Reaching Leh and the Peace Guesthouse
Leh, viewed from climb to Mangyal Tsemo Monastery
As we approached Leh, we have witnessed a massive presence of army everywhere – in camps, in barracks, on trucks, at check points. We had to show our passports about 5 times. This was no surprise, really. China, Pakistan and Afghanistan are just around the corner in Ladakh, and each poses a problem of its own for India.
A sign proclaimed we have arrived at the Jammu and Kashmir district. There was a huge army base at that location.
Darkness started to descend. The day was coming to its end. I quietly sang Israeli evening songs to myself. Everybody else kept silent. The landscape reminded me of drives among Arab villages in the Galilee.
Then a roadsign came up: Welcome to Stupa Country. And indeed, the weird Buddhist structures we have seen sporadically along the route now multiplied and condensed, making for a strange overall look. Those “stupas” (some are called Mani or Chortens, as I later found out) ranged from plain-looking, solid white slabs to pretty, colorful, intricate and artistically-built constructions.
As we drove into town, the streets, the sidewalks, the shop fronts – everything seemed unusully clean by Indian standards. And I thought – Buddhist values?
To each their own
When Leh was in plain view, our gang broke apart. Everybody was obstinate regarding their “own” guesthouse, and apparently nobody thought our short-lived traveling relationship was worth preserving beyond that point. But that’s OK. That’s how traveling often is (plus, me and Bram actually do keep in touch through Whatsapp even today…)
The Dutch needed to feel comfortable, so they reserved a better-priced place. Conversely, Yair followed the Israeli traveler textbook and went to some supposedly-cheapie Israeli hangout. I inquired him about it later on WhatsApp, only to discover that he slept on a mattress on the floor, and paid ₹800 for that luxury. On my part, I followed on Sara-Zara’s wonderful recommendation, and insisted the driver bring me to The Peace Guesthouse.
Dave had a bit of a hard time finding it, but eventually dropped me close by. He called the place and somebody promptly came out to pick me up from the street. The Peace Guesthouse was located in an alley not driveable for our van.
Ismail and the Peace Guesthouse
The Peace Guesthouse – best place in Leh…
The super-nice and good-looking guy picked up my bags and led me along the narrow alley, dotted with several potholes, to a large metal gate. The admission office was right behind it, doubling as his bedroom. There was a small TV in the back, but usually Ismail, the practical manager, was too busy to watch it.
I was given a ₹100 discount, so I ended up paying only ₹700 for this marvel… The rationale was that I was single. That by itself is a nice Indian custom. I have never enjoyed a discount on behalf of being single on my sola North American trip… The solitary person always pays full price, a form of penalty for being single, perhaps?
We walked through a pretty, well-maintained garden to the main lodging.
The entrance to my room was from a rounded, clean lobby equipped with a small library and cozy furniture. There were slippers at my door and another pair by the bathroom to keep the immaculate room clean and the guest comfortable.
The Peace Guesthouse’s peace permeated my body cells. It wasn’t long before I was fast asleep between the white sheets and pillows.
Garden of Pecae Guesthouse, Leh
The Peace Guesthouse also provided breakfast and light meals. You could eat in the courtyard, the lobby or in your room. Food was basic, but satisfactory. They were offering Ladhaki bread as well as regular toasts to fit everybody’s taste.
Ismail – best host ever
Ismail is a jack of all trades. His job in the Peace Guesthouse covered everything – administration, laundry, cooking, serving, gardening, carrying backpacks, storing backpackes and getting the rooms ready for guests, which included vacumming, cleaning, washing the floors and everything else. He also fixed my toilet and other plumbing issues.
If all that wasn’t enough, on my first morning there, he went way beyond the call of duty to pamper me. In reaction to my “What pretty apricots”, he was instantenously up on the tree picking them. He even went on to wash them…
Ismail, best host, picking apricots for me, Peace Guesthouse Leh
And I thought – he would make some woman super happy… What a lucky girl…
Women, especially farmers, work very hard in India, but the men work hard too – look at Ismail, look at Dave our driver. But at least these two men make relatively good money. Ismail makes ₹10,000 monthly…Dave probably brings home at least the same plus tips.
The Peace Gueshouse provided laundry service, but they did not iron. My Bhagsu laundromat must have been one of a kind – for a real low price, I was getting even my underwear ironed and folded…
Regarding the plumbing – despite Isamil’s initial efforts, the toilet kept leaking water on the bathroom’s floor. I was offered a room on the second story, but it did not compare with the original one, so I moved back, deciding to ignore the leak. Still, Ismail in his ingenuity, kept making efforts, and eventually found a way to fix the problem. Perhaps the owner was not willing to pay extra for an outside plumber.
Trust above all
Another great thing about Ismail – his word.
I was up on the second floor of the Peace Guesthouse picking apricots (Ismail did not really need to climb on that tree, after all. It was possible to simply pick the apricots from the balcony…), when a group of bearded religious Muslims in white and turbans showed up at the courtyard. They peeped into my room through the space between the curtains. I yelled at them from above that this was my room. They backed up, but demanded another room, which was empty at the moment. That room, though, was reserved for a couple of Israelis who went on a 5-day trek and were coming back that day. Ismail sent the Muslim group to another guesthouse, despite heavy protests. The air cleared, and then the two Israelis arrived.
