Excitement coursed through my veins when I glanced out of the window – jagged peaks kissed by fluffy white clouds, which looked like whipped cream, spread out below as far as my eyes could see. Around me other passengers pulled out their cameras and started clicking. I was mesmerised and couldn’t quite believe my good fortune – after years of thinking about it, I was finally on my way to Ladakh.
Known as the ‘Land of High Passes’, Ladakh is a high altitude desert in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The mighty River Indus meanders across this barren region, providing sustainance for numerous villages along the way. When you’re here you’ll pass by endless tracts of nothing but flat brown plateau, before it yields to forbidding red, black and yellow mountains; then suddenly out of the blue, the monotonous topography gives way to emerald oases. I was headed to one such oasis, known as Nimmu Village, a 40-minute drive from Ladakh’s biggest city, Leh.
A blast of cold mountain air greeted me as I stepped off the plane. Zipping up my jacket, I looked around and smiled to myself. Ever since I was a little girl, the mountains have always felt like home and I would choose a mountain holiday over a seaside one any day. The clouds hung low and grey on that particular day. I met my driver Norbu outside the airport. He informed me that it had been drizzling off and on, which is uncommon, but no place has remained unaffected by climate change. The drive to Nimmu House, my home for the next four days, wound through the mountains, and we passed several Indian Army bases along the way, as well as the famous Magnetic Hill.
As I got out of the car, I was greeted by Samarth, who walked me through the orchard that surrounds the noble house. I met Manon, the manager, and other members of staff at the outdoor dining area. Their smiling faces and friendly demeanours immediately put me at ease. The resident chef sent out a cup of masala chai for me, which I sipped under an apricot tree whilst I chit-chatted with the team, getting to know a little more about the property.
Set in an orchard of leafy apricot and apple trees, Nimmu House was built in the 1910s by Zildar Rinchen Namgyal, a relative of the king of Ladakh. Constructed in true Ladakhi style, the building has three floors, of which two have been painstakingly renovated by a team of experts, who worked hard to bring the fine qualities of this heritage structure to life, after years of neglect, using traditional techniques. The descendents of the orginal owner still own the property and live on the premises in their own cottages, tending to a small farm. Manon took me to the stables as well where the family keeps dzos, which are a hybrid between yak and domestic cattle. Much to my delight a week-old dzo was in one of the stables.
Since altitude sickness is a very real risk in Ladakh, I took it easy that first day and drank plenty of water while my body acclimatised. After a hearty lunch of bruchetta, fresh garden salad and a giant slice of spinach quiche, I took a short nap before my appointment later that afternoon. In case you’re feeling extra chilly, the staff will be happy to give you a hot water bag to keep you toasty under the covers. I’d opted to learn how to make momos since doing any strenuous physical activity was out of the question. So I headed to the back garden after my afternoon siesta to meet Maya, the resident culinary extraordinaire. Prior to joining the team at Nimmu House, Maya had worked for a number of expat families. During that time she learnt how to cook and bake dishes from around the world. Needless to say her magic hands create the most delicious food, which keeps guests happy with satisfied tummies. I spent an hour learning the delicate art of folding thin pockets of dough filled with stuffing to create the perfect momo. Here’s an incentive to try your best – the momos you make will most likely be served as a starter during dinner time to every guest. I must mention that a good portion of the fruit, vegetables and salad leaves as well as some of the milk used to prepare meals are sourced directly from local farms and Nimmu House’s own orchards and garden. The menu for each day is carefully planned to avoid wastage and any leftovers are given to the dzos and cows.
Breakfast is usually served outdoors unless it’s too cold or in the unlikely event of rain. The next morning, as I sat under an apricot tree enjoying a slice of Ladakhi bread with butter and tangy seabuckthorn jam, I spotted birds I’d never seen before. “Those are magpies, and they’re thieves”, said Samarth, when I asked what kind of bird they were. As if to prove his point, a little while later two of them tried to steal a few pieces of fruit that had been left unattended in a bowl by one of the guests.
I met Samphe ley after breakfast. Born and raised in Nimmu Village, Samphe ley is a seasoned trekker and an experienced whitewater rafter. He was my village tour guide that morning and we set out for a walk down the lanes, which were flanked by tall poplar trees and low stone walls. On the way, he regaled me with stories about his childhood and how things have changed over the decades. For instance, there was a time not so long ago when all livestock used to be housed on the ground floor of homes, with families living above on the first. That way the human inhabitants stayed warm through the long, harsh winter. Samphe ley pointed out quite a few abandoned houses, slowly crumbling and giving in to the elements. They all had short, narrow doorways and small windows to prevent heat from escaping the interiors. Channels, fed by glacial water, criss-cross the village to provide water for irrigation and domestic uses.
The sound of flowing water in the background was oddy satisfying and extremely soothing to a city dweller like me. “Juley” meaning “hello” was a common greeting during the walk. As is the way with small communities, everyone knows everyone and even if you’re an outsider you’ll be the recipient of a friendly smile. That’s just the way of these simple mountain folk. “You have good stamina,” remarked Samphe ley after I refused his suggestion that we rest under a shady tree for a while. Though, much to my amusement, it turned out his concern for my physical state was more a ruse for him to stop and have a smoke, which we ended up doing anyway. After a solid two-hour walk uphill and down dale, including a diversion down to the Indus River, I was back at Nimmu House, with sunburnt hands and nose. I realised, belatedly, that SPF 30 is useless in these parts. Nothing less than SPF50 will do. A hat will give you added protection.
