Gadding About in Nagaland (The Amur Falcon Migration)

We timed our visit to coincide with the short sojourn the tiny Amur Falcon makes in northern Nagaland to rest and recuperate between its long winter migration flight from the North China and Siberian plains to the South African shores.

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(Our first sunset in Nagaland after a long day of travel from Delhi & Mumbai)

This was my second Gadabout in Nagaland. I had decided to pack in a little more than the Amur Falcons. We touched down in Dimapur and drove directly to Benrue village in Peren. Nagaland’s soul is in its villages. Homestay culture is thriving. Though the Tourism Department is trying very hard to provide a poor alternative by building tourist lodges that lack aesthetics with standardised PWD structures. We stayed in a few of these too and the difference between these and a homestay is as chalk to cheese.

Benrue was a buzz with activity. It was the 100th anniversary of the missionary teacher who had converted Benrue to Christianity from head hunting. There was a general air of festivity and preparations for a community feast were underway.

I nevertheless found a local guide to accompany me to Mt. Pauna which is the highest feature that overlooks the village.

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(View of Benrue from Mt. Pauna)

While my fellow gadabouts spent time walking in the village and engaging in conversations. 

We moved on to Dzulekei, a beautiful picturesque village that is practising community based eco tourism. The Tatas have partnered with a local NGO and have set up home stays that are absolutely charming, clean and aesthetic.

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(Dzulekei with a handful of homes and abundant wild cherry trees)

We drove along arduous and sometimes non-existent roads from Dzulekei to the more familiar and previously visited Khonoma, Kohima and Kisama. Staying at Nino’s Greenwood Villa homestay was as if a homecoming.

The heart of every Naga home is in its kitchen. Life happens around the fire place with the reassuring sound of a boiling kettle . Discussions happen over many glasses of rice beer and other spirits in this wettest “dry” state, that makes its own wine. 

It was time then to move on to the district of Wokha and participate in the harvest festivities of the Lotha tribe. The festival started with the usual political speeches and a disturbing rhetoric about “vikas”. Its getting there! To these north eastern havens.

Between sampling homemade port wines, crunchy, juicy, delicious, skewered caterpillars and picking up Hornbill feathers to compose Haikus with……

…….we gradually inched our way towards the focus of this trip. The Amurs have been coming to roost in large flocks (in lakhs…) to the Doyang area, especially the dam, where they mostly feed on termites and other insects. Ever since the efforts of the villagers in Pangti and conservationists Bano Haralu and Reverend Nuklu and a few others, this area has become a safe haven and midway, pit stop for the Amur. The little raptors fly in from the Siberian plains with their young ones and fatten up before their marathon non stop flight over three days and as many nights across the Indian subcontinent to South Africa. 

(Doyang Dam)

However this year a disturbing trend to monetise the efforts around the raptor had lead to an Amur Festival by another village that shares the boundaries of the Doyang Dam with Pangti village. Numerous campsites have sprung up around the Dam for tourists and if this isn’t enough there was even a Rock Band in the evenings with strobe lights and loudspeakers. It is feared that the noisy atmosphere created by the festival might disturb the roosting patterns of the Amur. 

This seems like an all too familiar story of the delicate balance between the environment and Tourism that we were unable to maintain around the rafting campsites on the Ganga. A conflict that centres mostly around economically milking a situation to the maximum ultimately leading to the destruction of the “Goose that laid the Golden Egg”. 

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Satish Gupta’s Haiku

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During the day you spot flocks on high tension wires

(We were not professional photographers to get close ups or the lakhs of flocks but Satish’s  Haiku and sketch sums it up)

Pangti village seemed much more charming, organic and truthful in spirit with its efforts to safeguard the raptor. There are many home stays in the village. During the roosting season, youngsters from the village look after the roosting sites and for a very small fee, we visitors were ushered to these sites. In fact the tourists could be charged a much heftier entrance fee to the roosting sites, instead of creating a high decibel Amur Falcon festival and frightening away the birds!

At Nzan’s homestay in Pangti I finally met up with my friend Bano Haralu who was inspired enough to save the Amur. I also met some interesting Forest officials who genuinely seemed interested in conservation. Their heart seemed to beat for the protection of Wildlife, its habitats, the conservation of Forests and to resolve the human-animal conflict.

