When I met with the tour director, I questioned him about Numgal, who had been assigned to be my trekking guide. I was assured he was very experienced and that I would enjoy his company. This was welcomed news but the detail I had not foreseen was the trek would be vegetarian. We would have eggs, but no meat or chicken. This made no sense to me since I had been surrounded by sheep and cows for the last five days. He explained that out in the countryside there was no one who was going to slaughter any animal because they were practicing Buddhists and all the Muslims who did this kind of work were only in Leh. The solution seemed simple, we would bring meat with us and even though there were no coolers available in Leh, I was assured whatever we brought could keep for two days.
Numgal and the driver picked me up at 12:00 with the van loaded down with all of our supplies. But before leaving town, we still had to purchase a few items. Numgal wanted to place each of my bags in a large sack which would protect them from the dust and make them easier to load onto the donkeys. He needed the large plastic sacks used to hold rice. Remember nothing goes to waste here, so we had no trouble locating the used sack merchant who was doing a brisk business on the sidewalk. We bought what was needed and looked for the dried fruit seller. We found an old man sitting on the sidewalk behind burlap sacks filled with various fruits and nuts. Ladakh is famous for apricots and even though his apricots were covered in flies, Numgal assured me they would be very delicious when he stewed them up with his special spices. The old man wrapped them up in newspaper as there are no plastic shopping bags in Ladakh and I guess styrofoam is a long way off. Next stop was a small grocery store not much wider than a narrow hallway. The shop keeper sat on a stool in the middle of his shop and was capable of reaching most anything you requested. We stocked up on canned tuna fish and detergent for the dishes and I suggested Pringles. Pringles must be truly global as I have found them most everywhere I have traveled and they are always flavored to suit the local taste. This is India and the flavor was curry. We bought four large bottles of water and Numgal assured me there would be bottled water for sale where we were going. But I was rather disconcerted when I found out that bottled water was not available in small bottles because I had been counting on two small bottles to carry on the trek. Hopefully, I would solve this problem later.
Numgal was ready to leave when I suggested we buy lamb chops, as I could already taste lamb roasted over a wood fire. I wondered why the driver pulled into a parking lot until I saw the lot was lined with butchers in small stalls. These were the Muslim butchers, the only ones who do the “dirty work”. Each butcher displayed the head of an animal, signifying the type of meat he sold. We went to a stall featuring the head of a sheep. The butcher was wearing his skull cap, sitting on a small bed and the size of his shop was a small closet. I told Nugmal we did not want meat from the large carcass which was hanging up, because we wanted baby lamb. I pointed t o my ribs and Numgal asked him for lamb chops. Still sitting on his bed, the butcher rummaged around in a small box, which definitely was not a frozen food locker, and came up with a small leg of lamb. Accepting that, he placed it on his chopping board, smeared with the fat of many other pieces of meat, and hacked it into small pieces. With our parcel wrapped up in newspaper, we were now ready to leave Leh. As we walked away, I noticed two small lamb heads thrown into a bucket but in Buddhist talk, I did not feel I was spiraling down to barbarism.
In Ladakh, the merchants are either Moslems from the Kashmir or Indians. Both groups have had centuries to hone their trading skills while the Ladakhi people remained farmers. However, in the city, since the Ladakhi people were there first, they are the landlords and the Moslems and Indians, who always feel superior to the gentle Ladakhis, are the renters.
HEADING TO THE TREKING SITE
As we left Leh, the driver passed a convoy of Army troops on maneuvers. For the entire two weeks I spent in Leh, along with the mountains and the monasteries, we would continue to see the army presence. At times it appeared that the entire area is one large army outpost. The road leading out of Leh was a perfectly good paved four lane highway, which at times even had lines painted down the middle. But this kind of road is just a teaser because soon we found ourselves on a thinly paved 1 ½ lane road which pared down to a two lane highway, deteriorating on either side, like a decaying tooth. My driver was taking it easy, allowing my heart to stay out of my mouth as vans full of trekkers and Tata trucks passed us at will.
An hour out of town we stop at a bus stop for lunch. There were several small restaurants to choose from and by looking at the cooking pots, you could tell the type of food available. Large bamboo steaming baskets were filled with momos, the Tibetan dumpling, large pots contained noodle soup, and a man with a wok was frying up crispy Indian treats. Since we would be walking for the next five days, I did not want to upset the stomach gods and was very happy to eat from the lunch box the Deskit Guest House had been providing. Nothing could be safer than a hardboiled egg, a boiled potato, something that has been masquerading as bread, and a banana, with its usual dark spots. But they always remembered the salt and pepper.
