An organisation called The Snow Leopard Conservancy [SLC] displayed several posters around Leh town which caught my interest. They were advertising a scheme which involved local communities to protect mountain ecosystems and hence the habitat of the highly endangered Snow Leopard.
Whereas previously the villagers would shoot leopards and wolves when they began to take their livestock as prey, they are now engaged in their protection with this innovative, highly participatory scheme.
The SLC has established the Himalayan Homestays program along some trekking routes in Ladakh, Zanskar and Spiti. Homestays offer the trekker a unique opportunity to stay with, and share the culture of Ladakhi people in their traditional homes in remote villages. It allows you to enjoy the rhythm of life in hamlets where farming and livestock herding has been the way of life for centuries.
Although only recently established, the organisation has already been very successful. They have trained over 90 homestay providers at more than 20 sites in Ladakh. Of the average of 500 visitors annually, 91% have rated the host service as excellent.
The first ever fully sustained livestock insurance scheme was initiated at Ulley village [the highest and most remote where Snow Leopards and Wolves often prey on livestock] and others soon followed. The majority of a village’s large able-bodied livestock are insured against predatory animals but also other accidents.
There are also community led conservation drives that include restoration of village cultural features, garbage management, ban on the sale of plastic bottles, fencing of tree plantation areas and setting aside pasture areas.
Predator-proofed corrals were built that directly benefited more than 300 families and prevents incidents of multiple predations where 20-50 or more sheep are killed at a time.
By opting for a Himalayan Homestay, you help local people generate income from tourism activities in their village. This additional income helps in many ways; offsetting livestock losses caused by Snow Leopard and other predators; increasing local communities’ stake in conserving wildlife, and supporting local conservation actions that protect cultural and natural heritage.
We were impressed and wanted to contribute to this excellent scheme so chose an easy 5 day walk called the Sham Trek. Whether it was called Sham because it was not a “proper” trek I don’t know; but in retrospect it was hard enough for a couple of unfit 60 year olds [well, one of us anyway]. To avoid being “packaged” and spending a lot of money on guides and porters we decided to go on our own. The brochure had instructions which indicated that it would be easy enough to find the route.
Our first local bus
We arrived at the bus stand an hour early but unfortunately all the seats had already been taken. There was only one bus per day serving several villages along our trek so a lot of locals would pile into the bus for the four hour trip to Leh in the morning, do their business and then return on the same bus in the afternoon. It seems that most of them had already completed their business an hour before it was due to leave.
After a few minutes of looking dejected [Nell had said there was no way she was going to stand], some young girls offered us their seats with no apparent prompting . We cheered up immediately and with big smiles on our faces thanked the girls profusely and sat down with our packs on our laps as they would not fit into the overhead racks. Nice to see some respect for elders still survives here.
We waited on the sunny side of the bus for more than an hour as, predictably, the bus was late and looking for a couple of extra passengers to cram in. We baked and burned our faces on one side, but refused to budge in case our seats would be taken by some-one else. In the meantime the girls and other passengers wandered on and off the bus to buy cold drinks and ice cream.
Due to the discomfort we endured rather than enjoyed the journey. Apart from gazing open mouthed at the unbelievably rugged scenery unfolding on the other side of the dusty pane, the most memorable part was the communal smacking of bubble gum, an activity engaged in by the majority of passengers, often in time with the music blaring on the radio. We bumped across piles of rubble where the road had been washed away by floods. The worst damage had been done right through the centre of villages which had obviously been built long ago beside mountain streams, the lifeblood of this high altitude desert. This kind of damage had never happened before. Once again, here was visible evidence of unprecedented extreme weather events due to climate change.
We were dropped in the evening sunshine right in Tarutse the village where we had decided to start our trek, and walked down through narrow mud brick alleys until we saw a large traditional house with a discreet SLC sign on the roof.