I said “so long” to my friends and we exited Golaghat and Dimapur with yet another lovely homestay at Annie and Toshi’s Longchem, with a promise to return next year to Rev. Nuklu’s Longleng district where there was this years’s largest gathering of the Amur (about 12 lakhs) and where he has started a conservation initiative called Lemsachenlok. He kindly shared a video with me of the Amur that I leave you with here.

 

 

Gadding About with Urdu (Week 3 & 4)

The days have gone by all too quickly and soon the 96 hours of learning Urdu will be over and I will have to stop living the idyllic student’s life that Farid and I have created for ourselves in Landour. All care of the mundane to the winds, Landour life seems to exist in another dimension.

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(We have progressed far beyond the simple essays and dictations now……)

The routine has been comforting in a way. Fours hours of Urdu instruction daily. Our schedules change every week. Sometimes classes have begun at 8:30 am and finished at 5:30 pm with long breaks in between for leisurely breakfasts and lunches and sometimes they have been more intense and continuous. Either ways, Farid and I have found time to walk several times around the badha and chhota chukkars.

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(I don’t entirely agree with the message on the tree! But around the chukkars in Landour, someone has spent time putting up thought provoking little witticisms…..)

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The environment and the rhythm of life definitely plays a part in what one reads and eats and what one’s thoughts are! I have managed to catch up with a lot of my reading without distraction and have actually read some books which I could have found depressing under different conditions but actually found inspiring reading them in the environs of Landour………

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A few evenings, we have ventured into the bazaar and have come away thinking, “never again!”. Having to jostle with the crowds, navigating through car and two wheeler traffic with blaring horns just for a different taste and venue for an early dinner is not worth it. So we have chosen to stay in Landour in our quiet lodgings perched at the very top of the hill and are content  to eat the frugal meals that the chowkidar’s wife makes for us.

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(West side view of the Dehradun valley from our room in Landour…..)

The weather has slowly turned. The clouds and mists have been gathering and the atmosphere is getting ready to announce the long monsoon which is due any day. It is monsoon that totally changes the landscape of Landour for three long months. Already I can feel the humidity and the sticky sensation on the skin. In the past week I have awoken to find that a mist has crept into our room through the windows and from under the door. The sheets and pillows already seem a bit damp. The air is now beginning to feel moist and heavy and its like breathing in thick misty vapours in the mornings before the sun takes charge fully and dispels them until it sets and then the vapours take control again, getting stronger daily and staying for longer.  The last few days have given us a taste of what monsoon in Landour would feel like. But the local residents assure us this is not even the pre monsoon as yet. Just a local disturbance.

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(Early mornings from our room window…….)

As we get ready to wrap up our Landour sojourn with Urdu, I feel blessed that I had these four weeks of study, exploration and adventure to know that I have the capacity to learn a new language and script and to keep up with a young and agile 20yr old! In the next four days we will be done with Intermediate level of Urdu and our Ustaad Habeeb Saheb has encouraged us to read a daily online newspaper in Urdu and we’ll be going away with a few book recommendations. In fact Habeeb Saheb has introduced us to calligraphy now and I can see how meditative this skill can be!

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(Habeeb Saheb teaching us to make reed pencils in preparation for calligraphy)

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(We are learning still…….)

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(Goodbye Landour)

Gadding About with Urdu (Week 2)

Last week in Landour we experienced forest fires not far from where we were living and learning. There was a day and night of smoke, haze and burning pine. The smoke got into our classroom, our hair and clothes and generally hung in the air till the wind took it away.

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(The haze and smoke don’t quite show up on these photos!)

Apart from the forest fires, it has been a thoroughly rewarding week in Landour, learning Urdu with Farid as my co student. I am happy to report that we are neck and neck! The grey matter is definitely working! The four classes daily are exhausting but a lot of fun.

By the middle of last week our fabulous teacher Mr. Habib Ahmad, took away most of the notations that we had spent laborious hours, memorising and perfecting the week before. The language is now all about approximations (and a bit of guesswork actually!). Out the window went many “nukhtaas”, “zer”, “zabar”.  We are conjoining letters to form words and then find it difficult to decipher our own handwriting! All in all a lot of fun!

