A lot of people mistakenly refer to Leh as part of the ancient silk route. As it turns out, the Leh market and town actually served as a feeder to the silk route which began from Rome, wound through Byzantium which is present day Istanbul and ended in Xi-an in China.
Silk, in those days was worth its weight in gold and since the Chinese were good at concealing the art of silk weaving, no one outside China could produce the fabric. This led to great demand among Romans, hitherto used to wearing coarser material.
The nearest point to Leh on this actual route was Kashgar, although then it was possible to go from Ladakh overland, into Tibet and then enter China. This route to Kashgar and Tibet made Leh the gateway to the Indo-Central Asia trade route. Here is where Central Asian traders would meet traders from the great Indian sub-continent.
Caravans from Kashmir, Punjab and the present day Himachal would undertake trips to Ladakh. Their central asian counterparts came from places as far off as Yarkand (situated near Kashgar in present day Xinjiang province in China), Tibet and Turkestan (in present day Kazakhstan). They would barter goods like carpets, silk, gold, leather, tea in exchange for the finest pashmina, wheat, cotton, opium, saffron and other exotic spices.
The marketplace still stands in Leh today, with the Leh Palace and Tsemo looking down on it, as it has for centuries.
The approach to the main bazaar through the fort road sees vehicles of all sizes kicking up a lot of dust. There is construction work going on the Imambara on the main bazaar road. The main bazaar itself consists of numerous shops selling shawls, carpets, wall hangings, and Tibetan ‘thangka‘ paintings. The influx of tourists from all over the country has led to Punjabi and North Indian food stalls and restaurants cropping up.
Tashi, our driver tells us the finest Pashmina shawl can be so thin, that once folded, it can fit easily into a shirt pocket and yet provide warmth better than an ordinary wool shawl. These shawls are made from the wool of the pashmina goat that graze in the pastures of the Chang Thang plateau and are a prized good in the Leh market.
Once we exit the bazaar road and walk towards the general direction of Leh main gate, it seems like taking a step back in time. For on the opposite side is an entire corridor full of vendors selling numerous dry fruits, herbs and spices.
A kind Kashmiri vendor, dressed in the traditional woolen Phiran entertains our queries with enthusiasm. He patiently answers all our queries about the items on sale. I point to a sack of strange, white eatable that reminds me of corals I found on the Gili islands off Bali. He informs me that it is desiccated curd and cottage cheese, the sample offered to us has a faint pungent and mildly sweet taste. Our unappreciative faces evoke mirth and a chuckle, “Safar mei kaam ayega.” (You can munch on these, while on the road). But we settle for dried apricots, which at 120 Rs. a kilo, are a steal.
To the left of this dry fruit and spices market, situated within the narrow bylanes of Moti market, are eateries with tandoors roasting rotis and abounding with the smell of freshly baked bread, non vegetarian fare swirling inside grills and sweetmeats arranged neatly. While to the right are many makeshift Tibetan markets peddling souvenirs and curios for the tourists.
Further up on the fort road are many popular eateries that cater to the present day tourist. The German bakery sits adjoining the french bakery, which to its credit, has been the only place where the shopkeeper told us the prices of the bakery items were negotiable. Wonders never cease in India.
Modern shops with numerous books on Ladakh and the Himalayas, garments and woolen items sit side-by-side. Before long, it is time to call it a day but not before we dig into some delicious Indo-chinese cuisine at the Chopsticks restaurant. This and Gesmo, as well as Lamayuru, rank along side the best restaurants in Leh.
Thankful to inputs from the book “Amazing Land Ladakh: Places, People, and Culture”, by Sanjeev Kumar Bhasin