A prolific travel and adventure journalist featured in the National Geographic Traveller and Lonely Planet, Shikha’s love affair with the Himalayas led her down an unconventional career path.
Shikha Tripathi is a journalist based in Binsar, Uttarakhand, specialising in travel and adventure, and with an added interest in the human-environment conflict in the Himalayan regions. Featured as one of India’s pioneering solo female travellers by Rediff, she continues her escapades with her beloved backpack (and the occasional strolley). Her works appear in a wide variety of publications like the National Geographic Traveller and Lonely Planet.
1) What was it like growing up in the Himalayas?
Shikha: When I think about my love for travelling and exploring, I think I owe a lot of it to growing up in the Himalayas. Life up in the mountains is what gave me all the qualities that I feel are essential for travel. Being resilient, being physically and mentally tough, being happy with less, appreciating the smaller gifts of nature and welcoming change.
2) What was the first place you travelled to that made you fall in love with travel?
S: The North-East. I travelled to the North-East solo and spent 3 months there, exactly ten years ago, when it was even less explored than today. It blew me away with the beauty of its landscapes, the culture and the free-thinking society. It also stands out in my memory because it was the first place I went to in my one year (2008) of solo backpacking, at a time when travelling wasn’t as fashionable as it is today and very little was known about the region.
3) What’s the best part about being a woman traveller? What’s the worst?
S: Being a woman can be both the best and worst part of travelling- some people go out of their way and extend help if you need it, whereas others (especially in India) are extremely judgmental about why you are on the road unaccompanied.
4) How would you rate travelling solo vs travelling in a group and why?
S: The only positive I see about group travel is that there is someone to watch your bag if you need to use the restroom! I love solo travel alone because you can keep your plans flexible, you need not do any harrowing coordinating, and most of all, you have a much bigger chance of having interesting meetings and interactions with fellow travellers because if in a group you are largely interacting with your own group.
5) What’s your favourite place amongst all your travels? One that you’d go to again and again? Why?
S: I love the mountains and particularly the Himalayas, so I find myself going back to them inadvertently. Nepal is a country that packs in the best of the outdoors along with fantastic culture and food, so it’s a place I love going back to. I haven’t come across another country in this part of the world that is ahead of its times when it comes to mountain travel.
6) What’s a quirky tradition/ ritual you follow on your journeys? Tell us the story behind that.
S: I usually try to be on the road on the first of January every year; they say what you do on the first day is what you are likely to do for the rest of the year!
7) And now for the tritest question of them all – what does travel mean to you?
S: Travel for me is a school that you never graduate from! For those with a sense of curiosity and an eagerness to learn, there is nothing more rewarding than travel.
You are exposed to change, new thoughts, and different points of view, that ultimately make you a more empathising and a better human being.
For instance one of the first things I learnt was that ‘modern’ cities actually have a more narrow outlook than their smaller counterparts and that the rural heart of the world where people have nothing, is also its most generous. Travel opens up the mind and heart, and I wish more people would travel because it would make us so much more accepting of other opinions, cultures, and ways of living.
8) Any tips/ tricks/ words of advice to aspiring travellers?
S: The generic one would be to let go of fear- fear of what might go wrong on the road, fear of following your heart and not your head, fear of what others might say, and fear of letting go. My inspiration has always come from Charles Bukowski’s words: “Some people never go crazy; what truly horrible lives they must live!”
9) How you plan a trip? Things you make a note of, dos, don’ts, itineraries, the process of selecting a place, where to stay, et al? What are your pet travel peeves?
S: I don’t plan anything too meticulously; it takes away from the joy of adventure. I usually have a rough itinerary for my plan but nothing is set in stone. The number one agenda remains taking it easy and trying to have as many local interactions as possible. There is no better way to understand a place than through its people.
10) Let’s talk about the safety factor that comes in when you are a “woman traveller”.
S: Safety indeed is a great concern, and I have come up with a formula that works well for me. Don’t be completely honest about your travel plans with strangers. Plan your travel such that you reach a destination well within daylight and have enough of it to settle into your accommodation. Dress sensibly and keep a pepper spray handy! And most of all, don’t lose your faith in yourself.
10) How do you think sustainable travel has grown in the past few years? Or has the community merely been paying lip service to the idea?
S: While ‘Eco-friendly’ is the buzzword today, sustainable travel has grown manifold indeed. Some organisations are surely cashing in on the boom, but by and large, I think a certain consciousness has come in the industry and even in the new age traveller. There are some genuine efforts out there making a huge difference to places and communities and that is commendable.
11) What was the idea behind One Planet Journeys?
S: I had always wanted to get some substantial work done in the Himalayas of my home state, Uttarakhand. My first trip to the Pindari valley in Kumaon started my love affair with the valley and its simple mountain folk. It also drew my attention to its needs and limitations, so I wanted to create a platform for locals to use sustainable travel for their livelihood. Now that it has been accomplished, the project has been handed over to the locals associated with it who run a cultural walking trail in Kumaon and are running the show.
11) Tell us about Grand Oak Manor and its heritage. How have you managed to straddle the line between sustainable and heritage here?
S: Grand Oak has a rich history because it was the erstwhile commissioner Sir Henry Ramsay’s residence. Being inside a wildlife sanctuary, it also has serious limitations like being without electricity and running water.
However, we turned it into a fine example of how heritage stays and sustainable tourism can co-exist. The place runs on solar lights and water is sourced from a natural perennial spring, and people love the fact that they can enjoy being at the centre of nature and history, and yet having a certain level of comfort.
The aim was to showcase the fact that both can go hand in hand; you need to go camping if you want to be a green traveller. There are other ways too.