When I decided to join my friends on their trip to Leh-Ladakh, I had only the faintest idea of what I was going in for. I was badly in need of a break; for the longest time, my life seemed like an epic battle against odds, roughshod, scarred, mangy, and all those things that render a vacation absolutely necessary. Little did I know then how transformational it would be.
So I set off, thanks to a very generous boss at work, and my friends who had advance bookings for the entire trip.
I flew from New Delhi to Srinagar, where I reached in the evening and joined my friends. We spent the night in a hotel opposite the Dal Lake. It was the day of Id-ul-Fitr, the biggest festival of Muslim-majority Srinagar. All the shops were closed; hordes of people thronged the streets; rowdy boys drove by in cars with some of them sitting on the bonnet and waving at people as they sped past. And it was hot. After spending some time by the lake amongst the milling crowds, we realized that we were fairly disappointed by the lack of novelty it offered us. We were tourists—tropical creatures that came to Kashmir in search of the proverbial paradise on earth—and here we were, jostling by a crowded lake on a hot evening and wondering if we were too cynical or others were too generous.
The next morning we drove by car to Kargil via Drass across the Zojila Pass. Kargil and Drass are at the centre of the Indo-Pakistan conflict, and have a strong army presence. Armed guards in military uniforms shadowed every curb, every yet-to-be-opened shop, and almost every innocuous crag jutting out of the high mountains. And everywhere, stone slabs, about a foot high, jutted out of the mountain sides too—memorials to soldiers killed in enemy firing.
We noticed how older people dressed conservatively in long flowing kurtas held together with a tight sash, pyjamas, and turbans. Many were shepherds; they spoke a local language amongst themselves, similar to Pushtu (spoken in Afghanistan) although they were fluent in Hindi as well. Most of the people we saw on the high mountain sides of the Zojila were hardy men, with their skin tanned a copper hue by the scorching mountain sun. In their eyes, I saw years of strife, perhaps hatred, and a barely masked condescension for city folks like us touring their war-torn land in fancy cars. They filled me with a strange sense of foreboding and admiration—for I was born and raised in the shady environs of a sleepy industrial town—and I had no idea of what life was like for them.
The owners of the bakery we stopped at for tea in Drass couldn’t believe that we had come to see the mountains. They looked around emptily at the mountains and said, “Yeh dekhney aye aap?” (“You came to see this?”). When I nodded, one of them mentioned the annual Amarnath yatra: “Aap yatra karney aye honge” (“You must have come for the yatra”). I had to explain to them that I had never seen snow-capped peaks before in my entire life, and that even the most pedestrian things for them were quite thrilling to me. That’s when their expressions changed. They practically sympathized with me. “Humarey bachhe toh snow mein aise hi kheltey rehtey hai”, they laughed (“Our kids are always playing in the snow”) and they told me I had to go further up to find snow.
We spent the evening strolling in the streets of Kargil and remarking on the grim atmosphere that the insidious war with Pakistan had created. The next day we set off early in the morning for Leh.
The Himalayas got increasingly barren and craggy as we progressed from the lush Kashmir valleys towards Leh. The difference between “hills” and “mountains” struck home as we watched with open-mouthed wonder the shimmering grey, green, and brown expanse of the towering rocks. Even this was going to be a prelude to what lay ahead of us, I realized in retrospect.
We reached Leh in the evening, just after sundown. We were slightly jaded, but the cold wet winds fired us. After a brief visit to the local market, we decided to call it a day, for we had to start early the next day for our maiden visit to the monasteries.
I woke up at 6 am the next morning and immediately set out to explore the town on foot. Prayer bells in a nearby Stupa had caught my attention the previous night, and I marched towards it. I stopped frequently to stare at the unfamiliar sights and sounds. A little rivulet tumbled along its swift course through rounded, worn-out pebbles by the road. Walls of mud-bricks lined every house and garden on the street. In one barricaded field, women in traditional Ladakhi dresses worked on the plants. I could not tell what they were up to, hence just stared at them. Nearby was a little raised platform with a prayer wheel that features the Buddhist mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum”. A dog slept on its steps. The road went straight ahead, upwards into the nearest mountain, where two white pillars marked the way to the Stupa. The sun was already up, shining brightly, and the sky a brilliant blue. I breathed mouthfuls of the pure morning air. Looking around, I could already see part of the Leh town like little doll houses in the valley below—and the brown, grey and blue Himalayas rising above it and beyond it till it reached the clouds. I felt slightly light-headed; I think I felt very, very happy. I realized that happiness like this is a hopelessly lonely experience. You can probably never transliterate it.
