It’s been over a year since my time in Ladakh, but I remember it ever so clearly. The mountains, the people, their hospitality, and the fresh cold air are finely etched in my memories. It was my first trip into the mountains; I had never seen them in their full height before. Nor had I been amidst the flurry of snow. Many people recommended that I read up and script a playbook for my visit there. Something in me told me that I wanted to approach it with an open mind. I was especially curious about the virginal landscape, and a land quite untouched by the mad urbanized world outside its limits; Indian Railways does not have its tracks amidst the mountains to connect Ladakh to the rest of its network.
And so I landed in Leh, continually being prescribed rest and water for the remaining part of the day, warned about altitude sickness. Somehow, it never got to me- I seemed to be quite comfortable with the mountains, and headed for a stroll the same afternoon- the first of many to come. My trip to Leh was a month-long volontouring experience with the 17000Ft. Foundation.
During my stay, I visited several schools. Some just on the fringes of the city of Leh, and some well into the Nubra valley, very close to the borders of India. I had great fun and got along with the locals like a house on fire. The people were so hospitable, and for a city-bred like me, it was a welcome relief. The students at the school were curious about how things were from where I came, the plains and the beaches that I loved so much, but were well-behaved and welcomed me into their schools, homes, temples, and hearts as a beloved guest. I recount some of them telling about the shows that they watched on TV and asking me about the cities that they were set in. Lucky for them, I was a well-travelled one, having lived in just about every other big city in the country.
I love interacting with young people, and had a great time reading to the students everywhere that I went, alongside conducting monitoring and evaluation assessments for the reading programme that is being implemented by the organization that I was working with.
A week or so into the bustle, we had a brief break to allow for the Parliamentary elections that were being conducted across the nation in 2014. I used the opportunity to go on a solo trek across the popular ‘Baby Trek trail’. Starting at Likir, with its amazing monastery where its ambitious solar power project was under full swing, I crossed Temisgam to reach Yangtang, where I stayed for two nights instead of the single planned one, since I lost my way to Hemis and found myself enroute Ulley instead.
On the second night, I had dinner with the farmer’s family that was hosting me at their homestay. I found out that during colder days, they would often spot and chase away snow leopards in the region. I found that fascinating, but had no luck spotting one- summer was just around the corner during my visit. I never reached Hemis, and planned on going back to Leh the same way that I had come on buses plying the route on election duty. I missed the buses and had to hitchhike with an army man who was in Yangtang for some local medicinal plant for his brother-in-law’s flu-like symptoms. They drove me home to Thikse (I think), wherefrom another brother of his drove me to Leh for a nominal fare. There was a full brood of children in this house, who had lunch with me, asked me to show them how to draw a lion, and showed me around the village.
Following my return from the trek, I went upto Turtuk to conduct the assessments. We had to cross the Khardong-la pass, the highest motorable road in the world, to get there. The weather had been bad, and authorities had nervously opened up the roads for commute for the first time in 2014, well into April. Turtuk is relatively virginal and tourists have been visiting only since ~2010, given how close it is to the border. On our first ply through the Khardong-la pass, one of the drivers- a young Ladakhi man, fell sick due to high altitude and was promptly taken to the military medical post flanking the roadway on the other side. I was accompanied by my friends Galdan and Palzom, who were facilitators at 17000ft Fn, along with Dorjey, who owned and drove the car that we used.
Some of the villages on the way did not have homestays and there weren’t any guest houses. Luckily, Palzom’s friend- Rinchen, a kindergarten teacher at the local Army school was home – we couldn’t inform her earlier of our visit either, since phone signals rarely worked in that region. Rinchen hailed from the same village as Palzom in Panamik and they had known each other most of their lives. This was all quite alien to me in the beginning, and I felt like i was overstaying my welcome or barging into people’s household, being a complete stranger to the land, the people, and their language. However, Palzom remained my constant guide and friend and put me at complete ease.
