“JB, I can’t find my wallet!” Bharat looked at me with panic pasted all over his face. I looked at him incredulously. The search began. We went through his jeans pockets, frisked through his jacket, emptied the rucksack and the camera bag……nowhere. The wallet with all our money was gone!
It was our third day in Ladakh and we were left penniless. We had reached Diskit after a 160 km bike ride in the subzero temperatures and were sweating in the small homestay room. All our cash, driving license, credit and debit cards, everything was lost with the wallet. We were left with a few hundred bucks found in my jeans pocket and some loose change scavenged from Bharat’s jacket and that was it! We did have an emergency debit card but it was lying in the other rucksack back in Leh. The cash amounted to 360 rupees, which was barely enough to survive two people for one day. But, this was all that we had to take us through the next four days until we reached Leh.
We were stuck. This incident, although unfortunate, exposed us to the other side of Ladakh which we had only read in articles. About the kindness, compassion and hospitality of the people of Ladakh. This is what I learned about the Ladakhi people first hand:
Ladakhi people are unexpectedly kind
If you close your eyes and picture yourself in Ladakh, you would probably see the vast trans-Himalayan cold rocky desert, bright blue sky, cotton candy clouds, and turquoise lakes. But what I see when I imagine Ladakh, is the smiling face of Dorjee Bhaiyya, a campervan driver from Hunder.
Dorjee bhaiyya had spotted us on our way to Khardungla – the world’s highest mountain pass – from Leh. Apparently, we had made two big mistakes when we set out on our bike expedition from Leh:
- First, we put all our collective cash and cards into one wallet and did not keep any extra cash elsewhere.
- Second, we rented a rather bulky bike for a really short rider and an equally small-framed pillion with a big rucksack on her back.
Also, we did not realize that the two jerkins of petrol that we had tied to the sides of the bike were threatening to come loose even before we reached Khardungla. Dorjee bhaiyya had spotted the only bike on the road from his Mahindra 4X4 pickup van and had tried to signal to us about the precarious and rather dangerously hanging petrol containers. But we did not see him. When we stopped because of the bad road conditions before Khardungla, Dorjee bhaiyya came down and helped us secure the containers in place and offered to take me into his campervan. “It is going to be very cold and you are not properly dressed” he observed. We politely refused because we did not want to split and also maybe because we were a little suspicious (a vice that we all carry from our big cities). Dorjee bhaiyya did not insist and went ahead. Surprisingly, we found the Mahindra pickup waiting for us at every bend on the road until our bike was visible in its rear-view mirror. Dorjee bhaiyya kept at a safe distance, and moved his vehicle slowly to match-up with our struggling pace. Later on we came to know that he was doing this because it was getting late and he was afraid that we wouldn’t be able to make it to Hunder on time. And because it was the off-season in Ladakh, he knew that in case we got into trouble, there wouldn’t be anyone around to help us out.
Ladakhis are extremely hospitable
I once met a guy from Bangalore who told me the interesting story of how he survived for 15 days in Ladakh after losing all his belongings when his rucksack fell off his bike. He said that he could survive only because of the kindness of the locals. Everywhere he went, he was taken in happily and was fed and given a bed to sleep without the expectation of receiving anything in return. This was very hard for me to belief then, but now I can vouch for it too.
While we were rummaging through our belongings in search of the wallet, the owner of the homestay came and witnessed the scene of distress. He immediately waived off the 1200 rupees for our room, and offered us to have food with the family for the remainder of our stay. He gave us all the necessary comforts – a hot water bag and extra blankets – in spite of our inability to pay. The next day, over dinner, we learnt that he was the Tehsildar of Diskit and his wife who was politely forcing me to have a second bowl of thukpa, was the headmistress of the only school in Diskit. Coincidentally, it turned out, that his name was also Dorjee. Dorjee Sir found me very amusing and guffawed at everything that I said. He told us how he had fallen in love with Mrs. Dorjee when he was only 16 and how he used to walk for hours every day just to meet her. His face – crinkling at the sides of his eyes when he smiled – is what I remember to this day when I think of him.
