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Rewalsar, a pilgrim’s paradise!

Welcome to Rewalsar!

Rewalsar was suggested to us by a friend who lives here.  He said it was peaceful, had good weather and was easy on the pocketbook. It is slightly cooler than Mandi and significantly smaller (2011 census figures for Mandi are 26,422 versus the 2001 census figure for Rewalsar of 1,369).  It is basically a place of pilgrimage with activity centering on the small lake in the center of town with the enormous statue of Guru Rinpoche perched high on the hill overlooking the lake.

Guru Rinpoche at sunset

This magnificent statue took Nepali and Bhutanese craftsmen 10 years to build and is the second largest statue in India.  The area is studded with caves which bear religious significance as well.  Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists all come to Rewalsar for its religious significance.  In addition, many residents of the Himalayan mountains descend to Rewalsar in the winter months to escape the harsh winter weather.  

A good night’s sleep

The town IS small.  Aside from the road around the lake which is a bit less than 1 kilometer long there is one main road leading in and out of the town. The main road serves as both a taxi and bus stand.  Most lodgings are found around the perimeter of the lake and many pilgrims come in large groups by bus.  The Buddhist monasteries and Sikh Gurdwara offer accommodation along with commercial hotels and guesthouses.  Most accommodation is quite cheap even by Indian standards running between 300 and 500 rupees a night.  Some of the hotels charge as much as 1,000 rupees a night and I would guess that these rates might rise during periods of high demand. Some people even rent places and use them sporadically throughout the year.  There are many good places to enjoy a decent meal either a tasty Himachal thali which is less spicy and oily than thalis found in other parts of India, or a mild Tibetan dish of dumplings (momos) or noodles (thukpa, thentuk, etc.). 

Nikko Dhaba is name you’ll hear over and over from the locals.  It is a small restaurant just off the road encircling the lake and is usually full of customers, both locals and visitors alike.  They serve the best tea in town as well.  One establishment of note is the Buddhist Monastery Guesthouse Cafe which serves a wide range of cakes (apple, carrot, lemon blueberry, etc.) as well as homemade brown bread, a vast array of really good coffee and lassis to name just a few of the treats. 

The cafe  is perched on a terrace with a stellar view of the lake and Guru Rinpoche. 

Gazing out at Guru Rinpoche

It seems to be a favorite spot for both visitors and locals alike and with decent wifi it attracts the laptop crowd.  

The ebb and flow of pilgrims and other visitors

Colorful pair of Arunachal Pradesh ladies

The crowds and activity ebb and flow according to the arrival and departure of various groups.  When we arrived there was a significant group of pilgrims from Arunachal Pradesh, the easternmost state of India.  I was especially pleased as they were all wearing their very unique red costumes. 

Ladakhis also arrive in large numbers wearing their more somber but traditional garb.  All walk clockwise around the lake fingering their prayer beads and chatting amongst themselves. 

Elegant pilgrim from Zanskar Valley

As the place is so tiny I find myself doing the rounds of the lake several times of day as well.  We even spotted a visitor from Zanskar Valley, a very elegant older man sporting a traditional dark purple robe. 

A plethora of holy places

While many visitors to Rewalsar have a religious agenda, we came for some peace and quiet.  That didn’t stop us from enjoying the numerous sites that attract pilgrims to the area.  One must mention the imposing statue of Guru Rinpoche perched midway up the hill/mountain and seemingly visible from just about everywhere. 

The statue is the second largest in India which explains his visibility.  The statue is a short walk up the hill from lakeside and is well worth the climb if only for the stellar view of Rewalsar Lake. 

Selfies are obligatory, sometimes even with strangers! 

There is a small cafe at the base of the statue and pilgrims sometimes sit in groups on the lawn having picnics. Beneath this statue lakeside one finds a number of Hindu temples.  We didn’t explore these too much, but my favorite is the blue temple with the lifesize black bull statue outside. 

Hindu temple

Aside from Guru Rinpoche, Rewalsar attracts many Buddhists with a number of monasteries.  We spent many weeks in one of the five rooms available for guests at ,the Drikung Kagyu Monastery Guesthouse just off of the main road leading into town on the lakeside road and near the entrance gate to the lakeside area. 

The guesthouse cafe has an ideal location for visitors with a birdseye view of the entrance gate from the main road as well as a curve on the lakeside road giving a view in two directions.  The statue of Guru Rinpoche is visible from most rooms. The actual brick red monastery sits on a hill above the cafe and guesthouse and houses a couple dozen young monks. 

