Travel

A school at the feet of heaven

A bridge over the pristine Indus River Photo: Apoorva Sripathi

A bridge over the pristine Indus River Photo: Apoorva Sripathi  

Amidst Kashmir’s flash floods, Apoorva Sripathi catches fantastic views and a warm Ladakhi dinner in Leh

Jullay!” 

My last day in Leh, a Friday, shuts down rapidly. As the fruit seller greets me in the Ladakhi word for hello (also the same word for thank you, goodbye and please), people scramble to make last-minute purchases of apricots, apples, spinach and turnips in case the supplies from Jammu and Kashmir stop. At 6 p.m., grey clouds converge above me; the once-crowded market becomes deserted and I walk back to the hotel.

On the day before, I arrived at Leh two hours later than the schedule, thereby delaying my already late trip, but I’m not complaining. When my cab driver picks me up from the Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport with a placard that announces I’m married, I follow him with a sense of foreboding: what if it’s the wrong cabbie? And between our extremely different and equally funny Hindi accents, it’s a miracle we even managed to understand each other.

On my way to Nurla, a village in Ladakh, I drift in and out of sleep only to occasionally see breathtaking sights — jagged white peaks that reach towards the sky, stone buildings from a different era, long winding roads that stretch till nowhere, glittering turquoise lakes and even boring, brown mountain terrain — I’m talking Instagram-able quality here. Meanwhile, my cab driver Danny takes it upon himself to wake me up every time I fall asleep: the popular Magnetic Hill on the Leh-Kargil-Batalik National Highway is a sight I shouldn’t be missing, he insists. So I sleepily get down from the blue rickety minivan and stare at the hills in front of me, and then back at the van, and wait patiently for the van to be drawn by the magnetic pull. It doesn’t. A visibly excited Danny sports a resigned look until I fall from sheer lack of sleep; he claps and exclaims “magnetic hill magic!” . As a peace offering, Danny stops for tea and a plate of pakodas that warms me up instantly; it’s almost noon when I reach my hotel in Nurla — a charming boutique hotel that has an unbeatable view of the majestic Zanskar Mountains and the pristine Indus River.

After a quick trial at acclimatising to the dizzying altitude of over 11,000 feet, I head out to the Lamdon Jamyang Khaltse School where KFC and the ‘17,000 ft Foundation’ are putting together a library and a small playground for the 127 students in the school as part of the former’s Wish Bucket Campaign. For children who travel almost 40 km every day for school, they’re exceedingly enthusiastic and it’s quite unfortunate to hear that they’ve to travel to Leh to pursue the rest of their education. Dhruv Kaul, Chief Marketing Officer of KFC India at Yum! Brands, says the campaign was started almost a year and a half ago. This year, when 17,000 ft tweeted to KFC with a request, “to take education to the children of Ladakh, with more libraries, more playgrounds”, with their help, KFC India replied saying they were on board — by building a library and playground, and cooking authentic KFC chicken for the children.

Later at night, along with a group of journalists, I travel to the home of Ladakhi Phunsuk Namra, who has agreed to host us for dinner. As a vegetarian I always worry about the availability of food but at Namra Hotel (run by the family), the fare is “pure vegetarian”. We start with French fries, papad and a salad of crisp cucumbers and tomatoes. As Ladakhi food has much in common with Tibetan food, piping hot momos filled with cabbage, carrot and onion find their way to my plate. I then take chhu tagi, which translated means ‘water bread’, a bow-tie noodle stew made with carrots and potatoes, and a bland serving of potato gravy, with rice and paneer masala.To round off the meal, I sip some chhang, the local liquor made from distilled barley that is quite smooth and tastes like ale. For dessert, Namra hands us bowls of fruit custard with luscious apricots and apples plucked from his backyard and there’s a deafening silence, possibly caused by our full appetites, and we slowly sip chhang, admiring the dining room that doubles up as a kitchen during winters; brass and copper vessels are neatly stacked up and an elegant momo basket in copper sits prettily on the stove. It’s ingenious to have a stove as it heats up the room, instead of using a separate heater.

The next day, after generous helpings of tea, toast and parathas, I set off to the Khaltse School. Ecstatic children run around at the prospect of a new playground; teachers and parents interact; the village elders are present in full attendance and watch in awe as KFC hands out rice and fried chicken and everyone wants second helpings. Once the event is over, a couple of us take a car to Leh, determined to shop but once we reach there, anxious policemen tell us Leh is shutting down for a candlelight vigil. Thankfully, we manage to squeeze in a visit to the peaceful Shanti Stupa that is on a hilltop in Chanspa: we look at the astounding view of Leh. Before I walk back to my hotel, I hurriedly buy some apples and apricots for a quick snack. A family asks me to buy only two apples as they want to buy the rest to store, in case they run out of food. I oblige. By 6 p.m., Leh is swathed in gloom, perhaps reflecting all our moods. It’s time to leave and I take one last look at the city: a place that literally took my breath away.

(The writer was at Leh-Ladakh at the invitation of KFC)

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Printable version | Mar 24, 2020 6:07:55 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/travel/leh-ladakh-travel/article6449498.ece

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