Over the next six days, we visited several monasteries—at Lamayuru, Thiksay, Hemis, Dikset, and Sumur and the most notable palaces at Stok and Shey that housed the Ladakhi dynasts of yore. We also visited the cold desert in the beautiful Nubra valley and the two lakes “Pangong Tso” and “Tso Moriri”, where we spent the nights in tents. I experienced the first snow fall of my life on the Khardung La, which also happens to be the highest motorable road in the world.
The Ladakh landscape is mostly barren save for some of the valleys by the side of flowing rivulets. The mountains rise one on top of another in unforgiving precision, across a stark blue sky—the monotony broken only by towering cumulus clouds or hoards of sheep or yaks grazing on mountainsides. The wind roars into your ears and if you stop anywhere, you can tell it’s summer by the soft chortling sounds of some little rivulet flowing nearby. Ladakh makes you feel insignificant. It commands a kind of surrender that I would imagine a lost sailor in the high seas or an astronaut plunging to his death would experience. Often in the middle of a long ride, I’d dream of ancient human beings fighting the impossible winds and the primordial mountain terrain to mark the first frail human imprint on Ladakh. And immediately I’d open my eyes wide open and gaze at the unending emptiness around; the blue from the skies would enter me and I’d feel like I could almost melt into the dust and wind billowing around me. Speech seems like an aberration in the midst of such grandeur.
Everywhere we went the landscape was dotted with rounded brick and lime structures like Stupas. We learnt that these were “chortens” or memorials that housed the cremated remains of deceased Lamas. There were several rules for identifying the site for a chorten, usually found in a straight line along a ridge close to a monastery. But there were chortens in the most unexpected places too—at the centre of a village, by the roadside, where little children played and women sat together and spent their evenings. Death—it seemed to me—was not magnified as sorrowful, transcendental, or fearful. Death—signified by the ubiquitous chortens—appeared to be a commonplace feature; something that little babies played with as they grew up.
What kind of people should inhabit a terrain as difficult and sparse as Ladakh? I have a very unscientific formula for transposing the geographical and environmental features of a place onto the characters of the people living there. Therefore, according to this formula, the English naturally cultivate a stiff upper lip owing to their everlasting struggle against inclement weather; the Swiss don’t give a shit ‘coz they have all it takes and they have everyone’s black money too; the Americans are hard-working because, well, someone has to do some work; and people in the hills have small eyes owing to their having been squinting at the burning mountain sun for centuries. And so, according to this formula, I imagined that the Ladakhis would be tough, sombre, and slightly haughty people, obviously drawing inspiration from the landscape around. I think I got it only slightly correct.
Most of the people I interacted with were friendly, painfully shy, and very well groomed. Interestingly, for all its harsh weather and lack of industrial resources, Ladakh does not have the kind of grinding poverty that we see in the rest of India. People are indeed very hard-working—they work all summer, raising crops, conducting tourists across the mountains, stacking firewood and foodstock—and prepare for the long white winter that covers it in a pall of dormant gloom.
However, my Ladakh story would be incomplete without a sketch of our cabbie, Namgyal. He is everything that unsettles my pretty formula for creating character stereotypes. Bright, eccentric, very talkative and a consummate lover-boy—Namgyal is a writer’s delight and a tourist’s best companion. We started the journey from Kargil addressing him with the generic “bhaiyya” (brother), and somewhere in the middle switched to calling him by his name. Namgyal regaled us with his off-tune singing; his regular wisecracks; and his terrifying habit of looking back to speak with us while still negotiating a turn on the road. You simply could not start a conversation with Namgyal and hope to end it in a way you think you’re good at, for he would always find a way to make you stray, and then laugh about it. However, he was very helpful and honest. Apparently, he gave up plans to join the military after he witnessed too many dead soldiers in one of the bigger Indo-Pak skirmishes in 1999. Not quite the tough, sombre, and haughty Ladakhi I had initially set out to typecast—nevertheless quite unputdownable.
When it was time to leave, Namgyal asked me if I had clicked any photos of him. Intending a safe and irrefutable answer, I said “Yes, we’ve all taken your pictures and there are some videos as well.” He looked satisfied by the answer, and replied, just as he neared the police check-post at the airport, “I have also taken your pictures, so we’re even.” He did not fail to look back and flash a smile at the expression on my face.