What it’s all about

Shyok River Lodge has come about from three thoughts. One: offering a new kind of experience for visitors to this wonderland of intriguing, colorful Tibetan Buddhism and fairy tale mountains, bridging the gap between Leh-based car tourism and trekking. Two:  the principles of ecotourism: tourism that is not environmentally or socially intrusive or harmful. Three: the principles of community-based tourism. Why is it that 75% of all tourism rupees flowing into Ladakh end up in the pockets of Leh-based hoteliers and travel agents? How about  letting remote villagers have a share in this?

The real Ladakh

When we came to Ladakh in 1988, we found a society deeply rooted in its religious, cultural and agricultural tradition. A place where mankind had accomplished a rare balance with nature. In fact, Ladakh is one of the few places on earth were almost all greenery is man-made, as hardly anything grows by itself in the high altitude desert of the Trans-Himalayas. Irrigation is the key to survival here, supporting both the Ladakhi people as well as an amazingly diverse array of plants, birds and other wild life. The way the Ladakhis have lived over the past millennium is considered by many an example of a sustainable society, avant la lettre. Helena Norberg, in her famous book on Ladakh calls it an ancient future, as it sets an example to the rest of the world in many ways.

During the last thirty years, the presence of the Indian army, western tourism, and later the ‘discovery’ of Ladakh by Indian mass tourism, have changed the place forever. A money-based economy, spear-headed by the recent mass tourism, has taken over much of the Indus Valley, the area around Leh, making the Ladakhi society vulnerable to market fluctuation in India and elsewhere. But for many Ladakhis, daily reality still revolves around the seasons, the crops and the animals. Their calendar is about sowing, weeding, irrigating and harvesting of the barley, the staple crop that performs better at these extreme altitudes than many bio-engineered wheat species in much more favorable climates. These Ladakhi villagers grow their own vegetables, as well as the poplars and willows that will be needed when it is time for the reconstruction of the house. The cows, goats and yaks provide milk, butter, cheese and the occasional meat. The wool of the high living sheep can be sold off at good prices, to be woven into the famous cashmere.

This is the authentic Ladakhi culture, and this is what we would like you to experience. Unfortunately, the majority of visitors to Ladakh are cooped up in hotels in ever noisier Leh, being raced over inhumane distances between breakfast and dinner. Or they embark on treks into the interior, crossing breath-taking passes and roughing it out in trekker’s tents. Though this is definitely the best way to get to the heart of Ladakh, it is not every one’s cup of tea. Unfortunately, there is hardly anything in between these extremes. Correction: there is, now that Shyok River Lodge has opened up.


Using less energy is always a good idea, especially when you stay among people that traditionally use hardly any fossil fuels. Ladakh is a remote place, and all kerosene, diesel and gas that is being used has a double environmental inpact to it, as it has to be brought in from lowland India over the Himalayas by utterly polluting eighties-model tanker trucks. At Shyok River Lodge, you’ll have electricity, you’ll be able to charge your electronic gadgets and take two hot showers a day if you like. It all comes from the sun. In fact, the whole village uses electricity from the sun, as it has been equipped with a small solar energy power plant. High wattage appliances, such as geysers, electric cookers etc. are not allowed in the village and we fully support this. Hot water comes from our own solar water boiler on the roof.


Waste is basically a sign of a bad economy, as it indicates the unnecessary processing, packing and transporting of food items that can, more often than not, be grown locally or substituted by local products. Besides, producing waste is always a waste, as it means you don’t re-use whatever you throw away. At Shyok River Lodge, we use locally grown vegetables, mostly coming straight from our own garden and greenhouse. Of course, we can’t totally avoid bringing in some packaged food from Leh. Bottles and tins are recycled through the scrap yard in Leh. Un-biodegradable garbage that really can’t be recycled goes to the landfill in Leh. As there is no recycling of light plastics and paper and carton, we burn that. Special mention needs to be made here of the most eco-friendly, cheap and happy garbage disposal that is conducted at the lodge by our very own yaks, cows, horses and goats, who all have a great party with the food left-overs.


Ladakh is essentially a desert. It is only thanks to the glaciers that cap the highest mountains that many streams carry water year-round. These streams are the life-line of the Ladakhis, determining where the villages and fields are situated, how many households these little oases can support, when the barley can be sown, etc. Recent climate change is gradually making this precious lifeline even thinner. Wasting water in such an environment is not a good idea. Using a western toilet, for instance, means flushing 8 liters of water at every visit, taking long showers, much more. At Shyok River Lodge, we have western toilets but we encourage guests to try the Ladakhi one. This dry system is part and parcel of the closed nutrient circle that is being maintained on Ladakhi farms. The human manure is being used as fertilizer, while animal dung is used for heating purposes. Our Ladakhi toilet is an improved version, slightly adapted to the untrained western body. All ‘grey’ water coming from the wash basins and showers is led to the vegetable garden, where it is mixed with irrigation water, thus contributing to irrigation and fertilization.

Blending in

Remember the last time you stayed at this beautiful countryside hotel with these gorgeous views over a traditional village? The villagers’ view, unfortunately, had been drastically changed due to the big, concrete structure dominating the valley. Other, more or less dramatic examples of how tourism tends to spoil the very qualities it lives of, are not hard to find. Shyok River Lodge is on the outside like any other traditional Ladakhi house, in unity with its neighbours. Only inside you’ll find the amenities that make it a tasteful and comfortable place to stay.

The local economy

Of tours that holiday makers in the west book to far away destinations, roughly between 60 and 90% of the profit remains in the west. Again, a large portion of the remainder is taken by intermediate tour operators, generally based in the country’s capital or another large city. The closer you come to your destination, the less you spend. This also holds for Indians booking a Ladakh trip through a Delhi-based tour operator. The challenge of community-based tourism is to reverse this, as far as possible.

Shyok River Lodge is owned by a Ladakhi family and always will be. JAN Treks and Travels, as well as Ladakhi partners, assist with the design and running of the lodge, client communication and marketing. Furniture and furnishings have been ordered and made locally, as far as possible. In doing so, we’ve tried to maximize the contribution to the local economy, in particular by employing local craftsmen. Also, this has helped minimize the need for transportation of goods by polluting trucks from distant places like Delhi.