What's it like to live in a far-off place most of us see only on a vacation? Foreign Correspondence is an interview with someone who lives in a spot you may want to visit.
Hugo Kimber, 47, has lived on and off in India for 25 years, and is a travel specialist in sustainability. For Shakti Himalaya (www.shaktihimalaya.com), he organizes and leads tours in northern India. He is from England.
Q: Is sustainable tourism different from other types of travel?
A. Very. For Shakti, sustainability is a core part of the product. ... There'll only be solar light in houses which recycle gray water. The houses are built locally with local techniques.
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The vast majority of what you'll eat is purchased locally. The majority of employees are from the hills where we are. Wherever you go, you'll have a guide at all times to limit any negative cultural interaction.
Q: How many trips do you do?
A. Under 500 passengers a year, and only in the Himalayan India. This is in Sikkim, Ladakh and Kumaon.
Q: Which place is your favorite?
A. Of all the places we have, mine is the house we've just finished renovating in Eego, in Ladakh. It's very unusual — over 200 years old and in a beautiful valley tourists rarely visit. It 's fantastic walking around the place: It captures the essence of Ladakh, a high-altitude desert primarily populated by Buddhists, both the "red hat" and "yellow hat" branches. The people are clearly closer to Tibetan stock than anything.
The area doesn't have a big population. It's low on water. Most agriculture and culture focuses on glaciers, streams and rivers. All these green pockets are in (a) valley clustered around water.
The people of the more remote valleys have gone about their lives in a pretty simple, low-impact way for hundreds of years. You feel that experience, that timelessness, in a Buddhist community.
And you're enjoying fantastic scenery all around you, without a lot of tourists.
Q: Where is this?
A. Ladakh is on the border with China and Pakistan; Kashmir is only 450 km (about 280 miles) from Leh, the capital of the province.
Ladakh is often referred to as "Little Tibet." It's distinct in terms of religion and culture from the rest of Kashmir, which most people are not advised to travel to. Ladakh is not affected by that advisory.
Q: How do you get there?
A. Our clients take a one-hour flight from Delhi, with the mountains on one side for a fantastic view of the Himalayas. You take an Airbus or Boeing 737 and land at the military-civil airport where the runway is just long enough.
Q: The plants? The animals?
A. Everything is at a high altitude — 11,000-plus feet — so there's not a lot of trees, flowers or animals. People come for the people and the scenery — the greenness. The poplars and willows aren't indigenous; they're grown for construction.
Q: How long do Shakti visitors stay?
A. Seven nights, eight days. You spend the first three days in one house, getting used to the altitude.
Then you walk around villages, visit a couple monasteries, raft down a river. There are some longer hikes. You stay overnight, maybe, in one of our camps enjoying the nightscapes.
Then there's a bit more driving and moving around. You usually stay in three different houses here.
The seven nights in Ladakh is $3,712. That doesn't include international airfare or the flight from Delhi to Ladakh. What you pay for commences in Ladakh itself.
Q: Do the locals speak English?
A. Not all of them, but many speak it well.
Q: "In the hills" in India sounds like something out of a Rudyard Kipling yarn. How is it different?
A. Most activity is at 5,000-plus feet; in Kumaon and Sikkim. It's the nature of the Indian Himalayas.
Q: Sikkim was an independent nation until 1975; now it's an Indian state. How is that working?
A. Sikkim retains a lot of its identity, much more than you'd find in, say, India's Rajastan states. The difference is Buddhism, primarily. It marks it out from the rest of West Bengal around it.
While Sikkim's king may have been eased out, Sikkim still has the feeling you might've had in Nepal 15 years back, or still find today in Bhutan.
Q: Is it like being in "Lost Horizon"?