OPPS I DID IT AGAIN! LADAKH
It’s raining in Leh. This means it’s snowing on Khardong La Mountain. Seven thousand feet below I can see the crystal bluish sheet of snow falling on the mountain peak. It began yesterday afternoon and snowed through the night. Buses, in fact all transportation will have to wait until the snow melts or is removed and the Manali to Leh pass is no longer blocked. The snow has created enough condensation so that a slight chill prevails, and a misty rain fills the air. My friend Disket loves this weather. She pulls her long Indian scarf over her head and basks in the rain, while I shiver in the chilly dampness. Except that I have to go to the MOT (Medical Operations Theatre) at the hospital this morning, the rest of the day I am cozy in my big sumptuous room at Olden Guesthouse surrounded by continuous windows on two sides. Here, like in so many countries outside the US, the first floor is what we call the second, so in my first floor room I am among the Poplar trees, with a view down on the garden patio below, the guesthouse next door and the snow covered mountains in the distance. In a day it will be warm and sunny again and I will again be happy with the weather. Ever since the great flood of 2010, a once every hundred years event (so I am told) created by thunderous half hour storms in seven separate locations around Ladakh, Led being one, the electricity is an on and off affair (becoming more on than off lately), but the Internet is intermittent.
Ladakh is a land where fairy tales can be created with its whimsical Ladakhi architecture, and the many ladakhi men and women who still wear their local dress daily. Middle aged and elderly women in their everyday native clothes spread out material along the main street and sell vegetables from their gardens. Most of the laundry is still done in the rivers and heaps of beds sheets from the guesthouses as well as personal laundry can be seem piled along the river and stream banks that flow through out Leh. ‘Julay’ is the Ladakhi greeting which has many meanings ‘good morning, hello, thank you, and goodbye. The loving kindness of the ladakhis is remarkable. They still maintain a strong sense of family. There are arranged and semi-arranged marriages, with the new brides moving in with the husband’s in-laws creating extended families within a household. No mother daughter conflicts, no need for old folks homes, or day care centers, here. At a ladakhi family birthday dinner party, I attended recently; the cake was eaten first and the dinner much later in the evening. It is the women and the children who are served first, then the men. ‘Always ladies first,’ I was told. There is also equality of the sexes, ‘that has always been our way,’ a man told me at the ATM. No need for women’s libbers to tell these peoples how to treat women; it’s their way of life. Everyone works hard. And they care for each other ‘hard.’ Although they may have a television and/or a washing machine, the old Ladakhi life style is still in tack.
The houses in the city of Leh and the surrounding villages all have lovely green vegetable and flower gardens each surrounded by high stone walls. Narrow paths lined with little streams and poplar trees wind between the walls among these properties, where one might meet a family cow, a donkey or two, or a friendly dog on their daily outings. Yet, most of the land is a mountainous moonscape, in which numerous monasteries (or Gompas as they are called) are built on mountainsides or into the rock faces, in desolate countryside venues. Known as the land of a hundred monasteries, once you a have arrived at one of these amazing architectural feats, there is always a hike necessary to get to the actual gompa.
In the summer, the high season for tourists, the weather is anywhere from the high sixties to the high eighties. They have about a four-month season with government transportation going through the pass from June 15th (weather permitting) to September 15th, unless of course snows come. Then traffic stops in both directions from Manali and Ladakh. I have heard tales of travelers having to wait on their bus as many as 19 hours for a landslide or snow fall to be cleared before the traffic could proceed again across the mountain pass into or out of Led. That is why I fly even though I have been told that the landscape is exceedingly beautiful on the overland route.
Currently the Indian Government is building three tunnels just outside of Manali at Solang that will allow traffic to go in and out of Led even in the dead of winter. It is said this is for the Ledakhis’ benefit, but with the large military presence and the Chinese threat, I assume these tunnels are more for the Ladakhis’ protection by the military then just for travelers and food stuff to come in and out of this landlocked mountain haven.
In the winter the temperature goes down to minus 34 degrees Celsius, and no one gets in or out unless they fly. During the school year, besides math, science, and history, children study Ladakhi, Hindi, and English. They also learn many Mother Goose Rhymes and Western Fairy Tales. Schools close December 15th and do not re-open until March 15th. In preparation for the extreme cold, families cover all the windows in their houses with plastic to keep in the heat, and they heat only a few of the rooms in their houses on the ground floor level; staying cozy until the worst of the cold abates.
Many tourists come in July for the Cham dances at Hemis Monastery (the two day Hemis Festival) and trekking, while others come for the Ladakh Festival from September 1st until September 15th. The Ladakh Festival begins with a delightfully entertaining parade the first day, which concludes with Ladakhi dances and entrainment at the main field, both in the daytime and evening, Bow and Arrow contests, a series of Mountain Polo contests (the locals against the military), a day of Cham dances at one of the monasteries, and camel rides and yak butter tea tents in the Nubra Valley.
