A wise little boy from a far away village in Ladakh once said …

Yesterday should have been just another day at work for the 17000 ft Team, but a simple statement by a young 10th grade Ladakhi student from a remote village Satho, made it all so different and special.

His school, Centralised Residential School, Satho, situated in the remote Changthang area of Ladakh is desolate, isolated, and inhabited by temporary settlements of nomadic people, who leave their children in this school and move from settlement to settlement with their sheep and goats to graze. The children spend 9 months of a year in the school, living in dorms, eating, playing and studying with their friends.

The 17000 ft Mapping Board - You will see one in every school of Ladakh. At 14,442 ft, this is one of the highest schools that we work in

The 17000 ft Mapping Board – You will see one in every school of Ladakh. At 14,442 ft, this is one of the highest schools that we work in

The temperature in Satho as of last week was a chilling -200C, when the 17000 ft Team went to visit this very remote school to prepare its students for an excursion. A trip that would take them to Delhi at much warmer climates of 30C.

Satho is about a 150 km away from the city of Leh, a 6 hour drive over the formidable Chang La pass (altitude 17,585 ft), well out of mobile connectivity, with no electricity or even basic facilities to speak of.  The village boasts of a single shop that sells chocolates, Maggi and biscuits, some wheat and rice, pencil cell batteries and some odds and ends. Their basic needs are covered. There is a single Satellite phone in a small two room house right outside the school which works, only if you have the patience. Attempts to convey messages to the people of the village, is sometimes a multi-day affair.

With a 108 students, this is one of the largest schools in Leh District. Land is not a problem in the flat Changthang area

With a 108 students, this is one of the largest schools in Leh District. Land is not a problem in the flat Changthang area

Land is not a problem in the beautiful flat Changthang region of Ladakh, as is evident from the large school complex with wide open playing grounds. There is so much open and flat land in the remote villages of Ladakh that people do not want to leave their villages. But they want good education for their children, and better opportunities, and more than just brick and mortar. The school has impressive looking solar panels for electricity, donated some 3 years back, and lying non-functional, unused and waiting for repairs. They even have computers donated by the Indian Army which also lie unused for a simple thing like lack of electricity. A donated solar water heater for the children to wash their hands has been installed in the grounds a little over a year ago. It works very well in summers and freezes its pipes in the winters when the children need it the most.

Students of CRS Satho outside their school waiting in line to pay their respects to the local Rinpoche who was scheduled to travel that way!

Students of CRS Satho outside their school waiting in line to pay their respects to the local Rinpoche who was scheduled to travel that way!

Chilblains are a common ailment in children of the Changthang region, as is the presence of non-functional machinery needing maintenance.

The children and teachers live in this residential school, with many of the teachers themselves belonging to other remote villages far from here. Almost all the teachers have to spend a minimum of 3 years in the school, away from their own homes and families. Not all the teachers are well educated or professionally trained, but all of them do their job to the best they can given the circumstances. The village is too far and too remote for regular visits even by the local administration. School Uniforms, stationery, books, mid day meal supplies, teacher salaries, groceries for teachers and even gas cylinders for cooking have to be brought from other villages. Bringing these supplies is a two person job, and a multi-day trip. A trip is a hop, skip and jump from one mode of transport to the other, none of which is public or regularized.

A class in session in CRS Satho, outdoors is much better than indoors, and warmer.

A class in session in CRS Satho, outdoors is much better than indoors, and warmer.

This school embodies the hope and aspiration of this nomadic community.

Students help each other in their daily chores

Students help each other in their daily chores

The small soot filled kitchen which dishes out hot meals three times a day for the children. Pooris & chai for breakfast, Rice, Daal and vegetables for lunch and dinner. And snacks in between

The small soot filled kitchen which dishes out hot meals three times a day for the children. Pooris & chai for breakfast, Rice, Daal and vegetables for lunch and dinner. And snacks in between

 

Satho is less than an hour’s drive from the famous Pangong-Tso lake, a place which sees about 1,00,000 visitors every year. In peak season time, the lake side village, Spangmik, is teeming with tourist camps and tourists wanting to get a glimpse of the famous lake from a famed Bollywood movie. Almost no one notices a tiny school right in the middle of the cluster of camps, a school with just 4 children and 1 teacher. The students of this school go to school every day, despite of the madness just beyond. Just ahead of these camps are yet more villages; Mann, Merak, Lukung, all with less than 25 students in the entire school. The story here is the same as the village where our student comes from.  With just a handful of homes, these villages are untouched, with no facilities, no opportunities, and too remote and inaccessible to be on anyone’s radar.

