One last India update…
From the Kashmir Valley, I headed east to Ladakh. Chalky white chortens and stupas dot the landscape like giant chess pieces and fraying prayer flags fly overhead announce you’re in Buddhist territory. The high Himalayan environment gives the region a mysterious moonscape of bare beauty that leads the eye over the edges of mountains, uncovering unimaginable layers of color and texture: smooth sand dunes ripple, velvet brown hills overlap deep purple slate covered ridges, and craggy peaks rise in hive formation, carving out caves and crannies along the vast terrain. Ladakh is a place of stark and staggering natural beauty. Traveling there by land requires crossing the highest drivable roads in the world.
Breath stopping bus rides are part of the adventure here! The Himalayan highways that wind around mountainsides are mostly unpaved and narrow, prone to rockslides, and populated with colorfully painted Tata trucks, shaky government buses, and military convoys. Safety slogans along the roadside such as, “Driving risky after whisky” make for amusing reading, and I was honestly amazed I didn’t see one accident. Maybe I was just lucky. Traffic moves predictably slow. The 430 kilometer (approx. 270 miles) trip from Srinigar makes for a two-day journey by bus with an overnight stopover in the roach infested, middle of nowhere town Kargil. Delays en route are also common, I was once held up for six hours waiting for fallen rocks to be cleared from the road.
The difficult journey is counterbalanced with gorgeous landscape: roads that run parallel with the mighty Indus River, snaking their way around mountains, revealing fertile river valleys that supply life to picturesque villages of terraced gardens and hilltop monasteries that seem like a natural extension of the land. I had crossed another invisible border and was struck by how different everything was once again: the people, the language, the landscape and culture. Due to its close proximity, Ladakh is strongly influenced by Tibet. Ladakhis look and dress like Tibetans, their food and languages are similar, and the majority of Ladakhis are Tibetan Buddhist. Most Ladakhis continue to live in traditional ways, subsisting from farming and living in whitewashed mud and stone houses. This gives the place a unique atmosphere from the rest of India. Bordering Pakistan on one side and China/Tibet on the other, there is a predictably strong military presence in this region.
Popular sightseeing involves touring some of the historic monasteries, which date back hundreds or even one thousand years. All the monasteries I visited are still active and the structures are remarkably well preserved, beautiful wall paintings and rare artifacts are treasured. One day I got up early to watch the monks perform puja (prayer), a magic jam session where the monks’ continuous chanting creates a monotone buzz, punctuated by the high squawking notes of long, thin brass trumpets, and a metallic explosion of bells and drums. Herbal smoke swirls in the air and traditional butter tea is offered from a ceremonious silver pot. I tried to meditate, but all the stimulation was too much for my wild mind and the atmosphere was not exactly reverential. I watched the young monks in front of me poking and punching each other, while the elder monks droned on tiredly, looking slightly bored, but resigned to the whole ritual.
Tired of the government bus, I wanted to try hitch hiking, a popular way of getting around for locals and foreigners alike. A couple of girls from my guesthouse were heading to a small nunnery west of Leh (Ladakh’s main city) the next day. So in the morning we walked to a corner and waved at cars for an hour before a bus headed in our direction stopped. I begrudgingly paid my 40 rupees and once again I was on the government bus. The bus dropped us at the turnoff for Likkir, a small village with a monastery and we stood for a long time waiting for anything to pass in our direction. We waved at a sedan driving by, but understood when they didn’t stop because there was a donkey in the backseat. Truckers headed in the wrong direction stopped and offered to take us Srinagar and even gave us a couple sweet small mangoes, but we declined and waited under the white-hot cloudless blue sky. Eventually, a group of monks headed for the monastery stopped in a pickup truck, so we loaded in the back and sat among the propane tanks rolling there.
The best journey was riding into the town of Khaltse on the roof of a petrol truck. The heady mix of sunshine, diesel fumes, and danger thrilled me as I waved at pedestrians. The worst one was when our driver gulped down a glass of rum and screamed, “No tension,” when we asked him to get down. I laughed internally, thinking, “Sure, no tension for you, buddy” and tried my best to assure the driver we weren’t upset, we simply wanted to get down from the truck. He relented and dropped us off on the side of the road. It felt like the middle of nowhere, an alien landscape with no water or plant life and strangely shaped crags gave it a surreal other earthly feeling. As I walked among the strange formations to find the “toilet,” I contemplated my existence and concluded it was no surprise that Buddhism flourished in a place so full with emptiness. When I returned to my friends, they had found a jeep with three French women and a child monk to take us the short distance to the other side of the mountains where a thousand year old monastery and village nestled.
On the way back to Leh, I realized hitchhiking is fun, but exhausting. Most often trucks pick you up and their pace is painfully slow, at least as slow to the government bus. I decided my next journey would have to be by motorbike, the most thrilling way to travel the Himalayan highways. All I had to do was find a rider. It seemed kismet when we walked into the travel agency at the same time requesting inner line permits to travel to a high altitude lake. I spotted his helmet and asked if he had an extra seat on the bike. Carlos from Madrid smiled with bright eyes and said, “Maybeeeeee.” In that moment I saw something I trusted in those eyes, so the very next day I was bouncing on the back of an Enfield, whooshing past amazing scenery towards an enchanted lake where a two day masked dance festival was happening.
Unfortunately, the word about the festival had gotten out to the tourists. Actually, Ladakhi festival used to happen in the winter to give the locals something to look forward to during the long cold months. However, to capitalize on tourism, many villages now hold their traditional festivals in the summer, when roads are passable and tourists abound. Tourists from all over the world came to this poor tiny town clinging to the edge of Tso Moriri Lake to witness the masked chaam dance. When we arrived every guesthouse was full and we almost had to resort to sleeping in a generous woman’s kitchen the first night. The town had an ugly disorderliness to it, probably because it sprung up haphazardly to fill the demand created by tourists, but the lake itself was impressive. Tso Moriri sparkles like sapphire and stretches 20 kilometers (12 miles), surrounded by sand dunes and snowy peaks on all sides. At 4,700 meters (over 15,000 feet!), the air is thin and even bending down to tie your shoes takes your breath away. I spent some of my last days in India here, at this surreal lake within eye’s glance of China/Tibet, on top of the world.