A week’s perspective at Ladakh

Two whole buckets of hot water!

Today’s bath was a luxury.

At Leh, things taken for granted back at home seem to be an event of note. Simple things like having hot water to bathe, having running water in the house, drinking water with a glass – we usually drink using a mug or cup, straight from the bucket – feel like causes for celebration.

Maybe it is just that life is much simpler here – you use the same water source for drinking, washing, cooking, bathing; there’s no way to have different sources for water. Or maybe it is just that the rules don’t apply. You don’t sweat here, nor do you get dirty, so there’s no need to bathe everyday. Actually, it would be mighty inconvenient if you had to – the solar water heater manages to supply just four buckets of hot water, each poured mug by mug through one end as hot water trickles out of the other end, and you have to wait another couple of hours before it manages to supply warm water again. With eight people vying for the same source, trying to bathe daily would mean either spending the whole day waiting for the sun to perform its magic or to invite hypothermia by attempting a cold water bath.

Or maybe life at Leh is just about being happy over ‘bare necessities’.

All I know is that a twice-in-a-week routine works for me. And that today I’m all clean, ready for the next week!

It’s been less than a week that I’ve been here, but it seems much longer. It’s a world so unlike what I’ve seen that every day brings some new discovery. The mountain across my window seems garbed differently with snow each day. Every day the wind and the sun try disrobing it, and every night the clouds layer it with a fresh coat of snow. It seems to be the battlefield of the elements, each trying its might.

The wind and the sun seem to be gaining every day. The more distant mountains are almost denuded now, and just sport snow in tiny fissures. With summer on its way, the sun will soon beat down on the bare mountains.

Our room insulates us from the uneven swings in temperature – a pleasant 10 degrees in the evening dipping to a harsh -10 by late night – but even the trombay walls cannot keep the cold out. Thermals are like second skin now, but at times even they do not help and I retire to the warmth of rugs and quilts. It is difficult working at night. Hands freeze very quickly without gloves (two pairs) and the air stings the nose as I breathe. Working on the laptop is even more cumbersome. Gloves make typing difficult, and the touch pad does not work with gloves on anyway.

Life is slow here. People amble in to work at 10:00 AM and leave by 4:00 PM, with an hour’s break for lunch in between. Our office did not even have lights in it because no one has ever sat late in the 25 years of its existence.

We first visited the LEDeG (Ladakh Ecological Development Group) after our acclimatization of two days. Dorji drove us down from our hostel as the office is 3.5 km away. The office lies close to the main market, facing a lake of around 100 feet diameter. When we saw it, it had just a little water (normal water does not freeze at 0 degrees, only pure water does.) Dorji told us that in winters, the lake is almost full and freezes over – the ice layer on top being about a foot in thickness. This makes it ideal for ice hockey. This year’s National Ice Hockey tournament was held in the same lake in Jan.

The LEDeG office seems to embody the sleepy culture that prevails here. The lawn houses a small hand pump for drinking water and a solar panel (what else!). A small micro-hydel turbine also stands in the lawn, its water inlet jutting out like a cannon boom.

One seems to absorb the coziness of the building when one step in. A small foyer leads to a winding staircase, the steps hewn out of stone as is the fashion here, its walls adorned with displays of the various handicrafts that are made in Ladakh. The ground floor houses the library with its thick wooden door reminiscent of a fort’s gate. Sunlight filters in through the windows in the library, bathing it with soft light. The interiors seem to be the perfect place to spend a lazy afternoon with a book for company.

The first floor houses the offices of the LEDeG director and coordinators. We were given a small room next to the director’s. A large table, around which four chairs were squeezed in, claimed a third of the room’s space. A bukhari kept the room warm, excessively so in my opinion as it made moving out of the room painful. The comforts of the room could not cover up for claustrophobia, and I took up my space in the library.

We made our presentations to the advisor and director of LEDeG on what we would do over the next one month. I outlined our plan for the energy study and how we would go about it. We decided that we’d spend the time till Saturday on secondary data collection and getting the database ready, do a pilot field test on Monday and Tuesday, and make a prototype study by the next Friday. Then we’d get down to the actual primary data collection.

When I mention energy study, people immediately believe it is a study on the electricity demand and supply within the district. The energy plan is far more comprehensive. We need to capture information on all sources and consumption of energy – be it cowdung cakes for cooking or kerosene for lighting. Needs and supply vary across the city and villages. In addition to domestic consumption, we also need to figure out the consumption of the community and industries.

