Tuesday 13 December 2016

First hand experience of Ladakhi hospitality

The Stok Palace
After fixing some minor issues with my bike, I headed to the Stok Palace. The Stok Palace is situated 15 km from Leh and its the current residence of the royal family of Leh. Part of the palace is converted in to museum and it's a great insight into the history and the culture of the Ladakhi people. It's a relatively small museum and it will take less than half an hour to see it. 

There's a cafetaria next to the museum. Since it was lunch time, I decided to order some momos and other Ladakhi snacks. Even if you're not hungry, I suggest you take time out to sit in the outside courtyard, have a coffee and enjoy the 360-degree views of the entire valley. 

There were no other customers and the cafetaria manager had free time to talk to know and ask me about my trip. During our chat, he asked me if I've had "Chung". I had no clue what he was talking about. Apparently, Chung is the homegorwn beer which the local make. It's not your average country liquor, neither it's the dirty-disquisting-overhyped Feni that you get in Goa. Chung is not sold in wine shops. It's made and consumed by the members of the house. It's also one of the drinks at the weddings. 

I asked the cafetaria owner to source it for me. He shouted from the top of the cafetaria to some of the workers busy renovating part of the palace and asked them if they had some left. But it was futile exercise. He told me that on my way back, I should stop by in the village and try to get it from someone's house. I might have to shell upto Rs.50 for a bottle but it's worth trying. 

I stopped at a general store down the palace and asked the store owner from where I could get Chung. The kind lady asked me to follow her and took me to the next door house. She asked me to wait out while she went in the big compound and asked the people if the had some Chung. Though they were talking in Ladakhi, I could almost make out the conversation based on the tone. The home owner seemed apprehensive to allow a stranger in to their house and let him consume their stuff. I was wearing my biking jacket and I didn't look anything like a Ladakhi. At this point, I pepped inside the gate and requested the lady of the house, "I'm a traveller and someone had suggested that I should try Chung. If you have some, perhaps, if you can give me a small portion of it to taste, I'd be grateful." Reazling that I'm a genuine person and not a troublemaker, she looked at the grandmother - the head of the family. The grandmother nodded and they let me in. 

This house belongs to the family who opened their hearts and beer taps for me
Mostly Ladakhis understand and speak Hindi very well. Except for the grand mother, everyone else in this house knew Hindi. A stranger/traveller coming to their house and asking for beer was perhaps a new thing for them - heck, it was new even for me to approach someone randomly and ask for their local brew. 

To give you a background, this was a big compound, on left was a section to keep their cattles and to the right was the farm. We were standing in the front yard, with steps leading to the house. I waited in the front yard while the daughter-in-law got a bucket from inside the house. It was one-thirds full. They poured it into a white mug as if pouring water out for cattles. 

Whitish in colour, Chung tastes a bit on the tangy side. But overall, it's pretty smooth. After finishing my first drink, I shamelessly poured myself a second one. The second son, only man present in the house at that point, of the family asked me to "take it easy." 

Bro-sis duo with the grand mother
The pre-teen brother-sister duo were most amused by me. As a token of appreciation, I asked them if I could click their pictures which I would later send it to them. At first, the younger one - the brother - seemed apprehensive but when the grand ma said "ok", she readily started posing. Their mother (daughter-in-law) of the family was busy talking to me and taking care of her toddler. Though the cafetaria owner told me people would charge Rs. 50 for a bottle, the way this family invited me in their home and gave me beer, offering them money would be disrespecting them. Instead, I clicked their picutres using my DSLR and promised to send hardcopies of their photos. 

Protective mother with her cute toddler
All this while, my mind kept flashing images of those travel shows where the travel host goes to a remote village in Africa or Vietnam and visits a local house and dines with the villagers. This was exactly like that. In that moment, I was Ian Wright

I stayed there for about half an hour discussing various things such as my travels, Chung, hobbies of their kids (the son loves WWE, John Cena is his favourite), life in Ladakh, etc. I didn't want to overstay their welcome, and anyway I didn't want to tempt myself with a third offering of Chung; hence, after the last sip of my drive was over, I clicked a few pictures of the kids, took down their address with a promise of mailing hardcopies of their pictures and headed back to Leh. I left their house with a wide grin on my face. I kept telling myself, "This is what I had come here for. To meet such people and to know their stories." 

Thank you for the memories, Leh
This was one of those moments that differentiates a tourist from a traveller. I am a traveller. I have always been. But this moment certified me as one.

I headed back to my hotel room, to pack my bags and bid adieu to the city the next morning. But the city wanted me to celebrate one last time. Post dinner, I reached the hotel and as I was heading to my room walking through those corridors, I heard music and laughter from one of the rooms. The door was wide open so I looked in and smiled at a bunch of foreigners who were partying there. They smiled back and 2-3 of them simultaneously asked me multiple questions: "How are you?", "Are you staying next door?", "Would you like to join?", "Come on in."

How can one say no to it? There were 7-8 of us when I joined, a few guys were headed for a hard trek the next morning, so they started retiring to their rooms. In the end, it was 4 of us (one New Zealander, one Australian, one Israeli and myself). We exchanged our travel stories over few drinks and couple of hours later, after exchanging our email ids with a promise of staying connected over Facebook, all of us retired to our respective rooms.

I packed my bags and tried to go to sleep but flashbacks of entire trip kept playing on loop for next few hours. I barely got 3 hours of sleep during my last night in Leh. But, I wasn't complaining. 

A lifelong dream of riding to Leh had been fulfilled!

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