TOURISM IN LADAKH When a valley is reached by high passes, only the best of friends and worst of enemies are its visitors… Thus goes an old Tibetan proverb.

 Ladakh is often known as the land of high passes. And sure enough among Ladakh’s visitors have been some of the fiercest enemies as well as some of the best well-wishers.  In recent times again Ladakh has become one of the world’s top destinations for tourism… Here again after it was opened to international tourism in 1974, the early tourists who braved the rough roads and high passes were people driven by genuine interest in Ladakhi people, their culture and lifestyle… best of friends indeed.  But tourism that proved to be a blessing in the beginning has grown ten-folds in the last ten years and is slowly transforming into… perhaps Ladakh’s worst enemy.  In a short span of five months some 200,000 visitors descend on 10 square kilometers of Leh city!  Such concentration is proving to be a death sentence not only to the city but whole of Ladakh. The city is exploding to death with overcrowding while our villages are imploding to death with just elderly and dying people left behind as the young hands have all migrated to the city looking for all the opportunities there.

We in Ladakh truly have a responsibility to rescue our beautiful villages and save our city at the same time! This is what our campaign aims to do… in one single stroke!  By supporting this campaign you can be a part of this effort. And if we are successful in this mission, there are hundreds if not thousands of other remote regions in the world who will see a ray of hope!

So Hi, I am Sonam Wangchuk,

I was born in a tiny village in Ladakh with just 5 households, I am a mechanical engineer by training, but have mostly worked with education reforms in Ladakh. This included setting up the SECMOL Alternative School (www.secmol.org) well known for its innovative solutions to the region’s unique problems.  I like to say that apart from children, I enjoy playing with fire, ice, earth and sun… meaning efficient stoves, artificial glaciers and mud houses that are heated solely by the sun.  I won’t write more about myself, you can Google my name (a not so usual name helps).

SECMOL ALTERNATIVE SCHOOL IN LADAKH
SECMOL Alternative School is known for its use of solar energy and its earth buildings that say at an average  + 14 C even in notorious Ladakhi winters. Here I am happy to share that most recently in July 2016 this School Campus won the newly instituted International Terra Award for world’s best earthen buildings at the the 12th World Congress on Earthen Architecture in Lyon, France.

One of our latest inventions is the Ice Stupa Artificial Glaciers… which is a very simple technique of freezing the unsused stream water in winter into huge cones (stupas) of ice that then melt slowly into late spring providing water for trees and farms.

THE ICE STUPA PROJECT

Two years ago we came to Phyang valley at the request of His Holiness Drikung Kyabgon Chetsang Rinpochey, one of the topmost spiritual leaders in Tibetan Buddhism after His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Some of you might remember that to make the pilot Ice stupas in Phyang we ran a successful crowd funding campaign on Indiegogo. We are truly grateful to the thousands of you who supported us with contributions or helped spread the message globally.

Despite many problems with broken pipes etc., we were finally able to build several pilot Ice stupas at different altitudes in Phyang valley.  Thanks to your support 5,000 trees were planted by the villagers on a total desert and they have been blooming now for 2nd year with 97% survival rate.

FARMSTAYS LADAKH 

While working on water issues in the Phyang valley we noticed that perhaps water was not the only problem the village was facing.  In several parts of the village there was no shortage of water and yet farms were left uncultivated. Then one day we happened to meet 83 years old Abi Disket in Murudok the highest village in Phyang valley at 4,000m altitude.

In a sad voice she recounted her life and that’s when we realized that she and several others of her age were virtually living alone and looking after much of the farm work.

She was our inspiration for doing something beyond just water solutions… knowing that more water might only mean more work for the octogenarian, at a time when she should be retiring and telling stories to her grand-children… that’s one of the highlights of a Ladakhi childhood!  We realized that due to this urban migration, not only the grannies live a lonely life … the children miss a very important and beautiful part of Ladakhi upbringing!

That was a year ago. We then started exploring possibilities to improve the village economy and make life here more attractive for the youngsters. Tourism we saw was a big culprit for her woes…and we thought TOURISM should also be the solution. Like they say diamond cuts diamond or loha lohe ko kaatti hai in Hindi…  So we thought of bringing sensitive meaningful tourism to the village itself, so that village life becomes attractive and lucrative.

Thus in July last 2015, together with the Amalays (mothers) in Phyang village we came up with the concept of FarmStays Ladakh so as to turn tourism into an opportunity rather than a problem for the rural areas.

But before scaling it up to all the regions in Ladakh we wanted to test the concept in one or two villages. We started with 3 families in Phyang last year to test the concept and got very encouraging reviews. Most visitors wanted to either comeback or send their friends and relatives or both.

Then in 2016 we did it a bit more systematically. Together with the Gobas (headmen) of Phyang and Phey and other village leaders 12 families were selected based on their interest, active farming, availability of rooms and completeness of the family. A team of experts then trained the Amalays to prepare and present their houses as a farm stay.  This included the topics ranging from hygiene to cultural differences and a little bit of English language.

Finally on  18th June 2016 the FarmStays Ladakh was formally inaugurated by HH Chetsang RInpochey and Dr. Sonam Dawa the Chairman of the Hill Council Government in Ladakh.

The rest as they say is…history!

