Thinlas Chorol set up a Ladakhi Women’s Travel Company, which has the distinction of being Ladakh’s (Jammu & Kashmir, North India) first travel company completely owned and operated by women. It is also known for promoting ecotourism. The agency specialises in organising homestay treks, providing trekkers with female guides and porters.
The aim is to encourage the women of Ladakh to show their abilities and skills, particularly in the more remote areas. Through homestays, women in the villages get a chance to meet new people and new cultures. Tourists in turn can also learn from them.
Thinlas’ foray into the mountains began as a five-year-old accompanying her father on long treks through the mountains with their goats and sheep. Today, as one of Ladakh’s best trekking guides, she looks back on that incomparable training in childhood.
What was far from bliss was the assortment of obstacles Thinlas encountered on her way to becoming the pioneering and inspirational woman she is today. Societal restrictions, taboos and narrow mindsets had to be faced at every step. But the struggle paved way to become a professional trekking guide at a time when female trekking guides were unheard of.
Despite her trekking competence, many travel companies refused to hire her as a guide, solely on account of her being a woman. Most men, on the other hand, were hired as trekking guides even without any professional training or knowledge of trekking routes/awareness of environmental impact. She was repeatedly told that a Ladakhi woman going into the mountains with a group of foreigners would be frowned upon by society. But she didn’t let the rejections and social taboos stop her.
Thinlas had met a few female travellers who had been harassed by their male trekking guides and were keen on trekking with a female guide they could trust. With the encouragement she received at SECMOL (Students Education and Culture Movement of Ladakh, an organization that helps educate children from remote regions of Ladakh) and the support of her American English teacher, Thinlas went on to gain some commendable professional expertise.
She attended a mountaineering course at the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (Uttarkashi) and spent a semester at the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) in Ranikhet, Uttarakhand, where she picked up wilderness and leadership skills. She even worked as an instructional aide at NOLS and was the first Ladakhi to do so.
Thinlas started the Ladakhi Women’s Travel Company (LWTC) in 2009 at the age of 29. Since then, many Ladakhi women have approached her to train them as trekking guides and, today, the company has 8 guides, 4 trainees and 20 employees in all. It takes a minimum of one year with the company to become a trekking guide.
Thinlas also co-founded the Ladakhi Women’s Welfare Network in late 2013, which helps women report crimes against them and works towards their general welfare. Given Thinlas’ deep sense of connection with the land, responsible travel is a huge part of LWTC’s work. Having seen a lot of garbage dumped on the mountains by irresponsible campers and tourists, the women at LWTC ensure that the ‘leave no trace’ rule is respected on their treks and the environmental impact minimized.
Trekkers make halts at homestays run by rural women and learn from Ladakhis about their way of life. Clients are told to avoid plastic bottles and instead refill water bottles at the homestays. Thinlas is aware that since homestays are unprofitable for travel agencies many of them don’t offer this option to clients unless the latter specifically insist on them. These homestays help rural women achieve the same status as their men who are out earning for their families. Homestays also encourage people to remain in their villages instead of seeking jobs in cities.
As well as helping women in the villages, LWTC also aims to support the preservation of Ladakhi culture. Their guides are highly knowledgeable about the Ladakhi culture, thereby they are able to provide an authentic experience to different tourist places and relate the tourist to the history behind them. Trekkers get a closer look at the traditional Ladakhi way of life in a homestay rather than in a guesthouse. The chances of working with Ladakhis in the fields and in their homes can also be availed on some occasions.
While trekking, one will of course observe the local Ladakhi flora and fauna, which guides are always willing to explore with the trekkers. The main challenge for LWTC is the seasonal nature of their work, with the season being barely four months from June to September. LWTC has to stretch out the income made in these few months for the rest of the year. In the winter, LWTC offers snow leopard treks, however, being off-season, there aren’t many takers.
In empowering herself, Thinlas has empowered a host of other women as well. Her vision for LWTC is to see her trekking guides spread their wings across the globe and, in turn, inspire many others to actualize their dreams.