The real voyage of discovery consists not of seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes!
Although I will admit that the pure, pristine and rugged ‘don’t mess with me’ landscapes of Ladakh literally left me spellbound the whole time that I was there.
Ladakh is not for the faint hearted. Travel around the high altitude desert taught that I should never take for granted some of the things we city people don’t bat our eyelids about.
Running water for example. Or toilets and transportation, just to name a few. The absence or shortage of electricity has made solar energy really popular. If the sun is shining, you will have electricity and burning hot water.
As a conscious traveller, I was aware that my being there is creating a strain on the local ecology. Tourism causing water shortages and leading to a lot of trash has been in the news.
I made it a point to reduce my footprint as much as I could. Using minimal water, avoiding packaged food, drinking water and creating as little trash as possible.
I did pick fresh fruits wherever possible, and luckily for me Ladakhi apricots were just about coming into season. I also kept an eye out for choices/experiences that would help me reduce my footprint and encourage sustainability.
In Leh I discovered Dzomsa, a sustainable store right across the main market. The store started as an eco friendly laundry service by a local lady, and is now a full fledged store selling local fruit preserves, nuts, dry fruit, munchy snacks, wild Ladakhi capers, apricot kernel butter and the like. You can also find 100% organic printed prayer flags and enjoy fresh apricot and seabuckthorn juice here!Refill your water bottle here for just Rs. 7 with clean filtered water. I picked a huge stash from here on my way back!
While on a trek in Markha Valley we stopped by at a village home as a pit stop. I felt obliged to buy something since I was taking shelter provided by the family. But there were only chips, biscuits, aerated drinks or packaged water.
And then I noticed this lady washing some beautiful bokchoy and it seemed like it was freshly harvested by her. I asked her if she would sell some. This lady and my guide were rather amused. Next, I found myself in her backyard, helping her harvest some more bokchoy and buying it from her.
The result was that we got to have a delicious bokchoy stir fry for dinner that night at the homestay where I stayed.
En route the trek, I found a few Women’s Eco Cafes. These cafes are 100% run by women, and they serve local specialities and fresh food. No aerated drinks or instant noodles. Instead the smiling faces of the servers will win you over with refreshing seabuckthorn tea, delicious apricot juice and fresh vegetable, dal and rice for a meal! Do not miss them. By eating here, you are supporting women and a sustainable local economy.
Though the homestays would serve parantha or puri for breakfast, I preferred the Ladakh Sattu called traditional Tsampa (Roasted Barley Flour) which is just freely lying around in each home and locals just eat it as a powder. I again managed to amuse my host, when I added hot water to it, then threw in some nut butter, nuts and dry fruits and voila, a sumptuous nutritious breakfast was ready. This became my go to breakfast on the trek each day, that kept me energetic for hours.
Try the hot parantha breakfast at least once (they use refined white flour to make them), for a distinct flavor and aroma, as you will discover the women cook these not on a tava but a locally available stone.
Ladakh would never be known for a salad, but believe it or not, one of the best I ever had was here. A farm fresh salad which had raw knol khol (kohlrabi), tomatoes, bokchoy, mint and an out of this world apricot kernel and walnut dip. So simple, such delicate flavours, nothing artificial.
This salad is perhaps the least ordered dish on the menu of Alchi Kitchen in Alchi, hence if there, do not miss out on it.
Ladakh is a leafy green paradise during the season. Women line the streets of Leh market selling at least 8-10 different kinds of greens, all of which they call ‘Palak’. One of the lessons learnt was, if eating at a local place, order the greens or salads and you might just get something mind blowing.
If you want to sample gourmet plant based food, you cannot miss out on KaYa Dreams Café, an organic vegan friendly garden café, tucked in the quiet village called Stok. A baby of ex- Mumbai girl Pooja, the menu at this cafe is carefully planned based on what is harvested or locally available fresh and this includes a whole lot of wild herbs and plants as well. Everything is prepared from scratch (even pasta and sourdough bread), and that’s what makes each meal so special.
Gluten Free Crepes at KaYa Dreams, served with local version of kimchi and House made Kombucha.
Despite my attempts to travel consciously and support conscious enterprises while there, I still came back from my holiday feeling like what I did was simply not enough. Our planet is going through a major crisis, be it global warming, environmental degradation or the trash situation.
I simply should not feel entitled to claim resources of a place, just because I can pay for them. I should look at paying back through creating some value in the lives of the people who have been the protectors of these resources for generations and centuries. So it’s true – seeking new landscapes has given me new eyes!