Last week we made a couple of forays into the main bazaar in Mussourie. What a fright! Landour seems like a different planet although the two are contiguous. Mussourie’s Old Clock Tower has been rebuilt. The monstrosity that has replaced it brought tears!

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(Hideous saffron mosaic tiles, designed and built with complete disregard for aesthetics or any sensibility!)

Some evenings finishing school at 5pm we walk into town to eat dinner at a restaurant just to vary our basic fare cooked by the chowkidar’s wife. One evening we ate at Rice Bowl. It serves mostly Tibetan food. The vegetarian Thukpa that I ordered was delicious. The quantity was just right and the vegetables were fresh and plentiful. Another similar restaurant is Doma’s Inn which is in Landour.

 

The walks around the chhota and badha chakkars are pretty much routine now, as is the lemon tea for me and bun omlette for Farid at Tiptop Tea shop at Chaar Dukaan. We have even opened an account with the owner since we are being treated as long term guests on the hillside.

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(The hillside is dotted with daisies)

 

Gadding About with Urdu! (weekly update)

Learning Urdu has been on my “to do” list for a very long time.

My boys joined Woodstock School in Landour / Mussourie, 9 years ago and ever since I have been planning to study Urdu at the Landour Language School. It seemed to fit in with so many good things : to be near “mah boyz”; to live for a while in quiet and clean Landour; to challenge my brain with a new script and language and to be a student again!

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The opportunity never presented itself until now. Farid my older one graduated from Woodstock a couple of years ago, though Iqbal, my younger one is still there. Farid, who is now a Junior at Quest University in BC, Canada, requires two credits from studying a new language for 96 hours. It was clear that the new language would be Urdu at Landour Language School!

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(The Landour Language School is on the premises of the Kellogg Church in Mussourie)

We arrived in Landour last week. Leaving the dust and summer behind in the plains.  Climbing up steadily to cool environs, my nose picked up the heady smell of pine and deodar and the lungs automatically started breathing deep.

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(Oakland Cottage is the building just visible through the Deodars. This is the north side view. We are staying on the south side / other side)

I had visited Landour in April to find us lodgings for a month. The aim was to find accommodations close to LLS. With Oakland cottage about 50 mts away from the Language School, we couldn’t have struck luckier! And though our room and small  kitchenette and bathroom are extremely basic, we have a beautiful view of the Dehradun plains in the southwest, especially at night with all the twinkling lights.  We are at the highest point in Landour, just below the iconic TV tower. And we are a hop, skip and jump away from LLS.

(Our daily walk around the chhota and bada chakkars takes us through the most peaceful part of Landour. These days the horse chestnuts are abloom).

The biggest challenge has not been to attune and exercise my 52 year old brain  to learn a new language. I was prepared for that. The challenge has been in keeping up with the agility of Farid’s 20 year old brain. We are classmates and learning together and I have to concede that Farid “gets it” quicker than I do. This last week I have struggled emotionally between being a proud mother and guilty of being slightly jealous of the speed with which he understands. His excitement and joy at learning is no doubt infectious but also irritating.

Our wonderful teacher Mr. Habib Ahmed already has us reading, writing and constructing sentences! We have 4 classes daily. Each class is one hour long. Our days have fallen into a comfortable pattern.

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(Tiptop Tea Shop at Chaar Dukaan where we take chai breaks between classes)

In between attending classes at LLS we find time to revise over a cup of lemon ginger honey tea at Chaar Dukaan. We walk around the Chhota and Badha Chakkars everyday after breakfast and before class. We finish our scholarly routine with a well earned something sweet or savoury at Landour Bakehouse.

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( Prakash’s shop in the background – famous for his jams and peanut butter)

Every week our schedule of 20 classes will change. So starting tomorrow our classes will begin at 8:20am and end at 5pm with long gaps in between. More about that next week. Meanwhile wish me luck that I am not left always at Farid’s heels but perhaps neck and neck….?

