Leh Old Town

Fourteen years ago I went up to Ladakh, in the Northern Indian Himalaya. Crikey, fourteen years! Where did that go?

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This is a painting I made in ink and watercolours of an area of the Old Town of Leh, the Main Town of Ladakh. It shows part of a Buddhist shrine, next to another old building. Most of the buildings are a mixture of stone and wood, the wood frequently carved and / or painted.

Although there were quite a few new buildings in the town, the majority of them were old and the whole town had the feel of belonging to another century. I travelled in early April, before most visitors arrive and when Ladakh is still bitterly cold and wintry – certainly overnight. During the day the temperature just sneaked a little above freezing. This meant that I seemed to be the only Westerner there – I certainly don’t remember seeing any others – and I was never hassled by touts of any description, possibly because it was still too early.

But, above all, the people were among the friendliest I have ever met.

Regretfully, I doubt I’ll get another chance to go there, but it is certainly a very special place!

Picture available on my Etsy shop site here

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Sound The Retreat!

My reader will probably not be too surprised to learn that I have been on retreats a couple of times.

After all, someone who gripes about the rush and noise and pressures of the modern world, and who has anxiety issues, tends to spend quite a lot of time yearning for silence and solitude. Because there are, quite frankly, times when everything just gets too much to cope with.

Obviously there are many ways this might be achieved; perhaps I could commit a serious crime and then misbehave in gaol – that would probably lead to a good long spell in solitary, although I can think of several reasons why this might not be the ideal solution.

I could lock myself in a room and refuse to come out – from experience, though, that just leads to unpleasantness and tears. It worked tolerably well when I was a child, but as an adult I can see why it might not look so good.

Whenever I get the opportunity I go for a long walk. Unfortunately, if it is near my home I tend to be surrounded by dogs and dog walkers – not that’s there’s anything wrong with them, I hasten to add, but it’s hardly peaceful. There are several dog owners around here whose voices can not only be heard several counties away because of the sheer volume, but can also smash windows by pitch alone. And I soon get back to roads and so-called civilisation, no matter which route I take.

Then there are lots of other walkers bellowing into mobile phones: ‘Yes, it’s lovely and peaceful out here! Now, let me just yell a few personal and private details at you and anyone else within earshot! What? Yes, I’m still a complete tosser! Why do you ask?’

Going further afield takes more time, and that’s no good if I need a quick fix of silence, so generally I’m stuck with the dog walkers and the tossers.

So, retreats. Other than the meaning of legging it from a superior military force, a retreat is defined as withdrawing to a quiet / peaceful place. There is also the implication of it being a place to indulge in contemplation.

Yes, that’s exactly what I had in mind. Don’t mind if I do.

My first retreat was at an abbey not terribly far from where I live. Although I am not a Christian, I enjoyed a short week of taking quiet walks in the grounds of the abbey and the countryside beyond, reading, rising early and taking a silent breakfast with the monks, and even attending one of the services each day.

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Some of the time I spent painting watercolours which I have long lost. Since at least one was of foxgloves, here’s a photo of some just so you can imagine how incredibly good the paintings were!

The other retreat was in the North of England, and consisted of a week-long period of meditation with a Buddhist group. This was very hard work, but I did finish the week feeling refreshed.

Of course, it is perfectly possible to organise one’s own retreat by finding somewhere quiet and secluded and staying put for a week or however long one fancies (a year, perhaps?).

Perhaps I should do that soon.

Annapurna Circuit, Nepal – 3

At Manang, we pitched our tents on the flat roofs of the buildings…

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…essentially, it is the only flat area in the village that doesn’t either have someone living on it or crops growing on it.

 

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A Buddhist temple in Manang. We took care to visit the priest and receive his blessing for the crossing of the pass in a few days time. The high pass- Thorung La – is at 5416m and  is the highest pass in the world, and who knows what the weather and fate might decide to throw at us.

 

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A view of Annapurna I (I think!) from Manang. Annapurna I is the tenth highest mountain in the world, but also one of the most dangerous. The reason for my uncertainty is that the route of the trek takes us around some twenty or so peaks, including Annapurnas I – IV, Gangapurna, Tara Kang and Khangsar Kang, all of which can be seen from the Manang part of the trail.

 

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Nomadic herders’ camp above Ledar, at about 4300m. Theirs is not an easy life.

 

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Bridge across the Khone Khola, near where we camped before crossing the pass. The bridge is covered to protect it from snowfall.

 

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The porters at Thorung Phedi, where we camped before crossing the pass.

 

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A couple of hours later…

 

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We were snowed in the next day (and you can get very bored stuck in a tent for a day), but the following day we set off at dawn to cross the pass (Note the small figures passing the first rock).

 

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Some of the rocky, icy, snowy, lumpy bits beside us as we crossed the pass.

 

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After several hours hard slog through the snow, and the pass crossed, we began descending the western side down towards the village of Muktinath.

