Lazying in Leh, and Eating Yak Cheese Pizza in Ladakh
On the streets of Leh, you hear every language from around the globe.
The restaurants around town offer Kashmiri food, Israeli food, Tibetan food, Western food, German bakeries, Chinese food, Indian food, Thai, Mexican and Korean food, Brazilian cappuccino as well as plenty of fresh juices and smoothies.
The streets are beyond dusty and after about a week of walking around town, we resemble bank robbers with face masks and sunglasses to protect us from the three D’s – the Dust, Dirt and Diesel fumes that constantly fill the air.
Many of the shops have signs written in Hebrew, recommending the place to other Israelis who might consider doing business there.
The signs in Hebrew say things like:
“This shop sells the BEST Pashmina shawls in town.”
“This shop has the BEST exchange rate in all of Leh.”
“This cafe has the most delicious Momos.”
There are many travel agencies around town, offering to book airline tickets, or take you trekking in the Himalayas, or river rafting on the Indus, or shared rides to nearby places, or to book your bus tickets.
At the front of these agencies, other travelers post signs looking for travel companions for trekking or for rides.
There are also dozens and dozens of Internet cafes, but the Internet in Ladalkh is not even close to high speed and often it is down and does not work at all.
For three days, all of Leh had no internet, and nobody could tell us why or when they expected it to return.
We decided to ask at the official information center, to see if they could give us an idea of what was going on.
Because we do not make any advance reservations nor book airline tickets, we rely on having internet access in order to continue our trip.
At one of the travel agencies, we asked for the price of a flight to Manali or Shimla later in the week, but the prices they quoted us were way too high and the schedule was not very good.
With Internet access, Jules is an expert at finding good fares and the best schedule possible.
(Without Internet access he is like a moody kid that is not allowed to use his video games.)
At the tourist information center, I asked why the whole town has no internet and was told that the towers were shut down in Srinagar, by demonstrators who are trying to disrupt the peace and call attention to their cause.
We were told that there is an Internet cafe in town that offers satellite internet which might work.
We went over to the place hoping that the satellite internet would work, but alas, it didn’t.
On the streets of Leh, you can see a wide range of tribal people, many wearing their traditional costumes and head gear.
It is such a beautiful sight to see old Tibetan woman with long braided hair that if unfurled, would go all the way down to their knees.
While white women’s hair in Western societies starts to thin with age, those Tibetan old women have heads full of thick, healthy hair.
The hats and head dress jewelry that they wear are works of art.
At a small Tibetan shop, we bought for Jules a simple necklace of a turquoise stone with two Himalayan red coral stones, one on each side.
It is believed that if you wear it next to your skin, it will improve your eyes.
We chose the stones and while the man made the talisman, he told us that foreigners have made a huge positive impact on the lives of Tibetan people in this region.
He told us that foreigners donated money to send him to school, and to build schools in remote areas which would have not been possible without the donations.
In Leh, you’ll see all kinds of travelers.
There are super-fit types who come for multi day trekking, high up in the mountains.
They have expensive hiking gear and carry top of the line camping equipment.
Most are city types who come to get the most out of being in the isolated landscape, and they welcome the physical challenge.
There are also young backpackers who come to do nothing, just chill, smoke grass, eat good food on a small budget, or to hook up with other backpackers.
You can see them playing cards all day long, smoking, and sitting for hours in many of the garden restaurants and cafes around town.
To be fair, not all of them smoke dope, many of the laid back travelers just hang around cafes reading books by William Dalrymple for hours (I have to admit that we have also read all of his books.)
There are the tour group travelers who move in large groups.
Judging from the languages we heard on the streets, they come from all over Europe, Russia, Iceland, China, Korea, Israel, Japan and from North and South America.
They pack the halls of the small temples, as their guides explain historical facts and names of past Lamas that none of them will remember after they’ve left the Gompas.
They stay in the larger hotels, and in their free time, they stroll in the bazaars and buy souvenirs, Pashmina scarves or Tibetan memorabilia.
Another kind of tourists are Buddhist people from all over Asia who come to see the unique old Gompas of Ladakh and to learn about the rich culture of Tibetan Buddhism.
They come from Taiwan, Singapore, Nepal, Japan, China, Thailand, Vietnam, other parts of India and Sri Lanka.
Another kind of traveler to Ladakh are photographers and artists.
You will see them walking around town with many kilograms of photography equipment hanging from their necks and shoulders. Their camera have huge lenses and they waddle over the broken roads, carrying the weight of their tripods.