DIFF : 2nd – 6th Nov 2017

The flight touched down at Guggal (what a name!) and I stepped out with some trepidation. All around was a smokey haze. Previously I was in Dharamshala in 1992. The memory that had stayed with me was the majesty of the Dhauladhars hanging low over Dharamshala and McLeodganj. I had never before or since seen a Himalayan range so close at hand.

IMG_20171105_173051(Somewhere in the background are the Dhauladhars which were earlier always so “present”……)

I had sent many visitors to Dharamshala and always described the Dhauladhars to them…..and yet now 25 years later I couldn’t see them! I panicked! Though I remained seemingly calm and nonchalant for the sake of my fellow Gadabouters. I tried to find within me the wise traveller that I claim to be! Stay in the moment….. Don’t hang on to memories…… Experience the here and now…… etc etc…..

We found our Innova and driver with ease and headed off from Guggal weaving our way through the concrete jungle along the metalled road from Dharamshala to Mcleodganj.

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Glenmoor still seems to be the oasis that I had remembered from all those years ago. Set deep in a deodar forest. Its owners have left the forest on their estate well nigh alone and not been hit by the construction mania that the rest of Mcleodganj seems to have succumbed to.

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(Glenmoor……..)

We were here to attend the Dharamshala International Film Festival DIFF. As the days went by, DIFF seemed to be one of a few good reasons to visit Dharamshala. My nostalgia for my own “film days” came flooding back as we went from one viewing to the next and the next and the next. We watched at least 3 films a day and sometimes four. It was a complete immersion. It was a never ending feast of mostly very good films. DIFF is now into its 6th year since its inception and is well established. The venue for the festival was the Tibetan Children’s Village, TCV, which could be approached through a lovely forest walk from Glenmoor. We could not have chosen our lodgings better.

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(Rubina and Banda Man Singh vending their way through the Deodar Forest for the Film Festival opening night)

We slipped into an easy routine over the next three days. I discovered that another good reason to visit Dharamshala, apart from the Film Festival was the numerous bakeries and cafes with evocative names such as : Illiterati, Nick’s Place, Morgan’s Café, Snow Lion, Moonpeak, Lhamo’s Croissant and many others. Between films, we would head off to a different café each time to sample the varied (and often very similar!) menus.

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(One of the colourful cafes……)

On two of the four evenings we had dinner with the Film Fest frat and that was enjoyable too. We met up with some actors and directors and an eclectic assortment of residents of Dharamshala.

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(The Norbulingka Institute in Dharamshala that promotes Tibetan culture, arts and crafts)

Once I left myself open to experiences, I met some fabulous people. On one of the days I had DD Contractor sitting next to me during a film. Introductions had been made already and common friends spoken about. Just before the lights were dimmed in the auditorium, DD turned around and showed me the time on her mobile phone. It was 10:01. She said she loved symmetry! She was thrilled to see that number on her mobile at that very moment! And I was just as thrilled that she shared it with me. On another evening while walking between one auditorium and the other in the TCV, we were beckoned by a teacher to follow him through a short cut. We got talking with Gyalpo and he told us that he had fled Tibet 30 years ago and had not seen his parents since. He was teaching Science and Math to the primary school children at the TCV and just like him there were children there who had not met their parents since leaving Tibet. The school has resident students from all over the Himalayan belt and most of the 1000 residing there have a connection with Tibet.

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(Rubina in conversation with a Tankha Artist at the Norbulingka)

On another day while lounging at a cafe between films, the owner came across to tell us that the Dalai Lama would be passing by the café soon, incase we wanted to see him. Of course we did! We rushed outside to stand at the side of the road and soon enough we heard the siren of the Dalai’s pilot jeep followed by his SUV with him sitting in the front next to the driver. He raised his hands in blessing as he drove passed. And it seemed like he might have seen us and actually blessed us all individually. On another day while waiting between films I met Nyima, a reformed addict of substance abuse who now spends his time counselling substance abusers and is in the throes of setting up the first de addiction centre in Dharamshala. Another special and memorable meeting was with the tall and ethereal Mariko and I hope that she will get in touch in Delhi in between all her globetrotting and transgender activism.

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(One evening, memorable chanting by three Buddhist monks, collecting alms outside a temple in McLeodganj…..)

