How it started
I have always felt that travelling, especially in the Himalaya, is much more than ticking off places from a list, or capturing the scenery to show off to friends on face book. On my earlier trips to Himalaya, I struggled to find an organizer who I can trust to take all the right decisions for me. My choice was to be a part of a bus load of tourists who are taken on a mission to 'see' as many sights as possible in the shortest time, or spend an exorbitant amount for exclusively planned trips to 'destinations' which turned out to be vested interests of the planners. Or else, travel on my own.
This involved weeks of preparation short listing where to go, how to go, where to stay, itineraries, etc etc. Through this preparation is how I learnt most of the things I know about Himalaya, including the most important lesson: You just can't know everything about the Himalaya. So diverse are the regions, people, culture, geology, flora and fauna that its just not possible. But what I did during my travels was that I got to know the best local resource for any particular region anywhere in the Indian Himalaya, well almost anywhere. I got to know, for example, whom to trust for arranging my trek in Ladakh, or my stay in Munsiyari, or my transportation in Spiti. This is when the idea of CWH was born.
CWH conducted its first group trip in March 2008 and every single excursion since then has been a rewarding and a learning experience. I learned for example that there are many NGOs working in the remotest of Himalayan regions and are a great resource for organizing trips. I also learnt how tough the daily life of the residents of these high regions is, and how in spite of that they are so content. I learnt about places that have fallen off the map, or in many cases never existed on a map, which rival the best when it comes to natural beauty. I learnt that a Himalayan vacation touches visitors in more ways than one. I re-learned that I love the Himalaya.
Gaurav Punj: I am the sole proprietor of CWH. An Engineer by education, completed my M.S from University of California, Berkeley in IEOR (Industrial Engineering and Operations Research) in 2003, I worked in the big bad corporate world for the next 4 years (in Phoenix, Bay Area, Bangalore and Mumbai) before finally putting all I learnt to right use: started something on my own. CWH. As I grappled with deadlines, client meetings and off-sites I realized I am either planning my next Himalayan trip or am actually amidst them. (I always had a negative vacation count). It was not an escape. It was more and more turning out to be the way of life for me. And CWH was just meant to be.
It seems so logical now: my passion is my profession. But it was of course a big decision to give up on what years of education has trained me for and start something so different. Logic prevailed though. My business idea was strong (can't take the Engineer out of me): Associate with the best local resources and plan trips to the Himalaya. And I already had a huge database (engineering again) of local resources through first hand experiences. Most importantly, I had in Rujuta a partner who in my opinion is the true lover of Himalaya. She fully supported me in every way, through her extensive trekking experience, financially and her uncanny ability to come up with great itineraries. So it was only a matter of 'when?' rather than 'how?'. And I followed that famous adage: Now is the best time to start.
Rujuta Diwekar: Let me introduce her. The pre eminent fitness expert in the country. A P.G in Sports science and Nutrition. A Yoga shiromani. A best selling Author. Runs the only gyms in Mumbai located inside college campuses. Started India's first Marathon training program. Consultant to the who's who: Anil Ambani, Kareena Kapoor, Saif Ali Khan, Konkona Sen Sharma, Preity Zinta to name a few. And a trekker par excellence. Not officially a part but she is the soul of CWH and has been instrumental in shaping most of our policies. Over to her...
I have inherited my passion and love for travelling from my parents. We would start planning for our Himalayan holiday during Diwali vacation. The coast of Konkan and the hills in Maharashtra were for the Diwali break, the real big daddy was reserved for May vacation - the Himalayan Holiday!
So my parents planned everything to the T. Brochures, travelogues, books, every available piece of information (travel shows and internet didn't exist then) were all over the house starting Nov. For 2 months we drew itineraries, looked for accommodation, imagined places and prepared ourselves for the big journey. This also included borrowing sweaters and suit cases from friends and family. Tickets (always 3 tier sleeper class - we were a family of four and had budgetary concerns), locations (always away from the market or mall roads to avoid noise, clutter, people and to get better views and lower room rates), local transport to get to our destinations - everything would be booked and finalized two months in advance. I think my parents spent most of their yearly savings on Himalayan Holiday, it was an integral and necessary part of our lives. As children me and my sister enjoyed every activity whether it was looking up places on the maps which would magically fold in the shape of a book or pop out of journals, calculating kilometers, reading up the history or culture of our destination or plain standing in the queue to get a train ticket. Once in the Himalaya exploration was the main activity! And whether we went to Khirsu in Pauri, Fagu in Shimla, Aru in Kashmir or Tipi in North East, we simply had a blast. I am with GP because Connect with Himalaya connects me with my favorite childhood memory. And yes I plan meals and breaks on his treks and if the group is up to it teach a sunrise Yoga class (if they are not up to it, I impose it on them.)
I am amused when GP's destinations are called "off beat". Come on! This is the Real Himalaya!
Take me to Rujuta's site
Our Local partners: They are the actual 'team' of CWH. Kashmiris, Ladakhis, Spitians, Garhwalis, Kumaonis, Sikkemese and many more. They help us in planning and organizing trips and add 'authentic' to the experience. Educated in a school or not, they are the experts in local history, culture and ecological preservation. They are aware of all that's changing and know best how to adapt and assimilate the change. We trust their judgment and ability more than anything else.
Here is a region wise list of some of the organizations, local businesses, individuals, etc we have worked with as part of our trips:
Kashmir and Ladakh:
- Snow leopard conservancy
- Sonam Wangchu’s family guesthouse in Leh
- Homestays in Zanskar - Rangdum, Padum, Karsha
- Spiti Ecosphere NGO
- Kalpa orphanage
- Thakur family guesthouse in Chitkul
- Raju’s homestay in Gushaini
- Har ki dun mountaineering and protection agency
- Ramana’s orphanage in Rishikesh
- Vanmali ashram and school in Rishikesh
- RACHNA in Uttarkashi
- Kumaon women weaver’s group in Munsiyari
- Chirag NGO in Mukteshwar
- Darma valley homestays
Sikkim & Darjeeling:
- ECOSS (Eco tourism and conservation society)
- Sikkim homestays
- HELP tourism initiative
- Riverdale school and orphanage at Pokhriabong, Darjeeling