The old disappearing Leh

We stayed in an interesting neighbourhood in Leh. It was a fifteen minutes’ walk to the main market, so not terribly crowded. But some shops straggled down to the road we were on. The road had several hotels, and a couple of cafes. But the rest of the houses belonged to residents. Interestingly, several of the houses were about to be demolished. When I asked about them, the owner of our hotel said that several people here want to rebuild and create a hotel on their property. Tourism is booming in Leh, and everyone wants a piece of the pie.

In spite of all this, the neighbourhood still retains quite a bit of its charm. The lanes around us had old houses, and several of them had traditional mud stupas on their grounds. I’d read somewhere that the punishment for crimes once was that the guilty had to build a stupa by their own hands (building something holy was enough to rehabilitate them). This didn’t feel like a criminal neighbourhood though. It seems that stupas were also built in the memory of family members who died. That made more sense!

I took some photos. The old houses were mostly built of sun-dried mud blocks. In this place the annual rainfall is so small that unfired clay is a good building material. It is cool in summer, warm in winter, cheap, and light. Start with a sturdy wooden framework, fill it with these blocks, add wooden doors and windows, and you are done. The woodwork was pretty. I liked this house with three memorial stupas facing the road from an upper floor.

The new houses are not all concrete monstrosities. The hotel we were in replaced the mud blocks by dressed stone, so that it could be built higher. The beautifully carved wooden frames for doors and windows were retained. The blocky shape of the old style buildings would have seemed very oppressive in a tall structure. Instead there were terraces at various levels. The net effect was quite pleasant, and it still retained a feel of the old neighbourhood. I thought that was clever. Perhaps the renewal will not be all bad. But in a decade I suppose the town center will be much more crowded than it is now.

Tingmo: steamed bread from Tibet

Steaming is not exactly a common technique when it comes to raising a yeasty bread. So when we decided to sample a Tibetan kitchen in Leh, I was happy to go with tingmo (or Tenga momo). I discovered later that recipes were easy to find on the net (here, there, and everywhere), and it was the lead item in a Tibetan cookbook that was gathering dusty bytes in my e-reader. What do you have with it? There were many choices, but we went with the mutton shapta. Shapta (or Sha btra) has a thick sauce that goes well with the fluffy tingmo. Our server later told us that it can be had for breakfast with butter and honey. I can imagine that! Some Tibetan food is easily available in the plains, but traveling to the mountains helps you to find the breadth of this culinary culture.

Leh Palace

One of the few dates that I found about the history of Leh is that the Leh Palace was constructed in three years during the reign of Sengge, of the Namgyal dynasty. So the palace must have been built between 1616 and 1642 CE, and definitely predates the beginning of the construction of the Potala palace of Lhasa. The architects who built it were clearly already accomplished. The level floors of the palace built on a slope, the inward tilt of the massive outer walls for stability, and the use of mixed materials, dressed stone, dried clay blocks, and several different kinds of wood, speak of previous experiments and practice. The palace was in continuous use till it was sacked and destroyed during the Dogra invasion of 1834. The restoration started in this century and has been proceeding fitfully.

The palace dominates the modern city of Leh, visible from most of the center. It seems to straddle a large part of a peak behind the town. I was glad to see an exhibition on the restoration project inside the palace, in particular the architectural drawings which showed the structure as a whole. Without this you are lost: the palace has nine floors (you enter at the third level) and each floor has multiple rooms. A look at these drawings gave me an overall feel of the structure. I decided to climb up to the terrace on the seventh floor and then walk back down. This was the second visit for The Family (she’s been here once when I was still battling altitude sickness) so she decided to be more relaxed.

You have to park your car a little distance away. The walk to the palace is lined with cheerful women knitting scarves, socks and ear muffs which they sell to tourists, even in the height of summer. I find that women are much more natural when The Family takes their photos. I would never have got these friendly smiles and eyes meeting the camera. Each person in this cheerful bunch had an umbrella. There’s no rain here, but the sun is pretty fierce. These are really parasols.

The main entrance in impressive with its four huge columns and the carved heads of lions decorating the lintel over the ceremonial door. This is the singe-sgo (Lion gate, singhadwar in Sanskrit-derived languages). I realized at this point that the king who ordered this palace to be built was also named lion. Maybe this was an appropriate name for a king who took on the Mughal empire; although he could not win Kashmir from them, he did protect the frontier.