Primary School Spangmik,a school with 4 students, 1 teacher and with the dubious distinction of being right in the middle of all the tourist camps

Primary School Spangmik,a school with 4 students, 1 teacher and with the dubious distinction of being right in the middle of all the tourist camps

Middle School Merak, a school with 27 students, right on the Pangong Tso lake, ahead of all the tourist camps

Middle School Merak, a school with 27 students, right on the Pangong Tso lake, ahead of all the tourist camps

All the students of Middle School Laga and Middle School Mode, two tiny schools on the way to Pangong Tso lake.

All the students of Middle School Laga and Middle School Mode, two tiny schools on the way to Pangong Tso lake.

The teachers in Satho are Ladakhi, most having studied from remote village schools themselves. They are entrusted with the task of teaching from text books made heavier with their English based curriculum, something they find difficult, considering the lack of opportunity to even speak in the language. They look at the visitors passing by to Pangong Tso lake, at the exposure levels of a few “fortunate” villages which receive tourists; they look at the income that pours in to the village and marvel at the people who can speak English, and wish someone would come by to their school, and their village, and maybe just converse with their children in English a little.

Like others in his school, and others “just off the tourist map”, our 10th grade student has rarely seen the outside world, nor has the outside world come to him. He wonders why some villages have so many people and why his has so few.  He looks at the few cars that pass by and wonders about its occupants. He wonders why no one ever visits his village, but takes it for granted that no one will. And without T.V, internet or even phone connectivity, he wonders what “India” is like.

Today, it is his first visit to a region actually named in the political or geographical map of India.

Today, 22 senior students from Satho are in Delhi for an 11 day exposure tour, a trip very generously sponsored by a corporate who has adopted this school. A first bus ride, a first flight, a first visit to a city, a first ride in a metro, a first visit to a hotel, a first in a toilet with running water, a first movie in a theatre, a first taste of a Guava, a first time attending a career counseling session.  The list of firsts is endless and they absorb it all without speaking. They are shy, unsure about speaking in Hindi or English and answer in silence or monosyllables. But the eager volunteers from their corporate sponsors in Delhi who have been accompanying them have hundreds of questions. What is Satho like? What is in Satho? What do you do in Satho? What can you buy in Satho? All of which are met with complete silence; simply because, there really is nothing in Satho and no one goes to Satho.

And then the innocent question by a Volunteer who really did not know what answer to expect.

Who goes to Satho?

The answer was so quick, short and simple that we almost missed it.

“17000 ft Foundation”.

It is hard to define exactly what our team felt at the point. A little touched that he took note of and remembered all our visits and programs. A little taken aback by the immediacy of his response. A little sense of gratification at this small validation of our work. But mostly, a little sense of sadness at the absolute truth of his words.

 

A student passes by the 17000 ft Library Rack in CRS Satho

A student passes by the 17000 ft Library Rack in CRS Satho

 

Students of CRS Satho absorbed in a LEGO Creativity workshop

Students of CRS Satho absorbed in a LEGO Creativity workshop

Despite never having seen or played with LEGO before, here is a look at some of their creations.

Despite never having seen or played with LEGO before, here is a look at some of their creations.

Today, thanks to people from J. Sagar Associates, a corporate who understands the value of what they have, this little school with a 108 students was put back on the map. Over the last two years, they got a playground, bunk beds, furniture and a library with many books. And they got a chance to see the outside world.

Colourful furniture donated by their corporate sponsors

Colourful furniture donated by their corporate sponsors

The first time we placed these kids on the rocker, they didn't know what to do.

The first time we placed these kids on the rocker, they didn’t know what to do.

Students of CRS Satho play on their new playground

Students of CRS Satho play on their new playground

But there are hundreds of other tiny schools each with just a handful of students, each more remote than the other, and each with the same story. You wouldn’t know about them if you drove past them, or even trekked past them. It just isn’t in your vision, nor is it something your tour guide would tell you about. And the children of those villages stay hidden in their tiny worlds sandwiched by barren mountains and a lone glacier stream. Would you go to any of these little schools if we told you about them?