Prayer Flags

Prayer flags are found wherever Tibetan Buddhism is found. As they flutter in the breeze, they use this wind to send blessings out into the world. Through many parts of the Himalaya they adorn monasteries and humble homes, chortens and bamboo flagpoles. They are tied in their hundreds and thousands to bridges, above mountain peaks, and in the courtyards of every conceivable building.

Elsewhere, they are to be found wherever exiled Tibetans live, and wherever their school of Buddhism flourishes.

The makers of the flags intend the prayers and blessings that adorn them not for their own benefit, but for the benefit of all beings.

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Prayer flags in the Yumtang Valley, Sikkim, India.

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Prayer flags, Observatory Hill, Darjeeling, India.

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Prayer flags outside a monastery in Sikkim, India.

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Prayer flags adorn a pair of chortens and walls of prayer wheels in Khumjung, Nepal.

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Prayer flags at Tengboche, Nepal.

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And adorning a bridge of the Dudh Khosi, again in Nepal.

Tengboche – 1

Tengboche is a monastery complex and a couple of trekking lodges on the route up to Everest Base Camp from Lukla, in Nepal. It sits high above the waters of the Dudh Khosi.

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Inside Tengboche monastery following a puja (ceremony).

Rightly or wrongly, I don’t like taking photographs of pujas in monasteries. It feels intrusive and bad mannered. I would feel the same in a church, mosque or temple. This has nothing to do with any beliefs of my own, but is born of simple respect.

I noted in my diary: We have just sat in on a chanting puja, but my meditation failed dismally. I was completely unable to concentrate on my breath as all that I could think of were my freezing feet!

It was blooming cold!

Ladakh (2)

Long ago in the misty depths of time – that’s last year, actually, I posted a piece about Ladakh (you can find it here if you’d like to read it.)

This, then, is another mixture of photographs and entries from my journal of my 2005 trip to India, which included a couple of weeks spent in Ladakh. I went comparatively early in the year, when the nights are still extremely cold and very few visitors have made their way up from the plains.

 Just the way I like it!

Ladakh is high. If you fly in from Delhi (the only way to enter Ladakh for 8 months of the year), you travel from around sea level to 3500m in no time at all. Ladakh means ‘The Land of High Passes’, and is aptly named. Leh, the capital, at 3500m, is one of the lower areas of Ladakh. It’s all uphill from there. Winters are incredibly harsh and the summer growing season brief, yet the Ladakhis traditionally are self-sufficient in everything they need – food, clothing and shelter – and have only recently collided with the western consumer society. In contrast with most of the rest of India, the religion and culture of the majority of the people there is Tibetan Buddhism.

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The Roof of the World – View across the Indus valley at 3500m, Thikse, Ladakh.

 Friday 8th April 2005

I’m in Ladakh and, hey, wow!

At the airport for 4.30am, to find the flight postponed until 8am, due to weather conditions. It all looked ominous, but just after 7am we were told to check in and after numerous baggage checks, body checks, baggage identifications, etc, we were away at 8.30.

I’ve heard the flight described as one of the most spectacular in the world. I’ve also heard it described as jaw-dropping. I can imagine that it could be bowel-dropping. As we approached the Himalaya, clouds steadily built up and we flew through with tantalising glimpses of great snow-covered ranges below, through the occasional gaps in the cloud. After a while the turbulence built up and we were buffeted quite considerably. Then as we began to near Leh, we slowly lost height, the turbulence increased and we got more views of peaks at under-carriage height. Once we had dropped out of the clouds and the whole valley lay spread into the distance surrounded by snow-swept mountains, it was indeed jaw-dropping.

Then into land after three slow circles around the airstrip. The outside temperature was 2C, we were told, but it certainly didn’t seem that cold.

Once we’d gone through the formalities of registration and baggage reclaim with the refreshingly friendly ground staff, I walked out into the front of the airport and found a taxi. Yousef charged me RS 100/- to go to my choice of guesthouse (The Ti-Sei) and left me his mobile number. He also gave me all the usual (sensible) advice about taking it easy for a day or so.

I’m now sitting in a splendid light and airy room, looking out across the vegetable garden (covered in this morning’s snowstorm) to lines of bare poplars, traditional houses and some splendid mountains, also covered in snow.

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Cairn at top of mountain north of Leh.

After a Ladakhi lunch of apricots, apple juice and water, headed north past the Shanti Stupa towards the first line of hills. Reached there at 1.15pm and stopped there for a breather. Silence. Apart from the pounding of the blood in my head. Absolute silence. After a few minutes the call of the muezzin drifts up from Leh, from the Jama Masjid. Then a few bird calls from the crags. Perfect peace. A perfect desert landscape, with pockets of snow. I’m sitting on a boulder, warmed by the sun, my feet in patches of fresh snow.

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Gompa just below Leh Palace, Leh, ladakh.

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Man spinning prayer wheel, Leh. To Ladakhis, their religion is not somehow separate from their daily life, but an essential part of it.

