Eating out at Leh Ladakh

While our 2 week-long trip to Ladakh was very hectic, and given the schedule we were mostly eating lunch at roadside places (dinner was usually at our hotels), we could not resist the temptation to try out some Ladakhi food on the two days we were free to hang around in the capital Leh.  I would have loved to explore the local cuisine a bit more, but time did not permit the same.

Yarkandi Pulav

I had some exposure to Ladakhi food from a food festival about five years ago at ITC Kakatiya Hotel, Hyderabad. Nilza Angmo, who is the owner of the well-known Alchi Kitchen in Alchi (70 km from Leh) was in Hyderabad curating the festival. She introduced the cuisine of Ladakh to us with dishes like Skyu (local handmade pasta in veg sauce),  Chutagi apart from the usual Churpi (delicious Yak cheese), Mok Mok (Ladakhi Momos), and Pakthuk (Soupy lamb broth with veggies and cheese). But more than that she had kindled an interest in the cuisine, which I followed up in this recent visit. It is a pity that we could not visit Alchi this time to try out some more of her food.

Churpi, Skyu, Chutagi & Buckwheat Rolls

Ladakh, the land of passes is one of the northmost states in the country, also the international line of control with China and Balti-Gilgitstan of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. While the mountain passes served as barriers for many intruders into India, they also served as an important part of the Silk Route. Thus the local cuisine has influences from the Uyghur Muslims who used to pass this trading route, Baltis, and Muslims from Central Asia as well as Tibet as Buddhism came here around the second century AD. Thus, Yarkandi Pulav (from Yarkand in China) and Tingmo, both coexist as part of Ladakhi food. Butter, Yak meat, barley are some of the ingredients very common in Ladakhi food.

Pee Shee Soup and Shapta at Tibetan Kitchen

In Leh, we were recommended a place called Tibetan Kitchen. The place is just off Leh market and has both indoor and outdoor seating. It has a large Tibetan and oriental menu, with Ladakhi dishes occupying a couple of pages. Only me and my wife visited this place as others in our team were busy. We tried Mutton Pee-Shee (a cheese-based broth with mutton dumplings) as well as Tingmok (Tibetan steamed bread) and Mutton Shapta. The Shapta is a Tibetan semi-gravy dish where sliced meat is stir-fried with abundant vegetables. The place also has various versions of Thukpa and Bagleb (bread stuffed with meat). The lunch was immensely satisfying, and we looked forward to trying some more Ladakhi food soon.

Namza Dining

My friend and travel organizer, Indranil from “Travel with Neel” had read about Namza Dining, another restaurant centrally located in Leh, which exclusively served Ladakhi food. We reviewed the menu and found it very interesting. It had Yarkandi Pulav, a rice and meat dish recommended by many earlier tourists here. So about twelve of us landed here for lunch so that we could try many items on the menu.

Shapta with Ting Mo

Namza Dining (https://namzadining.com/) was very close to our hotel. We loved the d├ęcor here, both indoors and outdoors. Apart from the usual seating, it also has some traditional Ladakhi seating where you have to sit on a low platform enjoying your meal from a small table kept in front. The restaurant has its own garden behind where its vegetables are grown.

Mok Mok Soup

As explained, their signature dish is Yarkandi Pulao. Yarkand is the homeland of Uyghur Muslims in the current Xinjiang state in China. Their traders used to pass through Leh as part of the ancient Silk Route for trading, and somehow this dish was embraced by the locals. Chunky mutton cubes and rice together are slow-cooked and served with soup. A small Mok Mok is also in the soup. One could notice fried onions and nuts in the dish too. The dish had a bit of fat too to keep the body warm.

Gyuma

Among the other dishes, we all loved was Gyuma, the Ladakhi sheep sausage. Traditionally Gyuma was made from Yak meat. The filling here has ground meat, fat, and even some rice. Absolutely delicious stuff.

Mutton Mokthuk Soup (momos with leafy veggies in mutton broth), and Mutton Shapta with Tingmok (baked Tibetan bread) were the other two dishes we tasted.  The other Ladakhi bread, apart from Tingmo is Khambir, a thick wheat-based flat bread which is very filling.

Loved both the places we dined at in Leh, but if you can do only one, choose Namza.

