Between June and September, Leh is swamped by almost as many
transient Tibetan and Kashmiri traders as souvenir hungry tourists. Most
of the merchandise hawked in their temporary boutiques and stalls comes
from outside the region too: papier-mâché bowls, shawls and
carpets from Srinagar, jeweler and miniature paintings from Jaipur and "Himalayan"
handicrafts churned out by Tibetan refugees in Old Delhi.
Tibetan and Ladakhi curios account for the bulk of the goods on sale in Leh's emporiums, though most of these are run by Kashmiris from the Srinagar valley. The Ladakh art palace off the main bazaar, one of only two locally owned and run souvenir stores, is the least pushy, and a good place to browse. Among its vast array of articles are Tibetan trumpets, cymbals, brass and copper 'Chang' kettles, prayer wheels, thunderbolts, 'Gur Gur' tea churners, 'Chaam' dance masks, 'Thangkas', coral and seed pearl necklaces, to name but a few.
If money is no object, one could even splash out on a 'Perak', the long ladakhi head dresses, encrusted with turquoises, which cost upwards of Rs. 4,000. Turquoise is sold by the 'Tolah', and quality and age determine the price. One will be able to find vendors sitting on the main road, otherwise try the locally owned shop. Potala, down Nowshara lane, off the main road close to the Jami Masjid .
Shopping in Leh During The Tourist Season
During the season, temporary "Tibetan markets" run by itinerant Tibetans spring up around Fort Road where one can pick up amulets, butter lamps, beads, and reasonably priced silver jewellery inlaid with semi precious stones. However, the best place to head for Thangkas and hand woven Tibetan carpets is the Tibetan Children's Village Handicraft Centre, up the hill from the GPO, which also has racks of cheap woollen Nepali style jackets, waistcoats, and the whole gamut of "Free Tibet" stickers and posters.
Traditional Items from Ladakh
For authentic Ladakhi souvenirs try the outfitters and provision stores dotted along the main bazaar. The Lahauli run Sonambongo Barongpa & Sons, at the top right end of the street, sells traditional costume and religious paraphernalia at fixed prices. If one has been wondering where to find those dapper stovepipe hats, hand dyed 'Gonchans', raw silk cummerbunds, tie-dyed rope soled shoes. Bhutanese cross button shirts, prayer flags, real Ladakhi incense, or even monks' robes, look no further.
The Ecology Centre's handicraft shop with a second branch at the bottom of the bazaar is another source of good quality traditional clothing, including hand knitted woollen jumpers, hats and socks. Genuine Pashmina shawls, however, are hard to come by; start looking in Chang Tang co-operative in Karzoo, five minutes' walk up the lane past the ecology centre. Run by five local women who buy wool direct from nomadic herdsmen in eastern Ladakh, the co-op was set up to break the Kashmiri's traditional monopoly of the Pashmina business. Even if one is not in the market for a shawl, the workshop is well worth a visit.
Books! Books! Books
Easily the best bookshop in Leh is Artou's, who have two branches: one on the main bazaar, and another between Tibetan restaurant Devi and the Ecology centre. Both stock a fair selection of Indian penguin classics, plus dozens of more expensive titles on Ladakh and the Himalayas. Secondhand paperbacks are sold or part exchanged at Parkash Stationer's opposite the vegetable market while the Leh book depot in the main market is good for maps. Finally, for postcards, black and white photographs of Ladakh and stationery, visit Ali Shah's Postcard Shop above the main bazaar.