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Women Entrepreneurs Supported by Offbeat Tracks: Likir

The average tourist’s travel diary today has expanded beyond mere sightseeing. Travellers are keen to immerse, imbibe, and contribute to the local community. Sensing the gap between tourism experiences and the betterment of regional settlements, Offbeat Tracks was born in April 2016. A primarily women-led global travel company dedicated to promoting isolated societies, Offbeat Tracks endeavours to make a valuable impact. 

Founded by self-made entrepreneur Vandana Vijay, a TEDx speaker, and a former successful corporate sector worker, her broad life vision was to work with people in the rural heartland at the base level. A voluntary spell in 2014 in Ladakh kickstarted her dream, shaping it over two years and eventually moulded into an experience-based travel enterprise with a pointed aim to endorse eco-tourism.

There are several ways through which Offbeat Tracks furthers rural empowerment. The key agenda is developing and honing skill sets, especially amongst women, by providing adequate training and education programs. These could range from tapping existing talents, teaching business acumen, and equipping the local populace to run private enterprises. The experiential company comprehends the importance of galvanising women in remote areas to step into employment. Creating a web of small business owners is crucial to establishing a balanced social structure. The organisation specifically works with indigenous women-led micro firms to lend them the required backing they need to flourish.

In a bid to heavily advance the key premise of sustainable travel, Offbeat Tracks partners with resident homestay owners to tailor-make an authentic holiday for individuals and groups. Vacationers get a first-hand understanding of the local way of life by participating in the daily goings-on of host families. It is the most ideal method to connect with the customs, traditions, and history of the community to gain an in-depth perspective. Activities for holidaymakers vary from culinary tours and demos, basket weaving, pottery, visiting local markets, joining workshops, yak herding and even learning how to sow paddy. Meals are cooked with native seasoning and locally sourced ingredients.

In 2017, the Offbeat Tracks team collaborated on a five-day project with fourteen Americans in the tiny hamlet of Takmachik village in Ladakh, to install solar lighting units to generate solar-powered electricity in the village. The prime objective was to power ten inaccessible houses with solar lights. Not only was the mission successful, but the lights were in perfect working condition for over five years. The team also spent time with the families in the village, learning organic methods of farming along with additional practises of livelihood. Over the course of their visit, the remote community’s earnings were rupees one lakh, boosting the village economy with augmented income.

Although today Offbeat Tracks is a first-rate collective, it has faced its initial run of teething challenges. Chief among them was cementing an organic and dependable network of service providers across different areas - transport, lodging, food, and ‘experience contributors’ in distant districts. Vandana, Founder, and CEO of Offbeat Tracks, had to personally travel to listed destinations to inspect the provinces, forming fond personal relationships with vendors who today smooth line travel for all guests of the organisation.
All tours adhere to the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Guidelines such as affordable and clean energy (goal 7), decent work and economic growth (goal 8), and responsible consumption and production (goal 12). Several dozens of tours specifically in far-flung territories of Ladakh, Nagaland, Kashmir Valley, Sikkim, Bhutan, and Nagaland have been conducted by the company. The aim is to increase the web of local homestays and hand-picked experiences as well as partner with solar companies for solar electrification projects. 

Micro Businesses in Ladakh

Rigzen Inkang is a young, married graduate from Ladakh. She returned to her village, Likir, after completing her studies to become an active part of her small community and work towards mapping it on the well-trodden tourist map. An ancient, remote village, Likir was a pivotal point on a key trade route in the past, connecting Tingmosgang, Hemis, and Leh. Perched on a hill, fenced in by barren mountains and patches of green fields surrounding it, the hamlet presents a kaleidoscope of colours from a distance. A golden gate ushers in a grand welcome to the village of Likir. 

Luckily for Rigzen, the Ladakh Environment and Health Organisation or LEHO, a not-for-profit organisation instituted in 1991, was already hard at work in the Ladakh area. The notion behind the setting up of this establishment was the need to work on concerns regarding ecology, health, and sustainable development. This was in direct response to shifts in the social ethos, culture, farming, and food habits of disparate Ladakhi societies. The key was to maximise the consumption of natural reserves and supplies such as land, flora, livestock, and water across different villages, in conjunction with ancient traditions, values, and cultures.

LEHO has actively promoted homestays - seventeen at last count - as a part of its rounded approach to sustainable development. Rigzen seized the excellent opportunity to list her beautiful property as a homestay. Seeing her zeal and drive, the organisation took the initiative to entrust her with added responsibilities of working as an official tour guide and operator in Likir. All tourists travelling to the tiny hamlet have Rigzen as a first point of contact, who then further ties up with home lodges for their stay in the village. The number of tourists varies yearly and last year, Likir alone had 300 visitors. 

Rigzen has been efficiently running her homestay for two years, getting 37 guests in the first year and 23 guests this year. Out of these numbers, five boarders came via Offbeat Tracks, and the rest booked the accommodation organically, after reading outstanding reviews about her space. According to her, most visitors to Likir are from South India and stay for two to three days at most. Even though she had more guests in the first year, her earnings were lower as compared to the second year when she had standardised prices. Moreover, the seasonality in Leh leaves the homestay in prime operational condition for only 4 months a year, from June to September. Despite the odds, she has managed to earn rupees one lakh in a year-and-a-half alone. 

