Dehradun: It's going to be a skywalk with CCTV eyes now along the breathtaking pathway called the Gartang Gully in Gangotri National Park, Uttarakhand. This wooden pathway - renovated and reopened for tourists recently in Nelong valley of Uttarkashi district - is built into a long slash hacked into a near-vertical wall of rock and offers a 'skywalk experience'. Now it will have to be watched over because the park administration got the tourists it wanted, but it also got ugly graffiti on the structure and constant reports of stunts and dangerous selfies along the walkway.
The gallery was used for cross border trade with Tibet till 1962, but after the Sino-India war, the stunning wood structure remained unused and neglected for almost six decades. It is believed that the pathway is over a century old, but no documentary evidence is available to back this claim. Located in the picturesque Nelong valley (also called Nelang), the Gartang Gully is a 136-metre long and 1.8-metre wide oak wood-lined stairway that seems to ascend into the heavens, with the turbulent but pristine waters of the Jadh Ganga, an important tributary of the Bhagirathi, roiling ceaselessly 200 metres below. At 10,000 feet above sea level, the Gartang Gully is a wonder to behold and a thrill to those who traverse its length.
The 2-km trek for Gartang Gully starts from the Lanka bridge on the Uttarkashi-Gangotri highway.
The wood planks were replaced and the refurbished pathway thrown open to visitors on August 17 this year. Of the tourists that came to this far place for adventure many couldn't help but inscribe their names on the structure at half a dozen places, using marker pens, coal and chalk. This behaviour began to be noted, and even made it to social media. Former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah expressed his sorrow in a tweet, saying, "Tourists deface 150-year-old Skywalk in Uttarakhand. Gartang gali skywalk."
Besides graffiti, younger tourists have been seen performing stunts on the pathway, besides the usual 'hanging' selfies. This was a major issue of concern for the park authorities, given that loss of life is likely from these behaviours.
Park officials who are tasked with maintaining this new Himalayan wonder have had enough. The Gangotri National Park management has registered a police complaint against unidentified miscreants in Uttarkashi for damaging government property. Rang Nath Pandey, Deputy Director of Gangotri National Park, said, "About one thousand tourists have visited Gartang Gully so far after it was opened for tourists recently. After finding graffiti written on the wood structure we have registered a police complaint with the local police. To stop such practices, we will be installing CCTV cameras at various locations on the pathway. We have asked the PWD to execute the installation as soon as possible."
There's no electricity available at this location, so park authorities plan to use solar panels to power the cameras.
Rajpal Bisht, who undertook the reconstruction work of the pathway, recalls, "It was not easy. Snowfall and high-speed wind affected our work. Not many workers were willing to go there due to challenging conditions, so I had to select team members based on their courage rather than expertise in wood and iron fabrication."
It wasn't easy for the Gangotri National park management either. A couple of contractors abandoned the project due to the COVID-19 pandemic; more likely an excuse for buckling under the challenges that the Gartang Gully imposed.
Before the Indo-China war, traders used to take mules and yaks into and back from Tibet along this path. Jaad Bhotiyas used to stay during summer at Jadong and Nelong villages on the international border. After the 1962 war, these villagers permanently settled at Dunda and Bagori in Uttarkashi and cross-border trade is now a thing of the past.
In the absence of documentary evidence, confusion clouds the age of the Gartang Gully pathway. One legend ascribes the old walkway to have been hewn out of the cliff by Pathans from Peshawar. Others differ. Harsil resident Madhvendra Rawat says, "I have interacted with over a dozen elderly persons, who are in their 90s, from my village and they claim that the wood path was created by funds provided by local trader Dhani Ram. The passage was used for cross-border trade only. The reopening of Gartang Gully will provide a new attraction to tourists in Uttarkashi. We are presently collecting and seeking documents related to the history of the Gartang Gully."
In the 17th century, the Nelong valley was the centre of the boundary dispute between the Garhwal and Bushahr (also spelt Bashshr) princely states. A 1919-20 settlement report shows 17 families dwelling at Jadhang and 58 others at Nelong.
Besides troops of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police and army stationed at the Nelong valley, and the occasional visit of shepherds, the area had remained out of bounds for the common public after the Chinese aggression. Nelong valley is often termed as the Ladakh of Uttarakhand. In May 2015, the Uttarakhand government decided to reopen the Nelong valley for tourists. and this year the heritage path was renovated.
Adventure expert and explorer Tilak Soni says, "The Gartang Gully is a unique cliff-side hanging-stairway. It has all the potential to become a major tourist attraction in India. Tourists visiting the gallery should behave properly and contribute to the conservation and promotion of the heritage wood pathway."
Commenting on the trade at Nilang pass, adventurer W Wilson says in his 1860 classic A Summer Ramble in the Himalaya: "The little trade carried on over the Nelang pass is entirely in the hands of the inhabitants of that village, about thirty families of Tartars, who reside there during summer, and come down into Gurwhal in winter."
On the region's social life, Wilson adds, "The Gurwhalees themselves rarely or never go into Tibet, and not one of them can speak the Tartar language. They take their grain to Nelang, and exchange it for salt with the Nelang people, and even should other Tartars be there, they are not allowed to exchange or trade with them. The Nelang people take the grain into Thibet, exchanging it for salt or wool, or the Thibetians come down to Nelang. Scarcely any other article of merchandise crosses this pass."
Now tourists have come, and CCTVs are coming in their wake.