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A Himalayan town that is as intriguing as its air is thin

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I told the owner, George Sher Ali, that I had been in his shop before, several years before, and his ears perked up. “Tell me what you bought,” he said, and reached for a tall stack of old assignment notebooks. “I will tell you exactly when you came in.”

I said I had been into his art and print shop, L’Araba Fenice, roughly eight years ago on a trip to Leh, a town in the Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir, in the far north of India. I bought two or three postcards, as had a friend who had come with me. He flipped through the pages of a few dog-eared notebooks for several minutes before announcing decisively, “This is you. Five postcards.” And he pointed at a hand-scrawled entry in a ledger dated Sept. 19, 2010. It was eight years ago to the day that I had visited his store.

While standing in Hundar, in the cold desert in Nubra Valley, you can see Himalayan ranges, green patches of Leh berry plants, pristine white sand dunes and the calm Shyok River flowing through the landscape.
While standing in Hundar, in the cold desert in Nubra Valley, you can see Himalayan ranges, green patches of Leh berry plants, pristine white sand dunes and the calm Shyok River flowing through the landscape.  (Jasminder Oberai)

Leh (pronounced LAY), once the royal seat of a former Buddhist kingdom, is a place with a seemingly undying memory, ageless and eternal as the mountains that surround it. The Ladakh region, dotted with poplars and dominated by the Himalayas, has changed noticeably over the last decade, welcoming more tourists, restaurants and guesthouses. But it remains a wondrous destination for the adventurous traveller, full of captivating scenery, generous and friendly people, and accessible monasteries and holy places nearby. And it doesn’t hurt that it can all be done fairly inexpensively.

A couple of planning tips: You will probably want to arrive by plane. The flight to Leh’s Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport from New Delhi is about an hour, compared to a 25-hour drive. Flights, fortunately, can be cheap. I bought a one-way ticket directly through Air India for about 2,800 Indian rupees, or less than $40 (U.S.) Because of the unpredictable mountain climate at such high altitude (Leh is at around 11,500 feet), flights arrive and depart in the morning. Don’t plan to hop an evening flight.

After arriving in Delhi, I spent a couple of days sightseeing and getting used to the time change before heading up to Leh early one morning. My trip was part of a longer journey to India, to places that will be featured in future columns. You can expect a good deal of bureaucracy when it comes to travel in this country. Have copies of your itinerary printed out, and a copy of the credit card with which you made a given ticket purchase, or the card itself.

Despite the territorial jockeying between China, Pakistan and India over the disputed Kashmir region, you won’t need any kind of special visa or permit to visit Leh, or sites on the Srinagar-Leh Highway that runs west from town — your Indian visa will do. But if you want to go to certain areas like the Nubra Valley, north of Leh, you will need a special Inner Line Permit. The price depends on the length of the permit but will run in the neighbourhood of 400 to 500 rupees.

Friends I had met during my previous trip to Leh — Tundup, a native of the area, and Sina, a Swiss national who visits frequently — picked me up at the airport and dropped me at my lodgings, the Hotel Spic-n-Span on Old Leh Road (double rooms cost around $45 to $60 per night online). There are hundreds of hotels and guesthouses in Leh, at every price point, but I would recommend staying within walking distance of the Main Bazaar, the hub of shopping and dining activity in town.

The bazaar is a good destination for your first day in Leh — you will want to take it easy and drink plenty of water as your body acclimates to the noticeable change in altitude. The bazaar, once open to cars, but now a pedestrian walkway, is bedecked with banners from the local mosque and colourful Buddhist prayer flags. Street dogs trot lazily between vendors peddling local apricots (200 grams, almost half a pound, will run about 100 rupees), while hawkers call from their storefronts, promising the best prices for pashmina shawls and handmade crafts. In the distance, the nine-story Leh Palace surveys the activity below.

Through the entrance to the compact Tibetan Refugee Market, you will find the Central Asian Museum (50 rupees entrance fee), a small but worthwhile cataloging of the history and customs of the area.

