By Ila Tyagi:
Situated at an altitude of 11,000 feet in the middle of the Himalayas, Leh is both a peaceful and a dangerous place to be. It is a place for the disturbed soul to relax in the tranquility of Himalayan life and a place for the adventurous seeking to take a chance with life. Leh gets all kinds of visitors from mountaineers, mountain bikers, light trekkers, family tourists, spiritual and religious tourists, honeymooners etc. My trip to Leh lasted just over a week and I stumbled across many interesting characters on this vacation.
Leh is a retreat for the romantic. With its snow-capped mountains and sand covered valleys, it is a charming mountainous desert. Honeymooners and the adventurers can camp in the dunes of the Nubra Valley in colourful and ‘Bukhari’ warmed tents. While on the dunes, my family interacted with a newly-wed couple from New Delhi. The conversation soon escalated to the topic of marriage and they were surprised to find that my parents belonged to two different communities in India. Even though India is progressing towards the values of liberalism and embracing modernity, inter-community marriages are still considered a taboo in certain sections of society.
They told me that I am blessed to have such forward thinking parents as they had struggled to convince their parents to marry the partner of their choice because arranged marriages are still common in our society. Once the camping experience was complete, we moved to experience the spiritual side of Leh.
Leh with its Tibetan Buddhist monasteries is the ideal place to rediscover yourself. I remember interacting with a British traveller who had lodged at the hotel for over three months. While I never really found out what were the personal issues that brought him to Leh, I realised that the engaging with Buddhism and meditation had lessened the sadness that his eyes betrayed. Our interactions mostly took place during dinnertime where he approached me upon spotting my University of Nottingham sweatshirt in the crowd. The discussions ranged from my life in the UK to his life in India. He recommended visiting the monasteries in Sheh, Thiksey, Diskit and Likir.
Sitting in the Diskit Monastery, I felt a unique sense of calm take over me. We were waiting for the monk’s lunch break to end in order to enter the temples and see the beautiful murals and frescoes. Most monasteries have fine paintings on their walls depicting Buddhist mythology and tales from Buddha’s life. Once the doors opened, we went around the temple admiring the vivid paintings. Looking at the paintings, I could draw the connection between Hinduism and Buddhism. Both religions believe in the existence of four gates to earth. In Buddhism, a ‘Mandala‘ painting depicts these gates. They represent the four boundless emotions of kindness, compassion, sympathy and equanimity. The monastery also runs a school for the young monks called Gompa.
A Gompa is a spiritual community and an educational institution. We were presented with the unique opportunity of gaining an insight into the functioning of a Gompa. We visited the dormitories of the young monks. Upon interacting with the young monks we learnt that they are sent to the Gompas by their families to receive training for becoming a Lama. They are taught the conventional school subjects along with teachings in Buddhism. They are ordained at a young age of eight to ten years and expected to lead an austere and simple life different to that of an ordinary follower of Buddhism. Celibacy is an important distinguishing factor between the monk and a lay follower of Buddhism.
Our next visit was to the breathtakingly beautiful Pangong Tso lake. It has been an attractive spot for shooting many Bollywood films. The lake is a three-hour drive from the Leh city and the roads are steep, narrow and dangerous. Many fatal accidents are reported every year on this route. It is located at an altitude of 4,250 meters and strong winds are experienced in this area. Our taxi driver was exceptionally courageous and skilled to drive us through tapering paths blocked by mountain rocks. I have utmost respect for the man because every time I peeked down from the car window, I would see a ‘Valley of Death’ that consumes hundreds of motorcyclists and car passengers every year.
Upon reaching the lakeside we ate food at the makeshift restaurants supported by tin sheets. There were many motorcyclists at the restaurant and a large Gujarati family busy ordering the children to eat the food available as they were being fussy. I ordered Kahwah tea, a unique blend of cinnamon, saffron, cardamom and Kashmiri roses. It is a popular local drink and is credited with making you feel relaxed and happy. For the main course, I ordered Chow mein that is markedly different from the one that originated in China. The Chow mein was customised to include many Indian masalas and was spicier than usual. The bikers struck up a conversation with my father upon seeing that he was from the military and enquired whether he was ever posted up in the mountains. My father replied in the affirmative and so began a detailed discussion of his adventures as an Army Officer stationed in Leh in the late 1980s.
When my father was stationed in Leh, their camp was based near the lake. They did not have concrete or wooden rooms to live in and camped in movable fibreglass establishments. There was no television or the internet to entertain them. In order to battle the winter depression, the troops usually took long walks around the valley that was untouched by civilisation. Their role was to guard the borders as a major part of the lake stretches into China. The soldiers were not allowed to bring their families to these camps and spent a chunk of their days battling loneliness and the extreme weather that hits minus twelve degrees Celsius. The only mode of heating available was a Bukhari (a stove that burns charcoal to generate heat).
Much has changed since those times in terms of entertainment due to the advent of cellphones, availability of television and 3G data in these areas but accommodation, heating and food remain a problem for these brave soldiers.
After lunch, we walked around the lake and marveled at this wonder of nature. The lake completely freezes in winters and was a famous spot for driving on the ice until a fatal accident occurred in which four officers died after falling in the frozen lake. On the return journey, we offered a ride to one of the motorcyclists back to Leh town, as he was experiencing breathing difficulties, a common problem due to lack of oxygen in high altitudes of the Himalayas. We learnt that he was an engineering student at the University of Chicago on a break before he started his job in the USA.
I asked him why he chose to ride to Leh on a motorbike. He told me that it was to have one last shot at adventure before he settles in his boring job as an engineer. He believed that riding a motorcycle up to the mountain is a remarkable experience as it gives you more time to explore and appreciate the unconventional sights that commercial tourists don’t know about. We dropped him off at his hotel and proceeded to rest at ours.
I visited the Leh Palace on my last day in Leh. The palace was abandoned in the 19th century when the Dogras attacked the Namgyal dynasty in Leh. Sitting atop a mountain, the palace offers a spectacular view of the Leh city and is a paradise for professional photographers. It also has a good museum, which displays jewellery, ceremonial dresses, ornaments and paintings from the Tibetan heritage. My last stop in Leh was the Tibetan Market. This vibrant market sells local handicrafts and jewellery. I purchased a copper Buddha as a memoir. Although it is not as ornate and colourful as the Bodhisattvas (Buddha statues) we saw at the various monasteries, it still fills my room with a positive vibe.
Many Ladakhis are moving to the plains and cities for better job opportunities. Most join the army or work in the tourism industry to earn a stable income in this region. Some return from their chaotic lives in the city to retire amidst the majestic and peaceful Himalayas. Reflecting on the experience, I would not pass an opportunity to visit this heavenly place again. It is the perfect escape from the noise and stress of the large metropolitan cities. You can breathe in the fresh air and see a star-studded sky at night; experiences that are now luxuries in heavily polluted cities like Delhi. Life moves at a leisurely pace here. But most of all, the people seem happy and content with what they have. I guess they fully comprehend and know how to bask in the splendour of nature. With its smoky ochre themed landscape, simple lifestyle, secluded location and welcoming people, Leh is the ideal place to relax and escape the complexities of life.