There is a large military presence, which does not impede on the locals or tourists except at the ATMS, where everyone, tourist, locals and military alike join long cues daily to get cash. The Chinese military is often trying to encroach, particularly at Pangong Tso Lake, on the Indian/Ladakhi border and the military is here to protect the land and lake borders as well as maintain the roads in this mountainous fairyland. As Ladekh is located in the Indian State of Kashmir-Jammu, the Indian Army is also here to help stop insurrections by Kashmiri militants as well as border skirmishes with Pakistan.
Although Jigmet Guesthouse was my first choice, because I could not reach them this year by email or phone, I have stayed in three different guesthouses during my stay. The first, Saimam was lovely, very clean but expensive. It had wood floors, which I like a great deal because of my asthma, and every morning tea was brought to my room, which was a really nice way to start my days. The second was Olden House owned by Jigmet’s sister Disket’s, husband’s family, which is on the other side of the hill. Here I had a big cozy room, hot showers from seven to eight every morning, and Disket kindly brought me hot water for tea every morning. Besides running the guesthouse Disket also works at the hospital as a lab Tech and she and Sangay, her husband, would take me with them on the mornings I had to go to MOT for my arm dressing (see lower paragraph). They also had a wonderful birthday party for their niece Kunsal and me, with dinner dances and presents. I taught them all The Wheels on the Bus and The Hokey Pokey, which were big hits, and the girls did Indian and Ladakhi dances for everyone, which were beautiful as well as fun to watch. Sangay’s mother and I formed a warm relationship during which she decided I was her other sister. Often during my eight-day stay she would have me down for tea. Disket too would decide my food intake was too ‘light’ and insist I eat a late dinner with them. I was sorry to leave, but I was off to my old haunt, Jigmet’s, my favorite guesthouse in Ladakh (although I love being in Olden House as well). Not only is Jigmet (the guesthouse is named after their only son, a likeable efficient young man who keeps the guesthouse running like clockwork [with the help of his parents, two cows and a whiny cat]) a great guesthouse, the location just off the beaten path, is excellent in relation to Leh’s main street and to local site seeing venues like Shanti Stupa and other local walks through out the area. I have a lovely room here in the newer building with two sides of floor to ceiling windows giving me both a garden as well as and an expansive view across the mountains, a sitting area, and all day hot water showers. Additionally, they also serve breakfast on the premises, which I find a great plus. (See Chapter: Sleeping Around for contact information for Jigmet and Olden Guesthouses),
The relationship within Ladakh between humans and animals is a very kind and interesting one. In Leh city there are lots of stray dogs. Although some are black, most are ginger brown with thick furry coats. ‘Skanki dogs’ or street dogs are mostly friendly fellows, who trustingly take their daily naps everywhere, on doorsteps, parking spots, sidewalks, and people just walk carefully around them. In summer they forage for food from restaurants (although I know some dogs still don’t get enough to eat) and in winter the locals feed them so they don’t starve. This symbiotic relationship seems to work but unfortunately I’m told that in the winter when the dogs snuggle together for warmth their little sex rims go zing, zing, zing and more puppies are born in the spring. There are also small groups of donkeys that travel together, two donkeys in particular hang out daily in the middle of main street dabbling along with cars carefully driving around so as not to harm them or cause them any stress. When humans are crossing the streets drivers just honk their horn and go barreling through. There are also the cows with tags in their ears that take their daily walks wandering in and out of traffic and on footpaths. Secure in their safety, they saunter home at the end of the day for their dinners and daily milking. (Disket actually named one of their family cows after me i.e., Bobbie the Cow. How good is that? The Ladakhi community is mainly Buddhist; they are vegetarian and only eat mutton in the winter when no vegetables are available. So it is the natural belief of this community that it belongs to both the animals and the humans and that everyone, both two legged and four legged members have a right to all exist happily together within its confines. Just another one of the fairyland aspects of Ladakh.