Ladakhis will go out of their way to help you in your need
Apparently losing the wallet had far deeper repercussions than what we had thought. When it was finally time for us to leave for Pangong Tso after spending two days in Diskit and Hunder, Bharat complained that he was unsure about riding the bike. He said that he was feeling scared and that the loss of the wallet had taken away his courage. I tried to convince him but he was adamant – we were not going to Pangong on the bike! I felt disappointed and extremely frustrated. How were we supposed to move forward if not on the bike? We could not leave it behind because it needed to be returned safely to the rental agency in Leh.
In all this commotion Dorjee Sir again came to the rescue. He gave us two options:
- One, we leave the bike in Diskit and arrange for the rental agency people to pick it up.
- Two, we hire a pick up van and take the bike with us.
The first option, could cost us a hefty amount and was also dependent on the rental guys agreeing to confer with us. The second, he guessed, could cost us anywhere between 15 to 20 thousand rupees. We agreed on the second.
We immediately set out to Hunder to look for a campervan that would take us to Pangong with the bike and then drop us at Leh. But everywhere we went, we were quoted something that had us skeltering away. No campervan was available to take us to Pangong. We came back dejected and started thinking about the next best option.
However, early next morning, we found a familiar face waiting for us at the dining table. It was Dorjee Bhaiyya! He had learnt that a guy and a girl were looking for a campervan (we had also enquired about him in the few places) and immediately knew that it was us. He had already heard from Dorjee Sir about our wallet mishap and agreed to take us to Pangong and then drop us at Leh for a fraction of the amount that everyone else had quoted. It was the second time that Dorjee bhaiyya showed us his kindness and it was beyond anything that we had ever experienced before.
For the Ladakhis, love trumps it all
Stories are rife about the political unrest in Ladakh because of interfaith marriages between ladakhi buddhist women and Islamic men. However, contrary to what the media may have you believe, Ladakhis are not averse to inter faith or love marriages.
I remember sitting in the rickety bench of the tourist agency, huddling to keep myself warm from the cold that had seeped into my bones from the long ride back to Leh from Pangong Tso. It was late and Bharat and the other guys were offloading the bike from the back of the pickup van. The streets of Leh were deserted except for a handful of tourists scouting the marketplace for food. I was sitting alone in the small room of the agency when I heard a footstep. I looked up to see a bearded face smiling at me. “Aayein na, humare cafe mein aakar baithein” he said in a faintly familiar accent that I heard in some TV series. When I nodded in denial, he insisted “Aap ko thand lag rahi hogi, please humare cafe mein aaker baithein”. I stood up and followed him reluctantly to the cafe next door. The cafe was cozy, western inspired and highly modern. Ahmed (I got to know his name later) offered me a seat at one of the tables. The cafe had wrapped business for the day and his wife was busy winding things up. Ahmed quickly made me a cup of piping hot masala tea and a pancake, and sat on the other side of the table looking at me with amusement while I hogged the food down.
“This is my wife Dolma and my son Akhter” he said smiling at his wife and pointed towards a teenage boy on the couch who was busy playing games on the cafe’s laptop. Over the next few minutes, I learnt that Ahmed was from Kargil and Dolma – a buddhist by religion – was from a village near Leh. They had fallen in love 15 years ago and had decided to get married against all the odds. Ahmed told me how they had started as a small dhaba or tea shop selling chai, maggie and momos and had slowly worked their way up. “Yeh humari khudki cafe hai” he said proudly. When asked about the troubles of inter-faith marriage in Ladakh, Ahmed replied with a smile “Dikkate toh hoti hai, magar kya kar sakte hai”.
It is believed that cross marriages are leading to cultural erosion and religious hybridisation in the region and are not well accepted. But Ahmed and Dolma’s story instantly mellowed me and reinstated my faith in love marriages.
As I got up and insisted to pay (we had finally been able to withdraw some cash using the backup card), Ahmed withdrew and said that he could not accept it. He said that he was grateful that I came on his invitation. I thanked them profusely and was yet again touched by the innate warmth of the people of this desert land.
For me, the beauty of the people of ladakh, transcended the beauty of its majestic landscapes. It is indeed true that a place is made by its people and Ladakh, for me, was more beautiful because of the Ladakhis.