Above the monastery compound is an elaborate building accommodating more long-term primarily western visitors who are in Rewalsar to deepen their Buddhist practice.  When Drikung Kagyu Monastery Guesthouse had a prior booking of a large group we moved over to Nyingma Gompa monastery

Nyingma Gompa Monastery just down the lakeside road in a clockwise direction.  This monastery is somewhat of a hub for Buddhist pilgrims especially with its 21 room capacity with single, double and triple rooms and even a room accommodating 5 guests!  The central courtyard of the Monastery hosted the Wednesday traditional dance nights for the Tibetan community. 

There is even a special room in the monastery reserved for the Dalai Lama.  Many pilgrims regularly gather in this courtyard and often traditional Tibetan tea is available for guests and visitors alike. Our own room was on the fringe of the complex one of three rooms along a corridor facing the lake and on the backside of the main street storefronts.  We even had a little glimpse of Guru Rinpoche and more monkeys than I would care for.  One evening I met a Tibetan man who had resettled many decades ago in Switzerland and he raved about the newest monastery, the Tso Pema Monastery perched up on a hill overlooking the lake and the former zoo.  This was also worth the climb.  It was a sumptuous place with a lot of gilded decorations including a wall of a thousand Buddhas encased in glass. 

A thousand Buddhas

This monastery had meditation houses available for those who wished to pursue a long course of meditation lasting 3 years and 3 months.  

Not far from the Tso Pema Monastery is the large white Gurdwara which also sits up on a hill.  Its architecture reminds me a bit of Islamic architecture with a simple facade in white with many arched doorways and windows. 

We ventured up there one gorgeous evening and explored the premises.  Sikh volunteers were busy preparing for the evening meal which is offered free to the public. 

Sikh volunteers helping to prepare the evening meal

We opted to have some tea instead but first took a tour of the premises. 

This included the main temple and the small, austere rooms around it that are available for visitors.  There is a daily bus to and from Chandigarh which parks here as well and which we wound up taking when we left.  Although there are a number of Hindu temples situated on the side where Guru Rinpoche is located, we merely walked past them occasionally catching an evening ritual in progress. 

Evening ceremony at Hindu shrine

Our agenda was not religious but for other visitors the many caves up in the mountains that were home to meditating monks were a draw.  I did step inside a cave just off the main lakeside road though.  The entire area is quite sacred and for those so inclined, there is a lot to do. 

Meet the locals

Life in this little town of a couple thousand people is tranquil which appeals to most visitors.  The locals make a living serving the pilgrims and other visitors with their small businesses such as restaurants, guesthouses, and stores selling clothing, groceries,  tsampa (Tibetan toasted barley flour), religious relics, and produce. 

Nikko Dhaba thali

Our favorite eatery was a well know restaurant called Nikko Dhaba serving a simple but delicious thali (rice, lentil and vegetable set) to both locals and visitors as well as the best milk tea in town.  As we walked around road following the 1 kilometer perimeter  of the lake almost 10 times a day, we became quite familiar with many of these businesses and with the locals who ran them.  When we weren’t enjoying breakfast at the Drikung Kagyu Monastery Cafe, we could be found at a truly tiny restaurant with an open front and one table where the husband and wife team served up hot, fresh chapatis and a savory vegetable dish.

School children would stream by on their way to school often stopping to purchase their small packaged snacks. 

My favorite place was a real hole-in-the-wall open-faced storefront where the proprietor sat hunched amidst an array of old items and parts of items offering his services as a repairman.  I am constantly impressed by the amount of recycling and repurposing of old items that goes on in India. 

School notebook bag

The cards I bought came packaged in a bag made from a used school notebook (complete with the corrections!). 

The budagas man had a cart which had the front wheel of an old scooter welded to the front. 

recycled scooter

A group of women street sweepers kept the road around the lake tidy and gathered any recyclable materials for the truck that would take them away. 

Tsampa shop dog

Then there was the Tibetan tsampa store which emitted the most pleasant aroma of roasted barley and which had its own dog usually sleeping near the massive, old-fashioned scale.

One Madame Defarge-like woman sat knitting in her chair as she waited for customers. 

Religious relics store

Several stores sold colorful religious relics made of resin and hand painted right there in Rewalsar. 

Past the Hindu Temples on an empty stretch of the road several ladies attempted to support themselves selling Hindu related items for worship or offering their bathroom scale to get your weight.  

Who needs a zoo?

According to a long time visitor to Rewalsar, there used to be a zoo by the lakeside just below the Meditation Center and Tso Pema Monastery which had a malnourished bear and a few other unfortunate animals.  I was delighted to hear that it had closed a few years ago but the premises are still very visible.  But who needs a zoo in Rewalsar?  Animals are everywhere!  As with most holy places in India, monkeys are in abundance. 

They can be seen scampering around the lake road, rooting through garbage, swinging from tree branches over the lake and occasionally facing off with the dogs. 

Young monkeys playing lakeside

Enormous cows ply the main and lake road (and I mean ENORMOUS…about shoulder height) often parking themselves outside of eateries in the hopes of some chapatis. 

