Quirky and Thoughtful Moments From My Trip to Yunnan, China

I spent one and a half months in Yunnan, China. Here are some of my favourite photos from the trip.

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People and Life!

I love how people in China follow discipline. But I have often wondered to what extent should rules be made – who should make them and if it’s okay to force people to follow them?  

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Elephants of Jinghong Town

Elephants are powerful, sacred, worshipped and wild. They are one of the most threatened, large animals living on this planet. In Yunnan, they were like magisterial titles – found everywhere – on roadsides and on footpaths. Beautiful, aren’t they?

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Of course, there were other animals in Jinghong town! 

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Canopy Walk Near the Town of Mengla

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I walked above the canopy. I realised that even if we, as humans have (technically) put ourselves above nature, none of us are mentally above it. Even the most enlightened ones have prayed and bowed down to mother nature. They sit ‘under’ the Bodhi Tree. Then why are there people who think it’s okay to destroy nature and that humans are superior?

What really makes us superior, intelligent and powerful? 

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Forests 

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I think trees are the most beautiful and unique entities of this planet. 

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Historically, forests have been used for human needs. Humans have extracted whatever they need from the forests. Plants, animals, fruits and nuts. Some people think forests are their rights, some others think forests belong to the wild animals and there are those who think forests and animals can be managed to gain what they think is the most important!

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So why do we need forests, or shall I rather ask what are our greatest needs?

Subsistence, consumption, recreation, luxury, or biodiversity…

What do you think?

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Colourful Nights at the Bar 

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I have always loved meeting people who share the same values as mine – nature conservation and sustainable living. Unfortunately, there’s no sustainable way to have the ‘occasional drink’. Even the most ambitious conservation leaders like to intoxicate themselves and unwind with music and deep conversations.

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Sustainable Cycling! 

Cycling slows down my life. In this fast-moving world of progress and development – cycling through the mountains of Yunnan in Mengla was just like meditation. I thoughtlessly cycled long distances and watched the trees along my way. Somedays, I parked my bike and lay on the grass with my binoculars to look at birds and stars. 

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One last question, so are the planet’s forests meant for the wild animals or the timber or the fruits or for human recreation – should we sustainably manage the forests for our needs or leave the forests alone – who should decide and when? 

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What India’s Natural Heritage Taught Me About Life

 

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As I reached Coorg at the break of day, I was welcomed by a jeep and the smile of the driver who had rushed to pick me up. My lonely soul immediately filled up with happiness on seeing someone so friendly. The previous night, I had started from Bangalore on a bumpy bus. I reached Madikeri at four in the morning and promptly fell asleep at the noisy bus stop. After about fifteen minutes of my intermittent sleep, I got up to notice that I was attracting a lot of unwanted attention, usually the kind that is given to ‘solo’ women travellers in India. And if caught alone at wee hours in unexpected places, like the bus stop in my case, women are singled out even more! My eyes were tired. With enough ‘jugaad’ (a Hindi word for making your way through), just before dawn, I managed to get onto a sleeper bus to reach Kabinakad. And yet again, I found myself standing alone at a request stop in the early morning engulfed by rains, tea gardens and the mountains of the Western Ghats.

The sun played peek-a-boo with the clouds. Chhrrrr-chhrrrr-chhrrrr went a flock of 100 starlings right above my head as I extended my head upwards to count them. I heard a long shrill of a woodpecker who was flying from tree to tree searching for ants and other insects to feed upon. In the middle of a small agricultural field stood a leafless tree. As I gazed upon it, I thought that it looked really lonely without its leaves, just like I was without my favourite group of Homo sapiens. Suddenly a tinge of yellow caught my eye. Like a magic ray of hope, it circled the tree. Much to my surprise, the tree that I felt was lonely, was now with a beautiful companion – the Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher. The tree smiled back at me and told me that she wasn’t alone, she is into a different kind of friendship. Her relationship with the canary is stronger than her relationship with her own leaves. She went on to say that she has plenty of companions – some tailed, some winged! She’s happy without her leaves as well. I smiled back at her, amazed as the realisation dawned on me – your choice of companionship can vary – it need not be what society deems it should be! In the background, the clouds rolled over lush green mountains. The grey sky took on a deep blueish hue and suddenly burst into droplets that scattered all over the ground. They spread a wave of happiness on the earth. Half drenched in the rains, I stood there with my pink umbrella against the foreboding backdrop of the grey skies. A tiny frog jumped over my feet from the bushes by the side. It took another quick jump to disappear inside a puddle. One last jump to cross the road and it went back into the bushes where it belonged. I realised I needed no human companion to be at peace – not when I had the rains, trees, birds and frogs to love back!