Second rule of travel, after never take the first room, is to never pass up an offered toilet and always have your pockets stuffed with tissues, as you never know. I followed Numgal behind the bus station where he pointed to a one story brick tower located in the middle of a construction site. Attached to the building was a sign with the word “toilet” and an arrow pointing upward. I thought the direction was wrong but after walking around the building and not finding a door, I realized, as per the tour book, I was to climb up the crudely constructed ladder and seek the toilet on the roof. Just as the tour book described, I found a hole in the middle of the sandy covered floor. Then I got to experience a Ladakhi dry toilet. Once again, nothing here goes to waste and all the deposits are collected and turned into fertilizer.
Back up on the two lane, we still had a two hour drive to our camp site. Soon I noticed two ladies walking along the road spinning their prayer wheels. When I have a driver and guide and lots of space, I am always willing to pickup people walking, especially women. We stopped and offered them a ride. The younger woman was hesitant but after Numgal’s gentle coaxing and a not too subtle push from the older woman, the two women made themselves very comfortable in the back of the van. They accepted the food left in my lunch box. They enjoyed the juice and the bread, but had a little difficulty eating the candy bar because they did not possess two opposing teeth. I asked Numgal to find out their story and where they were going. This was a mother-in-law and she was taking her daughter-in-law to a monastery to make an offering so that she would finally have a grandchild, preferably a boy. The mother-law-law said she was tired of waiting. They had tied wishes to trees, they had visited a shaman, and this was the last opportunity. Maybe we earned a little merit as we drove them for around 1 ½ hours before depositing them at the monastery. Thirty minutes later, we pulled into the camp site. Dorje, the donkey man, was there waiting for us with his four donkeys tethered to the fence.
AT THE CAMP SITE
The camp site was actually a gravel parking lot in front of a guest house and when given the option of sleeping in a tent or in one of their rooms, I opted for the room, especially since there would be enough opportunity later for sleeping in a tent. Leaving Numgal and Dorje in the parking lot, an old woman, dressed in traditional clothing, led me to my room. I was happy to have the room and this was not the kind of place to refuse the first room hoping for better. The charge was four dollars for the night and one dollar extra for breakfast, but it was agreed that Numgal would provide breakfast. This was a family run guest house, catering to trekkers and similar ones can be found all over Ladakh. A small sign advertised en suite bathrooms and even though it was Turkish style (a squatter in the floor) it was inside and I was not much troubled by the sink, which was not quite attached to the wall and lacked faucets, because I knew the shower by bucket was just a boiler away. In lieu of electricity, I found an assortment of used candles. I located my flashlights and laid out my sheet, blanket, and pillow, ready for an evening without much light.
Dinner was scheduled at 7:30 in the parking lot. This gave me plenty of time to read and make notes on the day’s happenings. Also, I was interested in meeting the women whose laundry was drying on the clothes line. The sun was too hot to allow me to sit in the garden and I retreated to the shade of the porch. The prayer flags were fluttering from the roof as the breeze was sending prayers to heaven and a shaggy dog was content to sleep at my feet. The only sound was the tinkling of a wind chime and once again I silently slipped into the arms of a serene moment. At 4:00 I looked up to see Numgal approaching. He was carrying a large tray, announcing it was time for tea time. What a surprise, tea on the veranda, by the side of the garden, even if it was a little over grown. The tea pot was full of loose tea and he had provided a proper tea strainer, a bowl of sugar, a tea cup, and a plate of cookies which he had artfully arranged. The surroundings may not have looked five star, but the service certainly was.
The women, who belonged to the laundry returned , and carrying my plate of cookies, I went up to introduce myself. Suzy, Doris, and another Doris were from Switzerland and had been trekking by themselves for the last five days, sleeping in guest houses. I marveled at the large backpacks they were carrying. They told me they had an easy day because they had met Dorje on the trail and the donkeys had carried their packs. I asked them how they were doing without a guide. The reply was they had a map and when they were not sure which path to take, they just guessed. They had been visiting the nearby monastery and saw two women praying before a large Buddha. I suspected these were the two women we had dropped off. We swapped travel stories and impressions of Ladakh and I think they enjoyed my conversation as they were getting a little bored with each other. They were eating dinner in the guest house and we agreed I would join them after my dinner.
DINNER AT CHEZ NUMGAL
Numgal had spent the day setting up his “field kitchen” and even though I did not smell the longed for aromas of lamb sizzling on an open fire, I had no idea of the experience awaiting me. Both men had changed their shirts, and like a maitre’d in a fine restaurant, Dorje ushered me to a table and chair, which they must have borrowed from the guest house. They had also borrowed a table cloth, placed a flower in a drinking glass, and lit several candles.