We would save our organic waste and give it to the cows on one of our many walks. 

Feeding the cows

At one point a large aggressive monkey spotted my bag of organic treats and marched aggressively towards me forcing me to surrender its contents on the spot.

Bessie gets some tsampa

As with most of India street dogs are everywhere and are for the most part well loved.  However at times it appears that there is no animal control and the large population of dogs leads to packs of roving dogs barking and fighting through the night.

Lakeside abounds in animals.  The lake itself is full of fish almost 2 feet in length that congregate on the shoreline in a very creepy fashion.  In some spots they break the surface of the water with open mouths seemingly gasping for air. 

Disturbing fish behavior at Rewalsar Lake

Ducks are kept near the Hindu Temple end of the lake and allowed to roam around in the day but put back in cages in the evenings.  Large white ducks make quite a show bathing themselves on the edge of the lake. 

Bath time for the ducks

One tree ladkeside across from the Drikung Kagyu Monastery Guesthouse Cafe is host to a great number of bright green parakeets with long tails who chatter away in the day time. 

We even thought we saw a mongoose darting across the lakeside road and disappearing into the bushes which we of course took to be a sign of impending wealth and prosperity. 

Looks like rain!

As in many small and quiet places, weather was a good topic of conversation and conjecture.  Some days Guru Rinpoche shone brightly under the sun.  On other days the statue was shrouded in mist.  Towards the end of our visit the rain became incessant making a muddy mess of the dirt road around the lake.  

Why travel, why India?

As with the weather, books have a prominent place in quiet out-of-the-way places.  I carry a Kindle with me on my travels and it gets some very heavy use.  One of the books that kept me riveted during my stay in Rewalsar was Lost in the Valley of Death by Harley Rustad.  It tells the story of a young American man who vanished into the mountains in a place called Kulu Valley not too far from Rewalsar.  It is particularly pertinent reading for anyone coming to India.  The book discusses the many reasons westerners are drawn to India as well as the reasons many become lost there.  Religion plays a role as well as people’s need to escape from life.  In trying to untangle the story of Justin Alexander Shetler one gets a pretty accurate view of the kind of tourism found in the northern mountainous regions of India.  The role of social media in creating a public image is dealt with at length and it is spooky to be able to visit Justin’s Instagram account to reference posts he made which are discussed in the book.  

The long journey to Rewalsar, Himachal Pradesh

A skip and a hop: Pahalgam to Anantnag

2 1/2 hours / 42km via shared Jeep

One thing we discovered is that time estimations given for trips are terribly optimistic.  Road conditions may also be presented through very rose-tinted lenses.  The trip from Pahalgam to Anantnag was familiar and easy.  We caught a shared taxi from the end of the line taxi stand and it quickly filled up.  As the driver had a full complement (9 passengers) most of whom were going all the way to Anantnag, he did not stop for more passengers making the trip a speedy one. We mistakenly got off at the first drop off spot and were heralded into a deluxe shared taxi by an astute driver. 

taxi stand Anantnag

The jeep was parked next to an open sewer a couple cars down from the first in line.  We had a delicious cup of tea but it soon became clear that it would be ages until the taxi filled up (a condition for departure).  We retrieved our baggage, caught a tuk-tuk and went to the other shared taxi stand where we found a jeep with some passengers already inside.  After a half hour we had enough people to depart.  The backseat was filled with four laborers, one young man cradling his injured arm. We were told that the journey would take about 8 hours traveling along decent roads.  That was definitely not the case!

Obstacles and more obstacles: Anantnag to Jammu

11 1/4 hours / 204km via shared Jeep

We left Anantnag at 9:30am.  No sooner had we pulled out than the driver went to a filling station to tank up.  It always puzzles me why this isn’t done before departure. Kashmir is one big hive of military activity and just 30 minutes out we were pulled over for 20 to 30 minutes to let a military convoy by.  We sped along for another 30 minutes when we came to an abrupt halt behind a long line of parked vehicles on the road. 

Waiting for …. who knows?

We switched off our engine and got out to discover the cause of our delay.  Rumors of a landslide ahead circulated.  Local vendors were having a heyday selling apples, cotton candy, snacks, and acrylic shawls. 

A large tea stall across the highway was also doing a fair trade.  We had one false start when whistles were blown and everyone scrambled back to their vehicles.  Two and half hours after we stopped we were given the go ahead to proceed.  This pattern would be repeated over and over during the trip but with delays of about 15 minutes to a half hour each time.

The roads got worse and worse  and the truck and military traffic got heavier and heavier. We stopped in the late afternoon for some food at a local dhaba.  We had just barely resumed our journey when the driver pulled off to the side and informed us that we had a flat tire.  Fortunately (or so we mistakenly thought) there was a mechanic’s shop just up the road a bit. The driver bounded off wheeling the flat tire leaving the stranded jeep and passengers almost blocking the two lane road.  We wandered around in the fading light of late afternoon trying to escape the clouds of dust coming from the traffic on the road.  An hour went by and still our driver hadn’t reappeared. 

