An Evening at the Market in Leh

‘They have board games,’ I exclaimed seeing the poster of a travel café as we finished our superbly heavy and filling breakfast platter. It was our last day in Leh. We would be leaving for Srinagar the next day.

The last week had seen us arriving in this quaint little hill town in the middle of the night. At first glance it looked like a rustic old city with yellow-brown buildings, archaic windows and colourful prayer flags in every direction with a monastery or stupa set on the edge of a cliff in the middle of a valley with snow covered peaks all around it. As we would discover over the coming days, this halt on the ancient Silk Route is full of historic stories and cultural ties.

Visiting Ladakh was a long cherished dream. For an area that’s not easily accessible and which remains closed to the rest of the world for the major part of the year, travelling isn’t cheap. Ladakh had been on top of my list of places to visit for over 2 or 3 years, but finances never seemed enough. Planning a trip there wasn’t easy. So when a month back my friend and I decided to book return flights for Delhi-Srinagar to visit Ladakh over an 11 day period, we knew we were finally going to live the dream.

We had spent an entire month researching. We had probably read every article available on the internet from the recent times about visiting Ladakh. And we wanted to do it on a backpacking budget. No splurging. As fate would have it, most of our plans that were in the lines of ‘traveling in the state transport bus’ or ‘having maggi to save money’ didn’t fructify and we ended up spending way more than what we thought we would have to. But then that’s how things are in remote locations like these.

We arrived in Leh after a 14 hour road journey from Srinagar that saw the lush greenery of the Kashmiri capital giving way to icy mountains at Drass and Kargil and rustic brown rocky hills as we entered Ladakh. Every single minute of the journey had a view worth drooling over. This was just the beginning.

As we sipped the juices that came with the breakfast platter, our minds wandered to the week that had been. How we had braved the cold winds to enjoy the beauty of the mystic blue waters of Pangong Lake, how we had played with snow for so long at Chang La in the traffic jam, how we had arrived at Nubra Valley, stood in the cold waters and seen the most amazing number of stars in the night sky and how we had rode on our bikes and gone on a ‘Discover-Leh Odyssey’ only to see the most beautiful sights and changing weather conditions.

If you think about it, Ladakh has nothing to offer. You would travel for 6 hours on rocky and bad roads and end up in front of a deep valley or a blue lake. There would be nothing special about it. But then you would realize that you are in a cold desert, that you are seeing sights that you won’t see anywhere else, sights which most people wouldn’t get to see in their lifetime, at an altitude where the amount of oxygen is less than 40% of what you breathe normally. And right then, right there, it would strike you- how stunningly beautiful the journey has been that has led you to the sight in front of you right now. The hours of pain that you go through to reach the destination is worth it, every single time. That is what makes Ladakh special.

The previous evening, we were out in the main market. As my friends looked around for souvenirs to take home, I sat on the platform in the middle of the market and looked around as the sun went down. This probably was the first evening we were in Leh city at the evening peak hour. The buildings reminded me of the architecture I had fallen in love with in Bhutan, just a little less organized.

The entire market was flooded with tourists, everyone clad in thick winter wear even in the middle of June. The winter this year has been long here in Ladakh with the unseasonal snowfall.

‘July and August would see the maximum tourists this year,’ Asif, the local travel agent who arranged shared taxis and bike rentals for us had told in one of our meetings earlier.

Two young boys played badminton in the middle of the market. The boy in the bookstore on the first floor was watching a comedy show on the TV. Everyone went around with their businesses; there was superb hustle bustle right now.

‘Come October and you won’t see a single soul anywhere. The streets would be completely deserted through the day,’ Asif bhai told us.

‘How do you manage finances in the non-tourist season?’ I asked him.

‘It’s just these four months that we work. This is when we save for the rest of the year. Once the winter months set in, it’s complete closure to our businesses. There is no option,’ he said.

As I sat there in the market wondering what was so special about Ladakh and if I would want to come back here, the answer struck me within moments.

For life in Leh is difficult. Where the only source of fresh drinking water is the melting snow and where the only major source of employment is tourism, it is surprising to see the happiness of the locals. They will help you, they will offer you tea, they will give you the best suggestions for travel and food and they would make sure you love their land so much you would want to come back here again and again.

And right then I knew I wanted to come back here again soon, and get as many people along as I could. For this land is beautiful and everyone ought to revel in its beauty and admire the toughness of life in this remote region.

Buddhist prayer flags fluttered peacefully in the wind above as the Leh Palace looked down at us, the last glint of sunlight on its golden walls fading into darkness. The small town in the Ladakh valley with its slow life and towering snow clad mountains, smiled. It had just successfully seduced me into its fanbase.

PS: I am leading a group trip to Leh from August 12th to 21st, 2017. If interested, check the details here.

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