From the very beginning of our planning to come to India, we had in our minds a picture of Lake Pangong that our friend Amandine had shown us. This is what drove us hundreds of kilometres North to Ladakh, and to the town of Leh. It has been quite a trek, from Delhi to Srinigar – a nice but quite unnecessary stop – and then the looong drive from Srinigar to Leh. The final stretch to Pangong Tso will be another 5-hour 4×4 trip tomorrow morning and then we start the whole journey back to Delhi on Sunday! In hindsight, it may have been wiser, and cheaper, to book a return flight to Leh from Delhi in advance. Saying that though, we wouldn’t change what we did for anything – we have seen places we didn’t even know existed, and travelled roads that we will never forget!! It has been quite the adventure, to say the least :)
As much of a mission as it has been, it was worth it to see the town of Leh. If I had to describe the town in one word it would be to say it is “mellow.” The atmosphere here, although meteorologically thin and dry, is very peaceful and relaxed and the people are happy and friendly, maybe because of the large population of Buddhist Monks. Due to the town being virtually uninhabitable in the winter, the people migrate for the summer months
from all over India and also come from Tibet and Nepal. This makes the town contrast with the other Indian cities that we have visited and many of the people here have oriental features although still Indian by birth. The most notable thing is that there are a lot more European tourists here. Whether it is the cooler climate or the friendly people, there are more tourists here than anywhere we have seen in India (granted, we haven’t seen Goa/Kerala and the South of India yet). However, although most people would say that a lot of tourists is a bad thing, the tourists here are very different to those you may find on the beaches in the South. These tourists are here to blend in, not to be loud and demanding, but rather to meditate, go trekking and generally enjoy the local culture. In actual fact, we don’t fit in here at all!
Most people who come here from Europe and America spend a few weeks or months here in Ladakh and go trekking into the Himalayas for days or weeks at a time, before coming back to Leh to refuel. They all wear loose fitting colourful clothes, hippy style, and most have dreadlocks in their hair. Not unlike someone you would find frequenting the outdoor music festivals in Cape Town. And they definitely don’t carry their cameras around on their shoulders ready for an opportunity to jump out at them, like we do :)
This mixture of people makes the town quite modern and mostly caters to these trekkers. There are five types of shops:
- Internet cafes: full of people like us, keeping in touch with home.
- Souvenir shops: selling pashminas, Tibettan jewellery, sculptures and Kashmiri crafts.
- Trekking/Tour agencies: organising treks and putting like-minded people together to fill tours.
- Trekking equipment stores: making sure that you can get everything you need to go trekking right here in Leh.
- Corner shops: selling everything from Pepsi to Maggi (any type of 2-minute noodles) to all types of beauty products. You name it, they have it.
Of course then, there are restaurants and guesthouses in between, but it is quite fascinating that these businesses survive considering how saturated the market is. Going back to my economics theory, supply definitely exceeds the demand here! Be that as it may, the people are not starving and we haven’t seen anyone here that doesn’t have a home to go to at the end of the day.
For that reason, and maybe a few others, Leh is really safe. The people are honest and very trusting, if you don’t have the correct change, don’t worry, just come back and pay later. In contrast to the big cities in India, here we can walk around freely at 10pm without worrying about crime or anything like that, just as long as you don’t mind dodging late night jeeps, wandering packs of dogs and the occasional cow.
It is a small town and we have actually seen most of it in just the few days that we have been here. For the first couple of days we took it really easy as just walking up a flight of stairs left us breathless, but after many slow walks up to the Main Bazaar, we slowly started to acclimatise to the very thin, 3500m high air. Eventually we were “fit” enough to walk ALL the way to the top of the town to the Leh palace, only about 2km from our guesthouse but on a hill, so quite a challenge. The palace is not what you would call beautiful, from the outside anyway, but the words majestic and fascinating definitely come to mind. From up close, it is massive, and it would certainly have been quite a feat to build up there on the hill in the 1600’s. The view from up there is fantastic, with the 6000m plus Stok Khangri mountain covered in snow in the background and the “colourful” town of Leh in the foreground, it makes for a very pretty picture.
Surrounding the palace is the old town made up of little square mud-brick houses, which seem deserted at first, but with a closer look you find the old woman washing her clothes outside on the step, and another sitting in the doorway knitting thick socks to sell to trekkers. The doors and windows are only just tall enough for me to fit through, some even smaller, and the walls are crumbling in places giving them a charm that no decorator could plan. Coming down through little dusty passageways we found a massive tree, the Sacred Tree planted by a Guru many years ago “to bring greenery to highest deserts and into the hearts of the people.” It seems to have done its job well.