A stunning cold desert similar to Ladakh’s famed landscape lay hidden in the Uttarakhand Himalayas, off limits for tourists for half-a-century since the 1962 Sino-Indian war because of its proximity to the Chinese border.
In May 2015, authorities woke up and opened the spectacular Nelong Valley in Uttarkashi district for visitors. But then, it still remains an off-the-circuit destination attracting less than 200 tourists over the past six months because the state, which depends heavily on tourism, failed to promote it.
Besides its boundless beauty, its shelters remnants of the treacherous Sino-Indian trade route — such as a hand-built wood bridge used for centuries prior to the war.
The valley, at 11,000ft, is within Gangotri National Park. It is around 315km from Dehradun and 23km from Bhaironghati, which is just a shout away from the famous Gangotri shrine.
The government has put a cap on the number of vehicles entering the valley each day — a maximum of six with only four occupants in each. A permit letter from the sub-divisional magistrate is required to visit the area while entry of foreigners is banned.
Those who made it, came out mesmerised. This place is like a hidden treasure in the Himalayas but little is known about it outside the state,” says Manoj Jagudi, an engineering graduate, who took the trip.
But visitors intending to take a trip now will have to wait till 2016 because the tourist season ended in November.
Experts say the picturesque valley holds tremendous potential to become a niche tourism destination, just like the Valley of Flowers in Chamoli district that attracts thousands of tourists and nature enthusiasts every year.
Retired bureaucrat SS Pangtey, considered an authority on Uttarakhand tourism, agrees. “It is a remote, virgin area that can turn into an adventure tourism hotspot if the state provides ample publicity.”
He says regulated tourism to prevent disturbance to local ecology is fine “but even that will happen only when they get to know about the valley in the first place”.
Tour operators want the permit process to be simplified. “A single-window information system should be put in place in the state capital,” says Arun Puri, an Uttarkashi-based operator.
Forest minister Dinesh Aggarwal attributes the poor footfall to bad roads. “I have asked officials to improve the road leading to the valley by next season. I will also ask eco-tourism officials to ensure proper publicity of Nelong Valley. We want tourists to come, though tourism will continue to remain regulated in the valley.”
The place is close to the heart of the Rongba or Bhotiya tribe, the valley inhabitants who were forced out during the war. “Prior to the war, trade with Tibet was the economic mainstay of the villagers in the valley. This valley could be highlighted as a heritage site,” says farmer Jot Singh, a displaced Nelong native.
Located in Gangotri National Park in Uttarkashi district
Around 315km from Dehradun
Cold desert with Ladakh-like landscape
Close to India-China border
Tourists from May to November 2015: 184
Tourists in Valley of Flowers from May to October 2015: 9,901
(Sources: Gangotri National Park, Uttarkashi and Nanda Devi National Park office, Chamoli)