On the fourth floor I looked out of a window at a great view of the town of Leh. I’m sure the window is a restoration, but it is done by local craftsmen who follow traditional practice. I wonder about the glass though; I am aware of traditional paper to cover windows. Did 17th century Ladakh make glass. The silk route would certainly have brought many craftsmen here for two and a half millennia, so I’ll reserve my judgement. I climbed half a floor to an internal terrace outside the memorial to the Namgyals. Photography was forbidden inside the memorial, but I was happy to take a photo of the very decorative door outside that led to the fifth floor. From there, I passed further terraces with clearer view of the modern city.

There are terraces and courtyards at every level. The dressed stone was really impressive, with the sharp edges still intact. The ceremonial courtyard where the Namgyals had state banquets was warm and protected from winds by surrounding walls. Further up the view was better but the wind was pretty strong. I listened to the clear and calm sound of azaan reaching up there from the wood and plaster mosque which I’d seen in the market below.

The result of the sacking of the palace and its long abandonment is that the murals which once decorated the walls are not in good shape. There are parts of many of these artworks still visible, and work to preserve them is on. The conservation of the palace and the old city below it has barely begun. It attracts many students of architecture who spend a semester surveying and documenting these buildings. I would have been completely unaware of this effort if Niece Mbili had not done a semester project here. But being sensitized to it now, I could see people at work. New papers are being written by engineers on the techniques used in Leh. Historians have been reasearching Ladakh a little more than they used to before. Perhaps in a couple of decades the palace will be restored to something closer to how it might have looked in the centuries when it was in use.

Ladakhi Food: The Long Goodbye

We’d spent our days in Leh looking for a good place which serves Ladakhi food. The usual social networks for tourists directed us to a popular place which served ddishes known in cities, some Tibetan, others not. The town was full of cafes and bakeries, and generic Indian food. We asked the dependable Mr. Kanlon, and he had an immediate answer: Namza. So we went there for our last lunch in Leh.

From outside it looked like a regular house. But when we passed the front door it opened into a kitchen garden, an urban farm if you wish. A wood and glass cabin was the dining area, perhaps eight tables, bright and cheerful in the afternoon light. The menu spoke of fresh ingredients from the local market and from the garden. We looked out: potato, tomato, beans, pak choy, were in evidence. One of the wait staff pointed out local herbs.

We turned to the menu. After ten days of looking at the wildflowers of Ladakh, I was beginning to wonder how much of it found its way into the kitchen. Often a lot of local plants go into food, but they are not considered to be suitable for guests. As a result, many of these interesting tastes drop out of restaurant menus. So I was happy to see that a nettle soup appeared on the menu. The soups all sounded very interesting, but I settled for the nettles because I wasn’t likely to taste this ingredient elsewhere. I’d not seen much in the way of meat in the local food, so it was interesting to see that they made sausages in house. That was clearly something else to try.

The Family had ordered khambir (the Ladakhi yeasty naan) with an yogurt dip which arrived at the table rather quickly. I shared a bit of it, but I held back, because I suspected that I’d over-ordered. The nettle soup had bits of soft chhurpi (the yak-milk cheese of these heights) and slivers of chicken in the broth. The sausages were redolent of herbs. All I needed after that was a dessert, but Ladakh does not really do desserts. There were stewed apricots on offer, and I took it (that’s the featured photo). It was perfect, just plain local apricot freshly stewed without additives.

Across the Himalayas

Home of clouds, the Himalayas have a very appropriate name. The mountains jut up into the sky above the weather, stopping even that huge global circulation which we ground-huggers see as the Indian Ocean monsoon. And what are the Himalayas but the immense, long drawn out collision of two continental plates. As the Indian plate sped northeast across the world, wheeling westwards, a ten million year collision raised these mountains and prised the Tibetan highland into the air from the mass of the Asian plate. About then, elsewhere, a plume of magma rose from the earth’s core and created the enormous African rift valley, setting into motion the changes that started a branch of apes to begin walking across the world. Now, a tube of aluminium filled with those same apes followed a high arc across the home of clouds.

Sitting in that crowded tube, I Iooked out over the shoulder of The Family at the monsoon cloudscape that passed below us. Abruptly I realized that some of the white was not the fluffiness of clouds. A closer look told me that we had left the lowlands behind and reached the high Himalayas. Below us was a rugged, folded landscape, where streams and earthquakes had carved valleys and raised peaks. This late in July the snow line lies above 5.5 Kms. So the peaks we saw were at least 6 Kms high. This is where weather stops.