On our way back to Leh, we also stayed at her aunt’s (Palzom’s mother’s sister) place in Diskit, where I met her cousin- Angmo, who was about 9 years old. Angmo and I got along really well. She showed me around the village, the school she went to, the local All India Radio station office, and the Diskit monastery. Her father worked as a farmer and was visibly fond of her. Once during our conversation, I remarked that I found Angmo’s booties were adorable and enquired if her mother had knitted them. Before I left for Leh, she gifted me a fresh pair of booties. Such is their hospitality and adherence to culture.
Buddha Purnima was an auspicious event that year, since Ladakh was hosting the Dalai Lama for the 33rd Kalachakra event, a pious event for largely Buddhist population of this region. Several sermons were being held around Ladakh, and Palzom and I were asked to go to Tiger (pronounced Tigger) to conduct a 4-day long workshop for the school there. Palzom decided to take me home to Panamik where her family lived, and so that I could see the famous hot springs nearby- boy was I excited!
On our first evening upon reaching Panamik, Palzom and her youngest sister along with a bunch of her childhood friends, took me to watch the local ‘Rock Show’, which was a performance of Hindi as well as Ladakhi songs by the local army jawaans. It was great fun being a part of the event, watching the tight knit community dance and enjoy themselves in the community hall.
The next day we headed to the school. The shuttle between Panamik and Tigger took us about half an hour each way everyday and the commute was undertaken by local buses that plied the route. By the end of each day I was as tired as Palzom’s parents who would rise at the crack of dawn to walk toward and plough their land a couple of miles away from their house. The workshop at the school was plenty of fun though! I read out aloud to the younger as well as the older kids, separately. With the young ones, I taught them how to use the step-by-step books that taught them how to draw common animals, and with those in the upper middle school, we made paper mache masks that we used on the final day for roleplaying a skit that we had rehearsed. In between, I talked to the teachers and asked them about their lives, and played with the students in their vast playgrounds.
On the day of Buddha Purnima, Palzom and another friend of hers, also called Rinchen, who had trained in Mandarin Chinese in Kolkata, accompanied me to the local Gonpa where we did, if I remember correctly, 101 ‘chakpulchas’ while the two recited beautiful Buddhist hymns. Chakpulchas consists of a series of movements that ultimately ends in prostration to the deity. The Gonpa’s Lama happened to be in the village for the funeral of a local. The Gonpa itself was a while away, across the stream, propped against the side of a mountain that was opposite the village. My mind had a tough time wrapping itself around these topographies! We hitchhiked half the way, and walked the rest. When we got there, we opened the Gonpa with the keys lent to us by the Lama and cleaned up the place before we entered the interior for some prayer and meditation.
After heading back to Leh, Palzom and I put our heads together to fill out all the paperwork for the assessments and reported the activities that we had conducted in the schools. Although I was extended an invitation to stay back and continue working at Leh to help the Foundation with their database, I had to return to my family in the plains who were desperate to see me after a month of rare conversations due to poor commercial mobile network in the region- not something that I would complain about. Having lived and worked in cities and big corporations, it was a welcome relief to not have the phone ringing or buzzing with calls, messages, and emails.
Something that fixed itself in my memories about Ladakh was its pristine landscapes. Due to higher altitudes and close-to-nil light pollution, the sky was, what seemed like, psychedelic-looking, peppered with shimmering stars. I would watch them for hours, feeling very connected to the cosmos, feeling like part of too large a picture to fathom. Much of this is echoed throughout all ecosystems in Ladakh. For the most part, it is tidy. However, as commercial food seeps into the mountainous supply chain, there is also plenty of plastic packaging that enters the biosphere in this region which is not yet equipped with a robust waste disposal system (yet?). This leads to plenty of dumping of wrappers and plastic waste on the mountainside. The locals are used to biodegradable, organic paraphernalia, and this is a natural outcome. I would tell my Ladakhi friends about how dirty and unhygienic cities in the plains had become, and suggest that they pocket the wrappers until they got to their homes to dispose it off in one place. Wonder how things will unfold in the years to come.
So that was my Ladakh Sojourn- memorable, breathtaking, and a learning experience of a lifetime.
Check out this note that I had written soon after my return from Ladakh.