By now the driver had turned the jeep around and I hopped inside. In no time, we were on a road with dense rainforest on either side. From the valley below, towering trees reached out to touch the distant sky. Although I was used to seeing tall skyscrapers in Bombay, these magnificent trees overpowered even those and looked much taller and stronger. They seemed to belong to another world. In this forest, lichens and moss covered the branches of most of the trees. I could neither see the grey clouds nor the mountains anymore – the dense canopy above my head covered everything, making a dark, green roof above us. As I looked through the window of my jeep my heart filled with joy. All the tensions of my life and my quarter-life crises disappeared within the deep crevices of my brain. I had forgotten that there is a world outside of the forest. I smiled to myself and felt blessed for my new companion.

Turning round another hairpin bend on the road, I saw a silver shimmer. Amidst all the peaceful green, I caught a glimpse of fast-flowing water. The shine was nothing less than that of the solitaires that my friends love to wear on their fingers. These diamonds are their most prized possessions but the one I was watching was a different jewel – one whose importance is lost within our busy lives. Our life today is a competitive journey – a rat race. It starts with smaller material possessions in schools and colleges. With a high paying job, our possessions have progressed to greedy demands of big cars and a luxury house. Throughout the journey, most of us fail to see the natural beauty around us. I am specifically talking about the Western Ghats that we have here in India. The only goal of our life is to snag the biggest possible rhinestone ring that we can! They say that the solitaire is a symbol of love and strong companionship. Deep within my thoughts, I had made the forest my greatest companion. I urge you to go see one of these natural waterfalls within the emerald green forests of the Western Ghats. Feel the diamond-like droplets fall on your head. These natural gems deserve to be seen by one and all. And once you experience it, I guarantee you that the masterpiece decorating your body will lose its charm in no time. Although the bigger question here is whether you can imagine a life without these material possessions and instead get close to the real elements of the environment?

“Ma’am, please come!” said the driver, shaking me out of my deep reverie. I jumped out of the car and was greeted by an old couple. They lived within the mountains, coffee plantations and vineyards and earned their living through the organic home-stay that they had opened for travellers. They named it Honey-Valley. With the growing demand, they built extra rooms for their guests. My sojourn was basic and simple with one bed and no bathroom. The bathrooms were constructed separately outside – two common baths for a row of eight rooms. I just loved my space! My room’s door opened to the east with a view of the mountains of the Western Ghats. I quickly freshened up and walked down to the dining hall to have my simple vegetarian breakfast. The dining hall had a very rustic and tranquil feel to it. I rejoiced within as I sipped my filter coffee. My eyes chanced upon a bookshelf in the hall. I ran towards it and scanned through it. I looked at the spines of books from famous conservationists and wildlife lovers; books with birds, insects and mammals from India and abroad. I spent the next half an hour scanning through the library and made a mental list of all the books that I would love to read during my stay at Honey-Valley. Since the glass doors of the cupboard were locked, I sat down staring at each book from the outside!

Mr Suresh, the owner of the homestay asked me politely if I’d like to read any of them. I looked at him with love and greed, “How I wish I had the time to read all of them”, I answered. He laughed as he handed me the keys of the cupboard. I struggled to settle down with one book. I spent the next three hours reading excerpts from ten different books in a corridor overlooking the Western Ghats. Later in the afternoon, I finally managed to get up and stroll barefoot on the non-cemented, natural yard of the resort. Mr Suresh was sitting with his dogs reading a newspaper. I went up to him to have a small chat. Little did I know that he is an encyclopaedia of enlightened thoughts and knowledge about the two things I love – forests and wine!