In the next ten minutes we passed over heights that I would certainly never have reached on foot: a land of eternal snow. Few animals come this high. Among all the world’s migratory birds, only bar headed geese (Anser indicus) fly over these mountains. Coincidentally, we were flying parallel to one of their migration routes, the one they follow as they move between their wintering grounds north of Mumbai, and their summer breeding grounds in Ladakh’s Tso Moriri, west of Leh.

The landscape below us was amazing. Multiple glaciers flowed away from a huge snowfield. I wondered what it would be like to stand on one of those promontories below us and look down on the icefalls that I could see. The air inside the plane suddenly felt hot and stale as I imagined the bitter cold wind below, blowing loose snow over the ice fields. Sadly I was seeing these views as the last of the snow melts from these mountains. Even ten years ago, I would not have seen so much exposed brown below me.

And then we had crossed from one tectonic plate to another. Below us was another climatic zone, one where the monsoon did not reach. Wisps of cumulus floated over the bare brown land. From this height I could see many lakes dotted over the land, large and small. With the extremely low precipitation that this high desert gets, the lakes must be all fed by snow melt. As the earth heats up and the last snow melts, I wonder what will be the fate of the ecologies that depend on these lakes: the bar headed geese, the black necked cranes, snow pigeons, snow leopards, snow foxes, blue sheep, the cold-adapted vegetation of these lakes, and the many insects which live only here. Distance from the ground lets you think these thoughts.

Before I expected it, we begin our descent. Voices come over the PA giving the usual safety instructions. As we approach the ground I see the play of light and shadow over the bare desert which will be our home for the next one and a half weeks. I’m excited. I look at The Family, and she says, “Finally. I’ve been waiting to come here for years.” Below us we see a green valley, probably a sign of humans: the water from a stream used to grow the crops and trees that we like to have around us. We carry with us memories of ancestral landscapes and we try to reproduce them wherever we settle.

Before I have to put away my phone, I see us approach the town of Leh. Like every overgrown human settlement, this spills out from the valley where it was born, into its surroundings. Humans metastasize. That magma plume below the Afar depression which shattered the African continental plate 40 million years ago set into motion large changes on the surface of the planet.

Leh market

After every museum and monastery closes for the evening, tourists descend on Leh’s main market. It’s not a small number of people, I even bumped into acquaintances from work at the market. The Family decided to go there a little before ravenous hordes descend on the cafes. Her first photo of the day shows an exotic market scene: a row of vegetable vendors against a backdrop of beautiful carpets, and a scattered few shoppers. Even the vegetables are laid out on lovely carpets. It is the best photo of the market I’ve seen, but it’s not the typical photo.

If you want the typical photo, that’s this. Crowds of tourists not sure what they want to do. Some sit on benches, others take selfies or photos of each other, the rest cruise in gangs up and down the drag, while the more clear-headed fill up the many cafes and bakeries which offer free wifi.

The market has one of the most cheerful post offices I’ve seen anywhere. It was closed, of course, by the time I spotted it. But there was always a gaggle of tourists around it, either taking selfies against the “I Love Ladakh” mural on one wall, or using it as a meeting point. The bright white building with red trim looked like it might be a place where locals meet and chat.

There were two beautiful mosques on the road, in two different styles. One was an exotic plaster and wood structure: all white and light wood stain. I had to look twice to see that it was a mosque. The architecture was adapted from the native Ladakhi style: the grand gate was in intricately carved wood. The other was a structure that was more immediately recognizable, the turrets and doors, the green and white colour scheme, similar to the mosques that you see around the world. About half of the native Ladakhis are Muslim, the other half Buddhist. This is an ancient history. Ladakh was on the old silk route, and cultures and religions traveled along it for much more than a thousand years.

I liked the view along the drag: with the Leh Palace perched on a hill visible along its axis. The afternoon had turned cloudy, but now, at sunset the clouds parted and we had this joyful golden light on the palace and the upper stories of the shops here. I left The Family to find old Ladakhi jewelery in jade and coral and climbed to a cafe on one of the upper floors with my copy of Gurnah’s “The Last Gift.”

