Walk the trails of nomad shepherds; experience distant sacred places; explore the mystical and pristine nature far from any road network.
To start, let your imagination beam you to a village in Northern India.
In the very North of the Uttarakhand state – home to one of the major Sanskrit epics, Mahabharata – lies the Uttarkashi District. There, forgotten in time, set at an altitude of 7,800 feet, lies a village surrounded by the Govind Pashu Vihar National Park and Sanctuary, one of the largest protected areas in the Himalayas.
The stunning mountains, untouched pine and deodar forests, pristine rivers and breathtaking gorges as well as the mere absence of roads stand between the curious traveller and this remote place called Kalap. The traditional Garhwali village numbers about 300 residents, 500 with four neighbouring settlements, and relies mainly on (fully organic) agriculture – and eco tourism.
When Bangalore-born photojournalist Anand Sankar arrived to work at Kalap, he quickly realised how fragile the place was. Having worked on development-related issues during his media career with two of India’s leading media houses, he knew that life in Kalap was “unique and sustainable, and it is critical that the community does not lose its future generations”.
Anand moved to the Himalayas in 2013 to work at Kalap and has set up a Trust which, by end of 2016, has not only established an eco tourism programme but also a free clinic and a free Montessori-cum-primary ‘AFTER SCHOOL’ in the village.
Of course, we wanted to know more about his work – and about Kalap.
Q: Anand, how did you discover the place yourself?
A: There is a long series of coincidences that led me to Kalap. It’s too long-winded to answer in an email, but there are two ways to look at this, either I found the village or it found me.
Yes, what attracted me to the village was its untouched character. I was among the handful of outsiders who had ever set foot there, and the first one to ever take a photograph there. It was simply due to the sheer inaccessibility of the place, 11 kilometres hiking from the nearest road.
Q: What impressed you so much that you launched Kalap Trust?
A: I think it was more pressed than impressed. It took a few months before the shocking realisation sank in that the next person to get here after me might be a very long time away. What if that person also decided to leave it to the next guy who comes along!
The place and its people deserved their chance at new economic opportunities and access to basic social services. It is quite a bad scenario in the Indian Himalayas. The worst affected are children who don’t have access to quality education services, either public or private. And those rendered vulnerable due to non-existence of basic healthcare facilities. The primary purpose of setting up Kalap Trust was to solve the problems in education and healthcare.
Q: The amount of achievements in the village goes beyond healthcare and education – environmental protection, eco tourism, solar energy…
A: I’ve been working and then living in the outdoors for a good part of my adult life, thus you can say that I define my quality of life by the environment around me and not by wealth metrics.
When I started working in Kalap, I actually started with eco tourism, but then I realised the community needed a holistic approach. So I decided to get involved to solve other problems too. And I firmly believe tourism has its part in solving problems rather than creating new ones. That’s the approach we consistently used when planning our tourism model.
Q: The Trust sometimes calls out for volunteers. What can future volunteers expect? What are the key skills you look for?
A: I am very choosy and careful with volunteers. Primarily the attitude that I look for is a capacity to learn. There is a lot you can learn from societies like these before you can start giving from your skills.
When we feel there is a requirement, we list out specific skills needed and call out for volunteers. We are always very specific about what is our ‘need’. We believe in local capacity building, so a volunteer must be an enabling factor to build that.
Q: Finally, for tourists, what packages can they book, where and how?
A: We have a beautiful informative website for travel to Kalap at www.kalap.in.
We also have a growing network of partner sellers in Europe. Travellers can avail themselves of travel insurance benefits from purchasing through a European seller. The pricing is quite a detailed document that can be shared, but in layman terms, it costs at least US $75 per day to travel on one of our itineraries.