With similar interests, we soon became good friends. He told me that the place I am standing on, was once a vineyard and that he used to make honey wine. The earliest description of honey wine can be found in rigvedas. Otherwise called ‘mead’, the wine is an exotic drink made out of fermented honey and water. This is how the homestay got its name! We then spoke a bit about the adventures of Kenneth Anderson ghooming with Byra in the Ghats and the five-game sanctuaries in India. “Hunters have taught us a lot about the forests”, he exclaimed. We smiled at each other, nodding our heads in agreement. When Mr Suresh smiles, his laugh lines become deeper. His forehead wrinkles to form five bumpy lines. These lines on his face are not those of aging but of knowledge that he has gained over the years while exploring India’s natural heritage. He roamed around in the Ghats for years observing the natural beauty and the diversity of fauna. He wanted to escape from the hassles of city life and the demands exercised by his family members. He came to the mountains and built a single room house in 1994. The house served as a base camp for trekkers and backpackers to trek to Karnataka’s third highest peak – Mount Tadiandamol. This mountain is covered with patches of the epic rainforests and shola forests of the Western Ghats. Even today he believes in simple organic living, minimising demands and promoting tourism in a responsible and sustainable way. He tells me with great sadness that he’s not met a lot of people who like the forests or enjoy living a simple life.  

The reason why we are losing our natural heritage and in this case the Western Ghats, is because everyone today is given to luxury. The Western Ghats is one among the eight ‘hottest hotspots’ of biodiversity in the world. The benevolent mountains were also declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2012. Although with growing demands, this treasure of India has been facing several threats. Ignoring their importance is a crime. For many of us life has become a fruitless journey. Living within ‘four walls’ will completely destroy us! Home and office, in the modern times, are a set of four walls strategically brought together to provide us with luxury and comfort. We juggle between the two in cars or other closed vehicles. Laptops, mobile phones and televisions make up our world irrespective of where we are – trapping us within them. The day passes by as we live within these gadgets, stuck in four walls – both literally and metaphorically! It is something that keeps the mind shut by implementing boundaries. I stood there and thought about everything that Mr Suresh was saying. Indeed, these four walls have caged most of us! These are the walls that we refuse to get out of. Mr Suresh claims that people have lost interest in outdoor activities and the forests. They come to his homestay for the sake of travelling or for a change from their daily routine. They have no feelings and no respect towards the forest, nor the creatures living within. People never explore or get out of their room because of the bubble of fear that encircles their life. And this is because of the four walls that they have surrounded themselves in.

It is a well-known fact that Indians have been very protective about their forests. We worship animals and trees. We conserve them by calling them ‘sacred groves’. When out in the open, say in a forest, there is no comfort, there are no walls. The forest teaches to live together in harmony with other animals who share the space on our only planet. It teaches us the importance of sharing space without any boundaries. It forces us to take risks every single day and pushes us out of our comfort zones. When staying close to the forest, life isn’t a journey anymore, it is about rejoicing the rising sun, the rain and the rivers. It is about finding peace while looking at the numerous flowering plants, huge trees and lush green mountains that show us our true value in this world. A human being is a tiny speck within this huge ecosystem of the natural world. When living in the forests, demands go down immediately. Life is more than just a journey to get somewhere. Life becomes analogous to art. The art of living with enlightened and happy thoughts. It is just about celebrating the rainbow, the clouds, the birds and the wind. These are all the things that the forest has. If we decide to live with these physical universal elements, they will never change! Because they are no one’s possessions. These are shared equally by every creature on earth. And that’s what makes a healthy ecosystem. The only question that man has to answer is whether he can imagine a life without his possessions!

I urge you to go spend time experiencing the natural heritage of India. Observe these little things and find joy in them. We Indians are still very lucky that we have ‘the big-five’ and two biodiversity hotspots still alive each with its own unique music. When I walked the mountains and sat under a tree, I saw my life differently. Life is never about the journey you take to get there, life is about listening to the music in the forest and rejoicing about the little things. The huge mountains of Western Ghats taught me to see my true self. It taught me to live without luxuries and demand less. Most important of all, it taught me to be less greedy and helped me develop feelings of compassion – compassion towards animals other than human beings. This is the power of the natural heritage of India. Today my life starts and ends within forests, for if there are no forests there would be no life.