Evening bonfires are something of a ritual at Nimmu House. These gatherings are a great way to meet other guests and exchange stories. Don’t forget to look up. You’ll be amazed by the clear night sky and thousands of bright stars blinking back at you.
While you’re here, a visit to Alchi and Likir monasteries is a must, especially if you appreciate art. The management can arrange a cab and guide to take you around. After an hour’s drive from Nimmu village, past ominous looking black mountains and charming hamlets, you’ll arrive at Alchi village, from where you’ll have to walk up to the Alchi monastic complex. Built in the 11th century, the complex houses three temples, which were established in the 13th century. Intricate carvings on the wooden pillars of the three-storeyed Sumtseg Temple as well as the delicate murals inside are believed to have been done by Kashmiri artists while the main structure displays a Tibetan style. The inner sanctum is dominated by the statues of three main Bodhisattvas. All three temples are currently in various stages of restoration. You’ll notice that Likir Gompa is in a much better condition. It has excellent views of the surrounding mountains, set as it is atop a hill in the valley. A 23ft seated gilded statue of Maitreya Buddha will be the first thing you see when you reach the top of the stairs leading to the complex. The monastery has two assembly halls, which house old manuscripts, books and thangkas, as well as a school for novice monks. The llamas will be happy to show you around the school provided you don’t turn up during classes.
Later that day Manon gave me a tour of Nimmu House detailing the history of the building. It was very interesting to learn that the family used to live in the kitchen (now the dining room) on the first floor most of the year since it was the warmest room in the house. During the renovation it was thoroughly cleaned to remove soot from the wooden ceiling, but if you look carefully in certain nooks, you will spot black residue. The original stove still stands in one corner. A central room, which now serves as a reception cum living room used to be open to the sky. However, due to rain becoming a more common occurence, a fibreglass ceiling was installed, which still allows plenty of natural light to filter in. Four bedrooms on the same floor were also refurbished while keeping intact the traditional Ladakhi design. The wood used in the flooring has been cut by hand and rugs that provide a touch of warmth to these rooms have been sourced from Ladakhi nomads. Bedrooms have an ensuite bathroom with hot water as well other modern amenities. Currently only three bathrooms have hot water provided by solar power but there are plans afoot to extend this to the others. Do keep in mind that Ladakh is a cold desert, so keep your showers short. Another spacious room on the second floor has been converted into a yogashala. The lucky ones who practise here will enjoy lovely views of the mountains to the south. There are also two temples on this level that are kept locked, though if you look through the window of one you can see Tibetan murals adorning the walls. If you’d like to experience living outdoors, then you can opt to stay in one of the very comfortable and spacious luxury tents in the orchard that can easily house a family of four and come with attached bathrooms.
Any visit to Ladakh is incomplete without a trek, even if it’s a short one. Samphe ley accompanied me on a short, easy trek from Ney village, higher up in the mountains, to Basgo, which is the village next to Nimmu. The landscape here looks right out of a painting – fields of yellow mustard, potatoes, onions and other local vegetables are divided by stone boundary walls, dzos graze in open pastures, groves of poplar trees provide shady spots in which to rest, and snow-capped mountains appear to cradle all this beauty in their laps. Along the way I spotted plants with pink flowers and thick maroon stems – Samphe ley informed me that the thick, hollow stem was used to stitch pieces of fabric together in decades past. Remember to carry water on these outings. Since there’s no plastic recycling system in Ladakh, Nimmu House doesn’t use plastic bottled water. Instead they have their own water purification system and they’ll be more than happy to give you steel water bottles for your trip.
Four days passed by in the blink of an eye and I dreaded going back to the polluted city I called home. I’d made new friends, explored a beautiful region, eaten more than I should have and best of all, I had been forced to take a break from technology for the most part. This isn’t the place for you if you’re a social media addict. The Internet connection in these parts is shaky at best. Neither did my Vodafone connection work. However, every guest is a given a cellphone with a local number for the duration of their stay. This is the ultimate holiday for those seeking to learn about an old culture, discover a landscape vastly different from the rest of India, experience life in a traditional village and most of all escape from the cacophany of modern life.
- Heritage house
- Use of fair trade local products
- Zero wastage of food
- Solar power
- Working with local drivers, guides, bakers and farmers
When to go May to October
Nangso House Nimmu
Leh - 194101
Tariff Heritage room: ₹11,300–12,800, with two meals; ₹12,900–14,500, with all meals. Deluxe tent: ₹12,500–14,000, with two meals; ₹14,100–15,700, with all meals. GST extra
- Yoga, meditation and pranayama
- Guided village tour
- Cooking class
- Sightseeing tour
- Picnic by the Zanskar River
Air Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport is served by Jet Air and Air India from Delhi and Srinagar. Hotel can arrange a taxi (₹2,000) for pick-up
Rail Nearest railhead: Jammu Tawai (724km/ 18hrs). It is best to fly to Leh
Road You can get to Leh either from Srinagar via Zojila Pass or Manali by the Rohtang Pass in Himachal. Both routes are very scenic. You can hire taxis at the Manali Taxi Stand (Tel: 01902-252450) or Srinagar Taxi Stand (Tel: 0194-2452527) and negotiate a rate depending on road conditions Bus JKTDC buses from Srinagar charge about ₹950 per head; HPTDC has a Manali-Leh service, which entails a 2-day drive and night halt. These routes are only open from June to October.
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