My recent trip to India was long overdue. I hardly took any time off from my restaurant at the end of last year, and went straight back to work in January. My husband, daughters and I had planned a holiday to spend time with my in-laws in Punjab, but we also wanted to visit somewhere new.
Since my childhood in West Bengal I've been acutely aware that every region of India has its own distinct culture. The "real India" is defined not by the country as a whole, but as a sum of its many varied parts. And yet while I've returned to India countless times since moving to the UK 23 years ago, I have never travelled as widely as I'd have liked within my own land.
One particular corner of the country has always captured my imagination. Leh is the capital of Ladakh, and is located in the Indus River valley of the Tibetan plateau, more than 10,000ft above sea level. My husband travelled there by scooter while at university and, a couple of years ago, he dug out some photographs that depicted still lakes, deep gorges and towering mountains. I fell in love with the place without ever having visited, and decided that we had to go.
It was magical from the outset. Towards the end of our flight to Leh I peered out of my window and the pure-white, snow-capped mountains seemed to rush inside. As we stepped off the aeroplane and on to the tarmac we were surrounded on all sides by the Himalayas. I had some sense of arriving back home - a feeling that was intensified by having my family there with me - but this part of India was ultimately unfamiliar to me, and it felt like a foreign country.
I chose not to stay in a hotel because I wanted to see how local people live in this harsh land. (Leh is considered to have a desert climate, with very little rainfall and an average annual temperature of just over five degrees.) While researching accommodation I came across a farmstay. I knew that agricultural tourism is popular in Europe, but I had no idea that such a concept existed in India.
Farmstays Ladakh was founded in 2015 by a mechanical engineer called Sonam Wangchuk. He noticed that young people were migrating to the cities in order to pursue careers, leaving older villagers to tend to the farms. Sonam wanted to find a way to bring better economic opportunities to the villages, which would in turn encourage younger members of the community to remain at home to help. He prompted a handful of local farmers to offer up their spare rooms as tourist accommodation, giving visitors a chance to experience village life in Ladakh firsthand. Today a total of 15 families in Phyang village take part.
We arrived at our home for the next few days and were greeted by our host, who was called Charol. She and her family welcomed us into a traditional Ladakhi house complete with colourfully painted wooden furnishings and a prayer room. My family and I loved the fact that we were getting a taste of what life was like for the villagers while also giving back to the community.
After lunch with Charol I went to meet Sonam himself. As well as founding the farmstay programme, the innovator runs the Students' Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL) and has pioneered an artificial glacier project to mitigate the impact of climate change. During the winter, pyramids of ice known as "stupas" are created to conserve water that would normally be washed away by rivers. These structures then begin to melt during the drier months of spring, just as the farm fields need watering. Sonam eventually wants to create ice hotels and restaurants in the region. His long-term vision also entails a self-sufficient campus where students can learn practical skills that encourage earning a livelihood in a responsible way.
I wanted to ask Sonam many things, but hearing him talk left me speechless. Often people with such entrepreneurial spirit live a privileged life, but Sonam was focused solely on the community. His dream was never to find fame and fortune, but to focus on the happiness of the local people. This encounter helped me to realise just how much I still have to discover about the land that I come from, and it made me excited for future visits to India.
Later that afternoon I went to visit Gurdwara Pathar Sahib, a temple constructed to commemorate Guru Nanak Dev, the founder of the Sikh religion. According to legend, the rock inside the temple carries the imprint of Guru Nanak's back. We offered prayers while the volunteers provided us with tea and snacks.
We drove from the temple to the Sangam Valley, the spectacular meeting point of the Indus and the Zanskar rivers. From May onwards this is a popular spot for white-water rafting, while during the winter months the Zanskar freezes over and becomes the site of the Chadar ice-sheet trek. The route, which connects a number of mountain villages, has been used for centuries for trade and transportation, and is recognised as one of the world's wildest walks. I sat at the empty rafting station watching the sun go down over the water, feeling grateful that I wouldn't have to venture out on to the ice.
Back at the farmstay that night I was struck down by altitude sickness - my breathing became difficult and my head was pounding. In the first light of day I made my way to the tourist ward of a hospital in Leh, where I was given oxygen to alleviate the symptoms. Visitors to Ladakh should take my advice - leave plenty of time at the beginning of your trip to acclimatise before exploring.
My energy somewhat restored, we ventured to the beautiful 17th-century Leh Palace that afternoon. Located at the top of Namgyal Hill it stands opposite the Shanti Stupa, a white-domed monument that was built in 1985 to commemorate 2,500 years of Buddhism. Both the palace and the stupa offer panoramic views of the snowy mountains. Although I was tired I felt a profound sense of peace.
Coming back to the farmstay that evening felt like returning to a friend's home. We watched Charol prepare our evening meal of skyu, a Ladakhi dish of wholemeal wheat balls cooked with greens, spices and root vegetables. She explained that any produce grown in abundance on the land is sold in the city, while the rest is used to create meals for her family and their guests.
I felt much better after a good night's sleep, so we left the farmstay early the next day and made our way up to the Thiksey Monastery to witness the morning prayers, with 120 red-robed monks lining up to chant mantras and pay their respects. It was a sight like nothing I've ever witnessed before - I felt as though even my breath could be considered a disturbance to the calm.
The spell was broken that afternoon on the journey into the city of Leh, which took us through a series of bustling bazaars. I picked up gifts for my family, and we dodged a few tour operators (Leh is a base for excursions to Pangong Tso and Nubra Valley) before stopping for a quick lunch. In truth I was saving space for Charol's cooking back at the farmstay. On finding out that I was a chef, she had promised to show me how to make momos (dumplings) and fermented spicy pickles later that afternoon.
Back at the house we joined Charol, her husband and her mother-in-law in the kitchen. I was amazed at the speed with which the three of them crafted perfectly shaped momos, and even more impressed with the way in which Charol effortlessly knocked up a carrot and spinach soup to accompany them. I loved getting an insight into the village's culinary culture and introducing my daughters to this cuisine. There's nothing quite like seeing how ingredients - picked straight from a farm - can be transformed into delicious, home-cooked dishes.
As we sat down to eat our creations we got talking to the family. Charol explained that she had studied at Panjab University in Chandigarh, but instead of seeking a career in one of India's big cities had chosen to come back to her village, working in a local bank during the day and helping with the farmstay business during her free time. I told her how surprised I was that she had given up urban life. "I'm lucky," she said, "to be staying in the best place in the world."
The experience of staying in a farmstay in Ladakh - of being the guests of a family who cooked us delicious food and welcomed us as though we were good friends - gave us a true taste of life in the region, as well as the desire to do more to help those around us. (My eldest daughter, Reet, has already decided that she will return to Leh in the near future to help out at the SECMOL school.) What's more, the act of travelling as a tourist in my country enabled me to look at something that I consider so familiar with a fresh pair of eyes. Those few short days in Ladakh opened me up to my family, to India and to myself.