It was an explosion of tiny little blinking beams scattered across the horizon. It takes your breath away and then dazzles you some more. The night sky in Ladakh is unlike any I have ever seen before. Surrounded by Poplar, and the mighty Himalayas, the mere existence of myself seemed like a miracle. Ladakh is magical- with its surreal beauty and its rugged charm. But above all, it is its people who define Ladakh.
One of the deciding factors for my choosing India Fellow over others, was the concept of the travel workshop. I remember reading about it since before I joined and having a sense of heady anticipation as the date for our own drew closer. Getting to know a culture in the span of 10 days seems like an impossible task. And it is. No doubt what I have learned has barely scratched the surface of what Ladakh is like. But it gave me an opportunity to look at a place with “a pair of new lens”.
Learning poured in from all corners – some through direct observations, others through my co-fellows’ experiences. It was difficult assimilating all of them in my head. And that is probably why I needed all these days to finally write about Ladakh.
As a child, I believe I had dreamt of being a teacher, an astronaut, a pilot, a doctor, at some point even a marine zoologist. Of course, what I wanted to become was highly dependent on what I saw and heard and read. I have been told, when I was very young, my mother had despaired over my learning abilities when I just couldn’t seem to master the third alphabet in the Bengali script. Kids in Ladakh too, want to become doctors and engineers and teachers. In this, they are not much different from what I was as a kid.
For most of us, education is but a means to earn livelihood in future. “Aap log toh isiliye college jate ho kyunki apke paas aur kuch karne ke liye hota hai nahi”, was hence a startling idea that one of my co-fellows encountered, while questioning young Ladakhis on their aspirations. The fact that higher education can be a luxury that people who can avail, can opt out of, is not something I have ever thought of. I grew up with going to college as a forgone conclusion. That does not seem to be the case for Ladakhi youth. Some of them do aspire to go out of Ladakh, to nearby bigger cities of Delhi and Chandigarh, but most of the people we interacted with seemed happy enough to stay where they are.
Ladakhi economy is highly driven by the army and tourism. These two have jointly defined the livelihoods of Ladakhis for past few generations. Most of the families we interacted with had multiple members in the army. And were otherwise either directly or indirectly involved with tourism.
As part of our workshop, we spent some days staying at a small village called Phyang, some 20 kms from Leh. It was also the place where my team worked on designing a fine dine-in experience of authentic Ladakhi food at the local home-stays. Phyang now has a spot in my heart. The project gave me ample opportunity of exploring the Ladakhi cuisine intimately. It is very different from any other Indian cuisine I have tasted till date. The ingredients usually all came from local farms, meaning the herbs and spices used were also unique to the land. That flavors are so subtle, you can feel each and every herb that has gone into the dish. Our host was a warm boisterous family who made us feel right at home from day one.
As happens with most arid climates, water is precious in Ladakh. Hence, flush toilets are a distant dream in the villages there. People instead use dry toilets. Phyang is also the experiment-bhoomi for Sonam Wangchuk, whom we also had the good fortune of interacting with. The ice-stupa, which won him the Rolex award, is situated at Phyang. Coming from the cradle of Ganges, it is only when you come to a place where water is so scarce that you appreciate the value of water.
A few dishes from the fine dine-in experience we proposed
We took one day off in our entire workshop to travel to Pangong. It is a six-hour journey through Chang-la pass from Leh. Traveling 12 hours on the bumpy road in a day had sapped the energy of most our twenty-something fellows. That is the other side of Ladakh. The remote places that take hours on end to reach, the winters, which cuts-off even those roads, making these places inaccessible. We went to Ladakh during its most favourable climate. Even then, we had days when we would have scorching sun for few hours followed swiftly by hail-storm. Ladakh managed to finally give me the sun-burn that 10 months of fellowship hadn’t.
And among all this, Ladakhis carve out their home. I have very rarely found such a display of the triumph of the human spirit.