Artists sit by the stupas and Gompas with their drawing pads and pencils.
They sketch the contours of the Himalayan mountain range, and fill the foreground with lines of the beautiful mud brick monasteries.
They draw pictures of tribal people in the streets with their beautiful costumes and headgear.
Occasionally you will see single women who travel alone, and many couples or friends who are traveling together.
In the newly opened Brazil Cafe, we met Naoki, a Japanese woman who is traveling alone in India.
She has been in India for five months now, and plans to return to Japan in one week’s time. When we asked her if she missed home after all this time away, she burst into a big smile, and said, “No, not at all, but I do miss the Onsens!” (Hot springs)
We told her that we also miss the Japanese Onsens every day.
She said that she LOVES traveling in India and has been coming here for over fifteen years.
Naoki said that the reason for her extended vacation is that she she decided to leave her job, and needed time to regroup herself, and find her inner balance again.
Naoki said that she used to be a nurse, working with mentally disabled adults in a retirement home.
She said that the people she cared for, were often violent and used to bite her.
She worked twenty hour days, and hardly slept at nights.
She said that it wasn’t just the hard schedule, it was also the distress that the work was causing her.
Naoki told us that she is unsure what she will do next when she returns to Japan.
She has a sister who lives on Miyakojima island in southern Japan, and she is considering going down there and maybe they will open a cake shop together.
Naoki said that traveling alone for five months has been wonderful.
One wonderful thing about Leh, is that the Ladakhis, Indian Hindus, Tibetan Buddhists and Muslims have all lived together side by side for many years.
At the center of town, you see beautiful Mosques, stupas and Gompas, Hindu temples and a Sikh Gurdwara.
As the Muezzins’s soulful call for evening prayers filled the evening air, we finished the last bite of our delicious apricot pie and Naoki thanked us and told us that she misses making human contact with people like us, and that she enjoyed our conversation very much.
While in Leh, we chose to stay in two places.
The “Gomang Boutique Hotel,” and the “Grand Dragon Hotel.”
My favorite was the Gomang, because it offers a more personalized experience, a caring owner, and a lovely spacious room, while the much larger Grand Dragon caters to the many tour groups visiting Ladakh.
The streets of Leh are all under construction.
The pavement has been broken up everywhere and passing cars raise huge clouds of dust over all the street vendors, shops and people walking by.
One has to be light on her feet in order to navigate walking in the street, between cars, cows and cow shit, trucks, people, carts and the many, many potholes and stretches of broken pavement.
Some of the restaurants around town offer lounge seating where you can recline on cushions while you eat, but most are too dirty for comfort and the majority of the restaurants have black sooty kitchens and squat toilets that are full of flies.
In order to use the toilets, you have to hold your breath and do your business as fast as you can.
But despite their sooty kitchens, many restaurants turn out very good food.
Before we found a few favorite restaurants which we later frequented daily, we tried many places around town.
In a “garden” restaurant with plastic tables and chairs placed on a sea of dust, earth, and dirt, we are our first Yak cheese pizza.
Yak cheese tastes a little more pungent than cow’s or sheep cheese.
The pizza was delicious and just the way I like it, with tasty vegetables and a very thin crust.
We also had some spinach-filled steamed Momos, which are a Tibetan version of Dim Sum.
Jules looked at me with stunned eyes when I decided to enter and try this humble place, and he pointed out how dirty and dusty the table cloths were.
When the waiter brought out large gasoline containers full of water, Jules rolled his eyes in his head, hoping the they would not cook our food with the dirty water.
As it turned out, the waiter watered the earth all around our table, so the dust would not rise up so much.
When the food arrived and was very good, I jokingly asked Jules when was the last time that he ate in such a fancy place that sprayed water around us and all over our shoes?
In an outdoor market, we each got a consultation by an Ayurvedic healer from Tamil Nadu in Kerala, who diagnosed our state of health by our fingernails, skin, tongue, heartbeat and eyes.
During our time in Leh, we alternated between walking around town, hiking up to Shanti Stupa and to the Leh Palace, seeing all the local sights, and hiring a car and driver for day trips to visit monasteries, palaces and villages outside of Leh.
The Main Bazar Street in town, is the heart of Leh city.
Daily, local vendors sit on the ground, selling fresh veg or handmade crafts.
The Main Bazar has many shops, book stores, cafes, Internet cafes and craft shops.
Around the Main Bazar, there are very interesting local markets.
