People of Ladakh seem to regard tourists as a different species altogether. It is not hard to understand why.
For a community that had remained isolated for centuries, opening up Ladakh to rest of the world suddenly exposed them to many things that they never knew before. A lot of Ladakhis perhaps found it hard to understand why people came in large numbers from different corners of the world just to go from place to place, doing little else but see places and take a few pictures. The tourists also did not fit their earlier mindset towards life in which summers were meant to work hard, make a living and stock up for the harsh winters.
My first realization of this this gap came when I was chatting with Tsering Thondup, a nomad shepherd from Changthang region. One day, looking for escape from a sudden storm, we sought shelter in Tsering’s large tent built from Yak Wool. As we warmed ourselves with a cup of hot yak’s milk and struck a conversation, he casually asked if we had been travelling. When I nodded, he innocently asked what is it that we gained from all the travels – ‘ghumne se aap ko kya milta hai‘?
When he asked so, he had unknowingly managed to reach somewhere deeper and questioned all the philosophies and reverences that I had built into the idea of travel. It almost made me ask myself about the virtues of travelling, about the idea of opening our minds by seeing new places and soaking in new cultures. That moment, I was not sure if I could really call travelling a process of self evolution that I had always conceived to be. I was not sure if it was worthwhile roaming the world seeking new things instead of being rooted somewhere and work for the good of oneself and everyone else. I wasn’t even sure if travelling merely for pleasures of the new place really brought a lasting pleasure or gave a temporary high that pushed you to your lows at the end of the journey. It reminded me what a wise man once said to me, ‘how much of goodness can you take? How much ice cream can you eat? How many movies can you watch? How much of a beautiful landscape can you see? You will eventually get tired. Your senses will get tired. You will have enough of all that. Look inward instead!’
This curiosity of Ladakhis towards travel however was diminishing over time. In the last thirty years when Ladakh opened up to tourists, whether people understood the idea of travel or not, they surely used it to their advantage. As they realized the earning potential from tourism, enterprising Ladakhis quickly jumped in to facilitate the visitors. In his book ‘A Journey in Ladakh,’ Andrew Harvey quotes an elderly lady from Leh who says, ‘When I was young every family would send a child to be a Buddhist monk. Now every family wants their child to be a tourist guide.’
Yet, Ladakhis still see tourists as a different species. The reasons are plenty. The tourist is unlike a Ladakhi in many ways. He is someone always in a hurry. He keeps running from place to place. He smiles less and may even get angry once in a while. He doesn’t do much work besides chasing traditionally dressed Ladakhi women for a photograph. Most importantly, he never uses public transport but zips from place to place in a chartered vehicle.
The last one—about the public transport—seems to be embedded deeply in the mind of every Ladakhi. It became evident to us on the day we arrived in Padum, the biggest town in the heart of Zanskar after a journey of two long days. Having arrived on a day when most hotels seemed to be full, we walked from guesthouse to guesthouse looking for accommodation. A guesthouse owner with a few rooms vacant said that he was waiting for a party of tourists who had booked for that day. When we pointed out that it is already an hour since the only bus to Padum has made it to the town, he casually responded: ‘they are tourists. They won’t be coming by bus.’
We went through a similar experience when we were stuck in the small village of Ulley Tokpo due to a landslide that blocked the main road. We were the only tourists among a large group of locals who were trying to walk to the other side and find another bus to continue the journey. Someone helpfully suggested that we could perhaps book a taxi once we walk across the landslide, never realizing that we were planning to take a bus.
Not to blame them, the tourists to Ladakh find it near impossible to fit their schedule into public transport. Buses to some places are so infrequent that you will have to wait for more than a week to catch the next bus. Taxis are priced so steep that many tourists find no choice but to run from place to place to keep their costs low. Most people who visit Ladakh are ready to leave even before they get a good idea of local ways of living. The interaction of tourists with locals is usually limited to their driver or guide, often keeping each side an enigma to the other.