Our trip to Ladakh (The Land of High Passes) was my first adventure since I retired as Headteacher of  Huish Episcopi Primary School, Langport at the end of the Spring term, this year. I have long been an admirer of the work of the charity Himalayan Children and my school had raised money in the past, to support its work. I felt very privileged to be invited to travel with Gail and two colleagues from Taunton International School to Ladakh and see the work of the charity at first hand. I also had a small personal quest. £160 had been donated by school staff, as part of my retirement gift, so I could buy any resources needed to further the work of Himalayan Children whilst there.

The summer months are a great time to visit Ladakh. The Ladakhi people have to make the most of these months to build their infrastructure, grow precious crops and bring in fruit, vegetables and resources whilst roads are open. Mind you, these are also the months where they may have to contend with the challenges of glacial meltwater which can close roads and prevent travel. The summer months are also precious times in education. Schools have to close for an extended time in the depths of winter when extreme weather makes travel to and from school impossible.

Our trip got off to a memorable start. After a sweltering and humid overnight stay in Delhi, we caught an early flight to Leh, the largest city in Ladakh. The views as we flew over the Himalayas were awe-inspiring. The Himalayas are truly one of the last great, dramatic wildernesses on earth.

A warm welcome on arrival from Rinchen, our host, epitomised the warmth, gentleness and kindness of the Ladakhi people that we met during the trip. Her home was opened to us all and she then waited on us and produced delicious food and refreshments throughout the day. We were made to feel part of the family and given a special insight into family life in Ladakh. We were also able to witness all that this wonderful lady does, to further the work of Himalayan Children.

Throughout our trip she transported us, translated for us, liaised with schools, families and children and worked directly with Gail to ensure that all that was planned for the trip could be completed and achieved.

Our first day was spent resting so we could acclimatise to the altitude, after which we were presented with the exciting opportunity to see the arrival, in Ladakh, of the Dalai Lama. The streets were lined with people of all ages, some dressed in beautiful traditional clothing. The patience and excitement of the people around us instilled a feeling of anticipation and then the cars and trucks started to sweep through full of officials, eminent monks and members of the Buddhist community and finally the black car….it came through slowly containing the smiling, waving and instantly recognisable Dalai Lama. So exciting!

The strong values that underpin Ladakhi culture and society were reflected in the ethos of the school communities that we visited. I will always remember a special whole school assembly at Shey Lamdon school. It was hastily organised for us. Whole school prayers were led by three students.

The stillness and focus of the students of all ages as they sung their prayers created a very spiritual and emotional moment.

It was also fascinating to talk to the various headteachers and tour the five schools that were on our itinerary to visit. All headteachers were common in their desire to do the very best for their pupils, although the approaches varied and every headteacher could share ideas of what they wanted to achieve next. The gratitude for any support to achieve these aims was also very apparent. The bare walls, basic furniture of the classrooms and in some cases the very large classes (50+) were in stark contrast to the well-resourced schools in the UK. The school tours showed how any additional resources could make a big difference and it was wonderful to witness how the work of Himalayan Children had made a marked impact. One example was the newly constructed glass house extensions at Shey Lamdon school which provided much needed indoor space for play, homework and other hostel activities and yet other simple smaller resources that we brought, such as play equipment, clothing and stationery was also much needed.

The children attend school from 10am until 4.30 six days a week and also receive daily homework. They are expected to work hard, try their best and have helpful and respectful relationships with their teachers and fellow students. The tours of the schools seemed to confirm that this was the common underlying culture for all the schools. It appeared that education is greatly valued by all and the children we saw working in their classrooms showed the attitudes which were conducive to the traditional teaching approaches the teachers use. English is a language that all aspired to be fluent in and the standards the children were achieving appeared impressive. Education is a lifeline for disadvantaged families.

We all came away inspired by four committee members in Gompa Village who asked for a meeting with Gail. With quiet dignity and earnestness, they requested help from Himalayan children to fund a ‘winter school’ in their village. They wanted to recruit two teachers for the two months in which the main schools were closed so that the children of their village could receive an education and not fall behind.

It was a privilege to see Gail at work. The contact with each and every sponsored child we visited during the trip reinforced how special this charity is. The personal link between sponsor and child that she helps to facilitate as well as the relationship and interest she shows personally in the wellbeing of each child is very, very impressive and marks out the difference between this charity and some others. Her encouragement and in some cases motivational talks to each individual child and the promise of a returned visit in September, ensure that schools and children make the most of the sponsorship provided. It was also heartwarming to see shy children coming forward for their gifts or letters from sponsors and then the quiet smiles of delight as they received them.

We visited one child in her own home and witnessed how much the family were struggling to make a living and how much the funding of a school place and uniform was providing their child with a more promising future.

The bus ride to Tingmosgang was an additional highlight. We travelled along the Indus Valley viewing spectacular scenery along the way as well as the strong presence of the Indian military! After 4 hours we finally arrived at Tingmosgang nunnery, where we stayed overnight. The little courtyard in which we ate a meal prepared by the nuns was a green oasis. We joined the nuns for prayers and afterwards had the joy of seeing the children playing. It was personally very rewarding to be able to gift to the nuns school, much needed stationery and resources that I purchased in Leh with my retirement gift money. The location of the nunnery was truly magnificent and from the roof the sight of the beautiful serene monastery and the remains of the C15th royal palace added to the surrounding beauty.

Our trip was short but confirmed my belief that Himalayan Children is an amazing charity with low overheads that works to ensure all sponsorship and money raised goes DIRECTLY to support much needed education for disadvantaged children in Ladakh. It makes a difference.

Gillian Islip

Please note all costs and travel expenses for this trip was self-funded