We discussed amongst ourselves what could possibly be taking so long.  A couple of passengers decided to find out and returned to report that the inner tube had been repaired once and blown and then twice and blown at which point the mechanic advised buying a new inner tube for 600 rupees. The driver felt he was being taken for a ride so he kept insisting on them trying again with the old inner tube.  On the third try it held and the driver paid the 150 rupees (50 rupees for each try) and quickly got the jeep ready to roll. It’s a hard call knowing who was right in this situation, perhaps the driver. We continued on in the receding light over very bad, heavily trafficked, and rutted roads going through two long tunnels (of about a 10 minute duration each). 

The tunnels were a bit creepy as cars sped by and attempted to pass each other on the two lane road.  The air was thick with dust and fumes but that didn’t prevent people from keeping their windows down.  When we emerged from the second and last tunnel we finally encountered very decent roads.  We had another two hours of clear sailing on a four lane paved highway before finally reaching Jammu at 8:45pm 11 and ¼ hours after leaving Anantnag.

Welcome to Jammu (or not)!

But our troubles were hardly over.  A fellow passenger had assured that good accommodation was readily available in Jammu where we were dropped off.  I was left with the luggage while my friend negotiated a room.  He came back saying he had managed to find a very clean and spacious room for a decent price.  The minute I entered the lobby the deal was off.  The manager was not prepared to handle a foreign guest which would require him to fill out and submit a special form (the C form) to the government.  Once again I was left out on the curb with the luggage. When my friend returned he had managed to find a room that would accept a foreigner but only on the 5th try.  The hotel wiling to accept me was under renovation.  The first floor rooms had been renovated but we were shown a room on the 3rd floor past a very dusty and debris-strewn 2nd floor to a third floor room which clearly was waiting to be renovated. But it had hot running water and a bed so got cleaned up and had a good sleep before heading out of Jammu the next day.

Goodbye Jammu, hello Himachal Pradesh!

Jammu to Mandi via Panthakot

We were very happy to see the backside of Jammu.  We got up early and went to the bus station easily finding a bus to Pathankot in Punjab.  It was a pleasant 2 and ¼ hour ride that crossed many almost dry river beds full of herds of water buffaloes and covering 108 kilometers on very good roads.  We made one stop for snacks in a little place that seemed to specialize in heavy fried foods. 

Fried food vendor Punjab

Our bus continued all the way to Amritsar so we were dropped off on the highway near Pathankot.  A tuktuk dropped us off at the bus station in Pathankot where we were most fortunate to find a bus just about to leave for Mandi.  I forgot to mention that our trip to Pathankot took us to Punjab which made us very happy as we once again had use of our mobile data (which had been blocked in Jammu Kashmir and Ladakh leaving us dependent on wifi).  The bus to Mandi took us up narrow mountain roads in the state of Himachal Pradesh.  The greenery was noticeable especially after the brown aridness of Punjab. 

The 224 kilometers to Mandi took a full 9 hours with stops at just about every settlement along the way. 

People got off and on the bus taking short rides from one settlement to the next.  We made a brief stop for food and were relieved to be served a mild and tasty thali (rice, lentils, vegetable plate).  Most stops were roadside stops but there were occasional stops at bona fide bus stations. 

Waiting for departure

At our last bus station the bus was flooded with passengers who had been waiting sometime for the bus.  We pulled into Mandi bus station in the evening completing a pleasant 9 hour ride.  We found a hotel near the bus station which was adequate for a night’s sleep and a shower. 

Mandi: full of character

Our hotel near the bus station was not memorable but Mandi itself was a nice surprise.  We managed to explore it on foot in the morning before continuing on to Rewalsar. 

Who’s the mannequin?
Wax museum or cafe?

It is a hilly city with many winding roads through the neighborhoods.  There are a number of Hindu temples as well as some handsome examples of old architecture.  Like Jaipur, one caught many intriguing glimpses through doorways leading to little private worlds beyond. 

We were there long enough to have breakfast and purchase a much needed hot kettle before we caught a bus for the one hour ride up the mountain to Rewalsar.

Leaving Mandi for Rewalsar

Leaving Leh, LADAKH – Destination uncertain

Time to move on

We checked out the rustic bus stand on a road leading out of Leh to determine our options.