Butter Tea & Ginger Tea

A talk about Leh food is incomplete without the mention of Ladakhi tea. There is the usual Butter Tea that you get in all places. The tea is slightly salty and the butter keeps you warm. Almost all monastery canteens serve this tea. Apart from this, another one we loved was Ginger Tea, which has fresh thin slices of ginger in the tea itself.


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Ladakh Diaries: The Tso-s of Ladakh: Pangong and Tsomoriri

The word “Ladakh” means country of passes. Broken down “La” is mountain passes and “Dakh” means country. Over centuries, these passes have long served as protection from intruders as well as important routes for trade.

During our 12-day trip from Srinagar to Leh and other prominent locations of Ladakh, we passed through five La-s, the last three among the highest motorable passes in the world. These are

1. Zojila – Height 11649 feet between Srinagar & Kargil

2. Fotula – Height 13479 feet between Kargil and Leh

3. Khardungla – Height 17982 feet between Leh & Nubra Valley

4. Changla – Height 17688 feet between Pangong & Leh

5. Taglangla – Height 17482 feet between Tso Kar & Leh

The world’s highest motorable pass is also in India. The lesser-known Umling La at 19024 feet, located in Ladakh, gets the honour after a road was constructed through this pass by Border Roads Organization in 2017.

But a pass is only a route, for us travelers it is sometimes strenuous to negotiate this kind of height. We all do that for what lies beyond. The high-altitude lakes of Ladakh (or Tso-s as they are known in the local language) are huge and serene, the best–known among these is Pangong Tso, around which frequent border skirmishes with China keep the lake in national news. About one-third of the lake is under India’s occupation currently, whereas two-thirds has been illegally occupied by China. 

Pangong is located at a height of 13,800 feet and can be accessed from two routes. One that we took was after our trip to Nubra Valley as we wanted to directly go there. The road was quite bad in some parts of the journey, whereas manageable in other parts. The route (250 km) which goes through Shyok, Durbuk, and Tangste has quite a few small canteens en route for snacks and tea.  The view was magnificent with the Shyok river accompanying a significant part of the trip.

As we reached closer to Pangong, the thrill of sudden sighting a portion of the lake reminded me of childhood visits to seaside spots where the first look at the sea at the end of the road used to make us so happy.

Pangong was blue, very blue, but actually the colour of the water changes depending on the position of the sun and the time of the day. The snow peaks seen on our right side further enhance your experience. The lakeside has become much more commercial since our last visit about a decade ago with scooters and other fun stuff. After taking the customary pics and staying there for an hour or so, we left for Tangste to have lunch.

Pangong has tent accommodation available near it, as well as homestays. You need to be vigilant about the oxygen levels, it is better to travel with oxygen cylinders on this route. On the way back to Leh, we encountered Chang La. This was the first time I felt a little breathless during our total tour. Our car driver made me sit in the vehicle, and rushed downhill and I started feeling better.

After a day's rest back in Leh and we were out to visit the other beauty, Tsomoriri. The lake takes about seven hours from Leh. Here we were planning to stay a night in a tent, so our journey was less hurried. Unfortunately, I had a bout of hill diarrhea since the previous day, which forced me on a conducted tour of local toilets en route.

The journey to Tsomoriri is smooth till Upshi (which is on the Manali-Leh highway). From Upshi we proceed to Chumathang, where most of the road is unpaved. After Chumathang there is hardly any road, and your vehicle literally dances over stones to proceed. We crossed Karzok and reached Tsomoriri almost at dusk. Tsomoriri is very secluded with nothing but an army camp and few homestays and tent accommodations. We virtually had the full lake to ourselves. The experience of this place is further enhanced by the complete attention you get from the lake. As the evening progressed the sky almost lit up for the sunset a view that photographs cannot capture.

It was freezing cold at night, and to make matters worse there was no power in the area. But early morning a view of the lake from the tents brought back our energy. If you ask me to choose one high-altitude lake in Ladakh, Tsomoriri will be surely my choice. Though travelling to the lake is quite a handful, the rustic beauty of the surroundings really amazes you.

On our way back, we took a different route, visiting another lake Tso Kar (15280 feet), 50 km away and close to the Manali Highway, and joining the highway near the Taglangla Pass. Tsomoriri was one of the reasons I went to Ladakh for a second time, and it did not let me down. 

One piece of advice. Though Tsomoriri is nearer to the Manali Leh highway, it is not recommended to visit here on your way to Leh. The sudden sharp climb to 15000 ft and staying a night there can easily result in high altitude sickness. It is better to go up to Leh, acclimatize there, and again come down to visit Tsomoriri. 

