A Tourist at Home: Plane Sailing in Ladakh, India

A Tourist at Home: Plane Sailing in Ladakh, India

The Indian-born chef Romy Gill travels to Ladakh and navigates the highs and lows of being a tourist in her own country

This article appears in Volume 20: The Homelands

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

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

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.

Discover More
Romy Gill: The Rise of Indian Street Food Across the Globe