my ladakhi skin
October in Toronto. The leaves are turning red and drying out, and so is my skin. This morning after my shower I opened a bottle of apricot oil and rubbed it between my palms to warm up before slathering it on. It smelled faintly smoky. Not necessarily how you want your body oil to smell, and I considered mixing it with a few drops of essential oil to mask the scent. But as I rubbed it on my neck and shoulders, the oil had a magical effect. It transported me instantly back to Ladakh, a timeless land of treacherous Himalayan passes and ancient Buddhist monasteries. It’s somewhere I don’t mind being reminded of as part of my daily cosmetic routine.
I spent most of June in Ladakh with my partner Scotty, wrapping up a five month journey through India: from South to North. We rented a Royal Enfield in the tourist centre of Leh and drove through snowstorms and sand drifts in this high altitude desert inhabited by Buddhists and border police.
We dared altitude sickness and frostbite to stop us as we maneuvered through whilteouts over Khardung-La, the world’s highest motorable road. In the Nubra Valley, on a steppe trampled by ancient Silk Route caravans, we listened to ladies sing in reedy little girl voices. They danced in slow, deliberate steps in felted boots with curled toes while we sipped on chang, moonshine made from sour fermented barley.
As we crept around gravelly corners, we waved to underage Bihari labourers who smiled back despite spending day after displaced day chipping Ladakh’s cliffs into smooth roads. In whitewashed villages and herders’ camps, we drove past Ladakhis watching the skies change while their sheep, goats and yaks grazed on the rough grasses.
We skipped pebbles from the shores of a landlocked saltwater lake – Pangong Tso, whose length stretches like a purple ribbon deep into Tibet. Giant Buddhas watched us from hilltop temples, and rainbow prayer flags sent their message out on the breeze: nothing is permanent.Neither was our trip. Our final stop in Ladakh was the village of Man, a farming settlement down a rocky road on the shores of Pangong Tso – about as far down the road as civilians can get in this borderland.
We stayed in a homestay with Tsering Namgyal, a modest and resourceful Ladakhi. He is a farmer who runs the village’s only “shop” out of a shed next to his cow’s pen. Tsering is also a Tibetan doctor, and his family temple has a floor-to-ceiling shelf stocked with jars of pellets, herbs, and tinctures scrawled with traditional names.With his son away working as a veterinarian in Leh, Tsering’s daughter-in-law Dolma spends her days caring for her in-laws, their teenage daughter, and her own two toddlers. Both kids were filthy and happy, playing with scissors, stray cats, and farm tools. Both had chapped, red cheeks and raw lips and nostrils, burnt by the cold Himalayan wind and the harsh UV rays. I played with them and the other village kids for hours, drawing pictures with my watercolour pencils and singing English alphabet songs. As the temperature dropped at night, we joined the family in the kitchen and sat huddled on cushions watching Hindi movies that seemed to be coming from another planet. The kitchen shelves were packed with patterned plastic thermoses and sets upon sets of decorative teacups – probably part of Dolma’s dowry – enough to serve the whole village! I couldn’t stop looking around the room and even tried to sketch the neat but cluttered scene.
The centre of the action was a small metal fireplace with an oversize kettle on top. After dinner, Dolma stoked the fire with dried dung and heated up water for the kids’ baths. We had a small bottle of apricot oil with us and gave it to Dolma to soothe her daughter’s skin. It had been working wonders for us over the last couple of weeks – protecting us from the freezing wind on the bike and replenishing our skin at night. After a couple of restful days in Man, we returned the Enfield and then flew to Delhi, centuries away. Before we left Leh I stocked up on apricot oil from a little fair trade shop, bringing small bottles as souvenirs for friends and a couple of bigger bottles to use on my dry skin in Canada.
Pure apricot kernel oil has essentail fatty acid compounds which make it a great moisturizer for body and face. It is high in vitamins E and A, and its soothing anti-inflammatory qualities make it a natural way help fight eczema and other skin irritations. My skin has been loving it!
The woman in the shop in Leh told me that an old man living in a small Ladakhi village makes the oil himself. I imagine him pounding the kernels in a kitchen similar to Tsering Namgyal’s. When I slather the apricot oil on my skin, I can smell the smoky dung fire heating up water for butter tea and imagine Dolma’s babies smiling at me with cheeks as red as the maple leaves falling outside my window.
Ladakh has gotten under my skin, and the memories of Tsering Namgyal’s cozy kitchen in the village of Man will keep me warm through the Canadian winter.