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Ladakh Diaries: Aati Kya Khardungla

Leh, the capital of Ladakh, is not like the other high-altitude towns that you visit. The topography is markedly different, and because of its height (11,480 feet), there is always the chance of altitude sickness if you do not take proper care. Two of our co-travellers had to be admitted to a hospital for half a day each, as they complained of a lack of oxygen. The best part is that they recovered quickly and were back with us the next day after spending a night at the hospital with an injection and drips being administered to them. One of them even went to Khardungla and Pangong and was with us till the end of the trip.

Though there are many opinions on this, I strongly feel one should take the medications (Diamox or Coca in homeopathy) as it definitely helps in keeping a person safe from altitude sickness. Also, it is extremely important to relax in the hotel on the first day that you reach Leh.

On our earlier trip, we visited most of the landmarks of Leh, so the local sites were mostly a repeat for us. Sangam (the confluence of Indus and Zanskar), Magnetic Hill, Shanti Stupa (where you get one of the best views of Leh), and Thiksey Monastery were all part of the day trip that we took.


A highlight was the Ladakh Army Hall of Fame, where we were treated to some elaborate presentations about the Kargil war and a brilliant sound and light show in the evening. The new place that we visited was the Rancho’s School made popular by the movie Three Idiots. It was more of a gimmicky place in my opinion. And finally, the Leh Market provided a good diversion for some shopping and food.

Both I and my wife are big mountain buffs, visiting the hilly terrains at least twice a year. Ladakh is special because apart from the landscape, it has some of the highest motorable passes in the world. Khardungla is often the reason many people visit Ladakh. The road goes up steeply a few kilometers after Leh to cross the 18000 feet pass in a couple of hours. Beyond that, it is the green and lovely Nubra Valley with its Diskit Monastery and then leading into Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan. 

We started as early as possible and soon reached the top after having breakfast of Alu Samosas at an army canteen on the way. Our convoy had about twelve Innovas, and every alternate car had an oxygen cylinder. Our driver Stanzing Namgyal was very experienced and filled us in on titbits of the village life here, and how they stock food for themselves and their animals for the harsh winters. He explained the need to have a little water every fifteen minutes when you are approaching a La (mountain passes are called La in Ladakhi). 

Khardungla looked like a celebratory place to me. There were two milestones for you to pose for the pictures so that you can announce on social media that you have been here. The toilets were clean, and there was a canteen serving warm tea and snacks. Quite a few army personnel kept a close eye on the tourists, as many fall sick complaining about lack of oxygen here. 

After crossing Khardungla, we were moving along the Shyok River towards Nubra Valley. Of all things, we came across a Bengali dhaba here, serving snacks from Bengal. The Shyok originates in Siachen, flows through Nubra Valley, and then enters the Gilgit-Baltistan state in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. We stopped at Riverside Restaurant and Rafting, where some of us had our lunch. And some others, including my wife, went for a river rafting session on the Shyok. It was late afternoon when we reached Diskit Monastery with a huge statue of Maitreya Buddha. 

Our hotel at Hunder, Nubra Valley was not too far from here. I was slightly disappointed looking at Nubra Valley, compared to what we saw in 2011. The valley has become very congested with narrow roads and lots of hotels mushrooming up here. Infrastructure is not keeping pace with the growth. If the government does not interfere, this place will soon become a concrete jungle.

The next day, we went further into the Nubra, towards the Pakistan border. As we travelled along the Shyok, we visited two villages that came into India during the 1971 war. Thang is the last village on the border, it was part of the twin villages which are now on different sides of the Line of Control. 

Turtuk is a densely populated place where you can visit the local King’s (zamindar) palace and interact with him, where he and his family gave us a presentation of his ancestral line and the history of his kingdom. We looked at the palace rooms, with the displayed arms as well as utensils used by their ancestors displayed in a very orderly fashion. The King was affable and very forthcoming in taking selfies with all of us.

The Nubra Valley leg of our tour was disappointing in parts, mainly because of the congestion we witnessed in the area. Commercialization has set in, like in parts of Uttarakhand and Himachal, and it is high time some caution is exercised about the mindless expansion of tourism infrastructure. On the flip side, the quaint villages we saw in 2011 have transformed into buzzing tourist destinations, possibly providing employment to a lot of locals.

