One Skillet Enchilada

I’ve been on a homemade Mexican(ish) food binge the last few days. After eating fajitas, naked burrito bowl and quesadilla I wanted to try something different while also using up leftover tortillas and various sauces. What started as an experiment ended as an extremely delicious, healthy and flavour-explosion in my mouth! I promise you, once you try this recipe you won’t need the excuse of using leftover food to make this!

  • Servings: 2
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

Ingredients

  • 4 corn tortillas
  • 1 red onion, sliced
  • 1 small bunch broccoli, chopped into small florets
  • 3 cloves garlic, sliced
  • 2 handfulls of rocket, roughly chopped
  • 1/2 cup baba ganoush
  • 1 cup roast vegetable pasta sauce (or enchilada sauce)
  • 1tspn paprika
  • 1tspn cumin powder
  • 2tspn olive oil
  • salt to taste
  • cheese for garnish (optional)

Method

  1. Heat oven to 220C.
  2. Stack the tortillas on top of each other, place on a cutting board and cut into 6 wedges. (Think of the stack as the face of a clock and cut 3 lines through the stack: 12 to 6 o’clock, 2 to 8 and 4 to 10 o’clock).
  3. Line a baking tray with grease proof paper. Spread tortilla wedges in a single layer and bake for 10mins. Remove from oven and set aside to cool. (Taste one to make sure it’s crispy enough. Taste another with the baba ganoush and a third with the pasta sauce. Tell yourself off for being greedy and go back to cooking)
  4. Heat oil in a frying pan. Once heated add garlic and saute until golden. Add sliced onions, sprinkling of salt and cook till onions are soft.
  5. Add broccoli florets, paprika, cumin and fry till broccoli is cooked but still has a bite to it.
  6. Add baba ganoush and pasta sauce to the pan.
  7. Mix it all up. (Eat a couple of chips with the sauce; just to make sure it tastes alright of course). Adjust seasoning.
  8. Add the crispy chips to the pan, 1/4cup water, rocket and simmer for 5mins or just until the chips have absorbed the flavourful sauce and have started to go soft but are still chewy and a bit crunchy.
  9. Garnish with cheese. I did this for the pictures but honestly this dish is creamy and flavourful enough even without it. I’ll leave the cheese out next time.
  10. Transfer to a bowl and enjoy straightaway!

Notes

  1. Feel free to experiment with different veggies. You could use mushrooms, peppers or fresh corn.
  2. Throw in some cooked beans and some shredded chicken/pork for extra protein. You could even top this with a fried egg if you fancied!
  3. Whatever variations you try I’d suggest not swapping some things like garlic, red onion, baba ganoush (for the creaminess and smokiness it imparts to the dish), red sauce, rocket and the spices as they provide great depth of flavour!
  4. I used corn tortillas coz they retain their chewiness and crunchiness even after adding to the sauce. You could use flour tortillas too but these will likely go soggy.

[/recipe

Mushroom Spinach & Caramelised Onion Quesadilla

The tried and tested combo of mushrooms, spinach and cheese never gets old! I go through phases where I can’t get enough of it and end up eating it for at least half a week either in pasta dishes, wraps, veggie bowls, naked burrito bowls, quesadillas, omelettes or just stacked on some wholemeal sourdough bread. This recipe makes for a super quick and comforting mid week meal!

  • Servings: 1
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

Ingredients

  • 2 corn tortillas
  • 100gms cremini mushrooms, sliced
  • 50gms spinach, roughly chopped
  • 1/2 large white onion, sliced
  • 4 cloves garlic, 3 sliced and 1 minced
  • 150gms of greek yoghurt
  • 75-100gms of cheddar, grated (use as much or as little as you like)
  • salt, black pepper and balsamic vinegar
  • 1-2tbspns of olive oil

