I first travelled to the realm of Ladakh way back literally a decade ago !!
Back then I was still in my teens, with long hair running close to my shoulders minus the inkling of the scruffy forest on my face that I adore. For me this trip would be the ground breaking moment.
The first visit to the Himalayas since I got head on my shoulders. The first sight of an ice glacier (albeit aerial) . The first 50m sprint that made me pant & heave for a good ten mins. The first swim in a frigid Himalayan lake & a warm Sulphur spring. The first attempt to summit the world’s highest motorable road on four wheels. The first tryst of living with the Indian Army.
And the first of many more times I would get Leh’d !
The highlight of my first visit, was without a doubt, Khardung La. It was still early May & back in 2005, the mountain tops weren’t shy of snow. Every morning I would wake up early & glance at the summits, an unblemished white sheet of ice bathed in the gentle warmth of the golden Sun. Haunched, with a book in my lap I would wonder which of peaks was the K-Top, until the day arrived (almost a week after I made landfall in Leh).
The roads initially were tar lined & in impeccable condition & I wondered why we had left so early since we barely had to go 45 kms to reach the top. And to my quick dismay, I found out why as the Jawan switched into the first gear. The road was basically a flat bed of loose rocks, carved out from the very side of the mountains. It took us close to 6 hours to reach the top after what seemed like an eternity of a bumpy ride over hairpin bends.
Close to the top at that time was the carcass of a male Yak half buried in snow, which had been there for the past three years. The snow had kept most of it intact, and that was the point when my energy levels revved up hard like the Army Jeep we had employed. The top was nothing like I had imagined till now, it bore two Army structures, a cafeteria which had a single gas stove alternatingly used to make maggi & tea, the other being the medical aid center. A BRO structure also stood a little farther, alongside a little trail that led to a wall of loosely piled stones from which originated waves of colorful Buddhist prayer flags.
I climbed ahead of a sibling on all fours and crossed a narrow passage of ice to reach the Kali Mata Mandir. It took me 3 minutes to make the climb but another 15 to gain my breath back. Frostbite had turned most of fingers into a bleeding mess, but I chose to still walk out to the very edge of the road and look down at the Nubra Valley. The thrill of being atop the mountain, made me feel terribly small despite my six foot frame but I didn’t resist. And that feeling has a way of finding me even today.
My next visit was again with my cousin in tow to visit a relative commissioned in the army headquarters at Leh. I had just completed graduation & was taking the year to prepare for my post grad entrances. And my way of celebrating it was to book myself on a month long stay in the Himalayas, coinciding with the 10th Anniversary of the Himalayan Odyssey.
But fate had other plans & a week before my departure I broke my left wrist, putting all my dreams of riding a bike in the rugged landscape to rest. I spent half the length of the trip listening to vernacular songs in the back of a ye old Scorpio with two burlesque Ladakhi men who would put any named Pathans to shame. The first leg of my tour I spent revisiting the quintessential tourist checklist in & around Leh.
But in the second leg I decided to trace the flow of the Zanskar. And this time it was the Zanskar Valley that made me fall in love with the ever formidable Himalayas. My heart still aches to revisit the little towns based by the side of the Zanskar.
I started from Kargil and first descended into Suru Valley, spending the night with the Nun Kun Glacier in the backdrop. A quick morning hike later, I set out to cross the Pensi La, followed by my descent into Padum. An overnight spent well marvelling at the giants in front of me, almost as ethereal as a painting. I then went up to Chilling and put base for a couple of days.
My return to Leh, was kind of overwhelming.
The Zanskar Valley had proved itself to be a place too picturesque to describe, it simply has to be experienced. The gorges, the canyons, the snow clad peaks just pound on your sense with their beauty & leave you dazed. Zanskar Valley is a world of astounding beauty on a platter with its lakes, confluences, glaciers & gorges ruling the scenery.
I got accustomed to drinking stream waters & the cold in the near month I spent on this tour. I knew the local greetings & could understand most conversations by context. Not only had I got acclimatized to Ladakh, even Ladakh had got accustomed to me.
My recent visit to Leh was by accident. At the very last moment a window of opportunity presented itself & I didn’t let go. This experience was completely different than the ones before, contrary to my expectations.
Leading a group of 27 is no simple task & especially if it’s a mixed bunch. But the chaos that ensued was quenched by the comfort and tranquility that I found in the lap of Buddhist Monasteries.
I have never been a believer of any religion, but of energies and vibes. Personally if I had to pick to a favorite it probably would be the Hemis Monastery but this trip three places stood out the most amongst all I visited. The Lamayuru Monastery, The Shanti Stupa & The Thiksey Monastery.
The day I visited Lamayuru, I reached at the time when the monks were in the midst of a hymn recital and I sat down in the main prayer hall. A little while later I was overtaken by a calm as I sat with my eyes closed, for what seemed an eon. After the prayers were over, I got up & somehow the weight above my shoulders had just floated away.
Shanti Stupa was much more quiet as I found a cosy nook on the top circle of the monument. The sunset approached & passed, the twilight approached & passed, the evening approached & passed; but I hadn’t moved an inch. I was at peace, just pondering on a BRO sign I had seen on the way “Don’t be Gamma, in the Land of Lama”.
It was in Thiksey that I met a monk named Rungyal. He explained to me that as a form of meditation & devotion, Buddhist monks paint a highly intricate artwork called a “thangka”. The artwork represents various circles of life of Buddha & is usually painted on a piece of rice paper using a single grain of rice as a brush and organic colours. This not only checks meticulousness but teaches the monk the virtue of patience. On completion it is offered to the deity, placed in the holy chamber for a day & then washed away; and then the process is started again.
I have always said even at its coldest, Ladakh is still a very warm place to be. I dedicate this blog to the numerous locals and jawans of the region, who have always taken care of me like I was one of theirs. The way they have an impression on me, now and forevermore.
“Chasing angels or fleeing demons, rush to the mountains”.