A couple of days earlier The Family had discovered the wonderful Ladakhi apricots: small, juicy, and flavourful. She’d bought a kilo from this lady, and we ate them over a few days. We picked up the fruits again later, and they would be one of the best things we got back from Ladakh.

And the local jewelry? Glad you asked. They are jade and coral, set in silver. The silver-work was fascinating. I saw three pieces, one was antique, the second was a grand old silver piece with new jade and coral pieces added to it, and the third was an old coral set with new rings of silver added to it. In this last one, the silver will get a little patina as it ages.

Mural in Leh Palace

Eeny, meeny, miny, moe,
Catch a tiger by the toe.
If he hollers, let him go,
Eeny, meeny, miny, moe.

Children’s rhyme

A mural in the Leh palace shows a hunter armed with a spear and a bow and arrows hunting a tiger. The figure of the hunter hiding behind a Jacaranda tree can still be seen. The tiger has almost disappeared. Life copies art?


We flew in to Leh. In an hour we’d gone from sea level to an altitude of 3500 meters. As we stepped out of the pressurized cabin, The Family and I scanned ourselves for signs of trouble. None, as we retrieved our baggage and looked for our ride home. None, as we chatted with the driver about local food. None, as we checked into the hotel. None, as we admired the view from the balcony and took the featured photo. The Family was not surprised. She’d recovered from her flu faster than me, and had tested herself by climbing the stairs to our high-floor apartment twice a day. I had barely recovered, and was unable to tackle the stairs in Mumbai before leaving. She’d also started on a prophylactic course of Acetazolamide (Diamox) against mountain sickness, something I was unable to do. So I was a little surprised.

We’d set aside the first couple of days for acclimatization. We were not planning on stepping out of the hotel on the first day. We decided to go down for lunch. The restaurant was empty. It seemed that we were the only silly tourists taking these precautions. We ordered simple food. Eating multiple small meals and taking a lot of fluid is recommended. I was telling The Family that we were probably being over-cautious when a sudden headache hit me.

It became rapidly worse. I took the lift to our room, and by the time I hit the bed my fingers were tingling. The air at this height contain only about 65% of the oxygen you get at sea level. Lowered oxygen in your blood requires your heart to pump harder. If you are careless, this could lead to increased blood pressure and the risk of a heart attack. The tingling in your fingers and toes is a blaring alarm that tells you to lie down immediately. The Family took out our oxymeter, and found that I was in crisis. When you are flat on your back, the heart has a easier time pumping blood to your brain. I concentrated on yoga breathing: 4 counts in, hold for a count of 4, out till a count of 8. My pulse slowed. The tingling disappeared. A load eased off my chest. My oxygen reading crept up and my pulse rate dropped to the active workout level.

This was a wonderful hotel. Room service came in to set up bedside dining. The manager told The Family that he could set up oxygen for me any time we wanted. They contacted doctors, a couple, who were in our hotel. The owner came to talk to The Family; assured her that the hospital in Leh was fully equipped to deal with this problem, and he could get us there whenever needed. All this was in my peripheral consciousness. I kept on the yoga breathing until my oxygen and pulse were back to the extreme side of normal. Then I could sit up and eat.

I did not reach a crisis again; bodies adjust to heights. By late afternoon I could join The Family on the balcony for short periods. We had taken a full cardiac checkup before the trip. She’d been working on her blood iron levels, and it was paying off. Her vitals never went into danger. I had a slower time adjusting. The edema headache and the racing heart never happened again. It took three days before my resting oxygen level and pulse were back to the level I had at home. But once there, my body maintained that balance even at an altitude of 5500 meters. If we’d driven up from Srinagar or Manali, it would have taken as many days as it did, and I would have adjusted equally well. Also, the view would have been better. I did not save any time by flying in. Once it was clear that I was stable, The Family could explore Leh. So there was that.

Later, The Family said we should have come here thirty years ago. Perhaps we should have. Women’s bodies warn of time’s winged chariot drawing near, I don’t have that perspective. But I was immensely pleased a week later, when we crossed Khardung La a second time, and a group of young men watching us from the top of a slope we shuffled up said that we were an inspiration to them. I could have told them that though they cannot make their sun stand still, they can yet make him run. But I was grinning inside at their compliment. And I was out of breath.

Thank you guys, you made my day. I wish I’d had your grace when I was younger.

Talking of which, here is Oxygen The Music whom I found on YouTube