Also Read: From Srinagar to Leh via Kargil

                   The Tso-s of Ladakh

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Ladakh Diaries: Travelling Up North From Srinagar to Leh

 On my first and only visit to Ladakh in 2011, I had travelled from Manali by road, crossing two passes for an enchanting journey to Leh. While in Ladakh, I had visited most of the known tourist spots, but one place on my wish list which remained unfulfilled due to bad weather conditions was Tsomoriri Lake. Over the years, some trusted traveler friends had done the other route from Srinagar to Leh and their opinion was that the experience is very different, as you find a different kind of topography here. So, we decided to do a repeat tour of Leh, as part of a 12-day trip with 43 people (organized by Travel with Neel), this time approaching it from the Kashmir side.

Our first stop was Srinagar where we flew from Hyderabad. If you go to Srinagar, how can you miss the houseboats? We stayed at a nice and simple houseboat called Karnai Palace right across Jetty 13 of the Dal Lake. The caretaker Abdul was a simple man, and he made sure that the rooms of this three-bedroomed place were clean, and the food served at a common location with two other houseboats were adequate. Many people talk ill about the facilities at Kashmir houseboats, but my experience both times have been quite good. We had visited most of the tourist locations during an earlier trip, so we had a relaxed time enjoying a long shikara ride at dusk through the backwaters of the lake. We only ventured out for a visit to the local Ramakrishna Mission (where the local doctor tended to my wife’s injured leg) and of course to the iconic Ahdoos for a meal.

The lunch at Ahdoos however was quite disappointing. The Tabak Maaz was very stiff and the Gushtaba did not have taste. I guess it was an off day for the chef. My friends that same evening enjoyed the Kashmiri dinner at Mughal Darbar, another place well-known for its food.

Early next morning we started towards Ladakh from Srinagar on the strategic NH1D. The distance from Srinagar to Leh is approximately 450 kms. This highway is very crucial as it is the lifeline of the two northmost states (sorry UTs) of India. During the Kargil war, the strategy of our enemy was to try to cut off and capture part of this highway near Drass. As we proceeded from Srinagar, the drive through the green valley was captivating.Soon we were near Sonemarg, seeking the mother’s blessings at the Kheer Bhawani Temple

We stopped for lunch at a dhaba in Sonemarg (85 km from Leh), and an hour or so later we were at the Zojila pass, possibly one of the most strategic points near the border.  The pass is at a height of around 11500 feet, and it was raining when we reached making it almost freezing cold. We jumped off our cars to drink some hot Kahwa and take some photographs at the top of the hill. The topography started changing after the pass as the terrain became more rugged. 

By dusk we reached the town of Drass which at 10,800 ft is the highest town in this section of the road. we were at the Kargil War Memorial (actually at Drass), such a humbling experience about the brave soldiers who successfully thwarted the enemy in the last war. A stone with the names of all the soldiers who laid down their lives during Kargil war is the chief attraction of this place, along with the Amar Jawan Jyoti. Tiger Hill, the epicenter of the war is visible from the memorial. Our stay was at a hotel in Kargil, a nice clean place that offered a grand view from the rooftop, almost of the entire Kargil town, mountains all around, and the Suru river passing through it. 

The next morning we started from Kargil towards Leh. From Kargil, it was a smooth ride to Leh, as the roads are very well maintained. As you gain height we first crossed Fotula pass at 13,480ft. En route, we visited the Lamayuru monastery and the Sangam (where the Indus and Zanskar rivers merge). The journey from Kargil to Leh is about 220 km and this is definitely the best section of the long road trip. The mountains slowly get devoid of the green shrubs and soon we have a magnificent collage of colours on different hills. 

We did Srinagar to Leh in two days with a break at Kargil for the night. One has to mention that the NH1D is very well-maintained by the Border Roads Organization. Only around the Zojila does the road conditions become a bit rough. We had a strange experience once during our trip, where a huge herd of sheep took over the highway, walking down the road in a gingerly fashion and stopping all vehicles. 

For those who are interested in knowing, the road from Manali to Leh is much more rugged with fewer villages on the way. For me, it seemed more among nature. The NH1D is much more urban, with many more vehicles driving through it, possibly because of its strategic importance. If I have to choose, I will definitely like to travel the Manali Leh route once more.

Also Read: Aati Kya Khardungla

                   The Tso-s of Ladakh

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