What strikes me first about Ladakh as the plane hovers around the Leh skyline are the interesting colour tones- brown , patches of green, sprinkles of white set against a background of deep blue!!
“Why are the mountains looking so angry?” asks my thirteen year old.
Angry? Probably not- just grim due to lack of vegetative cover.
I am reminded by Iqbal”s lines “ Parbat woh sab se ooncha.. Hum Saaya Aasman ka…Woh Santari Hamara..”!
Yes indeed that is what strikes me as I land – the protection that these towering mountains offer to us from enemies. The presence of the armed forces is everywhere as I hear the airhostess announce that taking photographs at the Leh airport is forbidden.
As we step out the cold breeze hits us! We huddle together for warmth as our sweaters are in the luggage that we have checked in! We proceed to the terminal encountering along the way security personnel who hand out forms to be filled in by foreign nationals. I am reminded of Port Blair..!
Our luggage comes in surprisingly quickly .We dig out our sweaters , put them on and head outside. I call on my phone for Nazir who was supposed to come and pick us up. Suddenly I see a lanky young man walk towards us all smiles “Meeraji?” he asks. As I nod he comes forward, shakes my hand and takes my bag off me. I introduce him to my husband and daughter and he flashes the same smile. My first taste of Ladakhi hospitality!
Nazir drives us to the Gangba guesthouse -the home of Mr.and Mrs Wangyal. Nothing prepares us for the beauty of the place…! Set amidst wide fields is a white building edged with red – the Wangyal’s home which becomes a guest house during the summer time for tourists. I see Mr. Wangyal come up the slope with a 100 watt smile saying “Juley! “ the traditional Ladakhi greeting. He is just as friendly as the voice that I had been speaking to during the course of the last week while planning for the travel.
He takes our luggage to our room on the first floor- a very comfortable homely place with an attached bath. After depositing it there he calls us down for tea.
Tea is served in the main house in the most important room- the kitchen/ living room. All Ladakhi houses have a main room which doubles as kitchen and living room. There are mattresses along the walls and low tables in front of them. The walls have shelves which are full of polished vessels. At the centre of the room is a “bukhari” or a stove that doubles as cooking range and heating stove. It has a chute that goes through the roof.
The Wangyals are a family of four – husband, wife, a twelve year old daughter and a grandmother..! There is also Tommy a black furry dog. Like most Ladakhis they are farmers growing crops during summer. Hosting tourists is something that they have started doing recently.
We spend the first day acclimatizing ourselves to the high altitude. Some people can get headaches, others feel dizzy or nauseous during the first day. Thankfully none of us feel any of these symptoms.
The first couple of days are spent visiting monasteries – Alchi, Hemis, Thiksey ( 80% of Ladakhis are Buddhist and about 20% Muslim). The drive to these places are through surprisingly good roads surrounded by mountains! The roads are maintained by the Border Roads Organizations as part of their “Himank” project.
The monasteries are very serene places. The Alchi monastery is set on the banks of the Indus and probably the smallest among the three we visited. Hemis is a very colourful monastery set atop a hill. It also houses a museum with a lot of Buddhist history. I see in the Hemis museum the picture of “Avalokiteshwara Khasarapani” almost similar to “Avalokiteshwara Padmapaani” which we had seen at Ajanta. “Avalokiteshwara” I am told is a bodhisattava who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas. The Thiksey monastery is different from Hemis in the sense that it appears to be less academic and more spiritual. We see monks or Lamas sitting inside reciting from scriptures while Ladakhi Buddhists prostrated themselves in front of the statue of Buddha. It is interesting the way they prostrate- almost similar to how Tam Brahms of the Iyengar variety do..! “Do you want to follow suit?” asks my daughter. I frown at her. Traditions are to be understood before we follow them…! I am intrigued by the different Buddhas- there is even a female Buddha – Taara…! A very serious notice proclaims – “ Taking photographs of yourself with the statue of Buddha is forbidden. We believe that even the photographs of the Buddha are worthy of worship”. How true!!
I look at the hordes of shouting fellow Indian tourists and wonder if it was people like them who prompted this notice to be put up. These same people point at the offerings of biscuits, chocolates, condensed milk tins etc in front of the Buddha statue giggling and saying “Look…! They don’t offer flower or fruit to their god”. A small but dignified looking Ladakhi lady silences them by saying “Where are the flowers or fruits now for us to offer?” I wish we Indians would be more tolerant of our different cultures.
