples and the village lifestyle too. Always ask for permission before taking a picture. Trekkers must ensure that personal space is respected and daily activities of the hill folk are not disturbed. They must not follow the locals around or stare at anyone, making them feel uncomfortable. Showing the pictures taken to those photographed is always a good practice as well.
Greet and interact with the locals
The mountain dwellers are always known to be a friendly people. When passing through settlements, it is always good to greet the villagers and chat with them awhile. Hands folded and a polite “Namaste” is enough to ensure a warm smile and a greeting in return. While dialects are many and change every few kilometres, Hindi is the language prevalent and understood across the Himalayas, be it in India or Nepal. Learning a few common phrases in the local language always helps break the ice.
Once a conversation ensues, you are very likely to hear interesting anecdotes and folklore about the places you are about to visit. It will only add to the many tales the trekkers can narrate once they return home after their adventure.
Whenever in doubt or be it just to reinforce your knowledge, ask around for information. Information about the condition of the trail ahead, prevalent local weather patterns, restricted areas for trekkers, viewpoints and route-markers not to be missed – the locals have a lot to share.
Involve the locals in decisions that have a serious bearing on the outcome of an adventure as well. The lives of the trekkers can be threatened when attempting a challenging new route in the mountains or climbing up a dangerous steep trail. The locals will be the first to arrive when an SOS is sounded and they must not be caught completely unaware of the situation. When aware of the probability of an extreme outcome, the villagers can help the trekkers avoid getting themselves in a spot of bother as well as be prepared to assist speedily in times of distress.
Protect the environment and conserve resources
Care must be taken to protect the natural surroundings and public property while passing through settlements and shepherd huts on mountain trails. Avoid trespassing and do not damage huts, fences or crops when walking through civilization. Plucking fruits or flowers from the colourful gardens along the way is a big no.
The locals respect and conserve natural resources, especially food and water. It takes substantial time and effort to make food and drinking water available at higher altitudes Do not waste food, consume only as much required. Ask for small servings when served food at a camp or a home-stay and ensure there are no leftovers on your plate.
The environment in general must be handled with care too. Trekkers should stick to known well laid out trails, avoiding damaging the flora and fauna. Areas near water bodies and lakes at high altitudes must remain unspoilt.
Disciplined behaviour and modest attire
Early to bed and early to rise is the mantra in the mountains. Trekkers must avoid making noise late at night in the campsite or in a home-stay. Avoid consuming alcohol and the noisy revelry it may lead to.
While sensibilities vary from place to place and the mountain folk are an accommodating lot, it is always good to dress appropriately and modestly around the villages, especially when visiting temples and monasteries. Avoid public display of affection and the use of foul language as these can draw unnecessary attention and lead to a conflict. Handing over chocolates or money to little children is not a good idea too, as it encourages begging.
While one is free to answer natures call in the open when far from civilization and without access to toilets, trekkers must be mindful of hygiene standards and avoid relieving themselves in the open near settlements.
Carry away litter, do not throw garbage
Most settlements in the mountains are remote and inaccessible posing difficulties for waste disposal. Urban garbage treatment and disposal measures are not available in most Himalayan regions. Trekkers must hence always ensure to carry back all the waste generated during their stay in the mountains.
If you must hand over chocolates to the adorable little children crossing your path, make sure you collect the wrappers back from them and dispose the waste material once back in the city.
Conserve natural and cultural heritage
Heritage is rich in the high mountains. The locals take pride in their culture and appreciate those genuinely interested in learning more about their legacy. Spend some time to learn more about the culture from the knowledgeable elders of the village. One can also support the community by buying local, homemade and handmade handicrafts which have great artistic value and can serve as wonderful souvenirs of your Himalayan adventure.