Padma was our host in Jingchan for a night. Jingchan lies on the way to Rumbak and is accessible by road from Leh. We had to take this unscheduled stop at Jingchen as our guide expected an over flux of tourists and unavailability of rooms in Rumbak. Jingchan had only two houses on the other side of the gorge, through which a stream flew with a never ending crackle. We had to cross this stream and climb up to reach Padma’s house, which was made available to tourists through the Himalayan home stay scheme.
Padma waited at the porch and greeted us with a smile. It was an adobe styled house made of mud and stone-bricks. Though it was mid-summer, the walls were cold with dampness and the porch smelled of ungulate poop and ripe apricots. She showed us our room, and while we rested she brought us freshly brewed tea. We tried to communicate with her, but since she had difficulty comprehending Hindi we couldn’t carry our conversation for long. By then the sun had fairly advanced in the western sky and a cold wind descended from the north. We went down for a stroll beside the stream through the Apricot trees.
When we returned it was already dark and we were informed to gather at the Kitchen for dinner. At about 7:30 p.m. we went to the kitchen, which turned out to be a large room with an earthen oven on one side and terraced seats and low tables on the other. Against the wall was a rack stacked with brass utensils. There were three other Europeans, with who we exchanged pleasantries and took to our seats. Padma was busy preparing the meal occasionally adjusting the raging flame. A kid sat beside her, playing with a kitten completely oblivious to our presence. The kitchen, which is the center of a Ladaki house, also brought the strangers together.
Unable to speak with Padma, we turned to our guide and asked him about her. The guide told us that she along with her mother-in-law and the kid were the only members of the house. We realized that there was no water supply, no electricity, no shops, no schools or medical access within a proximity of four walking-hours. Whenever the family had to get some supplies, it had to send its mules along with someone going to the nearest town on such errands. And in winter, when the temperature falls several degrees below the freezing point, the family has to battle even harder for existence with one of the harshest environment of the planet. Padma served us dinner with a pleasing smile. It was a Ladaki dish known as ‘Temok’; made of steamed flour and steaming pulses.
Dinner was over in a little while and we left the Kitchen wishing goodnight to our host and fellow travelers. As the lights were put off in our room, I kept lying on my bed looking aimlessly into the dark. The innocent boy, his playmate, Padma’s pleasing smile, the harshness of the mountains all seemed to pop up and vanish in my mind in rapid succession. Ever since dinner, we had not spoken among ourselves and I knew what the others were thinking. All of a sudden our problems, of a fast paced life in Mumbai, seemed so irrelevant in front of Padma’s challenges and our complaints seemed so trivial in front of her contentment!
The next morning, before we started our trek to Rumbak we went to see Padma. The morning sun had brought much warmth in the kitchen and Padma served us tea. I offered the biscuit to the boy which he accepted willingly. As we parted, we exchanged smiles without any words. As we resumed our journey, Jingchan got lost beyond the curves of a mountain, but not before it gave me reasons to cherish for a long time to come.