Though Ladakh is probably one of the best places in the world for a woman to live, some professions, such as that of a trekking guide, continue to remain male bastions.
This changed with the launch of Ladakhi Women’s Travel Company (LWTC), the first and only female-owned and managed travel agency in Ladakh, which is considered to have one of the most difficult terrains in the world.
It was the steely resolve of Thinlay Chorol, who claims to be the oldest women trekker in the region, which finally opened new professional opportunities in the travel industry for the regional women. Started in 2009, the agency today employs 20 women, most of them from rural Ladakh, as guides and trekkers. She also promotes home stays, thus further helping the regional women.
“There are very few job options open for Ladakhi women. It is my strong belief that women should be economically independent,” says Chorol. It was this conviction that led her to start her own agency when she realised that it would be extremely difficult to grow in this male-dominated profession.
Hailing from a small village of Takmachik, Chorol studied till standard tenth before being accepted by Student’s Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL), a social organisation working in the field of education. She came to Leh for the first time and this was a turning point in her life as it led her directly to her life’s calling.
“I always loved mountains but here I started going for trekking expeditions. I decided to make a career as a trekking guide,” says Chorol.
She worked with Around Ladakh With Students, SECMOL’s travel agency, for two years. Here, too, she observed that women trekkers were not given challenging assignments. In 2008 Chorol did a spring semester at the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) in India. The course included backpacking, home stays and white water rafting. Later she worked as an instructor aide for NOLS mountaineering course.
Post her stint with Around Ladakh With Students, Chorol continued to work as a freelance guide but her efforts to work with a regular travel agency failed, as they were reluctant to hire a woman. To further her prospects she also did a course in mountaineering from the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering, Uttarkashi.
“In spite of being well qualified, it was extremely difficult to find any opening because of my gender. It was just presumed that men are more suitable as trekking guides. However, I realised that there were some tourists who preferred women, especially female tourists, because they were uncomfortable with men,” says Chorol. Though she continued to ferry tourists to monasteries and “less stressful assignments”, all she thought about was being a trekking guide.
Finally, she decided to venture out on her own in 2009. Chorol decided to hire only women as employees to give wings to others who were probably being rejected because of their gender.
“I had to borrow money from my family and initially I had just four employees: an office manager, two more guides and two porters,” recalls Chorol. Though it was tough she has shattered the myth that women cannot be trekking guides in the tough terrain of Ladakh.
Today Chorol is playing an important role in the lives of many of Ladakh’s young women who want to be tourist or trekking guides. “I love being a guide. This is my first year as a guide and I hope to continue. Though initially my family was somewhat reluctant, they saw other women working as guides [with Chorol] and now they are comfortable. Thinlay took me with her four-to-five times as part of the training process,” says 24-year-old Dolma, who is part of Chorol’s team and is also a first-year student of Bachelor of Arts. Dolma works at Ladakhi Women Tourist Company during the tourist season but goes back to being a student for the rest of the year.
However, her parents feel that though she loves being a guide, Dolma might need to find an alternate employment once she is old. “My family believes that though this job is nice it might be difficult to do once I am older,” says Dolma.
Dolma was trained for nearly a year before being ready as a guide. “Since I make it a point to hire girls from the rural region, they have to be trained for a significant amount of time before being allowed to venture as guides. The most important component of training is communication, because these girls come directly from villages, so they don’t really know how to talk to tourists in English,” explains Chorol.
However, life is far from easy for Chorol and other women in the agency. A key aspect of tourism industry in Leh is that it operates only for five months in a year. The region literally shuts down for the outside world from November to March every year. Tourists throng the region from April to September. This means that in spite of the best efforts Chorol is unable to provide regular employment to her staff for the entire year.
“Our biggest challenge is that we are unable to hire them for the entire year, like other travel agencies in the region. However, I am trying to work something out,” says Chorol, without elaborating on her plans to provide all-the-year-round job to her team.
Thanks to Chorol’s efforts some of the agencies have now started hiring women as trekking guides. However, her biggest achievement is probably that families of young girls are now comfortable with the idea of them working as trekking guides. She recently received the Person of the Year Award from Government of India. Chorol is also the recipient of Jankidevi Bajaj Puraskar for the year 2013.
Today, Chorol, with the support of her husband, continues to empower Ladakhi women by providing employment opportunities in the booming travel segment.
Gagandeep Kaur is an independent journalist based in New Delhi. You can follow her on Twitter @gagandeepjourno