Method

  1. I start with the onions to give it time to caramalise slightly. Heat 2tspns of oil in a frying pan on medium-high heat. Add onions, stir fry for a couple of mins. Lower heat to medium-low, add a pinch of salt and a couple splashes of balsamic vinegar and let it cook till you prepare other ingredients.
  2. In a separate pan, cook spinach until slightly wilted, transfer to a bowl and let cool. Drain excess water once cool enough to handle.
  3. Heat remaining oil in the same pan, add sliced garlic. Once they start turning golden add the mushrooms, some salt and stir fry till cooked but still chewy. Keep aside (in a sieve if it’s too watery).
  4. Wipe the pan clean with a paper towel. Make sure the pan is hot, heat one corn tortilla for 10secs on each side. Add half the cheese, add some salt and cracked pepper, wait for 5secs or so before transferring to a plate to let the cheese melt completely. Repeat with the other tortilla but leave this one in the pan.
  5. Top with wilted spinach, transfer from the onions from the other pan onto the tortilla, add the mushrooms.
  6. Add the other tortilla with the melted cheese onto this stack, cheese side down (duh).
  7. Cook on low-med heat on both sides until the tortilla turns crispy (to your liking). While this happens add minced garlic to the greek yoghurt, salt to taste and give it a quick whisk. Adjust seasoning as per your taste. You could also use sour cream for this.
  8. Transfer quesadilla to a plate and cut in half. Dip the hot, cheesy and crispy goodness in the garlic sauce and devour!

Grain-Free Veggie Bake

  • Servings: 3
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

Ingredients

  • 250gms cauliflower, grated (I used store bought cauliflower “rice”)
  • 250gms mushrooms (I used mix of white and cremini), sliced
  • 1/2 red pepper, diced
  • 60gms baby spinach
  • 1stalk of spring onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed and sliced
  • 2 tbspn olive oil
  • 300gms pasta sauce (I used Jamie Oliver’s Tomato & Chilli one)
  • 75-100gms cheddar or tasty cheese, grated
  • salt and cracked pepper to taste

Method

  1. Heat oven to 180C
  2. Heat 1tbspn of oil in a pan. Saute garlic till golden, add mushrooms and stir fry till cooked but still chewy. Transfer to a baking dish.
  3. Heat the remaining oil in the same pan. Add grated cauliflower, spring onions and red pepper and stir fry for 3-4 mins till cooked but still crunchy. Transfer to the baking dish.
  4. Add spinach to the pan and let the heat wilt it a little and transfer to the dish.
  5. Add pasta sauce, adjust seasoning and stir through. 
  6. Sprinkle with cheese and add cracked pepper. 
  7. Bake for 10mins till the cheese is melted. Change setting to grill, turn up the temperature to 200C and grill till cheese is golden.
  8. Serve immediately and enjoy!

Notes

  1. Feel free to experiment with the veggies, the ones I used give out a lot of water so keep that in mind.
  2. Stir through some cooked pasta along with the sauce to make it more filling. Or serve the dish with some fresh sourdough bread to soak up the yummy sauce.
  3. For a vegan option, use cashew cheese instead.

Roasted cauliflower and garlic soup

  • Servings: 3
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

Ingredients

  • 1 medium head cauliflower, washed and cut into 2cms thick florets
  • 1 head garlic, crushed with skin on
  • 1 tspn coriander powder
  • 1/2 tspn cumin power
  • 1/2 tspn turmeric
  • 1/2 tspn salt
  • 1 green chilli, chopped (optional)
  • zest of 1 large lemon
  • 2 tbspn olive oil
  • 5 cups veggie broth
  • Chopped fresh herbs for garnish, I used mint and coriander
  • 1/2 cup cooked barley (optional)

Method

  1. Pre-heat regular oven to 200C
  2. Mix all dry spices, lemon zest and add olive oil, combine and set aside
  3. Add cauliflower florets and garlic to a mixing bowl, pour over the spice mix and combine thoroughly.
  4. Spread out florets on a baking tray lined to baking paper. Roast for 25-35mins till the edges of the florets are a bit charred.
  5. Remove tray from oven and let cool.
  6. Peel the garlic. Blend the cauliflower, garlic and broth in batches and add to a pot.
  7. Add the cooked barley if using and heat through.
  8. Ladle into bowls, garnish with fresh herbs and serve immediately

