Ladakh is venerated as the “Land of Monasteries”, a remote region of stunning Himalayan scenery, Tibetan Buddhist culture and uncharacteristic peacefulness and quietness for India. One disenchanted viewer of my Himalayan photographs summarised my travels in this region as “stereotypical backpacker experience “escaping the real world” scenery.” Perhaps she was just having a bad, or excruciatingly normal, day at the office while nobly “sustaining the metropolis of Melbourne with fresh, clean drinking water.” Sustaining water and eco-awareness are incidentally defining features of Ladakhi culture. The region is tremendously dry and infertile, with water sourced only from glacial melt and traditional crops limited to barley and vegetables. Unsurprisingly, few settlements of significant size exist in this isolated corner of India. Leh is the exception: the former royal capital of Ladakh and a relatively large city for the context at 30,000 residents. The preservation of water is especially noticeable in Leh, with an elaborate network of channels funnelling precious water through the properties and streets of the city. The visibility of the channels creates the false impression that the city is abundant in water, while certainly enhancing its immense tranquility. Like most other travellers, I based myself in Leh while exploring Ladakh for nine days.
After the previous day’s difficulties in travelling from Kaza to Keylong and aware of the touristic popularity of Ladakh, I feared the bus from Keylong to Leh would be full. Instead, on my epic 13 hour journey I was accompanied only by the bus driver and the ticket attendant; a very much unexpected and somewhat awkward situation. We departed Keylong at 5:00am, with the driver commencing the treacherous ascent to Baralacha La (4,950 metres) in pitch black darkness. The bus was poorly insulated, and the driver left his windows open anyway, exposing us to the sub-zero temperatures of the early morning, high altitude climate. I wrapped myself in my sleeping bag, which was eyed enviously by the ticket attendant (he later attempted to persuade me into leaving the sleeping bag instead of paying a $12 ticket – probably the most extreme rip-off ever proposed to me with seriousness)). The scenery throughout the journey was staggeringly impressive; utterly barren valleys and plains bordered by craggy mountains with snow-capped peak and Cappadocia-style eroded rock formations. Halfway through the day, we came to a stand still at a bridge that was being repaired. About half a dozen men were trying to secure sheets of metal down (the bridge’s deck), while in typical Indian fashion a hundred other men stood around pretending to be interested but were not actually doing anything. We finally departed and successfully crossed the bridge an hour later, which was apparently a short delay for the Leh – Manali Highway. Later in the day, we scaled the Taglang La, which at 5,328 metres was the highest point on Earth I had been to.
I arrived at Tsetan’s guesthouse just prior to dinner and felt like I had intruded on a funeral. Although Tsetan and his parents were very welcoming after my long journey (despite making it very clear I was receiving special treatment in being served dinner without prior ordering), the other guests in the communal dining room greeted me with scolds or disinterested glances. Aside from also newly arrived British Niall, who tried to stimulate discussion in the group by remarking on the pleasantness of the interior decor. I later discovered that the cold reception was not a personal rebuke, but rather characterised the awkward opening twenty minutes of our evening meals together. It became somewhat endearing. I shared a room with resident rebel Niall, who continuously broke household protocol by using the upstairs Western throne, flushing the toilet paper, always forgetting to order meals he rocked up for and smuggling alcohol into the dining room. Describing Niall as an interesting or troubled character would be putting it mildly. He’s certainly experienced an unusual life-story, which has perhaps contributed to his reverence for the religion/philosophy he adheres to and prattled on about constantly. After 10 days, I still could not figure out if Niall zealously believed in what he was preaching or whether it was an elaborate hoax he was pulling over me. I never wanted to express belief in either side, to avoid upsetting Niall of embarrassing me!
By Indian standards, Leh is a remarkably spacious and peaceful city, free of the insane traffic, stifling air pollution, harrowing poverty and constant hassling of other cities. Leh is surrounded on three sides by stark, craggy mountains that rise to above 6,000 metres. Leh Palace is the defining edifice of the city, a mud-brick structure similar to the Potola Palace in Lhasa that occupies a hillock directly above the centre of Leh. Half of the city is composed of traditional Ladakhi mud-bricked dwellings that are packed together and separated by winding streets. The other half of Leh is green and lush, with large, whitewashed households occupying properties with small plots of agriculture. The streets are full of cows and yaks with enormous horns, which stare ominiously at you as you walk past.
