An ex-army man’s inspiring and amusing journey of grit, passion and dedication to introduce Jibhi Valley to tourism
I still remember the summer of 1992, when I put a signboard outside my traditional Himachali house – the first guesthouse in all of Jibhi Valley!
That year, my first guests – an American couple and their kid – randomly arrived at the guesthouse looking for accommodation. When we shared the same table to have tea the next morning, my neighbors watched, scandalized. At least 25 people had surrounded us, looking at my guests with curiosity!
I was born in Salano village, at a height of about 8000 feet in the Jibhi Valley. I joined the National Cadet Corps in college and got selected by the Indo-Tibetan border police after graduation. I spent three-and-a-half years flying over the mountains in Ladakh, surviving the harsh weather that sometimes dipped down to -40° Celsius!
In the 1980s, when I got posted in Srinagar, its rugged mountains, gushing rivers and vast meadows reminded me of the landscapes of my own valley. Yet, while numerous tourists flocked to Srinagar, no one knew about Jibhi Valley in Himachal Pradesh! That’s when the seed of starting tourism in Jibhi was planted in my mind.
When the sense of adventure started subsiding, I decided to leave my service in the Indian Army and follow the urge to return home.
Back in Jibhi Valley, we had two houses – a family house a 3 km steep climb up from the main road and a traditional house built by my father in 1962, which we often rented out. When I returned home, I pleaded with my father to ask the tenant to vacate the house so that I could convert it into a guesthouse. When my family finally relented, I renovated the house while keeping its original character intact, and added a few more windows for sunlight and attached washrooms. In 1992, I was officially open to receive guests.
New beginnings come with their own set of challenges. The village residents were skeptical about my success. They often laughed and gossiped, “These army men are crazy. Who will come to this place and think of staying here?!”
My first guests stayed with us for six months! They enjoyed the dense forest, peaceful atmosphere, simple village life and innocent village folk. I was happy to host them – it gave me the opportunity to improve my English and culinary skills. I knew how to cook traditional Himachali food, but my guests taught me to make pancakes and spaghetti, and bake bread and cake! We bonded well during those six months. After all these years of their visit, I am glad to still be in touch with them.
During the first year, I received only about ten guests, but by the second year, this number increased to 40! I began to explore new trekking routes in the surrounding areas, including the Great Himalayan National Park. In 1993, I started guided treks with no special equipment. We would find caves along the trekking route for overnight stays – one cave each for the staff and guests, where we would lay blankets to keep warm. I was pleasantly surprised to see a favorable response to these treks, so I eventually bought tents and sleeping bags.
At a time when there was no landline, mobile, fax or internet, my guesthouse got publicity only through word-of-mouth. Landline came to the village sometime in 1998, but connectivity wasn’t great. I would handle all enquiries and bookings through an exchange of letters with tourists. Imagine getting 30 letters at once! I would end up spending time just opening, reading and responding to them.
My passion for adventure made me introduce many other activities such as trekking, safari, meditation, martial art and farming tours to keep visitors engaged. As a result, my business kept growing and I had to employ 15 local boys to help me. The demand increased so much that we sometimes had to accommodate guests in tents or even in the office!
My guesthouse became my university where I learnt many new skills. Guests would sometimes ask me for food I had never heard of. I would bring them the ingredients, let them take charge of the kitchen and learn new recipes by watching them cook. I learned to cook continental food this way. I even learned to operate a computer from my guests and now I can do all computer work by myself.
It took several more years for tourism to take off in Jibhi Valley. 10 years after I started the first guesthouse in the region, a retired army officer started his guesthouse. We started dividing guests between us.
Until 2007, there were only 3 guesthouses in Jibhi Valley and not many sources of income. Things changed significantly after 2008 when the Himachal Pradesh government launched a homestay scheme. Many people built homestays and in 2018, tourism revenues in the Jibhi area amounted to around 4-5 crores.
With rapid tourism growth, other things have changed rapidly in the region too. Villages have turned into towns with many concrete buildings. Local businesses and tourists are putting a burden on nature. I think that the younger generation needs to understand that it is possible to succeed without harming nature.
This year, with the pandemic and lockdown, tourism came to a complete standstill in Jibhi Valley. Local people, who were employed at over a hundred homestays and guesthouses from Jibhi to Shoja, returned to their villages. Some went back to farming, some took up pottery and some got involved in government work schemes. Those who have properties on lease are in trouble and hope that normalcy and tourism will return to the valley soon.
In a way, the pandemic has given us an opportunity to introspect, go back to our roots and look for sustainable solutions. My guesthouse, for instance, remains built in the traditional way with local material. Tourists like to learn farming at my organic farm where I grow my own vegetables.
For me, tourism has been my greatest teacher. It brought people from as many as 88 countries and all states of India to my guesthouse. It gave me exposure to different cultures and countless opportunities to learn new things. Most people who stayed at my guesthouse became my repeat clients and good friends. I even got a chance to travel to Europe in 2003 on a minimal budget because I already had friends waiting to host me there!
When I look back, I feel proud yet humbled at the thought that I was not only able to fulfill my dream despite all the challenges, but also play a role in establishing tourism in the beautiful valley that I call home.
First Published by Voices of Rural India on 6 Oct. 2020