Quinoa Stir Fry

  • Servings: 2
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

Ingredients

  • 1cup quinoa
  • 250gms mushrooms of your choice, sliced (I use either portobello or cremini)
  • 150gms brussel sprouts (or cabbage), thinly sliced
  • 4 cloves garlic, crushed and sliced
  • 1 green chilli, deseeded and chopped
  • 3 tbspns olive oil
  • Handful of spring onions, chopped
  • Light soy sauce, as needed
  • Sesame oil, as needed
  • Salt to taste

Method

  1. Cook quinoa.
    • Rinse quinoa for 3-5mins under cold water, rubbing grains together. This removes the Saponin which gives the grain a bitter taste.
    • (Optional) Add wet quinoa to the pot and roast on low till grains are dry and toasted.
    • Add 1cup of cold water to the pot and bring to a boil. (I know most recipes call for twice the amount of water but somehow this makes quinoa quite mush for me every time so after a lot of trial & error I came to this ratio which works for me every single time. Feel free to cook it the way you want though)
    • Turn flame to low, cover pot and cook for 15mins or until water is absorbed.
    • Turn off flame but do not uncover the pot. Leave for 30mins or so until completely cooled.
    • Open pot and fluff quinoa with a fork.
  2. In a pan, saute sliced mushrooms with de-seeded green chilli, half the garlic, salt and olive oil until just cooked. Set aside.
  3. Add brussel sprouts to the pan with a bit of oil and saute for 2-3mins until cooked but still enough bite to it. Add soy sauce and a few drops of sesame oil to taste.
  4. Throw in the mushrooms, spring onions and quinoa and stir fry on high till there’s no liquid left. Add some soy sauce and sesame oil to your liking.
  5. Distribute into 2 bowls and serve straight away!

Notes/Ideas:

  1. I never used to enjoy quinoa in stir fries as the grains tend to get “lost” and the dish didn’t have enough bite or chewiness to it like it does with rice. But ensuring that quinoa is cooked right and adding it to dishes without a sauce helps. I sometimes throw in a handful of leftover barley just to get that extra chewiness.
  2. To give this an Indian twist you could forgo the soy and sesame oil and add a couple teaspoons of curry powder (or mixed Moroccon spice) in step 4 and serve it like Quinoa Pulao with some lemon on the side.

Life after Auroville

Too much happened in the months after Auroville. As mentioned in my previous post, I had reached a point where even thinking about anymore travels was making physically and mentally exhausted. I needed a place where I could settle down temporarily. So the plan when I left Auroville was to head back to my folks’ in Pune, pack my backpack and come straight to Australia but as life would have it I ended up retracing my steps around the globe.

Before I settled down anywhere (I knew it wasn’t going to be in Europe just yet) I wanted to spend time with my sister in Germany so that was my first stop. In the month that I was there, I spent time trying to get used to not being in Asia, getting used to the cold after being in tropical climate for a year, getting over the jet lag and getting used to the German language again which started to seem rude and curt after having spent so much time away. I couldn’t make it to London to see my friends or to Munich for that matter (which was just 45mins away) as I was seriously rationing my travels and trying not to over burden my travel-fatigued body.

From Germany, I went to the US to spend a few months with somebody who I thought was interesting. It became obvious after the very first weekend that it was going to be a waste of my time and that sadly he was not up to my standards so I (quite literally) made a run for it and decided, despite being traveled out, to visit some friends and family that I very much wanted to see. I spent a week in NYC with some of my dearest friends, Akshay and Anne, with whom it is like being home. And NYC itself is beginning to grow on me!

With Anuja, a friend from high school, whom I bump into every 6 years in different cities around the world!
With Anuja, a friend from high school, whom I bump into every 6 years in different cities around the world!

From New York, my cousin, whom I hadn’t seen for 3 years, and I drove to Columbus where he lives with his family. I spent a week with them, just chilling and eating way too much food (although my cousin disagrees as I don’t eat half as much as I used to back when we still lived in India). While in Columbus I also met Ryan whom I never thought I’d see again after we first met in Portugal 2 years ago!! Seeing him was definitely one of the highlights of my trip.