Although Likir is an isolated settlement, it has plenty on offer. Rigzen takes special delight in curating customised itineraries for all travellers to the area. The most requested sights and activities are the Likir monastery, Likir pottery, discovering amchi medication, and hiking. She ensures that each explorer carries a special memory back by piloting a guided tour of the village, spouting local anecdotes, stories, and folk tales. She revels in teaching Ladaki cooking to her guests and is eager to give demonstrations after taking suggestions from her lodgers. 

The easiest way to reach Likir is to arrive by air in Leh and hire a taxi. Alternatively, state-run buses ply directly to the monastery.

Likir Pottery: The rural community is home to a thousand-year-old tradition of clay pottery. The hand-built art began after the King of Ladakh asked the resident populace to pattern and shape earthenware from clay freely available by the mountainside. Gradually these became essential items used to serve tea or store grain. Eventually, it became a shared community responsibility, passing from generation to generation, seeing congregations sit together to prepare, form, and bake clay in a kiln with locally sourced fuel such as cow dung. Hot springs in the area give the pots a distinctive elemental colour of sulphur. The basic tools for this skill require a paddle, different sizes of oval stones, a hand wheel, and an anvil.

Can we put a pic of our guests making pottery at Likir?

Rigzen regularly takes travel groups to local women and a women’s cooperative group who practice the skilful art of pottery. Guests are encouraged to make their decorative objects to take home as special mementos. The entrance and learning fee is a small sum that goes directly to the women running the business, cutting out middlemen. In previous times, the art of pottery making was simpler with few variations as most people required large pots for storage. However, they were tough to haul as wares had to be loaded on donkeys to sell. Today, the pieces are more delicate, albeit time-consuming, and are primarily used for ornamentation. Likir Pottery is famous for its incense pots, lamps, water jugs, and animal toys. With the pressing need for sustainability today, Rigzen believes earthenware pots provide an ideal solution to being more environmentally conscious. As an added plus, food tastes better when cooked in utensils made from natural materials!

Likir Gompa: Sitting picturesquely on a hill, just outside the Likir village, the Likir monastery or Klu-Khyil Gompa, linked to the Gelugpa order of Tibetan Buddhism, can be sighted from a distance. Best known for its larger-than-life gold Buddha statue poised majestically on top of the monastery, stunning views of neighbouring fields, white stupas on hillocks, lofty mountains, and the village, greet the eye.

One of the oldest shrines in Ladakh, it was initially built in the 11th century, expanded over time, and then rebuilt in the 18th century after being destroyed in a fire. The gompa was fashioned as an invincible and compact fort with thick outlying walls and was strategically located to keep its inhabitants safe from external attacks. In erstwhile times, monasteries in Ladakh were pivotal centres of political and economic command of a region, even managing its agricultural produce, leading to conflicts with rival cliques for control. The main shrine is situated at the highest point followed by monks’ residences and finally the village houses on the lower slope. Several stories abound regarding the monastery’s origin, however, the most accepted version attributes the foundation of the gompa being laid by Lama Duwang Chosje, on the behest of the fifth King of Ladakh, Lhachen Gyalpo. 

The famous Dosmoche festival, one of Ladakh's most popular prayer festivals and the only religious celebration observed by all monasteries, is held here in the month of February each year.

Amchi System: Ladakhi traditional medicine, also known as the Sowa-Rigpa method of medicine, is the oldest, clearly established medical tradition in the world, dating back 2500 years. It advocates a comprehensive approach to the body and mind with nature, with expert use of indigenous plants, and mineral products to lead a holistic life. It is practised by medical practitioners called amchis who are rigorously trained through a generational system from members of their own families. It takes several years of theoretical and practical learning to become an accomplished amchi. The principal technique of diagnosis is through pulse reading and understanding the flow of energy in different organs in the body. Amchis also detect diseases through facial expressions, tone of voice, quickness to anger, and behaviour. They hold an esteemed social and spiritual status in Ladakhi society as apart from having rich academic knowledge, they are held as highly learned individuals in the village, being representatives of the Medicine Buddha or Sangya Menla. 

In recent times, increased commercial harvesting of medicinal plants has triggered a quick depletion of certain species, which serve as raw materials for amchi medicine, damaging parts of the delicate ecosystem. The younger generation in Ladakh is also slowly gravitating towards allopathic medicines instead of the herbal mountain medication, for quick relief. Rigzen takes special care to take groups of travellers to amchis not only to give tourists a slice of Ladakhi history, but to contribute to income for the revered amchis in the village.

Rigzen takes particular interest in the likes and dislikes of travellers visiting Likir. She painstakingly creates an itinerary in conjunction with the local happenings in the village to provide a truly unique experience for her visitors. At Offbeat Tracks we partner with individuals and homestays to not only provide you with an authentic flavour during your trip but also target impactful, sustainable travel to empower communities, and build infrastructure.