Nature calling in Ladakh? What a job it can be!!

A Ladakhi Toilet at the Thiksey Monastery (near Leh in Ladakh) where everything collects in a room below
A Ladakhi Toilet at the Thiksey Monastery (near Leh in Ladakh) where everything collects in a room below

When in Ladakh, finding and using a toilet can be quite an exercise. And if you are mentally and physically not ready when the time comes to use one, it can cause a fair amount embarrassment and discomfort. Or a change of clothes if things go a little awry.

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For starters, toilets are a rarity here. The silver lining are the vast desolate landscapes with perhaps the lowest population density anywhere in India. Head out to the nearest boulder and allow that wave of relief to sweep across your body. Phew.

A portable toilet with an attendant providing water on the road from Leh to Nubra Valley in Ladakh
A portable toilet with an attendant providing water on the road from Leh to Nubra Valley in Ladakh

And then, most of these toilets do not have water. Thus you cannot call them washrooms. And since you would always be rushing out as soon as the deed is done, you cannot call them restrooms. So make sure you carry your own water. Even if it means making do with precious supplies of mineral water. And have some soap handy too. Did someone mentioned toilet paper? Dig into your own rucksack. And don’t allow your imagination to run too wild: don’t even think where the guy who is cooking a meal for you at a roadside ‘café’ washed his hands.

Toilets come in many kinds here. You have the Ladakhi toilets, also called the Tibetan ones. What are these? Holes in the ground. Where you squat, with your bottoms a few inches away from stuff left by others, and make do with the ambient conditions. There is a version a few notches better than this at places: The hole in the ground is above a collection room: Everything drops through a hole into a dark closed space a few feet deep. The aroma may still be there but you are saved the sights. I know of a couple who were stranded in Tso Moriri in a homestay after the only camp refused to honour their booking; the toilet in that house was a hole above a room. One has no idea of the frequency these are cleared.

Privacy can be another concern here. You usually have flies for company – don’t they just love this stuff? Are they related to pigs? And often there are no doors. If you must use these, then be like the mice who closed their eyes when the cat came and thought it had gone away. You can do likewise or just put your head down – if you don’t know who has seen you, then it can’t hurt your modesty, can it?

Portable toilets at the Taglangla Pass on the way from Sarchu to Leh
Portable toilets at the Taglangla Pass on the way from Sarchu to Leh

The situation for many of the hundreds of visitors to the annual Hemis Monastery festival seemed to have become highly uncomfortable when I was there. For one, the monastery itself had no signs of toilets anywhere. Not even make-shift ones for the event. And with the day being cold and wet, it automatically makes for leaky bladders. One was directed to the surrounding village where the few toilets were just holes in the ground, with everything from previous users still piled up. These had no doors or even a ceiling; they were just three sided boxes. What were the visitors doing? Some used these, while a few actually went into people’s houses and quickly relieved themselves in the outer rooms and rushed out. Houses here are also open to anyone – there is nothing but some utensils and clothes for anyone to take away anyway. And Ladakh is mostly an honest and innocent place. Some ladies had no choice but to just squat anywhere while no one was looking. Men still had walls to stand against. Funnily, just when one thought no one had seen them, you realized those sitting on the upper stands of the monastery had a clear view of what was going on in the village around. Oops!

Of course, there are some modern toilets with water too. These are usually found in hotels and restaurants. The owners can be quite protective of these though: One such toilet at the Café Desert Rain in Leh was on the terrace and could be accessed by a key given to paying customers. Even when walking in the market area of Leh, it can be a challenge finding toilets. There are hardly any public facilities, and one often has to request restaurant to allow use of the same. Happily enough, most allow you to.

Delightfully, I saw some portable toilets at the Khardungla Pass on the way from Leh to Nubra Valley with running water and a guy constantly cleaning them. A tip to the caretaker was most deserving here. I also saw some of these portable ones at the Taglangla Pass too marked Ladies and Gentt but I did not venture to check these out.

Next time nature calls, make sure you are well prepared!!

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7 COMMENTS

  1. Hi rnthe Ladakh toilet is a sustainable toilet, and there is only 40 mm of rainfall a year. rnrnIf you cant cope with the toilet conditions there, you might like to go somewhere else. rnrnI have used a Ladakhi toilet, and I found it different to what I am accustomed to in Australia, but it was perfectly functional, though the sides of the hole were slightly rounded. It was an interesting experience. I am peleased to have used this kind of toilet. rnYou may notice that in many developed countries, there is a trend towards composting toilets, where again no water is used. rnWhy waste perfectly good drinking water flushing your shit and piss? Seems a waste….rnSo lets not try to change the perfectly functioning ladakhi toilets and westernise them.

  2. Last year I had been to Kailash-Mansarovar via Nepal/Tibet. Infact it is an extension (both geographically as well as culturally) of Leh. The toilet that you have mentioned perfectly match with the one that I have used there. And at a place called "Saga" we had stayed in a beautiful hotel. (Beautiful from out side only). Look wise, it was like any other 3 to 4 star hotel of any Indian city. To my horror, there was no water pipe line at all in the entire hotel building. Yes, no water pipe line means no toilet/no bathroom and so on and so forth.rnrnAnd at a place called "Dorchen", I was in side the 3-walled open cabin/toilet. Next to my toilet, one driver came and unzipped his pant and undergarment. He passed his stool. Stood up. Pulled his vest, zipped the pant and went away. ..what?..you said washing the buttocks, water and toilet paper???… Probably he has never heard of it in his life.. OR, like the Alexander’s Dictonary, those words were not there in his dictionary.

  3. hahahh! its really honest and wonderful guide to prepare oneself for the wonderful trips to the mountains! yeah living like a tribal is essential when go into their lands… I am planning away to some more sane place rather than hills!

  4. Dear Mr. Jain,
    In Ladakh water is an extremly scarce and precious resource. The region receives almost no precipitation throughout the year and the whole society is dependent on glaciermelt. Saving water is vital for the people to survive. The traditional Ladakhi toilet is perfectly adapted to these circumstances and normally doesn’t cause any odors nor hygenic concerns. Because of the extremly dry climate, everything collected in the chamber below composts very fast and is later used as manure on the fields, forming a closed loop. This way, the people of Ladakh managed to create a highly efficient agriculture and to live in harmony with the environment and its scarce resources over centuries.
    However, glacier recession and the booming tourist industry pose a severe threat to water security in the region. Water consumption is rising rapidly due to the installation of flush toilets while water supply keeps running out due to climate change.
    Mr. Jain, please keep the context in mind before writing an article like that. The traditional toilet might not comply with your personal habits as a visitor, but it is crucial for the region. However, one might cerainly suggest to modify the design a little bit to make it more comfortable for tourist. I hope I could give you some new insights and I didn’t mean no offence.
    Cheers, Ramón

  5. Dear Ramón, dear Ajay,

    thank you, Ramón, for the explanation of the situation in Ladakh. Most tourists don’t stay long enough or are just not interested to get a better insight into the local context. Water scarcity is a big issue and because of tourists that are sharing your point of view, Ajay (and Bhat), the water-system is getting disturbed by hotels building water flush toliets. Tourism is the biggest challenge to the ecosystem in Ladakh and hopefully people will understand the local problems and adapt to it – even if it means to change your toilet habits from home for a while.

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