Locomotoring

Seven continents, seven seas, seven billion people and seven thousand good eats …

Garlicky Nuns, Cream of Spanish and other adventures

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Lunch hour at Likir monastery

Lunch hour at Thiksey monastery

Leh is the capital of Ladakh, a high desert region in Kashmir Himalayas. Eight months in a year this region is covered deep in snow. During the summer months, it is a popular destination for Israeli kids who come here for cheap drugs after their customary stint with the army. So, what was I doing there? I am a Bengali and come holidays, we pack our bags and go somewhere, be it low-budget trip to tea-estates of Darjeeling or far away places like Leh.

I was in Leh with my husband (he is a Bengali in spirit). We flew in from Delhi and that wasn’t a smart move, human bodies aren’t designed for a zero to 17000 ft transition in 2 hours. More of this particular misadventure at some other time. But let me tell you about the nuns and the Spanish.

Leh survives on tourism during the short summer. And why not? For these four months, Ladakh is like Yosemite on steroids. The population balloons ten to twenty folds – mostly Israelis, Germans, Scandinavians. But food is scarce. People grow vegetables in their backyard, keep cows for the milk for their young ones, and hens for the eggs. But this poultry, milk and produce never make it to the restaurants.

So, the restaurants adapt. The menu is often eclectic – Italian pastas and pizzas, Mediterranean pita and hummus, Mexican fares (but why?), crepes and pastries. Italian pasta turned out to be well improvised macaroni with tomato sauce spiced with cumin and cilantro. We didn’t try the pizza but it looked suspiciously like large naans, the raised flat bread baked in earthen ovens, served with a variety of toppings like paneer, garbanzo beans, or peas. Mediterranean pita and hummus translated to variety of white breads served with garbanzo bean paste. My husband was tickled when he found a restaurant offering Tandoori Nuns (naans). He had let loose a series of horrible cannibalism jokes.

Since I never saw a single local at any of these restaurants, I was careful with what I chose to eat – typically stuck to chappati or boiled rice with plain daal, lentil without oils and spices. Even during this peak tourist season, we saw kitchens run out of staples like macaroni or fruits. Neighborhood mom-and-pop shops would often sell food items like biscuits and chips well beyond their expiry dates. The banana crepe my husband had on our last day in Leh would cause three days of diarrhea and vomiting. Yet, all around us, tourists were happily eating big meals, the Europeans after their treks and and the Israelis when they got the munchies. Maybe one needed either a drug addled brain or a trekker’s appetite to digest the restaurant food.

Little monks at lunch break

Little monks of Lamayuru at lunch break

I confess, I have sweet memories of the tea. None of the Darjeeling goodness that I normally fuss over. Made with condensed milk, this was a creamy, sweet and plentiful. Wherever we went, we were sure to be offered a cup of hot steaming tea. Imagine yourself sipping a cup of this tea at Khardoung La, the highest motorable pass in the world with the view of scattered snow, fog laden mountain tops, and Buddhist prayer flags flapping wildly in the freezing wind. A cup of hot tea warms you for a few minutes, the minutes that you need for those memento photographs.

On a few occasions, we did experience the local food. Dinner at a guesthouse in Likir village was a vegetable soup with nuggets of dough cooked in the hot soup, no spices or herbs. At Lamayuru, we had lunched on dry chappati and tea. In Leh, our hostess had brewed us the salty buttered tea (regular not yak butter) popular in the Himalayan regions. In Diskit, our guide had offered us a local brew made from fermented grains which we had found to be completely disgusting. We were also offered Maggie instant noodles, a popular meal among the locals. That did not come as surprise. Even in remote villages, we would see empty packets of Maggie littering the streets.

Irrespective of whatever we ate and wherever we ate, the view was always fantastic. Looming Himalayas were always in the view, sometimes combined with views of monasteries. In Diksit, the menu offered “Cream of Spanish (spinach, I guess)”, and the view offered a Himalayan rainstorm, an unusual event in the high desert. The dinner settings were often romantic in a rural and charming sort of way, accompanied by garden or tent seatings and open fires.

Every so often, there would be a sense of adventure associated with a meal. Like when we were hitching a ride with a truck. Our truck driver had bought some apricots from a roadside seller and offered them to us. He was holding these golden orange little fruits in his hands that were caked with engine oil. There was no way we could have refused. So, I ate a few and was holding on to the pits when I noticed that the driver was throwing his pits out of the wind shield window. There was no glass. We would be traveling on treacherous mountain roads on the front seat of a truck without seat belts and a wind shield window. Fantastic!

Travel Note: Please click on the Ladakh trip travel album for all pictures from this trip.

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Written by Som

August 12, 2008 at 6:10 pm

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