Open house

Open house
Lunch break for the staff at Tsermang Eco Camp,

Tsermang Eco Camp, on the Indus, near Leh, turns out to be a not-so-empty canvas

Soity Banerjee
April 24 , 2014
06 Min Read

If a camping holiday were a thing, Tsermang Eco Camp would be a pair of flannel pyjamas. But I didn’t know that at first. Sure, I had slept under a canopy of canvas before — in the hills and once by the sea — but this was different. The website had no real pictures of the tents, and playing twenty questions on a weedy phone line to Leh yielded little. Wary of words like ‘eco’ and ‘luxury’, especially when they are yoked together, I thought they sounded doubly dubious when applied to Ladakh, where the ecosystem is so famously fragile that it still struggles to make room for the Bisleri bottle-hugging, jeep safari-loving tourist, many summers after the first low-cost flight arrived.

Driving out of Leh airport on a fine morning, therefore, I panic. And it’s not before the taxi deposits us at the mouth of the Palam rope bridge opposite the village of Angling (about 7km from Leh) that I begin to realise just how misplaced my fears may be. Tangled in prayer flags, the bridge gives way to a narrow walking track on the left; one that runs for about 400m to the campsite, escorted by a hedge of prickly, rosemary-like seabuckthorn (‘Leh berry’) bushes from which Tsermang gets its name.

The camp itself is anything but prickly though, with downy beds and easy chairs, seagrass mats and soft monogrammed bathrobes. Decorated sparingly with furniture and furnishings collected from India (Leh and nearby villages, Delhi, Jaipur, Guwahati), France and Ikea (it is a country!), my tent smells as leafy as the Nirvaha aloe vera soap in the en suite bathroom. The blue and gold Ladakhi chest at the foot of my bed doesn’t quarrel with the wrought iron coat rack; nor the Ikea closet organiser with the Sanganeri block-printed quilt. It’s all surprisingly harmonious.

Planted in an arc across the grounds watched over by the Stok range, my tent is no different from the six others. The only distinction — and it is a crucial one — is that I can see the gurgling Indus, if I place myself strategically, from my poplar bed (almost Scandinavian in its austere handsomeness). But who spends a day in bed — even one with a spectacular view — in Ladakh? Well, I do, straying only as far as the canopied terrace, the dining table so close to the river that you can skim stones on it between courses. Not that I try. My hands are more gainfully engaged: smearing a delicate pancake with Nutella, for instance, or turning the pages of a page-turner while I’m plied with tea, cookies and dried apricots. Add to that the clear, high-altitude-induced-bluer-than-blue skies and a muddy-brown, mica-spangled Indus, and it’s all pretty perfect.

Do I sound uncritical? Like a giddy goat in the mountains? Well, the air is thin and my lungs insincere. Quite unlike Laurige Boyer, the young man who set up Tsermang with his local partners this year. A mountaineer, Indophile (working in India for six years, with a travel agency focused on in-bound tourism) and green warrior, Laurige demolishes any notions one might have of haughty Frenchmen, and runs the camp like a mountaineer, Indophile and green warrior would. From fixing solar batteries on Northeast bamboo mashaals to handing out headlamps for reading in bed (or pottering about on moonless nights), there’s a Laurigean quirk around every corner. Together with his lieutenants — warm-as-laughter Martine Cabarez, who has been in the business of running luxury camps in Morocco for over thirteen years; Himal, the avuncular cook, handyman and veteran of treks; shy, teenaged Dawa, carter of tea trays and heated bathwater; and local women who help with the laundry — Laurige spends his entire day fussing over guests, tackling teething troubles and adding the last few touches to his new muse (“details, details and details”). But when he’s not fixing the plumbing or coaxing a reluctant organic garden to grow, he takes off to Leh on a sputtering motorbike, goes kayaking or climbing (guests can too) or pays his charming neighbours a visit.

Photographer Puneet and I accompany him on one such walk to Palam village nearby. On the way, Laurige introduces us to Paul, the donkey with the mop-top, assorted cows, fields of barley, the local school, small whitewashed chortens and mud-brick homes. Palam’s main gompa, with sweeping views of the valley and Leh town in the distance, is sadly off limits to women. But an unexpected invitation to tea at kindergartener Tashi and his grandparents’ homestead more than makes up for my disappointment. In their world of soot-stained roof held up by rafters of poplar and a kitchen that doubles as family room, with neat rows of utensils and ornate traditional stove, conversation flows as freely as milky tea. By sunset, we find our way back to camp.

Now, tented camps are by no means rare in the Ladakhi countryside. You can pitch your tent by Tso Moriri or Pangong Tso, in the Nubra valley, Ulytokpo, Sarchu or Keylong. But there are none so close to touristy Leh as Tsermang. Which is perhaps why it offers a keener study in contrast. Downtown Leh, where the smell of burnt fuel from hulking cars and generators hangs heavy, is also grappling with waste management issues and the apathy of hotels that offer ‘running hot water’ in bone-dry, power-starved Ladakh. The Camp, though, prides itself on its clean conscience. Water for the duckboard bath comes in aluminium handi-like buckets from the well (heated on the stove until solar water heaters are installed). The only sources of light on the site are the solar-powered mashaals and old-world lanterns. Towels and bathrobes are not changed unless you request it. Fresh produce is all sourced from a farm next door and cooked from scratch. (Although, if I had to nitpick, I’d say the food could be better.)

Yet, for all its virtuousness, Tsermang Eco Camp is hardly scruffy. Far from it. What it offers instead is the luxury of guilt-free comfort in overstretched Ladakh. So much so that if a camping holiday could be a thing, Tsermang would be a pair of flannel pyjamas. Did I already say that?

The information
Location Near Palam Bridge, opposite Angling village; 7km from Leh. Cabs are available to and from Leh (Rs 250–350). You can also hire a bike from town or borrow bicycles at the campsite.
Accommodation 7 tents
Tariff Rs 7,000 (doubles), includes breakfast, dinner and transfers. Lunch Rs 450 per person (packed lunches also available)
Contact  9797306506, 9899020227

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