Friday, September 7, 2007

Leaving Ladakh

We've been in Ladakh for more than a month now, and during that time have used its capital, Leh, as our home base between forays into the mountains. In our three or four different sojourns in the city of 20,000, we've spent enough time wandering its narrow alleys to become familiar with it, learning to ignore the blaring horns reminding us of our return to civilization and to walk with confidence down the congested streets, paying no heed to the wandering donkeys, the foraging cattle, the swerving motorcycles. In short, it's become our temporary home - the place we come back to. When you're travelling, familiarity is rare, and therefore cherished.

We have our comfortable little guesthouse, run by Lopsang and Palmo, a wonderful couple with two children at boarding school in Manali. Lopsang likes to wrestle, and is always chanting; Palmo makes time to talk, and smile, regardless of what she's doing. They store our extra stuff when we go trekking, and always greet us the same way upon our return: "Ahhh! You come back! Come, you have tea!" We sit in the common rooom and choke down butter tea as best we can while talking about where we were this time before asking for a hot bucket to wash the sweat and grime from our tired bodies. This last time she had trouble finding one of our sacks, and knocked sheepishly on our door several hours later, handing us the missing sack and apologizing for the next five minutes.

We know what restaurants are good (and some that are not so good), and we talk about which ones we'll visit in what order we'll visit them during our last days on the trail. Lamayuru is our favourite, an inexpensive Indian restaurant that's always full, just as often with locals as with gringos, a sure sign of success. The sebzi mandi (vegetable market) is also popular, and we wander from vendor to vendor trying to see who has the firmest apples, which pears look the ripest, who's willing to give us three bananas for 10 rupees, instead of the standard 5 rupees a piece. I've discovered that we're pushovers when it comes to bargaining; it's not often we get the local price.

On one of our "town days" we discovered a little snack shop down a side alley off the main bazaar where they serve the best puri bhaji in town (a chewy, deep fried bread that comes with various different dipping sauces. It comes out of the kitchen on a round tray puffed up with steam, hot from the fryer, and is very impressive looking. Luckily, it tastes just as good, and I usually rub the extra grease on my dry, scratchy legs, since no napkins are provided.) and it's always a lunch stop. The last time we were there we had to wait for a seat, and watched as a yong shepherd drove his mixed flock of goats and sheep through the busy marketplace. The villagers selling vegetables along the side of the road made sure to shoo them away, but other than that, no one seemed to notice.

There's a used book store in town, run by a friendly Sikh who buys back his own sales at half the price. It's a brilliant strategy, and his shop is always packed with gringos, trying to find their next good read. It's rare to find such a good selection of good books, and his store contrasts quite dramatically with the shop down the street. It's run by a cultured-looking Indian who speaks very good English, but has an arrogant manner that makes me want to tear a page out of every one of the new books that line his shelves. He sits behind his counter in his black velvet jacket, a young woman fawning on his arm from slightly below and behind him. A couple of weeks back, Abby asked to look at a book that was behind the counter, which required taking it out of its protective wrapping. He first asked her if there was any chance of her buying it before handing it over to her and staring down at her while she tried to thumb through it. I don't think he gets a whole lot of repeat customers.

We've learned that fresh water comes only twice a day, from very specific taps throughout the city. Locals place their water jugs in a queue, and spend a frantic hour trying to collect as much as they can before the taps are dry for another 12 hours. We watched the city fill up with monks when the Dalai Lama came to visit, and were amazed as the local Ladakhis changed out of their trendy western dress into traditional costumes with no sign of self-consciousness at all. We always know where to look to get a glimpse of Stok Kangri, the 20,000 ft peak looming over the city to the west. We climbed it, several weeks ago, and want to go back, particularly on clear, sunny days when its summit ridge looks so soft and white and inviting. We briefly toyed with the idea of a return trip, but decided that India was too full of other adventures to have any repeats.

This morning, we woke up to a fresh coat of snow on all the peaks that surround town. Termination dust means one thing: winter is on its way. On our last trek, the mountainsides had turned from green to brilliant shades of gold, auburn and red, as though they'd caught fire, overnight. The trekkers have disappeared, and the the city has quieted down. The crowded streets have opened up, the shopkeepers have started to pack their wares. The season is finished, so it's time to leave. We're taking a bus tomorrow morning, back to Manali, and then back to the real India. We're going to slowly make out way over to Nepal, and enjoy some time away from the mountains on the way. Ladakh has been great, but we're ready for a change, and the seasons have given us a good excuse to move on.

1 comment:

Kate said...

Wow, sounds wild and fabulous! My mouth waters with the description of puri.. yum. Can't wait to hear more, safe travels.