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March 09, 2018

The Art Of Glamping

Text and images by Prachi Joshi

When India’s only nomadic luxury camp sets up base in Ladakh’s picturesque alpine terrain, you know you’re in for an experience of a lifetime. Prachi Joshi goes glamping with The Ultimate Travelling Camp (TUTC) and comes away impressed.

Dawn broke over the horizon as my flight hurtled through pink and orange-hued clouds. I was desperate to catch a glimpse of the Himalayas from the air, but the weather gods didn’t seem too kind. Then, suddenly just as we began our descent, the clouds parted and we were zooming past snow-capped peaks, over a rugged Martian landscape; just before we landed, I glimpsed a red-and-white monastery precariously hugging the side of a cliff. Touchdown, Ladakh – the land of high passes and spectacularly jagged peaks, of red-robed monks and white-washed stupas, of fluttering prayer flags and a Zen-like spirituality.

It was early July and hordes of tourists had descended upon Leh and the airport was a cacophony of mixed tongues. My husband and I dragged our bags off the carousel and walked out into the crisp morning. We had been warned about the thin mountain air but it washed over us like a cool sheet, a relief after being cooped up in a completely booked flight. Our guide and driver were waiting for us and we were whisked away to Chamba Camp Thiksey, a 45-minute drive from Leh airport. Located in a large clearing near Thiksey Monastery, TUTC’s camp was a welcome respite from the hubbub of Leh. The large reception marquee was beautifully appointed with oversized sofas, period furniture, and a small gift shop. While we checked-in, the resident doctor checked our blood pressure and oxygen levels to make sure that the thin air was not affecting us adversely. Our smiling valet brought us a welcome drink, aptly called Himalayan Delight – a hot concoction of Earl Grey tea, honey, and local apricot jam – and it quickly became our favourite drink of choice.

Our luxury suite tent was pristine white and made of triple-layered canvas, which was weather-proof, fire-resistant, and offered natural insulation. The spacious tent sat on a raised thick wooden deck, which also served as a patio giving a splendid view of the yellow-flowered alfalfa field and the majestic Stok Mountain Range – the sheer pleasure of waking up to the Himalayas practically in your front yard never got old. Inside the tent, a king-size four-poster bed occupied pride of place, complete with soft sheets, a pillow menu, wispy curtains, and a bejewelled chandelier hanging above. The rest of the room was done up tastefully – gleaming hardwood floors, Kashmiri carpets, a vintage travel trunk, elegant colonial furniture, colourful woollen throws, and a complementary refreshments bar. The en-suite bathroom with its deep copper washbasin, shower cubicle, and Ayurveda-inspired amenities could rival any five-star hotel bathroom.

Our first day at the camp was given to acclimatisation. We had a long, leisurely breakfast – al fresco, outside the dining tent and with a view of the Thiksey Monastery. Fruits, juices, eggs, cereal, and more made an appearance, all washed down with some excellent coffee, and accompanied by an impressive bakery basket of flaky croissants, airy muffins, and pillowy bread rolls. TUTC’s kitchen staff was truly adept at conjuring up all sorts of cuisines – during our stay we had a range of Indian, Continental, and local Ladakhi dishes, all meticulously executed, artfully presented, and uniformly delicious.

After the mandated acclimatisation rest day (spent napping, eating, lazing about, watching the sun set, and eating some more), we stepped out of the camp for a scenic drive across the Indus River to the 15th-century Matho Monastery perched high up in the Stok Mountains. Here, our guide Namgyal Dorje gave us a crash course in Buddhism as we explored the monastery and the upcoming art and culture museum. From the terrace of the under-construction museum we had a sweeping view of the Indus valley flanked by the Ladakh range and the Stok range with the mighty river gushing through it. Later, we went exploring Leh – crowded, dusty, choc-a-bloc with cars and bikes – it’s no wonder we made a beeline for the quiet environs of our camp where we stayed put for the evening. There were long walks in Thiksey village, a gander past the many chortens that lined one of the boundary walls of the camp, and a local dinner to the lilting tunes of the kopong (Ladakhi guitar).

Our visit coincided, quite luckily for us, with the renowned Hemis Festival. We drove to Hemis Monastery, about an hour’s drive from the camp, where TUTC had arranged for us to have VIP seats. From the balcony we had a bird’s eye view of the proceedings – monks in colourful outfits and elaborate masks performed ritual dances to the beats of drums, cymbals, and trumpets. The festival is held to celebrate the birthday of Lord Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche), an 8th-century Buddhist master widely revered as the second Buddha. After an exhilarating day at the Hemis Monastery, we returned to camp but stopped to visit Thiksey Monastery. It was 6.30 p.m. and it was the monks’ dinnertime. They kindly invited us to join them in their simple meal of thukpa (Tibetan noodle soup with noodles) and salty butter tea – probably the most delicious meal we had in Ladakh. The experience was made more special since we got a chance to interact with a group of young monks, an informal affair accompanied by a lot of questions and laughter. We later climbed up to the terrace of the monastery just in time to watch the setting sun cast a golden glow over the Leh valley.

Day 4 began bright and early as we left the Thiksey Camp to drive to Chamba Camp Diskit, TUTC’s second camp in Ladakh located in Nubra Valley. It was a long drive, nearly five hours of it, but the highlight was our passage through Khardung La – the highest motorable road in the world. It was a rough ride, with the rains having washed away parts of the road, but the view from the top was worth it. It had been a long winter and the pass was still lined with thick snow and everywhere we looked we could see the brown mountaintops liberally streaked stark white. As we descended into the Nubra Valley, we were met by the confluence of two rivers, Nubra and Shyok, flanked by craggy mountains of the Ladakh Range, interspersed here and there with pockets of green where tiny villages had sprung up. Chamba Camp Diskit is just outside Diskit village and is done up in a more rustic style compared to the Thiksey camp. The surrounding dramatic landscape added to the rough-and-ready camping vibe. The tent itself was anything but rough – the triple-layered beige tent stood on a solid wooden deck with a private sit-out and an uninterrupted view of the Diskit Monastery, which seems to have been hewn out of the very cliff it stood on. Inside, a four-poster bed, bright orange furniture, and a gorgeous vintage leather trunk-turned-wardrobe completed the safari camp style.

The next day we went out exploring the many villages in Nubra Valley. The highlight was Tirith village where a 350-year-old Ladakhi house still stands, complete with a traditional kitchen preserved along with its old stove, copper and brass utensils, and a wood-beamed ceiling blackened with three centuries of soot. We chatted with some women from the village who plied us with cups of chhang, the local tipple of choice made with fermented barley. Later that evening, we drove to the Hunder sand dunes – a surreal landscape of tall, undulating dunes hemmed in by the snow-covered Ladakh Range. Seated astride the two-humped Bactrian camels, we felt much like the nomadic merchants of centuries ago when the Silk Road passed through here.

On our last day in Ladakh, we made our way back from the Diskit camp to the Thiksey camp, via an alternate route that went through Wari La. This is a lesser-frequented mountain pass compared to Khardung La but no less scenic. It was a bright, sunny day and the sky had taken on a stunning cobalt hue. We drove through the alpine Himalayan landscape, encountering yaks and dzos (a hybrid of cow and yak), lightning quick marmots dashing about amongst the yellow buttercups, and a few golden eagles soaring overhead. By now the Thiksey camp felt like home. With a personal valet, a warmly hospitable staff, and a talented chef in the kitchen, TUTC was a ‘camping’ experience like no other.

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