Archive for June, 2006

Leh Ladakh India – services and shopping

Wednesday, June 28th, 2006

Leh is chockful of shops and markets, selling ethnic Tibetan and Ladakhi jewelry, clothing and crafts. The shop with the best selection and fairest prices (and yellow banners all over the town) is Ladakh Art Palace on Main Bazaar Rd, upstairs in the Akbar Shopping Complex . I also found interesting jewelry made of yak bone and horn at Tashi Arts, on Fort Road, opposite the power house. It goes without saying that bargaining is part of the purchase. And for a shopping experience which truly is an experience, seek out Hadji Ramatullah. Just inside the path leading up to the palace, next to the flatbread bakeries, Mr Ramatullah presides over a haphazard jumble of old Ladakhi jewelry. On the back wall of his stall is his photo from 50 years ago, dashing and with a glorious moustache.

The biggest selection of English language books on Indian culture and religion, as well as literature, is at Ladakh Book Shop, Main bazar, near State Bank of India., upstairs. But prices are better at Bookworm on Fort Road, next to Lingzi Hotel. 

Trekking and jeep tours in Ladakh  – see separate entry for details, but recommended agent is Mr Tundup, the director of Tsarap Himalayan Adventures on lower Fort Road,, who is knowledgeable about everything except the lodging en route – so plan that independently.

For a guide, I heartily recommend Jigmet Chostak, a young man who knows Ladakh intimately and thoroughly,, mobile 9419658545.

For body care, the best massage in India is in a small white building in the compound of Open Ladakh in Changspa ( a 15 minute walk from Leh center). Rajendran is professional, a specialist in ayurvedic massage, and an hour with him ($15)  is recommended before and after each back-breaking jeep trek. mobile 9419815299. You can leave him a message on the writing pad hanging on his door.

For manicures, pedicures, waxing and all other cosmetic treatments, Shamima, the owner of Rahat Beauty Home, is the address. Local girls troop in to have their eyebrows shaped. If you’ve never had a pedicure while lying down, here’s your chance  – mobile 9419090664, just north of the main square. 

Changing money is slow as molasses at the State Bank of India on Main Bazar, open mornings only, but if you’re changing upwards of $200, the small difference in exchange rate might be worth your while. Otherwise, moneychangers are omnipresent. 

Meditation – the Mahabodhi Society in Changspa gives daily and weekly courses. I participated in a  2.5 hour meditation session led by a British guy who was terrific. I’ve never sat so long without moving – and crosslegged – in my life! Just up Changspa road is the Open Ladakh complex, aka Alternative Ladakh, run by Vivek. An ex-Buddhist priest, Vivek runs daily meditation sessions in the center, and also a weekend travel meditation course in his family home in Stok village. Highly recommended if you’re ok with Ladakhi toilets (open hole) and rudimentary facilities. Discussions with Vivek are fascinating, and include historical background as well as current cultural issues. My weekend was cut short by torrential rains threatening to wash away the bridges, so we were hustled back to Leh in a taxi. I still regret not being able to stay on. mobile 9419179917,, .

Internet cafes are all over. The fastest connection I found, with the fewest service cuts, was at Gompa, around the corner from Dzomsa Laundry at the top of the main square. Compared to everywhere else in India, Internet is expensive in Leh, 2 rupees per minute.

Leh Ladakh India – food and lodging

Sunday, June 25th, 2006

Because high altitude sickness is going to turn you into a pathetic weakling for your first 24 hours, you want somewhere safe and comforting to crash. I booked ahead at Lotus which was perfect. I was served tea in the garden and then managed to unpack in the clean and spacious room before collapsing into bed. Mr Shankar, the helpful English-speaking concierge, insisted I have some dinner and conjured up consomme and rice, and that is how I spent my first day in Leh. But paying $40 a day was way too much, and next morning I scouted around for a cheaper guesthouse. I looked at many. Some, like Asia and Oriental, were nice but in Changspa, out of the town center. I lucked into the brand new Saiman guest house, run by Mrs Shahida Bano (mobile 9419371240, 9419218642). It’s smack in the center of town on Upper Tukcha Road, hidden on a small alley (look for the stone arch on your right after you pass the river) between green fields and a river, surrounded by the family’s vegetable and flower gardens, and with lawn furniture where guests eat, read and dream the time away. For $16 I got a huge room with balcony and Western bathroom, 24/7 hot water and the cheerful efficiency of English-speaking Shahida. Importantly, I left with her all my valuables while away trekking, including cash, and all was safe and sound. My top guesthouse find in three years of India!

Food in Ladakh is basic but fine. Hotel and guesthouse breakfasts include freshly baked pita bread with butter and honey, omelets and tea.  Backpacker cafes in Leh offer great banana pancakes and fruit crumble pies, which work well with chai and fruit shakes. Don’t look for great coffee.  My favorite place, where I ate huge salads (no tummy problems), soups and everything was the Tibetan pure vegetarian restaurant on lower Fort Road. With only 6 tables and everything prepared on the spot, it’s the favorite of Leh foodies. (I found a bottle of Italian olive oil in a tiny grocery shop on upper Fort Road, and used it liberally on the salads.) Look for it opposite the over-rated Tibetan Kitchen restaurant, where wannabe Chinese food vies with wannabe Western cuisine (and dinner reservations are required!) 

At the entrance to the bazaar and on the way up to the Palace are several clay oven bakeries, where you can buy the flat bread piping hot.

The Dzomsa Laundry in the center of town, with a newer branch on lower Fort Road, upstairs, sells terrific yoghurt, fresh apricot juice, muesli, and other healthy snacks. They also sell filtered drinking water in recycled plastic bottles.


Leh Ladakh India – arriving

Sunday, June 18th, 2006

Jule (say joo-lay) which means hello, thanks, and anything you want it to mean in Ladakh. It’s the ultimate one word multi-tasker and a good thing, because arriving in Leh, the world’s highest-altitude airport, is so discombobulating that for the first 12 hours, your mind can’t deal with anything more demanding. High altitude sickness means fuzzy mind, tingling in fingers and toes, frequent trips to pee and inability to do more than drink tea in a prone position. Flights from Delhi leave at 5 am, so if you arrive on a connecting flight, as I did, you either sleep for 4 hours on a hard bench in the bare-bones user-unfriendly domestic terminal, hugging your backpack, or not at all. So sleeping away the first 12 hours in Leh isn’t a bad idea, and you can stagger around in town the next day, until you’re ready to attempt nearby climbs and further treks.