On a trip to Ladakh, our contributor stumbles upon an ancient village of coppersmiths, wild lavender fields, communal dining, and tales as old as time. By Phorum Dalal
No number of photographs or travel vlogs can prepare you for the vastness of Ladakh. Standing at the edge of a mountain and gazing down into a valley makes you feel tiny and insignificant. Everyone who visits this land takes back an ineffable emotion elicited by a hike, a view, a meeting with its people, or the spotting of a majestic snow leopard. As the flight lands, I wonder what Ladakh has in store for me.
I’m staying at Ladakh Sarai, in the village of Saboo, roughly eight kilometres from the airport in Leh. Mud houses, lush green fields, and slender poplars surround the property. Here, villagers build their own homes and grow their own food. A walk through the village reveals shops that sell butter tea and chhaang, a local barley beer.
The next morning, my body clock wakes me up at 5 am. I watch the sunrise to the chatter of a pair of Eurasian magpies—black and white birds with brushstrokes of blue and green on their wings. This colourful, musical dawn sets the tone for the rest of my trip.
In the day, my fellow travellers and I take the road to Sangam, the confluence of rivers Indus and Zanskar where rafters tackle rapids with glee. River Indus has no consideration for national borders, originating near Lake Mansarovar in Tibet, and flowing through India into Pakistan. We take a moment to acknowledge that the earliest known urban civilisation of the Indian subcontinent flourished along its banks.
The car then halts at the foot of Chilling village. The days are humid in July, and I break into a sweat as I trek up a stone hill, stopping occasionally to smell wild Indian lavender and observe shrubs of bright-orange sea buckthorn. The plateau opens to mustard fields, and I spot mud and stone houses with prayer flags, which flap eagerly in the breeze. We cross streams and encounter stupas along the path.
Whenever we lose our way, smiling villagers lead us back to the right track. One of our first stops is the workshop of 80-year-old Eshay Namgyal. We find him sitting against a wall, surrounded by his old, worn-out tools. Some of them are made from animal bones and hide. His ancestors were some of the first people to make copperware here in the 16th century. We notice his work in progress: a chang (copper pot) that will be used to serve butter tea. In the old days, Namgyal tells us, they collected copper from the hills of Alam, a nearby village. Today, it comes from Delhi. He blows air into a goat horn to stoke the fire in the coal bed and begins moulding a copper strip. As he works, Namgyal points out the dragon crest he is creating on the mouth of the pot—it has been custom-ordered for a monastery. When we inquire about his peculiar box-shaped hat with a dramatically curled brim, the artisan giggles. “It’s from Tsaga village, and it’s called tipi. They make it from goat’s skin,” he says. While Namgyal works his magic on the copper sheets, there are masons nearby building a museum. The youth of the village want to showcase the craftsmanship of the coppersmiths before it goes extinct, says Namgyal.
We sit down for a farm-fresh spread packed by the hotel. There is apricot juice, pak choi with garlic, and a raw vegetable platter including carrots, beetroots, and cucumbers. My favourite dish is the haak saag, made from a local green that’s similar to palak.
Over the next few days, we are treated to a cocktail of mountains that change colour with the altitude and time of day. First, we spot snow-capped peaks from the Khardung La, previously called the highest motorable road in India. Later, at Nubra Valley, we lay our eyes on mountains that wear shades of orange, brown, and even purple with aplomb.
Nubra becomes our base for the next two days to drive further down to Turtuk, which is the last village outpost of India-controlled Ladakh. At the Turtuk Emperor’s Museum, we meet Yabgo Mohammad Khan Kacho, a descendant of the Yabgo dynasty. The towering figure sporting a carved walking stick narrates to us the engrossing history of the dynasty that ruled the area for 2,000 years.
MEAL IN THE MOUNTAINS
On the fifth day of the trip, en route to Pangong Tso, Rigzin Namgyal—the owner of Ladakh Sarai—has a surprise for us. Our car halts at a picturesque spot on the Changthang plateau.
Picnic lunch on traditional wooden tables called chokste has been set up by a brook. Sitting on the soft grass, surrounded by humongous mountains, burbling water, and goats grazing idly at a distance, stir up my appetite for conversation.
Namgyal, a professional trekker, grew up in Tsaga, in east Ladakh. “As a child, I would herd cattle. On the way we would forage for stinging nettle, which my mother would use to make thukpa. In those days, we had no onion. We would make cakes of wild garlic, and thukpa made of roasted barley flour would be tempered in animal fat as we had no oil,” the 50-year-old tells us.
The terrain and weather conditions in these parts are so harsh that they have ensured a communal way of survival. It’s not uncommon to see locals stop their car and go out of their way to help a tourist vehicle, or assist each other in sowing and harvesting.
Namgyal tells us that the kitchen is the largest part of each house; it is where families sit together on the floor to share meals. We begin our picturesque feast with gnamtug, a soup made from roasted barley. The cereal grain is also used to make bread that is served with tomato chutney. “Whatever is available, we use it in different ways—for our thukpa, vegetables, jams, and chutneys,” he tells us. A voluptuous momo crumbles in my mouth to release the most delicately pounded mutton. Chutagi, or dumpling soup, features bow-shaped pasta cooked in leafy green vegetables and potatoes. We eat this with tingmo, a rolled bread made from barley. After a dessert of sweetened apricots, we follow Namgyal up a hillock. The quinquagenarian is surprisingly hard to keep up with. At the top, we are greeted by an uninterrupted view of the mountains kissing the clear blue sky.
THE FINAL LEG
Hearts filled with stories and stomachs with a hearty local meal, we continue our journey to Pangong Tso, the highest saltwater lake in the world. It appears first as a turquoise speck amid dusty brown mountains. With each turn we take, the anomaly of colour grows larger and larger, until we see the lake in its full glory. The waterbody may have been immortalised in many Bollywood films, but I cannot help gasping at the sight of it.
At 4,250 metres, the air is thin. And without much of a notice, I am overcome by an intense bout of mountain sickness. The next two days are spent on a hospital bed listening to travel stories of other tourists who faced the same fate. Two of them are bikers who were driving from Chandigarh, while a student from Bengaluru was on a college trip. I look out of the window behind my bed to spot a bright moon looming above the Stok Range of the Himalayas. I understand why those who tread this harsh terrain are eager to return, despite the challenges. Ladakh fortifies your body with tough love and your soul with a singular kindness that can only be found in the mountains.
There are direct flights to Leh Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport from Delhi and Mumbai. You can also drive into Leh through the Srinagar-Leh Highway or the Manali-Leh Highway.
Ladakh Sarai offers views of the River Indus and the Ladakh Range. Doubles from INR 10,215
If you suffer from mountain sickness or a drop in blood oxygen levels, reach out to your hotel or homestay staff. Most properties in Ladakh are equipped with oxygen cylinders and medicines for AMS. It is advised to consult your doctor before the trip.
SEE & DO
Ladakhi meal at Syah
This restaurant at Ladakh Sarai employs traditional ingredients to serve a gourmet dining experience. Take the authentic route with their wazawan dinner.
Visit at 6 am for its morning prayers. The canteen serves breakfast and tea.
Located on a hilltop in Chanspa, Leh district, this is one of the seven peace pagodas in India and holds the relics of the Buddha.
Pashmina has virtually become synonymous with Kashmir, but Ladakh’s products can’t be shortchanged. Stop by Lena Ladakh Pashmina for handspun, handwoven, and a botanically dyed pashmina.