And during the 4 days of watching films and sampling food and having chance encounters with fellow travellers, I also went on a few desperate walks trying to discover bits of McLeodganj and Dharamshala that I had found so special 25 years ago. I walked up to Dharamkot one day and also paid a fleeting visit to the Dalai Lama’s settlement.

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(The road to Dharamkot)

I desperately looked all around for the Dhauladhars that seemed like a figment of my imagination. Thankfully I discovered fragments of the images that had stayed with me from all those years ago. I was relieved to know that my experiences and images were not only the result of an overactive imagination. That indeed the images were present only living cheek by jowl with other realities that had been created by the ever increasing population.

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(Its there! The Dhauladhars)

The mountains and the forests were there. Only less obviously so amidst the concrete jungle of myriad shops all selling the same Tibetan jewellery and the same funky clothes.

(Everyone lives the Buddhist philosophy in Dharamshala. Even the shop signages are a constant reminder!)

I will come back to DIFF next year in the first week of November 2018. I think that what Ritu Sarin and Tensing, The Directors of DIFF, have achieved is something phenomenal. And while I believe the growth has been organic (as it should be with everything!) DIFF has become something special. And if one has the ability to “slow down” and let oneself be steeped in the Himalayan culture then DIFF and Dharamshala together is definitely an experience to savour.

 

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(A question I ask myself every day!…….Alice In Wonderland. These were signages in the forest leading to a cafe)

Pachmarhi on the Wild Side

I did this Gadabout a few years ago. It was a short one of about 5 days, designed and directed by Pradip. I had two other travellers with me. Pradip had invited us to stay at his home in Pachmarhi. He had worked out a packed itinerary and it took into account his naturalist’s passion. It included full day excursions to different parts on the Central Indian plateau that were his absolute favourite spots . They were little gems tucked deep in the jungles and most of them were accessible only on foot.

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The three beautiful days in the jungle all involved water and swimming. In fact, on one of the days there was no way of reaching the destination from Point A to Point B, without swimming through a steep bottomless canyon. I had a very real problem with this. I don’t mind getting wet in waist high water and paddling through a shallow pond if I have to but actually flapping my legs and arms in a synchronised way is beyond me. To learn swimming has stayed on my List of Resolutions for a very long time. That box never gets ticked. And not for lack of trying. I promise myself every New Year that this will be the year when I become water borne. I started swimming lessons with ‘Mah Boyz” when they were 7 and 9 years old. That was 10 years ago.

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So when Pradip proposed that all his favourite spots required swimming, I thought of abandoning “Pachmarhi on the Wildside”. I could bring along a buoyancy aid from our very own Himalayan River Runners. But wearing a life jacket still means I have to propel myself! And I am not capable of that. Finally we settled on a tyre tube from a truck that I could wear around my waist as a floatation device. Elegant! But first it had to be lugged kilometres down into every gorge and then back up again, and even though it was light, it was cumbersome and unwieldy. I was embarrassed to let Pradip carry it, but the tube was bigger than me. Needless to say I haven’t been invited back for a Gadabout in Pachmarhi ever since.

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We awoke daily at the crack of dawn and would stay out all day, either walking, swimming or driving through the Pachmarhi wilderness.

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Complete novices observing everything through Pradip’s eyes. A blade of grass, the varied shades of green of the leaves, the shapes of different trees, the texture of the bark on the trunks and it seemed everything had a story to tell. And Pradip had many more. We became fairly good at his “Tree spotting” quizzes.

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Towards the end of those 5 days I could appreciate the sculpture like beauty of a Kulu, or the flowering profusion of a Kardhai, even the smelly mahua. I began making notes for our own indigenous garden at the Himalayan Hideaway which grows only native species of plants and trees, that Pradip had helped us start many years ago. Oples Menis, Haldu, Mahul vines, different grasses….. I made a note of growing them all at our Lodge as the Pachmarhi plateau and the Shivaliks share a similar eco system and they have many trees in common. In fact Pradip’s “Jungle Trees of Central India” has become a Bible!