No trip to Leh would be complete without buying a scarf of some kind (it will help with the chilly temperatures and dust, too), and the purchasing is part of the experience. You do not simply walk into a store and buy a scarf — it is a relationship. Majid, the storekeeper at Pashmina House on the north end of the bazaar (the Google Maps location is not quite correct — the shop is farther north), sat me down with a cup of tea and told me, at some length, details about the origins of pashmina, or cashmere woven from the fur of Pashmina goats. At least half an hour passed before the subject of price was even broached and even then it was done almost distastefully, with numbers being punched into a calculator and passed back and forth between us.

“And let me tell you, my friend,” he said. “The machine-made pashminas are 10 per cent nylon. No one else will tell you this. But it is the truth.” The handmade pashminas ran in excess of 8,000 rupees, more than $100, as opposed to half that for the machine-woven scarves. I bought a machine-woven pashmina for myself (I honestly thought both were great; they both felt like spun cumulus clouds) and a couple of beautifully patterned, very soft Merino wool scarves for 2,500 rupees apiece.

A couple of bartering tips: While it is not the American way, try your best to get into it. Think of it as a dance or courting process, not as adversarial. Don’t jump right in with numbers. Chat, have some tea and relax. If you don’t like the price, act as if your heart has been broken, and walk away. Haggle hard, but if you know you are going to buy something, let the vendor feel like they have won — they likely need the extra $5 or $10 more than you do.

Exploring a new place where the air is so thin will frequently leave you gasping for breath. Take a breather, and refill your water bottle at Dzomsa, a small, environmentally conscious shop that sells sterilized water refills (bring your own bottle) for just 7 rupees, as well as some local artisanal products. I bought a jar of sweet apricot jam for 130 rupees. The cheerful shopkeeper, a woman named Stanzin, also offers same-day laundry service, for 95 rupees per kilo of clothing.

If you need a bit more of a boost than water can provide, there are a number of good coffee places in town, another change from my last visit. Brazil Cafe, with a friendly staff and great rooftop deck, was a handy stop for Wi-Fi (coverage is not great in Leh, and you will learn to take it where you can find it) and a 150-rupee cappuccino, as well as a surprisingly good 100-rupee banana bread. The Yum Yum Cafe, located in a courtyard off the main market, also has good coffee (80 rupees) and crunchy peanut cookies (50 rupees apiece).

More traditional Ladakhi fare is easy to find. The Himalayan Cafe has solid local food as well as good views of the palace and main bazaar. A vegetarian thenthuk — soup with thick, hand-pulled noodles, was just 110 rupees. An accompanying cup of rich Tibetan butter tea was powerfully dank and savory (40 rupees). You will want to try momos at some point — traditional filled dumplings — and you won’t find better than the potato and cheese variety (120 rupees) at Amdo Food, also on the Main Bazaar. With a yielding exterior and creamy, hearty filling, they are perfect fuel for a mountain trek.

For a more modern take on local fare, try Namza, which is both a cafe and an upscale clothing store, owned by designer Padma Yangchan. The clothes were a bit out of my league, price-wise, but the food was on point. A vegetarian o-chu tagi, soup with crimped, ear-shaped pasta, was very enjoyable (300 rupees). The restaurant Bon Appetit, off Changspa Road, takes some work to find after the sun goes down — when you see fellow diners approaching on a dark path with cellphone flashlights, you know you have found the right place. The gorgeously designed space has no rival in town, and the food is excellent. A big mutton burger with fries cost 300 rupees, and a bottle of pleasingly sour sea buckthorn juice to wash it down with was 100.

Venturing out of town is a good part of the fun of being in Leh, though, and I took advantage of the fact that my friend Sina had access to a car to explore the surrounding area. (For others, hiring a car and driver is easy, and encouraged, in Ladakh. The Ladakh Taxi Operator site can give you a good sense of what you can expect to pay for different trips. As always, bargain.)

