Leh is not exactly what we were expecting. Considering the 2-day odyssey to get here, we were completely taken by surprise to find a booming tourist town nestled in a sea of military development at a breathless 3,500 meters above sea level. The valley is not the unspoiled Himalayan kingdom portrayed in tourist brochures and travelogues, but rather a bustling regional center and major tourist hub – in the middle of nowhere.
So called German bakeries sell cinnamon rolls glazed with lemon frosting. Thai cafes tempt with green curries; Italian restaurants offer pizza and pasta. Travel agencies hawk package trips and flights to other exotic destinations. Kashmiri carpet shops display their silk rugs, and Tibet refugee souvenir stalls sell any kind of trinket – you name it. We had no idea little Leh was so cosmopolitan.
Although it is the end of the high season, the town is packed with hordes of tourists flying in from Delhi to go on one of many treks around Leh, or to experience “authentic” Ladakhi culture for 24 hours. In fact, it is probably the presence of a small airport that has caused the boom.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. I’m one of the many tourists and there are good reasons why we are here. Ladakh is absolutely stunning. Surrounded by mountains and sheer snow-covered walls, the Indus Valley with its gorgeous turquoise rivers and monasteries clinging to the cliffs offers several tempting excursions further afield.
And Leh town is quite attractive, despite the sprawl. Interspersed between all the tourist amenities is Leh’s charming traditional adobe architecture. The lively town is surrounded by apple orchards, and a fall forest of yellow silhouettes against a lapis-lazuli sky. It a visual feast with flowers on every corner adding pinks, purples and reds to the palette.
Yes, apple crumbles, iPods or supermarkets are easy to find in Leh. But one thing is missing. So far, we haven’t seen anyone wearing a perak, the traditional turquoise-studded headdress. Let me rephrase this, not anyone other than a mannequin in the market.