I get this question very often – “Why doesn’t Indiahikes run the Chadar or Stok Kangri treks?”
I tell most people that we don’t operate in Ladakh and end the matter there.
But to tell you the truth, there is a long, grievous story behind it. Every time I ask our founders about it, I see a deep sorrow in their eyes. In fact, I don’t like bringing it up with them because I know going back to that chapter makes them very upset.
It all started when Indiahikes was running the Chadar trek in January 2014. “Chadar is not like other treks in our country. The eco-system there is incredibly fragile. Managing human waste is a big problem. Since it’s nothing but rocks and river bed, you can’t dig cat holes. The general practice was and still is open defecation,” says Arjun Majumdar, our founder.
Noticing how such defecation was ruining the trail, Indiahikes introduced a new system to manage human waste — biodegradable corn starch bags. These were attached to camp toilet seats. Trekkers would defecate in these bags, and the bags would later be buried where they would decompose. “It was terrific innovation that would do good for the entire Chadar trail.” says Arjun.
If you are not familiar with them, corn starch bags look much like plastic. So they were mistaken for plastic by local tour operators. “Not only did they dismiss the facts about the bags, including the German certification that came with them, they actually dug out the buried bags and took pictures. They put up a vicious post on social media,” says Sandhya UC, our co-founder. “It almost seemed like their way of getting back at our rising popularity.”
The reality was that the Chadar trek was opened up to the trekking community by Indiahikes. Until then most trekkers in India were unaware of it. But post 2012, there was a sudden boom to do the Chadar trek, much to the discomfiture of local tour operators.
The post went viral, heavily defaming Indiahikes. “It was very distressing for us because Indiahikes was the only organisation trying to do good to the environment. Packing up of litter and bringing it back to Leh in temperatures below -20 was ridiculously gruelling but our teams still did it. Besides, such false posts can be very damaging to a brand. Our only saving grace was that our trekkers were on our side,” says Arjun. He wrote about this incident in detail here.
“Not only did they malign our brand, they also started extorting us, asking for large sums of money,” says Sandhya. “They wanted us to write a letter of apology incriminating ourselves, or else they would not allow us to operate in Ladakh.”
Ladakh is unofficially governed by the All Ladakh Tour Operator Association (ALTOA). They control almost everything — transport, hotels, tour operators, etc. Ever since Indiahikes started running treks in Ladakh, we had to give them a fee. “At first it was a nominal fee. But over time, the fee increased to ridiculous amounts. They wanted us to charge around one lakh per trekker for the Chadar trek. They claimed it was an “elite” trek and not for the common man. Here in our office, we were wondering if our fee of Rs.22,950 was too much!” recollects Sandhya.
Come February 2014, the Chadar season ended and Indiahikes temporarily got out of Ladakh. “When we returned to run the Stok Kangri trek in July, we noticed that our trek operator was fleecing us. For instance. he was charging Rs.700 per day for one horse, when the actual cost was around Rs.300. And on a trek like Stok Kangri, horses are our lifeline,” says Arjun.
So Indiahikes changed operators before the season. “Turns out the operator who was fleecing us was an integral member of ALTOA. The moment we switched operators, the situation began spiralling out of control,” says Sandhya.
The next two months were an operational nightmare for Indiahikes. Vehicles with Indiahikes trekkers and trek leaders were stopped and roughed up. They were threatened and physically assaulted. Abusive placards were held up. Hotels refused to let our teams stay. They were being threatened by ALTOA. We held our ground and ran the trek almost throughout the season. But the last few batches were not allowed to leave from the base. Trekkers like you and me, who had spent large amounts on flights were simply disallowed to trek.
“Our basic human rights were under question. We weren’t allowed to trek in our own country by a private organisation, and all this over a fabricated story,” say our founders.
Indiahikes tried everything — filing a police complaint, which was not accepted by the local police. The police wanted to be mediators instead. “Finally, we had to approach the Chief Judicial Magistrate of Ladakh for help. He was visibly irked by what had happened and ordered action against ALTOA,” says Sandhya. Times of India even ran a story about this. We have written down details about the play of events here.
After the order was passed, ALTOA got even more aggressive. They held a dharna outside the magistrate’s office. They called for a bandh. They shut down all of Ladakh — schools, shops, vehicles. “Because of how this incident was affecting the whole district, the magistrate put a stay order on our treks for the next five days,” says Sandhya.
“I remember, Manish, Sandhya and I were put in a room with around 50 members of ALTOA, all of them flailing threats at us. We walked away quietly. That afternoon, we took just 30 seconds to make the final decision — we would exit Ladakh for good,” says Ajrun.
It took a while for the matter to end. We already had registrations for Chadar in January 2015. We had to call those batches off and refund trekkers. But in hindsight, it was the best thing to do.
True, it is a big loss for the trekking community. If Indiahikes was still in Ladakh, trails there would have been much cleaner, trekking would be more organised, the economy would have improved. “Ladakh is extremely beautiful. As pretty as Kashmir in its own way. But we will never work there as long as such cartels exist,” says Arjun.
After exiting Chadar, Indiahikes went on to open up six more winter treks. As you read this our teams in Uttarakhand and Sandakphu are gearing up for an adventurous winter season.
Some people ask me, “Is Indiahikes banned in Ladakh?”
Indiahikes was never banned in Ladakh. We chose to step out of there. Like Sandhya said in her recent interview with Outlook Business, “We are here to do something bigger. Business at any cost is not our motto.”
This is why we don’t run the Chadar trek.