We go to the Indus – Zanskar confluence. The Indus to me has always been a river of mystery. I don’t know why…! May be because of the ancient civilization that grew there…! It starts from the Mansarovar lake , flows through Ladakh and then moves into Pakistan. We go to the point where it joins the Zanskar river. The water is icy cold..! I wonder how people enjoy white water rafting here!!!
The next day we head out to the Nubra valley after making our permit(permits are required even for Indian Nationals to visit some of these areas). The road starts out normally enough and suddenly we find ourselves winding up the hills with snow clad slopes on the sides. “We will soon reach Khardungla which has the highest motor able road -18380 ft” says Nazir who seems to be completely unaffected by the cold with his jacket hanging behind the driver’s seat! We get off for a while at Khardungla dodging some badly behaved Indian tourists who are flinging chunks of ice at each other and others…! My daughter watches amazed that adults can behave like this…! I wish once again that we would learn to behave better when we travel.
The road to Nubra is an extremely narrow one – the parts which are snow bound. We had to wait for about 30 minutes to let a convoy of army trucks go past. We descend s down slowly. As Nazir goes to submit our papers at a check post, we venture out of the Scorpio. The cold breeze hits us! It looks like it is going to take longer than expected to get the papers submitted ( the J&K government lives up to the reputation of efficiency of most state governments!). “I want to pee” says the daughter. I look around and there is a cafeteria nearby. I ask the owner if he has a toilet. He tells me firmly t hat we can use the toilet only if we buy tea from him. I agree paying Rs 15 for thee teas and rush to the backyard across a frozen lake to the toilet where we encounter another sign board that says “Rs 5 per use”!! So after paying Rs 30 for 3 teas and 3 pees we leave the icy regions behind and suddenly find ourselves in what looks like a sandy desert. There is a sign board that says “ The Ladakh sand dunes”. We see a green river gliding past us- Shyok. The terrain again turns rocky. We see shades of brown and purple around us… I suddenly imagine I see Genghis Khan galloping out from a gorge!!! After about 5 hours we finally arrive at the Snow Leopard guest house where we halt for a night. It is surrounded by cliffs that could have come out of a Hollywood western
Come morning and we are ready for a ride on the Bactrian Camel with a double hump. The camels are not cooperating and after some coaxing mine decides to stand up..! A most scary experience..! I manage not to scream as I had seen what had happened to those who had screamed ( they were thrown down by the stubborn animal!). We take a leisurely walk down what looks like Rajasthan with its sand dunes. But the camel is too hairy to be a regular camel. I wonder if this was how people in these regions travelled during ancient times…! Imagine how long it must have taken for them to get anywhere…!
We get back to Leh and then the next day head out for Pangong lake. This lake is located at a height of about 14000 ft and 60% of it is in Tibet which today is under Chinese rule. We go through the same high snow clad mountains- Changla at 17000 ft until we get to Pangong! The first sight of the lake is simply awesome- shimmering blue against a backdrop of brown! The lake in itself is completely made up of shades of blue and turquoise! An artist or a photographer’s dream come true!! The lake is a saline one which interestingly freezes during winter. The breeze around the lake is cold and it is very windy! “Come on Meeraji it is only + 30 degrees” jokes Nazir…!!! -30 degrees is more like it….!!! There are some beautiful migratory birds – white with black markings swimming in the lake. Arctic terns I wonder?
We head back to Leh and the warmth of Mrs Wangyal’s kitchen. All through the way I keep looking at the defence establishments and my respect for these men goes up! We had been on the first day to a place called the “Hall of Fame” which is a museum that houses a lot of information about the conflicts in that zone- the Indo Chinese War, the Siachen conflicts, Operation Vijay ( the Kargil war) . There are pictures of young men who lost their lives in these wars – parts of the letters they wrote home before going onto their end… ! I remember a quote from there “When I am gone, put me in a box and pin my medals to my chest. Take me home and tell mom I did my best”
We near the end of our stay and I cant believe it is time to leave. Mr and Mrs Wangyal give us a lovely meal of momos on the night before and morning on request give us that lovely Ladakhi bread that is almost like a Kulcha. Eaten hot with butter tea it makes for an excellent and filling breakfast! As we bid goodbye, I am reminded of a Ladakhi saying that my friend Rekha who is currently based at Leh had once told me “ Only the best of friends and the worst of foes come to visit us ”
With Ladakhi hospitality I am sure there will not be any foes as only friends will keep coming to this lovely land of kind and simple people with their smiling faces…..! My only prayer is that let us behave like friends and treat this land with as much respect as the hosts treat us as guests!!!