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Most nights, one other travelling companion and I slept on the upstairs verandah of the house under a mosquito net. Fire flies, bats, geckos and crickets. What an orchestra. I slept like a baby! One night though we all slept under the stars on the banks of the Denwa. This was a new experience for me. Camping in a tent in the Himalaya is very different from being totally exposed with no canvas for cover. It was a surreal night with a full moon reflected in the river and the canyon walls rising steeply around us.

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I manage to achieve a semblance of equanimity the moment I find myself in the outdoors and I try and do this as often as I possibly can. The outdoors gives me a perspective like no cityscape can! It’s when the layers start peeling away. Its when  understanding dawns that Laws of Nature are far superior. When a human’s life span seems like such an inconsequential blip in the Grand Design of the Universe. Pachmarhi felt like that for me even more so than a trek in the Himalaya or trans Himalaya. In Pachmarhi there was less physical effort involved. The environment was gentler. It left me with more time to ponder.

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Perhaps I’ll plan another Gadabout to the table land armed with Pranay Lal’s “Indica”, Peter Wohlleben’s “Hidden Life of Trees” and Pradip’s “Jungle Trees…… and maybe if I can swim by then, Pradip won’t mind coming along.

 

 

 

 

Leh

I first visited Leh in the 1980s. For me, it was love at first sight with the charming, quaint and friendly village that Leh was in the 80s. Barely three streets in total and a handful of shops and cafes. I have the good fortune and privilege of counting many Ladakhis as my friends.

In those earlier visits as I learned more about Ladakh and read about its culture and history, I found many families with inter-marriages between Buddhists and Muslims, the two predominant religions of Ladakh at the time. It seemed that they were intensely proud of their Ladakhi culture and religion was not given the same over riding importance. Over the years, as tourism increased, and with “outside” influences, tensions between the communities grew. The socio-cultural fabric started fraying.

Leh slowly transformed from a small village, to a town, to a city. The same streets these days witness daily traffic jams of fuel belching vehicles and impatient noisy drivers.

In all these years I have always stayed at the Hotel Lha Rimo. It is one of the first few hotels in Leh. In my opinion, the family that owns Lha Rimo remains quite unintentionally, head and shoulders above the rest of their compatriots in the tourism game. Apart from the Lha Rimo hotel the family own a farm in the charming village of Gyamsa, 8 kms outside Leh. The ambience and setting of Gyamsa lends itself to Yoga and meditation retreats and I am planning one for August 2018. They have another hotel in the Nubra valley called Lha Rimo North.  I have known the family from my very first visit to Leh. Their authenticity, honesty and ingenuity reflects in their work. There is no artifice in them as human beings and there is none in their product. The interiors of all their hotels are clean, simple, authentic and aesthetic. The food is hygienic, wholesome and delicious. The Lha Rimo hotel is not trying to be a bad or even a good copy of any other hotel. Neither are they trying to cater to the whims and fancies of travellers who might come with expectations and preconceived notions of what they would like in a standard hotel.

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(The Lha Rimo, Leh)

In fact as travellers we often forget to accept and experience what we are given in the environment that we find ourselves in. We sometimes travel with so many expectations of what we are used to seeing in “other places” that we are more comfortable and secure when we find “the sameness” every where rather than the novelty of the different.

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(A corner of Lha Rimo Retreat, Gyamsa and the willow trees surrounding it)

Unfortunately, though arguably, the corporate team building and off sites culture has ruined the market for the leisure traveler and adventurer. The hotels and service providers have found safety in presenting standardized sameness and bad copies of some dumbed down version of what a corporate traveller expects in hotels and tourism related services.

While in Leh, I always try out a few new restaurants and do a quick check of the older ones. Tibet Kitchen continues to serve good food. Bon Apetit and La Piaziatta are two new “happening” places in Leh. We had good meals at both places. “Mah Boyz” enjoyed a surprisingly authentic “real hot chocolate” at one of the cafes in the corner located on top of the main water channel that intersects the main street. We have all forgotten the name of the cafe.

Ladakh has never failed me in all these years and I always manage to find my comfort zone. I can only explain it as a spiritual connect to this trans-Himalayan landscape and the feeling of “coming home” that envelops me, every time I visit it. I will not go into rebirth and previous lifetime experiences……!

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(Different aspects of Ladakh)

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