With my favourite niece and sis-in-law in Columbus
With my favourite niece and sis-in-law in Columbus

After that it was a week with Vivek in, what is now one of my favourite cities, Washington D.C. I luuuuved DC. The architecture, the young student/professional crowd, the suburban neighbourhoods, the history, museums, restaurants and café was basically everything I could ask for in a city. Ok, so DC doesn’t have a beach close by but it has a river which I love for those long solitary walks/bike rides. I’d go as far as to say that I would want to live in DC, even if it’s just for a few months.

Lincoln Memorial at twiight
Lincoln Memorial at twilight
Washington monument at sunset
Washington monument at sunset
Washington memorial and Thomas Jefferson memorial
A view of Washington monument and Jefferson memorial captured during a bike ride along the river

Long story short, US was one hell of a trip! After a quick stop back in NY it was time to (finally) head to Australia and I was nervous! I had one person I counted as a friend, couple of other acquaintances, a very low bank balance, a traveled out body, a 33hr hour journey and a 14hr time difference and resulting jet lag to look forward to. I knew my body needed rest, I knew my mind needed rest from constantly thinking about “where to next”. I was craving for the known, for a 9 to 5 life that I so needed a break from 18months ago.

As I write, it’s been a little over a month since I arrived in Melbourne and I am pretty sure this is where I want to live for the next year or so. It’s not been easy coming to this decision. I haven’t lived in one place for longer than 1.5 years since 2008. I have moved house 10 times in the 7years I was in the UK. And now I’ve been traveling for the last 18months. It’s almost as if I have forgotten how to put down roots anywhere. The feeling of knowing (or assuming) I’ll have to move again soon makes me wary of committing to live anywhere for too long (too long being longer than a couple of months). Or perhaps I’m just spoilt for choice and I want to keep my options open. But after all that uncertainty I’m finally beginning to be sure that I’ll stay out this year in Melbourne.

Melbourne is not a city I would call beautiful, especially after having traveled around Europe quite a bit. But something I wasn’t aware of was that people come to Melbourne for food and culture and these are the top 2 reasons I undertake any travel! From what I’ve seen so far, Melbourne is like a smaller version of London, with a much better pace of life, with better weather, a beach close by, countless cafes and restaurants, a big street food and coffee culture, and such friendly people. I couldn’t have chosen a better city to live in! Fingers crossed that I find a good job so I can stick to my decision of living here!

Auroville

When planning my next solo trip in India, the only thing I knew was that I desperately needed me-time and that I didn’t want to do touristy things. So basically I just needed a home away from home but for the life of me I could not figure out where to go or how long for.

I’d first heard of Auroville from Jen, a Kiwi I met while traveling from Cambodia to Thailand in June of 2015, and it drew up images of people living in caravans (wrong) somewhere far away from civilization (wrong again) and working on the farms (partly right). Then I heard about Auroville a couple of times more in January from other people I knew. Hearing about the same thing from multiple sources is usually a cue for me to check it out.

So I booked a one way flight to Chennai, a taxi to the Auroville town, a room in a guesthouse and off I went. I reached the town at night so I couldn’t make out much about my surroundings except that we were driving in what seemed to be a forest, there were no street lights, no cars and a lot of noise from night creatures. And then I entered the room in my guesthouse… and I just knew that I wouldn’t leave this place for at least a month.

As luck would have it, my landlord Alok was a lovely guy and the other housemates were good company too. Laurie, a Brit, and I had so much in common that it wasn’t even funny. Or may be it was. Our thoughts on marriage, having/not having kids, our discomfort in bigger groups, how much we cherish solitude, the way we spend time alone (sometimes just lying on the bed and staring at the ceiling) and even our choice in music (we could be listening to the same playlist on spotify!) was SO similar. She was probably the only one I spoke with the first couple of weeks. Rest of the time I was either shut in my room or chilling in a café with a “leave me alone” face.

My need for solitude was as it’s highest and Auroville, particularly my guesthouse, was the perfect place to get this. One could stay in communities and work on farms and get all the stimulation from meeting new people. My guesthouse thankfully was a stand alone building somewhere in the woods.