PS: This entry was one of the top 12 entries in the Nature Writers Competition 2017 organised by the UNESCO Category 2 Centre for World Natural Heritage Management and Training. Here’s a link to the online souvenir – http://wii.gov.in/images//images/documents/unesco/unesco_nature_writing_competition%20_souvenir_2016-17.pdf

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My Heartwarming Experiences Might Completely Change The Way You Travel

I usually travel in ways that help local communities while getting them to develop in a sustainable way (this, by the way, is the very definition of sustainable ecotourism!). The places that I prefer travelling to include- villages, forest reserves, national parks, heritage towns and biodiversity hotspots. Why? Because usually tourists leave these places alone, enabling the locals to offer their own version of ecotourism, without corporate influences getting in the way!

I have tried to embrace all principles of sustainable tourism wherever I have traveled. Here are some of my experiences over the last two years:

Experience 1: Chilling with the Banjaras, otherwise known as the lost tribes of India. 

Spending time with local communities!
Spending time with local communities!

They are locally called “Lambadi” or “Lambani”, counted among the fast disappearing tribes of the world. Karnataka, in India hosts one of the richest and the most vibrant cultures of Lambanis. They now work in farms or any other daily wage jobs possible around their village. All the other time they chill and roam or create intricate art work with mirrors and colored thread. Some have turned their artisan skills into small scale businesses. They aren’t hesitant to tell you that their ancestors are Gypsies/Romans of Europe. When you travel local, you get to learn about and see the heritage of any place that you are travelling to. When you interact with the people, you might get to know how exactly to boost their economy and help them. After this happy meeting, I ended up buying some cheap, local, banjara jewelry for myself! And you know what, it looks awesome on me. 

OMG, I love tribal jewelry ;)
OMG, I love tribal jewelry 😉

Experience 2: Camping to support local communities and demand less while traveling 

Camping within the snow-clad mountains in Chatru!
Camping within the snow-clad mountains in Chatru!

Sleeping under the stars with a local family in Chatru (3100 meters above the sea level) was an experience of a lifetime. The family of four that I stayed with, lived here for six months and spends the rest of the year roaming in the villages at a lower elevation. How difficult their life is, I thought! Although I was equally pleased to see them welcome us with a heartful of smiles!

The hut of my host, who served warm coffee and noodles with much love
The host’s cozy hut, who served warm coffee and noodles with much love

That night when I looked up in the cold breeze at the clear sky, I saw the whole galaxy stretch out over my head. Holy Christ! I could experience nature first hand. I wanted to fly and touch every star to twinkle like it. I just smiled and realized, one twinkling smile can make a whole lot of difference. I was here because I had decided to ditch all the hotels and guesthouses. Had I been in a hotel, I am sure I would have missed out on the starry galaxy and a whole lot of joyous thoughts! 

Experience 3: Living in local homestays thus encouraging local businesses

A forest officers' terrace converted into a basic stay for travelers!
A forest officers’ terrace converted into a basic stay for travelers!

In Hampi, a UNESCO heritage town in India, I lived in this colorful homestay run by Rambo and admired the beauty of this quaint little hamlet. The nearby frogs were my friends during my stay. You might like to read- Frogs of Hampi. Rambo taught me a way of life- he tells me that the biggest happiness for him is when his travelers are happy and smiling in his warm hut! He says, the only wish he makes to God is to keep his travelers happy. What a simple and beautiful way of life, I thought, as I chilled in my hut overlooking the paddy-fields! Seeing happiness in others is something not many people master. But the ones who do, are enlightened in their lives. Most of Rambo’s daily earning depends upon travelers like you and me! The money he makes out of this homestay goes towards his children’s education, maintenance of his farm and his home.

My colorful and peaceful homestay at Hampi
My colorful and peaceful homestay at Hampi

You might also like to know of another wonderful example of me staying local- The Organic Bamboo shacks in India’s best kept secret beaches of Gokarna. Read- Snippets from Gokarna: India’s Best Kept Secret Beach?

Experience 4: Going veg and eating simple local food

Yummy Gujarathi Thali!
Yummy Gujarathi Thali!