We made our way early one morning, the sun at our backs, to explore a few different holy sites in the area. After a brief stop for photos at the confluence of the Indus and Zanskar rivers, we arrived at the Likir Monastery. Originally built in 1065 by the fifth king of Ladakh and reconstructed in the 18th century following a fire, the gompa (monastery) sits atop a hill, with snow-streaked mountains framing it picturesquely in the background. Admission is 30 rupees.

If you have the time, continue west for the next hour or two, winding along the Indus River through the pristine and rugged mountainscape. In 70 kilometres, you will reach Lamayuru Monastery, one of the most venerated and ancient monasteries in the region (50 rupees admission). A legend states that Arahat Madhyantika, who brought Buddhism to the region, visited the site and prophesied that teachings of the religion would flourish. The structure, which emits a certain serenity and calm, is situated in an area known as Moon Land, where the normally harsh lines of the mountainsides come together and fall in soft waves.

Lamayuru is a trek from Leh. If you want to visit somewhere a bit closer, Thikse Monastery is less than 20 kilometres west of town. Thikse, whose different white buildings cascade regally down a hillside, bears a resemblance to the Potala Palace in Tibet. We visited early, as the sun was rising, to catch morning prayers. Two young monks dressed in robes and orange headpieces stepped onto the roof and blew into their dung dkar, or conch shell horns. The ritual stunned us for its simplicity and beauty.

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Travel & Escape

Why your hotel mattress feels like heaven (and how to bring that feeling home)

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(NC) Choosing the right mattress is a long-term investment in your health and well-being. To make a good choice for your home, take a cue from luxury hotel-room beds, which are designed to support the sound sleep of tens of thousands of guests, 365 nights a year.

“When we’re shopping for a mattress, we do lab testing, identify the best materials, bring in multiple mattress samples and have our associates test them,” explains David Rizzo, who works for Marriott International. “We ask for ratings on comfort level, firmness, body support and movement disruption. It takes 12 to 18 months just to research and select materials.”

Here, he shares his tips to pick the perfect mattress for your best sleep:

Understand your needs. People have different food and exercise preferences, as well as different sleep cycles. So, it’s no surprise that everyone has unique mattress preferences. Not sure whether a firm or a soft mattress is better? Rizzo says the best gauge is to ask yourself, “Do I wake up with aches and pains?” If the answer is no, you’re golden.

Foam versus spring. All mattresses have a core that is made up foam or innersprings or a combination of the two. Today’s foam-core mattresses contain memory foam — a material engineered by NASA to keep astronauts comfortable in their seats. It’s special because it retains or “remembers” its shape, yielding to pressure from the sleeper’s body, then bouncing back once the pressure is removed.

An innerspring mattress has an encased array of springs with individual coils that are connected by a single helical wire. This wire creates continuous movement across the coil that minimizes disruption if the mattress is disturbed, such as by a restless sleeper. According to Rizzo, the innerspring is “bouncier.”

Temperature preference. Consider how warm or cool you like to sleep, and factor in the construction of the mattress to find one with a temperature that suits you. The air space engineered into an innerspring mattress promotes ventilation, which some people find keeps them pleasantly cool. To accomplish the same purpose with a foam mattress (or the foam layer of an innerspring) it may be infused with metal, usually silver or copper, to help dissipate heat and humidity.

Need to test out the right mattress for your needs? Find the right fit during your next trip by booking your stay at marriott.com.

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Travel & Escape

How to make the most of summer travel

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(NC) One of the best parts of our short Canadian summers is the opportunity to enjoy them a little bit extra on long weekends. If you need ideas, check out these creative things to do whether you decide to stay in town or go away.

Do a dinner crawl. Pub crawls are fun for couples, friends and also families with older kids. For an exciting twist that stretches your dollars and lets you taste food from several spots before you get too full, try a dinner crawl. Eat apps at one restaurant, mains at another and dessert at another.

Go on a mini getaway. You don’t need to go very far to enjoy a vacation – exploring a Canadian city over a summer weekend is great way to treat yourself to a holiday. Whether it’s checking out the museums in Toronto or the parks in Vancouver, there’s something for everyone. For upgraded benefits, special experiences and the best rates guaranteed, join Marriott Bonvoy and book direct on Marriott.com.

