To get to Mrs Chow and her home of comfort however, is a walk of much excitement. Our first day exploring, we are shown a back lane that cuts through some uphill climbs and leads directly to Chang Spa Road, the “Bandra”, the “Anjuna” of Leh, or so I am told. We are the earliest to arrive that season, and things on Chang Spa are still being painted and hammered and set up. Down towards Fort Road is where the activity is, and that is our daily walk, to the market—for my friend’s absolute addiction to namkeen packets, and to look for a liquor store, but alas, the highway up from Manali is still closed and hasn’t yet opened for the year, so we’re surviving on what little rations Leh has left. Camel cigarettes and Smirnoff and little canisters of oxygen, bright pink, the size of a deodorant bottle. For rations, it’s not so bad.
We call it Cowdung Alley, the road from Iris Café to Chow’s, because of the Hansel and Gretel trail the herds of cows leave behind. My friend is terrified of cows, one knocked her down as a child, and I am a little less scared but not by much, because I knew the cow that knocked her down. However, it’s decided that it’s my role to go forward and brave the cows, so I peer down the turns of Cowdung Alley and I say, “All clear!” and forward we go.
Once, we come across a large bull, sitting in the middle of the lane, with no space on his left or right. I try to do my usual thing, where I summon up my courage and walk around him, holding my breath, but at the last moment, I can’t.
I need the loo.
We have heavy bags.
We sit on a stairway for a while, gazing down at this cow. In desperation, we knock on a few windows, hoping someone more brave, or more familiar with this beast will chase him away for us. Everyone seems to be away or napping.
Finally, we walk around the back, hoping to come to another gate for Chow’s, but after a long walk—and some fences to leap—we eventually make our way back to Cowdung Alley after all.
Now I really need the loo.
The bull is gone.
My friend is absolutely passionate about dogs, in that she will stop at every dog and say, “Oh my god, that is adorable.” They are not all adorable. They are grimy, and stray, and large or small, but not cute. However, I will say that dogs bred in the mountains have raffish, confident faces, proud, high tails, and grin at you as you pass them. With a bath, they’d be as fluffy as Fluffy.
We befriend one dun coloured canine with a swoopy tail and an endearing way of cocking his head, when he meets us and the students we went to Nubra Valley with, in front of Wonderland. One of the boys has never had a dog before, and he takes great pleasure feeding it leftover pizza. Earlier, my friend and I had seen the dog crossing the street with great urgency, almost looking at his watch and going, “I’m late, I’m late for a very important date!” I named him Sherlock Bones, and we looked out for him on our walks. Made friendly by the pizza, he always stops to say hello and wag his tail at us, and we say, “Good boy, Sherlock!” and he walks us down the road a little bit, and then dashes off on another errand.
One night, obviously he has nothing else to do, so he decides to accompany us home, which upsets the delicate territory ecosystem of Chang Spa. Four mongrels tear out at us, teeth bared, snarling, and Sherlock, lovely, friendly Sherlock, is hiding behind our legs, growling menacingly using us as a shield. Um, thanks, but no thanks, Sherl. Again, we are stuck, it is dark, and there are packs of baying hounds. We ask a local shopkeeper for help, his wife and toddler son are outside, playing with a tricycle. “Are you scared of Blackie?” asks his wife, her round face shining with amusement. “”Blackie! Blackie!” calls her little son, and all three of them laugh. However, Sherlock/Blackie is not drawn by the baby’s babbling, and walks us home, after a passing man picks up a stone and waves it threateningly at the other dogs.
Once inside Chow’s I am ready to call it a night and go to sleep, but my friend is worried for Sherlock’s safety, and filled with guilt. “Is that him?” she keeps asking, when a dog barks, and I yawn, heartlessly.