Even though it is at such a high elevation (over 12000 ft) and is so dry that I have a constant bloody nose, scaly crocodile skin and straight wispy hair that sticks out like the scarecrow’s in The Wizard of OZ, I love visiting Ladakh. The last time I was here, I enjoyed the Ladakh Festival, and took a number of trips to many of the monasteries. It is amazing how each one is somewhat different. This year besides meeting my English friend, Carol, I had planned to visit Pangang Tso Lake on the Ladakhi/Chinese border, and the Indus Valley, but unfortunately I did it again. I fell in a drain hole by the German bakery. Unlike the one I fell in Ubud, Bali, this one was too deep to climb out of, and two very strong Kashmiri gentlemen lifted me out as if I was weightless and set me in a chair next to the uncovered offender. I did not break any bones, but did tear some ligaments around my left knee and have a very swollen left foot. I also scraped my right arm and have to go the MOT at the hospital numerous times to have what looks like ‘WWII’ dressings changed to heal my wound, but they work. Seeing the orthopedists at least three times as well as having arm dressings changed every other day for two weeks and an x-ray on my knee has cost me 60 Rupees – 43.5 Rupees to the dollar. Do the maths, less then $2 US dollars. When I asked, ‘don’t I owe you more?’ The answer was, ‘you are our guest.’
Note: (I have been thinking about my new talent for falling into holes and realized, I have a real circus clown ability.)
Shopping in Leh is also great fun. I had never really spent time in the Leh shops before but my friend Carol, an avid shopper for both jewelry and beautiful materials, introduced me to some great Tibetan/Ladakhi shops packed full of the most beautiful and amazing stuff. One could go crazy with the choices here and Carol walked away with at least ten necklaces (now she’s in the Manali area buying emerald earrings) all in interesting Tibetan or Ladakhi styles. I, not as avid a shopper or maybe more thrifty, bought a few of things but, I have many more months of travel then Carol, and wonderful Jewelry like clothes can be found in many places around the world. As for the shopkeepers, I buy local Ladakhi/Tibetan.
Many Kashmiris open shops here during the summer and although they are very nice people, they have a habit of hanging outside their shops and accosting tourists as they pass by with their ‘come inside, have a look, I give you best price, [and] looking is free’ spiel which is not only annoying but also distracting. Once inside it is my experience that these men never stop talking. It gives one no time to think or contemplate the many beautiful items they have on display. It’s almost like a stateside teenager’s continuous rap that bores into your head and never stops. On and on they go like a carnie spiel, until after telling them politely no many times and it doesn’t seem to sink in, I have to use the same line that worked so well with those aggressive high IQ gifted kids with whom I spent so my of my life; “What is it you don’t understand about the word no!” Although I never like saying it, they are surprised at my response, and that stops the Kashmiri shopkeepers in their tracks without a retort. Sometimes it’s a nod, sometimes a sheepish smile but at least I am left alone to gaze in their window. After all like any shopper if something really catches my eye, I would certainly enter their shop without all that annoying prodding.
Hemis Monastery is the Ladakhi center of the Red Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism. Interestingly, unlike the Dai Lama’s Yellow Hat sect, the Red Hatters do not shave their heads. Their leader is Rampoche Gyalwang Drukpa who spends his summers in Ladakh. Where he spends his winters, I have yet to ascertain. The Cham dances here like at Rumtek (reminder: Rumtek is Black Hat Sect) begin with the Black Hat Sect dance, which I am told is traditional during most Cham dance festivals. These presentations also include the Skull Dance, which is generally preformed by the younger monks, because there is lots of running around and in some instances stealing small items from the audience, such as a hat or shoe. Part of the earlier performance of the day includes gifts to a deity, the fighting off evil spirits (that’s why you see so many skulls on the costumes and the Skull Dance as these are deterrents to evil) and in the end the chopping up of the cake of evil to ensure a good next year. Many Local people come to observe the demise of evil, the cake, as its death bodes well for their future year. I have seen Cham dances three times and although the dances, pomp, and ceremony are much the same, the masks and costumes, some many hundreds of years old, each are often quite different from another monastery. Also each time I have seen the Skull dance it has been presented quite differently yet always with a great deal of fun.
Although I had to limp up the final path to the Hemis Gompa, this year I rode the forty klms to see the Cham dances at the Hemis Festival with my new friend Alexei. We were the only westerners aboard the local bus and it was refreshing not to be inundated with the high-pitched Indian movie music usually played on Indian and Nepali buses. Rather, on this bus, the driver played Buddhist chants, or mantras. Alexei was in heaven, as a Hari Krishna, and like the Ladakhis who surrounded us; he could say his mantras to the sound of the real thing, as I sat silently enjoying the spiritual aurora that filled that old rickety bus. As we rode along, I also basked in the wonderful stratifications of the mountainous rock faces. Depending on the sun’s placement, the mountains had variegated lines of color; pinks, greens, and browns, purples and hints of grey. The mountainous beauty, just as it did three years ago, again took me by such surprise that my eyes welled with tears and I felt a joyful burst of pleasure. Although earlier in my travels I thought I should go to Mount Kelish in western Tibet, as it is revered by Buddhists, Hindus, Jains and Bons alike, just to check; being in Ladakh again made me absolutely sure, that ‘Yes, Ladakh is the Soul of the World’ and I would come here every summer for the rest of my life if I could.