IMG_20160118_172716269_HDR

Auroville, also called the City of Dawn, is a universal township where people work not for money but the betterment of the community. From what I heard people are usually paid for their jobs in food and lodging plus some expense money (unless you have your own business). It’s a community based on human values instead of spiritual or religious beliefs or nationality. People seemed to dress to cover their body and not as a fashion statement. Of course, this was my perception from the limited interaction I’ve had with other people. I’ve read stories which speak to the contrary as well.

Even though Auroville is a town you feel like you are in a village. When cycling or walking on the dirt roads a lot of the times you are alone on the road, nothing but the forest around you. Sometimes you see community settlements or taking a small turn somewhere will lead you to some beautiful garden café or restaurant. I spent my days there doing yoga, meditation, cooking, cycling around the village, eating delicious farm grown organic food, chilling in my favourite cafes (Well Café, La Terrace and Naturellement are must tries if you visit) and attending seminars on nutrition, breathing techniques, meditation etc., nothing exciting but just what I needed. After a month of this routine though, it was time to leave. I wanted to go back to work, I wanted to find a place where I could live for a few months perhaps even a year or two. I didn’t know where that would be although I had an inkling and I wanted to find out if there was any merit to that feeling.

My favourite café in Auroville, Well Cafe
My favourite café in Auroville, Well Café
One of the most delicious hummus and falafel I've tasted. @ Well Cafe
One of the most delicious hummus and falafel I’ve tasted. @ Well Cafe
Thali (food platter) prepared using ingredients available on the farm on that day. @ Solitude Farm
Thali (food platter) prepared using ingredients available on the farm on that day. @ Solitude Farm

A new beginning…or is it?

It’s been around 4 months since my last post. I haven’t been slacking on updating my blog, it’s just that I have been taking a break from traveling and frankly I just didn’t feel like writing. I am here to fill in the gaps before writing about my next travels.

When I started backpacking in April 2015 I felt like I could keep traveling forever, it felt so natural at that time. But after 6 brilliant months on the road I felt the need to stop. I’ve spent the last 4 months with my parents in Pune (India). It is the longest I’ve been with them in 8 years and I am glad I got the chance to stay with them longer than the usual 2 weeks a year. It’s also the longest I’ve lived in one place in the last year and a half.

These 4 months have been the exact opposite of my backpacking days. Sleeping in the same bed night after night, the promise of a decent shower, waking up to the same faces, eating home cooked food everyday, not having to figure out how to get from A to B, not answering (or asking) the same Qs about “where are you from? What do you do? How long are you traveling for? etc.” has been fabulous. I’ve also been studying a lot and going for swimming and tennis classes, something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. I also visited Hyderabad and Goa to see friends I haven’t met for years or one’s I met during my travels. My sister visited us from Germany so there was a lot of family time and a brilliant trip to Goa (second one for me) which included going for drives, eating delicious food, long walks on the beach and then just chilling for a few hours in one of the beach shacks.

But it’s time to move on again. I am not ready to go back to work (at least not full-time) just yet and I’ve been lucky to have spent close to 9 months with friends and family around the globe which meant my money has lasted much longer than I anticipated. I don’t feel like backpacking or taking a trip with the sole intention of sight-seeing/photography either. I feel the need to travel slower, be in one place for a few months, find something meaningful to do (and not just something that will get me free food and accommodation) and then move to the next place.

When I left London in 2014, it felt like I was leaving to “do” something different and that when it’s done I’ll settle down in Germany to live close to my sister. But the 15 months of nomadic living has shifted something in me. Like this journey is no longer about what I do but who I am. I knew this break from “work eat sleep” cycle would change me but I felt I would still go back to the same lifestyle, just as a different person. I don’t see that happening anymore, at least not for the next couple of years.

My life has never been black and white, there’s always been a (massive) gray area and now it feels like the degree of uncertainty has just gone up a levels. It makes me nervous to think of where I will end up but when I think about what I am doing “NOW” I feel extremely calm. There’s nothing I would do differently. So I guess all I have to do is live in the present and be true to myself, which was the whole point of my travels anyways.

This sabbatical was meant to end in a year but 15 months later it feels like the journey has only just begun.

Ladakh

There are loads of attractions in the Ladakh region. Besides the town of Leh and the nearby sights there is Pangong Tso (Tso means lake), Tso Moriri, Nubra valley, Kargil and countless treks. Each of these would require at least an overnight stay.

