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India’s Road Less Traveled

Tour the Himalayas

Yogendra Kainthola, 33, founder of Thane-based Atithi International travel agency, collects tourists in Mumbai and personally escorts them to the Himalayas, about 30 hours away by train. He shows them the sights but also believes in letting foreigners study his country at the ground level.

His reasoning is that “most of the people who come all the way here are curious, intelligent people. So why not give them an opportunity to form their own opinions instead of relying on guidebooks and antispectic tours?”

The name Atithi, derived from the Sanskrit phrase, “Atithi Devo Bhava,” means “Our Guests Are Our Gods.” Since Kainthola has little overhead, his clients can travel further on a modest budget. A typical 16-day trekking trip takes in remote villages and splendid scenery in some of the most breathtaking spots in the Garhwal Himalayas. These include Gomukh, famous for the glacier which feeds the Ganges and Tapovan. The cost is $800 for the entire tour.

“At some of the halts during our tours foreigners have stayed for as low as $15 per night. They thanked me later for providing them with such reasonable but comfortable accommodations,” says Kainthola.

It all began a few years ago when Kainthola, just out of college, was himself a tourist in the Far East, the U.S., and Europe.

“In all the countries I stayed in, I found the newspapers advertising tourist packages to all corners of the world except India,” he says. So Kainthola decided to bring foreign tourists to India.

For the last three years, Kainthola has taken about 20 tourists to Har-Ki-Doon, located on the border of the Garhwal Himalayas, for river rafting, water skiing, and mountain climbing. He works with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to help tourists become familiar with local people and customs. One of the groups, Janadhar, headed by Dr. K. Sunil, is active in the rehabilitation of physically disabled people in the mountains. Says Dr. Sunil: “It is only through participating in community activities that tourists are able to really learn about any new place they have visited.”

Kainthola will shortly lead tours to offbeat south Indian locales like Periyar and Pondicherry. “Here, too, we will have tourists staying with the locals,” he says.

Most of his business comes to Kainthola through friends in the U.S. and Britain and through word of mouth.

“It’s a great joy to see tired but happy faces on the top of a remote mountain,” he says. “If, in the process, my foreign friends end up learning something new and unforgettable about my country, my joy is multiplied.”

RAJU BIST is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist. He was an Assistant Editor at Business India, the country’s oldest and most widely read business magazine.

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