Treating myself to a whole fat veggie meal in Gujarat prepared with much love by a local restaurant owner. I turned vegetarian five months ago from being a voracious meat eater and this I think is a big step in contributing towards sustainable living. The global number of people eating veg is about 4-5% in the Canada and US and about 30% in India. Just livestock adds about 15% of all the global greenhouse gases which is far more than the world’s planes, ships and automobiles put together. Jaws dropped- who’s going vegan?

I loved spending time in Honey-Valley Resort in Coorg

Experience 5: Explore a destination on foot

Exploring the Shivapuri Nagarjun National Park on foot!
Exploring the Shivapuri Nagarjun National Park on foot!

I went trekking through the Shivapuri Nagarjun National Park in Nepal to spend time with birds and local tribes there. Trekking is a great way to explore the outdoors. It is healthy and reduces your carbon footprint. It is much better than exploring the same area with jeeps/cars. Also, believe it or not, being close to nature has several health benefits. Walking on natural non-cemented paths is great for your joints and muscles. It reduces the ground reaction force exerted on your joints (The physiotherapist in me is talking here!).

Here’s another picture that I clicked while exploring the gorgeous rain forests of India on foot with several leeches, snakes and other little crawlies. 

Bisle Rainforest in Southern India
Bisle Rainforest in Southern India

Experience 6: Volunteer Travel

Working at a forest farm on the outskirts of Dharwad
Working at a forest farm on the outskirts of Dharwad

This is my favorite way of travelling. By volunteering and helping different organisations, I have made my way to the breathtaking countryside of Nepal, lived with the farmers in Karnataka and have taught children an eco-friendly/sustainable way of living almost everywhere I have gone! Even today, at most times I end up volunteering with local NGOs and working for them while I get to explore the town/village locally.

Happy times with kids in a local school!
Happy times with kids in a local school!

When you travel minimizing your demands, encouraging local communities and getting close to nature- you are appreciating the wonders of mother nature and giving back to where it all belongs. This is the need of the hour, to develop a feeling of compassion towards nature and the environment we live in. Climate change is real and doing whatever little that we can do to make our only habitable planet a much more livable place is indeed amazing. Not to mention- the locals will appreciate you much more than they would snobbish high-maintenance luxury travelers!

Recently, I wrote an elaborate article on how to become an eco-tourist and do your bit while you travel. My nine step guide to traveling more responsibly might really help you! I am not a luxury traveler. I love using public transport, exploring the rural India, landing somewhere away from the touristy over-hyped towns and experiencing nature up close! This is my way of travel.

What’s your way of travel- Do you prefer luxury resorts over nature and local culture?  

Tell me in the comments or mail me your views on madhushri06@gmail.com and the best responses shall be published as a follow up to this article! 😉 

PS: This article was featured at www.thestreetedit.com. Read it here. Street Edit is a fashion, travel and lifestyle blog run by my dear friend Monica. Don’t forget to check it out!  🙂
It was also featured on Backpacker Bible- your go to place if you love backpacking the globe while benefiting the community.

Show love in the comments, by sharing this with your friends and by helping me fund my travel.

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My Favorite #ResponsibleTravel Getaways In India

Any tourist or traveler worth his salt must have come across the terms of Eco-Tourism and Responsible Travel. It has almost become a buzz-word and about time. While most people have a vague idea, it is important to understand what it really means and entails!

Ecotourism-A way for you to have your cake and eat it too

It is important to understand that there is no particular destination for travelling responsibly. Responsible Travel is a  habit and once learnt can never be forgotten. The need of the hour is to educate and be aware of what it takes to minimize our demands in whatever we do to save the only habitable planet from the harmful effects of global warming for a greener future. And travelling responsibly lets you do just that!

Also read- My Heart Warming Travel Experiences That Might Completely Change The Way You Travel

I would love to take you through a number of destinations that you can explore once you have decided to become responsible of our choices. India is a land with huge diversity of dry deserts, snow-clad mountains, rainforests and the grasslands which are prefect to promote ecotourism.

1. Valparai, Tamil Nadu

The endangered Nilgiri Tahr (A large mammal, close relative of sheep, shares common ancestors with cattle, horses etc) protected under section I of the Wildlife Protection Act in India can be witnessed grazing here. Valparai is located at 3,500 feet above the sea level on the Anamalai Hills in Tamil Nadu. While you trek down the Shola forests and the lush green tea gardens you might come across Wild Elephants and Great Hornbills. Homestays for tourists is the best option to live and explore the place.