Our frantic gestures and mimes were politely interrupted by the young woman who greeted us at the door as she spoke in hesitant English; “yes come. You like some tea? Please sit.” She removed her shoes and we did the same before entering a small kitchen with mats and a low table that looked like a bench. We almost sat on the Choktse until we clicked that this was in fact, the Ladakhi table.
The woman’s name is Sonom; she was heavily pregnant and had a shy toddler clinging to her legs as she busied herself boiling a pot of water on a little two burner gas stove.
An older man came in with a ruddy, weathered face and sparkling smile. He had been working in the fields and his clothes were worn and stained with earth. His hands were gnarled and powerful, used to hard labour; he stooped and limped slightly as he moved around the room. A little later when we enquired, with Sonom’s help as translator, he showed us his swollen knees and told us he owned the farm. Sonom is his daughter in law; his son was in the army and away on the Pakistani border somewhere incredibly remote and inhospitable for a period of many months, even years. Then his wife came in too, she had no English but greeted us warmly and had an aura of capable confidence about her.
After several cups of tea, some black and one with salt and butter, we were shown our room which was up a flight of stairs leading onto an enclosed roof courtyard. The whole building was made of mud, including the flat roof; an indication of the very low rainfall in this region. Our room, on one side of the courtyard was the biggest in the house and had large windows without curtains on two sides. The bed was two thick mats rolled out onto the floor and some blankets.
Sonom and the toddler slept next door. The toilet was also on the roof and consisted of a dark room, the rickety door fastened by a piece of string, a pile of dirt, a shovel and a hole in the middle of the floor. This was the traditional Ladakhi long drop composting toilet; the compost would be collected a couple of years later and end up on the farmer’s fields. Our room was mirrored by another guest room on the other corner of the house and Dad’s bedroom was along the back. I peeked inside and saw a little decorated altar with a Buddha, a picture of the young Dalai Lama and incense burners gently filling the air with a perfumed haze.
After a short nap we went for a quick walk around the village and took photos in the dramatic evening light.
Our meal was being prepared and we ate our barley bread, vegetable curry with curd and rice in the company of the family. More tea.
We were shown into the large traditional kitchen and living room next door, the walls of which were covered with rickety cupboards filled with many polished copper, steel and tin pots, pans, plates and cups. It was as though the family wealth was on display, just like the European “Parlour”. The largely empty polished earthen floor was punctuated with crooked, carved pillars supporting the roof courtyard above. Low tables and mats were arranged along the window wall and a huge traditional earthen wood burning stove dominated the space as well as a smaller, decorated metal one.
They showed us the store of barley chaff under the floor, which would be used in the winter to feed the few animals they kept in high walled enclosures next to the house. Every evening they brought in their animals, presumably to protect them from predators.
Nell showed the family pictures of Tasmania and her house, in which they took great delight; especially the photos of cows and sheep grazing in a lush landscape so different to theirs. After more cups of tea, Mother occupied herself with making curd from fresh milk and Father sat in the corner and murmured prayers from an ancient prayer book whilst spinning his prayer wheel. He would do this at every opportunity, during breaks from work in the fields; a devout and kind man, with hope and laughter shining in his eyes.
I could not help noticing a resigned sadness in Sonom’s demeanour; she moved around quietly and gracefully, the toddler peering at us with wide open dark eyes from behind her mother’s loose pants. She obviously had the task of serving the guests and did so most attentively but we learned that she was waiting to buy her own farm with her husband’s earnings whilst he was in the Army. It would probably take many years of separation and loneliness whilst living in with her parents-in-law.
We retired to bed early, brushing our teeth at the outdoor bathroom which was no more than a tap by the front door with a bucket to wash yourself in.
No doubt the family were tired and so were we after a day of new experiences. We were both thrilled to be here; these were the kind of experiences we had hoped for when we came to India. Dad was softly chanting and murmuring prayers as we fell asleep to the smell of incense and cow dung.
Continued in The Sham Trek -part 2