Pangong Lake

My first excursion outside Leh was to Pangong lake. This lake is situated at 4250mtrs, is 135kms long of which only 25% is in India and the rest is in China. I was joined by 2 of my friends from Pune and another couple from Mumbai with whom we were sharing a cab. We set off on a 5hr drive (which turned into 8hrs). We were excited and chirpy to begin with but got quieter and tired as the day progressed. The roads, though loads better than when I went to the Valley of Flowers (in Uttarakhand), was still bumpy and the high altitude was giving me a headache and making me nauseous. But as with any other drive around Leh, the views were great! Barren mountains with greenery in the valley and ice caped mountains in the background.

IMG_20150822_135941265_HDR
View on the way to Pangong Lake

Or mountains that appear red (due to the soil/minerals perhaps) from one side but when you take a turn looked green from the other side. There were brilliantly funny signs on safe driving (posted by the Indian army) throughout the journey which kept us entertained. Some of my favourite ones were, “If you drive like hell, you’ll get there”, “Driving is risky after whisky”, “Be gently on my curves”, “Don’t be silly on the hilly” and “This is a highway not a runway”.

Himalayan sheep and marmots
Himalayan sheep and marmots

Once at Spangmik, which is one of the villages along the lake, we booked ourselves into a very basic Tibetan homestay, went down to the lake for a few pics before it got dark and returned in time to eat simple but delicious homemade food. The next day i woke up around 5:30 to be by the lake before sunrise as the lake is said to change colours from before sunrise to when the first rays hit the water. Infact, the lake is famed to have 7 different colours based on the time of the day and how sunny/cloudy it is but only the locals can boast of being witness to this as it is not a very common occurrence. We didn’t get to see that many colours because it was extremely cloudy that day but even then the views were spectacular! The lake was brilliantly blue in some areas and clear in the others which gorgeously reflected the multicoloured mountains.

Pangong lake as seen at Spangmik close to day break
Pangong lake as seen at Spangmik close to day break

 

Stunning reflection of the mountains
Stunning reflection of the multi-coloured mountains

Nubra Valley

This valley, which lies to the north of Leh, and is accessible via the Khardungla Pass, is also a high altitude dessert. Situated at around 3000mtrs the valley is famed for it’s delicious apricots and for the sand dunes near at Hunder. It is formed by the joining of the Shyok and Nubra rivers and has a lot of villages on either side of the valley that the visitors are attracted to. I stuck to Diskit and Hunder which are along the Shyok river. Besides the Diskit Gompa, which was my favourite gompa in Ladakh, there’s not much to do in the village.

Diskit Gompa
Diskit Gompa

Hunder on the other hand is where the sand dunes are. These dunes were phenomenal as the sand was bordered by some vegetation and there were pockets of water in the middles of the “dessert”, and all of this surrounded by beautiful mountains. The camel safari was a disappointment as it last not more than 10-12mins.

Double humped (Bactarian) camels and sand dunes at Hunder
Double humped (Bactarian) camels and sand dunes at Hunder

Lamayuru

A village on the Leh-Srinagar high way, Lamayuru is known for it’s monastery and for it’s lunar like, beautifully odd, landscape. This can easily be covered on a day trip but i stopped for some pics on the way from Kargil to Leh.

Moonscape at Lamayuru
Moonscape at Lamayuru

Despite having spent 5 weeks in Ladakh there is still so much i haven’t seen and for which i will surely go back one day. But if you find yourself in the region and have the time then Tso Moriri, the Zanskar region and Turtuk village in Nubra Valley is a must-see.

Ladakh was the highlight of my 6 months of backpacking around SE Asia and India and if you are planning to visit this region then I hope that you enjoy it as mush as I did.

Leh

I don’t know how long ive been thinking of coming to Leh. Perhaps for a couple of years now. But it is quite far from my home town Pune and also from London where i’ve lived for the last 7 years and it always seemed inaccessible at the time. Also, it’s proximity to Kargil reminded me of the Indo-Pak war of 1999 which made me nervous even thinking about a solo trip up north. But once i decided to leave my job in London to go backpacking then Ladakh automatically got added to the bucket list, all my fears invalidated just like that. Infact the only certainly i had when i set off on my trip was visiting Ladakh and this was the only part of my trip that i was willing to plan around.

