Ladakh with it’s inexorable calling was a place I visited twice in almost 1 year. While the beauty of its landscape is undeniable, my happiest memories of Ladakh are of the people I’ve met – the gleeful giggles of children as they showed me around their village, the solemn gaze of the village elder that unravels into a heartfelt smile, the young boy who held my hand as I offered to walk him to his school bus, the invites to teach English, shy hesitation mingling with intrigue behind colourful veils.
Usually the friendships we create while traveling with locals or folks in far away lands are ephemeral in nature. Over the course of my fortnight in Ladakh, I connected with numerous locals, albeit in a transient manner. I decided to retrace my path with some dear friends to meet the people I’d fleetingly encountered and and yet, formed a bond with during my last visit to Ladakh. I was under no illusion that I’d made lifelong friends. But I wanted to make the effort to reciprocate the affection showered upon me and one way I could think of was to travel the long distance to see them all again, and give them the pictures I’d taken. I wanted to show them how I was drawn to their silence, laughter, beauty, innocence, curiosity – any of the multitude of emotions & traits I witnessed, through the portraits I’d taken.
A picturesque village set against towering mountains, its colours bandied about like the stripes on a flag.
Brown for the mountains, green for the lush fields, blue for the skies. Serpentine lanes, bordered by crystal clear water flowing down the winding canals and flanked by brick walls. It’s untouched and idyllic and welcoming!
I’m here in Tur Tuk and it isn’t the easiest place to reach. To reach this village we cross the barren landscapes of Leh, the highest motorable road of Khardung La and the high altitude desert of Nubra. Tur Tuk is in the Baltistan region, close to our neighbouring country, close enough to warrant continuous army presence. This area has a history well beyond the war between India and Pakistan. A predominantly Muslim region, and not particularly well off, it is fulfilling to see the focus on education among girls. Mornings begin with Qoran classes, followed by regular school. With tourism increasing in these parts it’s also not unusual to see these young girls practice their English with tourists.
It’s early in the day. We cross paths with young children rushing to school. They remind us of our childhood, dragging our feet to school, but giddy with the prospect of meeting friends & the next big adventure.
Asiya Bano (above)
A young girl playing peacekeeper between her younger siblings – she sees us and walks up to us saying “Good morning. My name Asiya Bano. Welcome to my village”. Eyes the shape of almonds, a shy smile, a surprisingly robust English vocabulary and curiosity in spades. I spent the better part of the morning with her as she happily introduced me to her friends in the village and questioned me about my life and work. My happiest moment was when she asked me in earnest to teach English in their village school (an offer I am seriously considering!).
Sher Baano was my first friend in Tur Tuk. Sher in Hindi or Urdu means tiger. And a young tigress she was! While the rest of the villages peered at us curiously from behind curtains and doors, Sher came forward, said hello, we exchanged names and just like that, we were friends. Sher became my tour guide, she followed our group everywhere, showed me around the village and introduced me to all of her friends. Like her name, she was quite the fierce leader, bossing the little ones around with a withering look or a stern word, all the while a smile playing on her face, like she knew something about us that we didn’t.
Then there was Salima who along with Asiya and rest of their friends, spent the morning with us chatting & practising English (in the hope that they could bunk Qoran school, I think).. Kids are kids, anywhere in the world!
The Aryan Villages of Ladakh have a curious history. The people who live here, known as Drok-pa, are believed to be the pure descendants of the original Aryans, tracing their lineage all the way back to Alexander The Great. My memories of Aryan Valley are of lush green valleys, the sweet taste of dried apricots, the sound of gushing rivers, teenagers & children posed without abandon, disarming us with their inquisitiveness.
Thinlass Dolma (above)
I met Thinlass last year while we were walking around the Aryan Village and she invited me over for tea.
We got along almost immediately! Thinlass is feisty, curious and kind – an amazing human! I met her again this year and much the same as last year, she invited my friends and I home and treated us to lovely chai and dried apricots. She fussed over me, complained that I’d lost weight and confirmed if I was still married (she was worried what all the travel might do to my marriage).. She makes an effort to stay in touch, calling me once a month to enquire about my well-being. She has an open invite to come stay with me in Bangalore and I can hear from the wistful manner in which she responds, that this would be a grand adventure for her. I hope I can make this happen for her!
This picture is of Sonam from the Aryan Village in Ladakh. I spent a few minutes helping her practice her English speaking skills, trading words & sentences. She had this earthy beauty and she was utterly unaware of the effect she had on us.
The resident teen queen, Padma, was a ring leader like no other. Sharp wits & a sharper tongue were her weapons of choice. Here she is in a rare pensive mood.
Sonam was kind enough to invite our group of almost 8-10 people into her home and even posed for us, while readying her child for school.