We support a 100 schools today, and more than the programs we conduct, it is our frequent visits to the schools that matter to us. It is our way of reaching out to them, and we are touched that they noticed.

It should have been just another ordinary day at work for 17000 ft Foundation, but this little boy made it so special.

015.DURBUK.PS MODE.SEP 2012.LIB

The 17000 ft Travelogue

Of journeys and milestones

15 Nov 2014

It is a milestone day for 17000 ft Foundation today – We are starting our foray into Kargil district, beginning with the incredible Zanskar region, to find,  geo-map & survey each of its 70 tiny little schools. Sharing a photo posted by our Founder Sandeep Sahu as he and 3 of our amazing team members, Tsering Palmo, Delek Namgyal and Stanzin Spalzom brave the winter and the uncertainty of unknown terrain to survey its schools for inclusion into our programs.

Our team is always on the road or the mountain paths as the case may be, as we travel from one remote school to another, mapping, setting up libraries, installing playgrounds, telling stories and encouraging children to read, training teachers and even campaigning with parents. There is an incredible and unique story behind each visit and with the 500+ school visits that we have made in just the two years of our existence, there are hundreds of stories that we could tell you. But somewhere between running two offices, fund-raising for our work, preparing our programs, planning our visits, and travelling to schools we only have the time to pat ourselves on the back and move on to the next school.

This trip is a landmark journey for us, as we are now ready to replicate our work into our second geographical zone, possibly tougher than the first. The Zanskar region is home to many incredible mountain passes, popular treks and a centuries old civilization that still retains much of its old culture. We have been told there are 70 schools here, with a sum total of about 1200 children across its schools. That’s an average of just 17 children per school, across grades. We believe the schools exist; we just need to see it for ourselves and understand what help they need.

Freezing temperatures and falling snow don't stop these schools from functioning. Not yet.

Freezing temperatures and falling snow don’t stop these schools from functioning. Not yet.

Not all these schools are reachable by road, but then not many of us would go so far as to call them “roads”. Many require a trek of a few hours to reach, but then many of these villages have never been visited, even by locals. Their estimate of a “few hours” is something we take with generous portions of optimism. Some of these schools are in “known” villages, villages that trekkers may have stayed in while doing the famous Lamayuru-Padum-Darcha or the Chilling-ZangLa Trek, but we’re pretty sure very few actually know of schools in these villages. Whether it is reachable by road, walk, climb or by crossing a shallow river, go to school we must. And as if the terrain weren’t enough, then there is always the altitudes. There are a lot many mountain passes to cross as well, hopefully by road, but on foot if need be, with many passes in altitudes over 16500 ft.

The isolation and peace of being the lone house for miles around

The isolation and peace of being the lone house for miles around

How long will this trip take us? We’re guessing about 15 days, maybe 20, if the snow beats us to it and we have to wait a few days for it to clear; or maybe less, if the snow beats us to it and the roads are so bad that we decide to turn back.  Or longer if the snow really beats us to it.

Packing for our trips is at least a week long exercise in planning and logistics which we love to hate. Simply because forgetting to take the right sized nails means having to wait for our next budgeted monthly visit to complete the job. Forgetting to take our essentials for travel and food means being stuck on the road for hours trying to create Plan B’s and C’s to move along. Forgetting is not an option, and not even a luxury we afford ourselves. We’ve got our snow chains, extra diesel, spare tires and jacks, our sleeping bags, tents, flash lights, layers of clothing, kerosene, stove, tons of Maggi packets, bread and eggs (so essential on these trips), canned food, our Garmin mapping devices, cameras, mapping boards, mapping booklets, school list… the list is endless.

The 17000 ft Xenon, bearing the brunt of the harsh terrain and weather of Ladakh, and none the worse for it

The 17000 ft Xenon, bearing the brunt of the harsh terrain and weather of Ladakh, and none the worse for it

With so much riding on uncertainty, it is fair to say that, we don’t really have a plan. Our only plan is to find and map those schools. We have a fairly good idea of where some of these villages are, the rest we leave to helpful villagers and the lone magpie or yak to show us the way. We haven’t really “booked” our stay in each of these villages, we just plan to visit the villages, ask questions, find a friendly home to stay with, eat the simple meals with the family, pay them for their troubles, visit the school and move on to the next. We are almost certain we might also run into deserted villages or places where we cannot find a home to stay in, in which case, our omnipresent tents and sleeping bags come in handy. That’s not Plan B, that is very much still a part of Plan A.

