“I’ve always wanted to run a place that could bring travellers together,” Rigzin Namgyal, the co-founder of Ladakh Sarai, addresses my group of travel journalists over lunch. We’re at Chansa, the property’s communal dining space. Although our encounter isn’t happenstance, the 51-year-old’s philosophy still holds water. He flits between manning his staff in the main kitchen and sharing life stories with guests over warm bowls of chutagi—a local soup loaded with vegetables and bow tie-shaped chunks of cooked dough. Ladakhi hospitality is no marketing gimmick. And just like that, I forget I’m on a work assignment, my first in the pandemic.
Lodged in Leh district’s Saboo village, the 19-room retreat remains a popular choice amongst tourists for two main reasons: its proximity to Leh Market and the Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport, and its magnificent vistas of the Stok Range of the Trans-Himalayas. I spend a better part of my first day of the week-long trip acclimatising to an altitude of 11,600 feet whilst mountain gazing from the deck of my chalet. The July sun scorches the barley fields and willow trees that frame the village settlement in the periphery. Jagged mountains dusted with snow frosting protrude in the backdrop. I couldn’t tire of the view even if I tried. It’s only at the heels of dusk that the air becomes nippy and I step out for a leisurely stroll.
Three distinct styles of accommodation—rows of mud houses, duplexes and chalets—each named after villages in Ladakh are built in traditional wood-and-stone architecture. A yoga class is in motion on the first storey of the meditation centre. But I find it far more invigorating to follow the stone-laden pathways flanked by lush flower gardens that snake across the four-acre property. Magpies warble in the distance and prayer wheels welcome guests at the main entrance. It’s 7 p.m. and the sun refuses to dip. Perhaps, even the forces of nature find it difficult to part with the scenery.
Ladakh Sarai opened its doors to visitors in 2011 and was completely refurbished in 2016. The place oozes comfort and luxury in an eco-friendly setting attracting film stars, army personnel and backpackers alike. In 2020, however, the pandemic wreaked havoc on all facets of the hospitality industry. And a year of no travel can be crippling for those whose livelihoods depend on it. But Namgyal and his team slowly found their feet in March 2021 in the throes of the second wave. “People who would otherwise seek international destinations are now turning inwards to explore the backyard of their own country,” he explains. This behavioural change among vacationers has revived tourism in regions like Ladakh. It comes as no surprise that the property is sold out until the end of season in August.
The estate’s culinary offerings are a treat for the senses and the seven-course tasting menu at Syah is an unmissable experience. The yoga pavilion doubles up as a candle-lit dining arena and its sweeping windows afford views of the starry night. Chef Pankaj Sharma’s locavore artistry unfolds on the table, one dish at a time. First up are foraged weeds, a humble entrée of chickweed, vegetables, edible flowers, salad leaf and dressing; followed by minced lamb-stuffed timok—Tibetan bread served with a side of grape leaf tempura and clear vegetable soup. But it’s the simplicity of dastuk that wins me over. The local rice porridge is a fine blend of potato crisp, fried lamb quarter, carrot leaf and raw apricot salsa. I’m only halfway through dinner, but I’m already satiated. That’s when a bright orange palate cleanser—sea buckthorn popsicle dusted with roasted cumin—comes to my rescue. I push through the next two dishes: the bitter and citrusy hops plated with smoked chicken and wild garlic, and skeu made of lamb chunks and mountain sorrel. A barley doughnut topped with a dollop of apricot jam and a generous drizzle of brown sugar toffee sauce is the closing act for the night. I’m certain I can go another day without eating, but mountain food is easy to relish and difficult to resist.
It’s only when I leave the confines of Leh in the company of my travel associates, do I get a real taste of India’s northernmost Union Territory. The fine-dining experience is topped by an al fresco picnic at Chilling Sumda village, situated at a distance of 66 kilometres from the property. It’s easy to lose track of time admiring the Zanskar River that flows in tandem with winding roads. The land, perched atop a mountain, is home to five coppersmith families whose ancestors made their way from Nepal in the 16th-century to help build the Shey Palace at the behest of King Deldan Namgyal. The legacy is alive even today as the craftsmen painstakingly mould copper jars, teapots and even lampshades using the atavistic method of only a hammer and rod.
The following day, I decide to sink my teeth deeper into Ladakh’s history and make my way up to the strategically important point of Turtuk—India’s last outpost and the gateway to Siachen Glacier. The territory, along with Tyakshi, Chuluntha and Bogdang, was part of Pakistan until the Battle of Turtuk, which took place during the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971. The Indian Army recaptured the region soon after. I learn about families of the Balti natives that were separated overnight. Now, their only chance at a reunion is via the route of Delhi. My eyes trace the ravines that stretch far ahead and I realise that the land at a distance of less than 10 kilometres belongs to the neighbouring country. Nature does not understand the physical construct of a border. Only humans do.
I make an overnight haul at the Namgyal-owned Pangong Sarai Camps to break the final stretch of my journey before returning to Leh. The temperature drops to single digits as the wind picks pace. The contrasting terrains, sliced away from tourist hotspots, arrest my attention. On one hand, sandy expanses peppered with desert plants might as well pass for the Mexican desert. On the other, an impossibly blue Pangong Tso—one of the world’s highest brackish water lakes at 14,270 feet above sea level—laps at the foot of charcoal mountains. At the risk of sounding cliché, I can’t help but feel like a speck in front of the planet’s formidable forces. It’s grounding to share the landscape with nobody but ourselves.
Ladakh Sarai is located in Saboo village, a 7.5 km/15-min drive from Leh’s Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport. All staff members are fully vaccinated and operate in accordance with state-regulated COVID-19 norms. The property remains closed during the winter months (October-February). Doubles from Rs10,200. Village excursions are subject to additional fees. (www.ladakhsarai.com)
Pooja Naik is Senior Sub-Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She likes to take long leisurely walks with both hands in her pocket; channeling her inner Gil Pender at Marine Drive since Paris is a continent away.