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Ladakh: A Journey of Discovery
chillibreeze writer — Rashmi Thakur
As I stood at the highest motorable pass in the world and felt the snow falling on my face, for a moment I felt there was no escape from the dense fog all around. I made a little prayer at the small gompa on the top of a snow-covered mound. Only a few bells and some colorful pieces of cloth hanging by them, were visible in an otherwise white landscape. Well, I did no brave thing landing so high up at the Khardungla pass. The real heroes are the army men manning the place all year through. They are the ones who help us connect everything that lies on either side of this place. A small shop right there is a good place to collect some souvenirs for folks back home. At the pass, at 5600m, the highest road in the world, there's an army communications post, the emergency vehicles used to clear landslides, a fantastic army tea shack that hands out free chai to anyone who shows up, and a huge amount of rusting army crap. Admirably, the road is kept open all year round, though in winter traffic is only allowed in one direction every other day, and one whole day per week is needed for repairs. It's an extremely volatile landscape.
I did not just land up there, but this is where my real journey into Ladakh began. On the one side was the Leh valley with blotches of green in an arid land, and on the other, the sandy desert of Nubhra and the Siachen glacier base camp. I couldn’t really believe I could see so many landscapes in a stretch of merely a few miles.
While many tourists take the Manali-Leh highway, I chose to reach Leh by air, just in order to see the magnificent Himalayan ranges. While I waited at Delhi airport at 5 in the morning, I could not help but observe my fellow travelers. They came from all around the world, were of all ages and gender. They looked weather-worn but not one bit weary from all the traveling they seemed to have done. While I listened to some music on my ipod, everyone around me seemed to be moving in a rhythm. About an hour after take off, the plane cruised over the mountain ranges. I was woken up (the excitement was too overbearing) by my co-passenger only to open the shutter and be blinded by the sight. Thanks to the June sun, the snow glistened in its full glory revealing a sea of white mountain peaks. The arrival at Leh airport was equally dramatic. It looked really hot outside due to the sun and the dry rocky landscape, but when the pilot announced an outside temperature of 5 degrees, the entire plane gasped in unison. Everyone immediately pulled out their warm clothing. I too was ready to embark upon this most incredible journey.
June through August, Leh is thronged by foreigners providing the much needed living for the locals and the traders from Nepal and Kashmir. While some artifacts, silk and pashmina are irresistible, it is worth trying to strike a bargain. Lodging is quite expensive, but if you want to connect to the outer world, be ready to be fleeced. The cyber cafes charge a humungous Rs120 an hour. But Leh market is good for all the little needs and some extravagant ones too.
I managed to get a small makeshift cabin in the army area and the day I left I was thankful that the roof had not been blown away in the strong intermittent winds. Though it served just the basic need of a roof over my head, the sight when I woke up every morning was nothing less than breathtaking. Vast arid land lay in front of me, snow covered mountain peaks in the distance and the Shanti Stupa built by a Japanese Buddhist society stood elegantly over a hill. Perfect start to my morning was a walk to the top of it. I could see the entire valley, made green by the incessant efforts of the locals at farming. And in the distance I could see the highest golf course in the world! I just stood at its edge soaking up the clean, cold air till I was infused in it completely and I also tried to shed the pollution I must have brought with me from the bustling cities I came from. Even better is the view at night. The light is very different at high altitude, it’s clearer than normal and the constellation covered night sky looks absolutely spectacular.
The palaces and monasteries of Leh hold a lot of importance in the Buddhist communities and are important centers of learning. While some lay perched high on barren ridges and are semi ruined, others are well maintained and have made customized additions to attract tourists. The most amazing aspect of these places is the sound. The sounds of their wind chimes, long piped instruments etc bring together the sounds of the mountains and probably Gods. Even the chanting of Buddhist mantras made me feel like the entire universe was going to converge right there. That’s what made my visit to all the various gompas worth it.