Our schedules are fixed on paper and very fluid on the ground. It is already winter in Ladakh and the Zanskar range is a lot colder with the number of mountain passes to cross. We will have car problems, road problems, stay problems, food problems and simply, fatigue problems. Driving a car at these altitudes and temperatures is not for the unadventurous. If we hope to start off for the day at 9, we are awake at 6, just to crank up our vehicle and coax it to start. An hour and a half to get it warmed up in the already freezing winter is a good benchmark to start with. Two of our team members will have the unenviable job of sitting in the vehicle every cold icy morning, cranking, sometimes pushing and even lighting a fire under the gas tank to cajole the engine into starting. And when we do get the vehicle to start, it will be a surprising day for us if we don’t encounter large broken boulders, road constructions, stone blasting, or closed mountain passes that will delay us on our way. Running into people wanting to hitch a ride, then taking on so many that you have a flat tire is not uncommon. Stopping by the roadside to cook a meal to eat, and being delayed by the time it takes to boil a pot of water is a likely story for many, but a reality for us on the road. Driving in the mountains is tiring, exhausting, both on the body and mind, and as usual, we have two drivers who alternately drive and help keep the driver alert. Did we mention, temperatures are already in the negative and we expect it to dip down to -15 degree Celsius in the upper reaches?

We expect a lot out of this trip. Zanskar has been an enigmatic and amazing region that we have wanted to reach out to. It is unbelievable to fathom that there are 70 schools in this region. We are sure, that just like the others we work in, each one will take our breath away. No matter how many schools we visit, when the little children look at us with such amazement and surprise, we know we are on the right track. The simple act of mapping the altitude of the village is enough to make you stop and marvel at the villages and schools that have survived in these elevations. It is quite possible that we are likely to be the first visitors in many years to visit many of these schools or villages. We never really go empty handed to a school, be it a mapping or a playground setup, whether it is our first visit, or our scheduled monthly visit. Did we mention that chocolates or candies are on the top of our packing list?

The 17000 ft team, never missing an opportunity to talk to the village children.

The 17000 ft team, never missing an opportunity to talk to the village children.

It is hard to break away from everything we ever know and have had access to in our comfortable lives, to understand the stark desolation and simplicity of lives in these villages. The incredible, amazing warmth of the people and eagerness of the children to learn and see a world outside their mountain hamlets still touches us, despite working in a hundred of these. The struggle of an education system, hard at work but failing with the odds of isolation and neglect piled against it, is the reason we do what we do.

In just 2 years, we have adopted 100 schools and are on our way to adopt a 100 more. We may have setup 100 libraries, but the real impact is in the enthusiasm of the kids to read more books, the motivation of teachers to read stories to children in their spare time, and the initiative of headmasters to invite children from neighbouring schools to be a part of their library program. We may have setup playgrounds in remote schools, but the real impact is in the pleasure on the face of the villagers who wait patiently in line to take their turn to sit on the slide.

It has been a vision that drove us to where we are today, but the hard work of our team that helped us actually reach here. Today, despite the thousands of kilometers driven, hundreds of days on the road, and countless hours planning and organizing, our very young team of Ladakhi youngsters still hand-wrestle to see who gets to go on the next trip. Their excitement, enthusiasm and sheer dedication is unfailing and speaks volumes for a young generation wanting to do its bit to help their less fortunate brothers and sisters in remote villages. As an excited team starts this mapping process today, their families, along with the rest of us wait eagerly for those occasional bouts of connectivity that allows them to talk to us.

Exactly two years ago today, a friend who travelled with us offered to make a documentary of our travels, when we started setting up libraries in the formidable Changthang area, in a journey similar to the one we make today. As we start this new chapter, we are tempted to watch it again. Maybe you can watch it here and travel with us.

Each day is planned, paperwork checked and re-checked

Each day is planned, paperwork checked and re-checked

As this group leaves for Zanskar, so does another. There is another team that left for Nubra Valley yesterday, crossing the famous Khardung La Pass at 18000 ft+ and going beyond even tourist permitted areas to complete the Annual Library Closing process in 26 schools. Some of these schools require a few hours of a trek to reach. A trip of just 11 days, but, that is another journey, another story.

In appreciation of the incredible dedication and commitment of Team 17000 ft

Sujata Sahu

Founder, Director 17000 ft