Ladakh district (now called as the Leh district) is the north east portion of the topmost state in India, Jammu & Kashmir, and Leh is the biggest city of this region. Ladakh literally translates into “Land of high passes”. As with most of my travels, the name of a place resonates with me (for some unknown reason), then i do some minor research about it, look at some pics and decide to go for it. All i knew of Leh was that it is situated at an elevation of 3.5kms and is surrounded by beautiful lakes and rugged desert mountains. As for it’s inhabitants, I hadn’t expected much as a few people who had been there told me how commercial and overpriced the city is and how the locals are money minded and not very friendly.

The first couple of days after i flew in, i religiously heeded the advice about AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness). No exertion except perhaps a walk in the town is recommended for the first 24-48hrs. My first impression of Leh was nothing spectacular. All you see is barren mountains around the town with the same coloured houses mostly built of mud bricks. I love colours so Leh felt too dry to look at. But the more time i spent here the more the city grew on me. I started to love the barrenness, the old rustic charm, the countless prayer wheels and prayer flags dotted around the town, the tibetan refugee markets selling gorgeous pashminas, rugs, carpets, jewellery, handicraft etc.

Leh town center with innumerable prayer flags surrounding the mosques.
Leh main bazaar with innumerable prayer flags surrounding the mosques.

And the Ladakhi people are just so warm, it is what makes Leh feel like home to me. One is greeted with smiles and “Julley” which is a local greeting, locals (mostly the older ones) sit by the roads rotating miniature prayer wheels in their hands, the shopowners ask you if you’d like to buy something from them and if you say no they never push you but just smile as you keep walking. i love how (local) men don’t leer at women here. In fact some seem almost shy and won’t even make eye contact for long. Others will look at you but its more a look of curiosity, a look that doesnt make you cringe or question your choice of clothes. I really enjoy walking around the town, simply smiling and calling out Julley to people, and exploring it’s countless markets and cafes. Buddhism seems like the dominant relighion here but there are almost equal number of Muslims too and they seem to live in harmony. I love that there is a big mosque bang in the center of the main bazaar from where you can hear the azaan and if you walk a little away into one of the alleys you hear the buddhist chant of “Om mani padme hum” being played on speakers.

I haven’t been impressed with the food here though. The chinese food almost always lacks the flavour that you would find in restaurants elsewhere in india. The noodle soup of Thukpa varies vastly in taste and quality from cafe to cafe. Only the indian food and momos can be consistenly relied upon. My fav places to eat so far are Chaska Maska near the main bazaar for indian and south indian, Hot Pot on Old Leh road, Wonderland cafe and World Garden Cafe on Changspa road.

Once i realized i would be in Leh for a while i decided to look for a homestay. I wanted to experience the local culture from close up and frankly i’d reached a point where dorms/cheap guesthouses weren’t appealing to me much. Instead of asking travel agents i starting asking locals in cafes and minimarkets for a good home that would be willing to accommodate me and i was lucky to find a loving homestay with extremely caring people. It is the best place i’ve stayed at in my 6months of backpacking. From day 1 I was made to feel like i was part of their family and it is the perfect base for my exploration of Ladakh.

Ladakhis have to face really tough living conditions in the winter. In summer, the direct sunlight is harsh, electricity is intermittent and there is no constant running water. The goverment provides water a few times a week which is stored in tanks and then connected to pipes which provide running water. Hot water is received through geysers or goverment subsidized solar heaters. This is the easy part of the year. The temperature in winter drops to a minimum of -20 and the roads going out of Leh are blocked due to snow that is several feet high. The electricity is even more intermittent as snow plays havoc with the power lines. And of course, there is no running water and if you need to drink some, you first need to break chunks of ice and then melt it. To keep warm the families gather in one room, usually the kitchen, which has a mechanical coal heater. Most of the Ladakhis spend their summer months working in their farms harvesting fruit and vegetables, some of which they sell but the rest is basically cleaned/washed/dried to be used in the winter months from December to April. As the region is cut off from the neighboring areas the locals store enough grains, pulses and dehydrated vegetables to last these harsh 5 months. It is perhaps the shortage of basic things that make people value them even more and every effort is made to minimize waste. For eg, water which was used to wash rice or rinse fruit is stored and then later used to water the plants. Stale bread and rotis are fed to the dogs. Organic waste like pits from fruit or vegetable peels are fed to the cows. It is the harsh living conditions and inconveniences that affects everyone alike and is probably the reason that evokes a deep sense of unity and bond among the locals.