In a tiny shop, Jules got a haircut, a shave and an hour and a half of the best facial and head massage he ever got.
Bobby, his barber, cracked his neck and stretched his arms into pretzels, and all this for only 700 rupees. ($11)
I felt so proud of Jules and of all the progress he is making in life.
In the past, he would look at all the hair on the floor and deem the place unhygienic and refuse to go in.
Not coincidently, he used to get sick in India or in other countries where the water is undrinkable and he often suffered from diarrhea.
He has made little adjustments through the years and had some wonderful experiences, including an amazing haircut he got from an old Sufi man in Morocco.
Nowadays, Jules looks at the “feelings” or the vibes of a place and when he feels that the person is genuine, he is willing and usually has a great experience.
While Jules was getting pampered, I walked the nearby markets.
Outside of a shop selling traditional Tibetan clothing, a tall elderly Tibetan man was trying on a traditional Tibetan robe, which is the outer garment worn by most men.
In broken English, he asked me to help him tie the top button of his robe which ties sideways and has a Chinese knot button.
He had such a good face and I felt such warmth and familiarity that it left me puzzled.
In Moti Market down the road from the Main Bazar, you will find authentic Kashmiri restaurants.
Those little hole in the wall tiny places, offer the famous Kashmiri multi-course feast, “Waswan.”
We did not try it because it involves mostly grilled skewered meat, but we did hear it is superb.
There are also a collection of tiny tea stalls, selling freshly oven baked Kashmiri flat bread that is very delicious.
We sat in one of those tiny places at one of their communal tables and drank chai and ate bread among locals who were very welcoming to us.
Two small shops down, we came upon the baker who was roasting those flat breads, and bought a few for our packed lunch the next day, for our day trip to Hemis Gompa, Tong-Tak monastery, Chemrey and Matho monasteries.
The market also features tiny butcher’s shops that sell mutton meat, all sorts of intestinal organs and sheep heads.
It is quite a sight to see the butchers chopping meat on their ancient butcher blocks.
Tibetan food is not traditionally vegetarian, even though Buddhism teaches compassion towards ALL living creatures.
While all over Ladakh, Tibetan people will not spray to control flies because it is done with the intention to kill, they have no qualms about eating meat daily, if the animals are already dead and sold at the butcher shops.
Because of the many tourists and the Indian people who eat only vegetarian food, nowadays Tibetan food includes steamed veg Momos (dumplings), veg Thukpa (noodle soup with tomatoes), Tenthuk soup, which is made with vegetables, hand cut thick noodles, fresh herbs and tiny bits of yak cheese that give the soup a white color.
The Tenthuk soup tasted very wholesome.
One of our favorite places to drink and eat in Leh is the vegan ‘Ladakh cafe,’ where you can get a delicious apricot, lemon and sea buckthorn juice, a Carrot ginger Apple and lemon juice, a Pomegranate and hibiscus juice or lemon ginger honey tea and a Tibetan Skew (veg soup).
‘Chopsticks’ is an Asian Bistro that serves decent noodles.
‘Tibetan Kitchen’ serves great Tenthuk soups and great pan fired veg Momos.
But my favorite is ‘Gesmo,’ a very popular restaurant on Fort road, where we sat and waved off the flies from our very delicious food.
Their Yak cheese pizza is made with Indian Nan flat bread, a mild tomato sauce, onions, peppers and a very delicious yak cheese.
They also made us any kind of Momos we wanted, which were always fresh and very good.
After trying many of the restaurants around town., we now can rate them by the taste of the food, the level of dust and grime, the amount of flies that we have to wave away, the availability of slow Wifi and fresh juices.
Form the balcony of the Brazil cafe, you can see the old Jama Masjid Mosque.
As the muezzin’s call for evening prayer filled the air, I saw two tourist girls who decided to go check out the mosque at prayer time.
They must have read that they should cover their hair with shawls, but they had no clue that women are not allowed to enter any mosques, and especially not while wearing miniskirts….
In some mosques, they’ve built a separate prayer room for women, but those mosques that don’t have a separate women’s section do not allow women at all.
Even devout Muslim women are not allowed inside, only in the courtyards.
I chuckled to myself as I saw the two women tourists in miniskirts and shawls covering their heads, following the local men who came into the mosque to pray.
I watched in anticipation…. The strange things that young tourists do…..
Less than two seconds later, the girls were politely refused entrance and walked back into the street.
They removed their shawls and looked a little surprised that they were not allowed in.
The next time I write, I will describe our most exciting visit to a Tibetan Faith healer.