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Himalaya on Wheels

Have wheels, will travel

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DOORS OPEN: A wheelchair-friendly resort at Uley Topko

A wheelchair-friendly circuit makes Ladakh accessible for the differently abled.

For those confined to wheelchairs, travel is a daunting task, and more so in India where facilities for the differently abled are often non-existent or minimal at best. So it was a welcome move when a responsible tourism and rural development enterprise, which organises off-the-beaten-path, experiential, responsible travel, joined hands with Ladakh-based PAGIR (People's Action Group for Inclusion and Rights) to launch a wheelchair-friendly circuit called Himalaya on Wheels. And in Ladakh of all places!

Ladakh is as close as one can possibly get to a moonscape. It's a harsh high-altitude desert that can prove to be a challenge to even those who are fit and feisty. And it is almost mandatory that visitors do not engage in any form of activity for the first 24 hours of their arrival. Way too many holidays have been ruined when tourists ignore this warning and fall prey to high altitude sickness.

Which is a pity, for Ladakh is not just a pretty holiday-brochure country. It is a vast magnificent canvas painted with dramatic flourish. What appears to be at first a monochrome landscape soon starts to glow with dramatic colours and textures. The mountainous terrain here is rugged, almost primeval, and getting around means one must traverse winding, cliff-hugging roads and some of the world's highest mountain passes. Ladakh is not for the fainthearted, and definitely not for the physically challenged, or so one would assume.

Despite the constraints, Leh-based PAGIR, set up a few years ago to fight for the rights of the disabled to lead a normal life, linked up with Travel Another India to make the country's most geographically isolated district accessible to the wheelchair-bound.

Differently abled Sunita Sancheti says Leh was even better than she had imagined. "We visited Pangong Lake on a full moon night. My dream of visiting Leh's Buddhist monasteries, the Indus-Zanskar Sangam and seeing beautiful Pangong Lake was fulfilled. Travel for people with disabilities is an issue and especially at a place with hilly topography. " Neenu Kewlani, Sancheti's wheelchair-bound travel companion, also had a wonderful time in Ladakh.

The wheelchair-friendly circuit covers monasteries and palaces in and around Leh, the gompas of Alchi and Likir which are a two-hour drive from Leh, and Pangong Lake near the Tibetan border. The amphitheatre of mountains flexing their rippling muscles at a blue sky comes with the package.
Whatever possessed Travel Another India and PAGIR to choose a destination as difficult as Ladakh to launch a project that would have been demanding even in more hospitable conditions? It was the brainchild of Vidhya Kalyani who had worked with a number of NGOs in Ladakh for seven years. She reasoned that a venture like Himalaya on Wheels would give the physically challenged in the region a share of the local economy which is fuelled by tourism.
"We figured that if we could get it to work in Ladakh then it would be easier to replicate the model in other parts of the country, " says Gouthami, CEO of Travel Another India which also provides impetus to rural tourism ventures. Gouthami is the Asian laureate of the Fourth Edition of Cartier's Women's Initiative Awards, 2010.

And it was by no means an easy task as PAGIR, essentially a small band of differently abled Ladakhis, set out to provide the basic amenities for physically challenged visitors. First they had to convince a few hotels and guesthouses like Zik Zik Guest House and Hotel Grand Dragon in Leh and the Ule Ethnic Resort in Uley Tokpo village to modify a few of their rooms and make them wheelchair friendly. And that meant providing access ramps, larger bathrooms, room service, etc.

The next step was to check out the surrounding sites and attractions and determine which ones could be included in the itinerary. Shivani Gupta, also a wheelchair user and director of AccessAbility, Ladakh, did a reconnaissance run and submitted a report detailing what needed to done to make Himalaya on Wheels a rewarding experience. Her findings detailed accessibility issues such as the installation of ramps in hotels and tourist sites as well as the need for alarm systems in the rooms and bathrooms, wider entrances etc. The team even convinced a monastery on the outskirts of Leh to build ramps for wheelchairs.

Meanwhile, a few young people were recruited and trained to handle the physically challenged. They were taught how to manage their wheelchairs with built-in commodes and to cater to the users' special needs. Mohammed Iqbal, challenged at multiple levels and the president of PAGIR, monitored the operation. And it was through his efforts that the organisation was able to achieve a remarkable first in India.

Spurred on by the success of Himalaya on Wheels, Journeys Without Barriers, a division of Travel Another India, is now working on opening similar circuits for the wheelchair bound in Orissa (Bhubaneshwar, Puri and Konarak), around Chennai (Mahabalipuram and Pondicherry) and trails within the city of Delhi. Taking things a step further, all the new projects of Travel Another India, whose core focus is to set up tourismbased infrastructure and facilities in rural India, is to ensure that they have wheelchair accessibility as well. As of now, it has set up tourism projects in the village of Hodka in Kutch and Pranpur near Chanderi in Madhya Pradesh. Future projects are slated for Bijapur and Udaipur.

The organisation also plans to take the Himalaya on Wheels formula to the next level and open the doors of tourism to the visually and hearing impaired. The road ahead is a virtual minefield, but having conquered the challenging terrain of Ladakh, there is hope on the horizon.

The Himalaya on Wheels package includes airport transfers, breakfast and dinner as well as the services of a trained driver, helper and the use of portable ramps where necessary. It offers options for budget and luxury accommodation. The profits are ploughed back into PAGIR to help the disabled.

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