I visited the Nubra Valley in Ladakh’s north on a two day jeep trip from Leh with four Indian tourists. After just one hour into the tour though, two of my companions needed to disembark because of acute mountain sickness. They had failed to adequately acclimatise in Leh (3,520 metres) in preparation for our ascent of the world’s highest motorable pass, Khardung La at 5,359 metres. Once we were above 4,500 metres, the terrain was completely covered in snow, which caused havoc for the traffic. All the vehicles needed to chain their wheels, yet some were ill-equipped and continued to slip and cause blockages. We eventually reached Khardung La and squelched our way through thick snow for photographs under a big sign incorrectly announcing we were at 5,602 metres. We arrived in the Nubra Valley in the early evening, with the journey taking twice as long as intended due to the snow-induced delays. The Nubra Valley is framed by snowcapped mountains and features a expansive plain of streams, bush and, bizarrely, sand dunes. In the morning, we rode furry two-humped camels into the dunes.
On my final day in Ladakh, I felt compelled to visit two more gompas (Tibetan Buddhist monasteries) despite my ambivalence to these rather monotonous institutions. Hemis and Thikse are touted as two of the largest and most beautiful gompas in Ladakh and are easily accessible from Leh, so with a spare day I visited with Israeli Jude and British Niall. Jude was clearly enamoured by the architectural details at the gompas and the displayed artefacts in the museums, while Niall, despite his supposed spiritual fanaticism, unsurprisingly demonstrated contempt for cultural experiences by childishly powering through the monastery halls, sulking in the courtyards and bemoaning the absence of food and tea. Admittedly, the monasteries were rather impressive edifices; certainly the largest I visited in northern India. I'm always slightly confused by the preponderance for Buddhist temple interiors to be stock-piled with massive statues of the Buddha, opulent gold and silver ornamentations, intricately carved furniture, colourful flags and elaborate murals; is this not a philosophy that espouses immaterialism? The highlight of our gompathon was listening to an extraordinary musical performance in a temple at Thikse, with dozens of monks chanting and playing numerous Tibetan instruments, including horns several metres long.
While travelling in the Himalayas and visiting innumerable monasteries, my respect for Buddhist monks gradually deteriorated. Sure, they’re amicable people, but they’re not really contributing much to society by sitting around chanting and perhaps sweeping the courtyard floors occasionally. I noticed that manual labour conducted at the monasteries, such as carrying very heavy stones up steps for construction purposes, was often performed by poor local women. I think this is symptomatic of religions globally; they seem to be a mechanism for men to feast and sit around while heaping ever more work onto women. I also didn’t appreciate their penchant to loiter near me whenever I came within proximity of donation boxes. I had absolutely no intention of supplementing their hedonistic lifestyles in their palatial monastic complexes towering imperiously above the vernacular dwellings of the adoring locals. This rant has reminded me of departing Sri Lanka when a lady at the counter indicated I needed to move so a monk could queue jump. Needless to say, I was livid by this situation. I believe the burden of respecting local archaic customs can be dispensed of once inside an international airport. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely move out of the way for pregnant women, the disabled and the elderly – but an able-bodied young male? And to think he had the audacity to accept the invitation to saunter on past me!
Mutton momos. Vegetable momos, vegetable and cheese momos, cheese momos. Fried momos, steamed momos. Ladakhis certainly love their momos. Unfortunately The Emperor does not share this passion. Momos are basically shitty versions of Chinese dumplings. Which is essentially how Tibetan cuisine could be characterised in general. The best food I ate in Ladakh was definitely the lovingly home-cooked meals prepared at Tsetan’s Guesthouse. The mother and a 14 year old Nepali worker would spend the entire afternoon delicately preparing momos, the ribbon-like noodles for thukpa (noodle soup) and tigmo, a type of fermented and steamed bread rolled into scrolls.
Ladakh proved to be the perfect antidote to the freneticism and stress of travelling in other far more populous regions of India. I intended to stay longer in “Little Tibet”, but the weather started to deteriorate with falling temperatures and the imminent threat of snow. Before departing Ladakh though, I did attempt one trek, which will be discussed in the next entry...
That’s all for now,