Nilgiri tahr takes a stroll where no human would dare to walk!

Nilgiri tahr takes a stroll where no human would dare to walk!

2. Chatru and Chandratal lake, Himachal Pradesh

Eco-tourism in India is about visiting the clearest and most pristine lakes in India while at the same time ensuring that it stays like that! You should always reach these spots by foot because that will help keep the water pure. According to locals, this lake situated at a height of 4,300 meters, has immense spiritual significance. The water can be consumed without much purification. The temperature here reaches up to -20 degrees.

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The snow-hooded mountains turned upside down by the beauty of Chandratal Lake

3. The Seven Sister States

The North-East of India (The states of Arunachal-Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, Mizoram, Manipur and Nagaland) is a must-visit on every eco-traveller’s bucket list. These rich tropical rainforests harbours rare and unique species like the Clouded Leopard, One-horned Rhino, Gayal- in the most simple words the wild ox and the only ape found in India-the Hoolock Gibbon. The Hornbill Festival in Nagaland is a once in a lifetime experience, celebrated every year in the first week of December.

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The seven sister states and their relative positions!

4. Kokrebellur near Mysore

This village is a prime example of a harmonious relationship between humans and threatened birds- the Spot Billed Pelican and the Painted Storks. The villagers let these birds occupy trees and roofs of their houses, they say the bird droppings are an organic manure for their crops. The villagers here welcome the birds like their daughters. When you reach this place as a traveller you would love to hear incredible stories on sustainable living from kids here.

Pelican, eco tourism in India

The Spot-billed pelican takes-off

5. The Crocodile Park, Puducherry

Chennai to Puducherry is a beautiful long drive along the stunning coastline of the Bay of Bengal. Every year Olive-Ridley Turtles come to the shore of Puducherry and lay eggs. A lot of destruction have been caused by tourists visiting these beaches during December to February. Most of these turtles are caught by fishermen and the eggs are consumed by locals. Sometimes mere presence of tourists and touristic activities can unknowingly cause disturbances to this vulnerable species. Ecotourism in India can help in changing the general mindset of the people.

Oliver ridley turtles, eco tourism in India

This is what you wouldn’t do because you are now an eco-tourist. You have promised to take all necessary steps for conservation

6. Spiti-Valley

One of the most magnificent valleys in the Himalayas is a home for the near threatened Griffon Vulture. Vultures have suffered 99.9% population decline- most of it owing to habitat destruction and lack of food. The clear blue water of Spiti river is breathtaking and pollution free although at some places you will find traces of human waste disturbing the fragile ecosystem. At Spiti you may come across the elusive snow leopard- if you’re really lucky! There are only 400 odd left in India. The temperature here might go up to -20 degrees. It is advisable to go well prepared to enjoy this picturesque tranquil valley.

Spiti River, eco tourism in India

On careful observation you might be able to see the river bed through the crystal clear water of Spiti River!

7. Bisle Rainforest, Western Ghats

The Western Ghats in India are a biodiversity hotspot. Bisle rainforest is a home for numerous snakes, frogs, birds and mammals. Although I must warn you before you head out on an exploration here -the forest here is dense vegetation with fog, cold breeze and rains adding to it. Leeches are among the least creepy creatures that you will come across. Be prepared for facing Wild-Elephants, Leopards or a group of Wild Dogs. If this doesn’t excite you enough the most dangerous sloth bear might just be waiting outside your tent. Be careful and recall the first point I had mentioned at the start of this post.

Bisel forest range, eco tourism in India

Clouds took over while I was driving through the Bisle forest range

Although wherever you go, it is important is to realize the need of travelling responsibly and knowing every piece of it. You might like to take my 9 step eco-tour guide before you head off to any of these destinations.

Don’t forget to tell me all about your favorite destination and your responsible travel habits in the comments! Love hearing from your guys.

PS: This article was published in Holidify.com. And I will soon be publishing part-2 of this article.

PPS: Don’t forget to check my work with me page!

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