Host a potluck. Perfect whether you’re staying at home or going to your cottage, gather friends and family together for some food and fun. A potluck is an easy and affordable way to host a big get-together and lets everyone try something new and swap recipes. Make the festivities extra special with a fireworks potluck, too – ask everyone to bring some fireworks or sparklers and put on a light show. Just be sure to follow local regulations for consumer fireworks.

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Lottoland: Here’s why Canadians love it!

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Lotteries have been in existence for many centuries now and it’s an open secret that most people enjoy playing a good lottery.

Asides from gauging your own luck, the thrill of playing, the anticipation of the results and the big wins every now and then is something most people look forward to. Since 1982, the lottery has been in Canada, but now there is a way to play both the Lotto and other international lotteries from Canada, all from the comfort of your home.

With Lottoland, all you need to do is register and get access to numerous international lotteries right from their website. The easy-to-use interface has all the information you need, and great amount of care has been taken to ensure that the online experience is similar—and even better—than if players were to visit each location personally.

The Powerball and Mega Millions lotteries are hitting record highs with their prize money, in what the organizers claim to be the largest jackpot in the history of the world. However, the U.S. has gambling laws that are state controlled and buying your ticket through an online broker can be considered gambling.

“No one except the lottery or their licensed retailers can sell a lottery ticket. No one. Not even us. No one. No, not even that website. Or that one,” Powerball’s website says.

Therefore, to stand a chance to win the $1.5 billion-dollar lottery jackpot it means you have to purchase your lottery tickets directly from a licensed retailer such as Lottoland.

Since 2013, Lottoland has been operating in Canada, rapidly growing in popularity amongst Canadians. Due to its easy of use and instant access to lotteries that were previously considered inaccessible—as Canadians had to travel all the way to the U.S. to purchase tickets in the past—Lottoland has attracted lots of visitors.

Currently, there about 8-million players on Lottoland, a figure that points to the reliability of the website.

One of the core values of Lottoland is transparency and that’s why a quick search on the website would show you a list of all of their winners. Recently, a Lottoland customer was awarded a world-record fee of $137 million CND.

Also, due to the incredibly slim chances of winning the grand prize not everyone would take home mega-dollar winnings, but there are substantial winnings every day.

Securing your information online is usually one important factor when registering on any platform and as the site explains, “Lottoland works very hard to verify your information.”

The site has a multi-verification process that will ensure that you confirm your identity and age before giving you a pay-out. However, in the rare case that a player has immediate luck and wins a lottery before completing the verification process, Lottoland will hold on to the winnings until they complete your verification.

While this might seem like a tedious process, it is very important as these safety features would ensure that your information wasn’t stolen and ultimately your winning routed to another account.

Lottoland is licensed with the National Supervisory Bodies For Lotteries in several countries such as the United Kingdom, Italy, Sweden, Ireland and Australia—where it is called a wagering license. Typically, most gaming companies don’t establish insurance companies as it entails that their activities have to be transparent and the must be highly reputable in the industry.

Nonetheless, Lottoland has no issues meeting up to these standards as they have established themselves as the only gaming sector company who has its own insurance company—an added advantage for new and existing users.

Lotteries aren’t the only games Canadians enjoy playing and Lottoland recognizes this by providing players with other types of gaming. As an industry leader, video designers of online games often make them their first choice when it comes to publishing their works.

Online games such as slots, blackjack, video poker, baccarat, keno, scratchoffs, roulette and many others are always on offer at the Lottoland Casino. There’s also the option of playing with a live dealer and a total of over 100 games.

Lottoland has received numerous rave reviews from its growing list of satisfied customer and their responsive customer service agents are always available to answer any questions users may have, along with solving challenges they may have encountered.

More and more Canadians are trooping to Lottoland in droves due to the unique experience of going to a casino without having to leave the comfort of their homes.

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