I covered the Thikse, Spituk, Shey, Stok and Hemis in two days. Much of the gompas can be defined by how old and how well maintained they are. While some are in shambles, others are more well-preserved. The Hemis gompa is the biggest and home to a number of students studying Buddhism. I got a sneak peak into their lessons in which a number of young boys sat through long chanting of sacred texts and it is always accompanied by music of the drums, Tibetan bells and curved flutes. After the study sessions, the teachers taught the kids the traditional dance for the upcoming Ladakh festival. I too learnt a few steps which involved going round in circles on one leg. Most of the rooms at the monastery are open to public viewing and some can be opened on request. The huge ancient and heavy doors have very intricate carving on them and the huge locks open only to huge keys, a reminiscence of their rich past. These gompas also generally sport a museum section which displays precious stones, jewellery, Buddhist attire, utensils, weapons, coins. Photography is generally not permitted, but the postcards are definitely the most important buy here.
Stok is one of the oldest monasteries and I was lucky to have made it on a day when special prayers were being held and the ritual of burning the evil was being carried out. This happens only once in two years. We sat through the chanting and other parts of the ritual. All the priests wore the traditional attire while one of them was in colorful clothing and represented the power of Gods. The evil, in the shape of small figurines made of dough and clay were brought out in the open and burnt. The whole process took about an hour and was carried out with utmost sincerity and devotion.
Gompas can be visited en-route to any major destination and day trips can be planned likewise. On my way to the Partapur, a small village just ahead of the Hundar village, home to the double humped camel, we drove along the Shyok River. The name comes to mean ‘The River of sadness’. This is one of the biggest rivers in the region and covers a vast river bed. In these summer months, it had been reduced to a much thinner and drier stream of water, but I could imagine the strength of its fury from the large chunk of land it had gorged. I was lucky to have spotted a big herd of the Bactrian camels and immediately stopped the car to get close to them. There was a male leader and a number of young ones. With summer half way through, they had partly shed their hair and most of the skin was now visible. We ran down the mountain and had only just got really close to them, when they decided to leave the spot and headed across the river bed. When they were at a distance, the heat and the sun made their bodies seem to evaporate.
We moved on towards the sandy Nubhra valley. You can get a camel ride in the Hundar village for a small price. My camel guide was a kid, Ismail. He excitedly took pictures while I cruised the desert. The only vegetation that the camels fed on was the Leh Berry shrubs. After a night’s rest I headed towards Diskit and 25 km from the Sumur village lays Panamik, home to some hot water springs. The springs don’t look very appetizing because of the color they lend the mountain side, a deep sulphuric orange-yellow.
Back to base via the Khardungla pass, I was eager to start off again. This time it was the gorgeous Pangongtse Lake. It is a long drive through rocky roads and some places it is really dangerous due to landslides. The rocky sides of the mountains are quick to roll down. On the way we spotted yaks and took some pictures with them, albeit from a distance. We also stopped to see some mountain marmots that had dug burrows into the ground. Given how shy they were, it was impossible to go near them. But they looked pretty in orange fur, running about playfully. We closed in on the lake and when a small section of blue appeared before us, it looked like a big blue sapphire glimmering. The water was so pristine and deep blue, in the middle of naked and dry mountains. It is definitely a must see. It is 300 miles long with most of it in China. Both the countries have flag meetings on a boat at the demarcated border. The army has organized boating at the lake. The motor boats take you to the middle of the lake and I also heard a co-passenger murmur about something he felt he saw moving in the water, probably a loch ness monster. But nothing really could stir the beautiful water. We summed it up with some lovely pictures of the lake and the gulls.
My last evening in Leh was dinner at a small restaurant where I tried some Tibetan cuisine and the Kahmiri kahwa. Both were simply incredible and warm. I really did not want to leave anymore, but I knew I would be back very soon. There is still so much left to be explored. There is a story behind every stone.
All my life I worshiped her. Her golden voice, her beauty’s beat, how she made us feel, how she made me real and the ground beneath her feet.
And now I can be sure of anything, black is white and cold is heat, for what I worshiped stole my love away, it was the ground beneath her feet.
She was the ground, my favorite sound, my country road, my city street, my sky above, my only love and the ground beneath her feet.
- Salman Rushdie’s ‘The ground beneath her feet’ and the song by U2
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