Our general direction was Kashmir.  We toyed with idea of exploring the Zanskar Valley accessible via a stop in Kargil.  Actually we bought tickets to Kargil.  The ticket vendor told us we would be in Kargil by 8pm with our bus departing around 3pm and we thought we could break our journey overnight, explore Kargil and continue on to either Zanskar Valley or Srinagar.  I forgot to mention that both Ladakh and Himachal Pradesh are favorites for bikers from all over India wishing to escape the sultry monsoon weather in more southern parts of India.  In addition these states have stunning scenery made famous by many movies.  Our bus had a passenger who had been on motorcycle tours of Ladakh.

The road leading out of Leh is one massive and endless string of army camps. 

Leaving Leh by bus scenery and army camp
Leaving Leh by bus army camp

This is true for all the border states.  The roads in Ladakh are decent and very scenic, often following raging rivers and weaving through green little hamlets full of apricot and apple trees and old-style mud houses. 

Monasteries dot the countryside perched high up on cliffs and visible from quite a distance. 

Srinagar bound it seems

Security is strict in Ladakh and as the only foreigner on the bus the driver was obliged to stop 4 times in Ladakh to register my passage through the territory.  Our 8pm ETA turned into an actual 11pm arrival at which point we decided to bypass Kargil and the Zanskar Valley and stay on the bus until its final destination of Srinagar. We continued on through the night stopping at the entrance to Zojila Pass at about 1pm.  At this point the driver turned off the engine, brought out his sleeping roll, and had a much needed rest until dawn arrived and the pass opened. I was much relieved to see our stellar driver get some shut eye.  It is worth waiting for dawn to witness the beauty of Zoji La Pass which lies at an altitude of 3,528 meters (11,578 feet). The extremely narrow almost one lane route is heavily trafficked especially by heavy trucks including army vehicles.  Construction is underway to make tunnels and repave the crumbling road with cement bricks.  Shepherds with their flocks can be seen grazing below in the increasingly green valleys.  

Army camps dot the route as well.  The closer you get to Srinagar, the greener it gets and the closer it resembles Switzerland. 

Increasing green scenery descending from Zoji La Pass

At one point after descending the pass, a lush green and very scenic valley is suddenly full of large hotels with parking lots closely crammed to each other marring the otherwise beauty of this once tranquil valley.  With the Pandemic the face of tourism in India is changing rapidly with a shift from international tourism to local tourism resulting in a crush of tourists descending on every location as well as a huge boom in unsightly tourist buildings to cater to the demand. 

A short interlude in Srinagar

As with Leh, Ladakh my visit to Srinagar was a repeat from my trip to India in late 2019 to attend a photography workshop.  When the workshop ended and at the recommendation of Eva Erdmann I booked a houseboat in Dal Lake for 5 days.  The New Bulbul group of houseboats was a family run establishment where I willingly retreated for five days watching lake life glide by me and talking to the two sons who ran the establishment.  My infrequent forrays off the boat and into town convinced me that the houseboat was the best place to be in Srinagar.  The town was crowded, polluted and economically depressed not to mention the overwhelming presence of Indian military and equipment on almost every corner. This visit we stumbled off of the bus from Leh a bit worse for the wear after a 19 and ½ ride.  We sought refuge in a cheap and cheerful lakeside hotel making the most of the bathroom with hot running water and a comfortable bed. 

When we did venture out we found a path around the lake that serviced local residents thus avoiding the onslaught of an army of touts who patrol the main road which lines the other side of the lake. Children whizzed by us on bikes and neighbors chatted in the street.  From time to time we could glimpse the boats and the lake and very often we were offered rides on the many tourist boats which ply the lake.

The locals were friendly and kind and encouraged us to explore the pathways beyond the closed gates. 

Women paddled boats laden with vegetable and/or floral cargo. 

The next morning we opted to explore the town.  The town was fairly deserted when we ventured out at 6:30am with only dogs and street sweepers to be seen. 

In addition the Indian military was very much visible at very regular intervals.  This long early morning walk convinced us that it was time to move on. Many had suggested that we visit the Pahalgam Valley if we wished for a more rural setting. 

Pahalgam bound via Anantnag – shared taxis and changing scenery

In India transportation can be challenging.  In the cities and between cities there is inadequate transportation for the vast population needing it.  Buses and shared taxis rule. We tried to find a shared taxi to Anantnag the midway point of our journey.  Finally we caught a crowded bus that took us a little ways out of town to a point where the shared taxis to Anantnag were found. The shared taxis in this part of the country are jeeps with two front facing rows and a back seating area which seats 4 with the seats facing each other. Technically the capacity of the jeep should be 10 passengers (2 next to the driver, 3 in the middle section, and 4 in the back).  However, the scarcity of transportation and the shorter distances that most passengers travel means that the capacity is frequently overridden with an extra passenger placed on the right side of the driver in the front, up to 4 or 5 passengers placed in the middle row, and when absolutely full, passengers riding on the outside standing on the back bumper and hanging on the roof luggage rack. No matter how packed the vehicle gets, passengers remain good natured and cooperative. This willingness to bear a bit of discomfort to benefit others is something I admire in India. As the journey began the countryside immediately appeared fresh and green. 