SO FAR SO GOOD!

Today the families themselves are very happy that their own house brings employment for them and their children. The young are happy that they get to meet interesting people from around the world and get to learn languages and other skills while they share their own.

Ama Angmo who used to fear that it would soon be her turn to be lonely after Abi Disket, is now happy that her home is lively and her village is now more interesting for her children.

Ama  Rigzin says her children hopefully won’t need to go as guides to other places…  Meanwhile neighbours are already talking about bringing their own children back from the city, since FarmStays Ladakh does not accept families that are not complete.

With their farm income supplemented through tourism we were able to take up another important issue facing agriculture in Ladakh… the trend of going for chemical inputs like fertilizers and pesticides. We talked to the Amalays about making their farms fully organic even if the yields are lower in the first few years, as now they have more income from the farm stay guests. They all readily agreed and recently the families adopted a charter to that effect in the holy presence of HH DKC Rinpochey.

WAY AHEAD…

Already these women have done business of over 150,000 rupees in just three months with very little promotion.  Now that we are confident about the model and the happiness levels of the guests, we are ready to scale it up through this crowd funding campaign.

With your support we will also be able to expand this into other regions like Nubra, Pangong, Sham, Kargil and Zanskar. This way visitors can make a whole circuit of visiting all parts of Ladakh while staying at FarmStays.

Yet on another front water is also crucial as more and more villages are facing erratic water flows in the streams mainly due to climate change and fast melting glaciers.  Therefore we need to carry forward our Ice Stupa work even stronger.  More and more villages are seeking this solution but before going places we want to capture the full potential of the Phyang village stream to make many more ice stupas in the desert and also in the higher up valley.  We faced some setbacks in our project when poor quality pipes supplied from Jammu broke in transport and in trenches. But now we have learnt our lessons and want to re-lay high quality pipes of large diameters of up to 300 mm once and for all, so that once laid we may not have to keep digging up the village farms again for the next few decades. These pipes cost roughly $50 per meter and we need roughly 3,000 meters of it.  But the good news is that in a recent meeting with the Managing Directors of Jain Irrigation Systems Ltd, which is one of the global leaders in plastic pipes, the company offered to match every meter of plastic pipe that you donate in this campaign with another meter of pipe donated from their side. So you give one and we get two! We are also approaching other players in the plastic industry to help with this.

HOW YOU CAN HELP!

1.  Your contribution to this crowdfunding campaign will on one hand pre-sell the farm stay rooms for this year and next year.  This will enable us to give advance funds to new families to repair and prepare their homes to receive guests in future.  This advance fund is what stops many cash-poor families with beautiful old houses from coming forward to benefit from this programme.

2.  Your contribution through Farmstay perks will help our project have some funds to cover all the overheads like setting up an office, employing a management team, transportation etc. and funding promotions through commercial channels.

3.  Your contribution through  Ice Stupa perks will help the Ice Stupa project to continue solving the water problems of Ladakhi villages by building more Ice Stupa artificial glaciers in Phyang and also in other villages. Building ice stupas involves lots of expensive high density plastic pipes. And we need some 3,000 meters of HDPE pipes for Phyang valley alone. But the good news is that Jain Irrigation Systems Ltd, a global leader in micro irrigation and plastic pipes has agreed to match every meter of plastic pipe that you donate in this campaign with another meter from their side. So give one and we get two!

But please!  Money is not the only way you contribute… those of you who are unable to contribute right now are equally important to us. Your good wishes and moral support is invaluable, moreover you can support us by sharing this campaign with others who may be interested or may want to contribute.

Thanks!

The End

Find us on: The guardianThe HinduTimes of IndiaForbesChina DialogueLe Monde

FEW IMPORTANT POINTS FOR FARMSTAY VISITORS:

– You will have to make your own arrangements to reach Leh, either by flight from Mumbai/ Delhi or by road via Srinagar/ Manali. If you are coming by flight, we suggest that you book your tickets at least 6 months in advance to avoid high fares in peak seasons. We generally recommend road journey from Srinagar so that your body gets acclimatized to the altitudes while you are travelling and you save money & also help the environment.

–   You can use these perks from mid April to mid October in the year 2016 or 2017. In due course, we will have a mechanism through which you can block your dates. You have flexibility to change your dates once, at zero additional costs.

– You can gift or transfer these perks to your family members and friends at zero additional costs.

– If you are a travel agent or a corporate or any other group that needs bulk booking of more than 100 D/ N, please write to us at farmstaysladakh@gmail.com

– We prefer that you take perks on Indiegogo.com website. However, you also have an option of paying us through bank transfers or by depositing cash in our bank account directly. In such cases, please intimate us about such transfers/ deposits immediately with your complete details and the perks that you have taken. This will help us in timely reconciliation of accounts. Please consider INR 69 to a Dollar.

– If for some reason you decide or are not able to avail your perks or transfer them, then you will be considered as a donor towards development of Ice Stupa/FarmStays project.  There will be no refunds for cancellations.

–  You are expected to have appropriate insurance cover for your travel, the FarmStays project has no responsibility or liability for injuries etc. during your voyage.

–  Children below 5 yrs not requiring extra bed can stay for free at FarmStays Ladakh.\

Courtesy indiegogo.com FarmStays Ladakh

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