All my friends warned me about altitude sickness and harsh weather conditions that I was bound to face there. I felt nervous on hearing stories of people returning back from the airport due to altitude sickness, but was still determined to go.
The project was commissioned by a social entrepreneurship ‘Travel Another India’ (TAI) in collaboration with a local NGO ‘People’s Action Group on Inclusion & Disability’ (PAGIR). TAI is working towards helping set up Responsible Rural Tourism Ventures and then link them up with travel agencies for marketing. TAI promotes Responsible Tourism with travellers and hosts by supporting communities to set up Responsible Tourism Ventures (RTV). They support on sensitising on Responsible Tourism, planning the experience, bringing in technical and financial resources, reaching out to guests, ensuring appropriate capacity building, facilitating learning across RTVs and identifying allied livelihoods that can be enhanced. For the Ladakh project TAI is working in collaboration with PAGIR, a rights movement working to create a society that is inclusive and free of prejudice. They do this by mobilizing people, campaigning on rights issues and accessing legal aid. Alongside, they also address livelihoods of disabled people.
Together TAI and PAGIR are working towards developing an inclusive travel circuit in Ladhak, that is accessible to people using wheelchairs. This is the first time in India that “inclusion” at travel destinations is being worked for professionally by organizations. Clearly, they considered it a profitable commercial venture rather than mere charity.
Leh can be accessed by road via Srinagar or Manali in the summers. This route is open for about five months in a year. Alternatively there are daily flights to Leh. I flew to Leh and was there for almost a week to visit and audit all tourist attractions in and around its vicinity, from April 12 to 18, 2010. While the actual tourist season begins only in May, there were already a large number of tourists who were attracted to Leh especially after seeing the breathtaking Pangong Lake in the recent movie ‘Three Idiots’.
The Leh Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport, is one of the highest airport in the world, and is managed by the Indian Army. Though quite like the Delhi airport, there was no ambulift available at the airport. The ground transport to and fro from the aircraft is provided by small buses that are completely inaccessible. The ground handling staff pushed my wheelchair all the way from the aircraft to the airport. The airport is step free with a couple of steep ramps in places. There is no accessible toilet as expected.
The local taxis that are available are high, four-wheel drive vehicles, ranging from Innova, Scorpio to a Sumo. Smaller cars may be good for traveling within Leh city, but to travel around Leh a larger vehicle is a must. Being a tetraplegic, getting in and out of the Innova was very difficult for me, probably more difficult than negotiating with the architectural inaccessibility of all monuments! My trip would not have been possible if it were not for the impeccable hospitality extended by PAGIR locally. All credit goes to Kunzang (Secretary, PAGIR) and Kunzes (Cordinator, Himalaya on Wheels) and the driver Ehzaaz who accompanied me everywhere and assisted me at every step.
Predominantly a Buddhist region, Ladakh is also known as the land of Gompas (monasteries). Every village has its own Gompa in a secluded area away from the village, generally on a hilltop. Most Gompas have a large number of steps, but some with fewer steps include the Alchi Gompa, Shey Gompa, and the Likir Chamba where the deity of Buddha (70 feet high) can be viewed from the road itself.
I was truly excited when I saw that the Archeological Survey of India (ASI) working towards making the Alchi Gompa accessible, as it is an11th century monastery. Besides being the oldest in Ladakh, it is soon to become a World Heritage Site. The work was on, and an engineer from ASI was on site supervising the work. Though the ramps that they were constructing were rather steep, but still it was wonderful to see that ASI’s policy of making monuments accessible is truly taking shape. Some expert advice before making the changes would help them further, and avoid undesirable flaws such as the steep ramps.
The natural beauty of Ladakh is incomparable. Being a wheelchair user, I tend to enjoy natural beauty as it is usually more accessible than man made monuments which are comparatively inaccessible. Leh’s natural beauty is so magnificent and overpowering, that it completely humbles you and spreads a sense of peace and calm. No wonder I survived so well, without mobile connectivity and without worrying about time comfortably for those six days. Each mountain in this dry land is of a different colour. Each view is such that you would want to photograph it. Two significant tourist locations are Khadungla pass, the world’s highest motorable road, and the Pangong Lake,a 134 km long lake extending from India to China. Being nature’s gifts, both these places are fully accessible, but unfortunately the man-made restrooms in both these places are inaccessible.
As a person who enjoys travel and adventure, I would love to return to Leh in spite of Ladakh not having a single accessible guest room that a wheelchair user can stay in or an accessible restroom for use. As an access consultant, I would have to say that there is a lot of work to be done before we can term Leh as an inclusive destination. Some major points of intervention, that would bring far reaching changes, are as follows:
- The Jammu and Kashmir State building byelaws must adopt accessibility as a requirement, so that no new building can get a completion certificate unless it is fully accessible.
- The Ministry of Tourism has very recently brought out Guidelines for Classification of Hotels that requires all hotels, 1 star to 5 star, to subscribe to accessibility (http://www.tourism.gov.in/guidelines/hotelguideline.pdf). It is important that local hotel associations too take these seriously.
- Building the awareness of the local people in the area of accessibility is important.
- Capacity building of local engineers and architects, especially working with the Government agencies such as ASI, PWD etc., on the subject of accessible environments is important.
- There are a few villages in Ladakh that are being developed as model villages. Accessibility must be a criterion built into the development plans, as it would not only benefit the tourists, but also the sick and elderly in the village.