Despite the stark cold desert topography with jagged peaks, Ladakh’s elemental beauty is almost meditative for travellers. White-washed monasteries sit atop peaks, with colourful fluttering prayer flags and spinning wheels around them sending out good vibes and blessings through the wind. But travelling in Ladakh is nothing short of an endurance test with oxygen-starved days and the discovery of new muscles that ache climbing up hillsides. This is the inspiring and challenging land where Thinlas Chorol, 37, founder of the Ladakhi Women’s Travel Co. (LWTC), grew up.
Her company’s focus is women and responsible travel. She hires only women as guides and operators, hosts guests at homestays run by women, focuses on sustainable travel practises and organizes trips largely for women travellers.
Chorol’s home in Takmachik (115km from Leh) is wedged between mountains of humbling status, where farming and tending to animals was the main occupation. Even though the village has now arrived on the tourist map as a model eco-friendly village promoting organic cultivation, Takmachik rarely received tourists 20 years ago.
At the age of 15, Chorol moved to Leh to study at the Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL). Apart from school, Chorol’s spent time on remote hillsides grazing yaks, dzos and sheep. “The calmness of the mountains seems to run in your veins when you spend too much time around them,” says Chorol.
She discovered another side to the mountains after she began accompanying visiting students at SECMOL to the Markha and Shyam valleys. Familiar with the terrain and weather, she led hikes and treks for students from around the world and found that she had a confident and warm leadership style.
Until then, it had never occurred to Chorol, that this could be an option for the future. The trekking scape in India is largely male dominated, with handful of women working as guides and drivers or owning adventure outfits.
“I was once turned away from a job at a trekking company because of my gender, but I didn’t give up,” she says.
In 2007, she did a mountaineering course at Nehru Institute of Mountaineering and later spent a semester at National Outdoor Leadership School in the US to train in wilderness activities and leadership skills.
“Being a woman, I had to be seen as a credible guide. Ladakh had started opening up to travellers but the boom was yet to happen,” she says.
“It was in 2009 that I finally established the Ladakhi Women’s Travel Company, the first travel company in Ladakh to be both owned and operated solely by women,” she says.
After 10 years in business, LWTC draws young Ladakhi women who look at adventure and travel as an exciting career path. Men are often inducted into this economy, but women rarely seem to get a piece of the pie.
Chorol and her team of 25 have organized and led treks in remote locations of Ladakh, putting women at the centre of their trips. The eco-friendly homestays run are a way to showcase the work of women, the backbone of Ladakhi society.
“There is a surge of solo women travellers and women’s groups coming to Ladakh. They find resonance with us women, and want to sign up for treks. They also feel that it is safer to be in the company of women,” she says.
“Travellers also notice that our team has a good relationship with the homestay owners as we have been working with them for years. The camaraderie and the friendship is real, and travellers get the benefit of an authentic experience” says Chorol.
As trekking clichés go, the climb maybe difficult but the views from the top is worth it. The same goes for the Ladakhi Women’s Travel Co. It has been a long and arduous climb to recognition, but the rewards have come in the form of creating sustained livelihood opportunities for women of the region.