Tall green trees wave in the wind, blue sky behind them. The call to prayer rises, wafts in through the open window, alluring and mysterious. We lie on the bed, staring out that window, listening to the singing float on that cool wind. Later, as the sun sets over a huge white Buddhist stupa, we sip a fresh lime soda and stare at the Kangri Range. Stok Kangri’s summit, a grey wedge of rock streaked with snow, reaches up 6,137 meters above the range. It catches the last of the yellow evening light. We are in Leh, a mountain town in northern India, and after just one day we already love it. A happy, peaceful mix of local Ladakhis, Tibetan Buddhists, Kashmiri Muslims and a sprinkling Indians from down south, this place seems to us to show that people can just get along. It’s stark but beautiful, its people practical, hardy, but above all peaceful, friendly and refreshingly warm.
Flying into Leh is exciting, even for people who’ve flown into a lot of places. At 3,500 meters, Leh is a high town, but its single-runway airport is tucked into a valley between two ridges of 4,500-plus meter peaks. Looking out the window, on either side, you first see the brown ridge line, occasionally topped with snow on the higher summits. Quickly, the plane descends and then all you can see outside is brown. Lower and lower you sink, and no matter how many times you’ve been on a plane you start to think “is there an airport anywhere in our future”? Suddenly the plane banks heavily, still descending, and out one window you see nothing but blue.
Lower, ever lower, until finally, all at once, the plane levels out, the flaps extend, the wheels come down and then, with just the gentlest thump, you hit the runway. Up front, the obviously very talented Air India pilot selects reverse thrust. That roar you’re accustomed to from every landing you’ve ever done seems louder somehow, and more reassuring, and the plane grinds to a halt. We’ve arrived!
Leh is way up in north India, in the state of Kashmir and Jammu. That’s contested territory – to the east China and India argue to this day over the boundary between the two states. Chinese troops regularly make incursions across the Line of Actual Control (of, course, they brazenly deny it like only the Chinese government can). To the west, Pakistan and India have an uneasy peace either side of the Line of Control, following a series of wars that culminated in the 1999 Kargil War. For a little while, as the two armies shelled each other in the high Himalayan peaks of the Karakorum, the world worried that the skirmish would escalate to a nuclear exchange. Thankfully for everyone, that didn’t happen, but perhaps a thousand soldiers were killed. The ceasefire holds, but security remains tight, not helped by the spread since 2001 of al-Qaeda and Taliban inspired separatism flowing through the region (anarchic Afghanistan lies to the north). At Leh airport, smartly dressed Indian soldiers with attentive eyes watched over us as we disembarked, holding a mix of AK-47s and Self Loading Rifles with vintage-looking polished wooden stocks. Two big, grey Indian Air Force cargo planes sat on the ramp. This was most certainly a heavily militarised area.
But no sooner have you left the airport and reached Leh’s bustling downtown, all that security and the history fades away leaving an incredibly diverse and interesting place. Here, Muslim Kashmiri traders live alongside Tibetan Buddhist Ladakhis in what – according to everyone we asked – was a harmonious co-existence. Up at Changspa Road, it’s mini-Israel, with a youthful diaspora on the classic post-army world tour. Cows wander the streets, exercising the benefits of their sacred status. Tourists from the west are common, but it doesn’t feel overwhelming. The one group you don’t see much is “Indians” (as commonly understood, that is, the typical people who live everywhere south of here). The troops nearby are the obvious exception, though they seem to keep a low profile. What’s most noticeable is how friendly everyone is. Yes, many of them, especially the Kashmiris, are keen for you to have a look in their shops, but their friendliness seemed more than a sales pitch, and there was a warmth that I really noticed, and enjoyed.
On your first days in Leh, you must take it easy. Arriving at 3,500 meters from Delhi, just 612 kilometers away but 3,300 meters below you, your body takes at least 48 hours to get used to the thinner air. It’s a perfect excuse to lie around – we had a lovely sunny guesthouse run by the delightful Fatima – and to slowly stroll Leh’s many cute cafes. At Bon Appetit, we found a fantastic terrace with unimpeded views to the Kangri range. Sipping the ubiquitous fresh lime sodas we lived on for our whole time there, I stared at that summit and tried to visualise myself on top, another 2,600 vertical meters above me.
Above the city is the impressive Shanti Stupa, built in 1991 and inaugurated by none other than HH the Dalai Lama. We slowly tested our acclimatization by negotiating the hundreds of steps to the top. Not bad, after two days, and we made it without being puffed. Two wonderfully ancient looking Tibetan women with weatherbeaten faces and long braids compared their thoughts about the stupa’s decoration. Their apparent devoutness and their quiet dignity was impressive. Far below, some boys played cricket, ant-like on a brown field.
