“Gandhi already did Gandhi, Mother Theresa did Mother Theresa so well, and Martin Luther King, he did Martin great! You be you! You be you! You be you! Who else could do you like you anyway.”
Throughout my stay in Asia I have seen the immense impact of tourism throughout India and Nepal. Though foreigners bring money, they also bring a cultural destruction that can never be undone. I have seen farming villages transformed into tourist dependent cities where the inhabitants (especially under the age of thirty) sit around on their phones all day refusing to work. They expect the money to pour in, as it does with an influx of tourism, without any effort on their part. Because of this there has been an immense loss of traditional dress, food, cultural, and even attitude towards life in many of these areas, something that is apparent to us as cyclists as we visit areas that have held their culture as they don’t rely on tourism. Here in Leh, at least in the beautiful guest house I am staying in, I have found (for the first time) a place which has kept its culture even throughout the onrush of tourism.
Leh, a high altitude (3,500m) Tibetan city which is part of the northern most disputed territories of Ladakh (India) was open for tourism for the first time in the late 1970’s. With this opening came a slow trickle of tourists which has now turned into thousands a year. The city is lined with guest houses and tourist restaurants serving American, German, and Israel food, much like any tourist destination in Asia. But here is the difference. Though the inhabitants are now making a profit from tourism, many, including the family I am staying with, are still self sufficient farmers who in no way rely upon us tourists to survive.
Our owners, a couple in their sixties, work hard all day in the fields during the summer, planting and cultivating enough food to last them through the cold harsh winter when this city is cut off from the rest of the world due to the snow covered passes on every side. I went with them and the man’s ninety year old father (clad in the traditional Buddhist thick robe even in the middle of summer) one day to one of their fifteen fields where they were planting barley with the help of two yaks. It was hard work, after which they went straight to their enormous garden to tend to their other plants until the sun started to set around eight. I helped them for a few hours, and to thank me, they fed me throughout the day then gave me dinner for free. They have in no way given up their position as proud Tibetan farmers, in fact, they work harder than ever now to feed themselves as well as the guests who stay with them with their own cultivated food.
For cheaper than anywhere in town the couple offers dinner, an all you can eat delicious meal that changes day to day. Kevin and I took advantage of eating with the family a few times, our favorite of which involved making momos. Along with another couple from the guest house, the four of us sat around stuffing and folding the delicious small dumplings (after a lesson from our chef of course) in the couples kitchen as they ran around preparing the rest of the meal. Not only was it an amazing meal, but it was fun leaning how to make this traditional dish so that we can all try to make it again back home.
This couple and their guest house made our stay in Leh wonderful. They provided us with a beautiful room (three sides of which were windows so it felt like we were in a sun room/tree house), but most of all, they invited us enthusiastically to see and partake in their traditional way of life, from working in the fields with the yaks, to eating traditional food with them on their floor. They have showed me that tourism doesn’t always have to be bad, that, if done right, it can provide an extra income to the family while providing us tourists with an amazing insight into a different way of life.