In terms of attractions, most are quite a long drive away from Leh but there’s still enough in and around the town to keep you busy for a good few days. In the town there is Shanti Stupa and the Leh Palace both of which offer different views of Leh and can be covered in a couple of hours each.

Shanti Stupa
Shanti Stupa
Leh as seen from the Leh Palace
Leh as seen from the Leh Palace

To the southeast, there are Shey, Thiksey and Hemis monasteries (also called gompas). Shey monastery, which is also known as the Shey Palace, is ok-ish to look at from the outside and in ruins from the inside. Thiksey monastery, which is the largest monastery in Central Ladakh, is quite impressive inside and out.

Thikse Monastery
Thikse Monastery

Hemis monastery was probably the richest of the monasteries in Ladakh with impressive Buddha statues and lots of murals and wall paintings in the temples. Visiting this gompa during the Hemis Festival would certainly be an event to remember!

Hemis Monastery compound
Hemis Monastery compound

To the southwest of Leh there is Spituk monastery and Hall of Fame museum, further west is Gurudwara Pathar Sahib, Magnetic Hill, Confluence of rivers Indus and Zanskar, and monasteries of Likir and Alchi. I skipped the Spituk gompa and I didn’t feel any of the “vehicle pulling itself uphill” effect at the Magnetic Hill but the rest of the sights are definitely worth a visit in my opinion.

On the ride from Leh to Alchi and Likir
On the ride from Leh to Alchi and Likir
Confluence of 2 rivers, Indus and Zanskar
Confluence of 2 rivers, Indus and Zanskar
DSCF5771
Likir Monastery with the Maitreya statue
Another one taken on the same ride
Another one taken on the same ride
View from behind the Alchi Monastery
View from behind the Alchi Monastery

To the north of Leh is the Khardungla pass which, at a height of 18380ft, is one of the highest motorable passes in the world. I don’t know what I was expecting but being at the pass was actually underwhelming. The surrounding mountains and geography of the area is such that you can’t really see or appreciate how high up you are and the view from the pass left a lot to be desired. But as it was just a stop on the way to Nubra I didn’t feel that I had wasted my time.

I happened to be in town for the week long annual Leh festival. The inauguration parade started an hour early (which is a first!) but it was lovely to see the locals out in their finest traditional garb but it was a small-ish group and the parade passed by in less than 5mins. The polo ground, where most of the functions were held was interesting too. Lot of traditional dances performed by locals dressed in colourful costumes belonging to different cultures (from Ladakhis, Nubra, Tibetan, etc). It was an afternoon well spent.

IMG_20150920_120306316_HDR
The men dance with water-carrying pots on their head

Chilling, to the southwest of Leh, in the Hemis National Park, is an amazing destination for a bike ride. It’s not too far from Leh and the scenery, as usual, was brilliant. I’ve been for countless bike rides in the last 6 months but this one was my favourite! Not only was it in Ladakh but I rode a Royal Enfield 500cc from Leh to Chilling. It was only my second time on this bike but I just fell in love with it! So much so that for the next few weeks all I could think of was buying a bike of my own!

IMG_20150922_112242106_HDR
Quick break on the way to Chilling
IMG_20150922_142636983_HDR
Beautiful mountains with multi-coloured rocks on the way to Chilling

One of the best things to do in Ladakh is to venture out on a bike (or a car if you can’t ride). The view on most of such journeys is beautiful. You’ll pass barren unforgiving mountains which will change to mountains of different hues set against stunning blue skies which will change to different coloured plants growing on an otherwise barren mountain.

Traveling around Leh is a perfect example of when the journey is more beautiful than the destination itself.