Green countryside from Jammu to Anantnag on the way to Pahalgam

What a relief!  A short hour’s ride later we were in Anantnag and a helpful fellow passenger led us along busy streets lined with fruit and vegetable stalls to the other taxi stand where we would find a taxi to our final destination, Pahalgam. We were in luck and an almost full taxi was waiting for us with a young driver who drove like a cowboy and played cheerful upbeat music. He knew how to pack a taxi to its capacity!  We soon found ourselves following a road with a lovely canal on our right full of greenish/gray jade colored water.  Eventually the wide and raging Lidder River appeared on our left.  We went from gentle plains to dramatic forested mountains enclosing us on either side. We reached an area that looked like a small town with a number of tourist oriented stores lining the road but our driver told us to stay put. Finally when all the passengers had departed and we had taken on two young backpackers waiting for the return ride, we stopped in a large gravel parking lot with nothing but a few stores, the river and a bridge nearby.  This was ‘the end of the line’. 

Waiting for a room at the taxi stand in upper Pahalgam

We had determined our destination…upper Pahalgam!

India again…returning to Leh, LADAKH

Back again

I keep returning to India.  This latest trip started with an early morning arrival in Delhi on August 21, 2022.  As it is the monsoon season in much of India with hot, wet and muggy weather, the northern reaches of India (Ladakh, Kashmir, and Himachal Pradesh) seemed like logical destinations.  

Ladakh – Frozen in time

The incredibly beautiful scenery of Ladakh

Leh, Ladakh caught my eye many years ago (2011) when I read an article in Jozan Magazine called Costumes of Ladakh – the Hidden Kingdom highlighting the preservation of ancient costumes in the area due to geographical remoteness.  When I saw a notice for a photography workshop given by French photographer Eva Erdmann in Ladakh in July of 2019 I jumped at the opportunity and decided then and there to retire from my academic career and pursue my interests of photography, writing and travel.  Coming straight from the UAE the adjustment to the high altitude of Ladakh was tough.  This time however I was better prepared and after a stunning 11/2 hour flight from Delhi covering 623 kilometers.

Green Valleys as seen on flight from Delhi to Leh, LADAKH
Arid terrain with snow and glacial runoff with cloud cover – flying from Delhi to Leh, LADAKH

I returned to the small family-run guesthouse, Youthok Guesthouse where I had stayed for my workshop but this time I just stayed put for 24 hours to help me adjust to the altitude of 3,305 meters (11,500 feet).  

Just like family

Youthok Guesthouse is a distance from the town center in a peaceful, tree lined street with a canal filled with gurgling water streaming down from the mountain.  Out the window one of the monasteries was visible high on a rocky outcrop.  The guesthouse itself was a cozy family-run place with rooms centered around a common terrace. 

Youthok Guesthouse terrace and room, Leh, LADAKH

Great grandmother lives on the ground floor, grandmother lives in a room on the second floor and tends to the many flowers decorating the terrace, mother is often at the helm receiving guests (although father seems preoccupied with the new guesthouse being constructed across the street) and their son is sometimes on hand to greet guests. 

Trees, canals and guest workers

The terrain around Leh is very arid and rocky and the only green seems to be rows of tall, skiny trees planted along the roads and around perimeters of land. 

Tall trees of Ladakh

Apparently there has been a significant movement starting about 2012 to plant trees, especially the tall willow trees.  What we discovered on our second day was a heavenly network of water canals running in between farms and houses and providing hours of ideal walking paths to explore Leh.

Canal and trees outside of Youthok Guesthouse

Best of all we could escape the honking, speeding cars that hurtle through the main roads. We would often encounter lean and usually young migrant laborers heading to various construction sites around town.  The Pandemic has seen a rise in domestic tourism and hotels are springing up all over the place.  Wherever you go in India the workforce is often made up of migrant workers often from Bihar but also from other states in India. Casual laborers can be found congregated on busy roads all over India waiting for day jobs.

Dogs rule

Leh is overrun with stray dogs who have a penchant for sitting on fences. 

In large packs they are fearsome but alone or in pairs they seem benign. 

At night the cacophony of barking growling dogs is enough to disturb a sound sleep. 

A costume display

Did I mention something about costumes? 

The best place to see the ‘collection’ is the main street which is closed off to cars.  Local women arrive throughout the day but primarily in the afternoon and evening to sell their produce, often knitting scarves in between customers.  They set up ‘shop’ outside the main tourist stores. 

Flower and produce sellers main road Ladakh

Fresh bread anyone?

One last attraction for me in Leh was the numerous bakeries most located on one narrow street leading to the main tourist street in downtown Leh.  The darkened walls of the bakeries along with the glowing cave-like ovens and hardworking bakers make for great photographs. 