The first course was a tasty split pea soup, made from a packaged soup mix that Numgal had enhanced with various spices. Then he presented his lamb dish. He had turned the chunks of meat into a fantastic stew, accompanied by a thick tomato, mushroom sauce. There was a side dish of dal (lentils) served over rice plus sauteed cauliflower. For dessert, he had prepared the apricots, and he was right, they were very delicious. Dinner was concluded with a cup of cardamom tea. The evening was borderline surreal. I had enjoyed one of the best lamb stews I have ever had, a definite five star meal with five star service, under a sky filled with stars, in a gravel parking lot cum construction site, somewhere in up country Ladakh. Whatever Harvey was searching for, I think I found part of it that night. As far as merging time and space, I had no need to know the day of the week and my location, as pinpointed on a map, seemed irrelevant. The honesty and sincerity of the two guides, who could not do enough to make me comfortable, added to the wonder of the moment. If this kept up, I would soon be hearing the Buddhist sound of the void.
Even though Numgal started off shy and proved himself not much of a driver when he pulled out in front of that truck, he certainly excelled in the countryside and throughout the remaining week he was always smiling and maintained his sense of humor. Every meal Numgal cooked was exceptional and he did not have to worry about reigning in his culinary talents because early on I told him to cook the way he wanted because I enjoyed spicy food. His cooking equipment was limited to an old style pressure cooker, two pots, and a frying pan. His stove consisted of a one burner unit powered by kerosene. He proved to be a magician with vegetables, even those that would develop black spots, and what was not finished at dinner was artfully turned into something else for a later meal. Before he started cooking, he would line up his supply of spices, surrounding himself with boxes of salt, pepper, cumin, turmeric, coriander, and marsala mix, along with garlic and ass orted herbs, which he could only describe in his language. We did not have any tomatoes but he was able to turn Magi ketchup into delicious sauces. Numgal spoke enough English and understood more than he could speak but we never seemed to have any communication problems. Since I was in Buddhist country, I can say now that his skills unfolded like the petals of a lotus, and at the time I had no idea how important he was going to become to my well being.
Dorje appeared to be a happy man, always smiling and treating me as the honored guest. He brought his own small rolling pin and turned flour and water into delicious puris and chapatis. He was like the side kick and along with taking care of his donkeys, he helped Numgal and cleaned up after dinner. Dorje never stopped talking and telling jokes. Maybe this was a little tiring for Numgal, but Dorje probably needed to talk to someone other than his donkeys.
A VISIT TO A LADAKHI HOUSE
After dinner, I left Numgal straightening up and Dorje doing the dishes with water from a house. I was too far into this to worry about the quality of the water. Suzy, Doris, and Doris had invited me to join them for their dinner. We went to the family’s main house and were graciously received by a beautiful young woman, wearing a flight jacket, which I thought a little strange. We entered into a large downstairs room which was considered their ceremonial room, the place where they conducted religious ceremonies, weddings, coming of age parties, etc. We sat on banquettes with low tables in front of us, similar to that at the Deskit Guest house, and quickly became comfortable among the many pillows and bolsters. As in all traditional houses, an entire wall was dedicated to the family collection of cooking pots, teapots and bowls, large samovars, and assorted brick-a-brac, collected over the years. She said up to 500 people would be invited to their parties which included extended family and friends. The most unusual object was a plastic clock in the shape of a chorten(stupa) and on the hour it chanted out the mantra dedicated to Avalokiteshvara, god of compassion and mercy, om mani padme om, hail to the jewel in the lotus. Of course made in China and when I asked her if this was a way to earn merit, she laughed and said a little.
While we watched her making dough from barley flour and water, which would be boiled and turned into a kind of spretzel, she told us the story of her life. She was born in this area and had been able to go to Delhi to attend flight school. She wanted to be a pilot. Later her parents informed her they had arranged for her to be married to a local boy. Even though she was almost finished with her studies, she had to be a dutiful daughter. Abandoning her dream, she returned home. She had been married for five years. The husband was in Leh running a tour company and a computer store and even though she had almost made it out of there, she was now left behind to run the guest house owned by her in-laws. Her mother-in-law was a retired oracle. She was able to see into the future and when paid the right price, could offer insights from the beyond. As per the book I was reading, there are people in Ladakh who are able to go into a trance, make contact with the other side, and bring back information regarding the future or insights on how to deal with the present. When in a trance, they would be able to speak perfect Tibetan and of course not remember the language or anything else when the trance was over. Since she had her daughter-in-law to rely on, she was able to retire from her profession, claiming it was too exhausting. The father-in-law, when not driving a truck, had been an astrologer. But he too had retired from work and was content to cultivate his garden.
She was completely charming and it was a delightful evening. I said goodbye to the Swiss ladies. Coincidentally, we were all departing from Delhi on the same flight to Frankfurt and I promised to look for them at the gate. Returning to my room, I was surprised by the knock on the door. Opening the door, I found our dinner hostess offering me a bucket of hot water. The charm just continued. With all flashlights and candles burning, I became relatively clean. Wrapping up in my sheet and blanket, sleep found me just as soon as my head hit my Walgreen pillow. Tomorrow would we would start our trek.