Guide to Ladakh: Dining, Festivals and Getting Around
Ladakh, India: Monasteries and Mountains
By Ravi J. Deka
The entire main Bazaar of Leh is lined by restaurants. Usually located on the second or third floors, these small cafes offer stunning vistas of the surrounding mountains and the street below. Catering mostly to the tourist crowd, their menus always consist of a fusion of Western, Indian, Chinese, Tibetan and sometimes Ladakhi and Kashmiri cuisine.
The food quality is decent, though hardly differing from the shop next door. It pretty much depends upon the owner’s luck in getting hold of a capable cook for that tourist season.
The best place to enjoy an authentic Ladakhi meal is in any of the various family guesthouses, most of which offer home-cooked, usually vegetarian, meals to their lodgers at very modest prices.
A number of small eateries can be found in the small bazaar lanes, patronized by the native population. Very economical, but of suspect hygiene, they serve only limited choices; Momo (Tibetan steamed stuffed dumplings) and Thukpa (Tibetan noodle soup), or simple Indian meals like rice, dal (lentils) and vegetable curry. Some eateries beside the Leh mosque offer authentic and unpretentious Kashmiri meat dishes and parathas (flat bread).
Surprisingly every bakery and confectionery in Leh calls itself a “German” bakery, so there are no less then five “German Bakeries” in town with new ones springing up each season. Prices are comparatively high for India: a slice of sweet cake or pie costs about a dollar. But when you’ve got to have sugar, what choice do you have?
Once outside Leh, dietary options are limited to what the native population eats. There are cafes in most villages along the road routes, serving only Ladakhi and Indian dishes. Nevertheless, bottled water, chocolates (and toilet paper) are available everywhere.
Places along the tourist circuit such as Stok or Thikse have full-fledged restaurants with a wide choice of food and bottled drinks. Once off the beaten track, however, a humble request for a meal in any villager’s house usually procures a small feast. However, many villagers vehemently refuse to take any payment for their efforts. Make it a point to try out the thick Ladakhi bread and Tsampa porridge (baked barley).
Leh is packed with shops selling various curios, handicrafts and (supposedly) Tibetan and Indian antiques, manned by pushy Kashmiri merchants eager to make a sell. Entering any of their shops (unless you have been dragged inside), initially makes you think you have stumbled upon a lost stash from some medieval caravan of the silk route: the small shops are filled to bursting with Tibetan relics, Buddhist paintings, silver jewelry, masks and carpets–yards of them.
But before you fall for the sales pitch and the complementary glasses of Kashmiri spiced tea, do keep a few things in mind. The most sincere sounding shopkeeper is still going to quote rates several fold higher, so it pays to check out the prices in the market and then bargain shamelessly. Start by offering a third of what you are quoted and work up.
Apart from the jewelry and some traditional Ladakhi handicrafts, most of the items are made outside the region or brought in from Nepal. And, unbelievable though it is, almost all the objects for sale in Ladakh can be bought much cheaper in Delhi.
Similarly, ignore stories about carpets and vases salvaged from burnt palaces of Central Asian princes or being bought from the garage sale of Ladakhi royal families. These tales have been circulating from the time the region was first opened up for tourists and don’t have a word of truth in them. In case you are seriously interested in purchasing traditional artifacts, ask the hotel owner for the address of the artisans’ workshops and make your own way there. Unlike in Kashmir, most landlords in Ladakh are not interested in making a commission from a sale.
Note: As tempted you may be to purchase an antique, keep in mind that most are fakes, and even if you come across a real one, taking it out of India is a punishable offense (if caught).
Traveling in Ladakh without witnessing a single festival is next to impossible. Usually religious affairs, these events are customarily held in various monasteries on different calendar dates, mostly during summer. Not to be left behind, the government started organizing an annual Ladakh Festival in the month of August.
Invariably crammed by camera toting affluent foreign tourists accorded preferential treatment, these festivals are increasingly coming under flak from different quarters for becoming business events and not religious ceremonies. But in any case, they are excellent opportunities to observe intricate Himalayan Buddhist rites and religious dances in their Ladakhi flavor.
Held on the 10th and 11th day of the fifth month of the Tibetan calendar, i.e, in late June or early July, the Hemis festival begins with the unfurling and display of the large thangka, which is hung from the second story of the monastery. The masked dances begin shortly thereafter.
The festivals at Shey and Thikse are held within weeks of each other. In July, the Metukba Festival lasts at Shey for a day and consists of prayers for universal well-being. During the August harvest festival, called Shey Shublas, the Shey oracle is invoked for divinations. The Thikse Festival revolves around a fair held below the monastery.
The week-long government-organized Ladakh Festival in August highlights the various aspects of Ladakhi life and the cultures of its various ethnic groups. Beginning with a colorful procession on the main street of Leh, the ensuing day’s festivities include displays of traditional sports like archery and polo, as well as various arts, dances and traditional dresses of the different Ladakhi communities.