Tea breaks

Life in India is punctuated by tea breaks and Ladakh is no exception.  In addition to the sweet milky tea found all over India, Ladakh and Jammu /Kashmir also offer a salty tea topped with butter which is a lovely dusky pink color. 

Sweet or salty tea?

It’s a great alternative when you’ve just had enough sugar for the day. Almost all the tea stalls in this region serve their tea with one of the many flat breads available in the nearby bakeries. 

Portraits

Leh is full of wonderful people and faces.  Here are a couple I captured during my visit.

Musoorie & Landour

Rising temperatures…head for the hills (or hill stations)!

Longing for Musoorie

You’re looking at the hill stations of Musoorie and Landour in the far background as seen from the apartment terrace I have been staying in Dehradun since mid-April of 2022. At night the hill stations of Musoorie and Landour sparkle like jewels. When I arrived in Dehradun in mid-April temperatures were quite pleasant and the humidity was low. By mid-May the weather had heated up considerably bringing with it rising humidity. Occasional violent thunderstorms would clear the air and bring down temperatures temporarily. I finally made it up to Musoorie, a short hour to hour and a half car ride traffic, permitting, in mid-May and returned for a follow up visit at the end of May. I was (and remain) enchanted!

The journey up from Dehradun

On a good day the trip by car from Dehradun to Musoorie will take you a mere hour to hour and a half. On a busy day you might need to add another half hour to the journey as the tailback of traffic begins just past the humongous green parking garage and inches its way ever so slowly much to the delight of itinerant fruit and cotton candy vendors. The start of the journey from Dehradun is dry with little forest and it isn’t until you are almost at the Mall Road that the majestic trees appear. The roadside has hairpin curves and numerous ‘Maggi point’ restaurants perch precariously on pillars erected over the steep slope forming makeshift restaurants with tourist appearling views of Dehradun.

Musoorie layout

Musoorie is linear, snaking along the top ridge of the mountain from Mall Road in the west over to Landour in the east with other areas like Happy Valley spilling out up and down from this central spine. Aside from Mall Road and Camelback Road most all routes in this area involve a steep climb and/or descent. The trek from the beginning of Mall Road up to Landour involves an arduous almost two-hour climb the beginning through some interesting neighborhoods and the end through forest area with views that last forever over the surrounding hills. To get to Happy Valley you go in the opposite direction for about 45 minutes and at the end roll down hill to the valley. In addition, you can always stray off the flat routes and head up very steep roads to some lovely old areas dotted with quaint villas.

Twilight from the Prince Hotel overlooking Mall Road

The new and not so new face of tourism

In general tourism can be disruptive and unattractive although admittedly it brings business to an area. Since the onset of the Pandemic, tourism has taken a very different look. It is now primarily domestic tourism with overseas visitors being the rare exception. The local tourist tends to breeze through a place quickly, visiting all the ‘must-see’ sights usually by car or other means of transport and taking plenty of selfies along the way. While foreign tourism was marked by the lone tourist making his/her way slowly and often on foot through Indian cities with the help of a guidebook, local tourists tend to be groups of either family or young students, coworkers or friends. Many come by car, often a large bulky SUV, clogging up the streets and creating a lot of business for hotels with parking facilities.

What destinations are popular in Musoorie & Landour? In general the average tourist tackles a list of the must see places (Buddha Temple, Community Gardens, Kempty Falls, Lal Tibba outlook and the cable car to Gun Hill Point). In my opinion these destinations are NOT the interesting part of the area. As for activities there are many to be found along Mall Road. Number one might be shopping with numerous stalls selling acrylic shawls, crocheted sweaters and other items of clothing. Eating is definitely near the top of the list! I wholeheartedly support this activity! My daily routine included a visited to my favorite soft serve ice cream shop where I was often served by the owner’s young son. I marvelled at the fresh fruit and produce vendors with their artistic displays laid out on circular trays close to the pavement. Watching them slice up a selection of fruits or vegetables for customers was almost as satisfying as eating their treats.

Many activities on the Mall Road are geared to families. Perhaps the most popular is taking a ride in cycle rickshaw pulled or cycled by a hardworking local. Their bells are constantly ringing to alert pedestrians to clear the way. The rickshaw seats two in front and accommodates a lightweight adult or child seated precariously in the back facing the opposite way.

There are numerous stalls with games such as throwing a ring over a table of prizes to ‘win’ the prize, or shooting balloons on a placard to win a prize. Rivalling the rickshaw ride is ‘dressing up for a photoshoot’ which is also my favorite as a photographer. Although it is incredibly corny, many tourists ‘go for it’! One golden afternoon I parked myself in one of the areas and observed the whole process.