When travelers go on treks and intend on coming back, Ismail keeps their mochilas (as he later did mine) in a storage space.
Before leaving Leh for good, I told Ismail I thought he needed a good vacation. He said that in the winters he goes back to Kirgil and does nothing but sleep… He hasn’t even been to the Nubra Valley, the beautiful region all of us, travelers, visit….
A sizable annual migration of people comes, like Ismail, to the tourist towns of the Himalaya in the summers to serve the traveler population. That includes not just hotel and restaurant workers, merchants, craftspeople and travel agents, but also people like my dance teacher, Sweeney, whose real home is in Pushkar, Rajasthan, and my Bhagsu music teachers, whose permanent good home is in Varanasi.
Easing Into the Altitude
Napoli in Leh
On my first day I took the altitude issue in all seriousness. The Internet being an unpredictable affair in Leh, I used the opportunity to delve deeper into Elena Ferranti’s stories about Napoli, sitting on my double bed with my Kindle. I had the home’s breakfast of Ladahki bread and omelet in the garden, and sipped tea.
The magic of Leh’s markets
Eventually I did venture out, and instantaneouly got dazzled by the colors, the abundance, the energy on the streets.
Just up the Peace Guesthouse alley, a turn to the left and past a very busy (and dangerous to cross) plaza, I found myself on the main market street – a modern wide lane with shops, traveler restaurants and covered passageways. It hosted shops of all sorts and kinds. There was even an all women’s cafe on a second floor somewhere…I did not intend to buy anything, but ended up shopping anyway. Some things are irresistible.
Everybody wants your money. Some people want other things too, perhaps, but I have learned how to manage these kinds of situations over the years, all the way from Jerusalem’s Old City to El Salvador.
I bought a toner, vitamin C tablets and green tea at a Himalaya brand shop. It was run by a Ladakhi woman who had her super cute little kid with her. I love these wide, plumpish faces. At about 3 years old, he was already talking on the phone…
The irresistible Pitzuhim store
One of the advantages of having a large Muslim community in town was the Pitzuhim store. Pitzuhim is a Hebrew word, liteally meaning “crackables”, and can loosely refer to anything from nuts and seeds to dried fruit and berries. They are usually sold in bulk. This is something I missed big time when I lived in America, and was always the first shop I frequented when I visited Israel. It was also the first time I have encountered such a store here in India.
I bought fustuk (pistachio), almonds, dry berries and raisins, and also tried a local contribution to the pitzuhim smorgasbord – apricot pits. Apricots are ubiquituous in these areas, and it was the season. First, I mistook them for small almonds. Once trying them, I discovered some, indeed, had almond-like taste. Others resembled the bitter almonds you got once in a while mixed in with the batch. There was no way to tell the difference in advance…
I came back to that store again to equip myself for my Nubra Valley trip (post in preparation) and my Baby Trek trip. Pitzuhim are always handy when you hike, or go on an expedition.
Carpets and pixels
At a Kashmiri store a bit off main street I took a look at some beautiul, intricately woven carpets and rugs. After reading Israeli writer Shmuel Peretz’s highly recommended book, “The Rugs Weaver from Esfahan“, I was even more aware of the art and the work involved in these creations. I learned about the density of the knots per centimeter or “the pixels” as the seller called them, but also about the souls woven into the masterpieces. Both men and women work on these carpets, considered a winter’s job. Winter here – imagine…
Alas, I should have taken more pictures. 😢 These by no means do justice to Leh’s marvellous markets – not just the above-mentioned shops, but the endless places selling pashmina, yak, silk, wool and cotton scarves, clothing, jewelry, antiques, memorabilia, Buddhist artefacts, etc. etc. The bazaar has main fancy wide streets as well as side, picturesque branching roads, some unpaved. You can buy anything – Buddhist turning wheels of all sizes, ancient and modern sculptures, folk medicines and exotica, as well as traveling equipment and even jeans.
More Junk Upstairs – lots and lots of cool shopping opportunities in this town. An elephant decorated with apsaras displayed in a storewindow at Leh’s Bazaar (credit for explanation: Sachin Hardas)
The old market
From the new, spacious market, I walked on to the so-called Old Market, a predominantly Muslim part of town complete with small mosques and dark, stuffy shops reminiscent of Jerusalem’s Old City suk.
In particular I was struck by a tiny place, maybe not more than a meter and a half wide, which had black pants hanging in front of it. There was something Dante-ish about the place. The owner explained it was a dye shop and showed me the different colors, but all I saw was black..
There were stores selling shabariyas (Arabic curved knives); some smelled of meats. Women were walking around in hijabs or flowing veils, some very beautiful. One was really extraordinary-looking. I was tempted to take a pic, but stopped myself short.
