From the rooftops of the world

I wrote about our trip to Kashmir some time ago. It was actually part of a longer road trip, where after Srinagar, we continued on to Ladakh, a place I had wanted to visit ever since a schoolmate told me about it. I had expected it to be as amazing as Srinagar but I was unprepared for just how amazing it was.

Flying into Leh Airport, situated around 3300–3500m (depends who or which authority you consult) above sea level, gives you a taste of the geological marvel that is Ladakh. The runway appears like a tiny sliver of tarmac sandwiched in between towering, craggy slopes. The entire region is classified as a high altitude desert and is surrounded by the Great Himalayas, Karakoram ranges and upper Indus Valley. Water is scarce, the mountains are high and the sun blazes on a clear day. The region’s aridity and climate makes it inhospitable — the main tourist season runs during summer, although colder weather does bring a small number of winter adventure enthusiasts (see my friend Alex’s Chadar trek photos).

Yet its people are overwhelmingly warm and friendly. Whilst much of India’s peoples are Hindu and Kashmiris are predominantly Muslim, Ladakhis are practise a form of Tibetan Buddhism. Monasteries can be seen dotted along rocky outcrops across the region, necessitating a breathless climb to get closer to god. Prayer flags flutter in the wind, conveying human and inhuman wishes up to heaven. People turn prayer beads chanting ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ on their daily neighbourhood strolls. Buddhism teaches compassion, tolerance and kindness and it showed. Frequently invited in for numerous cups of tea and snacks by strangers, we hardly heard an unkind word or raised voices. Motorists gave way on the roads. People smiled and graciously excused faux pas.

I don’t think I met as many octo- and nonagenarians anywhere else, all baffled that we wanted to take their photos. A 98-year old woman still makes a daily climb to the gompa despite her questionable knees. A 90-year silversmith now has a side business charging ₹20 to pose for photos. In Namra, the grandmother of our guesthouse owner, sat drying apricot in the sun, telling us she was 87 and lamenting the emigration of young Ladakhis. It seems climbing hills, crisp mountain air, a simple life and Buddhism makes for rich, long lives, so if that were true, I’m not sure how well that bodes for the next generations.

The region has a large military presence due to its proximity to the international border with Pakistan and China. Regiment names are full of bravado — Magnificent Seven, Ferocious Five, Smashing Sixteenth, Valley of Braves — all add machismo and swagger to a region that is largely gentle and peace-loving. Thanks to the Indian Army, motorists are spared the typical Indian horror of bad roads but the well maintained roads do wind and bend treacherously. Comedic and gently nagging road signs provided much entertainment during the long drives between places. We giggled at everything from “drinking whisky, driving risky” to the slightly risqué “be gentle on my curves” to the downright sexist “don’t gossip, let him drive”.

Ladakh was our favourite place in India, remaining so even after all our travels on the sub-continent. It is the only place in India that I went back to, not just a second time, but a third.

For our last India holiday, Graeme and I spent a few days trekking the region. We walked without seeing anyone else for miles. It was cold and there was frost on our tent every morning. My lungs struggled with the altitude and the ascents. As we went over the final pass at 4900m, it was snowing. My fingers were frozen, my lungs were burning, my legs felt molten. But there was nowhere else in the world I would rather have been. The quiet and the beauty were cathartic. I wept a little, knowing that I was so fortunate and privileged to be there, and not knowing when I would return.

There is a Ladakhi saying: “The land is so harsh and the passes so numerous, that only the best of friends or the worst of enemies would visit you”. I hope I get to visit this friend again.

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