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Lessons from the Mountains

Celebrity Chef Ranveer Brar shares with us life-changing experiences from his trips to three little-known places in the Himalayas

Travelling can be a life-changing experience. However, I also feel it is a test of our organising, endurance and survival skills.
Himalayan pathways are not new to me. I had taken the ‘high road’, so to speak, nearly a decade ago. Those were spur-of-the-moment bike trips you take for the adrenaline rush. But there are times when one needs a more soul-filling experience to search for some quiet amidst the chaos that our lives have become.
I’ve always believed that tasting food at source adds a completely different perspective to it. For example, the warmth one gets from having a Malaiyyo in Banaras is incomparable to having it elsewhere, because it encompasses in it so much more than just the ingredients. One also experiences the weather, the culture and the essence of the city in that moment.
The Himalayas — we’ve read about them, fantasised about meandering through the innumerable bends, roughing it and coming back with a lifetime worth of clean lungs and life lessons. It was no different for me.
The first thing I recommend you do after landing in Ladakh is just breathe! No really! It’s a great feeling to be aware of your breath in that awe-inducing calm and altitude. The moment you sync your breathing to a more rhythmic, tranquil pace, trust me, you are ready for exploring the heights.
The drive up to Khardung La is a biker’s dream. At 17,582 feet, it is claimed to be the highest motorable road in the world and is the gateway to Shyok & Nubra valleys. The high that one gets after driving up, literally and figuratively, is incomparable. 
Continuing the road journey from thereon, meeting the different tribes, I quickly realised one thing. In this world where we feel powerful with technology in our hands and anything seems attainable, it just takes one trip to the mountains to completely humble you.
TURTUK: This small village at the northernmost border of the country is as idyllic as it gets. It’s surrounded by imposing mountains and is home to a mix of Indo-Aryan and Tibetan families. It’s nested in the Shyok Valley, which was interestingly a part of the Silk Route. One of the major factors that drew me to this village apart from its geography was Balti food. Turtuk is one of the few Indian regions where one can find Balti culture and cuisine.
One of the most fascinating dishes one can experience here is Kissir, a rustic pancake made with buckwheat flour, served with Tsemik. Tsemik is a yogurt-based dip or accompaniment made with a Himalayan herb of the same name, which has sharp Basil-like flavours. It’s a must try. And don’t miss the Khubani ka Meetha. Oh, did I mention Turtuk is famous for its apricots too? One can spot the tender apricots (if they are in season), teasingly hanging from the trees during a jaunt through the village.
However, behind the warmth and innocence of these people, lies a dark history — of the war-torn families, of people who were separated from their loved ones overnight and have met each other, perhaps only once in all these years. Stories like these give Turtuk a deep character and a silent strength, which one has to bow to. 

CHANGTHANG: There are a lot of things in this world that we take for granted. We typically see the end product, but little do we know about its source or the tough journey it has taken through its production line. Pashmina or Cashmere, as it is known in the western world, invokes visions of elegance and affluent couture. Though the history of woollen shawls in Kashmir is said to date back to between 3rd century BC and 11th century AD, Pashmina as an industry came much later,  around 15th century AD. 
One of the must visit places in a Himalayan trail is Changthang, a plateau inhabited by the Changpa tribe. The nomadic people of this tribe are traditional producers of the pashmina wool in the Ladakh region.But rearing the Changra goats that yield this prized wool is no easy job. The Changpas brave extremely harsh climates to earn their livelihood. The winter temperatures here drop to as low as minus 40 degrees Celsius. 
Earlier the wool was exported to Kashmir and further production of Pashmina products happened outside of the region. This was until Looms of Ladakhwas founded. It is a commendable project that aims to localise the production of Pashmina in Ladakh itself. This has helped empower the people to have a sustainable livelihood. Do add it to your itinerary. The hauntingly melodious song that will greet you as you enter the workshop will be as mesmerising as seeing the women deftly cleaning, combing and extracting the fine Pashmina fibre from raw wool.
The next time you see a Pashmina or Cashmere product, do stop for a moment to appreciate the goatherds who rough it every day and can only dream of wearing it themselves. Even better, go on the Pashmina trail to discover the magic that these people spin out of this dream fibre.

KARCHON: Foraging ingredients has to be one of the favourite activities for a chef. And there is this one ingredient that has intrigued me for long, Caterpillar Fungus. It’s known by many names — Cordyceps Sinensis or the Keedajadi or Yarsagumba, as it is locally known. It also called Yartsagungu (in Tibet). It’s such an interesting phenomenon, wherein a fungus takes over the larva of a particular species of caterpillar. It basically mummifies the caterpillar and it sprouts when it rains in the meadows. The resulting mushroom like formation is foraged by the locals and sold for a fortune in the markets. We are talking around Rs 18 lakh per kilogram!
So, if you are up for a 10km-long trek from the happy village of Karchon, which, trust me, is no mean feat, then you might just be rewarded with the elusive gold of the Himalayas.
Be it trekking up Triund to view the majestic Dhauladhar mountains, camping at the iconic Pangong Tso, white water rafting on the Beas river or paragliding at the popular Bir Billing, the Himalayas can teach you truly valuable lessons — lessons in endurance, being happy with less and reverence to nature.
But there is something else too. Often, the toughest looking people are the ones with soul-hugging smiles. Their living conditions toughen them, yet they retain a heart-warming simplicity and humility that we tend to lose in our race for more. As Greg Child said, “Somewhere between the bottom of the climb and the summit, is the answer to the mystery why we climb.” One day, I hope to crack that mystery.

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