As I recount in my post about the climb to Mangyal Tsemo Monastery, I had a friendly conversation with a nice Muslim shop owner who tried to cajole me into buying his pashmina scarves. I found out he was a friend of my German friend Sara-Zara, the one who recommended the Peace Guesthouse. He gave me tips about the palace and the monastery, and we had small talk about the Hebrew name he gave himself, “Ish”, which has the same meaning as “Adam”.
The district of Leh, according to the 2011 census, counts a population of 133,487 people. Buddhists made up the majority at 66.4%, followed by Hindus at 17.1% and then Muslims at 14.3%. Buddhism predominates, but the sound of the muezzin prevails 5 times a day, including at night. This article from Business Standard describes Buddhist-Muslim tensions and demographic trends.
As to the provinve of Ladakh, one shopowner told me that 20% of Ladakh’s population was Muslim. This was apparently an underestimate. According to Wikipedia, there are 46% Muslims, mostly Shia, and 40% Tibetan Buddhists, with only 12% Hindu in the province as a whole.
The Ladhaki women selling veggies on Leh’s streets reminded me of the elderly (post-menopausal) Arab women selling their vegatables near my local neighborhood supermarket and in Jerusalem’s Old City.
There are all kinds of people here among the tourists too: Israelis, French, Australians, some Germans, an occasional American.
And Some Animals Too
Leh - Hub of Ladakhi Desert
Leh – Ladakh’s economic hub
There are two main towns (cities?) in Ladakh – Leh and Kirgil.
My guesthouse hosts in Likir Village were coming and going from their home to Leh for extra income, for merchandise, for needed materials for their guesthouse construction and to visit family. Tsering told me that in the past there used to be one bus daily from and to the village, and life was better. Now “everybody” has cars and that meant, personally for him, a lot of running around, a lot of driving back and forth on the mountain roads. We all tend to be nostalgic.
Not only villages are tied umbilically to the district’s towns, also the unique nomadic tribes, who live and herd their flocks in the mountains.
Whence come the precious pashmina wool?
The Changpa tribe lives with its flocks of animals in both China (Tibet) and India. This photo-travel link shows them in their full-life beauty. There are about half a million Changpa tribespeople altogether, and they live in tents like the bedouins. In difference from our Bedouins, who are adjusted to the high temperature desert, the Changpa live in freezing altitudes, where temperatures in winter can drop to -40°C. Both these nomad tribals raise sheep and goats. The Changpa also herd the yak. The Bedouins – camels.
The much-appreciated pashmina and cashmere wools come from these nomads, who live under some of the harshest conditions on earth. Their survival is dependent on their “trump card – the pashmina goat.” One kilo of pashmina wool is worth ₹6,500 to the buyers who arrive by the truckload from Leh and Srinagar to do business with the nomads. Climate change is now threatening their way of life and their hard-earned livelihood, since the grass needed for the goats requires deep snow in winter.
Today, the word “pashmina” is used indiscriminately, and many scarves made from natural or synthetic fiber are sold under the name “pashmina”, creating confusion in the market. Shoppers must be cautious.
It is important for a traveler to remember the lives of the people providing the “goodies” we buy. When you over-haggle, the one to absorb the difference will ultimately not be the smiley merchant, but the long-suffering nomad, farmer or craftsperson.
That said, when I first came to Leh, I knew nothing about the sources of the various beautiful scarves sold everywhere. I haven’t even heard the word “pashmina” before. Then I learned that pashmina came from the soft wool on these goats’ necks. You naturally spend your time conversing with vendors who make every effort to get you to buy their merchandise. But there is always a source in Earth and in human effort to anything we buy.
The Changpa also raise yak for wool and milk products , all of which are sold on Leh’s markets. I took a chunk of yak cheese with me for my trek (which did not take place in the end. See post about Likir), and it was delicious.
Apples – small is tasty
I was looking for apples to take on my trips. Most of the apples sold by the ladies on the streets were small. I had a mindset of looking for larger apples, discounting what was there as not good enough. Then one of these ladies handed me a small apple saying: “Try them. See how good they are.” And indeed they were excellent. Just the right degree of hardness and sourness.
In the end, I bought two large ones and the lady gave me several small ones for free. The poor people of the earth are so much more generous than most of us. I also learned two lessons in one.
Leh – the Ladakhi travelers hub
I came back to Leh twice again in between my Nubra valley sojourn (post in preparation) and my Baby-Trek-Likir adeventure. The blessed Ismail kept my place and my luggage, but when I came one day too early from the “baby trek” saga, “my” room was occupied. Ismail greeted me with a sad face, promising to get the room ready for me the next day. In the meantime he sent me to an adjacent guesthouse, the Ree-Yul.
About Ree-Yul Guesthouse, and more about Leh – food, social encounters with interesting people, my first Henna tatoo, buying an air ticket with cash, and more, you are invited to read Leh Revisited.
These and other posts about the Himalaya are published on the page: The Indian Himalaya – Glimpse of the Infinite under the general section of Traveling India within the even larger section: Incredible India, which also includes the following sections: The Israeli Phenomenon in India and Point your Finger at Polluter – Who Cleans India
More posts about the Himalaya and about other regions of India are in preparation. Keep updated.
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