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Leh Palace. Very similar to the Potala in Lhasa, although smaller, this was the home of Ladakh’s royal family from the 17th century, when it was built, until the mid 19th century when they moved to the palace at Stok, on the other side of the Indus Valley, as a result of an invasion by Kashmiri forces.

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Gateway to Gompa at Leh Palace.

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Old buildings on the outskirts of Leh, ladakh. Traditional Ladakhi buildings closely resemble those of Tibet. In fact, there are so many similarities between the two areas, that Ladakh is often referred to as ‘Little Tibet’.

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Temple Door at the Monastery at Thikse, Ladakh.


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Statue of Maitreya, the Future Buddha, at Thikse Gompa. This statue, 2 stories high (15 metres) in it’s own temple was completed in 1981.

4th February 2017

I was reading through my travel journal for 2005, yesterday.

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The Bodhi Tree at the Mahabodhi Temple, Bodhgaya

On 16th March I arrived at Bodhgaya, for my second visit to this lovely small town. Because I was going to be away from England for my eldest daughter’s birthday, she had asked me to write and send her a poem. I wrote this in the evening after visiting the Mahabodhi Temple, and after meeting with Indian friends I had not seen for a year, and thought it entirely suitable to dedicate to her and to send her.

There is a crazy wisdom here;

I am at the heart of all things Buddhist.

Good friends make life bearable.

Gentle people give me hope.

An unexpected friend gives me unlooked-for joy.

I am here,

This is the eye of the hurricane.

The still point in the centre of the universe.

My hope for the world,

My hope for you.

Unquenchable love.

I don’t write a great deal of poetry, because I don’t feel it is really my forte, but in the light of current events around the world, it seems worth posting here. I revised it a little before I sent it, but this was the original draft.

Sending everyone hopes and thoughts of friendship, peace and tolerance.

 

Nepal – Annapurna Region

In 1988 I went to Nepal for the first time, travelling by bus from Delhi to Kathmandu. Although the trip took almost 2 days, and the bus was remarkably uncomfortable, it was one of the most spectacular journeys I have ever taken, and a most remarkable experience.

And then I trekked the Annapurna circuit, still considered by many to be one of the 10 classic treks of the world. It took 24 days to complete, and from the time we left Ghorka, until the day we walked down into Pokhara, we were travelling entirely on footpaths and saw no vehicles of any description.

Part of the walk is now over a new road, and whilst this is surely welcome to the inhabitants of the region, I suspect that it takes away a little of the magic of the trek.

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Village near Manang (posibly Mungji), on the Marsyandi River, close to the Annapurnas. In many ways, a typical Nepalese mountain village, it is built on man-made terraces, up steeply sloping mountainside, to avoid using any of the precious farmland available in the valley.

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View from Poon Hill. Poon Hill lies a little to the west of Ghorapani on the river Ghora (pani being water), west of the Annapurnas. Sunrise there consequently occurs behind the Annapurna peaks, including the spectacular Machhapuchhare, or ‘fishtail’ peaks. That said, this shot was taken towards the west, looking across the Kali Gandaki valley.

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This is dawn, though. Machhapuchhare and its double peak are shown clearly on the left.

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Mountains and glacial lake from the village of Manang.

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Lower down, the land is heavily terraced, fertile land being at such a premium that every available bit is used. These rice paddies are near the village of Chepe Ghat, on the Marsayandi River.

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Chorten. Chortens, or stupas as they are also commonly known, usually contain relics of saints or priests. The original stupas held relics of the Buddha, such as at the Temple of the Tooth, at Kandy, Sri Lanka.

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Mountains near the village of Muktinath. In the rain-shadow, here, the landscape is that of a high altitude desert.

 

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Mani stones on the Annapurna trail. Mani stones may be carved, painted or both, and serve a similar function to prayer flags, in that they either have a prayer or mantra carved on them (typically ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ – from which the name ‘Mani Stone’ comes from – meaning ‘Hail to the jewel in the heart of the lotus’ i.e. The Buddha) or they may have a picture of the Buddha himself. Although they may be encountered singly or in small numbers by shrines or at Gompas, at times they make up huge walls containing many hundreds of stones, some of which may have been there for hundreds of years. These walls, like shrines or any other Buddhist relics encountered here, are passed on the left.

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Houses at Manang.

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The Upper reaches of the Marsayandi, looking down to Manang.

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Snowed in below Thorung La. Not an unusual occurrence. Thorung La is at 5415m (17,700ft). We arrived at our campsite early afternoon with the ground clear of snow and the sun out. This was the scene a couple of hours later, delaying our crossing the pass (‘La’ is Tibetan for ‘Pass’) by 24 hours.

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Crossing Thorung La. On the day we crossed the pass, we left camp just after 4 in the morning, and were down the other side by late afternoon.

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Looking west (and down!) from Thorung La). On this side of the pass there is far less precipitation and the land is noticeably drier. This is looking towards Muktinath.