The ‘dressup photoshoot’ is actually a great activity for a street photographer like myself as the layers of activity (official photographer getting the dressed up folks ready for the shoot, dressed up folks finished with the shoot taking their own photos presumably for immediate distribution on their social media channels) give me the needed ‘camouflage’ to carry out my own shooting. Later on I had a nice chat with the trio pictured here (dressed up couple being man and wife and third person being the sister of the dressed up man). The lady not participating had spent a year in Switzerland (about twenty years ago) studying comparative religions.

Steeped in history, yet changing on a daily basis

What I like most (second only to the cool weather) about Musoorie is the feeling of walking through history. It’s everywhere with the architecture, old churches, villas, puzzling plaques and signs outside of villas, wrought iron railings on Mall Road, etc.

I was so intrigued by the history of the area that I visited The Cambridge Book Depot on Mall Road during my first visit and purchased two books. The first was a slim but colorful soft cover book called “Mussoorie Medley” written by a local, Ganesh Saili. I enjoyed the photos but found the text a bit difficult to read as it often was a long list of facts or places or people with little narrative. The second book, “Mussoorie & Landour, Footprints of the Past” by father/daughter pair Virgil Miedema and Stephanie Spaid Miedema was much more to my liking and an easier read.

I would review my photos after a day of walking and try to find some links in the second book, “Mussoorie & Landour, Footprints of the Past” . On my long uphill walk to Landour I took the following photo and discovered almost its historical replica in the book. Some things haven’t changed!

The Taylor’s Flat playing field in the early 1900’s and today…not much change!
wrought iron fences on Mall Road

During my second stay, a crew of workmen were sanding down and repainting the ornate wrought iron railings along Mall Road as well as adding some very welcoming benches for the tired traveller. Another lovely feature of the place is the tin roof, often weatherworn and sometimes decorated with an ornate trim. Many an old villa could be found on the slopes leading down from the main flat roads giving a great view of the roof.

tin roof

But life must go on and side by side with history is of course the unrelenting march of construction often to the detriment of both history and nature. Some of the construction is regular maintenance mainly shoring up the steep slopes of the mountainside so they don’t come tumbling down into the road.

Happy Valley

I don’t believe in spending a lot of money for accommodation while traveling as most of my time is spent outside of the hotel. Having said that, I do enjoy being in a good neighborhood and soaking up some pleasant atmosphere. I experienced both separately on my two visits. On the first visit I stayed in area called “Happy Valley” and who can resist a name like that? The hotel itself La Hill Vista was unremarkable but the neighborhood was a winner. The small terrace overlooked the entrance to a Tibetan boarding school with the cumbersome name of ‘Tibetan Homes Foundation – SOS Tibetan Children’s Village’. The school was founded by the Dalai Lama in 1962 to serve the children of Tibetans in exile.

The coming and going of a steady stream of children provided ample entertainment during my stay. I was also lucky to encounter a former student of the school, a delightful man in his late sixties who was revisiting the school for the first time in almost 46 or 47 years. He currently works as a teacher of Tibetan medicine in Darjeeling. He gave an ‘insider’s tour’ of the school which sprawls across the mountain in a series of dormitories and school buildings. We even got a tour of his former dormitory perched very high up on the hill.

From Happy Valley to Mall Road

On my second visit to Musoorie I chose a hotel that I had fallen in love with on my first visit. A chance meandering up a very steep driveway with a couple of hairpin curves off of Mall Road led to the charming old world Prince Hotel with a bird’s eye view of the Mall Road and the surrounding area. It was really a case of love at first sight!

In addition to the delightful old world public areas, my room was on a scale rarely encountered in modern hotels. The most remarkable feature was the height of the ceiling! In the early morning the sun would come flooding through the window located near the ceiling and sitting above the narrow exterior corridor. The bathroom was reached through a long corridor adding to the luxurious sense of endless space. The corridors were wide and spacious and also included skylights and glass tile floor panels as well as a narrow outside corridor with views of the green mountains. All doors had burgundy curtains allowing one to keep the door open while preserving one’s privacy.

The hardworking folks of Musoorie & Landour

I cannot talk Musoorie & Landour without referring to the hardworking folks I encountered daily, the porters, cycle rickshaw drivers, construction workers, and vendors.

The porters caught my attention every time carrying incredible loads on steep and congested streets. Often their loads were so heavy that they were bent over and unable to see the cars or pedestrians ahead of them.

Walking wardrobe

The cycle rickshaw drivers were hard to ignore as they constantly rang their shrill bells to clear the path of pedestrians. Although the Mall Road was for the most part flat, other areas had slight inclines forcing them off their pedals and onto their feet to push the rickshaw up even a slight incline. The construction workers, both men and women were luckier as they usually worked far from the crowd building new villas, hotels, and reinforcement walls in the mountains.

I would gladly revisit this popular hill station to continue exploring this enchanting hill station!