For exact dates of festivals,culturalindia.net/ladakh.html
Getting to Ladakh is half the fun, irrespective of the mode of transport chosen, and yet none of the ways are equally without their own limitations and hardships. The best way to get to Ladakh is from Delhi, where there are planes and buses available. There are also buses and shared taxis available from other northern cities and towns, especially Manali, which is a common departure point.
There is a daily flight from Delhi and one twice weekly (Monday & Friday) from Jammu with Indian Airlines and its subsidiary, Alliance Air.
Jet Airways, a private carrier with an office in the main market in Leh, also offers flights from Delhi to Leh.
It’s an amazing–and hair-raising–flight over the snows peaks of Himalayas culminating with a dramatic landing on the world’s highest civilian airport in Leh.
One of the major hazards of flying into Ladakh is that of acclimatization (check Health).
Flying out of Ladakh is also not without hassles, as the slightest climatic problems have the airliners grounded or flying out empty. In any case, planes always leave Leh with only about half their seats occupied due to the high altitude takeoff. As a result, there is always a long waiting list for tickets, and at times even a confirmed ticket does not mean a seat on the plane.
The deluxe bus fare from Manali to Leh is approximately $23 USD inclusive of one night’s tented accommodation and a meal, or $18 USD for sleeping in the bus and paying for your own food. Taxis are more expensive at about $222 USD one-way, but the fare can be shared among several travelers and you have far more flexibility on the road. Both bus and taxi fares are slightly cheaper on the Srinagar route.
For travelers on a budget, there is a cheaper government run bus service–fairly uncomfortable with non-reclining bench seats. For the hard-core bus fan, there is a marathon three-day Delhi to Leh bus service departing from ISBT in Delhi.
Many travelers make it to this ancient outpost on two wheels. Those planning to use pedal power should better bring in their own bikes as the Indian ones are considerably heavier and prone to breakdowns. Motorcyclists should check Gonomad for information on motorcycle routes and equipment in India.GETTING AROUND
Local busses connect Leh to most of the points of interest and the major monasteries. Some run several times a day, others less frequently. Consult the timetable at the bus stand. Local taxis operating under the banner of the Ladakh Taxi Operators Union work against a fixed tariff, and hiring a car or a jeep for a day costs about $15-18 USD. Hotel and guesthouse owners are often able to find you a vehicle at lower prices.
VISAS AND OTHER OFFICIAL DOCUMENTS
Though no separate permit apart form a valid Indian Visa is necessary for visiting Ladakh, keep your passport handy as there are numerous check and registration points en-route if traveling overland. Visas must be obtained in advance of arrival and are valid for one or six months. Travelers will also have to pay a small tax upon arrival in Ladakh (Approximately $10).
Some areas are off-limits to foreigners, while others require a special permit obtained from the Deputy Commissioner’s office near the Polo Ground in Leh. The friendly neighborhood travel agent can also get permits and supply the necessary “Letter of Introduction”, with a commission, of course.
Permits, which are provided only to a group of four (or for one, provided you pay for four and your application is accompanied by Xeroxes of three other passports–travel agencies are good at providing these “extra” passports), are required to visit Tso Moriri and Pangong Tso lakes. Similar passes are required for Nubra Valley across the Khardung La (considered to be the world’s highest motorable road at 18,380 feet) and for visiting the Hemis High Altitude National Park.
The Indian Rupee (approximately 45 Rs = $1 USD) is the currency in Ladakh. There is a State Bank of India in Leh and a Foreign Exchange Office (Forex), where you can cash travelers’ checks. Outside of Leh, there are no money exchange opportunities. Credit cards are not often accepted, so bring money with you.
Though slowly modernizing in every way, communication facilities in Ladakh are still almost medieval. Telephone facilities are now moderate, a far cry from what they were a couple of years ago, when calls were monitored by the owner with a stopwatch.
Email and internet facilities and CD burning for digital photos are available in the main market and shops around the Fort Road but they are expensive. Using the internet for an hour in Leh costs around $3, whereas in New Delhi it would cost around 50 cents.
For postal assistance, it makes sense to walk down to the General Post Office, as the sub-post office on the Bazaar street in Leh has very lengthy lines.
HEALTH AND SAFETY
Slight bouts of mountain sickness or High Altitude Sickness may occur above 3000 meters. Symptoms include shortness of breath, headache and dizziness. Normally, it goes away with acclimatization that takes 2 or 3 days. In case of a severe attack resulting in nosebleed and acute nausea, the patient should immediately be brought to lower elevation eg. Choglamsar, if in Leh. Though rare, deaths from HAF are known in the region. Alcohol does not help during HAF and is known to aggravate conditions. Gastric problems are also widespread. Oral contraception is also not advisable in higher elevations.
The altitude is also known to cause teeth to ache because of change of atmospheric pressure. Stocking up on anti-inflammatory analgesics is advisable for people with dental problems, as there is next to no dental care in Ladakh.
official government site