Small village, big learnings

Khursheed Dinshaw | Updated on May 28, 2020

Humble house: Ulley, surrounded by snow-capped mountains, is home to only six families   -  KHURSHEED DINSHAW

Ulley, near Leh, is where minimalism and contentment live together happily ever after

* Ulley, a village near Leh, is home to only six families

* Ulley is in the snow leopard territory

* Depending on the season, Ulley visitors can also spot birds such as the Himalayan griffon vulture, Himalayan snowcock, blue whistling thrush and redstarts

The lockdown has placed me in a long-distance relationship — with normalcy and life as I knew it before March 25, 2020. I gaze longingly at the road, waiting to thread back on it. Minimalism has replaced frills that I once took for granted. This is probably why the mind, the only part of me that can now travel without sanitisers and health apps, wanders back to a place where minimalism and contentment share a happily-ever-after kind of life. That place is the village of Ulley, 80km from Leh, Ladakh.

My Ladakh trip, like most Ladakh itineraries, had started in Leh — in my case, in a luxurious room of The Grand Dragon Ladakh hotel, a mere five minutes from the airport. The acclimatisation process for the group I was with started with bowls of hot garlic soup. In the words of Danish Din, the hotel director, the garlic in the soup helps increase blood circulation and raises the oxygen level, enabling you to adjust to the rarefied air.

The following day was spent watching ice hockey matches and exploring the Leh market. The next day, we arrived at Ulley, home to only six families and raw natural beauty that urbanites can only dream of. The village was under the close watch of snow-capped mountains and its 40-odd residents, cocooned from the advances of modern technology, were happy within the boundaries of their simple lives.

The men of Ulley spend their days tracking the snow leopard and the women run homestays. The first taste of the village came to me in the form of khunak, salted black tea, and phemar, a snack made with barley flour, butter, sugar and dried cottage cheese. This is the local breakfast, which I had in the company of chatty women who welcomed me into their kitchen. I watched them go about their daily chores — cooking, cleaning, tending to children and domestic animals — at a pace that seemed alien to my city-bred sensibilities.

Lunch was a mix of rice, lentils and vegetables. Dinner or gongzan, as it is known in Ladakhi, included thenthuk, flat pieces of wheat dough boiled with vegetables and dried cottage cheese, skew or wheat dumplings cooked with vegetables, and rice. Those with a taste for local brews were also offered a barley wine, which is stored in a wooden barrel called zim and served warm.

The women of Ulley are adept at knitting. I got a glimpse of this skill while visiting another family. The lady of the house first used the knitting needles to repeatedly jab at a ball of wool. The jabbing led to a criss-crossing of the yarn in a way that hardened the wool. It was then used to craft likenesses of animals of the region — snow leopard, ibex and urial. I spent three hours watching the woman’s fingers work magic with the wool, and the snow leopard toy I purchased is a reminder of the experience.

The actual snow leopard obliged us with an appearance much later. It was another animal that I crossed paths with the next day, while strolling around Ulley. I walked into the company of a group of dzos, a male hybrid between a cow and a yak. Right behind these handsome animals were some dzomos, the female of the species. The gentle creatures saw me off to the village, where I settled for more salted tea.

The next morning, we drove to a patch of wilderness off Ulley, where we tucked into a hot meal. It strengthened us for the next adventure — foraging for sea buckthorn, a berry that is also widely cultivated in Ladakh. These tiny orange berries are packed into juices and jams and are consumed through the year. A gurgling stream nearby and the chirping of birds inspired our group to put more effort into the exercise.

A snow leopard sighting in addition to trips to spot the ibex and a spirited red fox provided all the adrenaline rush we needed. Depending on the season and Lady Luck, Ulley visitors can also spot birds such as the Himalayan griffon vulture, Himalayan snowcock, blue whistling thrush and redstarts. The village reminds us that the only frills one needs is nature.

Khursheed Dinshaw is a Pune-based freelance writer-photographer

Travel log
  • Getting there
  • From Leh airport, Ulley is about two hours by road.
  • Stay
  • Apart from the homestays, The Snow Leopard Lodge (snowleopardlodge.com) provides basic accommodation and dining.
  • BLink Tip
  • Reserve the first day for acclimatisation to Leh. Drink hot garlic soup, rest, check your oxygen level and do not venture out at all. Sightseeing should be planned from the second day.

Published on May 28, 2020

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