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