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



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