In today’s all-too-accessible world, one of the joys of travel is discovering remote and even uncharted territory. But it can come with the bittersweet realisation that by visiting a place we are usually changing it, either through our presence or by relating our experience on our return. Although responsible travel can’t take away our impact, it can maintain the natural beauty of a destination so key to its attraction – and diminish some of our travel guilt along the way.
Over the last ten years, the Himalayan homestay has grown in popularity as a way to get off the beaten track without beating ourselves up about it. By staying in the homes of local people, tourists provide an income that is used to help conserve the area and support its community. There are three main regions in which Himalayan homestays currently operate: Ladakh, Sikkim and the Spiti Valley. Ladakh is in the northernmost part of India and is reputed to be the ‘home of the homestay’, where the concept originated through a partnership of conservation agencies, local tour operators and villagers. Sikkim is on the Tibetan border between Nepal and Bhutan, and Spiti is somewhere between the two. In fact, ‘somewhere’ is a good description of this unique destination. The name ‘Spiti’ means ‘the Middle Land’, somewhere between Tibet and India and, unlike Ladakh or Sikkim, it is not served by an airport and the trains go no further than Manali.
It may sound like a contradiction in terms, but the key to good travel can lie in a destination’s inaccessibility. Whether you subscribe to the philosophy that ‘it’s all about the journey’, or simply dislike others cluttering up your space, a slightly tortuous trip to a difficult-to-reach place can predict a fantastic holiday. As long as you have the time and the patience …
The road journey from Manali to Spiti is ‘ten hours’, Indian time – which in reality can become sixteen hours or an overnight trip. The road is officially open from May to September when the snow is cleared, but it can close during this time due to the rains. The reasons for this soon become clear as you draw near to the infamous Rohtang Pass. Amid the mud and slosh the tarmac becomes as rare as a snow leopard, and any remaining patches are a danger rather than a comfort to your vehicle.
Landslides and traffic stand-offs are frequent, but any delays are tempered by the mobile chai stalls that appear from nowhere, staffed by men in long fake-fur coats. Having passed Rohtang, the road surface turns to pure gravel that, despite being worse in terms of its bumpiness, is also more predictable. However, as you reach the Kunzum Pass, memories of the road journey start to recede as the presence of the snow-quilted mountains hits you. Even the remaining five hours to the main town of Kaza already seem like a memory.
Kaza is the gateway for trekking in the Spiti valley, whether it is on foot, by jeep or the lesser-known option – yak. The town is not a beauty in itself, but the views from its temples give you a taste of what’s to come. Nestled in the valley, it is flanked by soaring rock formations and scree slopes, while the Spiti River winds its grey way through the middle. But it is up in the villages where you realise that Spiti’s inaccessibility is a fine price to pay for its remote beauty.
If the altitude doesn’t take your breath away, then the landscape definitely will. Despite the description of Spiti as a desert mountain valley, it is incredibly green in places, accentuated by the white houses of the villages that peep from the hillsides, their flat roofs garlanded with broom and prayer flags. Fields of peas, barley and wheat surround the villages in a patchwork of greens, irrigated by mountain streams. Vast blue skies stretch endlessly, with castles of clouds that never seem to cast any shade. There are no airplane trails, and the tranquillity has a safe, sparkling quality which is broken only by locals greeting you with the sweet-sounding word julay, or the burble of a mountain stream. Even the bray of a donkey seems somehow melodious.
During our week-long trek in Spiti we stayed in five villages, each one unique and yet all having the same sense of community and hospitality. The landscape changed constantly: from lush pasture to candy-striped cliff, from moonscape to moorland, from ambling path to rocky scramble. But no matter where we were, there were always the mountains: snow-capped, still and watching in the distance.
Even inside the homestays they were visible from the kitchen window, and most had a ‘loo with a view’. The kitchen was definitely the hub of the home where all the cooking, eating, talking and – in the cold winter months – sleeping took place. The food is fantastically nourishing, consisting of traditional Spiti dishes such as steamed dumplings, or momos, and spicy thukpa soup.
Despite being treated as guests in the homestays, the everyday functioning of the house continued around us and, at first, the experience did feel slightly like a sociological experiment, although it was unclear as to who was doing the observing. But any sense of the surreal soon wears off and, after a hard day’s trek, the limited conversation and focus on preparing the evening meal is a relief. Drinking sweet tea while watching the cows, sheep and goats return from pasture became a favourite ritual. In each village they take it in turns to herd the livestock, and this community spirit is extended to the homestays, where households rotate the hosting between them so that no house benefits more than another.
The organisation of Himalayan homestays is usually done through an operator in partnership with representatives from the villages. Our operator was Ecosphere who, as their name suggests, have a strong environmental element to their work. Any revenue after covering overheads and wages is channelled back into community projects such as communal solar-heated baths, insulated greenhouses and local industry.
Ecosphere was started in 2002 by a group of friends passionate about the area. Originally it was an NGO, but in 2004 they formed a social enterprise and changed its name. ‘We felt this option would be more sustainable,’ says Ishita, who co-runs Ecosphere. ‘It meant we weren’t so dependent on external grants, and could develop the projects we wanted. At the time, many development needs weren’t being addressed and, although Spiti is a very subsidised area, the subsidies were being reduced each year, which meant funding was not very sustainable.’
The responsible tourists that come to Ecosphere can choose their level of ‘responsibility’, ranging from staying in the homestays to helping villagers farm the land to building a greenhouse for a community. ‘There’s a huge shortage of people here,’ says Ishita, ‘so any help is really appreciated.’
Ecosphere also has several sustainable projects in the pipeline, including a green rating for the hotels and restaurants in the area, which will be collated in a Green Guide. They are also investing in a rubbish-separation system for hotels and restaurants, so that Ecosphere can collect it and compact it to use as insulation in the houses and greenhouses they are building.
So far, the Spiti Valley has been fortunate enough to have the rise of its tourist industry coincide with the rise in responsible travel, meaning that sustainable tourism is more of an embedded than a bolted-on initiative. This could be essential in years to come as Spiti’s popularity grows. ‘It helps that we were there from the start,’ says Ishita. ‘It’s easier to deal with tourism in its nascent stages before any vices become established, but it is going to be a challenge in the future.’
This year, when Ladakh suffered flooding, many homestayers transferred to Spiti and local operators estimated a 40% rise in tourists. Ecosphere has recognised the potential impact of this, especially since many operators do not have the same high standard of responsibility criteria as they do. ‘Many consider responsibility to be providing fair wages,’ says Ishita. ‘But we believe that should be a given. Some operators don’t want to use the rotation system among homestays, which can cause difficulties in the villages. But the community spirit is very strong here, and most have stayed with the rota.’
As Spiti’s reputation spreads, an increase in tourists combined with a planned improvement in roads could make sustainable tourism even more important in the area. Hopefully the conscientious development of homestays through operators such as Ecosphere, combined with the villages’ sense of community and Buddhist spirituality, will preserve Spiti’s beauty and keep it slightly inaccessible … Well, at least from the dangers of mass tourism.