As a start, we figured out that we’d first accumulate data from the census and district statistical office. This data, like population of the 6 blocks within Leh, the chief occupations, livestock owned, forest cover, income levels of villagers, self help groups in villages and much else may not seem directly relevant to energy per se, but it all has a bearing. Like for example, the income level of a villager would help determine whether he would be able to pay the monthly charges if a micro-hydel project or solar photovoltaic cell was setup within his village (since meters are expensive, people are charged based on no. of bulbs in their house and electrical appliances used) and the presence of self help groups in the village gives a body that can negotiate with banks for loans to set up units if necessary.

We set off on Friday for our secondary data collection. We first visited the central planning officer’s office and two of us proceeded to the district statistical office. The central planning officer’s office overlooks a polo ground. When we first reached there, we saw many Ladakhis clad in their traditional garb on a dharna outside, clamoring for better amenities.

The traditional attire of a Ladakhi is a dark brown woolen robe, which looks like a Christian priest’s habit. The robe stretches till way below their knees, and they wear woolen pants and leather shoes under this. Both men and women bind the robe around their waists with a dark pink ribbon knotted behind their backs. Men wear a gray or light brown woolen cap, folded back by about two inches to get a headgear that is almost flat on top, while women prefer scarves.

I saw that most Ladakhi women had fine hair hued a deep brown rather than black. Their eyes had hardly any lashes, and many of their faces were burnt a dull red by the sun. The sun burn was quite intense for some of them and their skin was mottled in addition to being red. Sunscreen and face cream companies seem to be missing a big market for their products!

As we watched, many of the protestors squatted outside the deputy commissioner’s office housed in the same complex and leaned on their placards for support. An official came out to address them, and by the time we got out of the planning office in 10 min, the crowd had dispersed.

Lalit and Sanjiv stayed back at the planning officer’s, while Johnny and I left for the district statistical office. Most government officials were most helpful, and more surprisingly, very trustful. When Johnny and I visited the Animal Husbandry Office, the clerk had only one copy of the list of district veterinary hospitals, but at our request, he smilingly handed it over to us to Photostat and return within a half hour. At the civil construction department, the clerk asked us to sit while she got her assistant to photocopy it. It was a pleasant surprise, considering what I had been prepared for at government offices.

After roaming Leh town for lunch, we were in a more adventurous mood that night. We sent our laptops in Stenzin’s car and started our walk back home. The sun sank very quickly, enshrouding us in darkness. We did not have torches, and Leh does not have street lights, but the ambient light was good enough to navigate the roads. It was just around 7:30 PM, but barring a stray dzo, the roads were deserted.

The shortest way back to the hostel is to walk down the road till one comes to the base of the Shanti Stupa hill and then to clamber the hill for a few meters to take a dust road from there. Since we did not have any light source, we took the longer road which arcs around the hill and comes to the hostel. As step followed step, the light from the skies kept dimming as clouds floated in between the moon and us.

The air seemed colder and more difficult to breathe in. I was panting in a short while. I suddenly felt my eyes and face stinging, as if minute arrows were being aimed at me. In a flash, I realized what was happening. It was snowing!

Since it was very dark, I could not see the snowflakes drop down, but I could feel them on my skin. I fished out my camera and quickly asked the others to turn around for a snap. I could hardly frame the photo as the LCD screen showed up dark. I aimed the camera to roughly capture everyone on screen. As the camera flashed, the snowflakes caught the light and sparkled like innumerable jewels. Temporarily luminous, they masqueraded as stars falling to the ground for that ephemeral instant. They seemed to symbolize human desire – each of us starts off towards the same end, but everyone longs for a few moments where one is illumined and noticed.

The snow fall stopped almost as soon as we reached the hostel. The snow had hardly wet us, and a few moments in a cozy room rid us of the discomforts of the temperature.

Tomorrow, we start off for our first field visit. We visit a village about an hour’s drive from here to test our questionnaire and modify it if necessary.

Tomorrow I put my marketing survey fundas to test.

Tomorrow I set out to observe some more of this beautiful land high up in the mountains.


In 2006, I spent the months from March to May in Ladakh. Six of us from SPJIMR had chosen to do our summer project there, working on understanding and forecasting energy demand and supply for the region. It was an incredible experience. As part of the project, we travelled across Ladakh for primary surveys. The posts below were written during the visit.

I couldn’t, however, get Ladakh out of my mind. I visited Ladakh again in 2009 with friends to enjoy the now-discontinued Confluence music festival. The post on the second visit:

Read all my travel posts here.


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