On the opposite side of town, above Leh Palace, the Namgyal Tsemo Gompa and its neighbouring Tsemo fort stand sentinel on a brown hilltop (a gompa is a kind of semi-fortified monastery).
Ladakh, of which Leh is the capital, is full of monasteries, some of them very old. We visited Tingmosgang, or Temisgam, with what can only be described as an awesome setting. It sat high on the ridge, with the awesome Kangri range behind it, and watched over by the ruins of a fortification (walls and watchtowers) that our guide thought dated to the eight century. This made a lot of sense – that was the Tang Dynasty in China, and in the late 700s, China captured the Silk Road routes through the nearby Gilgit Valley (upstream from here via the nearby Indus River). Could it be that the Chinese fortified the hill? The fortifications certainly resembled the Han Dynasty forts I’d seen in Gansu Province – the Tang didn’t build defensive walls in China but they might have further out on the Silk Road.
There was an enormous Buddha inside this monastery, but more interesting was the wonderful old monk who lived there. Pictured at the beginning of this story, somewhat formally, he later invited us for tea in a little ante-room. Here, he waxed lyrical to our guide in Ladakhi, speaking in a seemingly unstoppable stream of thought that our guide had trouble keeping us up with. In a nutshell, it seemed he was lonely for company as the other monk who lived here was a lot younger and hung out more in the village down below.
We did catch the thrust of a very interesting story, though. This fellow had been given up to the monastery by his parents who were unable to afford to raise him (he was the youngest of several). From the age of four or five – he didn’t know – he lived around here his whole life, other than a few teenage years in Tibet, before the Chinese exercised control over it through force in 1951. That made him at least in his 80s. He was still in touch with a brother and a sister, despite having left his family such a long time ago.
Mostly he just seemed grateful for the company, someone to talk to. He was a fine old fellow, gregarious and with a ready laugh.
At Lamayuru, a very famous monastery, we were lucky enough to witness a special morning prayer session which, so far as I could understand, was connected to the birthday of “His Holiness” – not the Dalai Lama but the senior monk at Lamayuru. The scene was remarkably human – the evocative chanting and cacophonous blowing of horns and banging of drums contrasted beautifully with the antics of the younger monks. These boys, not even in their teens, did just exactly the same kind of mucking around I did at church and Sunday school years ago. Giggling, pushing friends, and even sleeping during the boring bits (I don’t know about the monks, but for me, that was pretty much all of it). The older monks were kind towards the younger boys, gently bringing their attention back to the sutras and not laughing (too much) when the little boy was unable to get more than a squawk out of the conch horn.
[Video: 1m30s Monks chanting and then banging drums, ringing bells and blowing horns]
Go Slow, I’m Curvaceous
Ladakh is famous for the witty road safety signs installed on nearly every corner by the military’s Border Roads Organisation. BRO, as it calls itself, maintains the roads in summer, and clears them in the long harsh winter. Part of this is to help the local community, and part of it, of course, is to ensure the Indian army can move around in the event of future conflicts with Pakistan or China. The new government led by Prime Minister Modi is particularly concerned at how far behind the Chinese India is in border area infrastructure. Not long after our visit to Leh, Modi paid the first visit there by an Indian Prime Minister in a long while.
Reading the road signs was a fun distraction during a few long drives between various sights. I’ve put some of my favourites as captions in these general scenes from some of the drives.
But the best one we saw?
We stayed in Leh for more than two weeks, though much of it was spent trekking outside town (stories to come). On our way out, we returned to the heavy security of the airport. Though seemingly chaotic, the airport was in fact very well organised. When it was my turn to be frisked, I stood on the wooden box as a very snappily dressed soldier, at least in his 50s, smiled and said, as only Indians can, “Good morning sir”! It is pure politeness, something from a bygone era in my country. I said “You too, sir” as he wanded me. Then, as he frisked me, he said with a (very platonic) twinkle in his eye “Good moment for a massage, eh sir?”. In many other countries, this would be a harassment law suit waiting to happen. Here in Leh, with this handsome man and his sandy beret, it was just another example of Ladakhi charm. I replied “It is indeed, thank you sir”, won myself a smile and was granted permission to pass through.
Moments later, another surprise.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we announce the boarding of GoJet flight to Delhi. Would all the ladies please prepare to board? We are boarding the plane ladies first”.