164_6445-4.JPGOur guidebook’s first two sentences about Leh couldn’t be truer: “If you’ve battled across the mountains by road, it’ll be with some relief that you’ll greet Leh. Here are all the restaurants, cozy guesthouses and services of recuperation that you’ve longer for, all in a stunning desert-and-mountain landscape.” We’ve been in Leh a couple days now, just resting and acclimatizing. Thankfully, Joylani is feeling much better and enjoying Leh. And although my stomach is still far from better, at least the altitude sickness has worn off and I’m not puking.
Sick or not, Leh is great. It’s an old city of approximately 30,000, although it seems smaller. I would assume that most of the population are villagers that live outside the main town. And old fort and gompa (Buddhist monastery) overlook the city from the mountain that the city is built on. Across the valley, snow-capped peaks rise up thousands of feet from Indus River. It was once a trading city nestled between Central Asia and the subcontinent, while today it is a strategic military town (given the disputed border with Pakistan to the north and China to the east). Despite the military checkpoints and the well-paved roads in the immediate area, the town is a maze of brick and wood. Rock walls delineate property boundaries, as well as line dozens of back-alleyways that cut through vegetable gardens and green fields of grain.
The Muslim and Buddhist population relies on traditional farming or adventure tourism for their livelihood. This accounts for the preponderance of 4×4 Jeeps and donkeys in the streets. In addition to learning about the different demographics here, compared to the rest of India, I’ve also noticed the different traveler demographics. Dharamsala attracted Tibetan refugees, Buddhist pilgrims, and younger hippies. Manali was full of Indian tourists and older resident hippies. Rather than hippies, Leh is full of older more affluent foreigners. Mainly the adventure types- alpinists, climbers, trekkers, and rafters- who come for the highest and most scenic mountains in the world. Not surprisingly, there’s a lot of Europeans from the Alp regions- Swiss, Germans, Austrians, and French.
Despite the adventure tourism, Leh doesn’t feel too touristy. Perhaps that’s because it’s still a harsh place to visit. The overland route is only open a couple months a year, depending on when the high passes are open. The numerous guesthouses are simple, but all with large sun-collecting windows. The nights are cold even now in August. There’s a chronic water shortage, the electricity goes out several times everyday, and hot-water usually is provided via buckets. Despite the cold, Joylani and I have both gotten sunburned. Our lips are constantly chapped and peeling, and sometimes we get bloodcots when blowing our noses. On the upside, while our mouths and noses are parched day and night, the air dries our laundry extremely quickly, considering the cold. Reading back over the last paragraph, Leh may seem like a miserable place. But it’s nice and the small discomforts really aren’t that big of a deal.
There are an increasing number of amenities though. Last time I was in Leh, there were no ATMs or internet cafés. Now there are two ATMs and countless internet cafes. Phone calls to the US used to be about 1 USD per minute, but are now approximately .50 USD. Internet costs a little over 2 USD per hour though; about six times as much as the other places we’ve been in India. It’s nice to be out of touch with the world and the 24-hour news cycle though. Outside of some trips to remote villages that we’ll take during the next couple weeks, we’re about as remote as could be. Despite the ATMs, internet cafes, and tourist shops, Leh retains its small old-town feel. Older people, in traditional Ladakhi dress greet us (“Jule”) as we walk down the street. Stacks of sticks and wood can be seen throughout town, stockpiled until needed for winter. Numerous dhobis can be found throughout town, washing and rinsing clothes in the polluted stream (polluted because beyond clothes soap, it collects litter and piss).
As I write this in the courtyard of our guesthouse, I can see our dhobi hanging our river-washed clothes on the clothesline string between trees. A neighbor just walked through with a basket of lettuce to sell at the main bazaar. The houseboy is sweeping the walkway with a “broom” made of sticks. Thinking about my old job at a brokerage and then looking around this courtyard, I realize I couldn’t be farther away from home.

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