Meeting kind Ladakhis in the time of Coronavirus

Two weeks ago, we were in Ladakh. Yes, this is not the ‘season’ to go to Ladakh, and that is exactly why we were there.

The ‘season’ has become synonymous with traffic jams, diesel fumes and haggling tourists. Small local shops are sidelined by big traders, there is water shortage and overall chaos. And so, after 14 years of visiting Ladakh during the season, I wanted to see the real Ladakh. So I chose March.

Admittedly, you do miss out on some of the good parts of Leh — the winter months and fewer travellers mean there is little buzz around coffee shops, bakeries, bookshops and restaurants, most of which are shut — but we were willing to accept that loss.

Which is how we landed in Leh on a clear, sunny morning. (Flying in is the only way to reach Leh till about mid-April as all the passes are blocked due to snow.) This necessitated a two-day period of rest and acclimatisation, during which we focussed on hydrating ourselves, relaxing, and walking around Leh’s semi-open market.

Fortunately, we adapted well to the altitude and were now ready for our first big day of the trip — a visit to the Alchi monastery. The village of Alchi lies about 66 kilometres west of Leh on the banks of river Indus. There are many famous monasteries in Ladakh, including Thiksey, Hemis and Lamayuru, but Alchi, personally, is the most special.

Ladakh in the off-season

While almost all monasteries in Ladakh are perched on top of a hill or command a prominent view from afar, Alchi lies hidden, and is virtually undiscoverable till you enter its front gate. Its murals and thangkas (Tibetan Buddhist paintings) are considered to be amongst the best in any Buddhist monastery.

Our first stop was SECMOL (The Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh), an inspiring, alternative Ladakhi school run by the now-famous Sonam Wangchuk (who inspired Aamir Khan’s character Phunsukh Wangdu in the Bollywood film 3 Idiots). From there, we continued on the highway till Nimmu, which is popular for the bird’s eye view it offers of the Indus meeting the (semi-frozen) Zanskar river.

By this time, we were hungry. The altitude was taking its toll and we were feeling tired and sluggish. Not unusual, but nevertheless unsettling. We needed food. Our drivers told us there are dhabas four kilometres ahead on the road. That cheered us up, but not for long.

When we reached, we found a deserted, post-apocalyptical space. All the dhabas were closed. Our drivers too were confused. Though it was off-season, highway dhabas usually stay open for the few tourists and locals.

It gradually dawned on us: this was the Coronavirus effect.

Nilza Wangmo’s traditional Ladakhi eatery

With no other immediate options, we drive back to Alchi, reasoning that it is a tourist centre, and would hence have restaurants. But after a 40-minute drive — overpowered by hunger — we get out of the car to an unencouraging scene: rows of closed shops.

We must have presented a very sorry picture because a woman, sitting outside a closed restaurant, called out to us.

“Will a simple meal do?” We were too overwhelmed to answer immediately, so she continued: “Some dal, chawal, aloo sabzi maybe?” We replied with an emphatic, “Yes, please!” “Ok,” she said, adding, “But it will take some time. In the meanwhile, you can go and see the monastery.” Our faces lit up, the tiredness gone just at the promise of a meal. And the monastery, which was the last thing on our minds till a minute ago, now seemed a wonderful place to wait at.

We walked through the monastery, admiring its beautiful paintings, tall imposing statues and whitewashed stupas. However, after 20 minutes, we were back at the restaurant. A short flight of stairs led to a small door on the first floor. We opened and entered a wide room interspersed with wooden columns supporting the roof, a big open kitchen on one side with traditional Ladakhi-style tables.

The woman, whose name we still did not know, and her mother (we assumed) were busy cooking, and the food smelt divine. “It’s ready, please help yourself,” she declared.

The writer with Nilza Wangmo (left)

As we started serving ourselves, I noticed a gold bag with the Government of India’s emblem on it. I went a little closer to get a better look and it read: ‘Nari Shakti award 2020 — Nilza Wangmo.’

Nilza got the award on March 8 from President Ram Nath Kovind, after which she met Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a function in Rashtrapati Bhawan.

“There were 15 of us from across the country. I was selected for promoting authentic Ladakhi cuisine and being an entrepreneur,” she says, adding, “I just got back from Delhi.”

As we ate her simple meal of dal, chawal and aloo sabzi, we appreciated the fact that we were eating lunch cooked by one of the most celebrated women in Ladakh, and, perhaps, the entire country.

The food was tasty, of course. But this meal meant more than that. It soothed, comforted and reassured us. It truly made us happy. And it reaffirmed the essential goodness of people, of women, especially. At times like these, that is everything.