A sustainable school in Himalaya that teaches life skills

In the developing world, traditional education is still a must-have stage of life as well as it is a privilege that is not accessible to everyone. Unfortunately, it sometimes results in people studying popular subjects for a promise of a better life. That’s why there are so many students going for the law, economics, engineering, and medical studies.

More often than not, after spending 3-5 years studying hard in the university, you realize that you know plenty of theory, but lack basic practical skills required to get a job.

Being a strong believer in “learning by doing” I was curious to visit SECMOL – an alternative school in the Himalayas. In addition to teaching its students important life skills, it’s a sustainable project that opens new perspectives for Ladakh.

I don’t intend to be a Wikipedia, hence this post is rather about sharing experience and impressions after visiting SECMOL.

How is SECMOL special?

Firstly, let’s start with its name as it is connected to its core activity. SECMOL is an abbreviation for Students’ educational and cultural movement of Ladakh.

garbage sorting in SECMOL, Himalayas, Ladakh
SECMOL has gone way beyond traditional garbage sorting and they re-utilize almost everything they find around the village.

This school gives an opportunity to students who failed class 10th exams to master life skills over the theory. The school focuses on English knowledge, practical skills, intercultural learning about the world led by foreign volunteers, creativity, science that is relevant for daily life, teaching solar and other types of renewable energy, organic gardening.

Secondly, the school is managed by students. Every student has a responsibility on the campus. It teaches them to take initiative and understand the importance of everyone’s actions.

The school has optimal construction to collect and preserve sunlight and use alternative energy. For instance, you can often see the black walls from outside that absorb the sunlight during daytime and allow to keep the temperature inside the buildings around 18-23 degrees throughout the year, even in winters during scowling wind and -30C (-20 F) outside.

Talking about living conditions, this is one of the few places in Ladakh which has water during winters. All the pipes that supply water lie deep underground. This doesn’t allow water to freeze even in small minus temperatures in winter.

SECMOL is the only place in India that uses daylight savings time. Everyone at the campus uses the term “SECMOL time” and it’s one hour before Indian Standard Time.

Students tell that their usual day starts at 5.30 a.m. IST, and it would be hard to wake up so early. Due to SECMOL time, it transforms into 6.30 a.m. which is a regular start of the day for people living in the mountains.

Secmol students
These are the students from other states of India who came to a short 10 day program to learn more about sustainable energy and development.

Sounds interesting so far? Then let me share one more exciting project happening in the same region.

Ice stupa in Ladakh

Many people in Upper Himalaya rely on the Glacier water since this region hardly receives any rainfall.  The Glaciers are melting on a fast pace because of global warming, thus putting the existence of numerous villages at risk. According to the scientists, a big part of Himalaya can become ice free by the end of this century. It will leave many people without a water source.

That’s how Ice Stupa initiative was started. The idea is to freeze winter water when there is an abundance of it to cover the scarcity of resources in spring/summer.

The secret of the stupa is its form and construction. If it was just frozen glacier of stupa size it would melt under the strong spring sun. Considering the local specifics of weather with the majority of sunny days throughout the year, the smart construction of stupa prevents extensive melting.

The stupas hold over two million liters of water. The initial constructions in Phyang were a successful pilot. This project received funding from ROLEX to continue building these stupas around the Himalayas.

Sonam, the founder of SECMOL and engineer behind the stupa project, is educating a new generation to form a responsible attitude towards global problems and prepare them for the future.

How to visit SECMOL?

Secmol village view
The view of the village from the school

Does this post sound interesting that you would like to have this experience too? The good news – there are several opportunities.

If you are interested to contribute to this project and stay in SECMOL for a longer period of time, there are a few volunteering programs they offer each year. Volunteers come to school from India and abroad to teach dancing, photography, ice hockey, and several other subjects.

You can as well come as a simple visitor as I did and learn more about project details and how they are trying to run sustainable initiatives in their village and beyond. They prefer visitors in the first half of the day till 12.

How to reach from Leh to SECMOL by bus?

You can reach Secmol by car or bike if you have one. Ladakh is a famous road trip destination in India. This results in over tourism in its popular spots – think of Leh, Pangong Tso, and Kardung La Pass.

Ladakh farming
The school has a small farm where students grow fruits and vegetables during the summer season

If you are not exploring Ladakh on your vehicle (don’t listen to people saying it’s not possible), check out my Nubra valley guide and Thiksay Monastery trip by bus. Though there are a few alternative options to reach SECMOL, you can rarely find a direct transport.

There is a school bus that starts from Leh bus stand (I took it here: 34.15603, 77.583642) at 8 a.m. and goes to the school directly. The ticket is 20 INR and it takes around 20 minutes to reach. There is as well a bus going from Secmol to Leh bus stand at 5 p.m.

There are also a few morning buses (8-9 a.m.) that go to the village of Phyang. They are not regular, but there are people who live in Leh and work in Phyang so they travel there every morning to the office and vice-versa. There are also a few buses in the evening from Phyang.

natural freezer Ladakh
This is the natural freezer. The bucket is filled with the icy water. It’s another project experiment.

When going to Phyang communicate to the driver that you intend to visit Secmol, so he will drop you at the junction accordingly. You will see there an Indian Oil petrol pump down the road and Dhaba at the turn to Phyang and the sign “SECMOL” across the road. From there you have to walk following jeep sand path for 2 km in the desert (the path starts here – 34.151822, 77.460897 – there are numerous footprints and wheels paths) and then 1 km walk on the paved road till the school.

If you don’t intend to spend the whole day in the school, you can trek back to the main road where a turn to Phyang is and hitchhike or hail a shared jeep (though they go once in a few hours) till Leh or till iced stupa. Local cars and trucks are regular.

Other useful tips for visiting SECMOL

  • There is a donation box in the school. Sometimes students who guide you around the campus are so involved in explaining to you what’s happening, that they might forget about funding. No one charged my group for taking around. If you like the concept, consider donating.
  • Try to come as early as 8.30 – 9.00 in the morning. Except me, there were two more visitors at campus that time. According to our guide Psyong, the school gets on average 30 visitors per day during the season. I think morning is the right time to avoid crowds.

There are many initiatives around the world started by simple people with a hope to make this world a better place. I wish Ice Stupa project and alternative eco-schools scale. They do have a huge impact on the life of simple people of Ladakh.

I hope you found this information useful. What about you? Have you ever visited a school with a similar concept?

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